In this series of essays, I have argued that Scripture presents God’s truth to us, not merely in didactic propositions, but also (in fact, mostly!) through various aesthetic forms. Therefore, when we attempt to translate the truth of Scripture into contemporary forms of communication, we must be certain that the meaning of the original text is accurately rendered in the new translation, and meaning is found in words, grammar, syntax, history, culture, and aesthetics. I’ve argued that this is a natural extension from the doctrine of verbal-plenary inspiration.
Belief in verbal-plenary inspiration does not imply, however, that when we express God’s truth, we may only do so in the exact words (or even forms) in which that truth was originally expressed. We may put God’s truth “in our own words” as we teach, preach, catechize, and formulate doctrinal confessions. Nevertheless, even these extra-biblical expressions of biblical truth must accurately correspond to Scripture. This is not quite the same as translating Scripture into new languages, but the principle is very similar. What we say about God and his truth in our own words must mean something consistent with what the Bible means, and this implies more than mere factual correspondence; it must also include aesthetic correspondence.
This is true for creeds and confessions, and this is certainly true of Christian songs that are meant to express God’s truth and/or responses of worship toward God. Belief in verbal-plenary inspiration does not mean that we may only sing the exact words of Scripture—otherwise, we should be singing only in Hebrew and Greek. Nor does belief in this doctrine mean that we may only sing exact translations of Scripture. We may—indeed, we must—compose song texts that put God’s truth “in our own words,” but these new expressions must accurately correspond to Scripture.
This is fairly straightforward with regard to what the Bible says. Any theologically conservative Christian will insist that the texts of Christian songs accurately correspond to the truth of Scripture. However, I am extending this further to the way the Bible expresses truth. We may—and should—express God’s truth in new ways, but the aesthetic way we choose to newly express biblical truth should accurately correspond to the aesthetic way God chose to express truth in his Word.
I am not arguing what the one reviewer’s caricature of my statement in By the Waters of Babylon suggested, that we must take a “formal equivalence” approach to transmitting the aesthetic forms of Scripture into modern worship forms. I am not arguing, for example, that since the psalms employ poetic parallelism and that they don’t use meter or rhyme, then our songs should use parallelism and not meter or rhyme.
Rather, what I am arguing is that if we affirm verbal-plenary inspiration, then the meaning of the aesthetic forms we employ in our contemporary worship must accurately correspond to the meaning Scripture’s aesthetic forms had in their original context.
I’ll explore this assertion a bit more next week.