Sparks-the Bible as it is

Kenton Sparks, in God’s Word in Human Words, wants to let Scripture set the agenda for theology.

This means accepting Scripture as it is.

If the return of Christ did not come to pass in the first century, as Paul and the author of Revelation anticipated, then so be it: such is the Word of God. If Scripture tells us on the one hand that women cannot speak in church, and on the other hand that they may prophesy there, then so be it: such is the Word of God. In like manner, if Scripture tells us that women cannot have authority over men, and if at the same time God has chosen Deborah to lead Israel, then so be it: such is the Word of God. And if such is the Word of God–that it is diverse in its messages–then our theological work will sometimes involve judgments about which of God’s diverse messages it Israel and the church should set the final precedent in our theology (p. 355).

In his next-to-the-last chapter Sparks looked at three examples of how he has come to deal with the results of the historical method.

The first example is the historical-critical unveiling of the story of David in 1 and 2 Samuel as propoganda. The idea that David went out of his way to save and respect King Saul and that, in spite of killing most of them, he was kind to Saul’s family does not represent the reality of David. He seems to have been a much darker character in reality. Yet it is the biblical portrait of David that Jews and Christians have fallen in love with.

Sparks refers to Baruch Halpern’s book, David’s Secret Demons. I found Halpern’s dedication of that book both amusing and insightful. He dedicated the book to “Aunt Claire, for the whoops of horror it occasioned.” Presumably his aunt loved the King David who got brutally deconstructed in his book. No wonder she whooped.

Yet Halpern and Sparks are right. You have to dig under the surface of the court propaganda to write a historical biography of David. But Sparks does something Halpern does not. Sparks finds value in the unhistorical version of David we find in 1 and 2 Samuel. The example of a king who was kind even to his enemies was fulfilled in Christ. By a kind of chastened use of allegory and a perspective from the Bible as a whole, he appropriates the story of David as a theologically valid narrative.

He also says that, because those who compiled and wrote 1 and 2 Samuel lived at a later time and had to rely on the biased court documents as sources, they did not really err. I don’t believe in inerrancy in the first place and I can’t imagine that this would be convincing to anyone who held the standard doctrine of verbal inspiration. Nevertheless, it is true that the authors had to use the sources that were available to them. At least 1 and 2 Samuel leave in place the traces of David’s immorality and cruelty. Chronicles usually just leaves this aspect of David out of the story.

The other two examples are the mistake about the nearness of the end of history in Daniel and Revelation and the biblical support for husbands and fathers as heads of household and leaders in the church (see the quote above).

His handling of the issue of patriarchy is interesting. Unlike many feminist exegetes, Sparks accepts that the majority opinion in the Bible favors at least a soft patriarchy (where male leadership is set within the context of love and support). However, he also sees that within Scripture and the early church (the apocryphal Acts of Paul) there was a minority voice favoring a more equal role for women. He argues that sometimes it is legitimate to take up a minority voice among the diverse voices of Scripture.

I agree, although I think his case would be stronger if he showed why this is not just a matter of political correctness.  Sometimes the world changes. In biblical times women, as a condition of human survival, were more consumed by their inescapable role as life givers. Men are barren in that we do not gestate or give birth.

This is still true. But technology (more than political movements) has let women no longer be so consumed by their life-giving and nurturing roles. Birth control, infant formula, day care, washing machines, microwave ovens and a host of other new inventions and institutions have freed women. They are now free to pick up other roles and do other things with most of their lives.

So theology needs to adapt. The majority voice about patriarchy in the Bible was more valid for its time. The minority voice is more valid for ours.

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One of the suspicions evangelicals sometimes have about historical-critical Bible interpretation is that it derives from disbelief in the supernatural, disbelief in miracles. In other words biblical criticism is illegitimate because it is based on a naturalistic philosophy that starts out from a place that is hostile to the interventions of the biblical God. Kenton Sparks, in God’s Word and Human Words, claims to believe both in a supernatural, miracle-making God and in historical criticism of the Bible.

