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.