Tag Archives: Interpretation

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.

Inspiration and Interpretation 2

Continued from “Inspiration and Interpretation 1.”


The biblical writings leave open all kinds of possibilities for thinking about the ways in which God may have related to their authorship. In the Bible / science relationship, it is crucial that Bible readers be aware of their view of inspiration, and how their view influences the outcomes of the Bible / science relationship. If a particular view of inspiration renders impossible a harmonious relationship with the best science, then the person’s view of inspiration may need to be questioned. To ask serious, self-reflective questions about oneself is not an admission of defeat, but a courageous act of humility and a meaningful expansion of faith and truth.


To ask serious, self-reflective questions about oneself is not an admission of defeat, but a courageous act of humility and a meaningful expansion of faith and truth.


Interpretation. “Interpretation” refers to the way in which people make sense of and respond to experiences, such as the literature they read or the actions of others. “Interpretation” also calls to mind the communication that takes place between people who speak different languages. In fact, in this scenario, word-for-word translation will accomplish very little. Individual words and entire phrases have to be interpreted into their nearest and most faithful equivalents in other languages. To communicate effectively across languages, interpretation must take place. As anyone who has done any translating knows, translation is interpretation.

Perhaps it often goes unnoticed that, by reading the Bible in English translation (regardless of version), Bible readers are reading someone else’s interpretation of the Bible before they do their own thinking about what they read.

Now, for this post, and for my blog more generally, “interpretation” refers to the way in which people read the Bible in relation to scientific discoveries, questions, and claims. It turns out that foreign-language interpretation is an apt analogy here, for natural science and biblical nature passages are speaking different languages and need interpreting for good communication to take place between them. They refer to the same world, but often in different ways, with different words, and for different reasons and goals.

Everyone who reads the Bible interprets the Bible. In the Bible / science relationship, it is not uncommon for some Christians to claim that they “just read” the Bible, that they do not interpret it. Now, this claim tells us something important about the people who make it. It may reveal the hope that when a person reads the Bible, it has something to say to him or her, and that he or she can make sense of that message. I find this hope understandable and respectable.


Everyone who reads the Bible interprets the Bible.


Without diminishing this legitimate hope, the claim that a person can “just read” the Bible without interpreting it is false. A person who makes any attempt to understand what the Bible was trying to say and do in its original context is interpreting: drawing on all available resources to comprehend the message. Likewise, a person who makes any attempt to apply the Bible to his or her life today is interpreting: once again, drawing on all available resources to make a good and faithful use of a biblical passage. And, any attempt to put the Bible into conversation with, or response to, modern scientific claims and discoveries is an act of interpretation.


Any attempt to put the Bible into conversation with, or response to, modern scientific claims and discoveries is an act of interpretation.


In the Bible / science relationship, then, the question is not, Will you interpret the Bible?, but, Will you interpret the Bible well?

Expectations. Part of good interpretation of the Bible is coming to terms with one’s expectations of the Bible. In the Bible / science relationship, Bible readers may have expectations of biblical nature passages that differ from the intent of those passages. For instance, if natural science prompts Bible readers to take another look at Genesis 1, they do well to ask whether they are expecting Genesis 1 to say and do things it was not intended to say and do.

I once watched a well-known young-Earth creationist leader respond against evolution with the statement, “It’s about the authority of the Word of God.” Careful analysis of this man, his organization, and his interpretation of the Bible reveals more to the story. It would be more accurate to say, “It’s about the authority of my way of reading the Word of God.” He insists that other ways of reading biblical passages cannot be right. He requires that the Bible meet his expectations. It may well be, then, that his concern with the authority of the Word of God is really a concern with his own authority as an interpreter of the Word of God.

In dealing with expectations of the Bible, the Bible itself contains an instructive passage. In Isaiah 55:10-11, the prophet indicates that God’s word will accomplish God’s purpose.


For as the rain and the snow come down from heaven, and do not return there until they have watered the earth, making it bring forth and sprout, giving seed to the sower and bread to the eater, so shall my word be that goes out from my mouth; it shall not return to me empty, but it shall accomplish that which I purpose, and succeed in the thing for which I sent it.

