ARTICLES

Volume 44 - Issue 3

Power for Prayer through the Psalms: Cassiodorus’s Interpretation of the Honey of Souls

by Matthew Swale

Abstract

Exegesis, prayer, and spiritual formation converge in the Psalms commentary written by Cassiodorus (490–584). Each psalm’s exegesis ends with a “conclusion” considering the implications for morality, doctrine, or prayer. This study focuses on how Cassiodorus’s exegesis of the Psalms provides power for prayer. First, Cassiodorus’s rich expositions of the Psalms of Ascent and Psalm 142 illustrate his approach to the Psalter as God’s provision of superior, life-changing words. Second, prayer flows from Cassiodorus’s handling of individual psalms in four ways: prayerful exegesis, prayer exemplars, prayer templates, and prayer as the means to psalmic formation.

Now a truism, theological educators periodically lament the bifurcation of exegesis and spiritual formation.1 Ironically, and at considerable cost, this “rupture”2 extends to the biblical book that provided the “backbone”3 for Christian devotion for the bulk of the last two millennia—the Psalms. Many who seek to repair the fissure do so despite their exegetical method rather than through it.4 Precritical exegesis, especially that of the Psalms, possessed no breach to reconcile.5 In part because their exegetical method provided seamlessly for devotion, perhaps contemporary Psalms exegetes need premodern conversation partners if the fracture will be healed.6

Cassiodorus deserves consideration as one such conversation partner for three reasons. First, as a hinge-figure he either channels or influences the entire precritical era of church history. As the first and only surviving complete Psalms commentary in Latin from the patristic era, his three-volume Explanation of the Psalms (Exp. Ps.) intentionally distills the major Psalms interpretations preceding him.7 This work influenced medieval monastic interaction with the Psalms more than nearly any other work.8 Luther cites Cassiodorus frequently, demonstrating high regard for his exegesis of the Psalms.9 Second, Cassiodorus offers unmined Psalms exegesis—only one book-length study exists in English of his most influential work.10 Third, he addresses the contemporary need noted above. Each psalm in his commentary concludes with a section synthesizing its exegetical content with spiritual formation.

After a brief biography of Cassiodorus, his approach to the Psalms will be surveyed, followed by an examination of the commentary sections germane to the intersection of interpretation and “the formation of Christians”11 through prayer. Upon surveying and categorizing prayer-related commentary portions according to their foci (see Table 1), it becomes apparent that Cassiodorus demonstrates and prioritizes the intention of the Psalter to form its readers theologically, morally, and spiritually. He demonstrates this third intention, spiritual formation, through the way his interpretive work flows into and informs prayer. Such formational exegesis aims at total Christian formation through psalm-shaped prayer.

1. Biographical Overview

Flavius Magnus Aurelius Cassiodorus Senator (490–584)12 “started life as a wealthy scion of one of Italy’s great families and ended it as a simple monk.”13 Three roles demarcate the major periods of his life: public official, refugee writer, and monastic leader.

1.1. Cassiodorus the Public Official (507–539)

A fourth generation public servant for Roman rulers, Cassiodorus’s thirty-year government career began when a speech in praise of the king earned him a job as ghostwriter14 for the Gothic Theodoric the Great (507–511) and culminated in the highest civilian position available in Rome, praetorian prefect (533–538).15 At the end of this career he compiled 468 of his bureaucratic correspondences into the Variae, one of his most studied works for its window into Rome at the time.16 Two developments demonstrate this enigmatic period of his life. First, in his role as Master of Offices17 (523–527) he succeeded the famous philosopher and theologian Boethius (480–524), who was executed on questionable allegations of treason.18 Some historians speculate that Cassiodorus contributed to this plot.19 Amid often tumultuous leadership changes, the “habitually submissive” Cassiodorus always emerged unscathed and somehow favored.20

Second, in the early 530s Cassiodorus evidences growing spiritual interests. In a ghostwritten letter for king Athalaric, Cassiodorus describes himself as growing in religious character through sacred reading of the Scriptures (i.e. lectio divina).21 During the papacy of Agapetus (535–536), Cassiodorus lamented Rome’s complete lack of schools for theological training. His lobbying secured finances but failed due to war, but Agapetus built what seems to be a library meant for the failed school.22

Spiritual growth culminated in Cassiodorus’s self-proclaimed conversion in the late 530s. Historians associate this with his literary turning point from governmental to theological literature in the writing of On the Soul (538).23 In early medieval Christianity conversio could mean (a) a withdrawal from public vocation to “an explicitly religious way of life” such as monasticism24 or (b) simply a “profound alteration of interests.”25 Cassiodorus seems to have begun with the latter and led to the former.

1.2. Cassiodorus the Refugee Writer (540–554)

The year 540 began with Cassiodorus in the early stages of his three volume Explanation of the Psalms in Ravenna, Italy. He “thrust aside the anxieties of official positions and the flavour of secular cares with their harmful taste… [and] sampled that honey of souls, the divine psalter … to drink in sweet draughts of the words of salvation after the deep bitterness of my active life” (Exp. Ps. 1:23). The year ended, however, with him living as a refugee in Constantinople after Justinian’s Byzantine forces conquered that region of Italy—it is not known if Cassiodorus went voluntarily.26 He held no public positions there but closely associated with and received commendation from the “captive pontiff” Vigilius,27 to whom he dedicated the Psalms commentary.28 The end of the Gothic War allowed him to return to Italy around 554.

Cassiodorus probably spent most of his time in Constantinople writing the Explanation of the Psalms (540–548).29 This proved providential. The commentary intends to distill Augustine’s sermons on the Psalms, but he only personally possessed twenty of these sermons.30 The imperial library in Constantinople, however, provided him with all or most of Augustine’s sermons. This accounts for the volume of references to Augustine in Cassiodorus’s commentary. Explanation of the Psalms frequently references monastic rhythms of life, indicating either that he had already founded his monastery or that he intended to build it and use the commentary for its enrichment upon his return home.31 He probably also secured many of the volumes that would make up the monastery’s substantial library while in Constantinople.32

1.3. Cassiodorus the Monastic Leader (555–584)

Either during a lull in public service in the 530s or after his return from Constantinople, Cassiodorus founded the Vivarium monastery on an idyllic family estate in his remote hometown of Squillace in Italy.33 He retired there in 555. O’Donnell suggests three purposes for this: (1) at about age 65, he needed rest from a tiresome career; (2) his own growing quest to know God; (3) his failed educational plan in Rome could be fulfilled in a monastic setting.34

Two writings during this time typify his monastic mission. The first, Institutions of Divine and Secular Learning, contains two volumes meant to be a classical education self-study equipping monks to apprehend and perpetuate the Christian intellectual tradition.35 This work surrogated his failed vision for Christian education: “since I could not [build a school in Rome] because of raging wars … I was moved by divine love to devise for you, with God’s help, those introductory books to take the place of a teacher.”36 He intended for the Psalms commentary to provide a companion volume, viewing the Psalms as “the ideal starting place for literacy, uniquely suited as a text from which to learn to read and to acquire the deeper arts of… learning.”37

