Last night as I went to bed I was contemplating the words of an email from a dear sister in Christ whose world of the Bible was in turmoil. She was on a journey where she was coming to understand the complex nature of our holy book while at the same time being unsettled by her new insights. “If the Bible that I have grown to love and cherish did not somehow come down to us untouched by human hands, how does this affect its authority in my life and the life of my faith community? If the bible is not what I thought it was, and if I have consequently misread key texts within it, where does that leave me now?"
If Genesis 1&2 was not written to refute evolutionists or to provide us with an accurate scientific account of human origins, how am I to read it… and apply it? If Israel’s sacred texts can be demonstrated to share some of the same thought and genre as other ancient religious texts what does that imply? If it’s true that Israel’s scriptures developed over time through communal discernment and interaction how are they from God? If there are some very real challenges to the historicity of some elements in the book of Daniel what do we do with that? If our four gospels represent various re-shapings of the story of Jesus to suit the needs of their particular audiences what does that imply about our understanding of who Jesus is? This threatens my understanding of the inspiration of the bible!
This woman had dared in faith to take a deep journey on a quest for a richer understanding of our sacred texts but what she was learning in the process was unsettling her.
I know something about this journey… and how unsettling it can be. I’ve been on it for a number of years myself. So my heart was open to her story and the uncertainty she was feeling. As I drifted off to sleep I prayed, “Lord, sustain her on the journey!”
It was 4:20 this morning when I woke and the same thoughts for this lady were still pressing on my heart. I wondered if I should get up and go for a walk to spend time in prayer, or to attempt to go back to sleep. As I stared out the window the early morning darkness persuaded me that I might be treated with a view of the starry host. It seems like it’s been forever since my early morning walks were conducted under the canopy of the night sky. And I was not disappointed! It was breathtaking to stand outside in the coolness of the morning and marvel at the scene overhead.
As I started my walk the words of Psalm 19 came to me. “The heavens declare the glory of God…” As I began to recite the words I got to the place where the Psalmist glories in the law of God, and was reminded of the dilemma my sister in Christ was facing.
1 The heavens declare the glory of God;
the skies proclaim the work of his hands.
2 Day after day they pour forth speech;
night after night they display knowledge.
3 There is no speech or language
where their voice is not heard.
4 Their voice goes out into all the earth,
their words to the ends of the world.
In the heavens he has pitched a tent for the sun,
5 which is like a bridegroom coming forth from his pavilion,
like a champion rejoicing to run his course.
6 It rises at one end of the heavens
and makes its circuit to the other;
nothing is hidden from its heat.
At this point, as the Psalmist celebrates the “heavens declaring the glory of God” and the sun “rejoicing to run its course”, he was moved to contemplate the law – God’s revealed word to the nation Israel.
7 The law of the Lord is perfect,
reviving the soul.
The statutes of the Lord are trustworthy,
making wise the simple.
8 The precepts of the Lord are right,
giving joy to the heart.
The commands of the Lord are radiant,
giving light to the eyes.
9 The fear of the Lord is pure,
The ordinances of the Lord are sure
and altogether righteous.
10 They are more precious than gold,
than much pure gold;
they are sweeter than honey,
than honey from the comb.
11 By them is your servant warned;
in keeping them there is great reward.
It would be difficult to have a higher view of God’s law – his statutes, precepts, commands, ordinances. They are soul reviving, wisdom giving, joy providing, light shedding, servant warning words. And he revels in them, convinced that just as the heavens declare the glory of God to the whole of creation that the law of God speaks to him on a personal level, enlisting the same response of worship and adoration. And so the Psalmist affirms and celebrates his heart’s desire for the ordinances of the Lord, “they are sweeter than honey…”
And then he turns to contemplate his inadequacy in light of his quest…
12 Who can discern his errors?
Forgive my hidden faults.
13 Keep your servant also from willful sins;
may they not rule over me.
Then will I be blameless,
innocent of great transgression.
But who am I? I’m not even sure I understand my own heart; I’m flawed to the core. And so he prays…
14 May the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart
be pleasing in your sight,
O Lord, my Rock and my Redeemer.
I love that Psalm! And it addresses in its own way the dilemma this lady faces. Is this Psalm merely the record of some ancient Israelite’s early morning reflections? Or is it God’s word – God speaking to us? And, what would it mean if the answer was somehow Yes to both of those questions?
