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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  • Juan-Jose

    I understand the argument, and it is a valid one. The one thing I don’t understand with the argument is what about passages like Annanias and Saphira in Acts: would we then say Luke is advancing his own agenda by recording something that happened? I’m not sure how we can rationalize thoat passage. And the book of Jude seems to say Christ Himself-or the Lord, depends on which reading one takes as the original-partook in one of those “passages of terror” by killing the children of Israel when they doubted God would give them the land after they sent the spies. How can re rationalize that? Do we say the book of Jude contains errors in theology as to what will happen to the wicked men who sneak into the church to trap and decieve people?

    thanks for your response(s) to my question brethren.
    grace, love and peace of Christ be with you all;

    • rogereolson

      I can’t answer for Kent Sparks, but I see a difference between what happened to Ananias and Saphira and what the Israelites are reported as having done to women and children in Canaanite cities.

      • I’m certainly no OT scholar. So, I write this as a layman. But it seems to me that if God had directly killed all the Canaanites (men, women, children, livestock, etc.) without the assistance of the Israelites, it would be within his jurisdiction to do so, since he is the giver and taker of life. So, what precisely changes if he asks the Israelites to carry out that same action? If, for example, a policeman deputizes me and asks me to assist him in breaking down the door of a drug lord in order to arrest him, I am not guilty of trespassing. So, if I can be relieved of culpability in ordinary circumstances if the proper authority imputes to me his power to do something I am ordinarily forbidden from doing but he can always do, why can’t God do the same thing with the Israelites (or whomever he chooses)?

        What am I missing?

        • rogereolson

          That Jesus commanded us to love our enemies and not resist evil? Or did God change his mind with the Sermon on the Mount?

          • PSF

            But what about Jesus treading the winepress of God’s wrath in Revelation?

          • CarolJean

            Wouldn’t a new covenant mean that God may want his covenant people to do things differently especially since those in Christ have been brought into the veil and all have received of his Spirit? Service to God no longer involves types and shadows. The stress in now on the kingdom of God vs the kingdom of the god of this world as opposed to carnal enemies like the Egyptians, Philistines, Babylonians, etc. Perhaps it could be spoken of as something new, deeper, richer, more mature, more spiritual, but not a change of God’s mind.

          • rogereolson

            A clearer expression of God’s mind?

          • So maybe the only change is that God doesn’t “deputize” anymore. Even on a pacifist reading of Matt 5, it seems like Beckwith has a point.

        • Mary

          What you are missing is that a good God would not command others to commit evil. Not only does he command murder in the OT, he commands rape, enslavement and human sacrifice. Is it God’s will to cause untold suffering to innocent people? Does a woman, whether in the OT or in our era ever deserve to be raped? And the Bible also contains an account of a young virgin girl who was sacrificed to God.

          If you can rationalize all that away, then it is not a huge leap to justify any heinous act as being “God’s will”.

        • James Kidder

          are you really comparing God and cops?

  • John Inglis

    A very thoughtful drawing of our attention to an important work and review of that work. The development of evangelical thought on this issue was hijacked by the so-called “battle for the bible” (really a battle for biblicism). It has taken decades to return to a more considered consideration of the issue, and yet we are still hampered by evangelical witchhunts.

  • Chuck Conti

    “We will simply admit that the author of Deuteronomy wrongly believed (as Luther did) that God told his people to slaughter their enemies.”
    This is the conclusion that I have been coming to. Not everything attributed to God in the Old Testament really came from God. I can’t get over the statement in the new Testament where Jesus says, “Moses permitted you to divorce your wives because your hearts were hard” (Matt 19:8). Something that the Old Testament (seems) to attribute to God is here attributed to Moses by Jesus. It makes one wonder what other things in the OT were attributed to God but may not have been from Him. I don’t want to become Marcionist, but I have begun to look at the New Testament as authoritative and inspired in a way that is different than than the OT. I’m not sure if interpreting the OT christologically is the best way to go, but it sounds the most evangelically defensible.
    I will check this book out. When I attended Bible college, hardly anything was said about innerrancy and the Battle for the Bible. Gary Dorrien’s Remaking of Evangelical Theology was like a lightning bolt from the blue and made me realize that I was not a Fundamentalist and did not believe in innerrancy the way it was being pushed. I also think we need to drop the term.

    • DRT

      Chuck, that is the best “literal” refutation of inerrancy that I know. I did not appreciate that the OT attributes that to god, not Moses.

  • “Once we jettison allegorical interpretation (as almost all modern Christians have done!)”

    I’ll stick with various cases of non-literal interpretation but not full-blown Alexandrian allegorical interpretation.

    • rogereolson

      Right. By “allegorical interpretation” I mean the idea that “what this text REALLY means is…” followed by some spiritual lesson that really has nothing to do with the historical-grammatical-critical interpretation of the text. Sparks gives several examples of early church fathers handling the texts of terror by saying they don’t mean what they say at all but are allegories about something entirely unrelated to killing women and children.

  • CarolJean

    I find it contradictory that Sparks (and Greg Boyd) feel the need to explain away the “texts of terror” in the OT and are satisfied with the text of the cross as God’s means to reconcile man to himself in the NT.

    • rogereolson

      Really? I have trouble believing you don’t see a difference between God (allegedly) commanding people to murder innocent women and children in ethnic cleansing and God voluntarily suffering and dying at the hands of sinful men on the cross. Seems like a pretty big difference to me!

      • CarolJean

        It is the demands (killing innocents and the crucifixion of Christ) that are similar (even though the reasons are different). The price for the redemption of mankind is the sacrifice (the shed blood) of a sinless man. The fact that God is the one who voluntarily interceded on the cross is beside the point. What makes the cross any less abhorrent?

