- Fruit for the Soul: Luther on the Lament Psalms by Dennis Ngien
Dennis Ngien is professor of systematic theology at Tyndale University College and Seminary in Toronto, as well as research professor at Wycliffe College (University of Toronto). Many of his books correlate theological studies with spirituality (e.g., Gifted Response, 2008)—a characteristic true also of his work on Luther (e.g., Luther as a Spiritual Adviser, 2007). In this book Ngien explores Luther’s interpretation of six lament Psalms, drawing attention to his theology, pastoral disposition, and appreciation for the Psalter. Thus, the book aims “to help the wider audience experience the riches of the Psalms” and thereby “reap holy fruits for the care of the soul” (xxxiii).
After a foreword (by Robert Kolb) and an introduction, the book includes six chapters, a conclusion, bibliography, and closing indices. Chapter one (on Psalm 6) emphasizes the consolation believers experience in suffering, according to Luther. Since the Christian life is lived under a theology of the cross, trials result in a poverty of spirit that allows space for “God’s embraces” (23). Chapter two (on Psalm 51) explores Luther’s reflections on confession, the spoken Word, justification, the revealed (vs. the hidden) God, and faith (vs. despair). Dynamics as these enable the Christian to experience God’s embrace “in the lap of God’s mercy” (LW 12.327). Chapter 3 (on Psalm 77) describes Luther’s concept of “meditation” as a progression from remembrance and remorse to joy and public praise. Chapter four characterizes Psalm 90 as “Mosaic” in how it reveals sin and death. In response, Luther depicts sighing as a prayer of faith that leads to mercy and joy. Chapter five focuses on an imprecatory Psalm (94), which describes God’s “alien work” of allowing oppression. Contrary to reason, faith perceives divine consolation hidden in suffering, changing the basis of complaint into a reason for God’s praise. Chapter six engages a “beloved” Psalm of Luther’s (118), reflecting on distress and prayer and the natural progression from pleading to thanksgiving. The conclusion depicts the entire book as “an exercise of the theology of the cross” (299): the believer’s experiences of temptation and loss reflect the way of the cross and lead all the more to trust in the God revealed in Christ. [End Page 473]
Ngien’s book is an excellent entry into the interpretive mind of Luther. Not simply a commentary on Luther’s commentary, the book deliberately explores Luther’s theology at work in his exegesis, with pertinent historical background and appreciation for his pastoral demeanor. The book draws appropriately on Luther scholars (e.g., Forde, Wengert, Lohse, Paulson, Bayer), emphasizing that Luther’s work on lament Psalms deserves more attention. Ngien’s intended audience, however, is not scholars but “the nonspecialist, more advanced theological students, pastors, and teachers in churches” (xxxiii). Toward this end, scholarly dialogue is moderate and explanations of theological ideas more pronounced. At points the book feels meandering, since no logical progression guides each chapter’s discussions of history, theology, and exegesis. (Including each chapter’s respective Psalm text would help, as would chapter outlines.) But this approach reflects Luther’s exegetical style, making it, arguably, fitting. Still, this and the book’s focus on theological themes make it more likely to appeal to readers already acquainted with and appreciative of Luther and his theology. As implied by the title, the book theoretically focuses less on Luther’s historic interpretive approach and more on “the fruits one could reap from it for the care of the soul” (26). In practice it primarily discusses Luther’s theology in historical perspective, not issues of contemporary spirituality.
This work offers an authentic experience of Luther’s interpretive mind at work, with explicit connections to his theology and pastoral vocation. Ngien’s book is an articulate and informed work on Luther’s Psalter exegesis that will stimulate theologically trained Lutherans and revive attention to Luther’s appreciation for lamentation.