Enns, Sparks, Arnold, and Chapman on the OT: Part 3 (RJS)

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Kent Sparks’s book God’s Word in Human Words (GWHW) was the subject of a session organized by Peter Enns at the Society of Biblical Literature meeting last November. Dr. Enns has made some of this session available to a broader audience on his blog, starting with his review of GWHW, and continuing with his response and Bill Arnold’s response. We also discussed these posts here in parts one and two of this series.

Late last week Stephen Chapman’s response to GWHW was posted on Enns’s blog.  This is excellent timing. Chapman provides an insightful review that brings up several questions that confront me in reading GWHW. And relevant to our last post on GWHW,  Chapman’s review touches on the issue of accommodation in the interpretation of scripture.  You can read Chapman’s review for yourself. Here I will highlight just a few of his points and open it up for discussion.

Chapman brings up three important points I think particularly worthy of discussion.

First: Sparks proposes that God accommodates to human error – human fallenness.  This is a more radical proposal than standard views of accommodation where God accommodates to human capacity for understanding.

The accommodation of ancient near east cosmology in Gen 1 is an accommodation to human capacity and finite human understanding.  This is a relatively straightforward example and it seems obvious that God did accommodate himself to human perspective in Gen 1 and many other places.  There is no sin involved – any error is simply related to human finitude.

On the other hand Sparks suggests that in the conquest accounts God has accommodated to Israel’s errant understanding of ethnic identity and genocide. In the context of New Testament teaching violent protection of ethnic identity is sin. We would now hold the same for slavery.

Is accommodation theory really able to handle moral error in scripture and is Sparks asking it to?


Second: According to Chapman…

Sparks never gives sustained attention to the issue of inspiration, which is traditionally how evangelical theology has attempted to do justice to the double agency at the heart of Scripture’s composition. One might therefore think that Sparks simply gives no credence to any view of inspiration at all, that the human authors of Scripture had done the best they could in their fallen state to imagine the ways of God, and that God had had to make the best of it afterwards.

Does Sparks’s view of accommodation really do justice to the inspiration of scripture? How should we view inspiration?

Third: Sparks seems to have overcompensated for evangelical disdain of historical and biblical criticism by placing too much confidence in the results of biblical criticism. This was also my (untrained) impression as I read GWHW. Chapman goes on:

As someone who was trained largely within the historical-critical paradigm but has increasingly registered the limitations, blind spots and delusions integral to the methodology, I find myself hoping that it will not now be necessary for evangelicals to make all the same mistakes that historical-critical biblical scholars have made already!

I venture to suggest that evangelical biblical scholarship will need … to respond more openly to the full challenge of historical-critical biblical scholarship (just as Sparks urges) but also (more than Sparks advocates) to remain watchful for the limitations of historicism, engaging in historical study that can be brought into productive relationship with the life of the church. I do not actually think that Sparks would disagree with this point, I just think he has not emphasized it as much as it needs to be emphasized. Here again the rhetoric of his argument pushes him too far to one side of what is always, to be sure, a tricky balancing-act.

How do we take the balanced approach – accepting the clear evidence of biblical scholarship yet retaining a robust view of scripture as the Word of God?

Don’t get me wrong – I think that Sparks’s view of accommodation is important and one we would do well to consider seriously. It is undoubtedly a significant part of the answer to the problems we see in scripture.  The tendency by some Evangelical scholars to disavow accommodation is, I think, indefensible. But I don’t think that accommodation can carry the whole load.

What do you think?

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

  • CJW

    I only have this series of posts to go by (and not the book), so am happy to defer to others with more info in offering the following responses to RJS’s questions:
    1. To say that scripture accommodates human fallenness as well as finitude is not the same thing as saying that fallenness is a trait of Scripture itself. Given that part of our fallenness is an inability to comprehend our fallenness (an ‘unknown unknown’), and especially to distinguish it from finitude (a ‘known unknown’), it is difficult to conceive of a model of accommodation of one but not the other.
    2. Perhaps inspiration can be used broadly enough to apply to circumstances of writing (the process), and not just the writings themselves (the product). This might fit well with Wolterstorff’s idea of divinely appropriated discourse. It need not rule out God’s direct involvement in the writing of the scriptures to also expect/allow indirect involvement.
    3. A person only ever holds a singular perspective, but balance often requires a plurality of perspectives. Sparks and others might simply counter that they are making the inverse of Chapman’s argument, with just as much interest in a balanced outcome. Given the fundamentalist roots of evangelicalism, I would tend towards seeing the historical trajectory as having a bias against scholarship than towards it.

  • Kyle Roberts

    It seems that Chapman equates error with sin (according to this summary). But is that a necessary connection? Was it a sin for person living before the Copernican revolution to believe that the sun revolved around the earth–or for a biblical writer to believe that the sun moved from one end of the earth to the other? It seems more natural–and charitable–to chalk that up to finitude. The connection of sin with error (historical/scientific, etc.) unnecessarily hampers the discussion and makes Sparks’ thesis appear more destructive of the faith than it actually may be…

  • RJS

    Kyle,
    No I don’t think so. Scientific error is a matter of perspective, the fact that humans are finite. This is a realm where accommodation has often been applied. And I think that Chapman agrees – and I agree. (I will edit the post to make this point clearer)
    But Sparks takes it further and seems to say that God accommodated to human sinfulness (as in the OT conquests). Do you think that this is right?