The second work was the last he wrote around age 93, De Orthographia, which is essentially a book on spelling and grammar abridging several Roman grammarians.38 Without this, monks could not fulfill what he saw as a primary goal at Vivarium:

Of all the tasks that can be achieved among you by physical labour, what pleases me most … is the work of scribes if they write correctly. By repeated reading of Scripture they instruct their minds and by writing they spread the beneficial teachings of the Lord far and wide. A blessed purpose, a praiseworthy zeal, to preach to men with the hand, to set tongues free with one’s fingers and in silence to give mankind salvation and to fight with pen and ink against the unlawful snares of the devil.39

He reports that monks complained of being ill-equipped to produce Scriptural and patristic manuscripts, so he wrote De Orthographia to train them. He died shortly thereafter, and evidence suggests that Vivarium did not survive long in his absence.40 Historians debate the nature of his legacy.41

2. Cassiodorus’s Interpretive Approach to the Psalms

Cassiodorus delineates his approach to the Psalter in a seventeen-part preface patterned after Hilary of Poitiers’s pioneering preface.42 Four aspects of the preface introduce his methodology: his dependence on Augustine, his monastic intentions, his categorization of psalms, and his fourfold commentary format. First, out of deep esteem he calls his commentary a distillation of Augustine’s Enarrations on the Psalms intended to be more accessible to the church (Exp. Ps. 1:23–24).43 Elsewhere he calls his work a goose’s cackle compared to the melodious swan of Augustine.44 This self-deprecation leads some to disregard Cassiodorus’s substantial hermeneutical and literary innovation—assuming he merely mimics Augustine.45 While his humility is no doubt genuine, he was also paying homage to tradition to avoid appearing a theological rogue.46

Second, Cassiodorus intends for his commentary to augment monastic rhythms of prayerful psalm-recitation. He alludes to monastic liturgy when he says that psalms will be sung at various hours of the day (Exp. Ps. 1:25).47 He wants his commentary to deepen this practice: “But we are not to sing them like parrots and larks which seek to imitate men’s words but are known to be utterly unaware of what they sing” (Exp. Ps. 1:25).48

Third, Cassiodorus presents twelve topical categories in the Psalms: (1) Christ’s “bodily life”; (2) the “nature of the Godhead”; (3) those seeking to destroy Christ; (4) warning the Jews of judgment; (5) Christ’s prayers to the Father regarding the “future benefit” of the resurrection; (6) penitential psalms; (7) “direct conversation” between Christ and the Father reflecting his divinity and humanity; (8) “figurative allusions” to Christ; (9) Hallelujah psalms; (10) psalms of ascent; (11) the Trinity; (12) the seven psalms that culminate the Psalter (Exp. Ps. 1:43–44).49 Susan Gillingham identifies this list as Cassiodorus’s main contribution to the Psalter’s reception history, calling it an early predecessor to Gunkel’s form-critical categories.50

Fourth, Cassiodorus forecasts his four-section commentary strategy for each psalm. He first expounds the superscription, usually allegorically (Exp. Ps. 1:35).51 He will then, in a manner original in its thoroughness,52 divide each psalm according to two factors: (1) “change of subject” and (2) “the introduction of different speakers” (Exp. Ps. 1:33, 35). Here he respects the literary artistry of each psalm and maintains a close reading.

Next, Cassiodorus provides a verse-by-verse analysis to “show the hidden meaning of the Psalm, which varies with the spiritual sense, the historical perusal, and the mystical meaning” (Exp. Ps. 1:35). While he mentions four senses here, throughout the commentary the terms allegorical, spiritual, and mystical are not differentiated and seem to be used interchangeably.53 He clarifies that there is “common language” which is readily understandable, underneath which “are hidden senses of truth, so that the vital meaning must be most carefully sought out” with the help of the Holy Spirit (Exp. Ps. 1:37). While there are similarities to the fourfold method associated with medieval exegesis (literal, allegorical, moral, anagogical), his collapsing of figural senses and suspension of any moralizing until after the exegetical section suggests he follows Augustine in a twofold literal/figural method.54

As an extension of this, like several church fathers, Cassiodorus explains figural meaning in the psalm numbers in keeping with church fathers before him.55 Two factors mitigate this seemingly odd practice. First, no other biblical book contained chapter numbers at this point in Christian history. Reasoning that there is no wasted space in the Scriptures, he seeks to understand their significance. Second, Cassiodorus explains his numerological motivation: “I think that we should note also that all the ensuing psalms mount in a marvelously prearranged scheme” (Exp. Ps. 1:56). Impressively, the quest for a prearranged scheme only recently resurfaced after an historical-critical hiatus.56

Finally, and wholly original,57 Cassiodorus adds what he will call in the commentary the psalm’s conclusion:

I will try briefly to expound the power of a passage as it demands, so that the purpose of a poem’s division may by God’s gift be clear to inner eyes. By the power of a psalm I mean the divine inspiration by which God’s purpose is revealed to us, keeps us clear of faults through David’s words, and persuades us to live an upright life…. In the final section I draw together briefly a summary of the whole psalm, or say something in opposition to heresies which are to be extirpated, for true love of the Lord lies precisely in regarding his foes with perfect hatred. (Exp. Ps. 1:37, italics added).

Three elements of this innovation bear on the present study. First, he indicates that exegesis alone does not do justice to each psalm. There is an added divine purpose for each psalm: power for Christian formation. Second, he believes moral and doctrinal growth comprise the formation intended by the Psalter. Third, he does not mention how this formation occurs, suspending the question until the body of the commentary. Therein, sixty-nine of the conclusions concern prayer (the most frequent teaching point in the conclusions, see Figure 1). This indicates that praying the Psalms facilitates the formation (moral and doctrinal) the Psalter intends.58

Cassiodorus does not believe he has properly commented on the Psalter until he has addressed its intention: holistic formation. His view of the illocutionary force (i.e. purpose) of the Psalter undergirds this method. Cassiodorus engages in prayerful, formational biblical interpretation. If each psalm contains power for formation, Cassiodorus believes prayer accesses this transforming power. Olsen encapsulates Cassiodorus: “He is best read and understood as a teacher of theology at prayer.”59

