In order to understand what we are really dealing with in Kenton Sparks’ God’s Word in Human Words, we have to see that many perceive it as a direct attack on the central tenet of evangelical Christianity.
Sparks tells how Billy Graham, back in the 1940s, had been friends with Canadian evangelist, Charles Templeton. Templeton was a bigger name evangelist than Graham at the time. However Templeton decided to go to seminary and become a Bible scholar as well as an evangelist. In seminary he discovered some of the problems Sparks has been highlighting. The whole Bible became a problem for Templeton. He shared his struggle with his friend, Billy Graham.
Templeton found the discrepancies in the Bible too much to handle. He broke with Christianity. He became an agnostic and went on to have a career in the media and as a novelist. He wrote Act of God about an archeologist who finds the bones of Jesus and then gets threatened with murder by Christians who want to suppress his find.
Billy Graham could not answer Templeton’s questions. This threatened to cause Graham to veer off his course as a preacher. In 1945, Billy Graham one day ended the matter. He put his Bible on a tree stump and prayed:
“O God: I cannot prove certain things, I cannot answer some of the questions Charles Templeton is raising, some of the other people are raising, but I accept this book by faith as the Word of God” (p. 135).
Graham accepted the Bible by faith. Templeton rejected Christianity because he could not reconcile the Bible with his learning. Are these the only alternatives people have?
“one of the purposes of the present volume is to chart out a theological path that will allow the Charles Templetons in our world to keep their faith and their intellectual integrity at the same time” (136).
On one hand, Sparks can see that Billy Graham’s appeal to faith to reject biblical criticism was warranted. You can’t allow yourself to be paralyzed by doubt. And if you are not a biblical scholar, you may see your personal relationship with God as more important than these biblical details. You just put them aside and move on.
On the other hand, blind faith is not ultimately an answer. Faith and facts have to be held by the same mind. People who operate by blind faith certainly hold many true beliefs. But when one of their beliefs proves to contradict facts, they are left the intellectually indefensible option of rejecting facts.
A major effort to support this rejection of biblical criticism arose among evangelicals in the 1950‘s and 60‘s. Carl F. H. Henry, who edited Christianity Today magazine was a leading figure. According to Sparks, Henry operated on the syllogism:
“God does not err, God inspired Scripture, therefore Scripture is inerrant” (p. 138).
So Henry and Sparks are in two different worlds of thinking. Sparks had proceeded inductively by reading the Bible and inferring from that reading what kind of book the Bible is. Henry disallowed that approach. He thought you had to begin by accepting Scripture as a product of the divine Mind, and then deducing from that what kind of book the Bible has to be.
To Sparks this approach ignores a “veritable avalanche of data that is far too substantial to be swept aside with the flimsy theological broom used by Henry” (p. 139).
I don’t think these two views are going to find much middle ground. Most of the negative reviews of God’s Word in Human Words just reaffirm an approach like Henry’s. However, there has been published a whole book of essays which try to deal with aspects of Sparks’ “avalanche of data”.
The book is Do Historical Matters Matter to Faith?: A Critical Appraisal of Modern and Postmodern Approaches to Scripture. I haven’t read it, but looking at the table of contents, it looks like several of the articles on the Hebrew Scriptures deal with the maximilist/minimalist controversy. But Sparks is not a minimalist. I wonder if some people don’t get the difference between rejecting inerrancy and the radical skepticism of minimalists who don’t think the exodus happened at all or that the united kingdom of David and Solomon ever existed.
So the argument between Spark’s inductive approach to Scripture and Henry’s deductive approach does not promise to be very productive. Still ahead of us we have Sparks’ positive effort to show how people like Charles Templeton can keep their faith.