Crowned with glory and honour: How Hebrews reworks Psalm 8

Posted: May 8, 2013 by J in Bible, Theology
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In Psalm 8, David marvels at God’s kindness towards man:undefined

4    what is man that You remember him,
the son of man that You look after him?
5     You made him little less than the gods   [or angels]
and crowned him with glory and honor.
6     You made him lord over the works of Your hands;
You put everything under his feet.

The writer to the Hebrews takes up this text in his argument about Jesus’ superiority over angels. He reads it Christologically, no doubt taking ‘son of man’ as a link to Jesus. Nothing unusual there.

But what he does with the text is interesting. Later theologians in the Nicaean tradition might have seen here the distinction between Jesus’ humanity and his divinity: in one respect he was lower than angels, but in another, he was crowned with glory and over all things. Man and God. The psalm does seem to read as a static comment on the nature of man, after all.

But our writer reads it in quite a different, indeed a revolutionary way. He quotes the LXX:

elattosas auton brachu ti par angelous

You made him a little lower than the angels

But he reads the adverbial phrase brachu ti  in a new way. While it is normally translated ‘a little bit”, here it seems to be read as ‘for a little while’. Elsewhere in the LXX, brachu ti  certainly is used to mean ‘for a little while’, translating as it does the Hebrew adjective me’at, which can also have a temporal sense. So the reading is technically justified, though it sits a little strangely in Psalm 8.

In other words, the writer introduces an element into the reading which we might not have thought of in reading Psalm 8: the element of time. By taking brachu ti temporally, the writer diverts the discussion right away from nature and into narrative. We are no longer reflecting on the static nature of mankind, and his relation to the world. Now we are following a story.

What story is that? The tale of a man who was for a time placed lower than the angels, but in the end crowned with glory and honour, with everything set under his feet. Shades here of that favourite psalm of the early Christians, Psalm 110, ‘sit at my right hand till I make your enemies your footstool.’

At present we do not see everything put under his feet. But we must introduce the element of time. As Psalm 110 puts it, ‘My Lord’ must wait for ‘the LORD’ to make his enemies his footstool. But meanwhile he is already sitting at the right hand of God. So here, though we don’t yet see all things under his feet, we do see Jesus going through the death of the cross, and then crowned with glory and honour. He is already raised, and glorified by his Father as Lord and Christ. So we can be confident that the rest is only  matter of time.

In taking the psalm’s description of man Christologically, the writer to the Hebrews has also temporally activated it. It becomes the story of ‘what has happened to the true man, Jesus’. What has happened is that he has sat down on the throne of God. This daring reading has been suggested, or perhaps necessitated, by the writer’s understanding of the gospel. For him to read the psalm Christologically means to give it this temporal dimension. His Christology is inherently narrative.

Why is this surprising to us? Because we live on the other side of Nicaea. This element of time and narrative is what is so sorely missed in the whole Nicaean tradition of Christology, with its insistence on static categories. What is there in that whole tradition that would ever push us to read Psalm 8 in this novel, dynamic way? Nicaea takes back out the time dimension that Hebrews put in.

For all that we value the achievements of Nicaea, it was a bit of a dead end, theologically. Fossilised our thinking, rather than propelling it forwards with the flow of the gospel.

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Comments
  1. Jonathan,

    Your observations of Hebrews’ use of Psalm 8 are pertinent. However, your criticism of the Nicean tradition with respect to Narrative is flawed to the point of caricature. Please note:

    1) The creed of 325 contains within it a narrative of the Son. If what you suggest is true about the Nicean view then the creed would have stopped at asserting his unity with the Father in the divine nature (homoousios). Instead, the creed moves to the narrative events of the Incarnation, Crucifixion, Resurrection and Ascension. It then expresses faith in the fact that the resurrected Jesus “will come again to judge both the quick and the dead”. The anathemas that conclude the creed do not undermine this core belief, but rather assert that the Nature of the Son is not undermined by the Narrative in which he is revealed and has acted to redeem.

