Reflections On The Psalms

“Psalm 19: I take this to be the greatest poem in the Psalter and one of the greatest lyrics in the world" – C. S. Lewis

Reflections on the Psalms was published in 1958. Lewis writes about the difficulties he has met or the joys he has gained in reading the Psalms. He points out that the Psalms are poems, intended to be sung, not doctrinal treatises or sermons. Proceeding with his characteristic grace, he guides readers through both the form and the meaning of these beloved passages in the Bible.

An excellent blog on the books of C.S. Lewis recently had a posting by Christopher Assenza in which he wrote in part:

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 experienced the same difficulties. Although not everyone will agree with his approach, 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. 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.

Lewis's assertion that the Old Testament sometimes displays “[n]a├»vety, 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. 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.

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.

The Psalms - Mere poetry or human authors divinly inspired ?

Posted March 22, 2010