July 22, 2016
In the great contemporary struggle to find alternatives to wooden, sclerotic literalism some Christians have landed on the view that the Bible’s authority lies in its message of salvation. The implication, sometimes expressed, is that the Bible is not an authority on other matters, especially on scientific matters.
As John Wesley wrote, “I want to know one thing,—the way to heaven; how to land safe on that happy shore. God himself has condescended to teach me the way. For this very end He came from heaven. He hath written it down in a book. O give me that book!”
The view that the Bible is about salvation is a vast improvement over the absurd claim that the Bible is an authoritative source of knowledge on every topic.
At the same time, does this view help us as we wrestle with the biblical texts involving the natural world? Much, of course, depends on how we define salvation, but the quotation from Wesley is telling: the concern is to get to heaven. But if the Bible’s purpose is to guide us to heaven, what are we to make of Psalm 65, which is a prayer of thanksgiving to God for a good harvest? Or Psalm 104, which praises God’s wisdom displayed in the world? Or Psalm 148, which calls upon everything–stars, fire and hail, mountains, trees, and animals–to offer praise to God? If the Bible’s main purpose is to guide us to heaven, then it seems that it contains an abundance of extraneous material.
But this extra material makes more sense if we think of salvation, not as getting to heaven, but instead as worship, as doxology.
To be human (as the Bible wants to portray it) is to be flesh that is summoned to dwell in the presence of God. We are obviously beings of flesh–that which is inherently weak. We are beings of nature, taking our place alongside other animals. Much of our behavior is motivated by exactly the impulses that drive animals: food, drink, sex, territory, status, fear, anger, jealousy.
At the same time, we are flesh that has been called to be people of God. God has addressed us and summoned us to a distinctive task in the world. That task is worship. Of course, each kind of being in its own way offers worship to God–hence Psalm 148, and also Psalm 19, with its assertion that the sky proclaims God’s glory. But humans have a distinctive task, commensurate with the power of speech. The rest of the world praises God by simply being what it is. Its existence alone constitutes praise. Humans, however, are called upon to articulate praise verbally and in an act of decision. We are beings with speech; we praise with words. We are beings of decision; we may choose to respond to God’s call to offer praise, but we may choose not to do so. That is why Psalm 104 ends by denouncing wicked sinners. Unlike the rest of creation, sinners refuse to praise God. They thus stand out.
I am suggesting that one function of the Bible’s passages about the natural world is to draw us into praise–to remind us that we are members of a world whose other members praise God. We are parts of a choir, parts that need to be reminded to sing our part.
These passages about nature are accordingly not informative. It is fruitless and insulting to try to squeeze scientific information from them, like juice from an orange, in the manner of Fundamentalists.
But it is also misleading to try to force them into an interpretation that sees the Bible as showing us the path of salvation, at least if salvation is about landing in heaven. Still, this view has merit, if we rethink salvation.
What if our salvation lies in our worship? What if worship is our highest good, that to which we are called? What if human salvation lies in being what we are called to be–beings who with the rest of creation worship God? In that case, the Bible’s texts on nature do indeed provide us with a message that is strictly about salvation.