God’s Word in Human Words (Part 3)

It’s time for me to finish up my 3-part review of Kenton Sparks’ title, God’s Word in Human Words. The first two parts can be found here – part 1, part 2.

Chapter 6 looks at the genres of human discourse, how human beings speak. That being the case, chapter 7 then lays out the genres of divine discourse, or how God would speak.

I appreciate this introductory comment from Sparks:

It is by listening to the Bible’s human discourse that we begin to understand how it might be understood as divine discourse (p206).

This is where the whole conversation links in with the ‘incarnational’ revelation of God within Scripture. When God speaks, he doesn’t primarily enter our (or their) context with abstract, overly fanciful communication. He has always communicated in ways that we (or they) can understand. As Scot McKnight put it:

God spoke in Moses’ days in Moses’ ways
God spoke in Job’s days in Job’s ways
God spoke in David’s days in David’s ways
God spoke in Solomon’s days in Solomon’s ways
God spoke in Jeremiah’s days in Jeremiah’s ways
God spoke in Jesus’ days in Jesus’ ways
God spoke in Paul’s days in Paul’s ways
God spoke in Peter’s days in Peter’s ways
God spoke in John’s days in John’s ways (The Blue Parakeet: Rethinking How You Read the Bible, p27-28)

The Bible did not pop out of heaven exactly as is, giving abstract theology above the history and culture within which it was written. It carries the flavour, style and flow of those wonderful people. Thus, to request or even require that the Bible, or portions of the Bible, speak to us in this or that way alone, as if it were being written in the way we would do it today, would be to strip it of it’s God-given, ‘incarnational’ approach.

Scripture is very much human, if you will. And this is the way God designed it – hence, him speaking to humans to record his revelation in Scripture and not penning it himself. I do not deny the God-breathed nature of Scripture. I’m simply stating that the God-breathed nature of Scripture comes through humans, and humans within a particular setting. We need to consider that setting as we look to understand Scripture. And please note that I am not at all denying the constant work of the Holy Spirit in helping us understand Scripture, whether illumining us as we simply have our Bibles open or if we head to other helpful resources.

Sparks fleshes some things out a little more (no pun intended):

As we have seen, Enlightenment historicism has deeply influenced evangelical views of the Bible’s genre. One consequence of this influence is that conservative evangelicals, when making generic assessments of the Bible, are strongly biased in favor of historical narrative and deeply suspicious of fictional genres like allegories, myths, legends, fables, and folktales. For many evangelicals, any hint of fiction in Job, Jonah, Daniel, 1 Kings, Acts, or in any parts of the Pentateuch or Gospels, would be theologically threatening, not only for the biblical book itself but for the Bible as a whole. Even where this angst is not wholly present in evangelicals, they often display a theoretical preference for history over fiction (p214)

This is the problem that we find ourselves in. Not just critical scholars, but we as evangelicals. We require that the Bible, say Genesis 1-3 or Exodus or Jonah, come to us as actual and factual history alone. It cannot be anything but this, and cannot even be a mix. But, at least from the little I have read, not just in Sparks but elsewhere, the ancient Hebrews were very comfortable utilising their own particular cultural ploys in communicating God’s revelation. Why would we ask from them anything else? Why command that the history ‘sections’ be solely historical fact, especially noting that Jews never identified anything within their canon (Old Testament) as a ‘history section’?

Sparks compares this with a reading of the great Melville novel, Moby Dick:

When Melville wrote Moby Dick, the central concern of his work was not whaling per se so much as the effect of an obsession in Captain Ahab’s life. To read Moby Dick as if it were a book about whales therefore misconstrues Melville’s discourse. This is not to say that one could not learn something about whaling from Melville’s book, nor does it mean that we should refrain from noticing when Melville gets his whaling facts wrong. Nor does it mean that we should cease asking our probing questions about what lies behind the text – questions about Melville’s beliefs, personal concerns, and so forth. What it does mean, however, is that our reading of a text should attend carefully to the task of identifying the author’s subject matter – the things about which the author intends to speak. When this becomes a concern in our critical readings of a text, our expectations and evaluation of that text will depend on the things that matter most. We might be right when we say “Melville doesn’t know about whales,” but this would surely be a petty criticism of his book. (p209)

Moby Dick speaks of whaling, but I’m not going to head to it to authoritatively speak about the details of whaling. And, so, if Scripture does mention something that could be classified within the realm of, say, cosmology or biology, I’m not holding this up as the determinative and final saying on such peripheral matters to its purposed intent. It would be silly to require whaling details from Moby Dick. Might some of the same silliness be applied to require straightforward history or absolute inerrant statements on scientific matters within the context of the Bible? It’s not pitting science and the Bible against one another. It’s reckoning that one, the Bible, was not given to address the other.

