Kenton Sparks published God’s Word in Human Words in 2008, He considers himself an evangelical, even though I have seen evangelical reviews of the book that read him out of evangelicalism.
What is that about? Well, Sparks gives us a surprising 1947 quote from well-known British evangelical scholar F. F. Bruce
“In such critical cruces, as the codification of the Pentateuch, the composition of Isaiah, and the date of Daniel, the sources of the Gospels, or the authenticity of the Pastoral Epistles, each of us is free to hold and proclaim the conclusions to which all the available evidence points: (p. 20. This a quote from an article by Bruce in the Evanglical Quarterly.).
Since 1947 there has been a battle for the Bible championed by American evangelicals. This included attacks on scholars who use the historical-critical method. As a result, many evangelicals want to be more controlling of scholarship than Bruce did.
Sparks says some people respond to historical analysis of the Bible by taking a secular approach. They conclude that the Bible has no divine authority and is just another human book. This is what some evangelicals view as a threat. They, therefore, adopt a traditional approach and defend, for instance, the traditional authorship for the Pentateuch and the Pastoral Epistles where historical-critical methods cast doubt. They tend to question the philosophical assumptions of biblical critics and even accuse them of poor scholarship.
Some evangelicals cannot go this way. Their own study leads them to conclusions that align with historical-critical rejection of the traditional views about authorship and other matters. These scholars look for a third way.
To recap, Sparks sees three approaches: the secular, the traditional, and what he calls the constructive.
He promises to get more into the constructive approach, which is clearly what he wants to develop, in later chapters.
He argues that the historical-critical method is simply good research and scholarship of the kind that has historically characterized Protestantism.
He compares the current tensions to the struggle of the Catholic Church to accommodate Galileo’s astronomy. Although Galileo’s results were unsettling to many of the faithful at first. They eventually became theologically safe as people realized that you could integrate them into a Christian world-view. Sparks will argue that the same is true of biblical criticism.
In the preface, he stated this in a different way. As an evangelical he recognizes that there is a legitimate scandal of faith. I am sure he is thinking of the apostle Paul’s view that for both Jews and Greeks the cross-centered gospel is itself a scandal or stumbling-block. But his goal in this book is to deal with illegitimate, intellectual scandals. Clearly he thinks that rejecting the insights of historical criticism is such an illegitimate scandal.
Although I am a mainline Protestant (a very uncomfortable one), I am not completely outside the category of evangelical. I worked with churches in small and mid-sized towns, where many members of mainline churches either identify as evangelical or have been influenced by evangelical institutions like TV and radio stations, Christian book stores, and parachurch organizations.
I find much that I like in the evangelical ethos–its openness to bible study, answered prayer and combating real issues in people’s lives like addictions and family breakdowns. But there are toxic aspects to it as well. There is the Prosperity Gospel. There is the whole Rapture, Left Behind eschatology. There is Young Earth Creationism. Also, on the left wing of evangelicalism, there is the Red Letter Christian approach that privileges the words attributed to Jesus over other scripture.
It is behind some of these toxic aspects that I have found illegitimate intellectual scandals in evangelicalism that might be partly fixed by a historical-critical insight into the Bible. So that is where I am as I begin to read Sparks.