The Bible is PART of the Fallen World, Not OUTSIDE of it

In my last post, I introduced Kent Sparks’s excellent book Sacred Word, Broken Word: Biblical Authority and the Dark Side of Scripture with a quote from Bonhoeffer that is found at the end of the preface. Today, I want to continue with another quote from the book that sheds light on Sparks’s approach to the Bible.

After laying out  in chapter 1 his reasons for approaching Scripture with a “hermeneutic of respect” rather than of suspicion, Sparks takes at nod at the “problem of evil” in chapter 2. In a nutshell, for those of you who may not be familiar with the terminology, the problem of evil concerns the age-old question of how a good and almighty God can be responsible for a world that is so warped.

Sparks isn’t concerned to solve the problem in a short book on the Bible, but he uses the problem of evil to explain why the Bible behaves as it does, and therefore how we should read it.

Sparks argues that humans continually have to make moral choices in a fallen world, and there are no “fail safe methods for making these judgments” (p. 21). Making moral choices is to declare what is good (part of the world as God intended) and evil (part of the world as fallen). Some choices are more obvious than others, but there is also a lot of grey.

Sparks continues that the Bible is not a fail safe guide  to making these difficult moral judgments. He does not mean that the Bible is of no value for making moral judgments, but that the Bible (1) addresses a limited number of issues and topics, (2) is historically remote, and (3) is always being interpreted by fallen people and is, therefore, subject to misunderstanding.

But there is a more fundamental reason why the Bible is not a simple, straightforward, guidebook for life:

[T]he Bible actually stands within the fallen order that we seek to understand. That is, if I may foreshadow where I am heading in the discussion, the problem of Scripture is one permutation of the larger problem of evil (p.22, emphasis original).

Sparks is not saying that the Bible is evil (!!). He is saying that the same uncertainty besets both our day-to-day moral decisions and our interpretive decisions about the Bible. The Bible does not stand outside of the cosmos but is part of it, since God has allowed humans in their fallen humanity to write it.

One clear application of Sparks’s thesis concerns the mass killings God either orders or himself executes in the Old Testament. Sparks goes into greater detail later in the book, but, as a preview, here is where it seems Sparks is heading: since Scripture is part of the fallen world, Christians should not take Canaanite genocide as either binding upon us, or even reflecting truly the nature of God. Rather, it reflects the fallen nature of creation.

For this reason, the church has to read Scripture and discern not simply how it should it be applied but whether or not some portions of it truly reflect the “Christian trajectory” (my phrase, not Sparks’s).

Anyway, an interesting thought. I’ve not seen before an analogy drawn between the Bible and the problem of evil. What are you’re thoughts?




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  • Bev Mitchell

    You comment,
    I’ve not seen before an analogy drawn between the Bible and the problem of evil.”

    So glad that you mentioned this. As an amateur,  I was wondering how novel this perspective is. To say the least, it will be a hard sell loaded with opportunities for misunderstanding, willful or otherwise. Even those who accept the possibility, like me, will have great difficulty explaining it! Haven’t seen any hostile reviews yet, but we should expect an explosion if the gatekeepers think any of their extended flock are reading this. They may just write it off as extreme liberalism, and leave it alone. Either of these responses would be a great pity.

    That said, a careful reading of Sparks will reveal where his heart is. And, in my opinion, his logic is hard to refute. From one angle, it boils down to the nature of revelation through the process of enscripturation (is that a word?).  Did God inspire the writers in such a profound way that they made no errors?  Did God choose super-spiritual people to write Scripture so that it would be exactly what he wanted? How to extend this list of questions is obvious.

    If evangelicals are willing to get their heads around the idea that fallen people just like them wrote, collated, edited, conserved and selected the books of the Bible, then there is some hope. With that realization, we would then have to imagine what it would be like to explain what our own personal revelation from (relationship with) God was/is like, what it means to us and others, and how one works within it. The text we produced could, in some real sense,  be considered inspired but would also be, in another sense fallen. 

    Scale that up to multiple authors over a thousand years, multiple editors, multiple collators and finally a Church decision re the proper contents of the canon and we have an idea of the situation. It seems difficult to imagine a middle-of-the road position between these two extremes. Scripture is either exactly from God, as he wishes it to be, or, it’s some combination of what God wants, what fallen humans understood properly from God, and what they understood poorly, or perhaps invented, for whatever purpose. 