  • http://jhimm.net/wabi_sabi Jim Marks

    I think sometimes it is necessary to overstate a certain case to get your audience to understand the extent of what you are asking them to reconsider and see differently. I read a lot of Bart Erhman’s books. He takes the historic, critical thing way, WAY too far as far as I’m concerned, but by reading his thoughts and understandings it has forced me to radically reconsider my understanding of the Bible as a -book- in addition to being The Word of G-d. If his books weren’t so radical and shocking I don’t think I’d have been able to stretch my thinking as far as I have, which has been vitally important for me.
    Perhaps Sparks is doing something similar here by downplaying inspiration and overplaying historic criticism Sparks is trying to force an Evangelical audience to get serious about trying to have a genuine understanding about what is an intellectually valid way of understanding “inerrant and G-d breathed”.

  • http://mysticallimpet.blogspot.com Travis Greene

    RJS, “Sparks takes it further and seems to say that God accommodated to human sinfulness (as in the OT conquests). Do you think that this is right?”
    I think something like this had to happen. God has to start somewhere. When God announces himself to Abraham, Abraham responds in faith, but this faith has almost no content. It’s basically “Hey, I’m God, you’re my dude, let’s hit the road.” No Torah yet to give shape to the ethics of the God of Abraham. Even with the Torah, things like polygamy and slavery are perfectly legitimate. The Jewish people didn’t adopt monogamy until much later, and then by Paul it’s a requirement for leadership. In the meantime there are laws and stories that would seem to legitimize polygamy, when it’s really just God doing the best he can (accommodating), not because of any limitation of his part, but on ours.
    This doesn’t bother me at all. It’s entirely analogous to the individual’s response to God. When an alcoholic who cheats on his wife turns to God, God’s probably going to address those problems first. Then later the man might discover God convicting him about greed or hateful thoughts. Still later he may find subtler sins that God is now bringing to his attention. Maybe the man discovers his environmental impact matters to God, or changes his mind about war or abortion because of his faith.
    The point is, God can’t show up on the first day with the whole huge list of what he’s going to do. Both our finitude and our fallenness would prevent us from even comprehending that, let alone participating. Although he will ultimately settle for nothing less than what we’d call perfection, he doesn’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good, because he knows us. And we take time to redeem.

  • http://homewardbound-cb.blogspot.com ChrisB

    “Moses permitted you to divorce your wives because your hearts were hard. But it was not this way from the beginning” (Matt 19:8).
    It seems that you can make a certain case for God accommodating human fallenness.
    This takes it too far, though: “Is accommodation theory really able to handle moral error in scripture…?”
    I have a problem with people passing moral judgement on the scriptures. The pomo approach is to ask, “Who are you to say…?” but in this case, I think it’s a good question — who are we to judge the scriptures? Moreover, based on what standard do you judge them?
    It too easily becomes a case of judging by the parts we “like” or are comfortable with based on modern sensibilities rather than looking at things through a well-rounded view of the character and mission of God.
    I know people struggle with things like the conquest of Canaan, and that’s understandable to a certain point, but the proposed solutions just get more bizarre. God let them do it because they were sinful, ignorant savages? Do we really want to go there?

  • JKG

    I have to say that I resonate with ChrisB’s points. Have we turned the blue parakeet of the conquest of Canaan into a Monty Python dead parrot sketch?
    We may not be comfortable with that story… or with the Lord “hardening Pharaoh’s heart”… but it is what Scripture tells us. I am much more willing to believe that my understanding is just too small than to believe that there is a “moral error” in Scripture.

  • http://mysticallimpet.blogspot.com Travis Greene

    ChrisB, “God let them do it because they were sinful, ignorant savages? Do we really want to go there?”
    Why not? Why not say God allowed this violence while planting seeds for its ultimate destruction? God allowed divorce (and polygamy) while eventually teaching the standards of true marriage. God allowed slavery, even in the NT, while teaching the ethics that led to its eventual destruction.
    Can we really imagine God not employing some kind of progressive revelation/accommodation? How else is he going to interact with a fallen world? Besides, what’s the alternative? God started off bloodthirsty and xenophobic, and by the time of Jesus had mellowed out? If Jesus trumps Torah, even to the point of explicitly saying that some of Moses’ teaching (plainly taught as coming from God) was, in fact, accommodation to sin and not in the higher, and ultimate ethics of God, why not interpret the conquest narratives in the same way too?

  • http://www.jesustheradicalpastor.com John W Frye

    ChrisB,
    The issue is not just judging the Scriptures, but the God of the Scriptures. And God did not just “let” the Israelites slaughter the Canaanites, God “commanded” them to do it. You seem comfortable sitting at God’s right hand and speaking for and protecting God’s right to do whatever he wants to do. But that same God turns around and makes it one of the 10 commandments for his people not to slaughter one another. The question, then, still stands: does accommodation cover moral error? Slaughtering in this case is OK, but not in this case. The Israelites were also ignorant, sinful savages if I read Judges correctly.

