Psalm 139: Thinking Theologically, Thinking Scientifically (Part 2)

Continued from “Psalm 139: Thinking Theologically, Thinking Scientifically (Part 1).”


In Part 1 of our exploration of Psalm 139, we worked through the psalm in its entirety, pausing enough along the way to think with it about its theology and its prayers. In this post, we camp out a little longer at verses 13-16 to begin exploring how this psalm might open up ways to think theologically and scientifically about the same dimension of life. It has been my own experience that this passage provides a helpful lens for a person of faith to see certain kinds of scientific insights and claims.

First, we set Psalm 139:13-16 in context. The psalmist has proclaimed how wondrously and extensively God knows him (139:1-6), and how God is present everywhere the psalmist could hope to go (139:7-12). He goes on to pray these words on which we will direct our focus for thinking theologically and scientifically:

13 For it was you who formed my inward parts;
you knit me together in my mother’s womb.
14 I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made.
Wonderful are your works; that I know very well.
15 My frame was not hidden from you,
when I was being made in secret,
intricately woven in the depths of the earth.
16 Your eyes beheld my unformed substance.
In your book were written all the days that were formed for me,
when none of them as yet existed.

God forming. The psalmist credits God with forming him in his mother’s womb. The verb translated here as “formed” (qānāh) is used elsewhere to describe God as “maker” of heaven and earth (Gen 14:19, 22), but also to describe a woman “producing” a baby (Gen 4:1). Much as God is the maker of heaven and earth, God is the maker of the psalmist, but not in a way that excludes the role of the psalmist’s mother (and father) in the making process.


Much as God is the maker of heaven and earth, God is the maker of the psalmist, but not in a way that excludes the role of the psalmist’s mother (and father) in the making process.


Of course, the psalmist knew this. We have no reason to think that the psalmist had no mother and father who made a choice to try for a baby. We have no reason to think that it was not his mother’s body that formed him from start to finish. (1) The mother forming him and (2) God forming him are not mutually exclusive ways of talking, but are two dynamic and different ways of seeing the same event: the origin of the psalmist. God is responsible for the origin of the psalmist, but so are his mother and father.

In response, we learn that a theological view of origins does not exclude a natural view of origins. As we are beginning to see, neither does a theological view of agency exclude a natural view of agency. (1) God acting and (2) nature acting are two legitimate descriptions of the same event — for a person of theological belief, at least.

God knitting. Several aspects of knitting make it an apt metaphor for the psalmist’s development in utero. He does not say which aspects are and are not part of his choice to use the metaphor, but we can still think through it. For starters, knitting takes time: it does not yield an instant result. Knitting is a process: each maneuver relates to the ones that came before and influences the ones that will come after. Knitting uses available materials: the final outcome (its shades, patterns, durability) depends on the properties of the material itself, as well as how that material is knitted together.

Even though it is God that the psalmist here credits with knitting him together, he certainly knew that his mother’s body did the knitting. He would have known that a baby’s development takes time and is a process. He also would have known that the mother and father played parts in supplying and working with the material, though we do not know for sure how he thought it worked out step by step. Some biblical language and evidence from other ancient cultures indicate that some people in antiquity thought that the father supplied the material, and the mother incubated it as it grew (Lamoureux, 2008, pp. 138-42). It is possible that the psalmist thought in these ways.

We might wonder how the psalmist would respond to the ability to learn more about how babies were knit together in their mothers’ wombs. Would he resist knowing more about the time, the process, and the material, or would he welcome such insights? And, secondly, why might he respond one way over the other?

14 I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made.
Wonderful are your works; that I know very well.

This well-known verse expresses the psalmist’s wonder at himself as a creation of God. Perhaps it is the things that make him unique — his individuality — that elicit his wonder here: how set apart he is from every other human creation (Goldingay, 2008, p. 634). Then again, mention of his “inward parts” (literally “kidneys”) in verse 13 may show that he simply marvels at how all the unseen physical components of his body function. However much or little he knew about the unseen workings of his body, he knew that a lot had to go on, and go on properly, for his life to keep going. The fact that unseen things of such importance worked properly for him was, in his case, cause for him to pray out of wonder and gratitude.

What we do not know is how this psalmist thought about occasions when a human body does not work the way it should. What we do know is that we, as readers of this psalm, have to wrestle with this very complexity. (I would not assume that the psalmist didn’t wrestle with this issue.) To put the question pointedly: Is every human body “fearfully and wonderfully made,” regardless of how well it functions? And, to address the theological concern lurking here: What does a not-fully-functioning body suggest about the God who is credited with forming and knitting it? How should we think about God’s design and workmanship in such cases?

For now, we continue following the psalmist as he describes God’s relationship to his earliest development. Now, God is not so much forming and knitting, but watching:

15 My frame was not hidden from you,
when I was being made in secret,
intricately woven in the depths of the earth.
16 Your eyes beheld my unformed substance.