        I seek to justify God as well but I don’t see how there is much difference between God commanding an entire sinful nation to be killed and God demanding an innocent man to be sacrificed as the means to atone for sin. I realize one is a commandment (or as you say “appears to be” a commandmant) and one is an allowance on God’s part but how can one be justified and the other condemned since God is the one who determined what the adequate sacrifice for sin would be…the death of a sinless man? Why isn’t that as detestable to you as the killing of innocent children in the “texts of terror” and why isn’t it as difficult for you to believe that God would require the death of an innocent man to atone for sin as it is for you to believe that God would command woman and children be killed along with their men?

        • rogereolson

          Well, I don’t see how you can’t see the huge difference that I see there. So we’re at an impasse.

        • Tim

          I’ve found that the crucifixion makes a lot more sense from a “Christus Victus” (or even the “Ransom”) standpoint than a “Penal Substitution” standpoint.

          Otherwise, we have God (the Father??) demanding that (sinless, innocent) Jesus suffer and die for our sins, to satisfy His wrath … but aren’t they they same being? Is Jesus saving us from Himself? Or is Jesus saving us from God the Father?

          And why wouldn’t an all-powerful God just get over his anger?

          I know the Crucifixion is a Mystery, one whose mechanics we may never understand in this life…

          • rogereolson

            The classical penal substitution model of the atonement does not say that God inflicted his wrath on an innocent man. It says that God himself, in the person of the Son of God, the second person of the Trinity, voluntarily suffered the just penalty for humanity’s sin.

        • CarolJean, your understanding of classic penal substitutionary atonement is insufficiently Trinitarian. For a careful statement of what exactly this doctrine consists of, I suggest Stott’s ‘The Cross of Christ.’ No thoughtful proponents of a penal substitutionary model of atonement would suggest that it entails God “demanding an innocent man to be sacrificed.” That is a (perhaps unintentional on your part) reduction and caricature.

          • CarolJean

            Rory, I’m not a Trinitarian. Neither am I trying to express the penal substitutionary theory of the atonement in my posts therefore I wasn’t presenting a caricature or a reduction of that theory. (I have Stott’s book but it hasn’t made it to the top of my list yet.) My point is that the blood of bulls and goats could not atone for the sin of man. It had to be a sinless man, the second Adam. I consider a sinless man to be the same as an innocent man. The only acceptable sacrifice for my sin is another human who has not sinned. The only one who could possible do that (live a sinless life) was God and to do it God had to become a man. God’s justness demanded the shedding of blood to atone for sin but God’s love and mercy sent him to earth to fullfill that requirement. Maybe a better word would be ‘require’ instead of ‘demand’. But it is something that satisfies justice according to God’s values/character.

          • rogereolson

            I think you’re confused. Am I assuming correctly (from what you wrote) that you believe Jesus is God? If so, and you are non-trinitarian, then you must believe in the atonement, whatever else happened, God volunteered to suffer the cross. That’s our point to you. In traditional (theologically correct) penal substitution theory (stemming from Anselm’s satisfaction theory and tweaked by the Puritans, et al.) no innocent man was made to suffer by God; God voluntarily suffered the penalty for sin himself. So where’s the problem?

          • Quartermaster

            Roger, I realize this is a month old post I’m replying to, but what you wrote sounds like monophysitism. Christ was, and had to be, both God and man. As a result the God-Man was required to die to provide for the forgiveness of sin. I don’t think she’s saying anything different than I just wrote.

            I’m sure you don’t mean to make that mistake, but what you have said sounds like it. Based on what I’ve read I think you agree with Chalcedon.

            Yes, I’m Trinitarian with a background much like your own.

          • rogereolson

            I don’t recall the specific discussion thread in which I responding. You’ll have to remind me what I said that sounded monophysite to you. You’re right; I’m thoroughly Chalcedonian. However, some hyper-orthodox folks will deny that because I do subscribe to the kenotic theory (as explained by, for example, P. T. Forsyth).

  • Rob

    On the subject of “texts of terror” how does his view on their place in the canon leave room to demarcate them from non-canonical literature? What I mean is, the entire book of Joshua has to be treated as not historically true and as allegorical or something. But what allows us to do that with Joshua but not the Quran or Book of Mormon? Shouldn’t there be some difference between Joshua and 1st Nephi? I am sure I could make up an allegorical interpretation of 1st Nephi that is fully consistent with what Christians today want to hear but it wouldn’t be canonical. How is Sparks doing anything different?

    • rogereolson

      He’s not allegorizing. He’s discerning within canonical literature what is accurate and what isn’t. Every inerrantist does that. They just don’t call the inaccuracies “errors.” (For example, most scholarly inerrantists I know admit there are irreconcilable differences between accounts of the same incidents; they simply say those discrepancies don’t touch on the purpose of the texts.)

      • Rob

        If he doesn’t allegorize Joshua, what is left? The whole book is presented as a historical narrative. If it is inaccurate, what is the purpose of the text?

        • rogereolson

          You need to read the book; he explains that in detail. But the upshot is that some of Scripture is history-like without necessarily being historical–especially things attributed to God that the God of Jesus would not have done (viz., command ethnic cleansing including murder of women and children).

          • K Gray

            W/o reading the book: Does Sparks say that Joshua got it wrong in telling the people what God commanded, or that the writer of the Scripture got it wrong… or other? Is there a simple way to summarize Sparks’ ideas on Joshua?