  • Dave

    It seems to me that the real accomodation here is taking place where we accomodate God to our minds. Issues in the scripture like creation, the flood, the conquest of Canaan don’t make sense to us and so we try to get them out. Older generations tried to clip them out altogether. Our generation, thinking itself more sophisticated has taken this “truth but not true approach.” I’m sure there will be other proposed solution to the problem of God in the OT in future generations as well.
    I don’t need to make excuses for the acts of God in the OT. The fact that He commanded the Isrealites to destroy the people of Canaan after years of patience with the immorality and idolatry needs to be considered from God’s perspective regardless of whether or not it fits with our 21st century notions of who we think God is/should be. I think we need to keep in mind God’s reproof from Psalm 50:21, “…you thought I was altogether like you…”
    Let’s stop trying to makes excuses for God and acknowledge Him for who He is as He has revealed Himself.

  • Kenny Johnson

    Scripture makes it clear that the conquest of the Canaanites was meant (at least partially) as punishment for the wickedness of Canaan. Why is it so difficult to understand God using human agents to deliver justice, but not worry about the similar ‘harsh’ judgments of Egypt and Sodom & Gomorrah?
    I don’t think the story is easy to read. I think it’s quite difficult. But neither do I want to water it down too much, either.
    I like Christopher Wright’s take(s) on the conquest. He specifically rejects the “Israelites just didn’t thought God wanted them to do that” line of reasoning.

  • Kenny Johnson

    Oops. I should have mentioned. That’s in Wright’s “The God I Don’t Understand”

  • Dave

    John W. Frye,
    I think you are ignoring the patience that God showed in dealing with the people of Canaan. As far back as Genesis 15:16 God tells Abraham that the iniquity of the Amorite is not yet full. For 400+ years they lived alongside the patriarchs in Canaan yet refusing to repent of their immorality and idolatry.
    I don’t need to justify God for His actions here. Even the NT speaks of God’s wrath against those who have rebelled against Him (Romans 1). The fact that He lets anyone live another day is evidence of His grace to us, much less that he allowed that wicked society to exist for 400 more years.

  • Rick

    Kenny-
    Good point on C. Wright.
    You stated:
    “I don’t think the story is easy to read. I think it’s quite difficult. But neither do I want to water it down too much, either.”
    Chapman made a similar point on the link RJS referenced:
    “But what I am less convinced about is Sparks’s implication that certain biblical passages can simply be chalked up to the sin or error of a (human) biblical author. ….That is not to say there are not tremendous ethical difficulties with these passages. But it is to say that flatly writing them off as “sinful” overlooks how their function in Scripture is considerably more nuanced and complex than a right-or-wrong hermeneutic suggests.”

  • beckyr

    Dave, you wrote : “…The fact that He lets anyone live another day is evidence of His grace to us,…….”That just doesn’t sit right with me. It’s like saying “I love you so much I won’t kill you.” Oh gee, thanks a bunch . We wouldn’t say that to our kids it would twist them, need therapy the rest of their life, and I won’t accept it from God. There has to be another way to put that.

  • BeckyR

    our finitude doesn’t seperate us from God, it’s our sin.

  • ChrisB

    Travis,
    As John Frye pointed out, I misstated the situation: God didn’t permit the conquest but commanded it. Those other things you mention were permitted, even those that were frowned upon (like polygamy) by the Torah. But God commanded the destruction of the Canaanites. It was neither bloodthirsty nor xenophobic; it was judgement.
    As John Frye also brought up, all killing is not murder. The same God who said, “Do not murder,” laid out rules for war, self-defensive deadly force, and capital punishment. That’s neither inconsistent nor accomodation — it’s simply recognizing the differences.
    (But, John, you’re right about the ignorant savages part.)
    The same God who commanded the deaths of the Canaanites in scripture also took credit for the Flood, the destruction of Sodom, the plagues of Egypt, and the deaths of many Israelites on the way to the Promised Land. He also promises judgement on sin that will surpass all previous actions at the Judgement.
    I think we can find useful application for the concept of accomodation, but we can easily take it too far — especially if we start trying to judge the actions attributed to God Himself.

  • RJS

    BeckyR,
    I agree – it is not our finitude but our sin that separates us from God.
    But it is not our sin that causes us to believe that the earth is 4.6 billion years old and that mankind was in North America 10′s of thousands of years ago.
    I think that it is entirely reasonable to suggest that God accommodated himself to the cosmology and culture of the ANE to tell the story of God as Creator. The purpose of the Bible is to tell God’s story – not to teach ANE cosmology.
    He accommodates to our finitude as well – we just don’t know where our blind spots are.

