Tag Archives: Church Fathers

Athanasius on the Psalms

For the past few months, the church here in Sheffield has been surveying each of the books of the Bible from Genesis to Revelation.  We generally take one book per week and seek to provide an overview of the book to “whet the appetite” of the people for more.  It’s been a rewarding study thus far, and I was recently asked to provide the survey of Book one of the Psalms for our study.  As I was rummaging for resources I came across a real gem from the pen of one of Christianity’s great theologians: Athanasius.

Athanasius (296-373 A.D.) was one of the Greek church fathers who was most famous for opposing the Arians as the athan[1]early church debated how best to express and articulate what the Scriptures teach about Christ’s divine and human natures.  His book, On the Incarnation, (which is available free here: http://www.spurgeon.org/~phil/history/ath-inc.htm) is a must-read of Patristic theology.  Athanasius, however, wrote much more than just this one work.  Indeed, he was first and foremost a Pastor who sought to care for, and instruct, the souls in his care with diligence and delight.

So it was with real interest that I stumbled across The Letter of Athanasius to Marcellinus on the Interpretation of the Psalms.  This relatively brief letter (which can be found in full here: http://www.athanasius.com/psalms/aletterm.htm) was written to a man (Marcellinus) who found himself struck with an illness that would not allow him to work.  Seeking to redeem the time, Marcellinus set out to study the Bible as a whole, and the Psalms in particular.  Athanasius was delighted to hear of his resolve and wrote this letter to guide and encourage Marcellinus in his study.

The best thing you could do would be to read this letter for yourself (it’s a mere 13 pages when copied into a Word document) but let me share a few nuggets to get you interested.  Athanasius writes about the “especial treasure” which the Psalms contain.  Comparing the books of the Bible to gardens he writes:

“Each book of the Bible has, of course, its own particular message: the Pentateuch, for example, tells of the beginning of the world, the doings of the patriarchs, the exodus of Israel from Egypt, the giving of the Law, and the ordering of the tabernacle and the priesthood; The Triteuch [Joshua, Judges, and Ruth] describes the division of the inheritance, the acts of the judges, and the ancestry of David; Kings and Chronicles record the doings of the kings, Esdras [Ezra] the deliverance from exile, the return of the people, and the building of the temple and the city; the Prophets foretell the coming of the Saviour, put us in mind of the commandments, reprove transgressorts, and for the Gentiles also have a special word. Each of these books, you see, is like a garden which grows one special kind of fruit; by contrast, the Psalter is a garden which, besides its special fruit, grows also some those of all the rest.”

This beautiful picture of the richness and variety of the Psalms summarizes the very truth which led Luther to describe the book of Psalms as “a little Bible.”  Not only, however, do the Psalms help us to see and understand the rest of Scripture more clearly, they also allow us to see ourselves more clearly.  Athanasius writes:

“And, among all the books, the Psalter has certainly a very special grace, a choiceness of quality well worthy to be pondered; for, besides the characteristics which it shares with others, it has this peculiar marvel of its own, that within it are represented and portrayed in all their great variety the movements of the human soul. It is like a picture, in which you see yourself portrayed, and seeing, may understand and consequently form yourself upon the pattern given. Elsewhere in the Bible you read only that the Law commands this or that to be done, you listen to the Prophets to learn about the Saviour’s coming, or you turn to the historical books to learn the doings of the kings and holy men; but in the Psalter, besides all these things, you learn about yourself. You find depicted in it all the movements of your soul, all its changes, its ups and downs, its failures and recoveries. Moreover, whatever your particular need or trouble, from this same book you can select a form of words to fit it, so that you do not merely hear and then pass on, but learn the way to remedy your ill.”

One of the striking things about this letter is how much of it connects so well with later Reformed thinking on Scripture.  Athansius’ letter argues for the inspiration, infallibility, and authority of the Scriptures, espouses a Christo-centric reading of the Psalms, stresses the importance of singing the Psalms, and emphasizes the need for holy obedience to Christ.  Let me commend this letter to you, and may it spur us all on to a fuller and more fruitful reading of this most rare and precious book of the Bible.


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