God’s Word in Human Words (Part 1)

Kenton Sparks serves as professor of Biblical Studies at Eastern University, which is located on the northwest side of Philadelphia. His 2008 release through Baker Academic, God’s Word in Human Words, stands as a beneficial work for evangelicals who hold to the inspired and authoritative nature of Scripture who are also looking to engage within the realm of biblical and historical criticism.

The book is not unlike Peter Enns’ Inspiration and Incarnation (of which I review in part 1 and part 2). But, as one acquaintance said: Sparks’ book is like Enns’ on steroids. And that it is. Whereas Enns’ work is 208 pages, Sparks’ treatment of a very similar topic weighs in at just over 400 pages.

I specifically wanted to review this book in 3 parts, mainly for a couple different reasons:

  1. The book is longer and has much to offer, and so this will keep my own word-count down with regards to each of the two posts.
  2. The book addresses something that I believe is very important for evangelicals to understand. First, how we understand knowledge and, secondly, dealing practically with critical scholarship. It is the first point of #2 here that I will look at in this post, moving on to the rest of the book in my second and third articles.

From the outset, Sparks makes his purpose clear with writing this book:

My chief concern is that we should avoid a grave theological error, which uses the legitimate scandal of faith as a basis for our illegitimate intellectual scandals. (p12, italics his)

His desire is that:

traditional faith and critical scholarship are somehow integrated into a healthy whole. (p19)

But there is a long path still to be paved ahead in helping evangelicals, at least, in understanding how the two can helpfully meet together. And I suppose such assistance would not just be for you and I, but for varying scholars, theologians and leaders. But this road will be rough because of one significant barrier, as Sparks notes:

Could it be that historical criticism – like the astronomy of Galileo – has been destructive not because it is false, but because the church has often misunderstood its implications? (p21)

The answer from Sparks, and myself more and more these days, is, ‘Yes, there has been a misunderstanding.’ For many Christians, biblical and historical criticism are perceived as anti-Christian at their core. The word criticism itself already holds a very negative connotation.

Yet, there are plenty of solid Christian, yes, even evangelical believers, who faithfully engage with and accept a good deal that comes from the critical camps. On top of that, many of these believers themselves offer scholarship into the critical arena. This does not make them inherently correct in their assessments. But what it does present is that there are actual faithful followers of Christ and the Scripture who are not recommending academic study in order to destroy the testimony of Christ and Scripture. Rather they are doing so in order to helpfully answer many of the questions and problems that arise from scholarly-critical fields, while also maintaining a robust Christian faith. Whether we want to confess it or not, I do believe these brothers and sisters are providing a good service to the church.

And so, in my opinion, the book provides an excellent framework of not only engaging with the ‘big bad wolf’ of critical scholarship, but also with some of our evangelical presuppositions such as inerrancy and sola scriptura. I am aware that quite a few evangelicals will be dissatisfied with Sparks’ conclusions, and I must admit that I don’t agree with what I might term as his over-acceptance of most of critical scholarship. But I do think Sparks provides a very solid more-than-introductory work for Christians wanting to maintain a strong Christian faith and belief in the God-breathed and authoritative nature of Scripture, while also participating in critical studies of academia.

But on to the specifics of the book, mainly chapter 1 in this article.

The first chapter starts with an excursus in epistemology (how we know what we know) and hermeneutics (interpreting and understanding the Bible). In doing so, Sparks gives an introduction to the 3 major eras of philosophical and epistemological understanding.

  • Pre-modern era (roughly everything before and up to the 14th century)
  • Modern era (beginning with the Renaissance and including the Enlightenment)
  • Post-modern era (starting in the late 1800’s and continuing into today)

I am no philosopher by background. I am one who loves biblical theology and leading-shepherding God’s people. I am a shepherd-teacher, meaning my teaching does not dive fully into the realm of academia, but rather serves in practically shepherding God’s people to be faithful to Christ and God’s revelation in Scripture. Still, it was good to get a taster of the philosophical-epistemological approaches of these 3 sweeping periods. Learning a bit about the methods within these eras helps one understand not just how and why one interprets Scripture in a particular way, but how they engage with the whole of life.

Simply stated, the premodern period was a time when people embraced much of what came from tradition. And, with the church, matters of faith were generally accepted without serious question. Of course, within the church, you had great champions of scholarship in people like Augustine and Aquinas. But even the critical questions they posed fell under the church’s greater rule of faith. And any challenges from outside the accepted rule of the church were treated as heretics and, accordingly, excommunicated or worse.

While the premodern period was not fully absent from critique of tradition, as Sparks noted, the modern period moved into a full-blown suspicion of tradition. Thus, with the Reformation of the church, the reformers themselves looked to retrieve what they viewed as the original and uncorrupted apostolic tradition in Scripture. That is where the full truth as God intended could be found. And one could interpret Scripture, or at least the enlightened Christian believer, through a reasoned and rational capacity. Such an approach would have been coupled alongside the doctrines of sola scriptura and the priesthood of all believers. And so, within this framework, the Cartesian, empirical approach to knowledge came to the forefront, one in which an intense thirst developed in verifying what was true and not true, what was perfect and imperfect, what was inerrant and errant.