He disagrees with Ernst Troeltsch who gave 3 reasons why, after the Enlightenment, we don’t believe in miracles.

1.We apply Descartes principle of methodological doubt. If it is possible to doubt it, do.

2.We apply the principle of historical analogy. If other events like this one didn’t happen in history, this one probably didn’t either.

3.We apply the principle of correlation. If you cannot trace the cause of an event to earlier historical events, then it probably didn’t happen.

In regard to the first, Sparks says that applying methodological doubt to most of life would cause chaos. Existentialists and pragmatists have also pointed this out. Practical decisions and actions would become impossible if we had Cartesian doubts about everything. In regard to history, cautious optimism about testimony is better than a predisposition to pessimism. Our experience is that testimony usually points to actual events even if it does not give us a precise and infallible information.

About the second, Sparks says that historical analogy rests partly on assumptions about natural law that we all make. Even people who believe in biblical miracles employ common-sense doubt about such claims in everyday life. However the majority of cultures and religious believe there is a spiritual realm which sometimes breaks into the natural realm. Thus, even while recognizing natural law, they leave room for mystery.

Thirdly, Sparks says that the principle of correlation works in reverse if the miracle can be the cause of later events, e.g. the resurrection as the cause of the spread of the church. In other words, although you cannot trace miracles to previous events, you can sometimes trace later events back to miracles.

I am surprised that Sparks does not relate this to the belief in creation. Foundational to biblical faith is the notion that God created all things. This is itself a miracle. It has no correlation or analogy to other events. So, in a world that has been created by a divine act, we should not be surprised by other unprecedented divine acts. Perhaps the misuse of creation by some to refer to a literal seven-day, datable event causes Sparks to avoid this approach.

Also, since creation is the basis for the natural laws, miracles often seem more like fortuitous natural events than utterly supernatural ones. The wind blows back the waters so that Israel can cross the sea. An earthquake frees Paul and Silas from prison. But, by themselves, winds and earthquakes are not supernatural events.

Earlier in the book Sparks seemed to agree with Landon Gilkey’s criticism of the Biblical Theology  school. Gilkey said that once they reconstructed the Exodus so that it involved just “ordinary causation” (p. 180), like an East wind blowing the sea back, Biblical Theology could no longer bear the weight of its emphasis on the Mighty Acts of God. Personally, I do not see how this follows.  After all, the wind had to blow at just the right time–and stop at just the right time. Our judgments about these biblical miracles will depend, in part, on how we experience life.

In my experience, terminal illnesses have sometimes been cured after prayer. These cures were medically improbable. I know that it is a subjective judgment, but I see biblical miracles through the lens of my gratitude for what I perceive as acts of God in the present day.

So, like Kenton Sparks, I have little trouble using both historical-critical methods and believing in miracles.

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One of my more conservative professors back in the 1970‘s used to say that there are no errors in the Bible that are not corrected in the Bible. I guess you could say that this was a form of inerrancy. There were errors in particular passages of the Bible. But, because they were corrected within the Bible, the Bible as a whole was inerrant.

In some ways this seems similar to what Kenton Sparks is saying in God’s Word in Human Words.

He shows how it works in regard to slavery. There are passages in the Bible that endorse slavery (for instance, Exodus 21:20-21). But there is a trajectory within the Bible that calls slavery into question. Thus, later texts first regulate cruelty in a way that tends to soften the more inhuman ways that slaves got treated. Finally. in Galatians Paul undermines the ideal of slavery for Christians by saying the in Christ there is no slave or free (3:28). And in Philemon, he undermines the practice of slavery by implying that you have to treat your Christian slave as a brother and free him. Then the trajectory continues after the biblical era with Christian abolitionists.

This idea of moral progression is called the trajectory theory. I do not like the term because it comes from ballistics and ought to describe an arc rather than an upward progression. But we are stuck with the term. In defending trajectory theory, Sparks demonstrates a case where it clearly works within the Bible. This is the acceptance of Gentiles into the church without requiring circumcision or dietary purity.