  • I have never self-identified as neo-fundamentalist, and I think there are a number of good reasons why that description does not fit me. But I do not believe the accounts of Judas’ death are irreconcilable, along with many evangelical scholars, and I also believe it would be a problem for the historical accuracy of Luke-Acts and/or Matthew if they were. So your statement that only neo-fundamentalists are bothered by the discrepancy feels like a way of labelling whole swathes of people (including an awful lot of authors I feel confident you would not class as neo-fundamentalists!) with an undesirable epithet. I’m not sure why you’ve taken that route.

    • rogereolson

      Well, I didn’t say everyone who thinks they can reconcile the two accounts is a neo-fundamentalist. I labeled as neo-fundamentalist the compulsion to harmonize everything.

  • I like Sparks and his book, God’s Word in Human Words. Thanks for letting us know this new one came out.

  • Roger,

    This review brought up some of the same questions I remember having while reading some of Sparks’ earlier works:

    1) If God sees fit to use fallible people to pen fallible scriptures which are used to guide the thoughts and actions of the people of God, and these accounts of God’s nature, works, and commands are incorrect or untrue or ultimately misleading, then why doesn’t God intervene to stop the drastically incorrect and problematic author from causing so much harm?

    2) What are the limits to which the human authors of scripture can get God wrong? Did they ever get Jesus wrong, or just certain portions of the OT?

    3) What basis does Sparks recommend for judging whether or not the biblical authors themselves are unsafe guides for interpretation?

    Interested in your thoughts.

    • rogereolson

      I can only recommend that you read the book. I didn’t have time or space to explain everything in it. He answers those questions. I’ll let you decide whether his answers satisfy or not.

      • Roger,

        I am more interested in your thoughts. Should I suppose that Sparks speaks for you in the answers he gives?

        Last question: Whom does God wrong in commanding the destruction of the Canaanites?

        • rogereolson

          Not necessarily. I like the general approach Sparks takes, but I am still having conversations with him about some of what he wrote in the book. I like books that challenge seemingly settled opinion (when their challenges seem justified). Of course, Sparks doesn’t think God commanded the “destruction of the Canaanites” insofar as that means ethnic cleansing of men, women and children. So your question should be “Whom would God wrong if he did command the murder of innocent women and children among the Canaanites?” But the answer seems so self-evident I struggle with the question. I must be missing something. The answer that SEEMS self-evident to me is “himself.” But, then, I might misunderstand your question.

          • Roger,

            Thanks for rephrasing the question to fit Sparks’ attitude towards it. I think it is helpful to see the two questions side by side, the way Sparks would phrase it over against the way it is baldly stated in the scriptures.

            I don’t think you misunderstood my question. Thank you for the timely response and honest answer.

  • Nicholas Miller

    It’s interesting that Sparks chose as part of his title a phrase that Christ seems to use to make the opposite point. His “Sacred Word, Broken Word,” as at least in some tension with, if not in outright contradiction o,f Christ’s declaration that “the scripture cannot be broken,” in John 10:35. Christ invokes the passage from Psalms which says “Ye are gods,” and then challenges the Jews criticism of his claim to be one with the father on this basis. It is interesting that he does not make additional arguments to support the truth of the O.T. passage, but appears to believe that the mere invocation of the OT passage is authority enough. If Sparks is right, no mere citation of a scriptural passage, certainly one from the OT, is sufficient to carry an argument, as one mus show that it is not from the “dark side” of scripture.
    I tend to be quite a bit more sympathetic with Piper’s argument about “perfect with respect to purpose,” and think that Sparks is pushing beyond the envelope of this. It is one thing to argue, it seems to me, that a teaching or communication is inartfully expressed in a manner that makes God seem harsher or more arbitrary or less compassionate than we know him to be. I think it is another to argue that in fact the teaching or communication is wrong in its central message, which Sparks seems to me to be arguing. I think we arminians must be very careful in moving away from a high-view of scriptural truth, as this is to walk squarely into the most powerful Calvinist argument against us, in my view, that we water down scripture, and read our own cultural biases regarding freedom and choice into it. I am concerned about your positive remarks regarding Sparks, and see them being used against you and arminianism generally. I don’t think that neo-fundamentalism is the way to go, but it seems there is a position somewhere between them and Sparks that is closer to the way that Christ handled scripture.
    I appreciate, though, your thoughtful exploration of this topic, which we all need to continue to explore.

  • Jon

    “Where we judge that Scripture presents God as saying or doing something he would not say or do”

    This is the essential statement of this article. WE become the judge of Scripture, of truth. What standard should we use to determine what God would “say or do?” It can’t be Scripture, apparently.

    I have always wondered about this regarding liberals’ view of Scripture: how do they know which parts to believe or not? Answer: the parts they want to believe. Man becomes the ultimate authority.

    • rogereolson

      The standard, the criterion, is the character of God revealed in Jesus Christ. Sparks makes that clear.

      • K Gray

        You might be interested to know that Lifeway’s Sunday School presented the book of Joshua this month (Judges is next). In my class, we discussed the “texts of terror” at length, and traced them back to God’s statements in Deuteronomy (and prior, I think), commanding and foretelling the destruction of the Canaanites and Amorites, and explaining — the iniquity of the Amorites, the horrible practices of the Canaanites described in Deuteronomy Ch. 18, the land being corrupted, and so forth.

        So Sparks’ approach would cause those parts of Deuteronomy to be questioned too. Parts of Judges too. And perhaps the plagues of Egypt?

        If we make a list of every place in the Bible in which God says “I will [do something unpleasant or even horrible] – places in which it is clear that God is the direct actor – would all that Scripture come into question?

        What is the universe of “texts of terror,” and who decides that?

