God’s Word in Human Words by Kenton Sparks: A Review by Stephen Chapman

Review of Kenton L. Sparks, God’s Word in Human Words: An Evangelical Appropriation of Critical Biblical Scholarship (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2008)

Stephen B. Chapman
Assoc. Prof. of Old Testament
Duke Divinity School

Writing in 1986, Mark Noll pointed to a noticeable contrast between evangelical scholarship on the two testaments of the Christian Bible.1 Evangelical NT scholarship had become increasingly robust and secured for itself a respected hearing within the wider critical guild. By contrast, evangelical OT scholarship lagged behind.

Noll thought that this difference had arisen in part because historical-critical OT scholarship represented a more fundamental challenge to a traditional evangelical understanding of Scripture. So, for example, Noll pointed out how critical dismissals of predictive prophecy and a “literal” creation account were embedded within broader epistemological and metaphysical claims. Confronting such dismissals necessitated a more sophisticated response than, say, the question of whether or not Paul wrote the pastorals. But instead the evangelical reaction to historical-critical OT scholarship had also primarily disputed its proposals at the level of historicity, failing to offer persuasive philosophical and theological alternatives to its underlying assumptions. When this strategy proved inadequate, Noll suggested, evangelical OT scholars largely withdrew from historical-critical scholarship altogether, and it was this “standoff” whose effects were still being felt in the mid-80s as he published his book about evangelical biblical scholarship, Between Faith and Criticism.

Noll’s appraisal still seems basically right to me, as far as it goes. But to my mind Noll missed what is perhaps the most difficult aspect of the challenge represented by critical OT studies: namely, how, beginning with Wellhausen, a hermeneutical wedge had been driven between the OT’s synchronic and diachronic dimensions. In the historical-critical view, the Pentateuch was a postexilic creation, an anachronistic Persian period retrojection, a snapshot of an early Israel that in actuality had been far different. And throughout all of the critical theories and debates following Wellhausen, that wedge has remained fundamental within subsequent critical scholarship.

Nothing quite as extreme existed in New Testament studies, although there were plenty of questions, to be sure, about such matters as the historical Jesus and the composition of the Gospels. But to achieve a comparable level of radicality, one would have to imagine something like a critical theory in which the events that the Gospels describe had been largely invented and staged at an earlier time by the authors of the Pastorals. It was ultimately this kind of radical historical challenge to the OT’s synchronic presentation that left evangelical scholars with the sense that they had little way to participate in the questions and findings of the larger guild, because everything was based upon the new, upside-down picture of Israel’s history. For a time, Albright and his school offered an academically and archaeologically respectable defense of the Bible’s synchronic portrait, but eventually their mediating edifice cracked and crumbled, too.2

The conceptual stalemate was also reinforced and prolonged by the development of the neo-evangelical movement after the Second World War and an institutionalization of the divide between evangelical and non-evangelical scholars. New evangelical schools, organizations and media maintained a broad consensus in opposition to mainstream historical-critical OT scholarship, even as they attempted to accredit themselves through cautiously chosen projects involving historical and linguistic modes of inquiry—but without raising the deeper hermeneutical questions. The evangelical consensus was further enforced by local evangelical subcultures (e.g., the tradition of discourse regarding the OT in place within a particular denomination or educational institution). The term “inerrancy” became a shorthand slogan for an affirmation of the fundamental historicity of the Bible’s synchronic presentation, although the term’s ambiguity did permit a limited range of historical investigation by some evangelical scholars.

A more nuanced hermeneutic was difficult to pursue when such explorations were viewed as meddlesome and faith statements provided a ready means of social control. For a perfect example of the logic of the position, one might consider this 1963 statement by Edward Young:

The nineteenth century witnessed a continual production of theories concerning the origin of the Pentateuch. The theories were interesting, and some of them were ingenious, but they all had this in common, that they were willing to contradict explicit statements of the Bible. In the Pentateuch we often read that Moses spake, but these theories were perfectly willing to assert that he did not speak. When in the book of Deuteronomy, to take an example, we read that the Lord spake to Moses, the theories we are now considering had no hesitation in asserting Deuteronomy was produced in the seventh century B.C. If it was the work of the seventh century B.C., however, it would follow that the Lord did not speak to Moses, as Deuteronomy claims. Hence, whatever else may be said of these theories, they were not Christian.3

What this quotation so neatly illustrates is how biblical authority and Christian identity were defined by an adherence to the historicity of the Bible’s literary presentation, essentially ruling out any kind of rapprochement with critical OT scholarship. What Young’s statement also demonstrates is where evangelical scholarship would have to go in order to dispute his logic: evangelical scholars would have to argue that there is in fact an authentic Christian interpretation of the OT not necessarily bound to an acceptance of the OT’s synchronic dimension as historically accurate. In other words, in order for evangelical OT scholars to meet the challenge of historical-critical scholarship they were going to have to become theologians.

