Loss of Transcendence - Lesson 26

Remembering the Christian Path Through the Psalms

In this lesson, you will gain an in-depth understanding of the Psalms, their structure, and various types, including laments, thanksgiving, praise, royal, and wisdom psalms. You will also learn about the role of Psalms in ancient Israelite worship and their connection to the Temple. Furthermore, the lesson explores the relevance of Psalms in contemporary Christian life, offering guidance for prayer, worship, and promoting emotional and spiritual growth.

James Houston
Loss of Transcendence
Lesson 26
Watching Now
Remembering the Christian Path Through the Psalms

TH730-26: Christian Path of the Psalms

I. Introduction to the Psalms

A. Overview of the Book of Psalms

B. Structure and Organization

II. Types of Psalms

A. Laments

B. Thanksgiving Psalms

C. Praise Psalms

D. Royal Psalms

E. Wisdom Psalms

III. Role of Psalms in Ancient Israelite Worship

A. Functions and Uses

B. Connection to the Temple

IV. Psalms in Christian Life and Worship

A. Relevance to Contemporary Christians

B. Guidance for Prayer and Worship

C. Emotional and Spiritual Growth

  • Explore the loss of transcendence in modernity, examining its historical and philosophical context, defining transcendence and immanence from biblical and historical perspectives, exploring the impact of various movements on theology, and considering responses to the loss of transcendence.
  • In this lesson, you will gain insight into the Greek world's origins of language and culture, the evolution of Greek history and thought, and the differences between Greek and Roman history. By examining the works of Luke as a Roman historian, you will better understand the cosmic and intimate nature of Christian history.
  • The Christian historiographical revolution redefined history as linear and purposeful, contrasting with ancient Greek, Roman, and Jewish approaches and profoundly impacting the study and writing of history.
  • In this lesson, you gain a deep understanding of the Dark Ages, the Reformation, and the factors that led to the loss and eventual restoration of transcendence in Christianity.
  • Through this lesson, you gain insights into the Reformation and Enlightenment's historical contexts, key figures, and events, as well as their impact on society, religion, and the loss of transcendence, ultimately discovering ways to reclaim transcendence in the modern world.
  • In this lesson, you gain insights into the loss of transcendence in modern society, its consequences, the role of Christianity in addressing the issue, and strategies for engaging with secular culture and promoting spiritual renewal.
  • This lesson teaches you about Radical Christianity, its importance, and how to cultivate it through deepening your relationship with God, prioritizing spiritual growth, and practicing radical love and social justice in a world experiencing a loss of transcendence.
  • Through this lesson, you grasp the factors contributing to the loss of biblical authority and learn strategies to reaffirm its importance in Christianity.
  • Through this lesson, you gain insights into contemporary biblical criticism, its methodologies, impact on theology, and learn to appreciate its contributions while recognizing its limitations.
  • By examining biblical criticism and its various forms, you gain insight into how Christians can respond thoughtfully, affirming Scripture's authority while engaging with criticisms and maintaining a commitment to truth.
  • By examining the loss of the soul, you'll understand its diminishing importance in modern life and learn to integrate science and spirituality for a holistic, transcendent perspective.
  • Through this lesson, you gain insights into classical interpretations of the soul and their interaction with Christian theology, while also understanding their modern theological implications.
  • This lesson equips you with a comprehensive understanding of the embodiment of faith, its historical development, theological implications, and practical applications in the Christian life.
  • By studying this lesson on embodiment in community, soul, and culture, you will learn how these concepts impact spiritual formation and shape your understanding of Christian faith and practice.
  • The lesson on embodiment and self-sacrifice offers insights into the New Testament, emphasizing Jesus' incarnation, the human body as the Holy Spirit's temple, and self-sacrifice as a key Christian virtue, while providing theological and practical applications.
  • This lesson equips you to understand the biblical concept of sin, the factors contributing to its loss, and offers practical steps to reintroduce sin in teaching and preaching for a more complete Christian faith.
  • Through this lesson, you gain insight into the cardinal sins and their contemporary significance, learning how to identify and combat them in modern society for personal and spiritual growth.
  • In this lesson, you gain insights into C.S. Lewis's critique of the loss of transcendence in modern society, his theological perspectives, and his emphasis on imagination in Christianity.
  • This lesson offers an in-depth analysis of the theological differences between Oxford and Cambridge and their impact on the loss of transcendence in modern theology.
  • What then did Lewis write about in The Abolition of Man? The symbol is that the immediate threat is not the abolition of man, but the abolition that there are men without chests. And he means that being without a chest is living two dimensionally and not three dimensionally. It’s not that you just live in space and time, but that you live with space, time and God or, indeed, space, time and morals. And so really it’s simply to live an amoral life. And you begin to lose your emotional life when you live with amorality.

