The Bible is “Broken and Fragile.” Deal with it.

The Bible is “Broken and Fragile.” Deal with it. July 3, 2012

Three months ago, Eerdmans released Kent Sparks’s latest book, Sacred Word, Broken Word: Biblical Authority and the Dark Side of Scripture. Many will remember the controversy generated by his 2008 publication, God’s Word in Human Words: An Evangelical Appropriation of Critical Biblical Scholarship. In the latter, Sparks took to task many of his fellow Evangelical biblical scholars for failing to follow through with the implications of their academic training, preferring, rather, to defend Evangelical doctrinal boarders.

Not everyone was thrilled to be called out, and Sparks received some hard hitting reviews, as well as an entire publication attempting to show how wrong his assessment of Evangelical biblical scholarship is (Do Historical Matters Matter to Faith?: A Critical Appraisal of Modern and Postmodern Approaches to Scripture).

This is not the place to rate the success of that response (which I think is minimal), but I do think that both critics and fans of Sparks’s brand of Evangelical biblical scholarship would do well to read carefully his most recent publication. In God’s Word in Human Words, Sparks clearly has an ax to grind–that is the whole point of the book. But no axes are being ground in Sacred Word, Broken Word.

This is a positive declaration of how to read Scripture, which will prove entirely controversial for those concerned to protect the Evangelical system, and likewise welcomed by those who do not share that concern. Both groups will benefit from seeing what Sparks thinks when not in attack mode (which may also temper some criticisms of God’s Word in Human Words).

I am currently twisting Sparks’s arm to get him to write a few blog posts here outlining the main reasons why he feels Sacred Word, Broken Word is worth reading. Thus far he has ignored my faxes, emails, texts, and bonded couriers, but, in anticipation of that glorious day, I’d like offer a trailer or two, a bow to the summer movie season, as it were.

Sparks starts right off with a quote from German theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer:

We must read this book of books with all human methods. But through the fragile and broken Bible, God meets us in the voice of the Risen One.

And some of you thought all Bonheoffer did was plot to kill Hitler.

This somewhat paradoxical quote sums up nicely what Sparks is about when he thinks of what Scripture is and, therefore, what it means to read it well. Scripture is “broken and fragile,” which can be easily discerned by reading Scripture with “all human methods” (yes, that means historical criticism). Yet, at the same time, such a Scripture is the “book of books”  through which we hear the “voice of the Risen One.”

For Sparks, embracing such a paradox is not an exercise in deconstructing the Bible, but coming to terms with its undeniable properties. He guides his readers in accepting inevitability of the paradox, and the positive, spiritually nurturing, implications of doing so.

If you get this main point, you’ll get Spark’s book–which is written in an accessible, readable style, suitable for experts and non-experts alike.

In a few upcoming posts, I will touch down at various points in the book with some quotes that I think will help readers see where Sparks is coming from.

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  • That first book did not strike me as all that combative, but then I was ready for it I suppose. As you say, some people are more poised to defend the borders or boundaries than to engage with the thesis of the book.

    • Kent Sparks

      It is interesting to read reviews of GWHW. Those who are not evangelicals characterize it as “irenic” and “pastoral.” The offense was taken by neo-fundamentalists, whose scholarship I view as academic alchemy that is an embarrassment to the cause. It plays only for internal audiences and is viewed as wholly specious by outsiders and by many insiders.

      So, while my critique of evangelical scholarship was blunt, the tone was not harsh and I acknowledged that my evangelical colleagues are well-intentioned and good people. But when any of us are criticized in a way that backs us into a corner, we take it as harsh … just goes with the territory.

      • DB

        With respect, is it really surprising that offense was taken by people whose scholarship you regard as academic alchemy and as embarrassing?

  • I’m reading it now, Pete, and really enjoying it. I’d love it if Kenton would write some posts here. I so appreciate how you guys are challenging and encouraging us these days.

  • Bev Mitchell

    Amen Chaplain Mike. I’m on Chapter 8 and learning a lot – even though I read “God’s Word in Human Words” a couple of summers ago. Didn’t see much axe grinding in the former, absolutely none in this one. We desperately need such a clear voice if evangelicalism is not to be laughter off the stage. Have a look at what Roger Olson says about the book. I wonder how many of Sparks’ severest ‘critics’ will actually read the book and try to understand what he is saying? Yes, Dr. Sparks, answer Pete’s letters.

  • I thought Sparks’ first book was very good. I probably would not accept every nuance from critical scholars, as Sparks seems to. But the book was great, especially the first chapter on epistemological approaches. So I look forward to this follow-up book.

    But I must also say that I am glad you gave the link to the more conservative book, Do Historical Matters Matter to Faith? I want to continue to read from more conservative brothers and sisters, to also learn from them.

  • This book looks wonderful. Thank you. As I just ordered it, I’ll try to refrain from speaking on something I haven’t yet read… However, one thought came to mind as I read its description and the Bonhoeffer quote. I think we humans really struggle with paradox. How can light be a particle and a wave? How can a person be both good and bad? How can I be happy and sad? How can Jesus be dead but alive? It’s hard to live in the grey.