Figure 1: Psalm Conclusions by Theme60

Prayer FormationMoral FormationDoctrinal Formation
5, 6, 7, 9, 13, 15, 20, 22, 23, 24, 25, 27, 36, 41*, 42*, 45, 48, 51, 54, 55*, 57*, 59, 60, 62*, 63*, 65, 66*, 67*, 68*, 69*, 70*, 73*, 74*, 76*, 77, 87*, 89*, 90, 91*, 96, 97*, 98*, 100*, 101*, 102* 103*, 106, 109*, 110*, 111*, 113, 116*, 118, 123*, 127*, 128*, 129*, 131*, 135, 136, 137*, 140, 142, 143, 145, 146*, 147*, 149, 150* 1, 4, 12, 16, 19, 26, 31, 33, 38, 39, 41*, 42*, 43, 44, 46, 49, 56, 62*, 70*, 73*, 74*, 75, 78, 79, 88, 89*, 91*, 92, 93, 94, 95, 97*, 98*, 99, 100*, 101*, 102*, 103*, 105, 111*, 114, 115, 116*, 120, 121, 122, 123*, 124, 125, 127*, 128*, 130, 131*, 132, 133, 134, 137*, 138, 141, 144, 146*, 147*, 150* 2, 3, 8, 11, 14, 17, 18, 21, 38, 29, 30, 34, 35, 37, 40, 41*, 47, 50, 52, 53, 55*, 57*, 58, 61, 62*, 63*, 64, 66*, 67*, 68*, 69*, 71, 72, 76*, 80, 81, 82, 83, 85, 87*, 104, 107, 109*, 110*, 112, 117, 119, 126, 139, 147*, 148
69 psalms63 psalms51 psalms

3. Cassiodorus on the Psalms and Prayer

After surveying two expositions of prayer, the four ways in which Cassiodorus employs the Psalms to teach prayer will be explored: prayerful exegesis, exemplars of prayer, psalms as useable prayers, and prayerful formation.

3.1. Two Expositions of Prayer

Two sustained expositions reveal the psalm-shaped life of prayer Cassiodorus envisions. First, actualizing a concept Augustine briefly recommended,61 Cassiodorus sees in the Psalms of Ascent a microcosm of the spiritual formation program of the Psalter. He takes Psalm 83:6 [84:5 ET] as his key for interpreting them as a spiritual ascent: “In his heart he has disposed to ascend by steps, in the [wail] of tears” (Vulgate).62 Cassiodorus frames this as prayerful entreaty:63

  1. Psalm 119[120]: Abandon things of the earth for virtue (Exp. Ps. 3:265).
  2. Psalm 120[121]: By grace, take hold of God’s strength (Exp. Ps. 3:270).
  3. Psalm 121[122]: Observe the deepening, sweetening words of Psalms (Exp. Ps. 3:277).
  4. Psalm 122[123]: Persevere in prayer as enemies seek to hinder ascent (Exp. Ps. 3:281).
  5. Psalm 123[124]: Humbly trust the Lord to avoid downfall (Exp. Ps. 3:287).
  6. Psalm 124[125]: Recount God’s help during “past ills” (Exp. Ps. 3:291).
  7. Psalm 125[126]: Behold the prefigured Christ in the Old Testament (Exp. Ps. 3:295).64
  8. Psalm 126[127]: Study the Scriptures and find mercy there (Exp. Ps. 3:301).65
  9. Psalm 127[128]: Pray with “vehement entreaty” for a pure fear of God (Exp. Ps. 3:306).
  10. Psalm 128[129]: Pray for the repentance or judgment of God’s enemies (Exp. Ps. 3:311).
  11. Psalm 129[130]: Humbly confess sin, thus slaying pride (Exp. Ps. 3:316).
  12. Psalm 130[131]: Humbly repeat the words of this psalm (Exp. Ps. 3:320).66
  13. Psalm 131[132]: Behold “the brightest light in the Lord’s coming” (Exp. Ps. 3:332).67
  14. Psalm 132[133]: Love one’s neighbor, which increases love for God (Exp. Ps. 3:336).
  15. Psalm 133[134]: Praise culminates in greater love for God (Exp. Ps. 3:341).

He concludes, “So let us continually meditate on the hidden nature of this great miracle, so that by ever setting our gaze on such things, we may avoid the deadly errors of the world” (Exp. Ps. 3:341). These fifteen steps include moral and doctrinal formation through prayer, presenting a microcosmic version of Cassiodorus’s view of the formational intent of the Psalter.

The next exposition of prayer is occasioned by the superscription, “a prayer,” in Psalm 141[142], leading Cassiodorus to expound his sevenfold vision of prayer (Exp. Ps. 3:404–5):

  1. “Sign our lips with the seal of the cross,” and pray for their cleansing.
  2. “Pray in words not so much as human longings prompt, but those which the Godhead Himself has granted as a remedy from wickedness.”
  3. Pray these words humbly.
  4. Behold God “in mental contemplation” to see “what sort of person you should be.”
  5. Pray with confidence to “Him who is almighty.”
  6. Allow God to transform the prayer being offered.68
  7. Know that God hears “if grace is lent” to a humble heart.69

He views the Psalter as God’s provision of superior, life-changing words to be used at prayer.

3.2. Prayerful Exegesis

Cassiodorus indicates the importance of prayer for exegesis in two ways. First, thirty-two times in his handling of a psalm’s conclusion, he resorts to writing prayers into the commentary. For example, after commenting on the “marriage-song” of Psalm 44[45], he prays, “We have feasted, good King, and drunk heavenly delights at your wedding-feast. Wondrous Bridegroom, grant that we who have here rejoiced in hope may be filled with the most perfect joy in the life to come” (Exp. Ps. 1:452). Often, these prayers ask for grace to be formed by the psalm (e.g. on Ps 58[59]). Elsewhere he demonstrates hermeneutical humility, as he asks regarding Psalm 86[87], “Grant, Lord, that what we cannot explain here in words we may behold there by your gift” (Exp. Ps. 2:341). He teaches readers by example the centrality of prayer in exegesis.

Second, Cassiodorus encourages readers to pray for the interpretive process. Interpreters only enjoy their task through prayer: “Let us ask God to open our understanding to all things, and by His enlightenment to lead us to true wisdom; for whatever you read, whatever you think through, will succeed in tasting sweet to you only if you season it with the spice of heaven’s gift” (Exp. Ps. 2:379). He seeks prayer for his own interpretive work when, regarding Psalm 75[76], he says, “The text of the psalms has here reached the half-way mark…. Let us pray that He who granted us grace in the psalms that lie behind us may grant us effective help in those yet to come” (Exp. Ps. 2:238). The commentary itself concludes with a lengthy prayer “that having granted me devoted words, You may also bestow on Your servants praiseworthy action” (Exp. Ps. 3:468). Thus, for Cassiodorus, there is no exegesis without prayer.