This constructive theological task has now been taken up in two recent publications: Peters Enns’s Inspiration and Incarnation4 and Kent Sparks’s God’s Word in Human Words .5 I have begun with a nod to the history of biblical interpretation so that it will not sound like overstatement when I say that these two books represent the sophisticated response to historical-critical scholarship that the evangelical tradition has needed for more than a century. Now there is finally emerging a detailed, comprehensive, constructive proposal for how to bridge evangelical theology and historical-criticism of the OT. Nor should we limit the accomplishment of Enns and Sparks to the evangelical world. Non-evangelical historical-critical scholars have also been especially challenged since the end of the nineteenth century to flesh out the theological implications of their work on the OT. For those non-evangelical historical-critical scholars who are interested in the theological dimension of their task (and while not all of them are, many of them are), the proposals of Enns and Sparks will provide fresh theological possibilities to consider. Even if scholars reject these specific proposals in the end, their own perspectives will be deeply enriched for having entertained them.

Sparks’s book is a massively expanded version of an earlier path-breaking article that he presented on the topic of “accommodation” for the annual Theology Conference at Wheaton College in 2001.6 A substantially revised version of that paper now forms Chapter 7 of Sparks’s new book, but the theological notion of “accommodation” has remained the constant in Sparks’s thinking.

Much of the first six chapters in the new book finds Sparks involved in a kind of ground-clearing operation. He begins, revealingly I think, with a discussion of epistemological options in which he is concerned, negatively, to argue that much of contemporary evangelical hermeneutics is too optimistic about what can be known and, positively, that a position of “practical realism” is better equipped to handle the task of biblical interpretation—and no less Christian. This move is revealing because many commentators have charged that the fundamentalist or inerrantist approach to Scripture stems from an anxiety about epistemological uncertainty,7 and Sparks seems to concede as much with his starting point. I anticipate that conservative reaction to Sparks’s book will focus in no small measure on his argument for “practical realism.” If so, then it will provide further evidence that the root problem with historical-criticism on the part of evangelicals is not so much historical or theological as it is epistemological, and that this difficulty confirms conservative evangelicalism to be a modernist project with clear roots in the Enlightenment, despite its rhetoric of opposition to the “modern” in favor of the “traditional.”8

After his discussion of epistemology Sparks ranges impressively through a lengthy treatment of critical problems arising in biblical interpretation, in New Testament studies as well as Old. There will be little new here to those familiar with critical scholarship, but Sparks rightly recognizes the need to cover this ground thoroughly in view of his intended audience. Sparks also offers lengthy treatments of: 1) evangelical responses to historical-critical problems; 2) other kinds of hermeneutical/theological responses to these problems; and 3) a discussion of the various literary genres found in Scripture and the potential of genre theory to provide some help for his larger task.

In his review of evangelical responses Sparks is especially devastating. He clearly knows this literature well, and he takes no prisoners (p. 167, “serious scholarship does not sell among conservative Evangelicals”). He catalogues numerous inconsistencies and evasions within conservative evangelical biblical scholarship, even as he points out that an increasing number of evangelicals are newly “willing to consider how critical scholarship might be constructively integrated with an appropriately high view of Scripture’s authority” (p. 169). This discussion in Chapter 4 is among his best and establishes Sparks as one of the leading voices in evangelical biblical scholarship. There will undoubtedly be those who leap to defend the individual targets of Sparks’s critique, but I hope that in the inevitable charge and counter-charge the larger hemeneutical issues will not be forgotten. The force of Sparks’s argument does not rest on any single one of his examples but with the cumulative effect of the entire portrait that he paints.

Sparks’s next chapter (Chap. 5), his review of non-evangelical theological options, was the one I found least convincing. Karl Barth, the Biblical Theology Movement, Brevard Childs, Walter Wink, David Steinmetz, Narrative Theology, the Catholic response to biblical criticism—these are all dispatched in fairly brief compass, and although Sparks finds much that evangelicals can gain from these sources, he also characterizes all of them as unsatisfactory. In particular Sparks analyzes the work of Barth, Childs and Steinmetz as efforts to explain the nature of a “gap” between what a particular biblical text says and what “the final theological judgment that we derive from that text [should be] as we integrate [it] into the context of canon, tradition, and the natural order” (p. 201). Yet this formulation of the problem is Sparks’s own, and I believe it elicits lopsided characterizations of the three scholars that he chooses to examine in its light. In fact Sparks’s “gap” indicates how indebted he himself continues to be to the modernist project and the extent to which he is finally more similar to his conservative evangelical interlocutors than he is different from them.