    Do we have in this book the beginnings of a theology of revelation? Is there such a thing as a theology of revelation? Do we need one? How would it help in explaining what Kent Sparks is in about?

    This is an inspiring book. It more than touches on the proverbial issue of certainty. In fact, his analysis of certainty and our willingness (or lack thereof)  to live with some level of uncertainty is as important as his analysis of the nature of Scripture. It will be a big pill to swallow for many, but in our fast changing world, it is essential reading.

  • Jon G

    I’ve thought for some time now that the atrocities of the OT were not instances of God’s commandments but, rather, the author’s claim that God was behind their political maneuvers. In other words, it reflects man making God in man’s image more than the other way around.

    Also, when taking a more collective mindset to the different person groups that were slaughtered, one might see a more generic theology being unfolded: they weren’t suggesting the annialation of real individuals, but making a statement that the temple was in need of cleansing and, for God to inhabit it, the Israelites had to go about the business of ridding it of all unclean (sinful) elements. (In this illustration, the Promised Land would be the Temple just like Eden was the Temple, the whole Cosmos was the Temple, and especially Jesus was the Temple – The place where Heaven and Earth collided).

  • robert landbeck

    “always being interpreted by fallen people” and thus subject to misinterpretation, upon what grounds can any interpretation be authentic? One speaks of the ‘church’ in the singular but from the very origins of an institutional roman church, the divisions started. 2000 years on and 30, 000 different denominations later, one moght ask if there was ever a true church. Certainly there is no direct evidence of any specific revelation or teaching passed on by Christ or his apostles. Even the choice of what to include into a ‘Bible’ was taken by ‘fallen people’, to enforce a ‘theological conformity’ from a much larger collection, such were the divisions and disputes within the early ‘church’. Could two thousand years of scholastic exegesis, tradition and 2 billion ‘Christians’ have it wrong? What if the purpose of a second coming were not to confirm any particular baptism, but to expose the theological fraud a ‘fallen people’ had created out by the profound dishonesty, vanity and pretensions which are the corruptions of the fallen, human heart! What generation will live to see it all?

  • Alex

    Eh, I think I’m going to stick with a view I think is closer to how Jesus would’ve felt about scripture. Call me a “fundamentalist”, but I am going to take my chances there. Hopefully, God won’t be angry with me :(. And if He is more like Sparks’ view, I’m sure He’ll probably just forgive me.

    • peteenns

      Alex, what would Jesus have felt about Scripture?

    • Jo

      Alex – please err on the side of grace – God who is the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, will not “be angry” with you precious fallen-but-redeemed creature for not having a perfect understanding!!!!! I am so happy to have Sparks’ words to use to combat “Bibliolatry” (Bible worship) and other such mis-uses of Scripture. The MIRACLE is that God intervened in human history, has spoken, still speaks (yes, conditionally, etc…) and is involved in our lives and our world!!!!! GRACE GRACE GRACE Alex to rest in His power and wonder despite all that we do and do not understand!!111

  • As one who grew up feeling the pressure of an inerrant Bible which answered all of life’s questions, I am exceptionally interested in Spark’s new book. His last one identified with my evolving convictions on the issue well and, in fact, has been something I’ve very much considered for doctoral work (I am a Biblical Studies graduate of Asbury).

    I had not heard that parallel between the Bible and evil before either. I think it will take me some time to think through it all, but it is a novel idea to be considered. In any case, for the past several years I have found myself as a student of scripture in the same boat as Dr. Sparks concerning scripture: it is incarnational, not docetic.

  • Nathan

    Hey Peter. Great stuff. I am really enjoying your reflections on Scripture alongside Sparks’ work. I am particularly grateful for your ‘Christian Trajectory’ thoughts. I have been thinking about the specific Canaanite/Scriptural authority issue for a while and I know much more needs to be said, but it is as though you have given me some ‘words’ for what have largely been ‘confused thoughts’ rattling around my head and heart for a while. I think many, if not, dare I say it, most, issues in the church could be half way ‘solved’ if we all thought harder and longer about our theology of Scripture. So many of our ‘in-fights’ are often based on the differences between better and worse ‘hermeneutics’…like I said…much more to be said, but keep up the good work regardless.