  • Through this lesson, you gain insight into Jacques Ellul's critique of technological society, its consequences, theological implications, and the need for a countercultural response in the face of modern challenges.
  • This lesson guides you in understanding the loss of transcendence, seeking understanding, and retaining hope amidst the challenges of modern society.
  • You gain insight into Jacques Ellul's life, his views on the loss of transcendence, and the influence of his work on theology and society.
  • You will learn about the concept of technique in the modern world, its characteristics, societal effects, and the spiritual implications it holds for faith and transcendence.
  • In this lesson, you gain insights into the implications of technique on society, its challenges, and ways to respond from a biblical perspective, ultimately aiming to strengthen human connections and reclaim transcendence.
  • Through this lesson, you gain insights into the Psalms' structure, types, role in ancient worship, and their significance in modern Christian life, prayer, and spiritual growth.
  • In this lesson, you will explore the role of domestic involvement in the Psalter, its significance in Ancient Israel's worship, and the impact of the Psalms on the community, values, and beliefs.
  • Gain insights into the connection between biblical eschatology and secularity, understanding key aspects and themes while learning to reclaim the transcendent in eschatology.
  • This lesson offers insight into the theological tensions between immanence and transcendence, their impact on modern theology and worship, and the practical steps for reintegrating them into the Christian life.
  • In this lesson, you gain insight into the concepts of immanence and transcendence, their effects on theology and culture, and the importance of integrating both for a balanced Christian worldview.
  • In this lesson, you gain insight into time and eternity, God's relationship with them, and their impact on human experience and theological concepts such as soteriology, eschatology, and Christian living.
  • Gain insight into Old Testament concepts of time, the role of numbers and patterns, the significance of time in biblical prophecy, and the theological implications concerning God's sovereignty and human responsibility.
  • This lesson provides insight into the New Testament's complex understanding of time, addressing concepts such as the Kingdom of God, the present age, and eternal life, and offering guidance for Christian living.
  • In this lesson, you gain insight into the loss of transcendence in modern society and learn how to recover and foster a transcendent view within your personal faith and church life.

This course on the loss and recovery of transcendence in our contemporary culture is, of course, appropriate for all Christians, but, I think, especially for us here in North America, for the political prominence of a Christian religious culture that we’ve had in North America that makes us all the more exposed to the secularisation of contemporary Christianity. 

Dr. James Houston
Loss of Transcendence
Remembering the Christian Path Through the Psalms
Lesson Transcript


Our next lecture is remembering the Christian past through the Psalms. This may seem to be a strange sequence to having studied Ellul and the technical consciousness. I never heard anyone else express it, but I really believe that we’re liberated from our technological consciousness by entering into the consciousness of the Psalms. So there has to be a new recovery in the Christian life today of the potency and the comprehension of the consciousness that what we might call ‘Psalter consciousness’ gives us. And this is what we’re now going to explore.

