Scripture is not Perfect: More from Kent Sparks and “Sacred Word, Broken Word”

Today we look at chapter 5 of Kent Sparks’s  Sacred Word, Broken Word: Biblical Authority and the Dark Side of Scripture. Sparks is professor of Old Testament and interim provost at Eastern University, St. Davids PA. The first post of the series can be found here.

The chapter is entitled “The Brokenness of Scripture,” and in it Sparks further clarifies ideas he has been developing since the beginning of the book.

Following his remarks on God’s violence in chapter 4, Sparks asks:

But is it not a very deep paradox that the Shoah, in which Nazis systematically exterminated the Jews because of their religion and ethnicity, is mirrored so vividly by the Deuteronomic ban in Jewish Scripture, according to which Israel exterminated the Canaanites because of their religion? (p. 45).

Clearly, Sparks is not swayed to defend the issue by saying that God can kill Canaanites anytime he wants, and how dare you suggest in any way that it is comparable to the Holocaust.

For Sparks, a better way forward is to admit that Scripture here is theologically problematic, and he repeats his analogy that Scripture is “broken” as is creation. Remember for Sparks Scripture is part of fallen creation, not above it; even though it is inspired, it is still written by fallen men and so exhibits effects of the fall.

Just as God’s good and beautiful creation stands in need of redemption, so Scripture–as God’s word written within and in relation to that creation, by finite fallen beings–stands in need of redemption (p. 46)

Some might respond that you can’t compare creation and Scripture like this, complaining that Sparks fails to make the distinction between general revelation (creation) and special revelation (Scripture); the former is subject to the fall, the latter is preserved from it.

Sparks does not address this directly, but if I may channel my inner Sparks, I would imagine he would say something like this:

“This distinction between general and special revelation comes in handy, certainly, but on what basis do you feel you can separate Scripture out from the rest of the created and fallen world? In other words, how do you know this is a valid theological distinction to make?”

“This distinction may make for an interesting discussion in the abstract, that is, until you begin dealing with the details of Scripture that don’t seem to work with this same distinction.”

At any rate, if Scripture bears the effects of the fall like creation, Sparks continues, “the church should not defend Scripture’s uniqueness as the divine word by appealing to its perfection. Rather a proper account of Scripture’s goodness and divine origins will closely follow the traditional Christian response to the problem of evil” (my emphasis; p. 47).

By this, Sparks argues that the church has to discern what in Scripture is marred by the fall just as the church makes those same judgments of creation:

Both humanity and Scripture are God’s good works and serve in his redemptive work. And though this is true, both are marred by the effects of the Fall. The presence in Scripture of this distortion no more compromises its status as God’s word than the distortion in humanity compromises its status as God’s creation (p. 47).

Sparks also points out, citing William Holladay’s The Psalms Through Three Thousand Years, that the church has been making these sorts of decisions all along anyway, for example when liturgies omit passages that are “harsh in tone.”

All of this raises the question how Scripture can retain any notion of authority. Sparks concludes the chapter by promising to address this in the pages to follow. He hints, “Any workable solution will require some manner of ordering the Bible’s diversity, so that we give priority to biblical texts that speak with more clarity and deeper theological logic than those that are more partial or distorted by the human condition” (p. 49).

Challenging ideas, not doubt, but Sparks is addressing head on the Christian paradox of Scripture, that it is theologically foundational while also posing a theological problem. Alternate proposals would need to come to terms with Scripture as Sparks is trying to do.

  • http://jshakart.co.uk John Shakespeare

    ‘…both are marred by the effects of the Fall…’

    I know those are Sparks’s words, but can you tell us how you think that works, please? And I’m not just talking about scripture here, but the entire cosmos. How does ‘the Fall’ corrupt the entire creation?

    • peteenns

      We need to ask Sparks.

      Calling Kent Sparks….. Calling Kent Sparks……

  • Don Johnson

    I hesitate to go where Sparks seems to be going; and yes, I reject Piper’s formulation. That is, I can sort things in the Bible and prioritize them, but I dare not reject something outright; otherwise it seems to me we are back to cafeteria style religion, picking and choosing what we like and do not like.

  • Andy

    I agree with you Don. I am happy to accept scripture that is messy and I am happy to accept scripture where God stoops low to accomodate to simple humans. I am also happy to accept diversity of scripture where people have an extremely limited perspective on God.
    But leaving broken humans to decide what is fallen and what is ‘true’ within the Bible is very scary. I also don’t understand how 2 Timothy 3:16 can connect with this theory at all. I feel like he has ‘solved’ one problem but opened up a problem much deeper.

    • peteenns

      I think Kent would say that we already make these sorts of decision all the time.

  • Kent Sparks

    First, Pete’s right. I’d say we’re already making decisions about what we prioritize in Scripture and that, in practice, this amount to rejecting outright some parts of it. One must do so because Scripture contains errors … pick A, then you contradict B … pick B, then you contradict A. Whether this is “cafeteria” style “do what I want to do” interpretation depends on whether the interpreter is actually trying to hear from God or merely tell God what he should be saying. When I reject the Canaanite genocide, I’m rejecting what a human being said … and siding with God’s gospel against it. That’s hard to do given that SO MANY in my community believe that killing Canaanites (or Muslims) is just fine and dandy.

