The Bible and Knowledge 4 (RJS)

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We have been working through Kent Sparks’s book God’s Word in Human Words (GWHW).  A couple of posts ago (here) I suggested a way of looking at scripture as light rather than foundation; a change in perspective that I think takes some of the stress out of the discussion of the nature of scripture.  Our foundation is God alone. But this is only a beginning.  We still need to wrestle with the nature of God’s revelation in Scripture.

In Chs. 4 and 5 Sparks discusses traditional evangelical responses and constructive responses to the problems introduced by biblical criticism. These are interesting chapters. I recommend that you read them, but we won’t discuss them explicitly.  Here we will focus on Chs. 6 and 7 – constructive approaches to understanding the nature of God’s discourse in Scripture, as we have it before us, as the inspired Word of God.

Sparks starts Ch. 6:

God can and does speak to us in diverse and sometimes surprising ways, including through our reading of books. But the Bible is profoundly unique among books because it is, in its essence, both divine and human discourse. It is the voice of God, but also of Paul, of the evangelists, of the Israelite prophets and sages, and of countless others through whom God has given us Scripture. (p. 205)

But why if scripture is divine discourse is there diversity and apparent human error in the text?

Sparks takes the position that we have both human and divine elements to scripture because God accommodates his communication with us to modes of human discourse and understanding. God condescends to our level to build a relationship with us – his creation made in his image. Perhaps he could have done it differently – but the very text we have before us provides evidence that he did not. 

There are two aspects to the human nature of discourse in scripture.

Genre: The first part of this is relatively uncontroversial. The genres of human discourse can bear much of the load as we seek to understand the nature of communication in scripture. For example, research into genre suggests that the Pentateuch not a fictional history, rather it is an anthology compiled from existing sources, themselves composed in common genres of the time and place, to preserve Israel’s diverse traditions. This is the story of God’s interaction with his people.  Different versions of the same story are common within the Pentatuech – but no more troubling than the different versions we have in Samuel, Kings, Chronicles or than the different versions we have in the Gospels.

Accommodation: But God’s accommodation to human communication goes beyond consideration of genre.  He used human authors and thus the accommodation extends to include the limited perspective and human fallenness of both the authors and the audience.

Accommodation is God’s adoption in inscripturation of the audience’s finite and fallen perspective. Its underlying assumption is that in many cases God does not correct our mistaken human viewpoints but merely assumes them in order to communicate with us. (p.231)

The concept of God’s accommodation to human limitations has deep roots in the church.  Sparks traces the idea in the writings of Justin Martyr, Irenaeus, Origen, Athanasius, the Cappadocian fathers (Gregory of Nyssa, Basil the Great, and Gregory of Nazianzus), John Chrysostom, Augustine, and John Calvin.

But there are, as Sparks points out, subtle differences between the ancient or traditional and modern views of accommodation. Calvin believed that God revealed creation to Moses – and Moses colluded in accommodating that revelation to the minds of his audience. In his commentary on Gen 1:16 Calvin writes as if Moses knew that the planets are larger than the moon when he (Calvin) commends the study of astronomy and its impact on our understanding of scripture:

Nor did Moses truly wish to withdraw us from this pursuit in omitting such things as are peculiar to the art; but because he was ordained a teacher as well of the unlearned and rude as of the learned, he could not otherwise fulfill his office than by descending to this grosser method of instruction. … If the astronomer inquires respecting the actual dimensions of the stars, he will find the moon to be less than Saturn; but this is something abstruse, for to the sight it appears differently. Moses, therefore, rather adapts his discourse to common usage. (Commentary on Genesis Vol. 1)

The modern view of accommodation is more far-reaching. The mind of God is not equated with the mind of the human author.  The human authors of scripture are finite and located in time and space. The are inspired, sometimes directly (in prophetic and didactic writing for example) and sometimes indirectly (in the histories and the poetry for example). But the limits that necessitate accommodation for the audience apply also to the author.