  • Scott wolcott


    I’m a bit confused as to what it means to think that “the problem of scripture is one permutation of the larger problem of evil”. What is it that we take “the problem of evil” to refer to here; and the same question for “the problem of scripture”. We obviously cannot mean the logical problem of evil here as the sentence would seem totally nonsensical on any construal of “the problem of scripture” in that case. However, we also can’t seem to mean the problem of natural evil as it would seem irrelevant unless “the problem of scripture” were to mean something limited to orgins; a claim I take it that is too narrow for Sparks. I suppose we could mean something like the pastoral problem of evil expounded by Marilyn Adams and the like, provided of course that by “the problem of scripture” we mean something existential. However, in that case, it is hard to see what benefit this ‘argument’ that Sparks is making really has. It certainly wouldn’t arrive at the application that you give it regarding caananite genocide except under very limited understandings of the existential nature of “the problem of scripture”.

    I am not at all opposed to what Sparks claims. I just don’t know what it means. It starts to sound like a platitude.

    • Kent Sparks

      Hi Scott

      You wrote: “We obviously cannot mean the logical problem of evil.”

      Actually, I would say that is exactly the problem. Christian’s believe that a good God has created a world that is both beautiful and marred by evil. That this constitutes some kind of logical and also visceral problem is exemplified by biblical and theological efforts to explicate the problem (Job, for instance, and lots of modern theodicies) and by atheists who reject God’s existence precisely because of this problem.

      My point is this: If Christians are willing to admit that God’s created order (including humanity) is good but broken by sin, and are theologically satisfied with the mystery of how that sin is not God’s but humanity’s, then why can we not similarly admit that God’s word (Scripture) is good but broken by sin. We needn’t choose between the options of “Scripture is true and beautiful” and “Scripture’s human authors erred in all ways human.” Both would be true.

      • Scott wolcott

        AHHHH, that is so much clearer to me now. I take it that I was understanding “permutation” in a much stricter sense than you meant it. This is actually very interesting to me. As an analytic philosopher, I’d say that you are creating a “logical space” for the error within scripture by drawing certain logical parallels between the logical form of the problem of evil and the logical form of, what you call, “the problem of scripture”. Really interesting stuff.

        I classify myself as an inerrantist. However, I don’t affirm the vast majority of things that most people characterize inerrantists as affirming. In fact, I see inerrancy as a rather weak belief within my noetic structure. This argument is quite appealing to me then because it makes the weakness of my inerrantist beliefs more secure qua weak belief. It allows those who, like me, think inerrancy is not very essential to Christian doctrine, but who still want to affirm it in some weak sense, to be able to do so without feeling as though we are arguing for some fundamentalist construal of the issue.

        Well done Kent! Thanks!

  • James

    Canaanite genocide fits nicely into the larger Hebrew narrative some call salvation history. God is protecting and enlarging the elect according to promise–that’s basically what’s going on–expressed in pre-modern story and idiom. This is the memory of God’s mighty acts that sustains a threatened people in their time of need such as the exile and its aftermath. Yes, inspired scripture is part of the ancient world laced like it is today with evil. As someone wisely put it, “Deal with it!”

  • cbm

    or, “Everybody Poops (and so does the Bible)” – if only book titles could be this fun

  • I am currently in chapter 3 of this book, and am thoroughly enjoying it. Pete, I’ve read your I&I, and I’m starting to have less of a problem with the inconsistencies or outright inaccuracies or contradictions. But I’m always curious, if I ever get into a discussion in my small group (none of whom would be open to these ideas), what do I say to, “Well, how can you trust the Bible if you don’t believe it’s completely true/inerrant/accurate/etc.?” My guess is they won’t totally go to the Ken Ham “Jesus didn’t live if you don’t believe in six literal days” sort of logic, but their trust and value of the worth of Scripture simply drops to zero if you start to question God’s Word.

    I’m only starting to think about responses to this, but I’d love to hear your response (and anybody else’s, for that matter).

    • peteenns

      Doug, I don’t bring these things up in small groups but only with people who are already seeing the problem.

      • Doug

        Good point, but what about when these “texts of terror” come up, and people begin verbally wrestling with them? The solution of non-inerrancy isn’t viable for hardcore or solid conservatives.

