Review: Gods Word in Human Words

S.M. Baugh Articles
God's Word in Human Words: An Evangelical Appropriation of Critical Biblical Scholarship
By Kenton L. Sparks
416 p.
Baker (March 2008)
Reviewed by S.M. Baugh

When the evangelical movement began not so very long ago, its one, defining doctrine that unified people from diverse ecclesiastical backgrounds was belief in the inerrancy of the Bible. Kenton Sparks, a Bible professor at Eastern University, joins a number of people who for some reason want to retain their evangelical identity and yet deny the Bible's inerrancy. This is not particularly new, since Sparks's book essentially represents the "limited inerrancy" position taken by Jack Rogers and Donald McKim almost 30 years ago (The Authority and Interpretation of the Bible, 1979) with similarities also with James Barr's Fundamentalism (1977) (see pp. 196-99) and James D. G. Dunn's Unity and Diversity in the New Testament (1977; 3d ed. 2006).

Kenton Sparks does not label his own position "limited inerrancy" (more or less an oxymoron), and he updates Rogers and McKim by grounding his own thesis about the Bible's supposed errancy in contemporary postmodern hermeneutical theories which emphasize the roll of the reader in the interpretive process and human fallibility as agents and receptors of communication. God is inerrant, we are told, but he has spoken through human authors who because of their "finitude and fallenness" necessarily produced a flawed biblical text (pp. 243-44). (Sparks does not tell us how we can be certain that God is inerrant. If he were right, one must accept that the biblical authors were possibly in error when they portray God as inerrant.)

The "errors" in the Bible which Sparks confidently posits extends from the geocentric ("phenomenological") perspective of biblical authors to classic problems raised by historical criticism over the last several centuries. This has led him to believe in the Bible's disunity as he says here: "One could reasonably say that the Bible does not offer a single, well-integrated univocal theology; it offers instead numerous overlapping but nonetheless distinctive theologies!" (p. 230). He uses "theologies" here and elsewhere for social or ethical teachings and two of his main concerns are slavery and egalitarian women's issues. For example: "At face value, Scripture does not seem to furnish us with one divine theology; it gives us numerous theologies. Any decent solution to the problems presented by modern biblical criticism will need to explain how the Bible can be trusted as an authoritative text when it reflects diverse theological perspectives, which differ not only from one another but also from our modern theological judgments on matters like slavery" (p. 121; original emphasis).

Notice in the previous quote that the Bible must conform to our "modern theological judgments." This is precisely the critical program in a nutshell: our judgments--not God's word--are the ultimate canon of truth. This is the heart of the Enlightenment program and its assaults on the Scriptures over the centuries. By accepting this critical stance, Sparks feels free to adopt more modern views he perceives to be compatible with a "minority voice" in Scripture; see especially pp. 355-56.

People who know the history of Western philosophy and critical scholarship will be surprised to learn though that an evangelical view of biblical inerrancy is itself based on "Enlightenment thinking" (p. 357) according to Sparks, so that we are actually the Cartesians. By floating this sucker punch, Sparks hopes to block criticism of his stance, especially when he tries to enlist the church fathers and reformers, especially Calvin, as his allies (see esp. Chapter 7).

To accomplish his thesis Sparks--also the author of a bibliography on Pentateuch scholarship--displays a fairly wide reading in the works of critical scholars. In fact, that is the one thing at which he excels. He also reports on some counter-arguments of a few prominent evangelical scholars like Kenneth Kitchen, D. A. Carson and Craig Blomberg, though he is unconvinced by their work. Sparks and his critical companions, in contrast to "very conservative evangelicals" (p. 247) "are uncomfortable with slavishly equating the mind of God with the mind of the human author, and have no fixation whatever on rescuing the Bible's human authors from error" (p. 245). (He does not seem to consider that for some of us, our 'slavish fixation' with inerrancy has arisen after intimate acquaintance with various rigid mainline and radical views.)

