Kenton Sparks, in God’s Word in Human Words, wants to let Scripture set the agenda for theology.
This means accepting Scripture as it is.
If the return of Christ did not come to pass in the first century, as Paul and the author of Revelation anticipated, then so be it: such is the Word of God. If Scripture tells us on the one hand that women cannot speak in church, and on the other hand that they may prophesy there, then so be it: such is the Word of God. In like manner, if Scripture tells us that women cannot have authority over men, and if at the same time God has chosen Deborah to lead Israel, then so be it: such is the Word of God. And if such is the Word of God–that it is diverse in its messages–then our theological work will sometimes involve judgments about which of God’s diverse messages it Israel and the church should set the final precedent in our theology (p. 355).
In his next-to-the-last chapter Sparks looked at three examples of how he has come to deal with the results of the historical method.
The first example is the historical-critical unveiling of the story of David in 1 and 2 Samuel as propoganda. The idea that David went out of his way to save and respect King Saul and that, in spite of killing most of them, he was kind to Saul’s family does not represent the reality of David. He seems to have been a much darker character in reality. Yet it is the biblical portrait of David that Jews and Christians have fallen in love with.
Sparks refers to Baruch Halpern’s book, David’s Secret Demons. I found Halpern’s dedication of that book both amusing and insightful. He dedicated the book to “Aunt Claire, for the whoops of horror it occasioned.” Presumably his aunt loved the King David who got brutally deconstructed in his book. No wonder she whooped.
Yet Halpern and Sparks are right. You have to dig under the surface of the court propaganda to write a historical biography of David. But Sparks does something Halpern does not. Sparks finds value in the unhistorical version of David we find in 1 and 2 Samuel. The example of a king who was kind even to his enemies was fulfilled in Christ. By a kind of chastened use of allegory and a perspective from the Bible as a whole, he appropriates the story of David as a theologically valid narrative.
He also says that, because those who compiled and wrote 1 and 2 Samuel lived at a later time and had to rely on the biased court documents as sources, they did not really err. I don’t believe in inerrancy in the first place and I can’t imagine that this would be convincing to anyone who held the standard doctrine of verbal inspiration. Nevertheless, it is true that the authors had to use the sources that were available to them. At least 1 and 2 Samuel leave in place the traces of David’s immorality and cruelty. Chronicles usually just leaves this aspect of David out of the story.
The other two examples are the mistake about the nearness of the end of history in Daniel and Revelation and the biblical support for husbands and fathers as heads of household and leaders in the church (see the quote above).
His handling of the issue of patriarchy is interesting. Unlike many feminist exegetes, Sparks accepts that the majority opinion in the Bible favors at least a soft patriarchy (where male leadership is set within the context of love and support). However, he also sees that within Scripture and the early church (the apocryphal Acts of Paul) there was a minority voice favoring a more equal role for women. He argues that sometimes it is legitimate to take up a minority voice among the diverse voices of Scripture.
I agree, although I think his case would be stronger if he showed why this is not just a matter of political correctness. Sometimes the world changes. In biblical times women, as a condition of human survival, were more consumed by their inescapable role as life givers. Men are barren in that we do not gestate or give birth.
This is still true. But technology (more than political movements) has let women no longer be so consumed by their life-giving and nurturing roles. Birth control, infant formula, day care, washing machines, microwave ovens and a host of other new inventions and institutions have freed women. They are now free to pick up other roles and do other things with most of their lives.
So theology needs to adapt. The majority voice about patriarchy in the Bible was more valid for its time. The minority voice is more valid for ours.