      • I’m curious as to why you don’t bring these things up in small groups.


        • peteenns

          Only because I don’t want to lead people where they might not be prepared to go–whether in terms of their knowledge base or their point in their spiritual journey. When they are ready for this kind of conversation, I am in 100%.

    • Larry S

      Doug, it’s not so much that they will loose trust in the Bible, they will loose trust in you if you ask probing questions. Dr. Enns has a great paper available online about the moveable well of 1 cor 10.4 that might make the good folk in your small group freak if you brought up some of the issues discussed. Well worth reading -do a search with Peter Enns and moveable well. About 20 or so pages in Pete gives multiple examples of biblical authors incorporating extra biblical tradition onto the pages of holy writ.

      Bring up these issues in a small group at your own risk, specially if u are dependent on them for your salary!

    • Mark Chenoweth

      Doug, this is where I have to part ways with Protestants as an Orthodox Christian. My answer would be that scripture can only be understood as PART of Holy Tradition and interpreted ALONGSIDE Holy Tradition. It is the Church’s job to extract the eternal from the cultural in scripture. I just push infallibility back a little farther and apply it to the church as a whole. But Catholics and Eastern Orthodox can do this easier than Protestants can. If Protestants developed a more catholic ecclesiology, it might be easier, but with so many denominations, it looks like a very difficult task right now. Some may accuse me of not being able to deal with such doctrinal diversity and agnosticism in Protestantism and running from it. Well, I’m comfortable with admitting that they’re right.

      • Mary

        How would you know if Holy Tradition is correct? I’m am not picking especially on the Catholics but how can your Church’s interpretation be “infallible” when many mistakes have been made such as the Inquisition?

        Personally, I am uncomfortable with having ANY church tell me what to believe. God gave me a brain so I figure He wants me to use it.

        The more authoritative a church is, the more likely there is to be abuse. I am not just talking about Catholism but ANY religious organization.

        • Mary

          I want to make clear that I am not saying the Catholic Church is evil. I am not attacking your faith. The Protestants were guilty of burning witches. The point that I want to make is that no church’s interpretation of the Bible is infallible. In the final analysis everyone has to come to their own conclusions based on their conscience. It comes down to personal responsibility verses the mob mentality.

  • Mark Chenoweth

    For all the killing in the OT, I was thinking…how would this work if we are to stick with an incarnational understanding of scripture?

    I think it makes sense to say the scripture writers would make scientific and historical errors, because Jesus could make scientific and historical errors in his human nature. However, Jesus couldn’t SIN in his human nature. If we see the killing in the OT as a SINFUL portrayal of something, would this mean scripture isn’t free from sin as well? We could answer in two ways: the incarnational analogy isn’t perfect and YES, scripture is sinful. Or no, scripture can’t “SIN,” so we need to think about this in a different way.

    I tend to go with the second answer, because my church seems to very much endorse the incarnational analogy of scripture. I think I could agree with a large portion of what Sparks is saying, but possibly phrase it differently to stay within a Nicene/Chalcedonian understanding of scripture. Again, I’m not saying an incarnational understanding of scripture is DOGMA like the incarnation itself, I’m just making analogies.

    Thoughts? (I know ascribing verbs to scripture is strange, but it worked best for what I was saying)

    • Mary

      I am not clear on what you mean by thinking about it in a different way. Can you elaborate?

      • Mark

        Maybe we can think of scripture as an icon of Christ, but ALSO an icon of salvation.

        Meaning, the bible is synergistic. God can only move as far as people let him (I’m not a Calvinist, obviously). When the Caananite story was written, God had an ultimate plan for this how this story would be used, but he isn’t going to override where the culture of the Hebrews was at that time. God whispers, prods, and gently nudges men toward truth when he knows they can accept it. So yes, the oral culture was a sinful oral culture and God could only interact to these people to the extent that they would let him. So we see not only the hardness of the Hebrews hearts from what was recorded, but the RECORDING itself is influenced by a hard heart.

        God eventually moved his people to a place where they could accept more of his revelation, and then He gave them and the rest of the world Christ. But this took thousands of years of God’s patience. He was working with a primitive and sinful people and he allowed their primitive and sinful ways of thinking to come through onto the pages of scripture.