Isaiah 55:10-11 NRSV


I take it to be included and implied in this message that, even if God’s word did not accomplish the expectations of the people who heard it, it would accomplish God’s purpose. By extension, in the Bible / science relationship, if a biblical passage does not meet someone’s expectations of it, it will still accomplish God’s purpose for it. God’s word will survive and outlive our unmet expectations.

History of Interpretation. The “just read the Bible” mindset runs up against another serious obstacle: history. For centuries, Jews and Christians alike have acknowledged that they were interpreting the Bible, and have left considerable evidence behind of how they went about interpreting the Bible. There are histories of interpretation available for those who wish to learn more. Two examples are given here, and are very readable and beneficial.

  • Michael A. Singer, “How the Bible Has Been Interpreted in Jewish Tradition,” in The New Interpreter’s Bible, vol. 1 (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1994).
  • Justo L. Gonzalez, “How the Bible Has Been Interpreted in Christian Tradition,” in The New Interpreter’s Bible, vol. 1 (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1994).

What is more, the Bible itself contains openly acknowledged interpretations of other biblical writings. For example, in Galatians 4, Paul engages in an allegorical interpretation of Genesis (!), and specifically the Genesis stories of Sarah and Hagar. To understand what is happening, I encourage readers to read the stories of Sarah and Hagar in Genesis first, next to read Paul’s allegory of them in Galatians 4 , and then to notice how different Paul’s allegory is from the stories as they actually occur in Genesis.

In short, the Bible contains interpretations of the Bible, Jews have always interpreted their Bible (Hebrew Bible =  Old Testament), and Christians have always interpreted their Bible. Not only does everyone interpret the Bible; everyone always has interpreted the Bible. To interpret the Bible consciously and intentionally is to do the very thing that those devoted to the Bible have always done. It is an act of faith. It is an act of devotion.


To interpret the Bible consciously and intentionally is to do the very thing that those devoted to the Bible have always done. It is an act of faith. It is an act of devotion.


Changing One’s Reading. Finally, then, a word about changing one’s reading of the Bible in response to science. Bible readers have always needed to ask how best to read a biblical passage. Science is not forcing Bible readers to do something they have never done before. Bible readers may modify their reading of any passage for any number of reasons. As a rule, learning more about a passage or about one’s world or oneself may change one’s reading of the Bible. Science is one of many things that may teach people better ways of interpreting the Bible. In this, science is a gift.

Contrary to how some people are treated, changing one’s reading of the Bible in response to science is not an act of cowardice, of giving up on the Bible, of losing faith. It is an act of courage, of keeping the Bible, of continuing to believe that it has more to say, that it has more to teach. It is a tragedy when a change of interpretation is treated as a weak faith or an act of heresy. It is a tragedy when inspiration and interpretation are confused, when people think that reading a passage differently is the same thing as denying that God has anything to do with the passage. In the science / faith relationship, no one wins when inspiration and interpretation are confused, misunderstood, and acted poorly upon.


In the science / faith relationship, no one wins when inspiration and interpretation are confused, misunderstood, and acted poorly upon.

Inspiration and Interpretation 1

For many people in my context, the science / faith relationship directly touches people’s views of the Bible. In particular, scientific questions and discoveries push people to clarify how they read the Bible (interpretation), and how they think God relates to the Bible (inspiration). This outcome is to be expected, since both the Bible and science — natural science especially — refer to the same world, and to some of the same features of the world.

As people work through the Bible / science relationship, however, it is not infrequently that a confusion arises: many people of Christian faith confuse inspiration and interpretation. In short, many of them think that the inspiration of biblical passages is the same thing as their current way of reading and applying those passages. As a consequence, they might resist different ways of reading the Bible as threats to, or denials of, inspiration.

Inspiration. When reading the Bible and various biblical-theological works, “inspiration” can refer to the wide variety of ways in which God is believed to relate to the biblical writings. For instance, the word “inspiration” might refer to God’s relationship to the writing of a particular passage. It might also refer to the belief that God continues to use these writings from the past to convey messages and meanings in the present. I include both of these angles in my use of the word “inspiration” here.