        • rogereolson

          Read the book. It will answer those questions. I can’t answer every question someone has about a book by another author. But I do think his answers are good ones. Not perfect, but better than most or all alternatives I’m aware of. Again, as I’ve said numerous times, in some cases of theology one opts for the view that has the least problems or the problems one can live with.

  • I think God planned for this post to be published today, just for my benefit 😉 In all seriousness, I just finished reading Smith’s book today, and for all of its excellent critique and help, I found it a bit disappointing, and I was about to email Peter Enns (my former prof who endorsed the book) or even Smith himself and ask, “What’s next?”

    Along those lines, Roger, any chance you could put up a bibliography for those of us wrestling with the inerrancy issues, including resources such as actually understanding and interpreting the Bible?

    • rogereolson

      That’s quite an assignment! I’ll think about doing it. In the meantime, if you can get your hands on Biblical Authority edited by Jack Rogers (Word, 1977)–it is, I think, the best book on biblical authority (including the inerrancy issue) and interpretation I have ever read. It contains chapters by Paul Rees (Covenant pastor and theologian), Jack Rogers, Clark Pinnock, Berkeley Mickelsen, Bernard Ramm, Earl Palmer and David Hubbard (then president of Fuller).

      • Well, don’t take it too seriously… maybe just a quick brief “here, it’s this direction” rather than a full blown set of directions to a destination. I’ll certainly check Biblical Authority out!

  • Bev Mitchell

    Thanks so much for this.  To my great benefit I read Sparks’ “God’s Words in Human Words” a while back. His clear example of using “critical realism” or “practical realism” is/will be very important for evangelicals. Can’t wait to read this new offering.

    You highlight,

    “….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.”

    I’m not sure why the position expressed above should be problematic for Baptists, Methodists,  Pentecostals and probably many others. Aren’t Christians supposed to read the Bible backwards – shouldn’t we always start (and end) with Christ? How did we ever get it the other way around? What is the history of letting our interpretation of the OT control (as opposed to inform) our interpretation of the NT?

    Related to this, what kinds of teachings/discussions are there in evangelical schools re the ‘unorthodox’ ways that NT writers interpret the OT? How often is this important reality discussed in evangelical congregations? In my experience, seldom if ever, as such.

    Far too many questions, of course. But how did we get to the point where this backward reading would cause serious problems?

    Some commenters give a partial answer to this last question, but it would be good to hear your summary. Maybe it’s in one of your books, so a reference alone would do.

    Keep this good and necessary stuff coming, we all need it very much!

    • rogereolson

      Thanks. That’s one reason I’m a baptist. We (at least those of us who hark back to the first baptists) have always, at our best, been New Testament Christians. Of course, some will misinterpret that, so I have to qualify it. We are not and never have been Marcionites. We simply acknowledge the obvious fact that the gospel is clearer in the New Testament than in the Old and that the Old contains much that is not consistent with what we believe God’s character and kingdom will as revealed in Jesus Christ. Luther said much the same (in principle) about James. As Sparks points out in Sacred Word/Broken Word, Calvin acknowledged the same especially with regard to Genesis. (To everyone–don’t ask me to elaborate, please just read the book!) I don’t know how we get back to this special regard for the New Testament over the Old except to keep pointing out the obvious facts about the differences between them.

  • J.E. Edwards

    It’s one thing for a group of scholars to sit over what has been received from the church that came before us, but how do you think this kind of reasoning affects lay people in the pew? Must they wait for these scholars to tell them what is and isn’t an acceptable way to interpret what they are reading? This seems to bring us back to the way Catholics handled the Scriptures before the Reformation. IMHO, this isn’t the spirit of the early English translators (Wycliffe, Tyndale and the like). Just because we can’t find an easy way to explain O.T. “terror texts” (if you will) doesn’t mean it isn’t what happened. There’s simply too much of it to explain away and it leaves it to our arbitrariness to decide what it does and doesn’t say. God isn’t asking us to get Him off of any hook. This IS a major part of what separated fundamentalists from liberals back in the day. It’s the same discussion all over again.

    • rogereolson

      Well, whoever said the fundamentalists were right about everything in their fight against liberalism? I certainly don’t think so. I prefer the mediating approach taken by people like P. T. Forsyth and James Orr.

  • Rob

    Sparks explanation of ‘practical realism’ has some serious problems.

    “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.”

    We can start with ‘truth exists’. What does that mean? No theory views truth as a thing but as a value of propositions. The only way to charitably interpret him there is to assume he means that propositions have truth value. Nothing controversial about that. If he is a realist about truth, then every proposition has one truth value: either true or false.

    But then we hear about ‘partial truths’. What is that? Again, truth is not a thing, it is a value of propositions. So a partial truth would have to be complete proposition with a partial truth value. This is serious. If we accept bivalence then there are only two truth values: true and false. So the only way to have a partial truth value is to embrace a many-valued logic that denies bivalence. Is Sparks denying bivalence? I hope not. If he is, I expect axioms and a fixed logical matrix defining the set of truth degrees, truth degree functions to interpret propositional connectives, the meaning of the truth degree constants, and the semantical interpretation of the quantifiers. Without those, then his claim about ‘partial truths’ is just the sort of stuff that teenagers bs about over coffee.

    Sadly, there is an even worse interpretation of ‘partial truth’. Sparks could be holding to a coherence theory of truth. This I think is the more likely interpretation for several reasons that I can’t go into. Coherence theory holds that there is only one Truth composed of partial truths. The Truth is one very long proposition composed of many other propositions that cohere with one another. No single proposition can be completely true because truth here is not understood to entail a proposition-to-world-relation; truth is the result of coherence. The most obvious problem with coherence theory is that it denies that propositions are true in virtue of describing the world–there is no world independent of our thinking about it. Coherence theory entails Idealism. (Not surprisingly as it was invented by 19th century British Idealists.)

