Psalm 51:5 Does God Create “In Utero Sinners”?

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“Indeed, I was born guilty, a sinner when my mother conceived me.” – NRSV

“Surely I was sinful at birth, sinful from the time my mother conceived me.” – NIV

“Behold, I was brought forth in iniquity, and in sin my mother conceived me.” – NASB, ESV, RSV

What is going on here? The first sounds like Calvinism and the second sounds like it was sexual intercourse that was considered impure.

First, the context. The heading of the psalm tells us this is what David wrote after Nathan rebuked him for his sin with Bathsheba.

Second, the genre – This is poetry and poetry does not always speak literally.

Third, the tone – this is penance rather than doctrine…an expression of an inner turmoil and frustration rather than anthropology (teaching us something about what it means to be human) and ontology (teaching us something about the nature of our existence).

Fourth, context – verse 6 tells us that God is desiring something of us that is incompatible with a literal interpretation of verse 5, while also reminding us that this is both poetic and hyperbolic, “Yet you desired faithfulness even in the womb; you taught me wisdom in the secret place.” God does not create “In Utero sinners”

So David has been shamed. His sin has been exposed. He has had to come to grips with the seriousness of his transgression and the repercussions¬† that will follow (including the death of the child Bathsheba is pregnant with). David poetically pours out his heart. In his “dark night of the soul” experience he bemoans the depth and pervasiveness of the sin in his life. Jack Lewis gives a good example of a parallel statement of hyperbole in explaining this verse, “I have never been any good!” (Exegesis of difficult Bible Passages, 41). That is a perfectly understandable statement. That isn’t doctrine. It isn’t intended to be doctrine or theological anthropology. It is a statement of feeling about one’s self that is overwhelming, so overwhelming that the most accurate way to describe the feeling is hyperbole (exaggeration).

This is not a passage that promotes original sin. It is not a passage that teaches us that sex and conception are sinful. Both of those fail to take into account the three pieces of the puzzle that snap together to give us a clear picture of what is being communicated in this verse.

10 Responses

  1. Very good article. I am bothered when the poetry of Psalms are sought out as commands and law and exact truths in order to prove a point. Psalms is poetic in nature and thus uses poetic language. Are three truths there, yes, but they are general truths surrounded by decorative language. This is also true of Proverbs. They are words of general wisdom, many times hyperbolic in expression, but not commandments.
    This becomes problematic when we want to press one thing as a command or truth to prove a point (vs.5), but don’t read further on and press other things (vs.6), because they are not compatible with our point.

  2. I find it interesting, and rather sad, that a number of people in the Church of Christ are turning to Calvinism; and the irony of it is, many of these call themselves progressives. I believe the reason being, after generations of theological fighting with their religious neighbors they have become tired and have pretty much surrendered to the closest theological opponent. Again, the wrong fork in the road.

    1. We in the CofC uniformly taught the absolute certainty of our beliefs. As that has diminished some due to cultural influence and a touch of it correct some still want to find a way to reclaim that level of certainty and security so the go reformed or just mix in reformed with the restoration theology. The think about Calvinism is it has a gloss of security but really it doesn’t because maybe regardless of how secure you want to be you just weren’t elect. Tough luck.

  3. I too haven’t seen any Calvinism in the coC, but rather I have seen a reaction to it that argues that no man isn’t born sinful, they just pick it up form their neighbor or from their parents like a disease. I other words their human nature to sin is because they learned it and it is not from their inward lust of the eyes, lust of the flesh and pride of life. It is a pendulum swing, which doesn’t address our fleshly inclination to sin. Due to this thinking we, I think don’t, realize the depth that God must pull us from. We are saved largely from ourselves.

    1. It is more amount young adults who are studying and trying to reconcile certain verses. It used to be the voices people in the CofC were exposed to was quite insulated. Now people have access to all sorts of resources in their study that get them exposed to a variety of ideas.

    2. On one hand, that is a good thing because it forces a rethink of a lot of policies that were issued based on proof texts and developed by one man with little input from others.

    3. It is a good thing to study outside of the coC box, because even those things within the box are not good Christian concepts and leads to things like Calvinism. Take our push for Psalms as law when it comes to things like drunkenness, which was never condemned through the law, but was socially condemned, then we move to scriptures like Psalms 51:5 and expect it not to be taken as law or truth. We often plant the unknowing seeds for our own troubles. Psalms and Proverbs is a great teaching tool, but was not considered law or truth by the Jews, but poetical insight into truths.

  4. as one of those “young CofCers”, I just want to thank you for sorting out this topic that “those in the religious world” have debated for centuries. God is lucky to have you on his side.

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