In general, as you read through the Bible, you will notice two features relevant for how you imagine God inspiring various passages. (1) The Bible is not one writing, but a collection of writings with varying literary genres: e.g., narratives, genealogies, hymn-poems, laws, wisdom-poems, prophetic oracles, and more. However you think about God inspiring the biblical writings, this variety of genres needs to be accounted for. God’s inspiration of one genre may not work the same way as his inspiration of another genre. This is especially so when you consider the second feature.


God’s inspiration of one genre may not work the same way as his inspiration of another genre.


(2) While some biblical writings make claims for God’s relationship to their origin, many of them make no such claims. So, for instance, you will read passages in which God speaks to Moses and Moses speaks to Israel and/or writes down for Israel what he has heard (Exodus 24:3-4). You will read passages that report God speaking to a king (1 Kings 11:9-13) or a prophet (Jeremiah 1:4ff.). These passages present one form that inspiration may have taken.

Numerous biblical passages make no claims that God told an author which words to speak or write. As an exercise in noticing this feature, when you read various narratives, psalms, and proverbs, to name a few examples, you will see how often the narrative is just simply told, or the psalm presented, or the proverb given, without any reference to how God related specifically to the author’s own thoughts and actions. Is this to deny God’s action or influence in relation to what has been written? No. It is to engage thoughtfully with the passages as they present themselves to the reader.

In my experience, many believers obligate themselves to singular views of inspiration, imagining that God inspired different biblical passages in much the same way each time. The biblical writings themselves resist this view: not only because most of them do not specify God’s inspiring activity, but also because the biblical writings portray God acting in the world in so many ways, using so many means and agents, that it becomes hard to appreciate why Christians would think that God would resort to one way only of inspiring numerous writings composed of numerous differing genres. Is this a case of simplifying one’s view of God to make God — and belief in God — more manageable?


It becomes hard to appreciate why Christians would think that God would resort to one way only of inspiring numerous writings composed of numerous differing genres.


Even New Testament passages that address the inspiration of Scripture (2 Timothy 3:16; 2 Peter 1:20-21) do not require a singular view of God’s inspiring activity. So, when Paul describes Scripture as “inspired by God” or “God-breathed,” he does not specify how God inspired or breathed into the various messages contained in Scripture. Similarly, when 2 Peter 1:21 (in referring just to prophecy, mind you) describes the prophets as “moved” (NRSV) or “carried along” (ESV) by the Holy Spirit, how they are moved or carried along is neither specified, nor limited to one form of activity on God’s part.

When Christians respond to scientific discoveries, questions, and claims, then, they have options available to them for thinking about the inspiration of the Bible in relation to science. Moreover, if Christians witness other Christians relating the Bible to science differently than they do, they should not conclude that those other Christians are denying the inspiration of the Bible. For one, this is a logical error: reading something differently is not the same thing as denying God’s role in its origin and ongoing use.


If Christians witness other Christians relating the Bible to science differently than they do, they should not conclude that those other Christians are denying the inspiration of the Bible.


For two, this response is hasty, immature, poorly thought out, and potentially manipulative: the Christian who thinks this way may be drawing “heresy lines,” making decisions about which Christians are on God’s side, and which ones are compromising. Not that Christians should never concern themselves with defining God’s side. But it is awfully convenient when Christians who classify other Christians in these ways always wind up on the right side, while people who read the Bible differently wind up on the opposing side, effectively amid God’s enemies. Convenient indeed. And self-serving. It makes one wonder what these response are really about. Are they really about truth as such, or about self-validation?

Commitment to the inspiration of the Bible should include a commitment to a God whose inspiring work is inexhaustibly creative and resourceful. A small view of inspiration may reflect a small view of God. And if, in response to science, Bible readers never let a text say something that they do not like, it may not be a commitment to inspiration that drives them, but a commitment to keeping God and the Bible in place so as not to disrupt, disorient, and inconvenience their beliefs. Could it be, though, that science is one of God’s gifts to do these very things to us, so that our views of him do not sit still and stagnate into idols that do not demand anything new of us?


Continued in “Inspiration and Interpretation 2.”