As I mentioned not too long ago, I have not been involved in much theological engagement the past couple of months. I simply wanted to read Scripture and more devotional books for a season. And that is still the main season where I am situated as of now.
However I did recently find out that Kenton Sparks released a new book, Sacred Word, Broken Word: Biblical Authority and the Dark Side of Scripture. I held off purchasing it for something like a week. But after finishing a particular devotional book this week, I decided to purchase Sparks newest work.
This book is not completely unlike his previous work in 2008, God’s Word in Human Words: An Evangelical Appropriation of Critical Biblical Scholarship. The difference is that the former was 416 pages in length with the newer work being a mere 192 pages, making it much more digestible for common folk (though I would argue the former was not difficult to comprehend; it was simply very lengthy). If interested, I reviewed God’s Word in Human Words – part 1, part 2, part 3.
Also, worth noting, is that Sparks’ two works on Scripture are not unlike what Peter Enns has addressed in various ways in his two notable books: a) Inspiration and Incarnation and b) The Evolution of Adam, two books that I have read. I reviewed Inspiration and Incarnation in this part 1 and part 2, but have yet to write anything about the latter.
I must confess that I really enjoy engaging with books that approach a doctrine of Scripture for our world today. I say ‘our world today’ because we actually do have issues and points with which we must engage that those of centuries past, including those of biblical times, did not have to. None of this sets us up as ‘better’ than those who have gone before us. Their voices must still remain in the conversation. If we don’t allow that, then we are arrogant and will reject such an important piece to the puzzle. Still, significant points that arise within a 21st century framework will ask us to rethink some aspects of our doctrine of Scripture. And I suppose the same will be true for my grandchildren and beyond.
Right now, I am currently half way through Sacred Word, Broken Word. Others are already reviewing and walking through the book such as Pete Enns himself, as well as Brian LePort, who is hosting an interesting conversation connected to the whole issue at his blog. And others, such as Enns or those at Near Emmaus, might have more pertinent things to say than I. But, with my passion to engage with a helpful doctrine of Scripture in the 21st century, I am drawn to such books.
I am aware that many evangelical Christians have and will continue to see Sparks’ view (and others like Enns) as dangerous. They hold more progressive views, though by no means are they liberal, unless we want to throw out emotional terminology that doesn’t really apply. Of course, Sparks’ view has shifted from a typically conservative, evangelical approach taken by many in American camps. And I would expect such a scholar involved in modern biblical criticism to have shifted in many ways. One cannot simply turn a blind eye to what critical scholarship has brought to the playing field. But these folk are by no means liberal. These men confess the very important tenets of our Christian faith. Therefore, I do believe that Sparks, Enns and others like them will be very helpful to students of Scripture today and in the future.
But what does Sparks argue that makes it so unpalatable for some?
Well, whereas Enns argues for a more incarnational approach to understanding Scripture – as Christ was both fully divine and fully human, so Scripture is very similar – Sparks argues for a more adoptionist view. Whereas with our Christology, adoptionism does not work, Sparks believes it does with Scripture. He contends:
I would suggest that the adoptionist metaphor is closer to the mark. Understood in this way, Scripture is God’s word because God providentially adopted ancient human beings, like Paul, as his spokespersons. In doing so God “set apart” or “sanctified” their words for use in his redemptive activity. Hence, we can affirm with a straight face that Scripture, while written by sinful human beings, is rightly referred to as Sacred or Holy Scripture. (Kindle loc. 317)
Of course, every metaphor or illustration (whether incarnational or adoptionist) will have holes. Hence, it is a metaphor, an illustration to simply assist in making a point. Still I believe both Enns and Sparks make very good and important points. I would probably nuance a few bits of terminology here and there, or make sure I explain things a little more carefully. But this is probably because I am engaged in more of a pastoral role rather than intense, biblical scholarship at the university-seminary level (this is not to negate that they would also be involved in pastoring younger and older students of Scripture, and I believe I see this in their own writings at times).
But the hardest pill to swallow would be words like these coming from Sparks:
Now, respecting Scripture, the difficulty that precipitates my discussion is this: though the Bible is the word of God and, as such, is at first blush expected to be consistent in its viewpoints and, like God, free of any error, a thoughtful reading of Scripture suggests that it is neither wholly consistent nor error free. (Kindle loc. 355)
Sparks has laid out his entire hand and blows the waters right open. Many evangelicals would cringe at such a statement. And they would push back in defense, stating something of this nature: ‘All of these inconsistencies, tensions or presumed errors can be normally explained and dealt with. And if we can’t, it’s simply because we haven’t found enough evidence to date to explain them.’
But Sparks would argue this is not really engaging with what we find in actual Scripture. Much of it can be helpfully explained. But not all. Not every question and query and tension and, dare we say, contradiction can be dealt with, though some would argue it can all be dealt with, at least if we only knew enough.
Of course, the church has engaged some of the issues and problems (like the command to slaughter the Canaanites or psalms that celebrate the killing of children) with the concept of progressive revelation – God slowly and progressively revealed his great redemptive plan for humanity, which was summed up in his most gracious and loving revelation, Jesus Christ). But, in God’s grace, it took quite some time. Still, this does not help at every point. And Sparks also notes church fathers who were willing to confess that problems are found in Scripture – from Justin Martyr to Augustine to Gregory of Nyssa to Calvin to Wesley to Bonhoeffer.
In all, even noting such problems within the Scripture text, Sparks is convinced, as I am, that the text still remains the faithful revelatory text that it is, summed up in Jesus Christ and the new covenant. It still remains authoritative in the lives of God’s people. It is theopneustos, God-breathed. Something does not have to be objectively and incorrigibly perfect to be faithful, good and authoritative. God’s good creation might have faults and problems. But it still remains a good revelation and testimony to our good God. The same with Scripture. Other authorities, such as our local church pastor or the government, can have faults and problems, being imperfect. Yet these persist as good authorities given by God. The same with Scripture.
There is so much more to say and bring up. What about dealing with 2 Tim 3:16-17 or 2 Pet 1:20-21? What about knowing absolute truth? What about God promising to never lie (Num 23:19)? What about all the passages that mention God’s word is perfect (Ps 12:6; 19:7; Prov 30:5)?
Quite a few issues to still take up, ones that I think are worth engaging with. And Sparks does take up most of these in the 2 books.
As an ending note, I would say that not every ‘average’ Christian would be able to handle Sparks’, or Enns’, thesis. They, and others, are pushing a bit hard at times. But they are doing so because of the scholarly fields in which they work. And I like how Sparks ended God’s Word in Human Words, with a very pastoral conclusion as to our calling to carefully engage these issues with the average Christian. We are ultimately here to build up, not tear down (though, not negating some perspectives on Scripture might be worth seeing torn down).
So, the question is: What do you think of view like Sparks or Enns concerning Scripture? Is it overly dangerous? Is it helpful? Or is it somewhere in between?