        So we can say that the the flood story and the story of Joshua, along with the imprecatory psalms and the laws of the time were written without a full revelation of who God was.

        BTW, I responded to your comment about church infallibility but forgot to put my email address down and so it was deleted! : ( So maybe I’ll retype it sometime. And I’m not Catholic by the way. : ) I said what I was in my earlier post.

  • Robert

    I can affirm the thesis here, that revelation is good but marred by the fallen world-order, but as a statement one has to respect in general while reading and applying scripture. It becomes problematic to take the suggested next step and use it as a foundation for discerning that any particular part of scripture is not revelatory of God. If, as it seems, the plan of salvation involves the perfect and the broken existing in a deeply interwoven state until the end of the age, it would be presumptuous to attempt to disentangle that mixture before then.

    • peteenns

      Robert, I think Kent would say that we can’t escape disentangling every time we read. We are making judgments whenever we read. Otherwise the Bible is more a book preserved for future reference.

      • Robert

        This I think is a fundamental point of disagreement between what Kent would say and where I am. Suppose we are moral creatures even as we are visual creatures, and can no more stop making moral judgments than we can stop seeing. Those judgments must influence us even as our physical senses influence us, but they need not be the central determining factor of how we act in the world.

        If I needed adequate physical information or adequate moral context to decide to act, I could do nothing. Ignorance is crushing. Yet for some reason I act anyway. Some other mainspring drives me; I do not adequately know what it is; I hope it is a good one. But framing my actions in terms of moral judgments seems more likely to be post hoc moralization that what actually drives me.

        • Mary

          We have to do the job of disentangling, otherwise we risk having others do it for us. This is the problem of not addressing these issues. This is a central problem with Christianity is relying on others to interpret it. Shall we go with Hitler’s interpretation? (Killing all the Jews) You can find it in the Bible. What about slavery and rape? According the Bible that is ok too. We have atrocities going on all the time in the name of God so how can we NOT take up the mission of disentanglement? I’m sorry but that view is just a cop-out!

          • Robert

            Is it really your position that there exists a hermeneutic that will stop atrocities from being committed in the name of God?

  • Mark Filiatreau

    Yes, the Bible is within the fallen order, just as is everything else in the world that we can touch, see, or read. But was it created entirely from “within the fallen system”? The other question is, it is understood and interpreted from completely “within the fallen system”? Or can a being (God) communicate with us from outside the system? Specifically, many evangelicals and Pentecostals believe we interpret scripture with the aid of the Holy Spirit. See for example many of the works of Dr. Gordon Fee on this.

    • peteenns

      Mark, I hear what you are saying, but the HS, if he is helping us understand the Bible, seems quite comfortable with highly diverse readings over the history of the church. On your first point,I’m not sure how inspiration rebuts Sparks’s point. I think he is remarking in the product of that process.

      • Bev Mitchell


        Interesting point on the Holy Spirit seemingly content with a variety of interpretations. I think, according to Scripture, we really have to see the Holy Spirit as directly involved in how Scripture moves us. However, maybe complete agreement across the board may not be the big issue. We have all had the experience of the same part of Scripture “speaking” to us in different ways at different points of our journey. Since the ultimate goal of Scripture is to point us (lead us) to Christ and help his likeness grow in us, the results of our interaction with Scripture are more important than any static interpretation we may all hope to agree with.

        Not that we can interpret Scripture any way we like. But, if it is not leading us to Christ (saving us) or helping us become more Christ like (sanctifying us) then we are getting something wrong. It is not likely to be Scripture’s fault. Sparks’ succinctly makes this point when he says “The actual life that we live in response to Scripture is the most important mark of valid biblical interpretation.”

  • “The Bible does not stand outside of the cosmos but is part of it, since God has allowed humans in their fallen humanity to write it.” – I’m struggling to see how this statement is truly incarnational. Seems almost a little more “arian” to me (sticking within the analogy).