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 author, whose perspectives, personality, vocabulary, and literary competence were well suited to the ancient audience of Scripture. (p. 245)

Sparks points out that this idea, while not common in the early fathers is not absent either.  He quotes Augustine in his discussion of the John 1:1

I venture to say, my brethren, perhaps not John himself spoke of the matter as it is, but even he only as he was able; for it was man that spoke of God, inspired indeed by God, but still man. Because he was inspired he said something; if he had not been inspired, he would have said nothing; but because a man inspired, he spoke not the whole, but what a man could he spoke. (Tractate I, in Vol. 7 NPNF1 (Sparks’s quote is worded slightly differently – I took mine from the pdf copy of NPNF1))

For Sparks accommodation is an obvious and necessary part of scripture.  It is obvious in the nature of the text we have. It is necessary as the only way for God to convey at least part of His infinite perception to limited human minds. And it is necessary because God’s message in scripture is mediated through human authors, fallen and finite.

What do you think? Is it reasonable to assume that God used the finite and fallen perspective of human authors to convey his message in scripture?

If you wish to contact me directly you may do so at rjs4mail [at]

  • Ted M. Gossard

    The fact of God’s accomodation has to be accepted on some level, or in some way.
    I wonder if we as evangelicals, focusing so much on this, can end up losing out in simply finding and resting in the Divine aspect of Scripture. We want to do battle over this, and thinking it through is important, but we can thus lose out.
    On the other hand, it’s not so easy to draw lines to factor out history, because history is a big part of our faith. If Jesus and the resurrection did not happen in history, and if the Old Testament isn’t grounded significantly in history, then our faith is not Christian.

  • Marcus

    I agree, accommodation is a necessary concept that everyone relies on in some way, for example, the anthropomorphisms used to describe God. God accommodated his revelation to explain something to us about his nature.

  • Rick

    In regards to the Augustine on John quote-
    Robert Yarbrough, in reviewing this book, disagrees with Sparks:
    “Sparks claims Augustine’s authority for the view that the Gospel of John’s divine insights “can go no farther than the man himself can bear” (246)—so Augustine, like Sparks, affirms a radical human limitation to John and the other Gospel writers.
    But it is not so simple. Augustine’s Harmony of the Gospels 35.54 gives a fuller picture of this Latin father’s view. Jesus appointed disciples. These he used in writing the Gospels “as if they were his own hands.” The image is almost grotesque: the reader who
    apprehends this correspondence of unity and this concordant service of the members [i.e., the hands, the disciples], all in harmony in the discharge of diverse offices under the Head [i.e., Christ], will receive the account which he gets in the Gospel through the narratives constructed by the disciples, in the same kind of spirit in which he might look upon the actual hand of the Lord Himself, which He bore in that body which was made His own, were he to see it engaged in the act of writing.
    To look upon the written Gospels is to see de facto the hand of Jesus Christ himself engaged in writing it! This gives rise to Augustine’s direct response to the claim (made repeatedly by Sparks) that the Gospels materially contradict (italics added below):
    For this reason let us now rather proceed to examine into the real character of those passages in which these critics suppose the evangelists to have given contradictory accounts (a thing which only those who fail to understand the matter aright can fancy to be the case); so that, when these problems are solved, it may also be made apparent that the members in that body have preserved a befitting harmony in the unity of the body itself, not only by identity in sentiment, but also by constructing records consonant with that identity.
    Augustine does not support Sparks’s view of the Gospels on this point.”

  • Rick

    Also, Jason Sexton on the “accomodation” proposed by Sparks:
    “He employs “accommodation” for understanding differences between divine and human accounts in Scripture, though never explaining how to determine which is which or what might decide an accommodation. It seems, frankly, that whenever normal interpretation yields something unexplainable to the reader or some presumed error based on a critical-realist reading of the text, “accommodation” then becomes the “theological explanation for the presence of human errors in Scripture.” So, does a literal hermeneutic guide this process for determination? If so, then in the “inerrant” parts about the “inerrant God” (wherever they may be), does Scripture speak univocally of him, allowing the reader to judge empirically whether God is in error? If so, problems have shifted from a doctrine of Scripture to epistemology, theology proper, and doctrines of man and sin.”

