I continue to plod my way through Kenton Sparks’, God’s Word in Human Words: An Evangelical Appropriation of Critical Biblical Scholarship. Though, by no means do I agree with every statement and nuance put forth by Sparks, I am very much appreciating his overall approach in thoughtfully helping Christians consider the way God has communicated his inspired, God-breathed revelation and truth in Scripture through its actual human authors.
If it weren’t for it’s 400-page length, I would probably recommend the book to many people. But I could start by introducing Pete Enn’s book, Inspiration and Incarnation.
One important word of discussion in understanding how God ‘breathed out’ Scripture as he utilised the human writers is the word accommodation. This word is all about how God decide to adapt himself, come down to the writer’s level in communicating his revelatory truth.
You see, Scripture is a team project. Both from God and from humanity. One really cannot deny such. And I don’t see Christians ever denying such.
But what evangelicals tend to do, though we state that we do not believe such happened between God and the biblical authors (i.e. in the Chicago Statement of Biblical Inerrancy, Article VIII), is that we allow for God to override the fallenness of the writer. Because Scripture is God’s word, he must ensure that no imprint of our fallen and finite nature must be on the pages of Scripture, lest error be found on the pages of God’s word.
Yet, to do so, at least as I understand it, would be to cut away at that ever-important team project between God and humanity as given to us in Scripture. The Bible is not more divine than human, nor vice versa. It is both. But we must recognise that Scripture comes to us under the auspice of an ancient near eastern cultural framework. Well, the Old Testament did, with the New Testament coming through the pen of some first century Jews and Gentiles. To have such an imprint is not bad, as if we are better equipped nowadays to write Scripture. Such is simply reality.
And so, we must recognise that, in revealing the truth written in Scripture, God would have chosen to use their framework. Not ours. Not God’s. Theirs. He accommodated to their level of cosmology, history, stories, biology, math, etc.
So, if you haven’t noticed, there is a big discussion going on in Genesis 1. Is it six literal 24-hour periods? Is it long ages? Is it not really speaking to the question of ‘how long’? Etc al.
I don’t claim to have all the answers, but what I can suggest is that it is pretty clear that the author of Genesis 1 held a very geocentric view, one which believed that the earth was the centre of the universe. This is quite the opposite from a heliocentric view, noting that the sun is at the centre of the universe.
So when you read Genesis 1, and I have read it quite a bit recently in preparing some teachings on the book of Genesis, it jumps out of the page that the writer is very geocentric. It’s words are centred in the creation of the earth. And I think we could reasonably expect such geocentrism without modern day tools and technology in studying cosmology.
Some suggest this is a simplified version of ancient near eastern cosmology:
Again, please know that I am NOT saying we are better than the ancients. We are merely different. But I expect that they held to a more geocentric view, believing the earth is at the centre of the universe, the sun moves, etc.
In the end, I know that, to speak of the sun rising and setting is merely phenomenological language for us, meaning we explain things the way we see them. But I think it very reasonable that the ancients explained things the way they did because they actually thought such was true about the earth (‘four corners’) and the sun (it ‘moved’).
And so, as with Gen 1, God comes in and accommodates his very real revelation and truth into the framework of the ancients. Of course, I suppose he would do the same today if Scripture had been written in an early 21st century world. That’s just how God works, and it is very good he works that way, so we can get our mind around what he is revealing.
Thus, Sparks makes a very challenging, maybe awkward, statement for evangelicals to swallow:
The doctrine of accommodation as presented here, and as often understood by interpreters through church history [as he had looked at some earlier in his work], does not introduce human error into Scripture. Rather, accommodation is the explanation for the errors that are already in the text…Accommodation tells us that any errant views in Scripture stem, not from the character of our perfect God, but from his adoption in revelation of the finite and fallen perspectives of his human audience. (p255)
It almost sounds blasphemous. But I think he has a point within the context of his whole thesis.
There is this tendency in western, American evangelicalism to want a kind of black and white, clear-cut, empirical Cartesian explanation for everything. Meaning something is either right or wrong, true or false, inerrant or errant, etc. So, what is it? Scripture is inerrant or errant? But I believe this is approaching the issue way to definitively and stringent. This team project in Scripture is a lot more organic, just like your union with your spouse is much more organic than empirical propositions.
Of course, what we argue is this: God never errs, Scripture is God’s Word, thus Scripture cannot err. And, if it does err, it puts a black mark on God and the nature of Scripture.
But no one is arguing for God’s error. No one is arguing for God’s fallenness. Only that humanity is fallen and does err, at least in this intermediate period between Eden and the age to come. And so, if God really did take up a team project, to say that God would have ensured that no error ever crept into Scripture is, I believe, accepting what we say we do not accept – that God overrode the personalities and character of the biblical authors.
How else does a fallen and finite humanity keep clear of such?
Now, some will argue that to err is not essential to being human, since our first parents did not err.
And I like that in the sense of sinless perfection. God has a goal for perfection, Christlikeness glorified in his people.
But there is the reality of being finite. Adam was finite, even before sin. Adam lacked knowledge, even before sin.
So, to lack knowledge (or to not be God), is the reality of all of humanity. Our being remade in the image of Christ does not mean we have to know everything. We will be like him when we see him (1 John 3:2), but this might not mean that we will know everything as God knows everything. This transformation is about purifying perfection. Still, even if we do know everything in the age to come, we cannot participate in such now.
And so, if error lies there in what ever form, it does not have to be seen as falsely deceptive. But rather our perfect God delighting in the scandal of revealing himself through broken, fallen, finite humanity. What other religion has done this? What other God has claimed such? And, even more, what other God says I am going to ultimately reveal Truth in a Person, one who took on sinful flesh (though did not sin) and was limited to the frailty and finiteness of humanity.
So Scripture maintains its character – both God-breathed (2 Tim 3:16-17) and authority. But not because God overrode the writers in a dictatorial manner. But because God breathed this out, a breath that still remains upon it as when it was first given thousands of years before. God formed a co-labouring project with the crown of his creation, though they had been marred by sin. Our God accommodated to the perspective of the ancients in helping shape this text that is unlike any other. And it ultimately points us to our God who is unlike any other.
You study the Scriptures diligently because you think that in them you have eternal life. These are the very Scriptures that testify about me. (John 5:39)