In my last post I highlighted C.S. Lewis’s take on what it means to approach the Bible humbly: namely, we should first ask honestly and with an open mind, What sort of book has God actually given us and how 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 Scripture 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-woman’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 Christ’s life) are of a different sort: miles deeper or further in.
So says Lewis in the Introduction to J.B. Phillips’s Letters to Young Churches. God’s work in the inspiration of Scripture not only communicates but also emulates God’s humble, self-effacing work in the Incarnation.
As Pete Enns puts it in his fantastic book Inspiration and Incarnation: Evangelicals and the Problem of the Old Testament, the Incarnation of the Son and the inspiration of Scripture are “analogous.” Lewis clearly agrees. In his longest piece on Scripture, Chapter XI of Reflections on the Psalms he writes:
For we are taught that the Incarnation itself proceeded “not by the conversion of the godhead into flesh, but by taking of (the) manhood into God”; in it human life becomes the vehicle of Divine life. If the Scriptures proceed not by conversion of God’s word into literature but by taking up of a literature to be the vehicle of God’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, “The human qualities of the raw materials show through. Naïvety, error, contradiction, even (as in the cursing Psalms) wickedness are not removed.” Nevertheless, he says, “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. . . .”
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 are 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 “receive that word from it,” says Lewis, “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.” Or, to put it another way, if the Word is Sacrament, then, as Eugene Peterson puts it, perhaps our task is to recover the art of spiritual reading and (re)learn how to eat this Book; prayerfully consuming and being consumed by these (very) human words, for in them lives the very Word of God.
David is a campus staff for InterVarsity’s Graduate & Faculty Ministries at New York University, where he serves as a university chaplain, and as a pastor and advisor for the school’s medical, dental and law student fellowships. A native of Raleigh, North Carolina, David joined InterVarsity in 2011 and spent his first two years on staff serving the Graduate & Faculty Ministries at NC State University, Meredith College and Campbell Law School. David holds masters’ degrees in biblical studies and theology from Westminster Theological Seminary and Duke Divinity School, and is a devoted lifelong learner. David is passionate about helping non-Christians to meet Jesus and about helping Christians — both Christian scholars and laypeople — to love the Lord their God with all their hearts, souls, minds and strength. David and his lovely wife, Alissa, live in New York City. You can follow David’s ministry at his blog, 10000places.com and you can support his pastoral and writing ministries here.