Sacred Word, Broken Word: Preview

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 Wordspart 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)

Ouch! Right?

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?


5 thoughts on “Sacred Word, Broken Word: Preview

  1. Hmm…. surprised you got no comments on this yet.l

    Honestly,while I used to firmly be in the “infalibility of scripture on all points” camp, I have come to believe that we actually do people a diservice by insisting that it is perfect in all points. We make it just that much more diffult for people to accept it because NOTHING in this life (except God Himself) is perfect. Man is inherintantly sinful, and sin corrupts everything that man has a hand in. Like it or not, man had a hand in the writing of scripture.

    My wife and I had a discussion along these lines the other day in regard to this subject and how II Tim. 3:16 fits into this. The main crux of this was what does “all scripture” mean? Well, in the context of the verses it would be refering to JUST the Holy Scriptures that Timothy was raised on, which would be ONLY the now OT of the law and the prophets. Does that mean that the rest of what we NOW call “scriptures” is NOT God-breathed OR useful? Nobody would argue for this belief.

    Could “scripture” (and in other places “the word”) refer to a broader category of writings? Any writings about God and man’s relationship to Him are called “scripture” by those who read and follow them. Isn’t it possible that ALL writings about God contain some truths about God and all point to Christ as the ultimate bearer of truth and the source of eternal life. Could this be why we are encouraged to STUDY the scripture, and listen to the Spirit in discerning what is true and what goes against what we know of God from nature, OTHER scriptures and the testimony of the Spirit.

    By insisting that the Bible is perfect, we make the Bible another Christ (almost a substitute or intercessor between us and Christ). Evangelicals INSIST that the BIble be believed in THIS way and THAT way, and then you will see the truth.of Christ. So, instead of Man -> Christ -> God, it’s Man -> Bible -> Christ -> God. We have made the scripture (or more acurately our accepted version of the scripture) the ONLY means (or at least, the only SURE means) of discovering Christ. In doing so we limit God to only working through our “safe” method of evangelism. So MUCH of evangelicalism focuses on the Bible that we miss all the other ways that God uses to point people toward His Son. So, while Jesus is the end of all revelation, the Bible is not the end of all ways to find Jesus. It’s just the one that man feels he can be most in control of. The scriptures (both the Bible and others) have been used through the ages to control people, both their beliefs and their conduct. It is the scriptures (not Christ or the Spirit) that people point to when they want people to believe or behave after a certain fashion. Nations and people’s around the world have suffered at the hands of mobs waving Bibles (or other scriptures) in the air, all claiming what? That their scripture’s authorship, translation or interpretation is “the truth” and hence the only way to live.

    So, while the “Bible” certainly can be a wonderful tool (one of MANY) to point people to the gospel (the good news that God’s kingdom is here on earth, and you can be a part of it through Christ), it’s missuse has caused and continues to cause great harm, and even pushes away those seeking for the truth.

    So, do I disagree with these gentlemen’s views concerning the Bible? Most certainly NOT. In fact, I think they don’t go far enough in casting down the Bible from the position of worship it has attained.

    However, I also don’t think the church at large (at least in the west) is ready for such a radical departure. The church has become SO dependent on the Bible (rather than the Spirit), that I don’t think they could handle cutting those purse-strings so quickly. While it’s a wonderful experience to be free from the bondage of obedience and devotion to a book, it’s also a bit scary. It means not KNOWING everything. Not being able to quote a chapter and verse for EVERY situation. Relying wholy on faith in Christ and the Spirit, rather than the words and interpretations of men. That “lack” of foundation would be too difficult for the average Western Christian who has grown up “worshiping” the Bible as the source of all truth.

    So, while I feel I’m right, and these men are also right, I do not hold to the idea of dragging the church kicking and screaming into this “truth”. For, while I think they live in a kind of self-inflicted bondage, I do not doubt their salvation or their devotion to God and love of the body of Christ. God can still use them for His purposes. He is not limited by man’s limitations. The Spirit’s work goes on through these men just as it does through the Spirit-fueled Christians in the NEW revivals happening throughout the world. Revivals where the Spirit is flowing, regardless of the correct scripture interpretation.

    • Ken –

      These are good thoughts. I can share some thoughts back.

      1) It might be possible to distinguish between Scripture and the Bible canon we have today. Not in that any Christian writing is Scripture, though Scripture does simply point to sacred writings. But there is much discussion of whether Scripture includes what we denote as the Apocrypha. Our Protestant canon doesn’t have it. But the Apocrypha might still be worth considering as Scripture.

