Calvinism in Psalm 51?

by Matthew W. Bassford

During my time as a preacher, I studied with people from a wide variety of religious backgrounds. Of them all, the people who knew their Bibles best were unquestionably the conservative Calvinists. They approached the Scriptures with a different perspective than ours, but the most devoted of them spend as much time in the book as we do. If we are honest in our own studies, there are Calvinist positions that will leave us wondering if they are right.

For me, one such text was Psalm 51:5. Even in the translation of my youth, the NASB95, the verse is challenging. It reads, “Behold, I was brought forth in iniquity, And in sin my mother conceived me.” Sure, you can quibble (and I did) about whether it is the sin of David or his mother that he is discussing. However, contextually it doesn't make much sense for David to drag Mom into the mess that he has made with Bathsheba.

These days, I favor the CSB, and in that translation, the verse is even more problematic. The CSB renders it as “Indeed, I was guilty when I was born; I was sinful when my mother conceived me.” If I were a Calvinist, I would happily plant my flag on that one!

What do we do with it, though? Does it prove that the Calvinists are right? If we can't accept that (and I think there are strong reasons not to), are we forced to rely on an uncertain argument based on a dueling translation?

Instead, I think we are much better off reading the verse with an awareness of the genre in which David is writing. The Psalms are not straightforward doctrinal arguments like Romans. Instead, they are poetry. Like all poetry, they sometimes make statements that are emotionally resonant but not literally true.

Consider, for instance, Psalm 71:6, in which the psalmist says that he has leaned on God from birth. He is not attempting to persuade us that as a newborn baby, he was a faithful, God-believing baby who trusted God while he was still in diapers. Rather, he wants us to understand that his devotion to God has been lifelong.

Much the same thing is going on in Psalm 51. The entire song expresses David's deep shame and remorse about his sin. However, he does not limit himself to precise statements of fact to make his point.

Just a verse earlier, David claims that he has only sinned against God. Again, this is not literally true. If David did not sin against Uriah, no one has ever sinned against anyone! However, David recognizes that the damage he has done to his relationship with God is so great that even his betrayal and murder of his loyal servant pale into insignificance.

Verse 5 uses a similar rhetorical strategy. This time, David is attempting to convey the scope and significance of his sin. He can't excuse himself by pointing to the faithfulness of the rest of his life. Instead, his sin has corrupted everything else, to the point that even when he considers his conception, he sees nothing but sin there. This is an expression of self-loathing, not his take on a theological debate that wouldn't even begin for many centuries.

Though some in the denominational world may impress us as good Bible students, we must be better Bible students. We shouldn't be overawed by the proof texts of others any more than we should strive to overawe others with our own proof texts. Whether in the Psalms or anywhere else, the truth comes from seeking to understand, not from seeking to reaffirm what we already know.

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