So, for example, Sparks’s judgment that “Barth’s theology implies a gaping vacuum between biblical words and God’s Word” (p. 201) takes an issue central to Sparks (note the similarity with the title of his book!) and imposes it as a defining question on Barth. To me his treatment misses a fundamental aspect of Barth’s profoundly dialectical view of Scripture: namely that the Bible is (as well as is not) identical with God’s Word. As is well known Barth rejects any simple identification of Scripture with revelation, limiting Scripture to a role as “witness” to revelation.9 For many evangelicals this hermeneutical move has been viewed as a fatal diminishment of Scripture’s authority.10 It is crucial, however, to grant Barth the other side of his dialectic:

But the concept of witness, especially when we bear clearly in mind its limiting sense, has still something very positive to say. In this limitation the Bible is not distinguished from revelation. It is simply revelation as it comes to us, mediating and therefore accommodating itself to us—to us who are not ourselves prophets and apostles, and therefore not the immediate and direct recipients of the one revelation, witnesses of the resurrection of Jesus Christ. Yet it is for us revelation by means of the words of the prophets and apostles written in the Bible, in which they are still alive for us as the immediate and direct recipients of revelation, and by which they speak to us… If we have really listened to the biblical words in all their humanity, if we have accepted them as witness, we have obviously not only heard of the lordship of the triune God, but by this means it has become for us an actual presence and event.11

Is not Barth’s proposal here (i.e., “accommodating”!) actually quite similar to the move that Sparks himself wants to make? Indeed, Barth’s entire discussion in CD 2/1 §19.2 represents a defense of the notion that the Bible can be called the “Word of God” by delineating precisely in what ways such a statement can be said to be true.12 In dogmatic terms Barth vigorously upholds the status of Scripture as Word of God: “We believe in and with the Church that Holy Scripture as the original and legitimate witness of divine revelation is itself the Word of God.”13 So the idea of a “gap” misunderstands Barth’s method and misidentifies a problem in his approach.

Similarly with Childs, Sparks sets up the terms of the question in a manner that Childs would simply reject as a misleading starting point: “the conceptual gap between what God originally said through Scripture and what he subsequently says through those same biblical texts” (p. 202). A typical rejoinder from Childs would be that there is in fact no way to determine “what God originally said through Scripture” somehow independently of “what he subsequently says through those same biblical texts.” In other words Childs does not offer Sparks a suitable strategy for rejoining these two things because Childs’s entire project is geared toward never pulling them apart in the first place.14

Finally, Sparks’s criticism of Steinmetz centers on a wider rejection of allegorical interpretation, in large measure because “It will do us little good to turn to allegories in an era when few or none will be convinced by them” (p. 202). But Sparks’s judgment at this point seems tendentious to me. First of all, I am not persuaded that the primary purpose of allegory is to “convince.” I view allegory more in terms of the scriptural poetry of the faithful—a version of intramural Christian discourse that illustrates how (to crib a line from Mark Twain about history) Scripture may not repeat itself, but it does rhyme. The rejection of allegory has gone hand-in-hand with the sheer modernist prejudice that all figural interpretation is somehow “precritical” and different in kind from “academic” approaches. Yet what of the critique of recent literary scholars of the Bible that historical criticism is itself a kind of allegory that evades the text through its substitution by a reconstructed “historical” background? Or, from a different angle, if figural approaches to Scripture are in fact prohibited, how will the church of Jesus Christ participate in its own liturgy, in which figuration is traditionally employed and enshrined? Perhaps for some of these very reasons Sparks later expresses—a bit inconsistently—a more favorable take on allegory (pp. 322-26).

For myself I have noticed a remarkable resurgence of interest in allegorical interpretation in recent years, and not only at Duke (where I teach together with Steinmetz—full disclosure!).15 I sense in fact a new openness to figural and symbolic biblical interpretation in many churches and other religious settings, particularly on the part of younger worshipers. Perhaps having never been taught that allegory is “bad,” they simply do not know any better. But I actually suspect that the historicist orientation of biblical studies as a professional field has been mirrored by a historicist focus in biblical interpretation within many churches, and that this focus has finally proven to be pretty thin gruel for many Christians. Now they want more. I will simply add that my own thinking about allegory has gone through a fairly dramatic transformation thanks to an engagement with the work of Henri de Lubac. What I have learned from de Lubac is that proper Christian allegory is historical because it reads the OT in light of the “act” of Christ, which is an event in space and time.16 So here again I worry that Sparks is employing loaded oppositions unfairly prejudicing the outcome of his investigation in advance.