3.3. Prayer Exemplars

Cassiodorus elucidates three prayer exemplars in the Psalter: the psalmist, Christ, and the Church. Regarding Psalm 12[13], he writes, “Let us view the prophet engaged in blessed contemplation, and note [the longing with which he prayed] … we realize what a gift it is which we have obtained, when we observe that a powerful king and a holy prophet [prayed with such enthusiasm]” (Exp. Ps. 1:148). To learn prayer from the psalmist in Psalm 122[123], he writes, “Let us look closely at [the psalmist], remarkable as he is in perseverance in prayer” (Exp. Ps. 3:281). Modern Psalms scholarship, in its quest to understand the editorial intention of the Psalter, agrees with Cassiodorus’s instinct to find spiritual exemplars therein.70

The next two exemplars exhibit the point at which Cassiodorus’s theology of prayer flows most noticeably from his exegetical method. Noted briefly above, Cassiodorus traces the “introduction of different speakers” (Exp. Ps. 1:35). Known as prosopological exegesis, this is “a reading technique whereby an interpreter … [assigns] nontrivial prosopa (i.e. nontrivial vis-à-vis the ‘plain sense’ of the text) to the speakers or addressees (or both) in order to make sense of the text.”71 Rhetoricians, church fathers, and even NT writers employ prosopological exegesis.72

When Cassiodorus finds the voice of Christ in the Psalms, he judges that it is present because, “He … afforded an example” of prayer (Exp. Ps. 2:336). When readers “ponder the humility of the prayer poured out to the Father by the Lord Saviour,” they may avoid error “by following His footsteps” (Exp. Ps. 2:336). When his voice is found in the Psalter, “Christ prays to teach us, rises again to raise us, praises the Father to instruct us” (Exp. Ps. 2:44). Cassiodorus relishes the opportunity to listen in on the prayers of Christ, “he who hears this Man at prayer must note than that He is to be praised also as Creator” (Exp. Ps. 1:175).

The Church provides the final exemplar. It is not always clear why he attributes the voice to the Church rather than the psalmist.73 Nevertheless, it clearly informs prayer. The Church offers an example, “Let us listen to how the Church … cries to her Liberator” (Exp. Ps. 1:256). Moving beyond mere example, he notes regarding Psalm 110[111] that “our mental eagerness is enhanced when we drink in the sweet taste of another’s joyful utterance” (Exp. Ps. 3:131). Elsewhere, he reasons, “So like a revered mother she transmits to her little ones words for them to speak…. So let us say what she urges” (Exp. Ps. 1:89). By placing the reader in ecclesiastical continuity with the speaker, Cassiodorus provides the reader with a clear entrance into the prayer life of the Psalter.74 Cassiodorus sees in psalmist, Christ, and Church diverse tutors in prayer for the Psalter’s ecclesial audience.

3.4. Prayer Templates

In the Preface, Cassiodorus intimates that he shares a view of the Psalter with Athanasius, who said in his letter to Marcellinus, “Whoever recites the words of a psalm seems to be repeating his own words, to be singing in solitude words composed by himself…. He seems to be expressing the kind of language used as if spoken from the heart. He seems to offer words to God.”75 Elsewhere, Cassiodorus refers to Athanasius’s approach as prescribing remedies from the Psalms to various predicaments.76 Both of these citations suggest dependence on Athanasius’s letter, but the body of the commentary never refers to it.77 It appears that Cassiodorus seeks to mobilize in commentary form the vision for psalmic prayer for which Athanasius only provided an outline. The vision undergirds a significant amount of Cassiodorus’s prayer-related content in the commentary—in at least two ways.

First, Athanasius suggests that Christians “do not hesitate… to repeat the very things [individual psalms] say.”78 For thirteen psalms, Cassiodorus recommends this verbatim praying of the psalm text.79 For instance, regarding Psalm 50[51], Cassiodorus prescribes that “an individual can practice repentance regularly by himself [without need of a priest;] … this psalm … if recited with a pure heart, looses sins, cancels the bond of our debt” (Exp. Ps. 1:512). Psalm 90[91] “should be recited … when night sets in after all the activities of the day” (Exp. Ps. 2:387). Again, amid “worldly pains” he urges us to pray the opening words of Psalm 116: I have loved, because the Lord has heard the voice of my prayer” (Exp. Ps. 3:155).

Second, Athanasius sees the Psalms as a teacher of prayer in various situations: “we are taught how one must call out while fleeing … in the Psalms we are instructed how one must praise the Lord and by speaking what words we properly confess our faith in him.”80 He relates this to psalm genres, saying worshipers can find “a fit form of words wherewith to please the Lord on each of life’s occasions.”81 Cassiodorus follows suit in twelve instances.82 Of Psalm 6, he writes, “pay particular attention to the psalms of the penitents, for they are like suitable medicine prescribed for the human race” (Exp. Ps. 1:98). On Psalm 53[54] he draws attention to “the form of the request [which] is certainly impressive … so that whatever the dangers overhanging us we may make our entreaty with a trusting heart” (Exp. Ps. 2:17). With Athanasius, and filling out his vision with exposition, Cassiodorus sees the Psalter as offering both specific words and situational rubrics to be used at prayer.

3.5. Prayerful Formation

Noted above, Cassiodorus believes the illocutionary intent of the Psalter is Christian formation (moral and doctrinal). He proposes that prayer facilitates this in at least three ways. First, Cassiodorus exemplifies the necessity of prayer for formation when his in-text prayers ask for divine assistance. Regarding the virtues presented in Psalm 23[24], he prays, “Now grant, Lord, that we who have entered the gates of Your mercy by the font of sacred rebirth may not depart from them with sins hounding us” (Exp. Ps. 1:246). He clarifies the text-prayer-formation nexus when commenting on Psalm 72[73], “The formation of the Christian is completed by this advice, so that he who hastens to commend himself to the Lord does not fail through debased thoughts. Grant, O Lord, that You do not make us envy [evil men] … for only those who follow Your wishes with a most devoted heart can have their portion with you” (Exp. Ps. 2:209). The interpreter only experiences the formation proposed by the text through humble prayer.

Second, and related, Cassiodorus instructs his readers to pray for the formation the text seeks. Formation of soul occurs through prayerful rejoicing, “Let us store in our minds the song of this heavenly pipe [Psalm 23], close packed with its ten virtues, and note how sweet a lay it has sung with health-giving delight to the soul. In this way through rejoicing in the divine mystery we may acknowledge not our ears’ pleasure but the gaining of health for our souls” (Exp. Ps. 1:240). The virtues commended in the Psalms benefit the soul through prayerful rejoicing. Cassiodorus insists that character formation, commended in the Psalter, necessitates prayer: “so let us beg God more profusely … [for] a most salutary change of ways” (Exp. Ps. 1:134).

Finally, Cassiodorus suggests that the inherent power of the Psalms affects formation in those who meditate on, sing, or pray them. Psalm 67[68] “is a river to be drunk by the mind … which ever irrigates without watering; it inebriates pure minds, and brings back to mental sobriety those who are drunk on sins. It is the water which at once removes thirst and hunger … and which once drunk perpetually increases. Let us pray that this stream may uninterruptedly possess us” (Exp. Ps. 2:140). Singing Psalm 41[42] “induces goodly longing and instruction … [in order that the baptized] may hasten to the Lord with total purity of heart” (Exp. Ps. 1:423). If Christians chant Psalm 21[22], “as we listen to it, we happily weep, for we can be fashioned by it” (Exp. Ps. 1:234). He even speaks of “the spiritual depths of the psalms with their perennial cleansing” (Exp. Ps. 3:466). For Cassiodorus, the Psalter itself possesses transformative power. The church accesses its power through prayer.

