God’s Word in Human Words (Part 2)

This is a continuation of my review of Kenton Sparks’ title, God’s Word in Human Words. In part 1, I mainly laid out an introduction to the book and chapter 1 alone, which looked at the 3 sweeping eras of philosophical and epistemological understanding: pre-modern, modern and post-modern.

In general, Sparks is looking to help evangelicals to move forward in maintaining a high view of Scripture as divinely inspired and authoritative while also engaging with the arena of critical scholarship.

You see, for most evangelicals, the concept of critical scholarship or historical criticism (or whatever specific terminology one would use) is very dirty, very unChristian. But this is where we go a little askew in our understanding of being critical. This term does not always mean criticising from a negative perspective. Rather it is more about assessment, thinking through things, which can lead to both positives and challenges/negatives. As Sparks says himself:

I would like to suggest, however, that the Bible itself invites us, at least implicitly, to ask hard and critical questions of the divine Word (p74)

Of course it does! This is why the church has been willing to engage in such a practice in some form or fashion since its inception (though, yes, more in the past few centuries than previous centuries). Even more, such communication is part of the practise of the biblical writers, especially as voiced in the poetic sections such as the Psalms, Proverbs, Job, Ecclesiastes and Lamentations. And you’ve got some pretty stern arguments coming forth from other writers as they speak with God. Right now, I’m thinking of our friend, Habakkuk.

We have to put a stop to automatic rejection of critical scholarship because of the word critical, or because some of it is produced by non-Christians.

But let’s move into more of the details of the book.

Chapter 2 gives an introduction to the background of historical criticism. Sparks notes how varying critical fields utilise similar practises when assessing other ancient documents such as the Gilgamesh Epic, Assyrian Annals, Babylonian Chronicles, Uruk Prophecy, Sin of Sargon, Sumerian & Lagash King Lists. Critical assessment is not just a ploy to attack the Bible. Rather, it’s part and parcel to a whole field of studies as that field encounters all types of ancient near eastern texts now available to us in our modern day, texts not readily available prior to the last couple of centuries.

Moving on into chapter 3, Sparks lays out many of the ‘problems’ with the biblical text that have been brought to the table by critical scholarship. Of course, we have the long-standing discussion surrounding the authorship and formation of the Pentateuch (first 5 books of the Bible). This one has probably been going on the longest, launching the whole critical debate a few centuries ago. After spending some 23 pages on the discussion surrounding the development of the Pentateuch, Sparks moves on to consider other questions arising from Israelite history as described in the Deuteronomistic History of the Hebrew Scriptures (Samuel-Kings & Chronicles), Isaiah’s prophecies, Ezekiel, the Gospels, the Pastoral Epistles, Daniel and Revelation, the theological and ethical diversity in Scripture, and the exegesis set forth by the Bible’s own authors.

After laying out what may feel like overwhelming challenges from critical scholarship, in chapters 4 and 5, Sparks offers 2 ways to respond to biblical criticism: a) the traditional-evangelical response and b) his more preferred constructive response. Sparks also reminds us of a third view mentioned in his introduction chapter – the secular response, which willingly accepts the findings of critical scholarship to the demise of the Christian faith. Of course, he has no desire to uphold this approach.

In summary of the two perspectives, Sparks comments:

Traditional responses to biblical criticism guard the authority of Scripture by rejecting biblical criticism’s troublesome conclusions. In this vein of thought, biblical criticism leads to faulty conclusions because it has been wrongly done or because it is an illegitimate exercise in the first place. By way of contrast, constructive responses to biblical criticism accept the basic assumptions and conclusions of biblical scholarship but do not regard these as fundamentally hostile to traditional religious belief. Indeed, many constructionists believe that the standard results of biblical criticism can help develop healthier doctrines of Scripture and deeper understandings of our faith. This is why integrative responses to faith and criticism have often been dubbed believing criticism. (p133, italics his)

I am personally aware that these words will be hard for the ‘average’ evangelical to swallow. One might want to argue that Sparks wants to have his cake and eat it too. And I might personally nuance his words above, so as to clarify for some who might only now just begin engaging with this wide arena of study.

Still, my response to Sparks assessment would be that, overall, such is not a problematic conclusion. For anyone who has dipped in to critical scholarship, and doing so without seeing it as inherently anti-Christian, one will definitely note some of the problematic discussions that arise around the biblical text. Again, for starters, the authorship and development of the Pentateuch. One cannot get around what seems to be pretty solid pointers that Moses did not author the full Pentateuch as is and that the final form that we have today probably took shape over multiple centuries, coming to its finished form in the post-exilic period. A different notion from that of the traditional view.

But, whereas the traditional response is to either mock such critical judgments or conclude that, if such judgments were proven correct, then this means that we cannot trust God or Scripture very well at all, I believe Sparks’ proposal is a very refreshing one – listen to our critics, and by listening I mean take in what they actually say and recognising they have some legitimate claims, but learn how to maintain a solid and robust faith in Christ and the divinely-given Scripture at the same time. For me, as with Sparks, I believe this very much possible.

Of course, I am aware none of this ‘proves’ the findings of critical scholarship. It doesn’t. But critical scholarship already offers enough to chew on, even if one doesn’t accept it all. And, so, I was very encouraged that we find one in Kenton Sparks who is very aware of all the problems presented in historical and biblical criticism, but one who can see through it all in maintaining a deep and strong Christian faith and high view of the God-breathed nature of Scripture.

In the end, Sparks comments how his preferred constructive method helps:

To summarize, attempts to synthesize biblical criticism with theology has accentuated: (a) the human genres of Scripture (some biblical errors are illusions); (b) the divine genre of Scripture (some biblical error are accommodations to the human horizon); (c) the role of extra biblical sources in our theology (tradition and the created order); and (d) the role of divine initiative in successful interpretations of Scripture (the Spirit’s role in the reading of the Bible. (p203)

And one can see that such a synthesis can lead to a healthy theological and doctrinal view of Scripture. Again, this is not all anti-Christian. We can faithfully move forward as Christians who love God’s word in Scripture, all the while faithfully engaging with the realm of critical scholarship.

Rather than continue in this post, I will reserve some final quotes and thoughts in part 3 of my review.

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