The psalmist expresses the way in which he, like every other baby, developed out of plain sight from everyone, except for God. The making, the weaving, the “unformed substance” — God watched the whole thing come together. As we intimated earlier, we also wonder here how the psalmist would respond to discoveries that would enable him and other humans to watch (and even take photos and videos of) this hidden, secret process unfolding? Would he resist or welcome such abilities, and why would he respond one way over the other? And how might he receive knowledge gained by such means?

It is also interesting what the psalmist says about the location of development. He knew that he was knit in his mother’s womb (v. 13), so why mention being woven “in the depths of the earth” (v. 15)? As one Old Testament scholar (Goldingay, 2008) suggests: “There is a sense in which earth is our mother, so our mother can be spoken of as if she were the earth. It is from the earth that humanity is made (Gen. 2:7). A converse way of thinking has us returning to our mother’s womb when we die (Job 1:21)” (p. 635). The psalmist relates his own biological origin to the earth itself.

[16] In your book were written all the days that were formed for me,
when none of them as yet existed.

The psalmist seems to suggest that God knows (and has written down) how many days the psalmist will live. Indeed, each day of his is “formed for” him. He does not elaborate, and thus does not answer all of our (understandable) questions about predestination. One thing is for sure: the psalmist has a very big God in view here, a God whose sovereignty extends to intimate details of individual lives. Perhaps also the psalmist ponders an intimate connection between the development process and a person’s total life:

“There is a sense in which the person’s shaping in the womb also determines the person’s life. It decides how clever they are, how strong they are, what weaknesses they have, and so on, and how long they will live. Environmental factors and personal decision making enter into the outworking of this, but they cannot evade the constraints of what goes on before birth” (Goldingay, 2008, p. 635).

Psalm 139 and Scientific Knowledge

Along the way in this treatment of Psalm 139:13-16, several questions have arisen that I draw together here for a condensed look at how the psalm might relate to scientific knowledge. What I am pressing for here is for devout Bible readers to think carefully about their posture toward scientific inquiry, discoveries, and claims. To be clear, I write what follows from a positive, welcoming view of science and what its modes of inquiry have taught us.

1. Origins. Psalm 139:13-16 addresses the origin of the psalmist from a theological point of view. The psalmist knew that he had a natural origin as well. Is there a necessary reason why learning more about the natural origin of babies would be a threat to the psalm’s claims about God? — Only if one takes a very closed, limited view of God. Is there a necessary reason why describing the origin of babies in natural terms should take away from believing that God still relates to that origin somehow?

2. Agency. Psalm 139:13-16 focuses on the agency of God. The psalmist knew that his mother and father were agents in his origin and development. Is there a necessary reason why devout Bible readers should feel threatened by descriptions of the world that stress the agency of nature instead of the agency of God? Is there a necessary reason to feel threatened by people detecting natural patterns and looking for natural explanations according to natural causes? Many Christians seem confused when science proceeds without invoking God’s name, but that is not the job of science.

3. Development. Psalm 139:13-16 uses metaphors that imply time, process, and materials. Is there any necessary reason why it is a threat to learn with greater precision about the amount of time, the specific processes, and the materials involved in the development of babies? We have in view here, for instance, such sciences as embryology and genetics. If Christians join the ranks of those who receive and benefit from knowing more about embryonic and fetal development, then are they being inconsistent when they reject scientific knowledge that they dislike, find inconvenient, or find disorienting for previously-held beliefs? The same types of scientific inquiry yield both kinds of results, the ones that people welcome and apply, and the ones they reject.


Are Christians being inconsistent when they reject scientific knowledge that they dislike?


There are certainly more questions we could ask, but these three should provide an adequate framework for developing the wisdom needed to think theologically in response to some kinds of scientific findings. I hope you are finding Psalm 139 as rich and fruitful for the science / faith relationship as I do. I think that many biblical authors, had they lived in our day, would have taken a healthier, more well-thought-out view of science than many Christians today who use the authors’ words to take unfruitful postures toward science. It is not that science gets a free pass, or that Christians should not pose any questions to science, but instead that Christians may need to read their Bibles more slowly and carefully when deciding how to posture themselves in relation to scientific knowledge.

I am pleased that a friend and neonatal nurse practitioner has written a guest blog for us for Part 3 of this series on Psalm 139. If you find this post helpful, please like it on Facebook and share it with others. Please do the same with the blog as a whole. Lastly, you can make comments on this, or any, post to express your thoughts.

References

Goldingay, J. (2008). Psalms 90-150. Psalms (Vol. 3). Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic.

Lamoureux, D. O. (2008). Evolutionary creation: A Christian approach to evolution. Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock.

Comments Welcome!