The priestly texts of the Hebrew Scriptures close off this kind of acceptance. Yet some prophets predicted that Gentiles would eventually become God’s people (Amos 9:11-12). The church looked at the Bible as a whole and concluded that they could accept Gentiles.

This then becomes a paradigm for dealing with issues like slavery, ethnic cleansing,  gender roles, and homosexuality. There are particular texts that run against today’s ethical sentiments. But, looking at the Bible as a whole, we justify views more in accord with democratic, feminist, and civil rights ideas.

Sometimes we can legitimately “trump the Bible with newer insights” (p. 295) We have done that in regard to slavery and the cosmology of Copernicus.

But this is tricky business. Sparks responds to some criticisms that this going beyond the Scriptures leads to subjective, culturally determined results. He thinks some critics misunderstand trajectory thinking. He claims that it only accepts the invitation of Scripture itself to go beyond Scripture by listening to the voice of God in creation, tradition, and Spirit.

I do not think Sparks has fully answered this kind of objection. I understand those who worry that the voice of cultural trends will drown out the voice of God from whatever source. Sometimes the trajectory may need to go the other way.

While Jesus’ discarding of the eye-for-an-eye notion of justice seems to display a liberalizing trajectory, his tightening the commands about divorce displays a more conservative trajectory. But what of those contemporary Christians who embrace an across-the-board loosening of ethics in the face of the sexual revolution? Is that really a biblical trajectory?

I think there is some value in the notion that the Bible and Christian tradition are self-correcting. I am not sure that trajectory theory really tells us how this works.

Sparks talks about postmodern philosophy’s metanarratives, stories told to justify other stories or worldviews. Some postmodernists view metanarratives with suspicion, because they tend toward a false unity. Sparks, while recognizing much disunity in the Bible, sees value in seeing biblical story as metanarrative. He just warns against finishing your metanarrative. Leave it open as something partial and incomplete.

I think most European postmodernists came out of the experience of the failure of Marxism. The Marxist metanarrative failed them, thus the suspicion. Yet postmodernism is often a kind of Marxism without the eschatology (I think Merold Westphal may have originally said this).

But the Bible is a very different kind of metanarrative. Marxism was constructed over a short period of time by a few thinkers. Whereas the Bible and various other national sagas and religious narratives came about and developed more naturally over long periods of time. They are like real languages, while Marxism is like the constructed language, Esperanto. So Marxism and most postmodernist approaches divide the world into oppressed and oppressors. That is what their narrative is about. The biblical narrative or metanarrative is very different and much more complex.

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Sparks-stuff that we know apart from the Bible

Kenton Sparks, in God’s Word and Human Words, next wants to talk about the “context of the whole”, by which he seems to mean the integration of the Bible with other human knowledge from science, history and so on. Traditionally this has been the distinction between general and special revelation. The assumption, which some have questioned, is that God reveals himself both in his word to Israel and the church found in the Bible and  in the natural world as well.

The goal of biblical interpretation should not be to achieve perfect, godlike knowledge. Presumably God has a complete and coherent knowledge of all truth. But this is impossible for humans. So the goal of biblical interpretation is reach the kind of knowledge that is appropriately attainable by human beings. This will fall far short of the kind of knowledge God has. But the context of our quest is the whole world and thus includes more than the Bible.

He argues that the Bible itself incorporates knowledge from the observation of the world.

The wisdom literature of the Hebrew Bible depends on human observation of life. Some of this is even drawn from non-Israelite sources. Sparks goes into some detail about the use of Egyptian wisdom  in Proverbs 22:17-23:14. He provides a table to show the way this passage mirrors the Egyptian Instruction of Amenemope. This is one of several examples of the Bible appropriating the world’s wisdom.

He also talks about the Apostle Paul and his view that observation and experience can show even the unconverted that God exists and that the Torah is good.

So there is something like natural revelation from God.  Sparks tries to avoid taking sides in some of the historical theological controversies that have surrounded this issue. His point is that the Bible itself picks up and deals with general human knowledge.