    2) Your statement that the Nicean theological tradition ignores the time dimension of the Gospel is not borne out by the theological works of those who were associated with it in the 4th and 5th Centuries. Just to cite one example, Athanasius’ De Incarnatione Verbi Dei iv-x is a summary of the redemption narrative of the Human Nature, moving from Creation to Corruption to Incarnation to Death to Resurrection to Restoration. Athanasius even quotes Hebrews 2 in x.2 to support his narrative argument with respect to why it is important that the Word was truly the one who participated in the redemption of humanity. It seems that for Athanasius the time dimension was still important to upholding his convictions regarding the nature of the Son. Note: This does not mean that EVERY writer associated in the Nicean tradition thought it was important. I’m sure a few didn’t, but that would be a matter of major research that I don’t have time to pursue.

    • Jonathan says:

      Hi Luke, thanks for your comments. Always like to hear more about the Church fathers, especially from someone who has read them!

      Sadly the Nicene dudes are not quite as narrative-minded as you make out. Just to pick up one of your points as an example, the Creed:

      The narrative of the son which you mention is not their work. The Nicene Creed is an adaptation of the earlier Old Roman Creed (or Symbol), and possibly of the Apostles Creed. These have the ‘narrative of the son’ already in place, and Nicea just follows the traditional structure.

      Question is, what did they add? What were their contributions? hat direction did they influence things in?

      the only Son of God,
      eternally begotten of the Father,
      God from God, Light from Light,
      true God from true God,
      begotten, not made,
      of one Being with the Father.

      he came down from heaven…
      and was made man.

      and his kingdom will have no end.

      (the Spirit) who proceeds from the Father and the Son.
      With the Father and the Son he is worshiped and glorified.
      He has spoken through the Prophets.

      This is very largely stuff about ‘nature’, rather than narrative. They don’t really add much to the gospel narrative. But they add a stack of emphasis on the essence and relations of the immanent Trinity (i.e. what God is like eternally in himself).

      This gives us much truer picture of the contribution of Nicaea to our theological heritage.

      We could talk about the councils’ pronouncements, too. Or about the preoccupation with the word theotokos. All point in the same direction.

  2. Your observations about the creed are pertinent, of course. It is true that in the 4th century questions of Nature were very much in the spotlight of debate. And so it follows that if we were to take our cues from Nicea/Constantinople exclusively we would end up in all sorts of bother theologically. I take your point on this.

    Yet I still think you do the Tradition a disservice. Surely an evaluation of a particular theological “tradition” (whether Nicean, Calvinistic, Puritan, etc) does not only include what they ADD but also what they AFFIRM. It is notable, therefore, that the statement that came out of Nicea adapted a previous creed for a new day to show a continuity with the apostolic faith which they already believed and wished to affirm. They say, in effect, “Our forefathers believed these things about how God has acted for us. We wish to continue in their heritage AND affirm something important about the nature of the God who has acted for us.” The narrative is not left behind, but the actors in the narrative are brought into focus a little better by the 4th century debates. If the Nicean Tradition was only about Nature questions we would see other concerns fading into the background. But, as my reference to Athanasius demonstrates, this is NOT how the tradition operated in practice. In fact, in that particular instance, Athanasius used Psalm 8/Hebrews 2 to demonstrate the Necessity of the true Word taking on the human nature in order to act and give hope.

    • Jonathan says:

      if we were to take our cues from Nicea/Constantinople exclusively

      Not exclusively, but sadly this moment in the history of dogma became definitive for the church from then on. Nicea was the dominant tradition ever after, its tenets are the standard of orthodoxy to this day. So it’s massively influenced us towards a static, ‘eternal truths’ approach to Christian faith in which story is not that theologically important. Since Nicaea, you can say all the main things about who God is without reference to the gospel narrative.

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