    Sparks can’t commit to Idealism because he says that we can ONLY have partial truths. But coherence theory cannot restrict us to partial truths because everything needed for Truth is available to us. For Truth, we just need a set of propositions that cohere. When Sparks quotes Westphal “truth is not for us”, he is trying to suggest that the truth conditions somehow escape us. This could only be the case if truth conditions are external to us and out in the world. Coherence theory denies this because the only truth conditions are coherence and coherence between propositions is transparently available to the mind considering them.

    So the only way that truth conditions could escape us is if they are external to the mind. Now that we have cleared away talk of ‘partial truths’ (we accept bivalence and we are not 19th century British Idealists) what could it mean to not have truth? It at least means that we do not have true propositions. But we have propositions and so if they are not true, they must be false. Do we seriously believe this? Every proposition we accept is false? This claim is more radical than any form of skepticism for skepticism allows that we can have true beliefs albeit not knowledge.

    Maybe when he talks about analogies he is referring to analogical predication. That will not work either as an analysis of truth because 1) analogical predication is an analysis of predicates and not truth 2) we need non-analogical predicates that can generate true claims if we are to have analogical predicates. There are other problems too, but I think I have shown enough.

    Sparks does not have any well thought-out understanding of truth that reveals familiarity with logic, epistemology, linguistics, metaphysics, etc. So I cannot believe that Sparks, who presumes to write a chapter on “Christian Epistemology” has ever read any Christian epistemologist. This is unfortunate for some of the very best epistemologists in all of academic philosophy are Christians: Paul Moser, Jon Kvanvig, Nicholas Wolterstorff, William P. Alston (d. 2009), Linda Zagzebski, Keith DeRose, Robert Audi, and John Greco to name a few. The first two are arguably among the 10 best epistemologists in philosophy right now and the next two have been extremely influential. How many of them are cited in Sparks’ chapter on “Christian Epistemology”?

    I have nothing against a biblical scholar writing on epistemology per se, but I expect any scholar to have the intellectual humility to realize that he must consult with the experts when wandering outside of his specialty and at least engage them. Mathematicians, logicians, and philosophers of language have done a lot of work on logic and truth over the last hundred years! I cannot be certain, but I expect Sparks would find Richard Dawkins’ untutored forays into biblical interpretation offensive and think that Dawkins should either read the experts or remain silent. Sparks should show the same courtesy to those who study truth.

    • rogereolson

      Just to clarify and defend Sparks on this one point–he does cite many Christian epistemologists in his chapter including some of the names you mention. I don’t have time to respond to all of your comment, but I would ask you to read the chapter before discussing Sparks’ view further. Then you will be responding directly to him and not to my possibly partially wrong (!) interpretation of what he wrote. I do think your tone is ungenerous; I hope you can disagree without being offensive.

    • Kent Sparks

      Dear Rob

      I’ve read widely in epistemology and consulted with many good philosophers when writing my last book and this one. From your comments, I’d judge that your familiarity with the philosophical tradition is quite narrow and, mainly, analytical rather than continental. I think the analytical tradition is a failed one which, as Wittgenstein finally realized, cannot really succeed.


  • Stephen S

    This may be a completely inappropriate place to make such a comment, but as an undergraduate college student from Minnesota not studying Biblical and Theological Studies yet heartily appreciates your writing, I’m wondering if you’ve ever thought about getting a Twitter. I imagine you have and have reasons for not having one. Nevertheless, I am asking because the reality is that I will much easily remember to read your blog, which I would like to do, if you posted on Twitter much like Scot Mcknight does when he adds a blog post. I will likely forget to check your blog otherwise, as I have yet to successfully follow one. No need for response, but if you do end up making one, know you’ll have a definite follower in me.

    • rogereolson

      It’s probably inevitable. I’m a slow learner when it comes to technology. Someone would have to show me and even then I might not get it or remember what I got if I do! I’m not a Luddite by choice, just by disability. 🙂 One reason I shy away is because being connected is time consuming and the more communication technology I adopt the less time I seem to have to read good books. I’ll look into it, though. Thanks for the vote of confidence.

      • Stephen S

        I understand. I sometimes question if all the social networking I’ve become tangled in (really just Facebook and Twitter) has added or subtracted from my life because of the massive amounts of time it has taken up. Good books are certainly more important to read than the fact that Tommy Olson just had an awkward encounter with the clerk at Walmart (or what have you). I wonder if there is any type of auto-tweet type thing that would create one every time you added a new post. Probably not. I should probably just remember to read blogs I enjoy reading.

      • Bev Mitchell


        Don’t worry overmuch about tweeting. It’s probably just a stage before we return to grunting. Then you will be able to grunt to us that you have just tweeted something about an article you have written that will take many too long to read. Witness the number of “asks” re Sparks’ new book that suggest people would really like to have the five minute version.

        To everyone. Get this book and read it! It is short, well written, covers some very important issues in a fully ecumenical way and the electronic version costs only $9.99. That’s my grunt for the day. 🙂

  • J.E. Edwards

    I’m sorry if this comes through twice. It didn’t show up the first time I posted it.
    It’s one thing for a group of scholars to sit over what has been received from the church that came before us, but how do you think this kind of reasoning affects lay people in the pew? Must they wait for these scholars to tell them what is and isn’t an acceptable way to interpret what they are reading? This seems to bring us back to the way Catholics handled the Scriptures before the Reformation. IMHO, this isn’t the spirit of the early English translators (Wycliffe, Tyndale and the like). Just because we can’t find an easy way to explain O.T. “terror texts” (if you will) doesn’t mean it isn’t what happened. There’s simply too much of it to explain away and it leaves it to our arbitrariness to decide what it does and doesn’t say. God isn’t asking us to get Him off of any hook. This IS a major part of what separated fundamentalists from liberals back in the day. It’s the same discussion all over again.