From this he draws some implications, which I paraphrase.

First, if the world is orderly and coherent, then the data from the Bible and the data from other sources are all pieces that we need to put together like a jig-saw puzzle to gain the fullest possible knowledge.

Second, what we know from the Bible and what we know from other sources are not distinct species of knowledge. He says they are not “hermetically sealed” off from one another. There are vital links between and we should not pit them against one another.

Third, natural knowledge is more than just that atheists are wrong. We actually know quite a lot from observing people, nature and the whole created order. What the Bible often does is not give us new information, but put in order things we already know.

Fourth, Christians need to really listen to knowledge that comes from outside the church. The world does not just need our instruction, but it has much to teach us. We could find theological truth almost anywhere.

I think this would be just common sense to a lot of folks. A Jesuit, for instance, would say, “yes, of course.” But a certain tendency within Protestantism tries to put the Bible in a place where it substitutes for the natural knowledge we can figure out for ourselves (in a way this also includes Karl Barth’s rejection of natural law and theology).

Sparks does not mention James Barr again in this chapter. But I remember how he pointed out that the use of natural law and theology was part of Barr’s approach. It is also very much a part of Roman Catholic thought. And Sparks has pointed out how these approaches do not create the isolation of theology from other knowledge that marks Fundamentalists and some Evangelicals.

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Sparks-human and divine discourse

I am reading and responding to Kenton Sparks book, The Word of God in Human Words.

Sparks gives us two chapters about genre. The first is about the various kinds of human discourse in the Bible.

He starts right off by saying that fiction is one of them. The parables of Jesus and the Book of Jonah are examples of fiction. The fifth chapter of Genesis contains a genealogy in the form of a Mesopotamian king’s list. But the outlandish length of the lives of the people listed (although not as outlandish as in similar Babylonian lists) show that this is also fiction, fiction that uses a form that is historical in other contexts.

Theological history is another example of a genre that has some historical form, but actually has a different purpose. The books of Chronicles provide an example. In the New Testament John’s gospel is a theological biography.

Apocalyptic writings like Daniel give us another example of a non-historical literary form.

In some ways Sparks is just recapitulating some of his earlier discussion, this time from the standpoint of literary genre. This is pretty much common sense and is not too hard (in my experience) to get across to lay people. I have used the example of reading a newspaper. You know that the news is supposed to be a different genre than the comics or the classifieds. You read different parts of the newspaper for different reasons. Of course this gets all screwed up if you are reading a tabloid that blurs the differences.

But he has another chapter considering genre from the standpoint of the Bible as divine discourse. He calls the chapter “The Genres of Divine Discourse”.

One problem for people today is that the Bible is strange to us since it comes from an alien culture and a primitive time. The other big problem is that the Bible is so diverse. Given these problems, how can the Bible be the word of God for us?

Some conservatives continue to talk as though the diversity of the Bible is an illusion derived from Enlightenment era skepticism. Sparks show that, even though historical-critical research has highlighted the diversity of the Bible, many scholars before the Enlightenment already recognized it–and struggled with it.

One of the principles older theologians, from Justin to Origin to Calvin, applied was accommodation. One of the reasons scripture speaks as it does is that God accommodates himself to human limitations. Sparks adopts this principle as important for modern understanding of the strangeness and diversity of scripture.

He says that accommodation works on two related levels.

First, since God is unimaginably greater than humans, there is no way God can communicate with us as though we were on his level. He has to condescend or stoop to our limitations.

Second, the biblical writers were subject to the kinds of bias that have become the subject of postmodern analysis. To say this in another way, the biblical writers were subject to “their own finite and fallen interpretive horizons” (p. 246).

Furthermore, Sparks says:

“God has accommodated his discourse to us, not by instructing the human author to express things simply, but by adopting the simple viewpoints of that human author, whose perspectives, personality, vocabulary, and literary competence were well suited to the ancient audience of Scripture” (p. 245).

