A good new book on the Bible reviewed (continuing the discussion on the word “inerrancy”)

A good new book on the Bible reviewed (continuing the discussion on the word “inerrancy”) June 29, 2012

Review of Sacred Word, Broken Word: Biblical Authority and the Dark Side of Scripture by Kenton L. Sparks (Eerdmans, 2012)

I’m sure this book will stir up a hornets’ nest among the neo-fundamentalist evangelicals. No doubt others will also criticize it as it breaks some new ground, at least among evangelicals. I find it refreshingly clear and honest; the author pulls few punches in explicating the “dark side” of Scripture.

Kenton (“Kent”) Sparks is professor of biblical studies at Eastern University (American Baptist) in Pennsylvania. He has authored books such as Ancient Texts for the Study of the Hebrew Bible and God’s Word in Human Words. He identifies as an evangelical. Some critics will question that identification, but I tend to give people the benefit of the doubt and view “evangelical” as a fuzzy category. In my opinion, a person can be evangelical without adhering all the way to every part of the so-called “received evangelical tradition” (stamped as that tends to be by Old Princeton theology).

Without question Sparks’ argument is bold—at least among evangelical and relatively conservative Protestants. It will be interesting to see how it plays out among moderate to progressive (postconservative) evangelicals.

What’s especially interesting about the book is Sparks’ response to the Old Testament “texts of terror”—something we have discussed here quite a lot. If I understand his thesis correctly, it is very similar to what I have argued here—that the Old Testament must be interpreted in light of the New and that, at least occasionally, reports in the Old Testament (about what God commanded people to do) must be relativized in light of the character of God revealed in Jesus Christ who is the Word of God in person.

Here is one especially clear statement of the book’s overall thesis:

Scripture, as a book written by fallible human beings, is itself a book of theological discourse that that advances the truth but also stands in need of redemption. Scripture is beautiful and broken, and it is being read and studied in the church, and sometimes outside of the church, by beautiful and broken human beings. Nevertheless, Christians have theological and philosophical reasons to suppose that, when we read Scripture well, we are able to understand it. And as we understand it, we shall find that God’s truth and beauty run deeper, and are more potent, than the brokenness that God is healing. (88)

In other words, according to Sparks, there are records in Scripture that simply cannot be trusted as true because of the Bible’s humanity. He begins with blatant contradictions such as the accounts of Judas’ betrayal of Jesus and death in Matthew and Acts; they cannot be reconciled. Most people are not particularly bothered by that. Only neo-fundamentalists find it necessary to try to harmonize them. The differences are not important theologically. One can easily respond to them by saying that, in spite of such contradictions, the Bible is “perfect with respect to purpose” (John Piper). We can chalk such flaws to human fallibility so long as we hold to a dynamic rather than verbal view of inspiration. (By “verbal inspiration” here I mean the idea that God led the writers to the exact words he wanted them to use. By “dynamic inspiration” here I mean the idea that God led the writers to the ideas he wanted them to record but allowed their personalities and cultures and fallible memories, etc., to affect what they wrote.)

What will trouble many evangelicals more is Sparks’ handling of the Old Testament texts of terror:

Where we judge that Scripture presents God as saying or doing something he would not say or do, we should confess that “these texts tell us more about the purposes of their human authors than about the purposes of God.” We will simply admit that the author of Deuteronomy wrongly believed (as Luther did) that God told his people to slaughter their enemies. To express in theological jargon, Scripture includes both “God-talk” (first-order words from God to humanity) and “god-talk-talk” (mistaken, second-order accounts of what God has supposedly said. This is an important distinction…. (105-106)

Telling the difference between these two types of texts is a matter of Christological discernment, not cultural accommodation. Sparks adamantly rejects any idea that his proposal is based on modern sentiments. To those who disagree he rightly points back to church fathers such as Gregory of Nazianzus and John Chrysostom and others who freely admitted that the texts of terror in question could not be taken at face value. The way premodern Christians handled them was to allegorize them. That method isn’t open to us. So where does that leave us?

I think this is one of Sparks’ strongest arguments. He clearly demonstrates (you need to read the book to get the whole argument and all its nuances) that many orthodox premodern Christians did NOT believe these texts of terror are to be taken as commands of God. Allegorical interpretation saved them from having to say the human authors erred. Once we jettison allegorical interpretation (as almost all modern Christians have done!) we are still left with the problem of how to interpret these texts.