And, so, what Sparks does is consider the varying genres across the Bible and how they do come to us, within their context of long ago – genealogies in Genesis, history within the whole of the Pentateuch, Jonah, law codes, Chronicles, John’s gospel, and Daniel’s apocalyptic words. In allowing for varying genres to exist not only within the whole scope of Scripture (poetry over there, history over here, prophecy over there, genealogy over here), but within particular parts of Scripture, Sparks believes we will give Scripture the voice it was intended to have rather than what we intend it to have.

In chapter 7 on God’s discourse, Sparks reminds us of the all important factor of accommodation in Scripture, which has been alluded to quite a bit already. This factor is, again, about God coming into our context, or better yet, their context. Whereas John Calvin usually gets credited with the idea of God’s ‘baby talk’, it was actually the church father, Origen, who first utilised this concept in explaining God’s accommodating revelation in Scripture. How does an infinite and perfect and holy God communicate with fallen and sinful human beings? He accommodates, speaks ‘baby talk’, so that we (or they) can understand. And Sparks continues on with a look at varying church fathers who appropriately recognised God’s accommodation in Scripture, even that of John Calvin himself.

Sparks also engages with some evangelical objections to the concept of accommodation, one major contender being the reformed systematic theologian, Wayne Grudem. The major objection is that, if God is inerrant and perfect, then he is going to absolutely communicate in such a manner in his word, in Scripture. Why command what God must do? God has always used fallible humans and institutions to accomplish his truly good purposes. Think about it:

If God can establish pagan governments as authorities over his people, how much more could he decree that a Bible, written by fallible but truly inspired authors, is authoritative for the church? (p252)

And he goes on:

Accommodation tells us that any errant views [scientifically, historically, etc] 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. (p256)

We have to have an objective, verifiably absolute standard from which to work, right? Well, such is the call of a more modernist, rationalistic perspective. We must know! We must know! We must know! We cry that, if we cannot know, then we cannot trust. And I think this also becomes a unhelpful barrier to much of the present-day activity and speaking of God’s Spirit. We cannot trust that non-objective stuff. Scripture is our only objective and absolute foundation. Yet, while Scripture remains a, even the, very foundational revelation of God and his purposes in Christ for all peoples, I believe we will begin to cause more problems for ourselves when we require that Scripture be completely objective, and reject everything else as subjective (which it can be), but to the detriment of knowing our God in Christ through the many other faithful measures that he has revealed himself, which is discussed more below.

Chapters 8 and 9 move into looking at our interpretations of Scripture. I like the practicality of these two chapters because they help us understand how our interpretation of the Bible is not within a vacuum. Though we might champion that the Bible as our only infallible authoritative source (sola scriptura), we actually understand Scripture through a multi-varied interpretive grid – the good created world, tradition, our worldview and other means. While many evangelicals would see this as something to steer away from, because it is the Scripture that is perfectly inerrant, while everything else remains fallible, Sparks contends we do not have to pit these things against one another. If we want to approach Scripture (and life) from a more Cartesian, absolutist knowledge base, then we need an absolute, empirically perfect Bible. But a holistic approach to understanding God embraces that we come to know him and his revelation, and even that revelation in Scripture, through the other helpful and good (though not ‘inerrant’) resources given to us by God himself. This is not unlike the Wesleyan quadrilateral of knowing God through Scripture, reason, tradition and experience.

Sparks helpfully summarises:

If this is right, then it will mean that we must move beyond the Bible not only in matters of science but also in matters that we would associate more closely with faith and theology. Nevertheless, it seems to me that the Bible can serve as the final and authoritative Word of God even when our theology moves beyond its explicit words.

Moving beyond the Bible’s theology does not amount to ignoring the Bible. When we move beyond the Bible in order to claim something that it has not said, or to say something that seems to contradict it, or at least parts of it, this will in every case be vouchsafed by the fact that some parts of the Bible already point us in this new direction. (p288-289)

This moves into the discussion of trajectory theology, which I have written about elsewhere (here and here). Of course, I suppose many evangelicals will feel Sparks wants to eat his cake and have it too. But I believe these are sensible words. This is why I prefer the caveat of prima scriptura, rather than sola scriptura. I recognise that most sola scripturists do not see the Bible as the only source by which we know God and his revelation. But they believe it is the only infallible and trustworthy source. I would challenge such a notion, considering much of Sparks’ arguments and what it means for God to speak through varying other trustworthy sources (though maybe not the ever-needed idea of ‘inerrancy’ with these other sources) such as his good creation, tradition, the living Spirit of God, our spouse, the local church leadership and body, etc. And I’m quite convinced that, at times, we might not be called to be biblical on a particular topic because a) the Bible does not address every issue and b) the issues it does address, it does not always address fully.