    • rogereolson

      I remind you that Sparks helpfully points out that most of the church fathers ALSO said the texts of terror don’t tell us “what happened.” They allegorized them. If we don’t allegorize them, as the Greek fathers of the church did, then how are we being faithful to their (the church fathers) interpretation of the texts by taking them literally?

      • J.E. Edwards

        It just seems that Sparks is taking us down a path that will be the beginning of the end. Albeit, a long journey but its end is seen. Usually heading toward universalism and the likes. All we need to do is look at the PCUSA, the UCC, some Methodists and the Epsicopalian churches liberal arm. Eventually losing gospel evangelism and missions. This isn’t just some gloom and doom thinking, we actually have whole denominations that have taken this path as examples. I would rather try and work through the difficulties than re-define them. I find it interesting that those who want re-define “terror” texts also think this is a humbler interpretation. I would very much disagree. It doesn’t humble US, but in the end seeks to humble our God.

  • jenny

    The whole thing seems like a cop-out. Good is Love but the Innocent suffer all the time in this world. Reason is not much use here so I turn to faith.

    I don’t know if God told Moses et al to kill all of those people – but to reject the possibility out of hand seems “to easy”, and still leaves us with the problem of mass starvation, ‘natural’ disasters, child abuse, a cruel animal kingdom eating each other alive, and so on.

    I kind of thought the binding of Isaac was in part a metaphor for believing God is Good when it appears he is not?

    • jenny

      About 3/4 of the first 48 pages can be read on Google Books. It is very readable and thought provoking.
      One thing Sparks seems to be vague on is the role of God in the formation of a broken scripture. It seemed to me at first that Sparks was giving the impression God was not capable of working with man to make a “perfect” scripture. It is possible I forced this view onto Sparks as this as it is something I flirted with and rejected when I was a young Christian, and I suspect it is something many Christians think but don’t ask their pastors about. But on the last page before Google books cut me off Sparks says this:

      “I would attribute these theological tensions to
      the fact that the Bible is both sacred and broken,
      which reflects God’s CHOICE TO SANCTIFY the broken,
      human voices of Scripture as his Divine word.” -p48

      (caps mine)
      I did miss every 4rth page or so because google books skips pages, so I may have missed other things that may have been clearer about Sparks view on God’s power, but your review kind of didn’t do much to discourage this kind of thinking on my part 🙂 Perhaps I misread something or am unlearned or biased in some ways compared to your expected readership?

      Right now I am in the process of learning more about inneracy, which I rejected some time ago, and while I find Spark’s view of inspiration to low for my taste it is very readable and thought provoking.

      One thing I can’t figure out is why people will grasp at any straw to hold on to something they can pass off as inneracy. Evangelical is a dorky sounding word anyway.

      Did you say something about a Hornet’s nest? p26 should do the trick

    • rogereolson

      Um, but God did not allow Abraham to murder his son, did he? And who says all that innocent suffering is from God? You seem to be assuming a lot.

      • Kent Sparks

        Hi Roger
        Thanks for your comments on my book. I would like to clarify one point.

        You wrote: “[Scripture] 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.”

        I would rather say that all of Scripture is God’s sacred word, because he’s sanctified all of it to speak for him. The so-called “dark texts” speak implicitly for God (God says: “Look how dark your heart can be”) while the healthier texts speak explicitly (God says: “Love your neighbor as yourself”). God permitted the human authors to be broken people they were, allowing them (as he does us) to write the sorts of things broken people write. By sanctifying their work as his word, he’s asked us to read the text and hear him speak from it. But his voice is sometimes supported by, and sometimes counter to, what the human authors wrote. Thus, like the created order, the Bible is from God but what’s broken about it isn’t from his “hand.”
        We must exercise interpretive judgment to decide where God speaks explicitly through the text and where the human authors, by showing their dark sides, illustrate implicitly what God elsewhere says quite clearly: we are fallen creatures in need of redemption through Christ.

        • rogereolson

          Thanks for that helpful clarification.

      • charles

        rogerolson: “Um, but God did not allow Abraham to murder his son, did he? And who says all that innocent suffering is from God? You seem to be assuming a lot.”

        Abraham expected that God would allow it, though. (We are told that Abraham expected that God would raise Isaac from the dead afterward – Heb11:19). Despite that, Abraham did not have any of your issues with the goodness of God over this. Hard to believe that Romans 4 calls Abraham the “father of all who believe” when his moral compass was so “defective…”

        But as you continue to judge God through the lens of your personal moral preferences, how can you even defend God’s command to “murder” Isaac?

        The NT records that Saul intended to murder or imprison the Christians in Damascus and God stopped him cold. Herod had Peter chained in prison and God didn’t feel obligated to allow that to continue. The biblical record repeatedly maintains that God is free to allow suffering (or even cause it? Job2:3 Then the Lord said to Satan, “Have you considered my servant Job?…He still maintains his integrity, though you incited me against him to ruin him without any reason.”) or put a stop to it. So it seems reasonable enough that if God allows what He could have held back, then it reflects His intentions and purposes…

        • rogereolson

          I almost didn’t post your comment here, but I will do so to illustrate how conversation breaks down when people twist and misrepresent others’ views. I do not “judge God through the lens of [my] personal preferences.” That’s false witness. I judge God through his own revealed lens which is Jesus Christ. Of that goes diametrically against my own preferences. I won’t post any more of your comments that twist and distort what I or others have said.