  • RJS

    I am not an expert on Augustine – and so cannot make a conclusive statement. However, there are two things I note in reading his work:
    (1) As he is thinking through things he often explores different sides of issues and appears to adopt or consider conflicting views. He was a smart and devout man. I enjoy reading much of his work.
    (2) When he felt attack he would harden his stance to unsupportable extremes and defend them with harsh rhetoric. This is particularly noteworthy in his fight against Pelagianism.
    So when Augustine moves from a reasoned and peaceful discussion to harsh rhetoric it always gives me pause to consider more carefully what he says, and I take it with a grain of salt.

  • Rick

    Augustine certainly would, at times, get passionate in expressing his views. However, his view on Scripture (or at least the Gospels) does not seem to be as portrayed by Sparks.

  • MatthewS

    Is it reasonable to assume that God used the finite and fallen perspective of human authors to convey his message in scripture?
    Yes, but… Two concerns for me. Accommodation does not necessarily require a complete limitation. Some seem to ride accommodation train too far. If you can think of the divine perspective and the human perspective as two horizons, some seem to capture the divine horizon and fuse it with the human. This is going too far. Double entendres, also children’s books come to mind: an author can say what the reader at first understands, but the author might have more in mind. Suess’s “Yertle the Turtle” works for a first-grader as a story about a turtle who experienced arrogance before a fall. As an adult, I find the story says something relevant to daily business life and politics beyond what I could have understood as a first grader. This is not the same thing as sensus plenior, at least not Origen-style. Yertle does not have an obfuscated hidden meaning – just more and deeper than the first grader comprehends. It’s an imperfect analogy. But just as it would be a mistake for the first-grader to assume he or she understands the entire work, and a mistake again when the child is a sixth-grader, so it would be a mistake for either the ancient reader or for myself to assume that now I comprehend the divine perspective.
    My second, and related, concern is that it is possible to replace authority with truth. Some seem to think that as long as we allow that the Bible contains timeless truth we have done it justice. But it is important not to lose authority as well as truth. “King Lear” contains a lot of truth but little authority for my daily life. An employee handbook or a student manual at a university is authoritative within a specific domain but contains little timeless truth for further generations to ponder. I see the Scripture as containing elements of both. It has timeless truth but authority. It is not a black and white rule book and much of it is in the genre of either story or poetry. Nonetheless, the parts add up to a whole and the whole is both true and authoritative.

  • Carlo

    some helpful points here. i think its important to consider that the finite words of our own human language are amazingly limited when talking about an infinite God. 1 Cor 13, whilst talking about love, says that we see but a pale reflection. perhaps our words, anthropomorphisms, and ways of describing God, whilst incredibly helpful, will at best be fragments.

  • Kenny Johnson

    I don’t have anything really to add hear. I think ultimately, I am ok with Spark’s view, but for myself personally, I think it goes further than I’d like. I think, again for myself, that I’d stick to the Chicago Statement.
    I might feel comfortable that with revising the statement on inerrancy so that those who share Sparks’ view could teach, etc at those schools that require a belief in inerrancy.
    My only concern would be this… I’ve heard that Fuller has some pretty liberal professors now after they changed their statement of beliefs to simply “inspired” in the 70s