But the centerpiece of Sparks’s argument involves his attempted retrieval of “accommodation” as a theological strategy that will, on the one hand, allow for a robust historical-critical approach to Scripture and then, on the other, also maintain the ability of Scripture to function authoritatively as God’s Word. The concept of divine accommodation can readily be found in the theologians of the early church, but Sparks takes Calvin’s framing of the concept as his jumping-off point. The core of Sparks’s proposal is thus to understand accommodation as “a necessary feature of revelation when this is mediated to us through the finitude and fallenness of a human author” (p. 243). That is, “inerrancy” is properly posited of God and what God uses Scripture to say, while the human authors of Scripture, since they were fully human, were fully susceptible to “error” and should not themselves be considered “inerrant.” In this manner of putting things Sparks clearly states his intention to retain the term “inerrancy” but to reframe its referent. I expect that this retention of the language of “inerrancy will also gain Sparks a wide hearing within the evangelical world; his book can be read as a highly sophisticated effort not only to meet the theological challenge of biblical historical-criticism but to do so in a way that upholds inerrancy as an evangelical distinctive. Here is clearly where Sparks positions himself, and where he is urging evangelical scholarship to go.

Yet I have three concerns about this central aspect of Sparks’s proposal. First, the notion of “inerrancy” now carries with it a lot of conceptual baggage. For a variety of reasons it may be at present too well ensconced within evangelical life to be rejected or replaced with another. However, my own view is that such a shift would be advantageous, and here I note that a preference for “infallibility” has been expressed by some evangelicals, especially in the European tradition—and for some of the same reasons that Sparks uses in the construction of his argument on behalf of accommodation.17

Second, a key feature of Sparks’s account involves the claim that God accommodates to human error. This emphasis seems different and more radical to me than what I take to be the more typical account of accommodation, namely that God accommodates to the human capacity for understanding.16 I have made no detailed study of the history of accommodation theory on the part of Christian theologians, and I am not prepared to make an argument about whether the idea of God accommodating to human error has adequate precedent within the theological tradition or represents a more recent extension of the concept into fresh territory. But I think this issue needs to be raised as a question.19 Has accommodation theory ever been the kind of theological strategy for dealing with “error” that Sparks advocates?20 Or is Sparks applying accommodation in ways that it is finally unable to handle as a sole or even primary hermeneutical principle?

Such questions are related to my third concern: that positing divine accommodation to human error does not really resolve the problem of error but instead shifts it to God. That is, we can perhaps go some distance toward explaining the presence of morally-vexing texts in the Bible by designating them as accommodations by the divine will. Sparks suggests, for example, that in the OT’s conquest accounts God has accommodated to Israel’s errant understanding of ethnic identity and genocide. Liberal theologians have long offered the same kind of argument but in terms of “progressive revelation” rather than “accommodation”—that is, Israel’s subjective understanding of God’s will, rather than God’s will itself.21 Instead Sparks preserves a theocentric focus, rightly sensing, I think, the disastrous consequences of liberal theology’s translation of God-talk into humanity’s talk about itself. So in this respect Sparks’s approach would seem to be advance. But then what does Sparks’s theocentric focus suggest about God? Is God now to be considered immoral, either by actively including things like genocide in divine revelation or, passively, by failing to exclude them? Sparks may finally keep the text inerrant at the cost of full confidence in the righteousness of God.

To my mind Sparks’s defense of accommodation still has much to commend it, particularly as he teases out accommodation in terms of discourse theory (i.e., what God is using this text to say). Another consequence of evangelical support for the Bible’s synchronic presentation has been that authorial intention became a shibboleth in evangelical hermeneutics. Ironically this “line in the sand” was drawn at exactly the same time that most scholars of literature began pointing out the thorough-going problems of an author-focused hermeneutic. The chief problem for such a hermeneutic is that texts—and here the Bible is no exception—always mean more than their authors intend to convey.22 This “surplus of meaning” is especially the case in a composite “text” like the OT, in which the “original” authors are pretty much unknown, and subsequent additions and layers of redaction have produced an evolving and multivalent written corpus.