If whoever wrote the Psalm had no idea that it would one day be a part of Israel’s sacred texts does it make it less powerful, less God-breathed? If these words came down through a tradition that cherished them and translated them and participated in adjusting them into their final form, does that somehow make them less? Or more? Does that human process take God out of the picture? Or does it immerse him more fully in the process?
As the people of God for generations stood under the starry night sky and recited a version of these words, were they reciting man’s words or God’s word? Clearly, on the one hand, this is a prayer. This is not God speaking. But yet through this prayer, God ends up speaking to me – over and over again as he did once more this morning.
So what is this thing we call the Bible? How is this Psalm from God and not merely some ancient peoples’ prayer? “Sure it’s nice… inspiring… helpful… but is it God’s word?” What does that even mean? “Is it God’s word?”
As I write I am reminded of Gary Collier’s statement of what he believes the bible is, from his Scripture, Canon, & Inspiration (pg 71), “The bible is an act of faith, by people of faith, in pursuit of a conversation with God.” That resonates with me as I contemplate Psalm 19. The Psalm is a reaching out to God; it is very much a conversation with God – the pursuit of one at minimum.
As I wrote to my sister in Christ I made the point that my early morning reflections on Psalm 19 might not deal with her new insights regarding Genesis 1&2, or answer all her questions about how and why the gospels were written. But it does say something to us that I think will help us to realize that the very best place to start this conversation is, as Collier is fond of saying, with the texts we have in front of us – attempting to embrace them for what they are rather than what we want them to be.
Rather than simply embracing the 19th Psalm for what it is – a prayer to God, what happens if we instead insist that it conform to some of the oft-quoted standards of inspiration that we have constructed to protect the bible from assault.
The Psalm is God’s inspired word: infallible, inerrant, etc… It’s decidedly not man’s word!
Yes, the Psalmist had a part in it but in the end, his part has been eviscerated, so what we are left with is the pure pristine word from God.
Because the Psalm is “God’s word” it cannot contradict or disagree with any other part of God’s word. And so if we think we see anything that hints that there’s something here that doesn’t quite jive with Paul’s view of the law (as we see it), well then we best put our harmonizing hats on and make them agree – otherwise, we’re being unfaithful to God!
To believe that Psalm 19, developed over time within a community of faith is to say that it’s not from God after all – a lie and not to be trusted.
Whatever the Psalm affirms is true in every sense – not only theologically but scientifically, socially, etc. And so if we find anything in the Psalm that appears at odds with the understanding of modern cosmology, for example, then either the scientists are wrong or we might as well toss out the Bible.
The net result of insisting that the Psalm must conform to our standards of inspiration is to empty it of one of its riches components. It didn’t arrive in our hands as a gift that floated down from heaven. It’s a record of our striving to take hold of the heart of God.
As I wrote my response to this lady I said, “The point I’m trying to make is that the sense of insecurity you are experiencing on this journey is not arising because the Bible itself is being dismantled. What is coming unraveled is your understanding of what the Bible is. Your perception is being deconstructed and rebuilt – and that is a world-altering experience for sure. But through this process, a new and glorious world is opening up to you. So, stay the course, give yourself to the process of accepting our sacred texts as they are, and letting them define how it is that God is at work through them. At the end of this difficult and trying venture is a view that is well worth the effort.”
Coming face to face with what our sacred texts are is so difficult for us because we have granted our doctrines of inspiration a status that is superior to the text itself. In effect, they impose a reading upon the text instead of submitting to it. Frequently, it is evident that our doctrines of inspiration have a quasi-divine status – to question them is tantamount to questioning God himself.
We imagine that in God’s camp there is the Father, the Son, the Holy Spirit, and the Bible. That’s the land where everything is perfect and far from our imperfect world of sin and strife. In this scenario the Bible does not belong in our camp at all; it is God-originated, his attempt to communicate with us; it is consequently of divine origin, infallible, etc.
But what if that distorts the actual picture? What if the bible doesn’t belong in God’s camp alone… or ours? What if the bible represents our striving after God and his striving after us? What if it represents the point in Michelangelo's painting where the fingers of God and man meet – a sacred record of our search for a conversation with God. Would that record be regarded as sacred? You bet it would! Is that a place you could look to for insights worthy of building your life upon? Absolutely!! But it’s not exactly what we were taught it was in Sunday school is it? Our doctrines of inspiration frequently don’t serve us well. It’s time for a rethink. And I’m glad this lady is on the journey with me.