      2) I think you are right in noting that we can put the Scripture on part with Christ. Maybe not above Christ (though maybe some), but on par with him. Scripture is subservient in every way to God/Christ/the Spirit. It is similar to what Christ said in John 5:39 – You study the Scriptures diligently because you think that in them you have eternal life. These are the very Scriptures that testify about me. There is a grave misuse of Scripture itself to purport that Scripture is more than it actually says it is. Maybe I’ll post an article in the near future on the misuse of Scripture to build our doctrine of Scripture.

      3) You are probably right in your assessment that the church is not ready for statements like what Kenton Sparks puts forth. For many, it seems an anathema, curse, to make such statements. I would probably nuance a few things from what Sparks says so as to help evangelicals understand that we need a bit of a shift in our view of Scripture. I think if we hold Scripture in a proper view, which embrace all of its humanness, it can actually teach us much about God’s purposes, ourselves and how we can reach the world.

  2. Thank you for your reply. I agree with everything you said. I would encourage you to think even outside the Apocrypha for “scripture”, though. I think the idea I’m trying to espouse is that truth, validated by the Spirit, can be found in ALL writings about God. The Koran DOES contain truth. Even Buddhist writings, though they point to different gods, contain truths about the character and purposes of the TRUE God. If you read them LOOKING for the truth, you will find it. We can even read Harry Potter (and no, I’m not calling that scripture by any means) and find truths about the importance of love, forgiveness and self-sacrifice, all things taught by Christ. God’s truth about Himself and His plan of redemption permeates nearly all writings and popular media, IF you take the time to LOOK for it.

    I guess I’m talking about a shift from trying to filter everything through the Bible to filtering EVERYTHING, the Bible, other scriptures and even the media, though the filter of a worldview that is brought about by having the Spirit within your heart. It’s very freeing to view things this way, because you no longer have to “protect yourself” from error. The Spirit guards your heart so that when you hear or read things that just don’t jibe with what you KNOW about God both experientially and also in the Bible (it DOES carry great authority, especially in doctrinal issues), the Spirit lets you know and you can filter that out and just see the truth about Him in ANY writing, book, film, song, etc. I truly believe this is the life the Father had in mind for us when He said in Jeremiah 31:33, “I will put my law in their minds and write it on their hearts. I will be their God, and they will be my people.” It’s not about reading a book and following it, it’s about having the living God inside you, filtering all you see and do through Him.

    • Ken –

      I understand what you are saying. I think there is truth to be found in scripture texts of varying religions-faiths. I suppose that, when reading the Koran, I don’t go to it asking God to speak. I might say we have a scripture text that supersedes all others. But if someone is starting with the Koran, then we can start there with them in helping them come to know God in Christ. Like Paul started with the place where the Athenians were in Acts 17 – their statues, their poets, etc. We can have great connection points with varying scripture texts. Paul say those in Athens and commended them – ‘People of Athens! I see that in every way you are very religious.’ And I do truly believe that God speaks in many forms, even in the things within our culture like books, songs, movies, etc. I probably wouldn’t put them top on the list. But still believe and know God can speak through those specific mediums.

      You are also correct to highlight the Spirit. As a friend of mine said once – We are ultimately people of the Spirit, not people of the book. The book serves the purposes of God’s Spirit, not vice versa. So God’s people will do well to remember that. Of course, such statements make many a evangelicals uncomfortable. But we have to start with being people of Christ and his Spirit. The truth of God, the gospel, the word of God is living and dynamic. Scripture remains extremely important, and has been for 2000 years. But the Scripture falls under that fuller and greater reality. It has only been in the past few centuries that we’ve had printing presses and that each person could have their own copy of Scripture (which is fantastic!). But, as people of the Spirit, we would do well and be wise to stay connected to Scripture, the historic body of Christ and the local body of Christ, as we are broken people and don’t always correctly hear the Spirit. But I’m sure you are aware of this.


      • Yes, we need other Christians and the local community of Christians to keep us in check. We also need to be so careful with our newfound “freedom”, not to flaunt it or be prideful in it (which is such a natural response for us humans), but to be gentle and loving, always sharing with a desire to build up and never tear down. Thirdly, we must always keep in mind that we are still on a road to revelation, that we have never “arrived” at the complete truth of God and His works on earth. We will never REALLY understand until we see Him face to face. I know we will be SO amazed at how puny and limited and plain WRONG we were about so many things. But He is ever so patient, gently leading us into a little more truth all the time.

        Thank you again for your blog, Scott. It is amazing how many times you have posted something about a subject I had just been mulling over and you have provided confirmation that I’m not becoming a complete heretic in my middle age. 🙂

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