Sparks shows that recent evangelicalism has become extreme and anti-traditional in rejecting accommodation in favor of a more rigid notion of inspiration and inerrancy. He is mostly referring to Carl Henry and those who follow him. Henry objected to some very conservative scholars in his day who suggested that, although the Bible was verbally inspired, its authors sometimes depended on sources that were not so inspired. That was unacceptable to Henry.

But Sparks says that the Church Fathers and even Calvin would not have had such a problem. It is in this way that Sparks thinks recent evangelical thought has departed from church tradition.

Sparks also shows how some evangelical authors, even while discounting accommodation, actually use it when they explain particular passages.

I still have no clear understanding of why Sparks calls this chapter “genres” of divine discourse. Genres are forms of literature like parable, saga, and poem. These are among the genres of human discourse. But his chapter about genres of divine discourse is almost entirely about the notion of accommodation.

Does he mean that accommodation itself is the genre of divine discourse? If so, why does he use the plural?

Or does he mean that in accommodation God picks up the genres of human discourse and makes them his own? I haven’t found where Sparks actually says this. So I remain unsure of his meaning.

Another place where I don’t follow Sparks is when he says the genre of the whole Pentateuch is that of anthology. Now it appears to me that the Pentateuch (and the book of Judges) probably had anthologies as sources. But the current form of these books is that of continuous narrative. In the Pentateuch the narrative gets broken up by lists, law codes and other non-narrative material. But I don’t see how that makes the whole Pentateuch an anthology. The non-narrative material usually gets a chronological position within the narrative.

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Sparks-constructive approaches

The next chapter in God’s Word in Human Words is entitled “Constructive Responses to Biblical Criticism”.  Kenton Sparks finds a rich collection of attempts by scholars to deal in a positive way with the problems historical analysis of the Bible has raised.

First he brings up Karl Barth’s neo-orthodoxy.  Barth fully accepted the validity of the historical-critical insights into the text.  Yet Barth, for the most part, set them aside to focus on the theological purpose of the Bible.  The Bible is not about history.  Rather it contains God’s revelation of Jesus Christ.  Part of God’s sovereignty is that he chooses how to reveal himself.  He chose to do it through human instruments.  It is not for us to tell God he should have used a more perfect, inerrant way.

Brevard Childs, who built on Barth, introduced canonical interpretation.  He saw that historical-critical scholarship added depth to our understanding of the Bible.  But he offered a way to move beyond the diverse theologies that parts of the Bible have.  He saw the need to put these different theologies within the larger context of the biblical canon, that is the totality of the books that make up the Bible.  For example, several strands of the biblical tradition are okay with slavery.  But when you look at the Bible as a whole, there is an ethic there that justifies opposition to slavery.

David Steinmetz advocated a return to thr pre-critical exegesis of the Church Fathers and others.  Pre-critical exegesis recognizes divine and human authorship  of the Bible. Whereas critical scholarship focuses on the human authors and their intent, pre-critical exegesis found allegorical and other meanings that opened up the spiritual meaning of scripture.

Hans Frei offered narrative theology.  He claimed that we need to see, not history, but history-like metanarratives in scripture.

All these perspectives have been hot in mainline Protestant theology at various times.  But Sparks reaches beyond these discussions to other manifestations of Christianity.  He points out that certain evangelical thinkers have learned from Barth and stressed the role of the Holy Spirit and the sovereignty of God in biblical interpretation.  Among them are Donald Bloesch and Bernard Ramm.

But I am most pleased that Sparks points out the freedom that Catholic scholars have to use historical-critical methods.  Why, since Catholicism is also conservative, do Catholic scholars have this freedom more than scholars working in evangelical schools?  He says it is largely because Catholics operate within broader parameters of orthodoxy.  Certainly there are things about which the Church has spoken which set some boundaries.  But there is latitude within those boundaries.

Sparks cites a document from the Pontifical Biblical Commission that warns against Fundamentalism because it “injects into life a false certitude, for it unwittingly confuses the divine substance of the biblical message with what are in fact its human limitations” (p. 196).

