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.