4. Conclusion

Cassiodorus engages in enough allegorical interpretation to make contemporary interpreters uncomfortable.83 Fortunately, his prayer-formation content is extricable from those allegorical elements.84 Cassiodorus’s interpretation of the Psalms flourishes at the point where contemporary interpretation falters—integrating spiritual formation. His conclusions suggest that without this integration, hermeneutics are inconclusive. Placing contemporary scholarship in dialectic conversation85 with Cassiodorus’s formational exegesis may help compensate for what lacks in the academy and church today.86 Cassiodorus achieves this in his conclusions, the effect of which O’Donnell summarizes helpfully:

[The conclusions] have the function of calling the reader back from a too-studious approach to the Psalm merely as a document of doctrine and the rhetorical arts … [serving] to make vivid again the profoundly spiritual nature of the experience towards which the study of the Psalm is meant to lead. Having taken the Psalm out of its context, examined it from every side, and presented it to the student with all its rivets undone and seams unzipped, the commentator is here putting the whole thing back together again, synthesizing his own analytical labors into the text of the word of God, always for the purpose of intensifying the devotional experience that the Psalm’s student is meant to undergo.87

Cassiodorus’s conclusions reveal a range of psalmic prayer: prayerful exegesis, exemplars of prayer, psalms as useable prayers, and prayerful formation. This formational exegesis demonstrates and prioritizes the intention of the Psalter to form its readers theologically, morally, and spiritually—all through prayerful interaction with the text. One scholar suggests that modern exegetical methods deal well with the text but prove ill-suited to deal with God.88 Cassiodorus sought to do both, suggesting that in rigorous interaction with Scripture “we find the Lord, if we succeed in truly studying them” (Exp. Ps. 3:301), and that when this is done in prayerful humility “we shall attain the most glorious vision of Him” (Exp. Ps. 3:332).


[1] Cf. Bruce Waltke, “Exegesis and the Spiritual Life: Theology as Spiritual Formation,” Crux 30.3 (1994): 28–35.

[2] Brevard Childs, Introduction to the Old Testament as Scripture (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1979), 509.

[3] Ray Van Neste, “Introduction,” in Forgotten Songs: Reclaiming the Psalms for Christian Worship, ed. Ray Van Neste and C. Richard Wells (Nashville: B&H Publishing, 2012), 1. On the cost, Bonhoeffer says, “Whenever the Psalter is abandoned, an incomparable treasure vanishes from the Christian church. With its recovery will come unsuspected power” [Psalms: The Prayer Book of the Bible (Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress, 1970), 26].

[4] Childs, Introduction, 509. He argues that this ignores “real exegetical and hermeneutical problems raised by the historical critical approach.”

[5] They seamlessly applied their exegetical work on the Psalter to “apologetic, doctrinal and pastoral purposes,” according to Craig A. Blaising, “Introduction,” in Psalms 1–50, ed. Craig A. Blaising and Carmen S. Hardin, ACCS 7 (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2008), xvii.

[6] David C. Steinmetz argues that precritical exegesis “made it possible for the church to pray directly and without qualification” even the most difficult psalms (“The Superiority of Pre-Critical Exegesis,” ThTo 37 [1980–1981], 30). He suggests that the bifurcation mentioned above will continue until “the historical-critical method becomes critical of its own theoretical foundations and develops a hermeneutical theory adequate to the nature of the text which it is interpreting, it will remain restricted—as it deserves to be—to the guild and the academy” (38).

[7] Augustine’s Enarrations are homilies rather than commentary, but that is the only other Latin work from the era on the whole Psalter according to Martin R. P. McGuire, review of Cassiodorus, Expositio Psalmorum, CBQ 21 (1959): 547. James J. O’Donnell notes the pioneering of Cassiodorus’s commentary for the era (Cassiodorus [Berkeley: University of California Press, 1979], 244). Cassiodorus intentionally incorporates Ambrose, Augustine, Hilary of Poitiers, Jerome, and the concepts of Athanasius (P. G. Walsh, “Introduction,” in Cassiodorus: Explanations of the Psalms, [New York: Paulist, 1990], 1:5–6, 19). McGuire notes his use of Chrysostom, Cyril of Alexandria and Leo the Great as well (review of Cassiodorus, 547).

[8] O’Donnell, Cassiodorus, 243. Sought after by monastic libraries, it “possesses intrinsic value, in that it has fostered the spiritual formation of many generations of monastic writers” (Walsh, “Introduction,” 19). Susan Gillingham places him alongside Augustine as one of the “great influencers in shaping later medieval interpretation of the psalms” (Psalms through the Centuries [Oxford: Blackwell, 2012], 1:58). It could be argued that his work influenced more than Augustine’s, because he made Augustine’s interpretive views more accessible than the massive Enarrations would have otherwise been, as a “much bulkier and less well-organized collection of sermons” (O’Donnell, Cassiodorus, 243).

[9] After Augustine and Jerome, Cassiodorus appears to be the next most cited patristic-era voice in Luther’s Psalms volumes. A searchable form of his five volumes of Psalms lectures indicates that Cassiodorus’s interpretation is explicitly cited by Luther 37 times in Martin Luther, Luther’s Works, ed. Jaroslav Pelikan, Vols. 10–14 (Saint Louis: Concordia, 1955–1976).

[10] “Because … it tells us more about the Psalms than about Gothic or monastic history, it has been the least fully studied of all Cassiodorus’ works” (O’Donnell, Cassiodorus, 136). Paradoxically, O’Donnell explains that it “was the most successful of Cassiodorus’ own works” (243). Three German dissertations exist on his Psalms work (O’Donnell, Cassiodorus, 136n6), and recently Derek A. Olsen published the first book-length study in English, Honey of Souls: Cassiodorus and the Interpretation of the Psalms (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical, 2017).

[11] This is Cassiodorus’s term (Explanation of the Psalms, trans. P. G. Walsh (New York: Paulist, 1991), 2:209). The commentary implies that he believes this is a grace-wrought, Bible-informed, prayerful, character-shaping process.

[12] Only government service dates and a few authorship dates are firmly fixed. The range of possible dates for his birth is 484–90 and for his death is 584–90 (O’Donnell, Cassiodorus, xv).

[13] Olsen, Honey of Souls, 62.

[14] Olsen, Honey of Souls, 62.

[15] O’Donnell, Cassiodorus, 18–20; Olsen, Honey of Souls, 69.

[16] M. Simonetti, “Cassiodorus, Flavius Magnus Aurelius,” in Dictionary of Major Biblical Interpreters, ed. Donald J. McKim (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2007), 299.