      • jenny

        If I seem to be assuming a lot it may be in part due to my communication skills or lack thereof. In no way am I eager to attribute evil to God – I just think to reject terror texts out of hand as inaccurate goes too far. However I think to entertain the possibility Sparks may be correct is a very good way to go about reading scripture.

        I apologize if my tone was harsh and/or lacked seriousness. I just discovered the world of Christian Blogs and this was my first comment on one. I hope to learn from my mistakes and avoid giving giving impressions I would rather not give in the future. Thanks for the review – I am going to order an ebook or two today and Sparks’s may be one of them.

  • Joshua Wooden

    Unless I’m mistaken, the Christological hermeneutic has been argued by both Smith in The Bible Made Impossible (mentioned in your post), as well as Inspiration and Incarnation by Pete Enns. Would you recommend Enns’ book?

    • rogereolson

      I haven’t read it.

  • CarolJean

    Dr Olson,
    I’m considering buying the book but I’m curious if the author addresses direct quotes from God through prophecy like this on in Ezekiel?

    “For thus says the Lord GOD: How much more when I send upon Jerusalem my four sore acts of judgment, sword, famine, evil beasts, and pestilence, to cut off from it man and beast!” Eze 14:21

    When you say “innocent women and children”, I wonder why you would include women among the innocents?

    Does the author address the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrha?

    • rogereolson

      “Women and children” stands for innocent non-combatants.

  • Us Lutheran types look at the Bible the same way we look at Jesus; fully of man, and yet fully of God. The finite contains the infinite. Well, not all of us Lutherans. There is a strain that has a Southern Baptist view of the Word.

    We believe it makes God into a god, if He needs to have every single word perfect and He can’t get His will accomplished (to create faith) any other way. We don’t need a Bible that floated down from Heaven with a bow tied around it. God just doesn’t work that way.

    It sounds like a very interesting, and good book.


  • Along these same lines; here is an excellent mp3 audio titled, “Creating a Paper Pope”:


    It’s one of my favorites reagrding inerrancy and the Bible.

  • Patrick

    Here’s what I think of those “texts of terror” passages. They make imminent good sense IF we accept the text of Genesis 6:1-4 for what it says and almost no one does since 400 AD. First the orthodox Jews changed their view of it, then around 400 AD the Christians did for different logic. IF we do, it explains lots of other “weird” texts as well.

    It explains the flood and what it did, which is the opposite of what everyone has always felt( even if it’s a metaphor). It protected humanity, not the opposite.

    When Yahweh placed the herem/ban on a group (such as in Joshua), pay very close attention. He also added in their animals generally which makes no logic unless we realize the WHY of the whole thing. Failing to kill off their animals is why King Saul got in such a bind with Yahweh. Why would Yahweh care for a bunch of animals to be killed like that? Normally He wouldn’t.

    There were always “bene elohim” and nephilim/giants there. Always. Sometimes known as Anakim, nephilim and Raphaim, each can be traced to the original Gen 6:1-4 passage. So far as the Massoretic text goes, Goliath is the last nephilim/giant mentioned in scripture.

    The ANE pagan literature is full of these guys and they revered them and in some cases came to worship them in the Levant (Gilgamesh was a nephilim/giant), whereas the Jews abhored them, feared and fought them and felt they were the most evil of all things. There is an intertestimental writing(I Enoch) where a large portion of it is dedicated to these “watchers”( the bene elohim of Genesis 6:1-4) and their offspring(nephilim) and their relation to God and the devil.

    Nephilim (nephylim from Aramaic) were hybrid human/divine creature.
    They were part of “the seed of the serpent” with locked in volition to destroy God’s people and the promise of Genesis 3:15.

    They had to die or the Jews had to die and Christ not ever be, they offered Yahweh no other alternative. This mythologize the text started 1700 years ago and the more we do it, the less the text makes good logic.

    Is it weird to believe divine creatures really mated with humans and had nephilim as offspring in a strategic attempt to stop Yahweh from redeeming humanity? Sure it is.

    From my personal view though, if I am believing Jesus is man and God in 1 human body and I am and that He came back to life on the 3rd day and I do, this is small potatoes to me. Plus, it causes the narrative to make excellent sense instead of my having to decide parts of the theological narrative are valid and parts are nonsense dreamed up by bloodthirsty goofballs.

    These “bene elohim” also help to answer other odd things of the OT text. Why would Yahweh care SO much if a girl wasn’t a virgin when she married in the Jewish era and even order her to be executed?

    Maybe because of the fear of infecting the Jews He was going to bring Messiah to us out from with these evil divine creatures and destroy the Jews as a 100% people group?? Just some thoughts.

    For the record, I am not a fundamentalist.

    • rogereolson

      Thank you for clarifying that you are not a fundamentalist. Up until that disclaimer I was thinking you were. I’m so relieved.

  • Harvey

    A pastoral comment: I have, over the past couple of years, presented Adult Ed. classes on violence in the OT, in Reformed churches. Most who attended admitted to never having seriously looked at those OT texts. Most were grateful to hear what Christians (including Sparks) are saying about them and were open to seriously discuss what inerrancy means and how we are to read the OT. I think that this topic ripe for great discussions.

  • Jeff Martin

    Dr. Olson,

    I wanted to bolster Dr. Beckwith’s point he made in that one can argue that Jesus is referring to personal vengeance and not national wars when he talks about loving one’s enemy. Dr. Boyd has argued that having a secular state fight on our behalf is a necessary thing even though we should not involve ourselves, but that we should be grateful that they do fight for justice!?

