Kent Sparks on “The Problem of Sacred Scripture”

Kent Sparks on “The Problem of Sacred Scripture” July 13, 2012

I am continuing my short series on some thoughts generated by Kent Sparks’s recent book Sacred Word, Broken Word: Biblical Authority and the Dark Side of Scripture. (You can see the first three posts here, here, and here.)

In this book, Sparks lays out what the Bible is doing and how to read it well. He writes in a compelling and readable style and the book is suitable for church groups, college students, and anyone else interested in why the Bible acts the way it does and what we can learn from that.

In chapter 4, Sparks deals with the problem that commonly besets Christian readers: The Bible does not speak with one consistent voice. Here is the money quote, from p. 32:

Though the Bible is the word of God and, as such, is at first blush expected to be consistent in its viewpoints, and, like God, free of any error, a thoughtful reading of Scripture suggests that it is neither wholly consistent nor error free.

Sparks then lists a number of examples over the next few pages, but he moves quickly to the hermeneutical issue that has been the church’s constant companion since Paul: what do you do when the God speaks differently in the New Testament vis-a-vis the Old. The issue Sparks homes in on is “biblical violence,” i.e., why God kills a lot of Gentiles in the Old Testament.

To make his point, Sparks pairs Matthew 5:43-45, where Jesus commands to love your enemies, to Deuteronomy 20:16-18, where God gives the marching order for killing Canaanite men, women, and children.

Origen, approximately AD 185-232

This is not a new issue, of course. It has been a problem since the first century or two of the Christian church. It’s one of the reasons why 3rd century theologians like Origen argued, “Maybe we should take this stuff allegorically.”

For Sparks–and  no one will be surprised if they have read the book this far–this illustrates yet again how bound the biblical writers were, not here and there, but everywhere, to their cultural context.

Citing Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s Christ the Center, the Bible is human tradition, written by authors of whom “not only part but all that they say is historically related and conditioned” (p. 37).

To put all this another way, Scripture itself raises moral problems for Christians today if we expect it be a moral guide or a full disclosure of God’s will. What we see in Scripture, rather, is a trajectory toward compassion.

Sparks concludes the chapter with a look forward:

I take it that many Christian readers, both liberal and conservative, will find themselves somewhere between the extremes represented by fundamentalism [there is no ethical problem in the Bible] and skepticism [since there are ethical problems, the Bible can be dismissed]. They embrace the Bible as God’s word but are troubled by the difficulties in Scripture…[especially God’s violence in the Old Testament]. In the pages that follow I will try to suggest a way forward that engages Scripture as God’s word while admitting, at the same time, that the ethical diversity that it displays is a factual problem.

  Fort Sparks, a proper respect for Scripture means taking such a middle path.



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  • brad

    Thanks for your work on these themes. I’m warm towards yours and Sparks’ perspectives, but haven’t read any of the books yet. I’m wondering what you think would be the best book to begin with . . . Incarnation and Inspiration? God’s Word in Human Words? Or Sacred Word, Broken Word?

  • Bev Mitchell

    I know you asked Pete, but here is a view from a non-professional. I read them in the order you have in your question. I’m not sure it matters much, but Pete does make the incarnational point a major one (no surprise, given his title). Sparks’ latest is in some ways a shorter version of “God’s Words in Human Words” so it’s personal preference which you take up first. On a personal note, I actually began my recent study of these issues a few years ago with James Kugel’s “How to Read the Bible”. Pete can let us know what he thinks of that work, but I found it excellent as well. Kugel is Orthodox Jewish and taught at Harvard for years. All four books have been a great help to me, and all deserve at least a second reading, with marking and note taking. 🙂

    • peteenns

      Well, Kugel was my mentor, so I guess I like what he has to say 🙂

    • brad

      Bev, thanks for your reply. I’ll check out Kugel, too.

  • Mark Chenweth

    It would be interesting to see how you and Sparks MAY differ on your approaches. I’m sure they aren’t exactly the same. But at the same time, it also seems like you build off of one another.

  • Lisa

    I was asked about 2 Tim 3:16 after I posted this. What then is “God breathed” and what then is cultural?

    • peteenns

      Why does a line have to be drawn between the two?

    • Mark

      Yeah, I don’t see why God couldn’t work with fallen people through their own culture to produce His ultimate message of salvation. “God breathed” doesn’t automatically equal plenary verbal inspiration. Doesn’t it make you a little squeemish to think God just overrides everything and MAKES people write EXACTLY what things look like from his perspective? God works with what he’s got and in the OT, he didn’t have much. But God never overrides our creaturely freedom. Some views of inspiration almost sound like God hyptnotized his creatures and then made them write down everything he said. But this goes againt EVERYTHING we know about God’s interaction with mankind.

  • TimHeebner

    Would this book or your book give a good explanation of why we should still call the Bible “God’s Word”? I have no problem with calling it inspired, but it seems the mess we get in with people’s interpretation of how to read the Bible begins with calling it his Word and all that comes with that.

    • Stephen W

      I’ve been wondering the same thing. I’ve started to question a lot of what we believe the Bible is and am realising that much of it the Bible doesn’t claim for itself (“The word of God” being one, “Inerrant”/”Infallible” being another, “The foundation on which we stand” another).

      It seems to me the Bible points to Jesus (“The Word”, “The Foundation” etc.) but the claims the Church makes about the Bible aren’t found in the Bible. Even the quote from 2 Timothy is problematic because 1) What does “God breathed” actually mean in relation to how the Bible is to be read? 2) “Useful” is not “Essential” 3) Teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness is a fairly narrow definition (certainly not “handbook for life” broad) and 4) What did Paul mean by “scripture” anyway? Presumably Jewish scripture (i.e. the OT) which was somewhat in a state of flux at the time (the inclusion of Ecclesiastes was not decided, but Enoch was in!)

      I’m not trying to dismiss the Bible, but I am trying to work out how it fits into my walk with Jesus (who I understand to be “the point”).

      • TimHeebner

        This is very reason I’m asking the question to Pete since I really appreciate his perspective on how to read the Bible (especially the OT), but I’m curious, with his perspective on scripture, why he still refers to it as God’s Word. I waa expecting him to not use that terminology.

        • Mark

          If we’re sticking with the incarnational analogy, and Jesus was culturally conditioned like scripture and he was God’s Word, why couldn’t scripture still be as well?

          • TimHeebner

            Why was it ever called that?