Sparks uses Deuteronomy 20 as one example. There, according to the text, Moses told the people of God that God commanded them to annihilate the inhabitants of the towns across the Jordan River. Then he shows how such texts were used by later “Christians” to justify genocide. For example, one American colonist wrote after annihilating a group of Native Americans “Sometimes Scripture declareth women and children must perish with their parents…. We had sufficient light from the Word of God for our proceedings…It was a fearful sight to see them frying in the fire, with streams of blood quenching it; the smell was horrible, but the victory seemed a sweet sacrifice.” (72)

Sparks quotes extensively from theologians such as Dietrich Bonhoeffer to justify (or illustrate) his argument that Scripture’s writers were not only fallible but also fallen and that therefore some of what they wrote must be redeemed. Scripture not only contains factual errors; it also contains some records about God that simply cannot be embraced as sacred Word of God. They must instead be relegated (not stripped from Scripture) to the category of Scripture’s “dark side.” An illustration is Luther’s handling of James. He did not expel it from the Bible but argued that its theology is simply wrong and should not be taught as gospel.

Again, throughout the book, Sparks uses Jesus Christ as the touchstone of interpretation and demonstrates that Jesus did not merely “fulfill” the Old Testament in terms of continuing a trajectory (which is true enough) but corrected much of it (e.g., how to treat enemies). The underlying theme is that Jesus Christ is the primary revelation of God, the clearest revelation possible in humanity and to humanity of God’s character. When we run across elements of Scripture impossible to reconcile with God’s character as revealed in Jesus Christ, we ought to bite the bullet and admit they are simply wrong, the result of the humanity (finiteness and fallenness) of Scripture.

I find Sparks’ argument compelling if not flawless. One flaw is his admission that there is no theory of inspiration that really squares with this. He leaves inspiration in the realm of mystery; we simply cannot know what it means except that God adopted these human writings as instruments of his revelation to us.

Here is why I am writing this review—following up on my earlier post about John Piper’s definition of “inerrancy.” “Perfection with respect to purpose” (as a definition of inerrancy) ought to be judged completely inadequate by those conservative evangelicals and neo-fundamentalists who oppose an account of Scripture such as Sparks’. Given what Sparks has written in this book, he could (he doesn’t) say he believes in inerrancy IF “inerrancy” means “perfection with respect to purpose.” Scripture’s purpose is to identify God for us and God does this through Jesus whom we meet in Scripture. This is why Carl Henry, who, in personal correspondence, criticized Piper’s definition of inerrancy did so. He saw that defining inerrancy as “perfection with respect to purpose” could and probably would lead to something like Sparks’ view of Scripture.

Here’s the upshot of what I am saying. If a neo-fundamentalist, conservative evangelical, says that Sparks’ view of Scripture is defective, low, he could always object that he actually believes in the Bible’s “inerrancy”—a very high view of Scripture. (I’m not saying he does say that; I’m saying he could.) If the critic scoffs he could always point to Piper’s definition of inerrancy as “perfection with respect to purpose” and turn the tables on the critic who, no doubt, admires Piper as a paragon of conservative evangelical “high” view of Scripture.

I am NOT arguing that Piper would agree with Sparks’ view of Scripture. What I am arguing is that Piper’s definition of “inerrancy” COULD cover Sparks’ view of Scripture.

This is why I keep arguing that “inerrancy” is a meaningless concept until it is explained clearly. And once someone does begin to explain it clearly one of two things happens. EITHER the explanation does not fit the actual phenomena of Scripture OR necessary qualifications (to make it fit the phenomena of Scripture) kill it so that it becomes a special use of “inerrancy” that fits no other context.

I want to mention one especially helpful aspect of Sparks’ book—his chapter on “Christian Epistemology: Broken Readers of Sacred Scripture” (Chapter 8). This is an exceptionally lucid explanation and defense of what I have been calling “critical realism.” Sparks calls it “practical realism” and distinguishes it from tacit realism, reflective realism, modern realism and anti-realism. He explains “Practical Realists believe that ‘the Truth,’ though it exists, is accessible to human beings only by analogies that yield partial, useful, ‘small t’ truths.” He quotes Merold Westphal: “the truth is that there is Truth, but not for us, only for God.” (81)

By the way, having just finished my book on modern theology (to be published next year by IVP), I find this very similar to what American mediating theologian Horace Bushnell argued in the mid-19th century. Against the prevailing Common Sense Realism of his day Bushnell argued that all language is metaphorical (not just God-talk).

I strongly recommend Sparks’ book to everyone, but especially to those who read Christian Smith’s The Bible Made Impossible: Why Biblicism is Not a Truly Evangelical Reading of Scripture which I reviewed here some months ago. Smith’s book is primarily critical; Sparks’ goes beyond that to a constructive proposal for an evangelical doctrine of Scripture that takes the actual phenomena of Scripture seriously while holding to a high view of Scripture as God’s sacred Word.


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