  • Dave

    Becky,
    “That just doesn’t sit right with me.”
    I have to ask respectfully, why is it up to you?
    Paul says in Romans 9:20, “O man, who asnwers back to God? The things molded will not say to the molder, ‘Why did you make me like this’ will it?” In the context of what I was saying God could have destroyed the Canaanites long before He did. He would have been justified for doing so. But He was gracious to them. He waited, in their case 400+ years.
    God shows great grace to humans by allow them to continue to live in spite of their rebellion. He could act as He did in the case of Annanias and Sapphira and strike us down immediately for our sins. But He shows great patience (and even causes good things to happen to those who do not love Him.)
    When it comes to what God says it doesn’t really matter how it sits with us. We’re not here to pass judgment on God. We’re here to learn to listen and submit to Him.

  • Dave

    RJS,
    “He accommodates to our finitude as well – we just don’t know where our blind spots are.”
    Who gets to decide where the blind spots are? I would say that our sin leads us to deny God in spite of the evidence he gives us (Romans 1:18 “suppressing the truth”) because that is man’s nature. You say that the finite mind of the ancient near east just couldn’t understand but our, more scientificly astute mind can. What if it’s the other way around? What if we’re the ones with the blindspot because of the things we think we know?

  • RJS

    Dave,
    I don’t think that they “couldn’t understand” – but I do think that they didn’t know.
    The purpose of God’s communication with us is not to make us “all-knowing” with respect to the workings of the world or even the age of the universe. His purpose is to reveal himself – and to be in relationship with his people.

  • Travis Greene

    ChrisB, “The same God who said, “Do not murder,” laid out rules for war, self-defensive deadly force, and capital punishment. That’s neither inconsistent nor accomodation — it’s simply recognizing the differences.”
    While I recognize there are reasonable differences of opinion on this, I believe that those things (rules for war, self-defense, and capital punishment) are also accommodations God made. When Jesus comes, he expresses God’s will more fully, and (I believe) calls his followers to total non-violence, including in self-defense.
    Do I believe those original commands were really from God? Yes, I do. Because in a war-torn world, having rules of engagement is better than nothing (but the nonviolence Jesus calls us to is even better). Because having the limit of ‘an eye for an eye’ is better than having no limit on vengeance (but better still is Jesus’ call to forgiveness).
    That’s accommodation. It’s not trying to hide from or explain away passages I happen not to like. It’s not judging God based on my own private morals. It’s interpreting all of life, including the Old Testament, based on the life, death, crucifixion, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. It is, frankly, the only way I (and I think I’m not alone) can understand God in the OT to be the same as revealed in Jesus, and I also cannot picture how else (besides accommodation) God could have interacted at all with fallen, sinful, limited human beings. Then or now.

  • Dave

    Travis
    “When Jesus comes, he expresses God’s will more fully, and (I believe) calls his followers to total non-violence, including in self-defense.”
    Why does Jesus tell his disciples to go buy a sword in his final moments with them before being crucified (luke 22:36)? Why then does Paul speak of governments bearing the sword in Romans 13:4? This doesn’t sound like total non-violence.
    I’m all for turning the other cheek and if someone comes after me I pray for the grace to respond in love. But if someone is trying to hurt my wife and children I see no reason to believe that Jesus would be displeased if I protect them.
    Paul told Timothy that ALL scripture is profitable. He didn’t even have the NT. I’m going to try to understand God based on everything He has revealed. Not just the red letters.

  • BeckyR

    We use our minds too, to figure out what is of God and what isn’t. If it is God who says “I love you so much I won’t kill you,” then I’ll have nothing to do with that God. That is not love.

  • Dave

    RJS,
    “His purpose is to reveal himself – and to be in relationship with his people.”
    So He has revealed Himself but not clearly because He decided to speak about creation to and through a culture who weren’t able to udnerstand because of inadequate scientific understanding. So basically God’s revelation misled people for thousands of years until people as savvy as us came around to figure out what He really meant which actually isn’t anything close to what He said?
    Your sentence above sounds nice but by your way of thinking God’s way of revealing Himself seems rather deceitful. And why on earth did He make us so long before we could understand it?

  • Dave

    Becky,
    “We use our minds too, to figure out what is of God and what isn’t.”
    But why should my mind rely on what your mind thinks about God? And what if your mind is different from someone elses? Do we all get to make up a God we want to worship? How can we know who got it right?
    But then Jesus says, “I am the way the truth and the life, no man comes to Father but by me.” There is one way to God through Jesus. Jesus died on a cross. It was a terrible death. He was innocent. Obviously someone had to die for my sins, either Jesus or me.
    Everything we believe comes down to I love you so much you don’t have to die. (Yes, I changed your words a little.) In fact, God died in our place. And I think that’s the epitomy of love.

  • AJR

    It’s just as likely that the Israelites decided to destroy the Canaanites for their land and then backfilled in the God part. And then they got to write the history.
    That’s absolutely consistent with many other similar examples of human nature and sin from then until now. R.E. Lee wondered how God could be on both sides of the Civil War. In retrospect, it doesn’t seem likely that it was God’s will that we occupy Iraq.
    Perhaps that is the meaning prayerful study of the Word is supposed to grant us: When someone says God told them to conquer another nation or annihilate another people, it’s not God talking.