In chapter 10, Sparks considers some practical examples of how we can understand the difficulties that might arrive as we approach a healthy biblical theology: a) some of the problematic presentations of David’s life in 1-2 Samuel, b) the imminent eschaton presented in Daniel and Revelation, and c) the discussion around gender roles. I’ll leave any discussion around these for now.

One thing I appreciate most about the book is Kenton Sparks concluding chapter in which he shares his practical-pastoral concerns for dealing with these issues. This is a very sensitive issue amongst evangelical Christians, a tradition that upholds the integrity, authoritative, and divinely given nature of Scripture, one of which I wholeheartedly fall into myself. He notes how, as he addresses some of these issues with incoming university students at the institute where he teaches (Eastern University), many of the students run home over Thanksgiving or Christmas holidays to espouse their newly found theology of Scripture, one that allows for ‘errors’.

Sparks is not in favour of such an approach. Though he believes, as a biblical scholar himself, that he must critically engage with scholars with regards to the Scripture canon as we have it, making simplified, blanket statements about ‘errors’ in the Bible can cause grave difficulty and damage. Sparks holds that, if we approach this wisely and pastorally, it can be done appropriately. But he still undertakes the task somewhat cautiously. And he challenges all true Christian scholars and pastors (and young students) to do the same.

But, then, why are you posting such ridiculous articles, Scott? Are you not damaging people’s faith with such recommendations?

It’s a good question, one I’ve had to think through. I’ve pointed out my agreement with a lot of what Sparks has said, if not most of it. But I always approach the critical issues (and I have not gone near as deeply as Sparks) with a desire to be a faithful follower of Christ and God’s revelation in Scripture myself, all the while pastorally helping other Christians do the same. At times, this is not easy. But if I can offer a little help, only a little, then I believe it worth it. Will I stand up every Sunday and spout off what I have read in Sparks’ book? No. Will I touch on some issues that might arise? Possibly, for I have done so in a more teaching-academic context or in extra-curricular Bible teaching sessions. But I want to consider how I can be a good shepherd-teacher in approaching such issues.

So, I do believe that, with a clear conscience, I can agree with Sparks’ major thesis of the book. I don’t regularly walk around identifying Scripture as a book of errors, since, for starters, I think the concept of inerrancy-errancy is not so much an ancient category with regards to God’s revelation (and, thus, not strongly applicable to our concepts about Scripture). Rather, I very much believe Scripture is God-breathed, faithful and infallible to its intent, authoritative in the life of the body of Christ as we look to walk out God’s purposes. And I espouse this first and foremost. But I also note that Scripture’s revelation of God comes to us through the vehicle of finite and fallen human beings, and so God must accommodate his revelation into our (or their) context, rather than through his own lens. Still, Scripture remains very faithful to its intent and its revelation of God comes forth sufficiently well (though maybe not ‘inerrantly’).

My only negative comment about Sparks’ book is that it seems to accept just about everything that critical scholarship puts forth. Again, he has dealt with this stuff quite extensively. Much more than I. I don’t believe he is looking to dupe anyone into swallowing the whole pill. But his acceptance of critical scholarship almost goes without saying. I believe Sparks is a true man of faith, a follower of Jesus Christ and Scripture. He believes in the present work of God, the supernatural within our framework, rather than working from some deistic standpoint. But, at least for my taste, he has taken critical scholarship on board a bit too much. That would be my only criticism of the book.

Nevertheless, he has some great theological, philosophical and practical thoughts to offer on this very pertinent topic within biblical theology and scholarship. I wouldn’t simply recommend this book to anyone. But to the Bible student and pastor, I think it is a solid introductory work to understanding the Bible in the midst of critical scholarship.

One thought on “God’s Word in Human Words (Part 3)

  1. By requiring the Bible to be perfect in EVERY sense of expression of EVERY field it even touches on, we are effectively throwing faith out the window. “I don’t have to have FIATH that God is communicated effectively through the Bible, I KNOW it, because all scripture is perfect in every nuance.”

    We humans want some concrete thing to place our “faith” in, but if it IS concrete, it’s not faith, it’s belief, which are completely different things.

    We don’t want the scriptures to be imperfect because we think that people will have an “excuse” not to believe ANY of it. But they do so at their own peril. Do we actually think that God only shows Himself to people through the written Word or that He will not point out all the other vast and varied ways in which He showed Himself to people throughout their lives when they arrive before Him on judgement day? We have vaulted the Bible ABOVE all other revelation so far, that we have actually made it MORE difficult for people to believe it. If we simply viewed it and shared it as just one, and one not completely perfect, way in which God reveals Himself to people; if we pointed out the OTHER ways that God can communicate to us (which would mean admitting that His works are very much still in effect), we would have MORE evidence as to His existence and relevance in our lives, not less. But that would take a GREATER measure of faith for OURSELVES — those who already believe based almost wholly on the scriptures.. And I think that scares people.

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