The Psalter is indeed a wonderful and profoundly devotional source of transcendence that has so profoundly influenced the whole history of the Church until the Age of Reason in the 18th century. It was the Age of Reason that eliminated the consciousness of the Psalms. And when you compare the meditation on the Psalms with all the high decibel noise of drums and contemporary youth worship today, you think am I going crazy when I compare the one with the other. But that’s how crazy we’ve got, that all the loud beat of what we call music today as worship would have totally horrified, like the invasion of the pagan Goths into the City of Rome. It was the same kind of new paganism that had come into our world today. Now, this is very shocking for young Christians, but I tell you if you have no historical consciousness, you’ve nothing to compare with and that’s why it’s okay. It isn’t okay. It’s terrible.

And so that’s why when you enter into the consciousness of the Psalms, you do have to have a metanoia. You do have to have a change of mind to see things so utterly differently.

So shall we pray as we think of the need to enter into this new consciousness of the Psalms. Lord, we think of this remarkable text that You’ve given to us, unique in the history of mankind: the meditation of your people over 4,000 years or more, going back to the beginning of the Iron Age. And what a gift it is that we can have their consciousness that unites 4,000 years of Your people. It goes beyond our imagination to know how this has ever happened. And yet, Lord, give us an openness by Your spirit to enter into this world of the Psalms. What a gift You have given to us and we pray that Your Holy Spirit will open our minds to receive it. For this we ask in Jesus’ name. Amen.


When we ask ourselves how do we participate in the presence of God, the Psalms is the key to that participation. It’s a participation of our whole being, all our emotions of fear, of ecstasy, of sorrow and grief, of confession and repentance. All the emotions imaginable to the human condition, they’re all articulated by the Psalms. The Psalmist enters into all of that. You might say that the Psalms are a prelude to the Incarnation, that when God became man, God first, as a prelude, introduced us into all the humanity and the encounter of God with man in our humanness by articulating the Psalms for us. So Lord, give is fresh eyes to see and to hear what that reality is for us today.

We’ve already said that our Lord himself as a child was saturated in the Psalter. Every Jewish boy for centuries was saturated in the Psalter. The memory of our forebears was a memory that was far greater than our memory because every devout Jew for generations and centuries have been able to memorise the whole Psalter. It’s our generation that has socially lost that memory. It was one of the givens in the Early Church that every leader of the Church that you could have no one appointed a bishop who had not memorised all the Psalms. That was a prelude for his education. How very different is seminary education today when the Psalms are scarcely even taught except by a few devout people like our dear friend Bruce Waltke, who’s given his whole life to studying the Psalms, and very appropriately so. It’s a great privilege that he has given me as a friend to see that world opened to me to personally as well.

For, as Augustine is to teach us much later in the history of the Psalms, to participate with God in Christ is to recognise that the Psalms are echoing the participation of Christ with his bride, the Church, and that that participation is really what the Psalms are all about. Paul himself uses his references to the Psalms in such a way that you know that he truly was a Pharisee of the Pharisees. He truly was a Jew of Jews. Because more than 200 references lie behind all the statements that he’s making. He cannot really communicate anything about the Gospel without linking it with a reference to the Psalms. So almost 200 times in his letters, he’s referring what it is for us to be in Christ in the light of being in the Psalms.


So what we’re going to explore now is what is the significance that the Psalms have played through the history of the Church. One of the things that you observe about the Early Fathers was that to them the climax of their consciousness was Psalmic consciousness. And so the magnum opus, the most significant book that these early writers were writing on, was as to say at the end of my life nothing is more important than my meditation on the Psalms. Augustine himself preached on the Psalter several times a week and certainly he was so familiar with the Psalms that on one occasion the lector, in his nervousness, read the wrong Psalm. He wasn’t at all phased. Augustine stood up before his congregation in Carthage and he said the spirit of the Lord has guided us to choose another Psalm. It wasn’t a mistake. It was the spirit of the Lord guiding the foolishness of the nervous lector. And so then he spontaneously gave a wonderful exposition on that Psalm. And sometimes he’s asked to do it again. And so in the collection of the Psalter that Maria Boulding has wonderfully transcribed—and I would recommend that as a great classic for you to read, her wonderful, eloquent translation of Augustine’s Confessions and also of Augustine’s Sermons on the Psalms, which over 18 years she has collected together, and there are fresh Psalms that are still being collected even in more recent years—indicate that his whole ministry of his teaching was all bound in the Psalms.