[17] This was something like a modern-day chief of staff. He oversaw all administration of court and provincial officials, soldiers in the royal household, foreign affairs germane to the royal household, and the royal food supply (Charles Kannengiesser, “Boethius, Cassiodorus, Gregory the Great,” in The Medieval Theologians, ed. G. R. Evans [Oxford: Blackwell, 2001], 28).

[18] Olsen, Honey of Souls, 68.

[19] “There is no interpretation of Cassiodorus’ actions that fully exonerate him from all suspicion of having participated in the downfall of Boethius, if only by profiting personally from promotion in Boethius’ stead” (O’Donnell, Cassiodorus, 30).

[20] Simonetti, “Cassiodorus,” 298.

[21] Olsen, Honey of Souls, 81. Olsen explains that this did not yet connote the monastic method of spiritual reading, but it certainly entailed growing disciplined interaction with the Bible.

[22] O’Donnell, Cassiodorus, 31, 182–84, 192.

[23] O’Donnell, Cassiodorus, 111; S. J. B. Barnish, “The Work of Cassiodorus after His Conversion,” Latomus 48 (1989): 157. On the Soul is an “encyclopedic” work on the nature and destiny of the soul essentially distills the views of Tertullian, Augustine, and others (Simonetti, “Cassiodorus,” 299). Perhaps Cassiodorus intentionally mimicked his theological hero, Augustine, whose first theological writing after baptism was on the soul also—De immortalitate animae (Peter R. L. Brown, Augustine of Hippo: A Biography [Berkeley: University of California Press, 2000], 64).

[24] O’Donnell, Cassiodorus, 111.

[25] Barnish, “The Work of Cassiodorus,” 158.

[26] O’Donnell, Cassiodorus, 105–6.

[27] Olsen, Honey of Souls, 78.

[28] O’Donnell, Cassiodorus, 143.

[29] O’Donnell, Cassiodorus, xv. This is not a scholarly consensus, but he argues persuasively from internal and external evidence that Constantinople is where most of the commentary was written and where it was finished (170–73).

[30] Exp. Ps. 1:23. When writing the Institutes from the monastery, Cassiodorus says he only possessed “two decades” (20 psalms) of Augustine’s homilies on the Psalms (Institutes of Divine and Secular Learning and On the Soul, trans. James W. Halporn [Liverpool: Liverpool University Press, 2004], 120).

[31] O’Donnell, Cassiodorus, 173–74.

[32] O’Donnell, Cassiodorus, 192. O’Donnell argues for this based on the uncharacteristically large library and its catalogue of volumes written in Greek.

[33] O’Donnell, Cassiodorus, 190–93. Cassiodorus describes the monastery as safe, secluded, self-sustaining, surrounded by the Mediterranean, filled with great fishing spots and man-made baths fed by springs (Institutes, 162).

[34] O’Donnell, Cassiodorus, 222.

[35] Barnish, “The Work of Cassiodorus,” 177. The Institutes includes functions like a syllabus with recommended reading for hermeneutics, theology, and the seven liberal arts of classical Roman education (Simonetti, “Cassiodorus,” 299).

[36] Cassiodorus, Institutes, 105.

[37] Olsen, Honey of Souls, 148. Although the English edition does not contain it in the text of the commentary, this intention on Cassiodorus’s part is evident in an introductory key explaining an extensive system of marginal notes (also not in the English edition) meant to teach figures of speech, rhetorical devices, logic, arithmetic, geometry, music, and astronomy from the text of the Psalms commentary (Olsen, Honey of Souls, 148). The English edition does, however, include appendices that locate Cassiodorus’s extensive in-text use of terms germane to logic, rhetoric, etc. (cf. Exp. Ps. 1:588–95). Merging rhetoric with exegesis makes Cassiodorus’s commentary “far more original than most of his modern readers have recognized,” according to Rita Copeland, “Cassiodorus’ Hermeneutics: The Psalms and the Arts of Language,” in Patristic Theories of Interpretation: The Latin Fathers, ed. Tarmo Toom (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2016), 172. For an extended treatment of this aspect of Explanation of the Psalms, see P. G. Walsh, “Cassiodorus Teaches Logic Through the Psalms,” in Nova & Vetera: Patristic Studies in Honor of Thomas Patrick Halton, ed. John Petruccione (Washington, DC: Catholic University of America Press, 1998), 226–34.

[38] O’Donnell, Cassiodorus, 230–33.

[39] Cassiodorus, Institutes, 163.

[40] O’Donnell, Cassiodorus, 238.

[41] Historians debate the influence of Cassiodorus. On one end of the spectrum is Philip Schaff who says Cassiodorus’s “services to classical literature cannot be overestimated” and that he initiated the monastic scribal tradition [Philip Schaff and D. S. Schaff, History of the Christian Church (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1910), 4:654.] On the other end is James O’Donnell who does not consider Cassiodorus influential, instead an unoriginal but “respected author” at best, because the vision of Vivarium and Christian education was never replicated and direct links between his scribal system and those in later monasticism do not exist (Cassiodorus, 239). In between are scholars like Mark Vessey who attributes O’Donnell’s assessment to the fact that Cassiodorus’s vision was not for a popular movement but a socially distinct class of guardians of the Christian intellectual tradition—which would not be detectable as an influential movement (“Introduction,” in Cassiodorus: Institutions of Divine and Secular Learning and On the Soul [Liverpool: Liverpool University Press, 2004], 99–101). Thus, scholars like Kannengiesser and Laistner argue that though perhaps unoriginal, his work helped shape the next era in Western civilization (Kannengiesser, “Boethius, Cassiodorus, Gregory the Great,” 28–30; Barnish, “The Work of Cassiodorus,” 187; M. L. W. Laistner, “The Value and Influence of Cassiodorus’ Ecclesiastical History,” HTR 41 [1948]: 51–67). Scholars seem to agree, however, that Explanation of the Psalms was his most influential work, widely read in the medieval period (O’Donnell, Cassiodorus, 243). Olsen surveys medieval manuscript evidence and notes that more MSS survive than Augustine’s Psalms sermons revealing a substantial literary presence until the late medieval period (Honey for Souls, 274–81).

[42] Hilary is the first Latin writer on the Psalms to do this in his Tractates on the Psalms (P. G. Walsh, Introduction to Cassiodorus: Explanation of the Psalms [New York: Paulist, 1990], 1:5). Olsen notes Hilary’s apparent pioneering work here, noting, “Some [topics in Cassiodorus’s preface] are taken over directly from Hilary; others address the same topics but come to very different conclusions” (Honey of Souls, 164).

[43] He also purports to add interpretations that have materialized since Augustine, and he will include Hilary, Jerome, and Ambrose, etc.—while usually giving pride of place to Augustine’s view (Walsh, “Introduction,” 6).

[44] Cassiodorus, Institutes, 120, quoting Virgil, Eclogues, 9.36.

