So as I mentioned, I’ve been reading through the Psalms recently, and it’s been very interesting. But one niggle I’ve had is that I don’t quite know how to read the Psalms - it’s in the Bible as the songbook and praise book of the people of God. But how much of it is humans praising God, and how much of it is God telling us how to praise?
Some people see everything in the Bible as written by God, and that has the advantage of being a very easy to understand viewpoint. It does, however, lack a certain degree of nuance. (1 Co 7:12 would require really interesting hermeneutical gymnastics to see as “written by God”, 1 Co 7:25 certainly requires some nuance, and that’s before we even consider in what regard Job 1:9-11 is “the Word of God”.)
Some people see everything in there as literally true and infallible, which is a relatively new doctrine with a few obvious problems. (Six day creation, talking snakes, and so on.)
And these people would, presumably, believe that the Psalms contain good theology from start to finish. But the Psalms also record the cries for help, shouts of frustration, annoyance and anger of God’s people. Our worship songs these days are not good theology, most of the time. Our prayers are not necessarily good theology all of the time. But I guess the view would be that somehow, despite the range of emotions displayed, the Spirit of God directed David and friends such that they only wrote down correct theology. Even when angry and frustrated and in danger for his very life, his pen was kept from writing anything incorrect.
If this view of Biblical inerracy is true, and that the Bible shows us how to live, to believe and behave, then the Bible officially sanctions me to:
- Wish for death and destruction of my enemies (3:7, 6:10, and, let’s face it, practically everywhere)
- Claim that God hates not just the sin but also the sinner (5:5-6, 11:5)
- Claim to be without sin (7:8, 17:3-5, 18:21-23)
- Claim to be righteous (18:24)
- Believe that death is the end (6:5)
- Believe that there are no longer any true followers of God (12:1)
And that’s just in the first 20 Psalms. There are another 130 to go.
Now I am parodying slightly what Koyama calls straight-line application. I know that the Psalms are poetry, not doctrine. I think they’re great poetry but atrocious doctrine, but that’s only a problem if you see everything as doctrine. And that would be silly, wouldn’t it?
But there is a serious point here. I think that while an unnuanced hermeneutic of inerrant verbal inspiration is very simple to explain and to teach, it does have one or two few inconvenient consequences. I personally don’t believe any of those points above, even though they’re right there in the words of the Bible. So I can’t hold to a theology that says that the Bible is the inspired and infallible word of God and the supreme authority on all matters of belief and behaviour. (I realise this disqualifies me from speaking at UK university CU meetings, which is going to make things rather interesting, as that’s… well, what my job is this year.)
Perhaps there is another way; these Psalms don’t need to be the Word of God, they could just be words to God. Real, human words, touched by the Holy Spirit but also full of emotion, passion, seething hatred, and sheer human fallibility. That doesn’t make them anything “less”. Good poetry is equally as important as good theology; perhaps even more so. But it does means that we would then have to read them with discretion and judgement like thinking human beings, and it’s harder to do and harder to explain, but I don’t believe that’s too much of a price to pay for getting interpretations that, you know, actually make sense with the rest of the tenor of Scripture.
What do you think? The Psalms - are they inspired theology, or inspirational poetry?