At this point, he brings up James Barr.  Barr has certainly criticized fundamentalism and has his background in liberal Protestantism.  But Sparks tries to discern Barr’s positive position and finds it similar to the Catholic approach.   Barr sees the Bible as authoritative tradition.  But he says that the Bible cannot have authority if we tell it what it can or cannot say to us ahead of time. Sparks thinks Barr wants to build a coherent position based on the Bible, tradition, and natural theology.

An influential teacher of mine, the late Jack Suggs, was impressed with Barr and was reading him decades ago.  Sparks has helped me put together some sense of where Barr has been going.  This helps, because Barr’s writings gave me the impression that he challenges other positions without offering a strong alternative.  Sparks has sussed out something more positive.

The big issue I am still interested in Sparks dealing with is that of the several different theologies–priestly, royal, apocalyptic, Pauline, Johannine, etc.–within the Bible.  Is it possible to hear this as Knohl’s divine symphony?  Sparks has used the term “cacophany” more than once.  Is the Bible a symphony or a cacophany?


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Sparks-is reading the Bible this way hostile to faith?

Clearly Kenton Sparks has read and disagreed with many evangelical scholars who have tried to dismiss or downplay the application of critical methods to the Bible. In God’s Word in Human Words he tries to show how inadequate many of these attempts are.

We will not go far into his discussions of evangelical commentaries and articles that take on some of the particular biblical issues we already mentioned, such as sources of the Pentateuch; discrepancies between Kings and Chronicles; authorship of Isaiah; or our inability to harmonize the gospels. One of the things he points out is that the data behind critical theories is often cumulative, but that attempts to debunk biblical criticism often seek to undermine individual data-points while ignoring the weight of cumulative evidence.

I have noticed this too.

Often the most telling points of opponents of biblical criticism are those that take on the Enlightenment assumptions that were behind the theories of liberal critics.  These critics embraced a bias against miracles and orthodox theology in general.

But Sparks argues that it is unfair to paint contemporary critics with this brush.

Probably the most distinguished evangelical to critique the historical-critical treatment of the Bible is Alvin Plantinga, a philosopher. Plantinga argues that historical criticism arises from assumptions that are hostile to faith. In practice these assumptions cause scholars to function as atheists or agnostics rather than people of faith. He thinks historical criticism rests on mistaken, naturalistic assumptions.

Sparks would agree with Plantinga if he thought his assessment of historical criticism was correct. But Plantinga gets it wrong, and, in fact, has recently walked back some of these claims. Historical criticism does not have to lean on naturalistic assumptions. Sparks says you can believe in God, miracles, and orthodox doctrines about Christ, yet still notice that Moses does not seem to be the author of the Pentateuch. So even Plantinga now apparently believes that there is a kind of historical criticism that is not inherently hostile to faith.

Another author who has criticized Enlightenment assumptions behind biblical criticism is Iain Provan. He uses a postmodern critique of Cartesian epistemology to argue that the faith critics place in archeological and textual evidence is an unwarranted “epistemic optimism”. We can’t find out what really happened that way.  It is better to rely on faith in Israel’s testimony. It is arrogant and foundationalist to think we can arrive at better knowledge of history through our critical techniques than by relying on the testimony of ancient people.

Sparks partly agrees with this. He thinks there are critics who do not give the biblical testimony sufficient weight. However, the postmodern critique of knowledge and certainty does not mean that we can’t recognize that some testimony is better than other testimony. And is it really right to think of the Pentateuch, for instance, as testimony? Is it not mostly an anthology of all kinds of literature, including folk-lore and law codes?

Moreover, it is possible to throw out the good with the bad when criticizing the Enlightenment. Yes we can criticize the bias against religion, but there also were benefits from that era.

Sparks suggests that he will capitalize on the good that came out of the Enlightenment, while avoiding the issues postmodernism has pointed out. He has called the approach he will take Practical Realism. From what I can tell it is very similar to what philosophers usually call Critical Realism to distinguish it from Immanuel Kant’s Critical Idealism.

Anyway, we are finally going to get into Sparks’ positive proposal in the next chapter.

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