  • Travis Greene

    Dave,
    Of course all Scripture is profitable. I’m not suggesting we ignore any bit of it. It’s a question of how we interpret it. I suggest we do so in light of Jesus (not just the red letters). And Jesus seems to have no qualms about nuancing or overriding or even flatly rejecting earlier elements of Scripture. I’m not claiming this authority for myself, I’m saying that he had it.
    As for Jesus telling his disciples to buy a sword, John 18 makes pretty clear that whatever his intentions for buying a sword (the case can be made that he wanted to look violent to ensure his arrest), it wasn’t so they could use it, even in defense.
    I believe when Paul is speaking in Romans 13, he’s saying that God is sovereign even through governments that bear the sword. Much in the same way he was sovereign over the Assyrians and other groups by which he judged Israel. It doesn’t make the Assyrians (or the governments) righteous themselves, and it certainly doesn’t mean we should be like them, just that God is always sovereign.
    I recognize that not everybody agrees about nonviolence, I was just using it as an example. The polygamy/divorce in OT vs. faithful monogamy (or preferably celibacy!) in the NT is another good one. My main point is that I don’t consider this kind of moral development in Scripture a problem for us that has to be solved, and accommodation is my favored solution. It’s simply how God interacts with his world, and a sign that he is really doing so. He incarnates. He limits himself to very poor raw materials, spinning straw into gold (or keeping his treasure in earthen vessels) just to show how awesome he is.

  • RJS

    Dave,
    This is likely pointless – because you appear convinced that perfect revelation is scripture period – all else is faulty.
    I think that this is a modern error of understanding – and it isn’t even consistent with the way scripture views scripture.
    Scripture is God revealing himself through human language into human cultures. I don’t think that there is any other way – but whether there is or not, this is the way he did it. At any point in time, in any culture there would be misconception related to finitude that would have to be accommodated. The accusation of deceitfulness because he chose one time and place instead of another is an unreasonable one.
    If deceit comes into the picture we have a real problem – because we are left on the horns of a dilemma – either he deceived us in scripture or he deceived us by the form of the world he made.
    I don’t think either is true. Rather we deceived ourselves by trying to turn scripture into the rock on which we stand instead of realizing that the rock is God alone, including the power of the Holy Spirit as helper and guide.

  • Dave

    RJS,
    I don’t think you allow for the enmity that the mind of man naturally feels toward God in your epistimology.
    You say that God used sinful minds to reveal Himself but then you seem to grant those same sinful minds ways too much credibility when looking at the world around us. It is as if you want your readers to mistrust large sections of scripture and then accept various scientific observation with little or no question. It seems to me that you want it both ways. Man’s mind was too sinful to accurately relate the words of God but it is not too sinful to assess correctly the world around us.
    My rock is God alone. But I can’t know Him apart from what He has revealed about Himself in the scripture. If God says He wrote a book…why wouldn’t I read it and trust it? When I’m standing on the edge of the next life I’ll be happy to affirm scripture over anything the human mind thinks it may have discovered.
    I’ll grant I can’t know it completely because of my sinful mind. But does that mean that God won’t hold me accountable for where I got it wrong?

  • RJS

    If God says He wrote a book…why wouldn’t I read it and trust it?
    Where did God say he wrote a book?

  • Travis Greene

    Dave, “But does that mean that God won’t hold me accountable for where I got it wrong?”
    I’m pretty sure that when it comes time for God to hold people accountable for things, their knowledge of and fidelity to a literalist reading of Genesis 1 will not be on the list. In fact, I’m pretty sure what will be (see Matthew 25).
    And nobody is advocating mistrust of Scripture here. Nobody is accusing God of deceit. Feel free to disagree with any and all conclusions, methodologies, and ideas, but don’t put words in our mouths.

  • Dave

    RJS,
    “Where did God say he wrote a book?”
    Really? This seems a little beneath the level of the discussion we’re having. You probably know what verses I’d list and I know how you’d respond. I’ll give you points for the rhetorical question and then I say we skip those two steps.
    Travis and RJS,
    You say God revealed Himself but you insist that parts of His revelation can’t be taken at face value. That raises the problem of what parts can be taken at face value and which ones can’t. That necessarily raises an issue of trust. We can trust all of the NT and some of the OT does seem to be what’s implied here.
    And there is an issue of why God would reveal one thing in Genesis 1-11 and something else thousands of years later. Why would so many generations of people have the truth withheld from them? That’s my question: Why not just say it like it is or leave it out altogether?

  • Kenny Johnson

    AJR,
    Except that no where in scripture, not even from Jesus, do we ever see condemnation for what the Israelites did in their conquest of Canaan.
    Not only that, but the Israelites themselves were the not immune to God’ s justice. So it doesn’t appear be simply some nationalistic re-telling of the story.
    And, even in Deuteronomy, God tells the Israelites that he is not giving Canaan to them because of their own righteousness, but because on “account of the wickedness of these nations” (Deut. 9:1-6) He even describes some of their wickedness, such as sacrificing their children to their idols.

  • Rick

    Dave-
    “And there is an issue of why God would reveal one thing in Genesis 1-11 and something else thousands of years later. Why would so many generations of people have the truth withheld from them?”
    Did he withhold it, or have some of us misunderstood parts of it? Those in and since the early church have not all read and understood it the same way. We (some of us) may just have some new insights about its vast truth.
    Likewise, does the change impact the overall message/theme of Scripture (Christ, Trinity, knowing God, creation, fall, redemption, restoration, love God, love others, etc…)?