How then can an author-centered hermeneutic be applied to what is essentially a communal composition? One possibility might be to develop a community-centered hermeneutic. This direction was charted by Brevard Childs under the cipher “canon,” and in my view it still represents the best way forward.23 Another hermeneutical strategy has been offered by Nicholas Wolterstorff: namely, conserving author-centered interpretation by positing God as the ultimate biblical author.24 This move is the one that exercises greater appeal for Sparks, and it is certainly a fruitful avenue for greater evangelical exploration. A key question, however, will be the extent to which, in the end, it actually relativizes all historical considerations (was it not, after all, precisely this kind of hermeneutical stance that warranted figural reading within premodern interpretation?)—or whether, as Sparks argues, “God as author” can actually be successfully combined with modern historical-critical investigation. Here Childs’s criticism of Wolterstorff will be especially important to take into account.25

But I see two further hermeneutical problems. First, Sparks never gives sustained attention to the issue of inspiration, which is traditionally how evangelical theology has attempted to do justice to the double agency at the heart of Scripture’s composition. One might therefore think that Sparks simply gives no credence to any view of inspiration at all, that the human authors of Scripture had done the best they could in their fallen state to imagine the ways of God, and that God had had to make the best of it afterwards. Yet Sparks also affirms, without explanation, that “the biblical authors were privy to special revelation” and “the texts that they wrote are God’s inspired word” (p. 244). I would very much like to see a defense of these claims, and I could not find any such defense in Sparks’s book. Instead Sparks argues that inspiration itself should be reframed in line with accommodation: God “adopt[ed] the words and viewpoints of the human authors as his own, so that Scripture’s human authors unwittingly participated in the divine act of accommodation” (p. 247). But for me there is a high degree of tension between Sparks’s claims that “the biblical authors were privy to special revelation” and “Scripture’s human authors unwittingly participated in the divine act of accommodation.” I am not at all clear about how to put these claims together.26

Secondly, Sparks’s treatment ably exposes how the traditional evangelical approach to inspiration is actually a theological strategy to exclude the possibility of error from the human authors of Scripture, even though they are still theoretically considered fully human. I agree with Sparks that “sinless” authorship is a theologically incoherent position. Moreover, I sympathize with his apparent unwillingness to get into the details of how exactly inspiration worked. Scholarship is littered with unpersuasive treatments of the mechanics of inspiration. But what I am less convinced about is Sparks’s implication that certain biblical passages can simply be chalked up to the sin or error of a (human) biblical author. For example, Sparks suggests it is a consequence of human sin that “Scripture would…tell us to slaughter the women and children of our enemies in a ‘holy war,'” citing Deut 2:34; 7:1-3; Josh 1-12.

Yet none of those texts actually enjoins any such thing. Deut 2 and Josh 1-12 report on wars in the past and Deut 7, while it does command killing, issues such a command only for Israel’s entry into the land. That is not to say there are not tremendous ethical difficulties with these passages. But it is to say that flatly writing them off as “sinful” overlooks how their function in Scripture is considerably more nuanced and complex than a right-or-wrong hermeneutic suggests. The reality that Scripture’s authors were fully human is an important and powerful truth to keep in mind. Here Peter Enns seems exactly right to me when he emphasizes the incarnational dimension of scriptural inspiration.27 But the effort to identify specific instances of error, while it may have persuasive rhetorical force within the internal evangelical dispute in which Sparks is engaged, strikes me as a fatally unproductive and reductionistic move to make within biblical theology.

In Sparks’s final chapters he mounts a strong argument for theological interpretation of the Bible as requiring a larger interpretive framework, especially one represented by greater attention to the created order, on the one hand, and to the fullness of the Christian tradition, comprised of pluriform sources of authority, on the other. With these moves Sparks joins the growing list of Protestant scholars, evangelical and non-evangelical, who express frustration with the Protestant tradition’s preoccupation with the Bible as the primary source of religious authority—especially when there is an accompanying devaluation of other aspects of Christian identity formation and decision-making.28 While I feel some of this frustration myself, I want instead to maintain that the problem is more a misunderstanding and misapplication of sola scriptura than a deficiency in the Protestant position on Scripture itself.29

A critical flashpoint in this contemporary discussion relates to the history of canon formation. Let me observe only in passing that I was disappointed to find Sparks apparently siding with Lee McDonald and others in his statement “On any historical account, the human author of the Christian canon was the church” (p. 281; his italics).30 Actually as I have argued previously, precisely because Jewish Scripture preceded the existence of the church, it is just as accurate to conclude that the church was created by the canon (even if that canon was not yet completely “closed”).31 In the end, both statements—that the church created the canon and that the canon created the church—are true, although in different ways. Yet most contemporary scholarship unfairly emphasizes the constructed, rather than the constructive, dimension of the biblical canon—and here Sparks regrettably follows suit.