In this book, Sparks comes across as a devoted apologist for the critics. For instance, he says: "Many of the standard critical conclusions about the Bible turn out to be true" (p. 357). Yet his declaration seems particularly curious since we live at a time when critical scholars are deeply divided and unsettled. In their candid moments, the moguls of the critical establishment admit to the utter failure of their "science" to produce any kind of consensus and are concerned about "the spreading disillusionment" with their whole program and its dwindling audience. See especially: Wayne Meeks in his 2004 presidential address to the Studiorum Novi Testamenti Societas (published as "Why Study the New Testament?" New Testament Studies 51 [2005]: 155-70.) This is the time when excellent biblical scholarship from an inerrancy perspective may gain headway with students who are not a priori charmed by the dogmatism of the old historical criticism and its "standard critical conclusions." Yet Sparks seems unfazed.

I can appreciate Sparks's impressive array of footnotes and bibliography into secondary literature and his no-doubt sincere effort to maintain his evangelical ties. He undoubtedly sees his position as a fresh middle way and hopes it will preserve a supposedly errant Bible as an authoritative guide to our theology. But I have grave doubts because we've seen it all before, and this book has some glaring failings even as a critical work. Let me mention a few by way of illustration with the caveat that Sparks's own field is Old Testament (OT) and mine is New Testament (NT).

While Sparks affirms, "I have allowed Scripture itself to set the agenda for my theology of Scripture" (p. 355), this book does not analyze the biblical authors' own view of Scripture, inerrancy, inspiration, or canon. How he would handle biblical texts which bear directly or by implication on these subjects would have been illuminating.

Instead Sparks describes certain "problems" of Scripture in a passing fashion through the old historical critical lenses. For example, he briefly discusses the book of Hebrews--whose author he considers to be a Platonist (p. 125)--under the heading of "The Problem of the Bible's Exegesis"--where he says: "The author [of Hebrews] employed Platonic exegesis ('types' and 'antitypes') in order to interpret the Old Testament as a fleshly antitype, of which Jesus and the new covenant were the truer spiritual types. The author even employed the Platonic technical term antitypos ('antitype') in his arguments (see Heb. 9:24; cf. 1 Pet. 3:21)" (p. 124). For Sparks this means that the biblical authors themselves are unsafe guides for interpretation so that our modern theological conviction must often develop independent of them.

Yet Hebrews, as has often been observed, has little to do with Plato except for those desperate to find parallels. Hebrews has a very sophisticated view of Christian typology where OT types were revealed (Heb. 8:5) as pointers to NT fulfillment in Christ at "the time of reformation" (Heb. 9:10). The new covenant realities are historical, earthly fulfillments through an incarnate Son whose redemptive sacrifice was heavenly "through the eternal Spirit" (Heb. 9:14)--all notions noxious to Platonism and foreign to Philo.

The view of Scripture itself in Hebrews is most striking. For Hebrews, God speaks to us directly and personally (Heb. 1:1-2) in promises (12:26) and comfort (13:5) with divine testimony (10:15) to and through the great "cloud of witnesses" of OT revelation (see 12:1 which refers to the inscripturated testimonies of Hebrews 11). In Scripture, the Father speaks to the Son (1:5-6; 5:5), the Son to the Father (2:11-12; 10:5) and the Holy Spirit to us (3:7; 10:15-16). This speaking of God in the words of Scripture has the character of testimony which has been legally validated (2:1-4; so Greek bebaios in v. 2) which one ignores to his peril (4:12-13; 12:25). This immediate identification of the biblical text with God's speech (cf. Gal. 3:8, 22) is hard to jibe with the reputed feebleness of the biblical authors.

Carrying the notion of testimony in Hebrews further, one can make the case that this idea thoroughly informed the writings of the NT especially. Sparks presents the Gospels as "four alternative portraits of Jesus' life" from "different camera angles" (p. 109), but there is a growing movement in Gospels criticism to recognize that these books are not just four perspectives but four witnesses which built their cases on eyewitness sources and testimony (e.g., Richard Bauckham's recent works). And this is not unique to the Gospels.