[45] “He is much more original than his own statement of [his] dependence on St. Augustine would indicate” (McGuire, review of Cassiodorus, 547).

[46] Olsen, Honey of Souls, 120. Olsen explains, “In truth, Cassiodorus was a synthesist. While he relied chiefly on the work of Augustine for his inspiration, he produced a commentary that neither looks nor functions like Augustine’s, that pulls in material from other authors, and then communicates a paradigm built on Augustinian ideals for reading that is vastly different from Augustine’s commentary” (Honey of Souls, 120). Olsen notes that misunderstanding this may partially account for the paucity of attention this commentary receives (personal communication, 6 June 2018).

[47] This reflects the Divine Office which surfaces well before Cassiodorus and likely included reciting the entire Psalter weekly and memorizing it. He adds, “the psalms make our vigils pleasant when in the silence of the night the choirs [we] hymn their praise” (Exp. Ps. 1:24). Cassiodorus mentions morning, evening, third, sixth, and ninth hour prayers, like the hours of prayer attested by Clement of Alexandria, Origen, Tertullian, and Cyprian (The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church, 3rd ed., ed. F. L. Cross and E. A. Livingston (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005), 1184–85]. Liturgical scholar Susan Boynton says, “Learning these chants and readings, as well as many others, seems to have occupied every moment of the day” (quoted in Olsen, Honey of Souls, 51). St. Benedict called weekly singing of the entire Psalter a “lukewarm” concession to lazy monks, whereas he preferred singing the whole Psalter daily, which supposedly St. Patrick also practiced (Olsen, Honey of Souls, 56–57).

[48] He borrows this metaphor from Augustine’s comments about knowledgeably reciting the Psalter: “We should understand what the Psalm means. Sing it with human reason, not like birds. Thrushes, parrots, ravens, magpies and the like are often taught to say what they do not understand. To know what we are saying—that was granted by God’s will to human nature” (Enarrations on the Psalms, 18:2, cited in Brown, Augustine, 135–36).

[49] Cassiodorus calls the Psalter’s genre variety “differing sweetness” to prevent readers’ boredom (Exp. Ps. 3:137). Oddly, he does not list psalms for each of the twelve categories. O’Donnell attributes this to Cassiodorus placing several psalms in multiple categories. He will also talk about acrostic psalms extensively, apparently leaving it off of this list desiring to maintain the number twelve due to his numerological concerns and giving priority in the list to Christological themes (O’Donnell, Cassiodorus, 145–46).

[50] While a few earlier authors attempt something similar, none so systematically and analytically use categories to “create a theology of the Psalter” (Gillingham, Psalms, 57, 201).

[51] He explains that “from [the headings] issues the meaning of the divine preaching like milk from breasts compressed” (Exp. Ps. 1:35). He handles these allegorically in part because of his commitment to Davidic authorship of the entire Psalter (Exp. Ps. 1:29). The common phrase “to the choirmaster” was, in the Vulgate, rendered “unto the end.” This provides a prime example of Cassiodorus’s spiritual interpretation of the headings. He relates “end” to Christ in Romans 10:4: “So whenever you find the phrase, Unto the end, in psalm-headings, concentrate your mind keenly on the Lord Saviour, who is the End without end, and the full perfection of all blessings” (Exp. Ps. 1:30).

[52] Walsh, “Introduction,” 6.

[53] Walsh, “Introduction,” 9; Olsen, Honey of Souls, 196–97.

[54] Walsh notes the separation of the moral sense (“Introduction,” 10). Henri de Lubac explains, “For Augustine, then for Cassiodorus, the liquid honey was the exterior doctrine, ‘the open teaching of wisdom,’ or the [OT], whilst the comb signified the mysteries hidden in the depths of the cells” (Medieval Exegesis, Vol. 2: The Four Senses of Scripture, trans. E. M. Macierowski [Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2000], 163). The connection to the OT is interesting; Lubac notes that Cassiodorus’s later work on the Pauline Epistles is extremely literal. With Augustine, Cassiodorus handles the OT in a figural manner because in it the NT is hidden. Since the NT reveals what was hidden, less figural reading is needed (216–17).

[55] Usually because he states that the significance of all psalm-numbers are not yet understood (Exp. Ps. 1:36) and omits the consideration for some psalms. Gillingham notes the strongest patristic connection to Augustine’s numerology (Psalms, 57). The following are examples: Psalm 2, Christ’s two natures (1:67); Psalm 17[18], Decalogue and the sevenfold Spirit (1:195); Psalm 24[25], my favorite, “twenty-four elders with unwearied voices sing together praises to the Lord in sweet melody, reminding us to imitate them and to sing this psalm with repeated devotion” (1:256). He typically includes this in the fourth commentary section for each psalm, but it relates to his allegorical interpretation and is thus listed here.

[56] Gunkel wrote, “No internal ordering principle for the individual psalms has been transmitted for the whole,” quoted in John E. Anderson, “Remembering the Ancestors: Psalms 105 and 106 as Conclusion to Book IV of the Psalter,” PRSt 44 (2017): 185. Gerald Wilson’s The Editing of the Hebrew Psalter, SBLDS 76 (Atlanta: Scholars, 1985) is credited with beginning a still booming push to understand editorial evidence and intention in the Psalter. I am fascinated that, though we scoff at precritical interpretive moves like psalmic-numerology, here Cassiodorus understood something that the godfather of form-critical Psalms studies missed.

[57] Walsh, “Introduction,” 6.

[58] Cassiodorus has identified the three main ways the NT uses the Psalter: doctrinal, ethical, and liturgical. The doctrinal/Christological use of Psalms in the NT is well attested (cf. Psalm 110 in various passages). The moral formation component is prominent in 1 Peter, noted by Sue Woan (“The Psalms in 1 Peter,” in The Psalms in the New Testament, ed. Steve Moyise and Maarten Menken [New York: T & T Clark, 2004], 213–30). This intention by the Psalms is argued for recently in Gordon Wenham, Psalms as Torah: Reading Biblical Song Ethically (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2012). The Psalms as intended for prayerful spiritual formation is evident in their use in Acts 4:23–30; Col 3:16–17. For the often neglected and extensive liturgical use of the Psalms in the worship scenes of Revelation, see Sung Kuk Kim, “Psalms in the Book of Revelation” (PhD thesis, University of Edinburgh, 2013).

[59] Olsen, Honey of Souls, 295.

[60] Hebrew/English numbering; asterisk indicates multiple categories.

[61] “But degrees, as they are used in this Psalm, are of ascending…. Who are they that ascend? They who progress towards the understanding of things spiritual…. When therefore a man hath commenced thus to order his ascent; to speak more plainly, when a Christian hath begun to think of spiritual amendment, he beginneth to suffer the tongues of adversaries. Whoever hath not yet suffered from them, hath not yet made progress; whoever suffereth them not, doth not, even endeavor to improve…. Let him begin to improve, let him begin to wish to ascend, to wish to despise earthly, fragile, temporal objects, to hold worldly happiness for nothing, to think of God alone.” Augustine, Enarrat. Ps. 120.2 (NPNF1 8:1170). Olsen (in personal correspondence) suggests that Cassiodorus takes this basic concept and adds regimentation to it.