  • Pete,

    I’m reading one of John J. Collins books “The Apocalyptic Imagination” an introduction to Jewish Apocalyptic literature. One of the Books he discusses is Daniel and I’m afraid if most Christians read his research and analysis and begin to put 2 & 2 together it might create a faith challenge for some. It delves somewhat into how Biblical literature was developed. The Jews obviously borrowed imaginative language and symbolism from all the various Persian, Babylonian, Egyptian and Greek mythical pieces that were floating around. Then they reworked them into their own theological constructs sharing metaphors and symbolisms that came to permeate the ANE mindset. It’s becoming apparent that the historical and modern church by and large doesn’t have a clue how much of this type of literature permeated even the NT writers of the Gospel and Paul much less Revelation.

    Here’s an excerpt from Collins book.
    “The apocalyptic literature is a “scribal phenomenon,” a product of learned activity rather than popular folklore. … “This literature was esoteric insofar as it was produced by the learned few, … “
    Collins, John Joseph (2010-08-04). The Apocalyptic Imagination: An Introduction to Jewish Apocalyptic Literature (The Biblical Resource Series) (p. 39). Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company. Kindle Edition.

    The Problem is that this learned activity or knowledge appears to be challenging us in a manner that few can grasp its significance and impact upon the first century origins of the church. Even though Collins is discussing apocalyptic literature the fact remains that the Hebrew construction shared so much of the common ideas of the ANE that to really get it we would have to spend an enormous amount of time getting up to speed in order to discuss intelligently (and I’m not talking strictly just apocalyptic writing’s now). Part of the difficulty is that much of biblical literature comes across to us as literal when I believe the Jury is stay way out regarding whether the Jews even thought it was literal. It’s obvious in many situations that these authors knew that what they were writing using a “pseudonym” or borrowing other cultural ideas, but it’s unclear if their audience would be aware of it (that might make some of these writings forms of propaganda). If Daniel was written in the 2nd or 3rd Century BC about things preceding their time how does a modern reader deal with the realization that Daniel really wasn’t prophetic regarding the Persian, Babylonian and Greek periods. When it does dawn on them then they may have to rethink things and hopefully still retain their faith. I think this is why most of us don’t talk about these kinds of issues in our churches and small groups nor can preachers teach such things from the pulpit. The need for knowledge creates a quandary on how to get there effectively.

  • Stephen

    Somewhat related to the line of reasoning discussed in the post and comments, but also different…

    I like Sparks’ approach to the Bible within the broader rubrics of how we think of God’s relation to the world and issues like “the problem of evil.” It would seem to be an even deeper way to think about how Scripture is God’s Word. This requires us to think of the divine aspect of Scripture not only in terms of standard God-stuff invoked in Bible discussions (e.g., God’s “perfection” and so on), but also the many other aspects of God such as how he relates to the world, God’s good order being good but marred by sin, etc.

    Anyway, running with this in a slightly different direction, over the past several years I’ve been thinking about how strange it is that many inerrantists energetically oppose any idea that God could have inspired errors in the Bible (for some ultimately good purpose of his) because that would be deceptive and make God not worthy of our worship.

    At the same time, many of these same inerrantists are ok with: (1) the “mature earth” view wherein God created the earth to look older than it is and, as part of this, even buried the fossils of the dinosaurs and so on; (2) God fore-ordaining all the sin, suffering, misery massacres, genocides, and every other horrible thing that people do to each other and/or just happen to people (mudslides that kill thousands), but fore-ordaining all this ultimately for (at least according to some Calvinist reasoning) a good and God glorifying purpose. And so on.

    If many Christians are ok with such ideas about God, which involve him being blatantly “deceptive/misleading” or using horrible things for a good purpose, why is it that many such Christians can’t extend the same abilities to God when inspiring his Bible? Deceptive creation of the earth to look younger than it is and ordaining genocides are ok, but inspiring an error in the Bible…that’s just going too far?

    Anyway, not that I endorse ideas such as the “mature creation” view…just trying to step inside the logic and theology of such inerrantist Christians and “take it seriously,” if you will, for the purposes of interaction and assessment.

  • Kent Sparks

    Hi Stephen

    I’m not sure you’re endorsing the idea, but I would not agree with the notion that “God inspired errors in the Bible” any more than I’d want to say that “The evil in our world is God’s doing.” Rather, I’d say that God inspired the authors (and thus, the text) in a mysterious way that permitted them to act and write precisely as they were as human beings, who shared our paradoxical capacity to understand and communicate insight while also being fallen and sinful.

