Review of Psalms of the Faithful: Luther’s Early Reading of the Psalter in Canonical Context by Brian T. German

March 30, 2023

German, Brian T. Psalms of the Faithful: Luthers Early Reading of the Psalter in Canonical Context. Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press, 2017, pp. 232, $24.99, paperback.


In this work, Brian German presents a fresh perspective on the function of the faithful synagogue as an interpretive category within the Dictata super Psalterium, Martin Luther’s first lecture series through the Psalms in the years 1513-1515.  According to German, professor of theology at Concordia University Wisconsin and director of the Concordia Bible Institute, part of the importance of the Dictata for understanding the early Luther is the way in which it furnishes us with an almost daily account of his struggle to make sense of each passage unfolding before him.  This struggle, German points out, provides a window, not only into the interpretive development of the young Doctor, but into the specific theological principles adopted, abandoned, or merely altered throughout his journey.  As he says, “Luther, well informed of the sacred tradition but not yet sure how best to use it, set out on a journey through the Psalter to see where it would take him” (p. 10).

German, an able guide throughout, begins by situating his discussion within the complex history of interpretation surrounding Luther’s approach to Scripture in general and the Old Testament in particular.  Specifically, the study is directed at further defining what is for Luther the abiding relevance of the Old Testament in the contemporary church, especially as it pertains to the place of the Psalms in the Christian life.  To accomplish this, German focuses his attention on the notion of the faithful synagogue, outlining its role as a positioning system of sorts in recent efforts to trace Luther’s theological movements within the Dictata with greater precision.  The primary aim of the analysis is to examine how consideration of the Psalter’s canonical structure informs previous attempts to discern what (or who) the faithful synagogue is and what role it plays in the overall theological system of Luther.  This approach, German notes, “introduces a fresh set of questions in the realm of the faithful synagogue’s relationship to the content of the Book of Psalms, such as where the faithful synagogue ‘originates,’ how Luther incorporates the faithful synagogue beyond its origination, what influence the faithful synagogue has on Luther’s subsequent exegesis, and so on” (p. 22).

Of these previous attempts, those of James S. Preus and Scott Hendrix feature most prominently in German’s argument. In his words, “Because Preus and Hendrix both grant some fluctuation in Luther’s Dictata and yet argue for opposite ends of the spectrum regarding the theological significance of such, these two scholars, in our judgment, prove to be the most suitable conversation partners” (p. 19). More specifically, Preus and Hendrix concur in their understandings both of the distinctness of Luther’s appropriation of the faithful synagogue in relation to his medieval climate and of his sea change taking place toward the end of the Dictata; however, where they differ is in their ultimate theological assessment of what this faith finally means for Luther.  Does Luther signal a novel break with the medieval tradition by elevating to an extent the faith of the Old Testament community (Preus), or does he simply maintain his medieval inclinations toward the interpretive centrality of New Testament faith, albeit with some alterations to the received tradition (Hendrix)? Ultimately, while recognizing these contributions for clarifying the complexities of a moving Luther, German contends what is lacking in each case is an accounting for the structure of the text itself, namely “a moving Psalter” (p. 23).

Building on these developments by way of a more consciously canonical reading of the Dictata, German locates the origin of the faithful synagogue within the Asaphite corpus of the Psalter’s third book (Pss. 73-83), significantly earlier than either of his interlocutors.  The first step in his argument is “a much closer examination of Luther’s unique emphases vis-à-vis Augustine and Cassiodorus,” which allows one to see more clearly when Luther, on the one hand, is essentially appealing to their views and when, on the other, he is speaking with his own voice.  Following this, the second step is then to “enhance our findings by examining Luther’s interpretation of similar psalmody appearing (canonically) before the Asaphite corpus in order to surmise what effect, if any, the new context in Book III may have had on his exegesis” (p. 29).  In other words, wherever Luther departs from both his forebears and his earlier self, it is likely, German says, indicative of this interpretive shift shining through.  After dealing extensively with each of these steps, German then moves beyond the Asaphite corpus to demonstrate how the faithful synagogue, once developed, maintains an abiding influence in Luther’s exegetical decision-making throughout the remainder of the Psalter.

The overall analysis German provides is thorough and compelling, not to mention refreshingly readable for such a multi-layered discussion.  Even though there are moments amid so many details where it can be easy to lose sight of the argument’s main track, careful engagement along the way proves fruitful at journey’s end.  For example, the corrective offered by German in his treatment of “the most immediate hermeneutical implications of Luther’s increasing preoccupation with the Old Testament perspective” as shown in his discussion on Psalm 119 and the sensus literalis in Luther is a convincing culmination to his previous findings, especially in their “answering how Luther’s integration of the faithful synagogue relates to the fundamental task of interpreting Scripture” (pp. 131–132). Thus, insofar as he attempts to recalibrate our understanding of the faithful synagogue as a determining influence in the exegetical mind of Luther, German succeeds in painting a clearer picture of where such a conception likely originates and how it ought to inform our approach, not only to Luther, but to his beloved Bible.

Despite a rather modest concession that the study merely scratches the surface of so many distinct conversations, especially within Luther studies and biblical studies, scholars will not find themselves disappointed with German’s contribution.  Similarly, pastors and laypeople alike will find valuable guidance for how better to read the Psalms as members themselves of this faithful synagogue, having been prepared to move with greater confidence “into the uneven terrain of meditation and lament, promise and praise.” (27)  German, with a harmony of clarity and complexity, gives us a quintessentially human Luther longing to understand these quintessentially human prayers and, in so doing, gives us a model for our own struggles through this most precious of books.

Shawn M. Langley

Kirby Laing Centre for Public Theology

Cambridge, UK

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