Finally, we have the postmodern period, which in one sense, brought us full circle back to affirming the significance and importance of tradition in the human life. But, within a postmodern framework, this could, but might not, invariably lead to epistemic pessimism with regards to one’s tradition. How does it work out negatively? We are only what we are because of tradition, because of where we have come from. One is completely a product of their upbringing and particular community. This would be of a more antirealist perspective, affirming that no objective reality can be established. While Sparks would unabashedly reject such an approach, he would positively argue for a practical realist approach to knowledge, a softer postmodern perspective. He sees this as a balanced approach to the epistemic optimism of Cartesian realism and the pessimism of antirealism. Sparks claims:

If practical realism has it right that tradition is the path of understanding but also a road sign that partly misreads, then the epistemic result will be neither pure fancy nor belief emancipated from human error. Human beings enjoy a modest and adequate capacity to understand and successfully live in the world. But we understand things always partially and always, in some respects, wrongly. This means, of course, that human knowledge moves on a continuum that runs from “better” to “worse” rather than on a Boolean switch that toggles between “perfect” and “wrong”. (p42, italics his)

He continues a few pages later:

The biblical account of things, with its dual emphasis on both the value and limits of human perception, seems much closer to postmodern practical realism than to any of the other options. Practical realism is the only contemporary approach to epistemology and hermeneutics that admits our capacity to know without falling into the illusion that we have access to error-free, God-like knowledge (p52, italics his)

And, in concluding this opening chapter, he shares what might be strikingly difficult words for evangelicals to swallow:

If we find ourselves satisfied with the quite adequate communication experienced in our everyday life, and if that discourse serves us tolerably well, then why should we expect or even demand – as many conservative evangelicals do – an inerrant Bible? One answer might be that God authored the Bible and that we simply expect more from God than from human beings: God does not err, therefore the Bible contains no errors. On one level, I believe that this reasoning is sound. Yet I do not believe that we can so easily overlook that God has chosen to speak to human audiences through human authors in everyday human language. Is it therefore possible that God has selected to speak to human beings through adequate rather than inerrant words, and is it further possible that he did so because human beings are adequate rather than inerrant readers? Might it be the very height of divine wisdom, of inerrant wisdom, for God to speak to us from an adequate human horizon rather than from his divine, inerrant viewpoint? Before we presuppose what kind of discourse God must offer us, perhaps we should carefully consider the discourse itself to see what he has done in Scripture. (p56, italics his)

I can imagine this last quote would cause great concern for many evangelicals. But I believe this is because: a) we have imposed a particular framework on God’s revelation in Scripture in which God must have communicated in a certain way if he were actually God and actually true, rather than noting how he has actually communicated in the Bible (especially in light of some clear findings in the scholarly arena) and b) we view the word adequate as a negative and defeating word. If something is adequate, we would note, it is ok, but it’s really not the best. Yet I think the idea here is that of God faithfully and sufficiently communicating his revelation in light of doing so through finite, even fallen, human beings.

This is why I do believe Christ’s incarnation is a sufficient (yes, adequate), though certainly not ‘inerrant’, illustration of God’s revelation in Scripture. Christ, in his incarnation, the Word becoming flesh to dwell amongst us, did not arrive as God in all his ‘God-ness’. You know, in all his glory with all his incommunicable attributes shining through with all their God-intensity. Rather Christ comes very much like his brothers and sisters, like them in every respect (Heb 2:17). Imagine if he had come in all his God-ness. We know the ramifications: it’s not really possible to see God in such a way and live, at least in this present age, as far as we can tell (i.e. Ex 33:20). So Christ arrives incarnationally and does so in a very adequate and sufficient way for us to know God, but not in the fully ‘inerrant’ way you would think God would arrive to make himself known. And such so adequate that Jesus can say, ‘Anyone who has seen me has seen the Father’ (John 14:9).

And, so, with Scripture, we might say it was not given in all its ‘God-ness’. I refer not to the reality that it speaks of sin or injustice, but rather that the words of Scripture were not given in their full inerrant, God-ness. Thus, I would agree with Sparks’ assessment that the Scriptures are truly adequate, genuinely sufficient in their revelation of God and his purposes. But they would not meet the more Cartesian, empirical desire of absolute inerrancy.

Therefore, Sparks continues to explore this reality over the next 350 pages, practically engaging with the realm of biblical criticism and how God has truly communicated in Scripture, in light of what we find in the arena of critical studies. Again, his whole purpose is not to participate in the destructive approaches of what we might identify as atheistic or agnostic critical scholarship. Rather it is to engage with it while maintaining a very vibrant historic-orthodox Christian faith and acknowledgement of Scripture as God’s divinely given and authoritative revelation.

But I shall consider more in my next post.

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