At the end of his book Sparks also offers three fascinating test cases for his approach: the story of David, the eschaton in Daniel and Revelation, and the biblical view of gender roles. In a final chapter he closes with comments about the institutional politics of Scripture within the evangelical world. All of these discussions are likely to receive careful and eager reading, and they will richly repay such close attention. It is noteworthy that the interpretive cases Sparks offers actually do offer illustrations of Sparks’s proposal at work, something that does not always succeed when such examples are attempted. Readers will benefit from exploring the examples themselves and considering how well Sparks’s theory functions exegetically and theologically with respect to concrete texts and issues. In general I found Sparks to offer perceptive and balanced guidance in these treatments. My only worry is that he frequently appears to favor more extreme interpretive positions, if only to show that he can do so and still maintain a high view of Scripture. For example, I would not myself simply accept the cynical portrait of David offered of late by several historical-critical scholars.32

In fact I think the nub of my resistance to Sparks’s proposal boils down to his tendency to credit historical-critical scholarship with so much unmitigated potential for evangelical scholarship—or, to put the same point differently, his tendency to avoid the significant critiques of historical criticism that have been gaining steam from within historical-critical scholarship over the past several decades.33 As someone who was trained largely within the historical-critical paradigm but has increasingly registered the limitations, blind spots and delusions integral to the methodology, I find myself hoping that it will not now be necessary for evangelicals to make all the same mistakes that historical-critical biblical scholars have made already!

Here a comparison with twentieth-century Catholic scholarship suggests itself. In the wake of Vatican II, Catholic biblical scholars embraced historical-criticism with a vengeance, much in the same way that Sparks now proposes for evangelicals. In recent years, however, some Catholic scholars have realized the shortcomings of this embrace: “In short, the study of the Bible (not understood as “Scripture”) is increasingly an academic activity that is removed from the existential concerns of communities of faith and responsive instead to the expectations of a profession that is not merely secular but often actively antireligious in character.”34 I believe it is fair to say that Catholic biblical scholarship is now broadly seeking a new way forward that will include historical study but also correct some of its presuppositions in light of Catholic theology.

I venture to suggest that evangelical biblical scholarship will need to do the same: namely, to respond more openly to the full challenge of historical-critical biblical scholarship (just as Sparks urges) but also (more than Sparks advocates) to remain watchful for the limitations of historicism, engaging in historical study that can be brought into productive relationship with the life of the church. I do not actually think that Sparks would disagree with this point, I just think he has not emphasized it as much as it needs to be emphasized. Here again the rhetoric of his argument pushes him too far to one side of what is always, to be sure, a tricky balancing-act.

If in these remarks I have dwelt on my worries, concerns and problems with Sparks’s book, it is only out of my sincere admiration for what he has accomplished and my earnest desire to pay him the compliment of a detailed and serious engagement with his ideas. I therefore end where I began: God’s Word in Human Words is a tremendous accomplishment, part of a long-awaited, comprehensive evangelical response to historical-critical OT scholarship. Sparks’s book grapples with the fundamental theological and philosophical issues at stake, setting the bar and the agenda for a new generation of evangelical biblical scholarship. His book invites, even compels, sustained reflection and engagement by all those concerned about the relationship between Scripture and theology, whether evangelical or not. We are all in Kent’s debt for his having written it.35 

