In my last post I highlighted C.S. Lewisâ€™s take on what it means to approach the Bible humbly: namely, we should first ask honestly and with an open mind,Â What sort of bookÂ has God actually given us andÂ howÂ has He given it? When we do that, we find that God has given us a Book not at all like what we might have expected if we had formulated a doctrine of ScriptureÂ a priori. Instead He has given us something else entirely, something far more extraordinary:
The same divine humility which decreed that God should become a baby at a peasant-womanâ€™s breast, and later an arrested field-preacher in the hands of the Roman police, decreed also that He should be preached in a vulgar, prosaic and unliterary language. If you can stomach the one, you can stomach the other. The Incarnation is in that sense an irreverent doctrine: Christianity, in that sense, an incurably irreverent religion. When we expect that it should have come before the World in all the beauty that we now feel in the Authorised Version we are as wide of the mark as the Jews were in expecting that the Messiah would come as a great earthly King. The real sanctity, the real beauty and sublimity of the New Testament (as of Christâ€™s life) are of a different sort: miles deeper orÂ further in.
So says Lewis in the Introduction to J.B. Phillipsâ€™sÂ Letters to Young Churches. Godâ€™s work in the inspiration of Scripture not only communicates but alsoÂ emulatesÂ Godâ€™s humble, self-effacing work in the Incarnation.
As Pete Enns puts it in his fantastic bookÂ Inspiration and Incarnation: Evangelicals and the Problem of the Old Testament, the Incarnation of the Son and the inspiration of Scripture are â€œanalogous.â€ Lewis clearly agrees. In his longest piece on Scripture, Chapter XI ofÂ Reflections on the PsalmsÂ he writes:
For we are taught that the Incarnation itself proceeded â€œnot by the conversion of the godhead into flesh, but by taking of (the) manhood into Godâ€; in it human life becomes the vehicle of Divine life. If the Scriptures proceed not by conversion of Godâ€™s word into literature but by taking up of a literature to be the vehicle of Godâ€™s word, this is not anomalous.
According to Lewis the means whereby God gives us Scripture is not by faxing us transcripts of inner-Trinitarian dialogue direct from Heaven, but rather by taking up very human literature and utilizing it to communicate His Divine life to us. As he says earlier in the chapter, â€œThe human qualities of the raw materials show through. NaÃ¯vety, error, contradiction, even (as in the cursing Psalms) wickedness are not removed.â€ Nevertheless, he says, â€œItÂ carriesÂ 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. . . .â€
In this way, for Lewis, the Word is also like the sacrament: Ordinary water, bread, and wine are taken up into, become conduits for and communicators of the Divine life that we so desperately need. So, too, here: all too ordinary human writings areÂ taken up into, become conduits for and communicators of the Divine Life and Word. Such a sacramental and incarnational understanding of Scripture impacts the way in which we receive the Word of God in it. Grammatico-historical or historical-critical acumen are not enough, and may not even be necessary. We must receive the Divine Word by approaching Scripture in a sacramental manner. We â€œreceive that word from it,â€ says Lewis, â€œnot by using it as an encyclopedia or an encyclical but by steeping ourselves in its tone or temper and so learning its overall message.â€ Or, to put it another way, if the WordÂ isÂ Sacrament, then, as Eugene Peterson puts it, perhaps our task is to recover the art of spiritual reading and (re)learn how toÂ eatÂ this Book; prayerfully consuming and being consumed by these (very) human words, for in them lives the very Word of God.
About the author:
David Williams serves part-time as an InterVarsity/Link staff on loan to the Oxford Pastorate, an independent evangelical chaplaincy that ministers to graduate students at the University of Oxford. He is currently pursuing his doctorate in Christian Ethics at the University of Oxford, writing on Friedrich Schleiermacherâ€™s, John Henry Newmanâ€™s, and Abraham Kuyperâ€™s divergent theologies of higher education and their potential applications to the modern research university. Before moving to England, David served for five years with InterVarsityâ€™s Graduate & Faculty ministries at New York University. David resides in Oxford, England with his wife Alissa and son Charlie.