“Taking Up” Scripture: Reflections on the Psalms

Many Christians can undoubtedly remember their discomfort upon first encountering invective language in the Psalms, their incredulity at the occasional self-righteousness of the Psalmists, or a general sense of confused wonderment at the Old Testament and how it is interpreted by the Church.

Despite the wide range of reasonable explanations available to them, some Christians nevertheless often wonder how the apparent short-comings they perceive in the Old Testament can be reconciled with their deeply held belief that the Bible is the inspired Word of God. C.S. Lewis, everyman that he was, experienced the same difficulties and decided to write down his thoughts in an engaging little book called Reflections on the Psalms. Although not everyone will agree with his approach, which he is careful to note should not be taken as informed scholarship (Note 1 below), Lewis’s response to these difficulties is characteristically honest, intelligent, accessible, and, in many ways, comforting.

Lewis almost certainly recognized the risk of writing an analytical study of the Bible. The Book of Psalms, in particular, is one of the most celebrated and well known books in the Old Testament and a fixture in the liturgical practices of nearly all Christians. The danger of misinterpretation, misuse, or injury is therefore, in some sense, higher for Reflections on the Psalms than for most of his other popular religious works. This risk, however, is not a deterrent for Lewis, who does not shy away from offering pointed criticism of the Psalms.

In the chapter on cursings, for example, he uses words like “diabolical,” “terrible,” and “contemptible” to describe passages from Psalms 109 and 143 that valorize vengeance, infanticide, and other cruelties (20-1). Most readers who object to this description, however, would be hard-pressed to refute it. Those who do not object and are troubled by its accuracy are likely tempted, as Lewis initially is, to “leave them [the cursing Psalms] alone” (22). Yet, Lewis deftly argues that we cannot deny the malice of these curses, nor can we justify or agree with them because they are in the Bible; instead, we can learn from them about our own inclinations towards hatred, the moral effect our actions can have on others, the distinguishing moral character of the Jewish people that allowed them to experience the temptation to hate (i.e. “they took right and wrong more seriously”), and God’s righteous intolerance for sin (20-33).

Why, however, might some object to this reading and others not? The answer is bound up in how Christians understand and relate to the Bible. The “Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy,” a doctrinal statement by an assembly of Protestants written in 1978, describes the Bible as “infallible” and “inerrant,” the latter of which means “the quality of being free from all falsehood or mistake and so safeguards the truth that Holy Scripture is entirely true and trustworthy in all its assertions.” The Catechism of the Catholic Church says much the same thing: “the books of Scripture firmly, faithfully, and without error teach that truth which God, for the sake of salvation, wished to see confided to the Sacred Scriptures.” Both of these documents speak at length about the central, undeniable authority and importance of Scripture in the Christian life, revealing precisely why criticism of the Bible may be threatening to some. (Note 2 & 3 below) Lewis’s assertion that the Old Testament sometimes displays “[n]aïvety, error, contradiction, even… wickedness” quickly dispels any notion that he might have believed the entire Bible to be inerrant in a doctrinal sense, but throughout all of his writing Lewis does affirm the Bible’s divine inspiration, its importance, and its authority (111).

Lewis’s view of Scripture, specifically the Old Testament, rests on many of the core ideas that span his writing, most important of which is his understanding of myth and its role in Christian revelation. (Note 4 below) Too large a topic to address in detail here, it is enough to say that Lewis saw in the old pagan myths a divinely inspired foreshadowing or anticipation of Truth that is actualized by and through Christ’s historical experience on Earth. Lewis applies this same basic principle to the writings of the Old Testament. It is “no difficulty” for him to accept “that the account of Creation in Genesis is derived from earlier Semitic stories which were Pagan and mythical,” because he accepts a positive view of derivation that is highly creative, additive, and directed by God (110):

Thus something originally merely natural—the kind of myth that is found among most nations—will have been raised by God above itself, qualified by Him and compelled by Him to serve purposes which of itself it would not have served. Generalising this, I take it that the whole Old Testament consists of the same sort of material as any other literature—chronicle (some of it obviously pretty accurate), poems, moral and political diatribes, romances, and what not; but all taken into the service of God’s word. … The total result is not “the Word of God” in the sense that every passage, in itself, gives impeccable science or history. It carries the Word of God; and we (under grace, with attention to tradition and to interpreters wiser than ourselves, and with the use of such intelligence and learning as we may have) receive that word from it not by using it as an encyclopedia or an encyclical but by steeping ourselves in its tone or temper and so learning its overall message. (111)

Lewis shows that this practice of divine “up-grading” is a recurring theme in God’s interaction with mankind, manifest most significantly in the Incarnation, when “human life becomes the vehicle of Divine Life” (116). In the same way the “Old Testament is a literature thus ‘taken up,’ made the vehicle of what is more than human” (117). Understood in this context, the “shadows” of the cursings, when “taken up,” reveal “something more about the light” than any systematic explanation of morality could, confirming, rather than refuting, the divine purpose at work behind the Scriptures (114).