1 Mark A. Noll, Between Faith and Criticism: Evangelicals, Scholarship, and the Bible in America (San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1986), 188-90. 
2 Now see Burke O. Long, Planting and Reaping Albright: Politics, Ideology and Interpreting the Bible (University Park, Penn.: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1997).
3 Edward J. Young, “Some Thoughts on Old Testament Scholarship,” Faith and Thought 93 (1963): 74-87; here, 76-77.
4 Peter Enns, Inspiration and Incarnation: Evangelicals and the Old Testament (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2005).
5 Kenton L. Sparks, God’s Word in Human Words: An Evangelical Appropriation of Critical Biblical Scholarship (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2008)
6 Kent Sparks, “Accommodation in Inscripturation and Interpretation,” in Vincent Bacote, Laura C. Miguélez and Dennis L. Okholm, eds., Evangelicals and Scripture: Tradition, Authority and Hermeneutics (Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity, 2004), 112-32. 
7 See, e.g., James Barr, Fundamentalism (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1978), 313: “This seems to me to be the centre and core of fundamentalism as a religious system: a search for objectivity leads to the reification of the Bible.”
8 Denunciations of “postmodernity” by old-school evangelicals also illustrate the point. See, for example, Millard J. Erickson, The Postmodern World: Discerning the Times and the Spirit of Our Age (Wheaton, Ill.: Crossway Books, 2002); idem, Truth or Consequences: The Promise and Perils of Postmodernism (Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity, 2001).
9 Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics (New York: Scribner’s, 1956), 1/2: 463, “We have here an undoubted limitation… A witness is not absolutely identical with that to which it witnesses… In the Bible we meet with human words written in human speech, and in these words, and therefore by means of them, we hear of the lordship of the triune God. Therefore when we have to do with the Bible, we have to do primarily with this means, with these words, with the witness which as such is not itself revelation but only—and this is the limitation—the witness to it.”
10 See Phillip R. Rome, Evangelicals and Karl Barth: His Reception and Influence in North American Evangelical Theology (Allison Park, Penn.: Pickwick Publications, 1995).
11 Barth, Dogmatics, 463.
12 Barth, Dogmatics, 473-537.
13 Barth, Dogmatics, 502 (my italics; note his strong use of the verb “is”). A great desideratum at present within evangelical scholarship is a fresh appraisal and appreciation for Barth’s work. It is tragic that Barth’s reception in evangelical circles was unfairly poisoned at the outset. Thankfully, such an evangelical reappraisal may now finally be underway; see Sung Wook Chung, ed., Karl Barth and Evangelical Theology: Convergences and Divergences (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic; Milton Keynes: Paternoster, 2006). 
14 E.g., Brevard S. Childs, Old Testament Theology in a Canonical Context (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1986), 11: “It is a basic tenet of the canonical approach that one reflects theologically on the text as it has been received and shaped.”
15 For another scholar who has perceived a resurgence of interest in allegory but greets this interest with ethically-oriented caution, see Mark G. Brett, “The Political Ethics of Postmodern Allegory,” in M. Daniel Carroll, David J. A. Clines and Philip R. Davies, eds., The Bible in Human Society: Essays in Honour of John Rogerson (JSOTSup 200; Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 1995), 67-86. 
16 See esp. Henri de Lubac, “The Action of Christ,” Medieval Exegesis, Volume 1: The Four Senses of Scripture (tr. Mark Sebanc; Grand Rapids: Eerdmans; Edinburgh: T & T Clark, 1998), 234-41. 
17 I am not arguing myself for infallibility as a substitute for inerrancy, although I am open to the idea. My point is rather that inerrancy is not a necessary corollary of Sparks’s theory of accommodation, and that what is often meant by infallibility might even be more in keeping with his argument. For example, see I. Howard Marshall, Biblical Inspiration (Vancouver, B.C.: Regent College Publishing, 1982), 72 (cf. his p. 53), on a change of terms from inerrancy to infallibility: “The effect of drawing out the significance of inspiration in this way is to shift the focus of the discussion from the truth of the Bible to its adequacy for what God intends it to do.” More recently, see A. T. B. McGowan, The Divine Authenticity of Scripture: Retrieving an Evangelical Heritage (Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity, 2007), esp. 123-64, “Infallibility: An Evangelical Alternative.”
In Sparks’s comments following the original delivery of my remarks, he defended his retention of the term “inerrancy” partly by appealing to Catholic tradition, in which, he argued, the term has an accepted place. In response, I would point out that “inerrancy” means something fairly different to Catholics than it does to Protestant evangelicals. When Catholics use the term, they also mean that Scripture is without error—but only when it is interpreted: 1) by the teaching magisterium of the church; and 2) in the light of its soteriological intention. Thus the Vatican II statement Dei Verbum offers the formulation that “…the books of Scripture must be acknowledged as teaching solidly and faithfully and without error that truth which God wanted put into sacred writings for the sake of salvation” (DV 11). For evangelicals to claim that Catholics believe in inerrancy “too” therefore obscures crucial hermeneutical differences in both traditions. Evangelicals have traditionally resisted viewing the truth of Scripture as being the province of any magisterium. Some have also refused to limit Scripture’s truth claims to what it expresses “for the sake of salvation.”