[62] The numbering of the Psalms here follows the Vulgate, with English numbering in brackets.

[63] “We shall deserve to mount these steps only if we prostrate ourselves for our sins. So let us continually entreat the Lord” (Exp. Ps. 3:260).

[64] This psalm represents a figural transition between the Old and New Testaments. For Cassiodorus (Exp. Ps. 2:181), the fifteen psalms here and the one hundred fifty in the Psalter represent the Old and New Testaments. The first seven psalms of ascent, like the first seventy psalms, represent the Old Testament because seven represents Sabbath worship. The remaining eight (or eighty in the case of the Psalter) represent New Testament worship which occurs on the eighth day.

[65] He adds, “It is there that we find the Lord, if we succeed in truly studying them.” In so doing, we will “be raised up by the Lord on the wings of His mercy.”

[66] He says, “If some [monk] at leisure in his cell uttered such sentiments, he would glow with the great glory of his patience.”

[67] “If we mount these steps with pure minds, we shall attain the most glorious vision of Him.”

[68] “The humble plea which we are to utter in divine praise we virtually realize as we pray” (Exp. Ps. 3:405).

[69] He concludes in librarian fashion by referring interested readers to read Cassian’s exposition of prayer in the ninth and tenth Conferences (Exp. Ps. 3:406).

[70] For example, Brevard Childs’s influential study of the psalm titles contends that they serve to personalize the prayers in the Psalter and invite readers into the inner life of the psalmists. This makes the prayer life exemplified in the Psalms “immediately accessible” to the reader (Brevard S. Childs, “Psalm Titles and Midrashic Exegesis,” JSS 16 [1971]: 149).

[71] Michael W. Bates, The Hermeneutics of Apostolic Proclamation: The Center of Paul’s Method of Scriptural Interpretation (Waco, TX: Baylor University Press, 2012), 218.

[72] Regarding its use by rhetoricians, see Bates, Hermeneutics, 187. Walsh notes its use by Origen, Ambrose, and Augustine (“Introduction,” 6). The NT employs this reading technique, for example, when Hebrews 2:11–13 places a string of psalm texts on the lips of Jesus and then invites the readers to follow his example when “we can confidently say” Psalm 118:6 (Heb 13:6 ESV). See Harold W. Attridge, “The Psalms in Hebrews,” in The Psalms in the New Testament, ed. Steve Moyise and Maarten J. J. Menken (New York: T&T Clark, 2004), 211–12.

[73] Cf. Psalm 39[40]; Exp. Ps. 1:397–407. At times he blends it with Christ’s voice, reasoning that what the Head says the members of the body do also (Exp. Ps. 2:83). Elsewhere the psalm alludes to a wider geographic location than one person’s, so the church rather than an individual speaks (i.e. “I cried from the ends of the earth”; Ps. 60[61]; Exp. Ps. 2:71). In Psalm 5, he reasons from an ambiguous term in the superscription that the Church speaks. Psalm 5’s superscription contains an unknown Hebrew term נְחִילוֹת rendered by the ESV, “for the flutes.” Cassiodorus’s Latin translation indicates, “for her that obtaineth the inheritance.” This leads him to interpret the whole Psalm as spoken by the Catholic Church. He borrows this interpretation from both Jerome and Augustine (Exp. Ps. 1:81n1).

[74] Gerda Heydemann notes this utility: “This oratory approach to psalms “provided a particularly effective way of persuading his readers to assume the position of the speakers or audience of the Psalms, and to refer to themselves the messages and teachings contained in the text” (“The Orator as Exegete: Cassiodorus as a Reader of the Psalms,” in Reading the Bible in the Middle Ages, ed. Jinty Nelson and Damien Kempf, Studies in early Medieval History [New York: Bloomsbury, 2015], 40).

[75] Athanasius, Ep. Marcell. 11, cited in Cassiodorus, Exp. Ps. 1:41.

[76] Cassiodorus, Institutes, 121.

[77] See Walsh’s indices: Exp. Ps. 1:610; 3:535.

[78] Athanasius, “A Letter of Athanasius, Our Holy Father, Archbishop of Alexandria, to Marcellinus on the Interpretation of the Psalms,” in The Life of Antony and the Letter to Marcellinus, trans. Robert C. Gregg (New York: Paulist, 1980), 109.

[79] Psalms 5, 6, 40[41], 50[51], 65[66], 69[70], 83[84], 90[91], 105[106], 114[116], 135[136], 141[142], 144[145].

[80] Athanasius, “A Letter of Athanasius,” 109.

[81] Athanasius, “A Letter of Athanasius,” 107. The genre focus, clearly Athanasius’s point in context, is clearer for this quote in St. Vladimir’s translation used in this instance. See St. Athanasius: On the Incarnation (New York: St. Vladimir, 1982), 97–119.

[82] Psalms 6, 31[32], 53[54], 64[65], 73[74], 99[100], 100[101], 101[102], 108[109], 128[129], 136[137], 142[143].

[83] Gerald Bray notes the relatively recent eschewal of allegorical interpretation (“Allegory,” in Dictionary for Theological Interpretation of the Bible, ed. Kevin J. Vanhoozer [Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2005], 36). John J. O’Keefe and R. R. Reno have demonstrated well that the primary accusations against allegorical interpretation, lack of discipline and subjectivity, may not account for the actual intensive, associative, and typological strategies employed by the church fathers (Sanctified Vision: An Introduction to Early Christian Interpretation of the Bible [Baltimore: John Hopkins University Press, 2005]).

[84] Olsen, personal correspondence. Cassiodorus’s prosopological method excepts this but accounts for only a portion of his extensive material on prayer.

[85] I agree with the sentiment expressed by Timothy George: “The appeal to the superiority of premodern biblical exegesis is a protest against the reductionism inherent in the longstanding monopoly of the historical-critical method, not a rejection of rigorous study of the Bible” (Reading Scripture with the Reformers [Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2011], 31).

[86] Leslie Hardin (“Searching,” 147) argues that the lack of focus on spiritual formation in modern exegesis results in “knowledge-based elitism,” ignoring moral formation, and “a marked disparity in spirituality from those in the church community and [a tendency] to place scholarship above the spiritual formation of [seminarians] and their parishioners.” Essentially, contemporary engagement with the Bible “is not working.”

[87] O’Donnell, Cassiodorus, 164.

[88] Waltke, “Exegesis,” 30.

Matthew Swale

Matt Swale teaches high school Bible at Cornerstone School in Birmingham, Alabama, and is a PhD student at Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Kansas City, Missouri.

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