  • dopderbeck

    Rick (#3 and #4) — IMHO, it’s kind of pointless to fight over which view Augustine supports. The fact is that Augustine, along with all the other Fathers, didn’t ever directly address the issues we have to address today, because they didn’t have the information we have. But it is a valid point to note that the Fathers were not at all rigid with respect to the knowledge they did have. We can look to them for hints in the tradition concerning the trajectory of how we should understand scripture. I don’t think a fair reading of Augustine would support the (IMHO) sometimes rationalistic approaches of folks such as Yarbrough at TEDS. And Augustine, of course, ultimately elevated the Roman Church to a status essentially equal to scripture, so no evangelical will follow Augustine on all points in any event.
    Re: Sexton — well, this is one reason I found Sexton’s article unhelpful. I think Sparks, and others who see more room for accommodation than some conservative evanglicals, have offered a variety of hermeneutical approaches for determining what the Spirit is saying through the text — i.e., what is the authoritative teaching of the text. Most notably, some refer to the Patristic Rule of Faith (essentially, gospel of Christ’s incarnation, death and resurrection, which is the center of all genuinely Christian theology). This is important, because before there was a Canon, the Rule of Faith was the measuring stick not only for hermeneutics, but also for weighing the various Christian texts that purported to be authoritative. So, using the Rule of Faith as a yardstick is not an innovation, but is in fact a return to the early tradition of the Church.
    And I would respond to Sexton: how does the notion of inerrant original manuscripts which we no longer possess, and which must be interpreted by fallible expositors, materially aid the Church in formulating sure doctrine, over the notion that the text is accommodated to human limitations? We still have a fallible text because the inerrant autographs (to the extent that concept is even viable) no longer exist; and we still have fallible interpreters, who often reach wildly divergent conclusions about the meaning of the text. Put an inerrantist dispensationalist and an inerrantist amillenialist in the same room and let’s see if the text can adjudicate between them!
    It seems to me that what holds together dispensationalists and amillenialists, Calvinists and Arminians, pentecostals and cessationists, event Catholics and Protestants, is precisely the Rule of Faith, particularly as enlivened in the lives of believers by the Holy Spirit. This was the Tradition handed down from the Apostles to the Fathers and through the ages to us. Why does the Rule of Faith not provide an adequate basis for working through the maze of what the central, essential, authoritative message of scripture is for us today?

  • Rick

    Good thoughts.
    The point on Augustine was simply to show that Sparks does not provide the full view of the bishop.
    “This was the Tradition handed down from the Apostles to the Fathers and through the ages to us. Why does the Rule of Faith not provide an adequate basis for working through the maze of what the central, essential, authoritative message of scripture is for us today?”
    As someone who leans towards the paleo-orthodox side of things, I agree. I would include the creeds with the Rule. Although they are in someways summaries of the Rule, they also provide insights into the use of Scripture.
    It is this historical outlook that seems to be lacking in the Sparks theory. He lacks the views from within Scripture, and does not (apparently) give the sufficient scope of views of the early church (at least to this point in the discussion).
    S.M. Baugh:
    “While Sparks affirms, “I have allowed Scripture itself to set the agenda for my theology of Scripture” (p. 355), this book does not analyze the biblical authors’ own view of Scripture, inerrancy, inspiration, or canon. How he would handle biblical texts which bear directly or by implication on these subjects would have been illuminating.”
    “Modern critical research simply trumps Jesus—end of discussion. We hear nothing here or elsewhere about either Jesus or other New Testament writers in terms of their view of Scripture. “Inspiration,” a significant category in ancient thought, is not addressed; 2 Tim 3:16 and 2 Pet 1:20–21 and the meaning of graphe in biblical writings are not discussed. The implications of “thus says the Lord” in the prophets receive no attention, nor Moses receiving tablets on Sinai and communing with Yahweh face to face. Sparks’s approach here may be “critical,” but it simply ignores the historical. Perhaps this is because he knows these things are not historical based on historical critical authorities.
    Second, while Sparks dips into the fathers or the Reformers here and there to make key points—and his treatment on Calvin and accommodation (232–36, 245, 249–51, etc.) while not extensive is insightful—his presentation of the history of biblical interpretation is not up to the weight he places on it. Origen (ca. AD 185–254) wrote in the third century, not the second (143). Sparks thinks that Porphyry (ca. AD 232–ca. 304) and Augustine (AD 354–430) wrote “at about the same time” (ibid.); figures writing in the third and fifth centuries are farther removed temporally than were Paul and Irenaeus.”
    As some have already commented, Sparks seems to go a little too far in his accomodation proposal. He also seems to rely far more heavily on modern theories than on ancient sources.
    Again, Baugh on Sparks:
    “In light of this, one could justifiably wish that the same dedication and effort this young scholar put into secondary critical opinions had been put into a discerning mastery of primary sources–both biblical and extra-biblical. It is remarkable how one’s perspective changes the more one is steeped less in modern opinion and more in antiquity. And in my experience, though the vast majority of biblical scholars may hold to a certain opinion, it does not mean that either all or even most of them have ever really studied and verified the underpinnings of that view.”