    I find it hypocritical to support the fighting force while not participating in it

    Also with regards to inerrancy – As I said before in another post I do not like “perfection with respect to purpose” either because I believe that really does not mean anything at all. Is not every authors’ purpose perfect? Obviously they are trying to say something clearly so people can understand and learn.
    I believe the only thing we can say about the Bible is that it is the most helpful and unique pair of reading glasses to help us see God better.

  • Are we to conclude from all of this that God in bringing about final restoration of the universe as His kingdom will not resort to a final violent judgment against the evil that has worked against it? I greatly admire you, Prof. Olson, because you understand it all must focus on God’s character, which has been revealed to us in Christ. But God’s character is the infinite melding of love and holiness: two distinct yet inseparable essences (for lack of a better descriptor). If we view God’s actions in the OT as pure acts of holiness then our train will leave the tracks because it leads us to believe justice is retributive rather than a course adjustment from the wrong order of things to the right order of things (i.e., sedaq=righteousness). If, on the other hand, we see God’s character as Love sans holiness, then we will make the mistake of thinking the events of the OT He commanded were in error. God has not changed from the OT to the NT, but our relationship with Him has because of what Christ had done on the cross. We who confess Him as King, which means we follow Him without exception, are dwellers of His kingdom; and our task, which we can succeed in because His Spirit indwells us, is to lead the world back to righteousness by means of mercy–by loving others as Christ has loved us.

    No doubt Kent has covered all this. I’m charging up my Kindle so I can order his book.

    • Dr. Sparks,
      As I promised I’ve read your book; please enjoy a couple Starbucks on me. I find your epistemological synthesis, practical realism, to ring true and a useful paradigm. Your discourse on interpretation should be required reading. But your assertion along with Marshall that Christ’s theology is limited by His humanity is unacceptable. For one thing, if one takes that road, which I frankly feel is an anchor you have weighed for your primary thesis of a fractured scripture–a view I’m not necessarily at odds–then all of our Lord’s theology–including the essential love theology–would be subject to the same critique of incompleteness and 1st century biases you necessarily subjected His statements about hell and judgment. The whole idea smells of Peter Abelard, who, as I fear you may have done, failed to understand that at the core of the Divine nature is the tension of Love and holiness. And as with all genuine tensions, if one diminishes or removes one side of the tension, both sides are lost. This love/holiness tension is not an invention of mine, but is ubiquitous across the whole of the Bible–both OT and NT; and God insists that we walk in that tension or we cannot dwell with Him in His kingdom.

      Apart from an offhand nod to the truth that God will ultimately deal with evil, you did not answer my initial question, which I insist is a crux of your whole thesis. I respectfully ask it anew: Are we to conclude from all of this that God in bringing about final restoration of the universe as His kingdom will not resort to a final violent judgment against the evil that has worked against it?

      Please forgive me if my tone sounds adversarial, it is not at all my intention, but such seems to be the price of concision. I truly hope I have misunderstood you, and the two of us can gain from the exchange. Thank you for your patience.

  • Dr. Olson,
    I have profitably read two of your books twice, and hope many other will read them: “Arminian Theology: Myths And Reality,” and “Against Calvinism.” I have profitably read one of your books once: “The Mosaic Of Christian Belief,” and hope many others will read it. But I am very concerned that your endorsement of this book by Sparks will actually undermine people’s confidence in the Bible as the Word of God. Your endorsement of the book makes me wonder if you now have less confidence in the Bible as God’s Word written than you previously have had.

    • rogereolson

      Not at all. Even when I wrote Mosaic I criticized inerrancy in the chapter on Scripture while affirming and promoting a high view of Scripture as supernaturally inspired by God.

  • 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 is simply out of bounds. I might as well believe in the tooth fairy.

    • rogereolson

      What could be clearer? Thanks, Kent.

    • Jeff Martin

      What is the rationale that inerrantists give for Ex. 21:20?

      I do know however that it is important when talking about this verse to emphasize that this law was probably one of the more just laws during that time period. The issue is intentional versus unintentional death. Other countries had the master simply pay a small fine if they killed their slave the same day

      • Kent Sparks

        Hi Jeff

        You wrote that the issue in this text is “intentional versus unintentional death.”

        I do think that this is the likely legal rationale. But as it stands, whether better or worse than other ANE laws, the law’s rationale is horrible. Take a look at pictures of southern slaves who were scarred and maimed by beatings in the Old South. It’s ugly. And this law allows one to go beyond scarring and maiming by adding death to the range of accepted outcomes.

        I do think that it’s important to notice where the Bible, while broken, advances the ethical guide posts beyond the status quo. But my own sense is that the biblical laws are often not very different from ANE law.

        • Jeff Martin

          Dr. Sparks,
          Thanks for the response. I have been reading your stuff with interest for a while. I agree that it is still bad what is being allowed in Exodus 21. I just think it is important to state that God started out with the Israelites with better moral laws than others around them and progressively got more moral. Deut 4:8 says, “And what other great nation has statutes and ordinances as just as this entire law that i am setting before you today?”

          But I think what you are doing with this book is very timely and needs to be emphasized.

          On a side note it is interesting that Ex. 21:20 says it is okay to beat up your slave, but it is not okay if you destroy his eye or knock out a tooth with the result that the slave owner would have to free them!!

          I understand the eye bit, A slave cannot do a good job as a slave without an eye! But one tooth?! You can still eat pretty well with one tooth missing

  • Escellent, Roger. Thanks for this.

  • I guess I missed my chance at an answer to my question. Alas, I tried to read the book as quickly as possible–just not fast enough.

    • rogereolson

      Sorry. I don’t get around to answering every question–especially when the discussion has moved on. But, from you, more likely, I just don’t know the answer! 🙂