  • http://mysticallimpet.blogspot.com Travis Greene

    “Why would so many generations of people have the truth withheld from them?”
    They didn’t have truth withheld from them. Just fact. And the reason is that they wouldn’t have been able to comprehend or communicate it, nor was it important. The important point is that God created all you see and don’t see. God used poetry to communicate that to the ancients, because that was the language they spoke, and a better way of communicating some things than “just the facts” ever could be.
    I don’t take it at face value because I don’t believe it was meant to be taken at face value. Genesis is written in a way that asks to be read mytho-poetically. The real histories, particularly Samuel and Chronicles, have an entirely different feel, and I do take much of them at something like face value. Psalms is poetry, worship, and lament. Job is basically a theo-philosophical opera. Proverbs is, well, proverbs.
    God uses the whole canon in a variety of ways to form us for good works in the world. Because of our historical moment, we have more knowledge and resources about certain things than folks did previously (although the problems with a literal reading of Genesis 1 are ancient). That’s no insult to them or their faith. If the Lord tarries, in 2,000 years I’m sure thoughtful Christians will find many of my opinions very quaint.
    “Take it or leave it” is not an answer. It does not reflect real submission to the Scriptures. It says “Take my understanding of Scripture or leave the faith”. That’s uncharitable, and worse, it hurts our mission.
    As RJS frequently points out (and she is much more able to understand and sift the evidence than I am), the evidence for things like a very old earth and the common descent of all life is overwhelming. So if you give people that kind of ultimatum, they will leave. They will conclude that Christians cannot think, that we stick our heads in the sand and blindly follow ridiculous mythology, and that we have nothing to say to the world. And they will be driven away not by the hard truths of the gospel, or the call to repent, or anything like that, but by our own arrogance, and entrapment in ways of thinking that are no longer helpful.
    So no, I won’t just take it or leave it. I’ll continue to wrestle with it, because I don’t want to hinder what Jesus is doing in the world right now, as we speak.

  • Dave

    Travis -
    “Genesis is written in a way that asks to be read mytho-poetically. The real histories, particularly Samuel and Chronicles, have an entirely different feel, and I do take much of them at something like face value.”
    Really? I think there’s absolutely nothing poetic about the language used in Genesis 1-11. Hebrew poetry can be clearly distinguished very easily. It may feel different to you in the English but it’s not in the Hebrew.
    I know about RJS’s authority on matters of science. I’m just not sure that I am willing to grant her and other scientists the kind of authority that supercedes that of scripture. As I said above when I was trying to frame this discussion in terms of epistimology, the claim in this article is that sinful minded men couldn’t relay God’s Word without the effects of sin coming to bear on that revelation. I take the other perspective. I think that God can reveal whatever He wants. It is the sinful mind of man who tries to deny that revelation.
    As for people leaving the discussion because of the creationist view of the scriptures, I have said before that there are many things about our faith that the unbelieving mind finds offensive. It has never been our job to pick and choose what we teach based on how it will be received. I will never lead with creation and may even wait a long time to bring it up. But if someone asks me I am not ashamed to tell them my view of Genesis 1-11 no matter how unpopular it becomes.

  • RJS

    Dave,
    I didn’t actually say that sinful minded men couldn’t relay God’s Word without the effects of sin coming to bear on that revelation – although Sparks does say this if I read him right.
    I am not entirely comfortable with this conclusion and think that it needs much more discussion.
    I did say and firmly believe that God accommodates his revelation to our finitude (which is neither sin nor sinful). The Gen 1-11 topic falls within the realm of finitude, not God accommodating his revelation to the sinfulness of mankind.

  • RJS

    Dave,
    And in response to #33
    God didn’t reveal something else 2000 years later – it has been an ongoing process as humans created in his image explore and learn about the world that he made. Nothing has changed except our human understanding of the world. God did not lay before us the workings of the world … he revealed himself in the context of our understanding and he continues to meet us at our level to bring us to him.
    And I asked the question about “God writing a book” not as a rhetorical question but because I think that it is the root problem misconception in much current understanding of the Bible. It is also on topic of this post – I think that Chapman is right and Sparks doesn’t allow for enough “inspiration” in scripture (or doesn’t appear to in the way he casts his arguments in the book). But I also don’t think that inspiration means “God wrote a book.”
    I come back to the topic of Gen 1-11 and more generally how we understand scripture repeatedly because we are falling into the trap Augustine warned of and Travis alludes to – that we spout nonsense (not the foolishness of the cross – but true nonsense) and as a result people won’t listen to the gospel of Jesus Christ – his life, death and resurrection – supposing that the veracity of the gospel actually does hinge on our nonsense.

  • Dave

    RJS,
    It really isn’t my intention to beat this to death here and thanks for the time you’ve taken to respond this afternoon. But you say:
    “The Gen 1-11 topic falls within the realm of finitude.”
    This seems like an arbitrary assessment on your part. Why does Genesis 1-11 fall within the realm of finitude? Is it because you need it to? Or is there some reason to think this that transcends an arbitrary human assertion?