  • beckyr

    well said matthew s.
    when talking of this we must remember the role of the holy spirit of opening our eyes so we can know truth. otherwise we are stuck with the fallibility of all imvolved and it ends there and i can’t trusr scripture if that’s all there is. evertone’s minds are fallen and we can’t know truth without the help of the holy spirit.

  • Doug Allen

    I think RJS also invoked holy spirit in an earlier converstion, but don’t those who are full of the holy spirit also come to very different conclusions on so many of the issues we discuss here? If so, I really don’t understand how it helps? My own rule for discernment is this: does a particular interpretation or belief help us do what Jesus taught was most important: love God and love others. So often, it seems to me, we can love God and love others best by not taking a hard stance on issues that divide us.

  • Frank Gantz

    I am reticent to say that accommodation includes allowing human error. We not only have to keep in mind genre analysis, but also figure of speech. If I say that I could eat a horse, it is a figure of speech that is true in that I am hungry. It is untrue that I could eat a horse.

  • RJS

    I don’t think that Kent is trying to show that Augustine agrees with him – but that there is precedent for some of what he is saying in the early church fathers. In fact he was clear in the book that he takes the idea of accommodation farther than they generally did.
    And regarding the quote from Baugh
    this book does not analyze the biblical authors’ own view of Scripture, inerrancy, inspiration, or canon. How he would handle biblical texts which bear directly or by implication on these subjects would have been illuminating.
    The problem is that I don’t think that the biblical authors ever, ever claim or describe inerrancy in the sense that Baugh would like. So there are no serious texts that bear directly on these subjects.
    There are some that texts bear on the issue peripherally and by inference of modern interpreters. But I think that the “proof texts” for inerrancy are misappropriations. In particular – 2 Tim. 3:16-17 is as seriously misused by protestants as Mt 16:18-19 is by the RCC.
    More to the point – by looking at issues such as the NT use of the OT and such we can get some idea of how the text was interpreted and used by Paul and the evangelists and such. But I think that this would indicate that we should go back to a more allegorical method similar to the early church fathers. I don’t think that it actually supports modern evangelical methods very well.

  • Rick

    “I think that this would indicate that we should go back to a more allegorical method similar to the early church fathers.”
    I think we should say “some” early church fathers (more of the Alexandrian school, although the Antioch/Alexandria distinctions are somewhat overplayed at times).
    Although Baugh may disagree with Sparks conclusion on those topics, I think Baugh and Yarbrough are correct in bringing up the need to sufficiently address Scripture on Scripture.
    I think it is interesting that you mentioned “modern” (in a negative sense) twice in your comment. It is the same term those critical of Sparks use against him.

  • RJS

    I didn’t mean the first use of “modern” in a negative sense – just in a temporal sense (not ancient).
    The second use was intended as a mild negative – because I think the common evangelical method is “modern” and is rooted in a philosophically “modern” mindset. But I don’t think that this is supported by the text or even by the way that NT authors used the OT.

  • RJS

    Allegorical may not be exactly the word I want – but, to pull one example, the way Matthew uses Jeremiah 31:15 and Hosea 11:1 is not even close to the way I’ve been taught to handle scripture.
    Mt 2:15 He remained there until the death of Herod. This was to fulfill what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet: “OUT OF EGYPT I CALLED MY SON.”

