Kenton Sparks book, God’s Word in Human Words, is pretty long. I have finished it. There is much that I have failed to cover. But I want to deal with how his views influence people.
How dangerous is using the historical-critical method to read the Bible? Well, people can lose their faith. One former Christian named Anthony, telling his deconversion story at the commonsenseatheism site, mentions Sparks:
For over a year I was an evolutionist and rejected full inerrancy but was still interested in seeing how the Bible could still be considered inspired and the “word of God.” I had bought many books on the subject which included the one by Sparks. I decided to read Sparks first and was totally dumb founded by the shear amount of critical and historical problems of the Bible. By the time I was finished reading I found that there was nothing left in Christianity for me to believe.
Sparks’ detailed reading of the Bible dumbfounded him. And he found nothing left to believe. But what had Anthony believed before? He tells us that he identified as a Young Earth Creationist. In other word, he had ignored the fossil record and most scientists in order to believe in a literal 6 day creation a few thousand years ago. Now he is an atheist, having found no middle ground between that kind of literalism and nonbelief.
Anthony does not tell us what he thinks of Sparks’ argument that this kind of problem stems from the Enlightenment lust for incorrigible knowledge, the idea that the Bible should give us a God’s-eye view of reality, past and future. Sparks rejects that kind of epistemic optimism.
But Sparks does not find nothing left to believe. He believes the truths of the Apostles Creed and the Nicene Creed. He believes in the resurrection of Christ, the atonement through his death, and even the virgin birth. So when Anthony says that after reading Sparks he found nothing left in Christianity to believe, he has rejected or failed to grasp a central theme in Sparks’ book. Sparks says the partial and human words of the Bible constitute for us an adequate word of God. All we need is an adequate word. If we demand something more, that is our idolatry and sin.
The historical-critical approach is destructive to something, but maybe not to Christian faith. It is destructive to the idea that we can get detailed knowledge about the past and future through a divinely guaranteed book of precise scientific and historical information. But Christians and Jews have long seen that the Bible is not like that.
I am not a fan of the bits of postmodernism that I understand. It is full of jargon and often tends toward relativism. Sparks uses the postmodern approach but does not buy into it fully. I am not sure that this is even necessary.
St. Paul said that we now know in part, but that then (at the resurrection) we shall know more perfectly. Now we see in a mirror imperfectly, but we shall then see face to face. Someday the partial shall be set aside. (1 Corinthians 13:9 ff.) If all postmodernism is doing is very verbosely affirming the imperfection of our present knowledge, that has some value and coheres with Paul.
But notice that 1 Corinthians 13 expresses a position that goes beyond postmodernism. It says that revelation and, therefore, knowledge will eventually become full.
I did not see any mention of the thought of Wolfhart Pannenberg in Sparks. But Pannenberg, while rejecting Enlightenment foundationalism, believed that God is revealing himself in history and that revelation becomes complete only at the end of history. This seems to me to comport with the view of knowledge in 1 Corinthians 13 and with the interpretation of the name God revealed to Moses as “I will be what I will be” (Exodus 3:14).
God will reveal himself in the end. But you can’t make images or idols in the mean time, because they would only be partial and untrue representations.
Let me go back to the idea of a divine symphony. This was the Jewish scholar, Israel Knohl’s, metaphor for the Bible. There are a lot of instruments playing varied and discordant parts. These are the diverse books and authors of the Bible. To add Pannenberg’s view of revelation to Knohl’s metaphor, the symphony is still going on. God reveals himself in history and history continues. Is it going to be a unity or is it all going to fly apart and become a cacophony?
The Bible itself points to a building crescendo, a satisfying and beautiful end to the divine symphony. But now, even with the Bible in hand, we only know in part. And Paul in 1 Corinthians 13 calls us to see love as more important than knowledge.
One of the things I got from Sparks is that James Barr, with his placing the Bible within a context of natural theology, may have been on to something. Barr’s Gifford Lecture on the subject is online here. At some point I may blog about that.