Well, we find that the whole life of the monastery, of course, was chanting the Psalms. And we find that this also became if you say what were the cultural tools—if we use that crude language that Ellul would be abhorrent about—what were the kind of instruments for culture that were used in the Dark Ages and then into the Middle Ages in the Western world, what was the source? And the answer was, of course, the Psalms. Let me give you an example. Alcuin was a remarkable monk who came from York in the North of England. He inherited the tradition of the monk Bede before him and so he was tutored and very much influenced by Bede, who himself was a remarkable scholar that was full of consciousness on the Psalter. And Alcuin was elected by the Emperor Charlemagne in the 9th century to be his minister of education. And as minister of education, as the educator of the court and then of the Germanic tribes, he was the one that was to introduce the new Christendom into the transformation of these pagans into Christians in a kind of new Constantinian reform of the 9th century.


This is how he writes in his own commentary on the Psalms. As the angels live in heaven, so men live on earth who rejoice in the praises of God, in the pure of heart psalmody. Because you can’t read the Psalms without being pure in heart. No natural, no mortal, can fully declare the virtue of the Psalms. In them, says Alcuin are the confession of sins, the tears of the penitent, the sorrowful of heart. Here is foretold all the dispensations of our redemption, of the wondrous delights of Heaven’s mirth. Here shall you find the Incarnation, the Resurrection and the Ascension of the Word of God. He’s saying, as others were to say later, the Psalms are our mini-Bible. They contain all the essential doctrines for Christian orthodoxy. Well, that’s a huge claim we would say for the Psalms today, but it’s so far remote from our mindset that’s why we don’t see it the way that Alcuin saw it.


And of course, the value of the Psalms is the Psalms are the layman’s Bible, the peasant’s Bible. You don’t need to be educated to appreciate the Psalter. And so yes, you might have scholars that are comparing the various texts of the Bible and you may also find that you’re not able to read the Bible because it’s been locked up in the Latin Vulgate, so it’s only by the singing of the Psalms that the peasantry of the Dark Ages and the Middle Ages were liberated from the Vulgate imprisonment because they all sang the Psalms and they all memorised the Psalms, so that’s their Bible. And it’s ironic that in some ways the intensity of the need of using the Psalms is because the people were not educated to have the Vulgate to open themselves to the whole of the scriptures. So when we enter into that world, what man abuses, God uses to His advantage. So without a Latin education the Psalms were always accessible. And so it was in 1227 at the Council of Toulouse that the Church recognised that yes, the scriptures are available to the laity in the vernacular use of the Psalms. That was the freedom that was given to them. And so we find lay commentaries on the Psalter in Middle English appearing in the 13th and 14th centuries, but there was a long tradition before that in the use of the Psalms.


Let me give you some examples of how the Psalms were used. We have evidence from the Irish bogs of Ireland of textbooks used by children. A child’s slate has been preserved in one of these bogs that dates from the 6th century. It’s the earliest evidence we have of Celtic education. And on the slate is a Psalm quote and suggests that learning the alphabet or learning the vernacular language was done for children through the recitation of the Psalms, that you use the Psalms as your first childish exercise to be a reader or a writer. What the scholars have discovered is that this quote from the Psalm belongs to a translation by Theodore of Mopsuestia, who was a late 5th century commentator in Syria. And you say how in the world did that commentator’s writing ever reach an Irish bog? Well, it indicates to you there was already sea trade between the Phoenicians earlier on and their later successors as traders were trading with the peninsulas of Western Europe like Galacia or Brittany or Ireland. In other words, it was done by sea.