  • Rick

    ….unless you are using “modern” in the sense of “present day”, rather than referring to mindset. I just want to make sure I interpret correctly by trying to understand the author’s intent :^)

  • Rick

    sorry, we posted at the same time.

  • Rick

    “But I don’t think that this is supported by the text or even by the way that NT authors used the OT”….”is not even close to the way I’ve been taught to handle scripture.”
    Exactly why it is important to discuss the ancient primary, or close to primary sources, which apparently Sparks does not do sufficiently.
    He sees things through the “modern” (mindset) critical method, and seems to analyze things through that lens, yet may think he is being objective. However, does he recognize that “modern” lens?
    “…the book is deceptive in casting evangelical views as traditional but historical-critical views as invariably current and fresh. In fact, nothing is more traditional than historical-critical findings. Few of them, by now, are truly new; many were established in the nineteenth century or even earlier; some are as ancient as anti-Christian apologists like Celsus (ca. AD 180). Once these “critical” beliefs get established, they get passed from professor to student with the same apodictic authority Sparks associates with evangelical dogma. Luke Timothy Johnson showed this in the history of scholarship of 1–2 Timothy.”
    If one does not adequately address the Scripture on Scripture questions (especially how Jesus viewed Scripture), or other ancient sources, then that modern lens is too thick.

  • BenB

    This has been much more of a dialogue than a conversation, but an enjoyable one to read.
    That being said, I think we make WAY too much of the issue. I think I agree with sparks for the most part, but I just feel like I’m a hopeless liberal on the subject who could care less what people want to think. This is tough for me as an evangelical.
    I guess my feelings about accomodation are simply this… Read what’s in the text. If it’s not historically accurate (creation account), if there are contradictions (Who killed Goliath?), if they are Historically impossible (Herod being King while Quirrinias was governor), then just realize that man wrote the Bible… and it’s exactly how God intends us to have it.
    We must deal with it as God’s people, and be faithful to what it is. A story about God… not about creation. A story about God, not about a boy killing a Giant. Peter and Paul don’t tell us the Scripture is good for history… it tells us it is good for teaching and doctrine. Why do we desire so much more?
    sola Scriptura protestantism requires us to do this, not to take abstract philosophical ideas to interpret statements made by Peter or Paul (pseudo-Paul).

  • BenB

    I can’t agree more with any statement about what the Bible is, and where to start than with Philip Clayton here…

  • BeckyR

    Doug Allen – here’s how I see it : i have to know something is true. I have to know there’s a basis to stand on to say I can know truth. What we have is fallen humans with fallen minds meaning we’re faulty. If I stay with that, there’s no way to even know this chair is really a chair, it may be my messed up mind thinks it’s a chair. Do you see what I’m describing. What gets me out of that despairing dead end is that we have the holy spirit who gives us cracked eikons moments of knowing truth. Now, not perfectly and so yes, we have different beliefs within christendom. But it’s enough knowing to be substantial. Not perfect but substantial.

  • Doug Allen

    I agree that for practical purposes we need the peace of trusting our senses and mental impressions. Some philosophers, of course, have argued that all we know are sense senations, but that’s another topic. And I agree with what I infer you and (earlier on a related subject) RJS wrote about the role of the holy spirit if by that you mean prayerful consideration. I guess where I differ is this. I don’t feel that need to know “something” is true. It’s not that, like you and most people, I don’t value the truth and wouldn’t feel comforted by it. It’s just that most of the “somethings” we discuss and argue about here are interpretations or speculations that are beyond our ability to prove. All sides frequently have wonderfully argued reasons for their beliefs, but that is, I think, all they are, beliefs and not truth. To believe the bible is inerrant is a belief. To belive that the bible is the word of God is a belief. To believe the bible is divinely inspired is a belief. To belive that the bible is tribal folklore and legend is a belief. Do any of these beliefs rise to the level of truth or give us reason for demonizing those whose belief differs from our own?