  • Dave

    RJS,
    Regarding post 39 which wasn’t posted yet when I posted above:
    “…supposing that the veracity of the gospel actually does hinge on our nonsense.”
    And yet, you know it matters to some extent because you have had to great pains to deal with Paul’s statements regarding Adam in Romans. It can’t be nonsense if Paul takes it that seriously.
    Tossing Genesis 1-11 because it just doesn’t fit what we see leads to bigger problems. It means we then have to fit other sections of the scripture into our new box as well.

  • Phil M

    Without wishing to take sides just yet (because I’m still trying to understand the arguments), I have a problem with a repeated assumption:
    RJS wrote:

    “The accommodation of ancient near east cosmology in Gen 1 is an accommodation to human capacity and finite human understanding”

    which Travis repeated:

    “They didn’t have truth withheld from them. Just fact. And the reason is that they wouldn’t have been able to comprehend or communicate it”

    But this seems like an unwarranted assumption. If we evolved, it certainly wasn’t within the last 2 thousand years that we gained the ability to understand the basic premises of modern cosmology or evolutionary science (you don’t need a PHD to understand the basic concepts). And given the advanced levels of science displayed in the egyptian era I find it hard to accept a sociological or cultural limitation as a reason for giving a dumbed down version of origins.
    Everyone seems to agree that Gen 1-11 conveys truth, but some argue that it is not necessarily historical truth and others argue that it is. But (and I’m trying hard not to pick sides here) if we accept that it is indeed inspired and does intend to depict truth, then I don’t see the need for a completely different origins story than what science depicts as the real story. That just seems to be another way of saying they were too ignorant to grasp the basic facts of reality back then.
    And to say that creationists are making a modern mistake in the way that they read Genesis seems a little disingenuous; it is the same way that Moses, Abraham, David, the prophets, right up to Jesus and Paul seemed to understand Genesis – as a true account of how God brought the universe into being.

  • RJS

    Phil M,
    It doesn’t take a Ph.D. to understand the basic principles of evolution or much of the rest of science. It doesn’t take a Ph.D to interpret an MRI image either. But imagine going back a thousand years and trying to explain that you could stick a person into a big magnet and use the environmental difference in the resonance frequencies and relaxation times of proton spins in the molecules of the body to produce images – and that this was less dangerous than the differential absorption of ionizing X-ray radiation.
    Cosmology and evolution (especially cosmology) are much more complicated than MRI.
    There is a time trajectory to the world. As Christians we would say that this time trajectory is part of God’s plan. God didn’t download all knowledge into our brains or cultures at creation – he has allowed us to develop, change, explore, create, and learn about the world that he made. He revealed himself in the context of our understanding, which was not the same 4000 years ago, or 2000 years ago, or 500 years ago, as it is today (and come on, we all know that this is true). He continues to meet us at our level to bring us to him.
    Basic human nature and needs haven’t changed, we haven’t evolved – but our understanding of the world certainly has.

  • RJS

    Dave,
    I still haven’t dealt with Adam in Paul entirely to my satisfaction – and will no doubt come back to it. But I don’t think that the solution is to dump everything we’ve learned about the world – God’s creation.

  • Phil M

    RJS,
    I don’t buy that I’m afraid. Your whole paragraph about the trajectory is a reading of your current theology back into the text – which is something that you’ve pointed out when others have done that before.
    The MRI argument is a straw-man argument. You purposely got into the details of something that you can’t understand without the details; and an MRI is a man made invention as opposed to a natural phenomenon. You don’t need to understand the mathematical theory in cosmology to understand that the earth orbits around the sun – we teach it to kids in early childhood education for goodness sake! The reason that that particular idea resulted in persecution was not because the science was hard to understand, but because it seemed to go against the religious beliefs of the day (flawed as they were). If the religion had started off with the concept of the earth orbiting the sun there would have been no issue.
    The argument that Genesis 1-11 reads like it does because our understanding of the world is better now than it was before, is not a very strong argument and is completely speculative. It is more like something you would tell to children to quickly explain away a difficult question.
    It would have been just as easy to give a rudimentary understanding of the cosmos in Genesis (leaving all the details for us to explore later) that correlates better with current scientific understanding without coming up with a completely different story.
    YWH completely changed the understanding of what it meant to worship God. Jesus completely changed the mindset of the Jewish understanding of what the Messiah would look like. So I don’t buy into the argument that effectively says that we poor little humans couldn’t take the shock of the basic knowledge that the earth moves around the sun, or that it is millions of years old rather than thousands.
    I don’t expect to change your mind in this issue. I just wanted to point out what I see as an unwarranted assumption. It would be better, IMHO, to simply say “There is indeed a difficulty and I don’t know what the answer is” than to try and reason things away in such a tenuous fashion.