18 For a recent evangelical example, see Jeffrey J. Niehaus, Ancient Near Eastern Themes in Biblical Theology (Grand Rapids: Kregel, 2008), 29-30: “[P]arallels between the supposed acts of pagan gods and the acts of God appear in the Old Testament and ancient Near Easter because God allowed concepts that are true of him and his ways to appear in the realm of common grace… The purpose was to make such ideas somewhat familiar to God’s people so that, when he actually broke into the historical plane and acted, his acts would be recognizable against their cultural background.”
19 In the study by Stephen D. Benin, The Footprints of God: Divine Accommodation in Jewish and Christian Thought (SUNY Series in Judaica; Albany: SUNY Press, 1993), both “positive” and “negative” directions in the idea’s history are identified and explored, but it is unclear as to whether one of those directions predominates over the other or even precisely what the relationship is between the two. 
20 Sparks’s discussion of accommodation in contemporary theology (pp. 242-47) makes clear that he does see some differences between how the concept has been used traditionally and how it is/can be/should be used today. This aspect of his discussion also reveals just how influenced Sparks has been by Nicholas Wolterstorff’s Divine Discourse: Philosophical Reflections on the Claim that God Speaks (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995).
21 See John Rogerson, “Progressive Revelation: Its History and its Value as a Key to Old Testament Interpretation,” Epworth Review 9 (1982): 73-86.
22 On this point, see especially Paul Ricoeur, Interpretation Theory: Discourse and the Surplus of Meaning (Fort Worth: Texas Christian University Press, 1976). 
23 For a fuller exposition of this canonical direction, in conversation with evangelical scholarship, see Stephen B. Chapman, “Reclaiming Inspiration for the Bible,” in Craig G. Bartholomew et al., eds., Canon and Biblical Interpretation (SHS 7; Grand Rapids: Zondervan; Milton Keynes: Paternoster, 2006), 167-206. 
24 Wolterstorff, Divine Discourse. 
25 Brevard S. Childs, “Speech-act Theory and Biblical Interpretation,” Scottish Journal of Theology 58 (2005): 375-92. 
26 See also Sparks’s remark that “Even if their [i.e., the biblical authors’] perspectives were informed by God himself, it remains true that their ideas and perspectives were historically contingent…” (p. 121). Exactly how the authors’ perspectives might have been “informed” is left undescribed, as well as the nature of the relationship between the biblical authors’ capacity to receive divine information and their own historical contingency.
27 Enns, Inspiration. 
28 Thus William J. Abraham, Jason E. Vickers and Natalie Van Kirk, eds., Canonical Theism: A Proposal for Theology and the Church (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2008). See also D. H. Williams, Evangelicals and Tradition: The Formative Influence of the Early Church (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2005). 
29 For a classic statement of the Protestant position, see Gerhard Ebeling, “Sola Scriptura and Tradition,” The Word of God and Tradition (trans. S. H. Hooke; Philadelphia: Fortress, 1964). For a recent effort to uphold this position, while at the same time allowing for a robust appreciation of the role of tradition, see John R. Franke, “Scripture, Tradition and Authority: Reconstructing the Evangelical Conception of Sola Scriptura,” in Bacote, Miguélez and Okholm, Evangelicals, 192-201. While I do not want to abstract Scripture as a norm within Christian life from other norms (tradition, reason, sacraments, experience, etc.), I do want to maintain Scripture’s role as “norming norm” (norma normans)—indeed, the yardstick by which all of the other norms are ultimately to be measured and judged (norma normans non normata). 
30 For Lee M. McDonald’s position, see his The Biblical Canon: Its Origin, Transmission, and Authority (Peabody, Mass.: Hendrickson, 2007). 
31 See Stephen B. Chapman, “The Old Testament Canon and its Authority for the Christian Church,” Ex Auditu 19 (2003): 125-48.
32 For example, Baruch Halpern, David’s Secret Demons: Messiah, Murderer, Traitor, King (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2001); Steven L. McKenzie, King David: A Biography (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000).
33 See especially Jon D. Levenson, The Hebrew Bible, the Old Testament and Historical Criticism: Jews and Christians in Biblical Studies (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 1993), esp. 106-26, “Historical Criticism and the Fate of the Enlightenment Project.”
34 Luke Timothy Johnson, “What’s Catholic about Catholic Biblical Scholarship: An Opening Statement,” in Luke Timothy Johnson and William S. Kurz, S.J., The Future of Catholic Biblical Scholarship (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2002), 26. See the rest of this chapter and the next (“Rejoining a Long Conversation”) for a number of other insightful points about “the present crisis in biblical scholarship” (p. 37). 
35 These remarks have been revised since their initial delivery. In the revision I have tried to elaborate some of my arguments, both in order to clarify them and to stimulate additional conversation. I am grateful to Peter Enns for his interest in furthering constructive dialogue by posting the proceedings of the SBL review panel on his website—and for his patience with me for the time it has taken to finish my revising.