Although Lewis was not a strict inerrantist, his views on Scripture have far more in common with traditional, orthodox beliefs than with any modern, liberal notions that deny the Bible’s sacredness, divine inspiration, or authority. If nothing else, he uniformly affirms that the spiritual Truth conveyed by the Bible is without error. In Reflections on the Psalms, Lewis proves this conviction by presenting a way of reading Scripture that accepts the human aspects of its authorship without diluting its inherently divine nature and purpose.

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Christopher Assenza is a software engineer by trade and a graduate student in English literature at Duquesne University in Pittsburgh, Penn.

Notes
1: The book begins with: “This is not a work of scholarship. I am no Hebraist, no higher critic, no ancient historian, no archaeologist. I write for the unlearned about things in which I am unlearned myself” (1). These disclaimers are difficult to accept from a man of such prodigious learning and for a book that is as incisive as it is pleasing to read. I am certainly not the first to make this observation; indeed, it seems that nearly everyone who reads the book and writes about it makes this same observation. I suspect our expectations of Lewis have something to do with the fact that we are surprised and even a little suspicious of such a modest claim. The introduction of the book, however, is sincere and given without irony. A book can be scholarly without being formal scholarship. Donald T. Williams writes that, for Lewis, Reflections on the Psalms was “an unambitious little work” that he wrote only a few years after finishing a work of formal scholarship: English Literature in the Sixteenth Century, Excluding Drama for The Oxford History of English Literature series (Williams 238). Readers who try to engage Reflections on the Psalms as authoritative theological scholarship, rather than as a work by which we can simply “compare notes” with Lewis, do so unfairly (2).

2: Protestants and Roman Catholics are in greater agreement about Biblical interpretation than many realize. Protestants rely on personal communion with the Holy Spirit and historical interpretations upheld by the broader fellowship of Christians. Catholics rely on the authority of the Church through the Magisterium, which is itself comprised of church leaders who rely on the Holy Spirit and historically established interpretations as well. The difference between the two groups, broadly defined, is paradoxically a question of ecclesiology: Protestant sola scriptura versus the Catholic Magesterium, the Individual versus the Body Corporate. And so while Protestants and Catholics often find two vastly divergent meanings in the Scriptural text, ironically, they both work under what are essentially corresponding interpretative strategies.

3: See Section III, Item C in the Chicago Statement and Article 107 from the Catholic Catechism. This very brief summary falls far short of properly expressing the many nuances of Biblical inerrancy as held by various Christian denominations. Both the Chicago Statement and the Catholic Catechism are replete with details about their respective positions on the matter. Those interested in studying them further will find the documents reproduced in full online.
http://en.wikisource.org/wiki/Chicago_Statement_on_Biblical_Inerrancy
http://www.vatican.va/archive/ccc/index.htm
http://www.vatican.va/archive/hist_councils/ii_vatican_council/documents/vat-ii_const_19651118_dei-verbum_en.html

4: For Lewis, myth is a literary genre with distinct characteristics that he details at length in chapter five of An Experiment in Criticism. Describing something as a myth or mythical does not therefore imply that it is untrue; indeed, it is not a truth claim at all.

References

Taking a cue from Lewis, I should note that this essay is introductory at best and is not a work of formal scholarship. I am, however, indebted to the works listed below and recommend them to anyone interested in further exploring this subject.

Bratcher, Dennis. “C. S. Lewis on Inerrancy, Inspiration, and Historicity of Scripture.” The Voice.

Duriez, Colin. “Bible.” The C.S. Lewis Encyclopedia: A Complete Guide to His Life, Thought, and Writings. Wheaton: Crossway. 2000.

Edwards, Michael L. and Bruce L. Edwards. “’Everyman’s Tutor’: C.S. Lewis on Reading and Criticism.” C.S. Lewis: Life, Works and Legacy. Vol. 4. Ed. Bruce L. Edwards. Westport: Praeger, 2007. 163-194.

Lewis, C.S. An Experiment in Criticism. 1961. Cambridge: UK: Cambridge U P, 1992.

—. Reflections on the Psalms. San Diego: Harcourt, 1958.

Martindale, Wayne and Jerry Root, eds. The Quotable Lewis. Wheaton: Tyndale. 1989.

Williams, Donald T. “An Apologist’s Evening Prayer: Reflecting on C.S. Lewis’s Reflection on the Psalms.” C.S. Lewis: Life, Works and Legacy. Vol. 3. Ed. Bruce L. Edwards. Westport: Praeger, 2007. 237-256.

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