We can readily grant and even delight in the fact that God chose to speak to us in the Scriptures through fellow humans. Let me repeat this so that it is not overlooked. The "oracles of God" (Rom. 3:2) are fully divine while concurrently fully human. But we do not grant that the Bible's humanity necessarily implies that the inspired texts are laced with crippling errors which give inroads to the high priests of critical scholarship who propose that their scientific augury can divine the Bible's errors for us. Sparks focuses on Scripture's inerrancy, but a more fundamental issue is its function as our epistemological canon. The word of God is the truth itself (e.g., John 17:17) and is itself the ultimate measure of truth. If the Bible were errant as Sparks claims, then we would certainly be thrown back on Enlightenment criticism with "the disembodied rational self as the arbiter of truth" (Meeks).

In light of this, one could justifiably wish that the same dedication and effort this young scholar put into secondary critical opinions had been put into a discerning mastery of primary sources--both biblical and extra-biblical. It is remarkable how one's perspective changes the more one is steeped less in modern opinion and more in antiquity. And in my experience, though the vast majority of biblical scholars may hold to a certain opinion, it does not mean that either all or even most of them have ever really studied and verified the underpinnings of that view. Let me offer one tiny example.

Under "The Problem of the Pastoral Epistles," Sparks repeats the old claim that Paul did not write the Pastorals (1-2 Timothy and Titus)--and thus falsifying them from the start--in part because "the grammar and vocabulary of the Pastorals is very different than in Paul's undisputed letters" (p. 113). Now the grammar and vocabulary variations may seem like a debilitating fact on the surface, but too often it is just assumed to be a valid criterion for evaluating the authorship of ancient letters and is never critically examined in light of the facts of antiquity (compare some recent, excellent work by E. Randolph Richards).

For example, you will find papyrus letters written by professional scribes, but with final greetings in fine quality handwriting by the authors themselves (cf. Gal. 6:11-18; Col. 4:18; 2 Thess. 3:17). Paul could have written his letters himself, but he employed scribes because that's how ancient works were composed, especially since they would usually have started out orally. Modern education focuses on students writing well, but general education in antiquity trained students to speak well. Paul spoke his letters to various secretaries and co-authors (Silas, Sosthenes, and Timothy named in many letter headings) who would have helped shape the final style and message of the text for effective oral communication when read to the target audience (Col. 4:16; cf. Rev. 1:3). In contrast to earlier, Paul's grave circumstances while awaiting trial when he composed the Pastorals (with the help of Luke? see 2 Tim. 4:11) should lead us to expect their style and language to vary from his earlier letters, not even mentioning the different audience and subject matters. All this receives no notice in Sparks's book and is often ignored or discounted by those committed to critical agendas.

In conclusion, one can nearly always learn something from any scholar, and I have read critical scholars from a wide range of perspectives ever the years with profit even if I disagree with their conclusions or theology. Unfortunately though, I gained little pleasure and only marginal profit from Kenton Sparks's book, in particular by what I view as a rather casual handling of Scripture itself. It would have been illuminating, for instance, if Sparks had dealt seriously at all with a text like this: "And we have something more sure, the prophetic word, to which you will do well to pay attention as to a lamp shining in a dark place, until the day dawns and the morning star rises in your hearts, knowing this first of all, that no prophecy of Scripture comes from someone's own interpretation. For no prophecy was ever produced by the will of man, but men spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit" (2 Pet. 1:19-21).

This book will probably have its greatest effect on undergraduates who are not well acquainted with the old debates and critical stances represented here, or whose ears are unwaxed to the old siren call of academic respectability which has always been historical criticism's greatest appeal. The outcome remains to be seen, but sadly, I fully expect that those who follow Sparks and other "evangelicals" today who embrace a defective Bible will eventually recapitulate the old liberal options ending up with their own 1960s death of God movement further down the road. Yet I hope the effect will also be to spur our young scholars to their own dedicated mastery of primary sources and to a rich perception of the unfolding, organic unity of divine revelation with its duplex character of genuine humanity and fully divine, canonical perfection.

S.M. Baugh is a professor of New Testament at Westminster Seminary California.