Is Kent Sparks a Renegade When it Comes to the Bible? Nah, not Really.

In chapter 6 of Sacred Word, Broken Word: Biblical Authority and the Dark Side of Scripture, Sparks makes the following point: what he says about the Bible is not all that different from what others have said in the history of the church, even if he puts things his own way and applies them to different issues.

Citing John Wesley, “if the literal sense of these Scriptures is absurd, and apparently contrary to reason, then we should be obliged not to interpret than according to the letter, but to look out for a looser meaning” (p. 51).

Sparks cites Orations 5.25 of the 4th century Greek Church Father Gregory of Nazianzus (329-90). Speaking of Israel adopting pagan notions of animal sacrifice, he says that God “partly removes and partly condones ancestral habits” (drawing an analogy from doctors who blend medicine with something “nice” so the patients will take it).

In other words, God accommodates to the realities of ancient culture. As Sparks puts it, “God consented to inferior and errant practices in Scripture because humanity was not prepared to manage their sudden elimination” (p. 52).

Justin Martyr (100-165) in Dialogue with Trypho 18.21 comments on Scripture specifically in the same vein. In debating the Jew Trypho, Justin argues that circumcision, Sabbaths, and festivals were a concession on God’s part because of Israelite sin and hardness of heart (see Sparks, p. 52).

Curiously, Justin found biblical warrant for this in Ezekiel 20:25, which says that God gave the Israelites “laws that were not good.” However one might handle this verse (I think the focus is on child sacrifice, but that is another 10 post series), the only point Sparks wants to make is how Justin and others reasoned through some aspects of the Old Testament.

Taken together, Gregory and Justin can easily be understood as saying: Scripture’s discourse is adapted to and reflects human sinfulness, and these fallen elements of biblical religion were gradually eliminated during the redemptive process (p. 52).

Sparks continues by pointing out how Calvin, along with Wesley, recognized that the Bible “could sometimes have the facts wrong” (p. 52). (For example, Calvin famously quipped that Genesis 1 is not accurate science but reflects ancient knowledge of the heavens.) These errors were God’s wise accommodations or condescensions to human limitations of the ancient Israelite culture.

Sparks distances himself from Calvin, who regarded the human authors of Scripture as “colluding partners in the act of accommodation” (p. 53). In other words, the authors knew better than their readers; God let them in on the need to accommodate. Instead, Sparks rightly argues that God is already accommodating the human authors. They do not “know better.” The were writing as ancient people, not simply for ancient people.

To put all this another way, God “allowed his human authors the freedom to be precisely who they were when they wrote Scripture” (p. 54). They are not removed from their point in time, but are met by God where they are and wrote as they are.

This is the kind of Bible we have, and earlier voices of the church seemed to have had a handle on it. No, they are not saying exactly what Sparks says, and there is no way of knowing, one way or the other, whether Calvin or Justin would agree with Sparks’s way of putting it if they were alive today.

But the figures of the past are not here to ask, and even if they were transported to our present day, they would not be the final judge and jury. They would need to play catch up and see how some of their own trajectories are being applied today, and more importantly the pressing reasons why such application is necessary.

If anything, Sparks’s chapter, as necessarily brief as it is, counters the Evangelical meme that defenders of inerrancy today–at least those who say that Scripture is perfect, regardless of whether we perceive it as such–are simply carrying forward the universal posture of the church throughout time.

Rather, Scripture contains real problems, not imagined ones.

  • Tim

    Pete,

    While I agree with much in Kenton Spark’s book, his analysis of accommodationism by Calvin seems somewhat problematic to me. Particularly with respect to Calvin’s the main argument by Calvin Sparks refers to to back up his point – that of Calvin’s interpretation of Genesis 1:6. This would be where Calvin refers to ‘waters above the heaven’ as opposed to common sense, and God accommodating his message to speak to the ‘rude’ and ‘unlearned’. Thus, Sparks argues, Calvin recognizes erroneous information is incorporated into Scripture so as to condescend/accommodate to finite human understanding of that age. The idea here is that Calvin states that Scripture discusses waters above a firmament that simply don’t exist – and that this was acceptable as such was the notion the typical Israelite had in their day.

    Now, I do agree that ancient ANE cosmology is presented in the Bible. It seems very apparent to me that the flat earth, domed firmament, and waters above and below cosmology is what is clearly indicated in Genesis and elsewhere. But the issue here isn’t what I think, or anyone else for that matter, but what Calvin thought. And with respect to this I think Spark’s argument is a little strained.

    It seems to me that Calvin, adopting the Aristotelian physics universally accepted in his day, proposed that the waters below pertained to the earthly waters (e.g., oceans, rivers, lakes, etc.), while the waters above were the clouds. He saw the firmament as separating the Heavens from commingling with the Earth, and he furthermore saw the firmament as a force that would keep the rainclouds from falling out of the sky back into the Earth (whereby it would cause essentially a Noahic deluge). This follows from the Aristotelian physics of his day that proposed that Earth was heavier than water, water heavier than air, and air and fire being lightest of all. So water could not, based on Aristotelian physics, remain elevated above the earth without some force holding it there. Hence the firmament being that force that separates the ‘waters below’ from the ‘waters above’.

    So, the accommodation Calvin proposed seems in this instance to simply be to some degree or another phenomenological, and not so very significant as many argue it is or should be. And I see this as seriously undermining Sparks’ point.

    If you know of any better indication of accomodationist views pertaining to Calvin, I’d be very interested in hearing them. Thanks Pete!

  • Jon Hughes

    Great post, Pete. I struggle with some of what you say, but this is good stuff!

  • James

    Yes, human history reveals a certain progress of knowledge and faith a progress of dogma over time. But I don’t think we can say “fallen elements of biblical religion were gradually eliminated during the redemptive process”–other than in a very general sense, like the effects of civilization perhaps. The OT ends in a muddle, if you really think about it. God’s people are still in exile for their many sins, albeit in their own land. They are getting a handle on idolatry, it’s true. And there is a redemptive process at work whereby the memories of God’s mighty acts are being canonized in a Book as the faithful await the reinstatement of something like Ezekiel’s temple with accompanying glory in the Kingdom of God. But remember the Book that sustains them is filled still with all those fallen attrocities–and they’re eating it up! And I dare say they were eating it up in Jesus’ day. I think we should say simply that God’s Word meets us in whatever form of slavery we find ourselves. And we continue to look forward in hope.


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