    As for John’s question about the Fall, I believe my book answers that question about as well as I can.

    • Jon hughes

      We all want to “side with God’s gospel”, but doesn’t the New Testament speak of a Day of Judgment, Lake of Fire, and so on?

      I don’t see how God’s judgments, be they temporal or eternal, conflict with the gospel message about Jesus, who rescues us from the coming wrath.

      • peteenns

        Jon, I see your point, but one of the points I have been making in my posts is that the Canaanites are not being exterminated b/c of their sinfulness in some “final judgment” sense. That is a common out taken by many, but it is not what the text explains as the reason. Also, the Canaanites were not warned about the coming wrath.

        I have been struck by how the violence of God against Israel’s enemies permeates much fo the OT. At some point one finds oneself asking, “Isn’t there a better way for God to show his glory top the world than by wiping our Canaanites, or reducing Egypt and Babylon to rubble? And how does that temporal act square with the teaching of Jesus?”

        Finally, as I mentioned in my last post on the Canaanite problem, part of God’s wrath against Israel’s enemies (Midianites) includes killing male children wit wipe out the line and keeping virgin women alive and dividing them as spoils amongst the soldiers and the rest of the Israelites. It’s hard to look at that and see no tension between the actions of God in the OT and what Jesus says about how God’s people are to treat others. And remember that this is not a problem Sparks (or I) are making up. It is one the church has had on it’s to-do list for nearly 2000 years.

        • Tim

          Pete,

          What of Genesis 15:16? I know you briefly addressed this before. But it does seem to indicate to me that God is withholding his hand in taking the land from the Amorites (Canaanites) until their sin reaches such a full measure as to warrant it. I agree with you that the Book of Joshua discusses the genocide in terms of the Canaanites more or less simply being in the way and having the potential to “corrupt” the Israelite people simply by virtue of their having different religious practices. But that is the Book of Joshua. Not Genesis. And as we all know, there is theological diversity in the OT.

          • peteenns

            Perhaps the biblical editor added this later to further justify things, like cursing Canaan in Genesis 9 for something his father Ham did.

          • Tim

            Pete,

            I agree, I do think the author of Genesis 9 is retroactively justifying things – perhaps both the reason for the long delay in fullfilling the promise to Abraham as well as the purported destruction of the Canaanites. But we can’t really conclusively demonstrate this. So rather than saying that the Bible does not teach that the Canaanites were destroyed for their sin, maybe we should go so far as to say this with respect to what the Book of Joshua does or does not teach.

          • peteenns

            I think that is a possible way to look at this, Tim. The date of these writings is generally tricky, as you say.

    • http://jshakart.co.uk John Shakespeare

      Thanks Kent. But before I spend yet more money on yet another book (no doubt excellent) that I hardly have time to read, will you please tell me if your book directly covers the relationship between the ‘fall’ account in Genesis 3 and the corruption of the entire cosmos? It was easy enough, apparently, for Augustine, but I guess we have largely rejected his ideas on the matter. I mean, do you go beyond asserting that the world is fallen and therefore so is everything in it (including the Bible), to discuss the mechanism by which this has happened? If so then your book is greatly to be desired.

  • JenG

    Who else is left to decide? Cats?? We’re kinda all we’ve got…

    • peteenns

      My cats couldn’t be bothered.

    • http://jshakart.co.uk John Shakespeare

      Let’s hope it’s not the evil Catbert.

  • Caio Peres

    So, as far as I understand yours and Ken Sparks´ argument, there´s no moral problem with God´s judgment. And I really got the weight of your argument about women as spoils. I was thinking about two things that relates to this discussion. One is, as you and Sparks have explained already, in the history of the church, and today, we are all the time deciding which text is “more” like the Word of God (I think this is the same as saying which text reveals God´s character or his redemptive purposes better). So, why can´t we decide that the text in Gn 15.16 is the prior text to understand the ones in Deuteronomy? I know this just proves the argument of Ken Sparks´ book, but I´m just trying to “solve” the moral problem of God´s violence towards the canaanites. And the other thing is a problem already felt by OT writers like Habakkuk. This language of “cleaning” the land is also God´s way to speak about his judgment towards Israel and Judah (Is 6.11-12 – and Isaiah also felt that was a problem as he says: How long Lord?). For sure there are moral problems here too as women surely were taken as spoils, but still the Bible deals with that as a judgment for their sins. Why can´t we relate all of this and put them all under this principle of God´s judgment?
    I don´t see that as the “final solution” and my questions are not rethoric, I really would like to know your thoughts on that.

  • James

    Rather than trying to distinguish between fallen and gospel portions of the OT, like Thomas Jefferson literally cutting up the NT on a whim, it is better to see God permeating all portions with his gracious purposes. The OT is not so much about ethics anyway as it is about story–fulfilment and nonfulfilment of the promises of God to his people over time. That makes God’s person and character more hidden among the stuff than we have allowed. Even the NT is not so much about ethics or even virture as it is about the universally applied story of God’s redemption and judgment finding fruition in the historical Christ event. As we seek to align our personal stories with the Grand Story, we are transfigured by the Spirit of Christ who, lo and behold, embodies love for enemies. That certainly does not make killing those who differ fine and dandy!

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