    • peteenns

      Kent, I think you are making a very important point here. The evangelical doctrine of inspiration works off of the following logic: God inspired the Bible, so if there are errors in the Bible, that would mean that God inspired errors. This leaves us with a choice either to reject any notion of erros in the Bible with errors or to conclude that God has no part in the Bible.

  • Kent Sparks

    “If a man beats his slave and he dies under his hand, he will be avenged. But if the slave survives a day or two, he will not be avenged because the slave is his property” (Exod 21:20).

    I maintain that the rationale behind this text is twisted and horrible, so that one of two things MUST be true. Either the Bible is God’s word and has been influenced by human sin, or — if God’s word must be free of error — the Bible simply is not God’s word.

    The idea that this horrible text suits inerrancy (or a similar formulation) is simply out of bounds. I might as well believe in the tooth fairy.

  • Stephen

    Kent and Pete,

    Appreciate your thoughts here. To a certain extent I agree with you and have for years been trying to think through a theological model of what the Bible “is” that doesn’t stamp passages such as Exod 21.20, Deut 7.2, 21.10-14, and on and on and on and on with divine approval and “authority” in the sense of traditional evangelical models of how the Bible is authoritative and how it is God’s word. Thus, again, why I am quite interested in Kent’s project in this book and Pete’s thoughts on the matter.

    This all said, perhaps some lingering effects of my past enculturation into a certain Calvinist part of the polemical evangelical world continue to orient me. For example, I have for years resisted downplaying God’s inspirational involvement in the “messiness” of the Bible and even “errors” for various reasons: (1) I liked to differentiate my position from the classic theological “Liberal” (of the evangelical imagination; not saying this idea is a theologically “Liberal” idea, especially since the term is often so polemical as to lack identifiable content) idea that the Bible must contain errors and the like due to the limitations of its human authors. My Calvinistic convictions never made that view plausible to me since I thought God could control anything to be exactly as he wants. (2) I didn’t like the idea of associating the “messy” parts of the Bible with the “humanity” of Scripture as opposed to its “divinity,” since I saw this as a reinscription of the same traditional evangelical views that needed criticism. Given our view of God, Christ, and how they relate to people and the world, I didn’t see why we should dissociate the “messiness” from God’s involvement in Scripture. Instead, why not think that precisely because he our God his word would be thus “messy” and that “messiness” would truly reflect how he would inspire his word?

    Point is, for such reasons (which may require re-examination on my part) I haven’t shied away from thinking of, for example, God inspiring the errors in the Bible…because, for example, I want to question the choice Pete brings up in his comment about Evangelical logic concerning the Bible. Why should our choice be either to reject errors in the Bible or to reject God’s involvement in the Bible? Why not turn that on its head and allow the Bible we have to help us determine what it means that the Bible is God’s word. Thus we don’t get to decide ahead of time whether or not, for example, God could have inspired errors in the Bible. If he did then he did and our place is to adjust our ideas about God and scripture accordingly. Having said this, perhaps what I am laying out remains a problematic kind of Biblicist foundationalism.

    In articulating these thoughts I still agree that we need to grapple with a new model for how the Bible “is” God’s word and authoritative for us. The traditional models don’t work, as illustrated by all the contorting of the Bible (and historical context) in which evangelical apologists must engage on all manner of topics: i.e., no one really advocates following the Bible’s various positions about men and women since some of them are more rankly misogynistic than even Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood folks would tolerate.

  • Trying to understand why evil exists is like attempting to scale a mountain of ice with sneakers on. Sparks writes, “These terrors, whether of life experience or biblical ‘texts of terror’ cannot be fully resolved by really smart human beings with well-honed hermeneutical tools. They will only be resolved by the eschaton – by God’s redemptive activity to set his world aright through Christ” (p.49). I would have to agree. I am so glad light pierces the dark – even the darkness of scripture and the most traumatic aspects of our experience. While the kingdom hasn’t fully broken in, I’m so glad that dry bones can indeed live.

  • Nick Hill

    Have you read “Is God a Moral Monster?: Making Sense of the Old Testament God” by Paul Copan ( What do you think of it?

    • peteenns

      Nick, I have only poked through it, but based on reviews I’ve read, I probably would explain things very differently.