  • Kent Sparks

    Interesting conversation …
    A few comments:
    (1) About fallenness in the Bible: The view reflected in my book is that Christ has come to redeem God’s fallen but still beautiful creation, and that the Bible—as a book produced within that fallen created order, and written by fallen men—is itself in need of redemption insofar as it participates in that fallen situation. I think that this is what Jesus is getting at in the Sermon on the Mount when he says, “You have heard that it was said [by Moses!], “Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth … but I say unto you … If someone strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other …”
    That is, though Jesus plainly says that his sermon does not abolish but fulfill the law, that fulfillment amounts to the reversal and redemption of the law. This cannot be a complete surprise, given that the Bible itself says that God gave Israel some “laws that were not good” (Ezek 20:25).
    (2) As for the review of my book by Stephen (Chapman), he’s a good guy and a scholar with excellent theological instincts. If I could write the book again, I suppose that I’d take his advice and offer a fuller account of my view of inspiration. But that said, at two points I’d quibble with his review. First, he claims that I swallow too much of the historical criticism … to this I’d simply respond, “For example?” That is, what critical view, specifically, have I accepted that Stephen himself would not accept as either likely or at least acceptable as a sound scholarly theory? And secondly, I feel that, when he critiques my view of the Deuteronomic genocide as a “one-sided,” “either-or” interpretation (the genocide is either very good or very bad), this misapprehends my approach in the book. At numerous points I aver that human judgments and viewpoints run on a continuum between better and worse rather than the simply Boolean values of right or wrong. We certainly do have something valuable to learn from the conquest theology of Deuteronomy, some of it explicit (i.e, we should join the all-out effort to eradicate evil from our world) and some of it implicit (i.e, we should understand that this law has its cruel side and hence stands in need of full redemption).
    A few bloggers have quoted Romans, with its wise word that we are the pots and he is the clay … that God can do what he wishes … including command a total slaughter of the Canaanites. To this I’d offer two points: (1) As I’ve just suggested, Jesus himself tells us that the violent side of biblical law is unacceptable as a template for ethical Christian behavior; and (2) The bottom line is that I don’t simply use the Bible to get theology; rather, I accept the Bible because its account of the world around me resonates well with my experience in that world. But if, in fact, the God of the Bible literally commanded Israel to kill Canaanite men, women and children … and if this really was because they had the wrong religion and because Israel needed their land … and if all of this was done when Israel itself was no better … then I’d simply look for another God.
    But as it stands, I don’t believe that this is the case. The God that meets us in Christ, and the Bible that points to Christ and explains his work, with theology that leads up to and reflects back on the incarnation, has been my true salvation … I am at peace in my life and with God because I grew up reading a Bible that led me to Jesus Christ.
    PS: Regarding the NT response to the Canaanite genocide, I’d invite readers to have a look at my article on Matthew’s “Great Commission” in the Catholic Biblical Quarterly, “Gospel as Conquest: Mosaic Typology in Matt 28:16-20.”

  • RJS

    Thanks Kent. With respect to this statement:
    First, he claims that I swallow too much of the historical criticism …
    This was my admittedly untrained opinion as well.
    to this I’d simply respond, “For example?” That is, what critical view, specifically, have I accepted that Stephen himself would not accept as either likely or at least acceptable as a sound scholarly theory?
    I would love to be able to listen in on the resulting discussion of the historical criticism (especially if we could add a couple more views to the mix as well). I have a much better handle on NT studies than OT. I can evaluate NT claims somewhat reasonably – but the OT is a puzzle yet — and so important to many of the discussions I find myself in.

  • Kent Sparks

    Well, Stephen is a trained scholar, and he too thinks that I swallow to much of the criticism. But the bottom line is that, if even one piece of the criticism is right, then the whole edifice of fundamentalism falls with it …
    I’ll look forward to the discussion, RJS.
    Kent

  • RJS

    Kent,
    I have no doubt that many of the pieces are right – and that fundamentalism falls. I think that we need to accept the clear evidence of biblical scholarship — but I have a hard time judging what is “clear evidence” and what falls more into the shifting sand of interpretation. Experience in my discipline – which should be rigorous (and is to a great extent) – tells me that it is often hard to separate “hard data” from the interpretation of that data and that scholars often muddy the waters. Papers must be read with a critical eye.
    My own mentors passed on a strong ethic to separate data from interpretation … but such isn’t always the case. (And I do not buy the postmodern critique that “all is interpretation” – I can take practical realism … not antirealism.)

  • RJS

    Kent,
    Let me add a bit – here is a quote from your book, p. 77, just before starting on The Problem of the Pentateuch:
    One more point before we get started. None of the perspectives below are embraced by every critical scholar; in some cases even I have questions about these critical conclusions. So biblical scholarship is not something that offers us a long list of assured results. …
    I appreciate this – and that you are laying out a case, the general form of which is secure, and Chapman seems to agree in his review. But because I’m not an expert, and don’t have much basis for evaluation, I would like to be able to get some idea of the strengths and weaknesses of the various points. Unfortunately resources are hard to come by … perhaps because, as Scot mentioned in a comment on an earlier post on your book ( Comment 1) OT criticism is “off limits” for many evangelical Christians – but we need more OT scholars to be more vocal about historical realities.

  • Ron Newberry

    I am currently reading the book by Kenton Sparks. What I can say is “at last, someone is telling the truth!” It’s about time.


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