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.