    Maybe this is why so much of the bible is written in story. Eugene Peterson writes, “It is significant that God does not present us with salvation in the form of an abstract truth, or a precise definition or a catchy slogan, but as story… Story is an invitation to participate, first through our imagination and then, if we will, by faith – with our total lives in response to God.” When I think of the bible, I see it as this onion that has layer after layer. I don’t want to fully understand it. Instead like a prism, I want to see it from a variety of angles and for its mystery to shine through. Similarly, when you look at an Impressionist painting up close – say a Seurat – you just see dots. But when you step back you see the whole beautiful image in its proper perspective. Maybe that was what Bonhoeffer was getting at. When we take all the books together, we hear “the voice of the Risen One.”

  • AT

    I really appreciate the continued conversation around innerrancy but I actually have some significant questions with Sparks approach. On a heart level it makes a lot of sense to relegate the ‘texts of terror’ to humans getting God wrong (even though ‘God allowed’ it) but it brings the entirety of scripture into question. Ultimately we cannot ‘trust’ anything in the Bible – everything must be explored through tradition, our heart feelings, church/ community and prayer. That actually really scares me and I wonder if it will cause Christians to arrive at scarier conclusions than fundamentalists…

    I also have questions regarding the role of God in accomodation. Sparks advocates for a more passive role of God within the process – i.e. ultimately humans had a flawed understanding of God and His desires (even though God allowed it) . I feel that you (Peter) advocate for God playing a more active role, e.g. God accomodating to ancient barbaric cultures to communicate in the most effective manner. I’d be really interested to hear your thoughts/ nuances.

    Also I have questions relating to supercessionism. I ultimately hold to mild supercessionism but I wonder if saying that absolutely everything in the OT must be completely rewritten/ reunderstood/ redefined in the light of Christ disconnects us from Israel’s story. After all the disciples and Jesus only had the OT, which they loved, believed and ‘trusted’. Please understand that I believe that the OT gives us an ‘incomplete’ view of God but I struggle with it depicting God in a ‘flawed’ way. Also I wonder if within Spark’s view (where God’s character and desires were distorted by broken humans), the ancient people of Israel had such a flawed view of God, that I wonder if contemporary sects such as JWs or Christedelphians have a more acurate view of God.

  • Patrick


    I share your view on “texts of terror”.

    The hermeneutical tactic here is difficult for me because Jesus associated Himself as the “I AM” of the OT , Jesus validated all 3 major sectors of the OT as sacred writings that “cannot be broken” as opposed to a comment like “which need re – examining as partially flawed documents misrepresenting My Father and Me as if we are Ba’al or Marduk by some pseudo scribes like you Pharisees and Sadducees w/o understanding and it has to be fixed”.

    Jesus wasn’t shy, so if He felt that, He would have instructed it, IMO. Not being popular was not a problem for Jesus. He just pointed out how flawed the understanding of the text was in His day .

    Many of the ancient people mentioned in texts of terror are associated as “types of Christ”. Sometimes He does the allusion, sometimes Paul, James, John or Peter do it.

    There’s actually a great explanation in the OT text for the texts of terror and you can even honor God for it as a perfect creator God who loves His creation, but, is forced to deal with implacable evil opposition. We just can’t accept it since the 4th century.

  • Bev Mitchell

    You seem to lament,
    “ultimately humans had a flawed understanding of God and His desires”

    My understanding of God certainly has some flaws. According to the “fallen humanity” view, by definition, all humans must have a fallen (flawed) view of God. 

    Of course, Sparks has lots to say on this theme. I like these quotes from Chapter 10.

     “…. given that every biblical text is a partial window into God’s truth… way to conceptualize Scripture is as a collection of texts that, when embraced as a canonical whole, tends to direct and push us in appropriate directions…..It is as if, for every text that seems to push us too far in one direction, another comes along that turns us back…..(the) untidy elements contribute to a useful theological whole.”

    • peteenns

      Good quote capturing Sparks’s thinking.

    • AT

      That is an interesting quote. I do like the ‘collection’ or library analogy for the canon but I feel that it is being pushed a little too far in this case. I am happy to stick with an incarnational analogy (as the best analogy we have for interpretation). In my interpretation of the terror texts I am happy to accept a messy mix of: God communicating in culturally relevant ways to the Israelites and God’s supremacy in culturally relevant ways to the surrounding cultures, God dealing with sinfulness in a prior covenant prior to the flood of grace from Christ, the herem texts representing historicised myth of destruction that may have not completely represented a modern historical understanding of the events and may have represented deeper spiritual realities. I also acknowledge the special circumstances in which these events unfolded – preserving the line of Christ a the Messiah King. I also acknowledge God using culturally relevant methods with less than ideal implications to meet a culture in their hardness – only to move in a trajectory towards his grace in the overarching story of salvation which is completely fullfilled in Christ. I also acknowledge God’s sovereignty over the blurriness between all of these factors. But I personally can’t reconcile the texts that initally appear horrific to my heart as being sinful and tainted by sin. Whilst I intially disagreed with the incarnational analogy, it has brought so much revelation to my understanding of God’s word (and his incarnational love) but I feel this steps outside of this analogy leading to confusion.

  • Elijah

    I completely concur with this post. I found Sparks latest book to be very helpful!

  • [“We must read this book of books with all human methods. But through the fragile and broken Bible, God meets us in the voice of the Risen One.” ~ Dietrich Bonhoeffer]

    Great quotation… The written word points to the living Word…