We also find that Cassiodorus, who was a senator, actually he was Governor of Milan, in the region of Lombardy in the 7th century Northern Italy, or late 6th century a few years before that, he gives us a complete commentary on the Psalter as a politician. He’s not like Augustine before him, but why does he use the Psalms? Well, he wants to use the Psalms for the profession of being a rhetorician, as a politician has to be. So from the education of a small child to the sophisticated education of a rhetorician, it was the Psalms that was the basis for them both. Have you ever seen a textbook that is for the first kindergarten and also for advanced university students? No. But that’s what the Psalter was. It’s for everybody.

And so all the devices of Classical rhetoric are illustrated by Cassiodorus in the Psalms. And I can’t go into the details. You’ll find it discussed in our book that I wrote, in our first volume, with Bruce Waltke on the Psalms of Praise and Worship, that you’ll find there enumerated all the Classical tricks of rhetoric that Cassiodorus said were illustrated in the use of the Psalms. In other words, every expression of the human mind, of the human emotion, was captivated by the Psalter. And that’s why I’m saying that in the history of a Christian society, the Psalms were the alternative to what technology is today. That’s quite a statement, isn’t it? Because you see, the whole mindset is totally absorbed by that reality. It’s a form of consciousness that’s different from our consciousness today.


One of the interesting books that follows further on this theme is Hannibal Hamlin, who’s written recently a book called Psalm Culture and Early Modern English Literature. But he’s showing that later in, say, Tudor and later periods, that the foundations of English literature, especially the poetic expression of it, are all founded on the Psalter. And so in the English court of Edward VI and throughout that, all the later growth of English literary studies in the next century and a half are all founded on the devotion to the Psalms.

What I’m suggesting that we Christians have to be is not homo sapiens, but homo participans of the Psalms, that we have a participatory consciousness that we gain from the Psalms. It’s not man the knower that is the focus of the Psalter; it’s man the participator. It begins with the claim that God is spoken of in the Psalter as I AM—the I AM that I AM. And it’s to the great credit of Dr Waltke that he never translates Yahweh in the Psalms as Lord. He is Lord of all, but more profoundly it’s expressive of His being as the I AM that I AM, the ineffable, the unnameable that the Jews have appropriately recognised that this tetragrammaton is the mystery of the unpronounceable because God is beyond all thought. He’s beyond all human vocality. He’s ineffable in His expression of His I AM-ness, He’s unlike, therefore, any lord, unlike any king, so while we think of Him in His kingship and we think of the other metaphors that are used to express how He relates to us humanly by metaphor, the Psalms are telling us that there we enter into the mystery of who He is. And if you want to know how it is that we enter into the consciousness of the Kingdom of Heaven or the Kingdom of God then it’s through the Psalter that we enter in. There, we’re subject to His presence, to participation with Him. It’s then in having such memorisation of the Psalms that we can become a participant to the mystery of God.


This was certainly a climactic theme of the monastic culture, so that in the chanting of the Psalter every day, all the monks were all familiar with all the Psalms. How often did they recite them? They recited the Psalter every week. When you’ve spent 30, 40 years as a monk and you recited the Psalms every week, don’t you think they are totally impressed on your consciousness like nothing else, that your wakening thought, that your disturbance of feelings throughout the day is immediately that you get the resources of the Psalter to comfort you, to abate your fear, to guide you in temptation, to comfort you as you’re depressed, whatever it is? And so we find that in the renewal of the monastic movement by leaders like Bernard of Clairvaux in the Cistercian reform, it’s Bernard’s friend William of St Thierry in his Enigma of Faith who indicates to us what it is to participate in the mystery of the Trinity, of this mysterious Trinitarian spirituality. And it’s to realise that reading the text will therefore redefine your self.

The Bible, as we’ve said already, is not holy because it’s a holy book. It has the powerful effect of making us holy people. You’re not an observer. You’re not seeking to know. You’re participating in the mystery of God.