Review: God’s Word in Human Words by Kent Sparks

Kent Sparks’s 2008 volume God’s Word in Human Words (GWHW) has begun receiving some attention and, predictably, strong negative reactions among some. Regardless of whether one identifies with it or is repulsed by it, GWHW is an engagement of evangelical biblical scholarship that should be taken very seriously and engaged patiently. I hope the volume receives the serious attention it deserves and that, after some of the first round of backlash has settled a bit, the book can be assessed seriously by evangelical scholars in a constructive manner.

I have a longer history with this book than most others, except for the author himself. I was asked by Baker to review the book in pre-publication form in January 2007, and I did so with great interest. After its publication in 2008, I was able to read the book again, and all of this culminated in an extremely well attended session at this past year’s meeting of the Society of Biblical Literature in Boston in November 2008.

In two posts, I would like to (1) outline briefly what I think are the central tenets of the book, and (2) recreate, as it were, something of the SBL session. On the second point, I will outline my own comments as well as make available, with their gracious permission, the written comments of Stephen Chapman (Duke Divinity School) and Bill Arnold (Asbury Theological Seminary).

So, as to the first point, what is Sparks getting at in GWHW? There are many ways of answering this, but let me get at one point in particular, and one that may explain why there has been such strong reaction to the book.

Sparks is arguing that evangelical biblical scholarship has largely failed in not appropriating critical scholarship as it should. This failure stems from a faulty theology that expects things from Scripture that critical scholarship has shown to be untenable. I realize Sparks may not word it precisely this way, but this gets at what I think is a point of tension. Sparks is critiquing failings in evangelical theology on the basis of its failure to appropriate critical advances in our knowledge of Scripture. What this amounts to for some readers is a criticism of evangelical theology for being evangelical. Hence, the response is that Sparks is no evangelical, and so his book actually demonstrates why evangelicals should not appropriate critical scholarship.

What I have seen thus far in some of the early criticisms to the book is far less engagement over the content of the book than I had hoped. What I see, rather, is a lot of marking of territory about who can rightly claim to be evangelical. Much of that criticism is centered on two issues: inerrancy and Descartes.

Sparks denies the “traditional” doctrine of inerrancy, so—as the rhetoric goes—he is no evangelical, and so he is part of the problem not the solution. I understand this chain of reasoning, but, again, what I would like to see more reflection given to why Sparks’s would say what he does.

The truth of the matter is that, whether or not one agrees with Sparks’s assessment of things, he most certainly understands the theological architecture of evangelicalism. He is also a trained biblical scholar, and he is saying, with both sides of the issue in mind, “we have a problem”—a sentiment generations of evangelical biblical scholars can relate to one on level or another. Those who for whatever reason do not appreciate this problem will likely dismiss Sparks’s theological project. Those who do appreciate the problem may not all agree with Sparks, but they will realize that the problem deserves serious engagement, and so will contribute to the discussion.

GWHW is a concentrated, deliberate attempt within evangelicalism to address the serious tensions between evangelical theology and modern biblical scholarship, and do so in a detailed, academic manner (which does not mean exhaustive or flawless, by any means). To walk away from the problem or maintain that there is no problem is to affirm Sparks’s diagnosis. To appeal, as some have, to the “clear teachings” of Scripture as to its own character, and thus neutralize the problem and Sparks’s argument (as if Sparks is somehow unaware of these passages), is not an argument but an assertion, the very assertion of evangelical dogma that Sparks is challenging.

As for Descartes, I hope that readers can move beyond who is a Cartesian dualist and who isn’t. I understand that Sparks is the one who brought it up, but if being called Cartesian is offensive, move on and listen to the actual critique itself, namely that evangelical theology does not do well with alternate paradigms of the nature of Scripture because its system of thought depends on certitude in a number of areas, Scripture being one of them. Ironically, we should consider whether some of the criticisms of GWHW actually bear this out.

At this point, at least, I am seeing more reactions to words than concepts, and I hope the discussion does not get derailed there.

Allow me to summarize in my own way what I think are the central ideas of the book:

The Bible is God’s word expressed is fully human words, and so is, by God’s own design, subject to the types of analyses offered by modern biblical criticism.
Another way of putting this is that, for Sparks, it is the evangelical doctrine of Scripture, (which when properly articulated does not mute Scripture’s “humanity”) that demands it be engaged in a manner consistent with that humanity.

Modern biblical criticism has truly hit on many irrefutable re-articulations of Scripture that most certainly affect how we as evangelicals should think and talk about Scripture.
Modern biblical criticism has argued persuasively that (1) the OT is a product of lengthy development more than “all-at-once” authorship (i.e., source criticism, form criticism, tradition history), and (2) Israel’s religion cannot be properly understood in isolation from the religion of the surrounding cultures (i.e., comparative religions). From where I sit, I would add that a majority of evangelical OT scholars accept and work within these parameters. Sparks would argue that this is done very inconsistently. I would put it a bit differently, that evangelical work is done without deliberate engagement of how such parameters affect how we think about the nature of Scripture. (This is a central issue in my book, Inspiration and Incarnation [Baker Academic, 2005].) In other words, it is not a question of whether critical insights should be employed, but what it means to do that “well” and, more importantly, to what extent such appropriation should affect evangelical theology.

God accommodates his word to fallible human modes of expression and thinking.
Sparks’s main hook for engaging biblical criticism is Calvin’s notion of accommodation. This model is, for Sparks, less problematic than an incarnational model (which I employ in I&I). Either way, the “humanness” of Scripture is something God is comfortable with as human, not because God successfully maneuvers around Scripture’s unfortunate creatureliness. This humanity of Scripture is God’s chosen means by which to speak. For Sparks, accommodation does a better job of explaining why the Bible looks the way that it does, and critics of Sparks would need to present a more persuasive model in response rather than simply pointing out that Sparks is working from a different model. [For more on this topic, see my articles: “Preliminary Observations on an Incarnational Model of Scripture,” “Bible in Context: The Continuing Vitality of Reformed Biblical Scholarship,” and “Some Thoughts on Theological Exegesis of the Old Testament: Toward a Viable Model of Biblical Coherence and Relevance.”]

One cannot appeal to evangelical theological prolegomena to adjudicate the proper influence critical scholarship should have. In fact, those who appeal to such prolegomena without also being fully conversant with biblical criticism and its more solid developments are (ironically) in no position to critique the theological matter, even if that discussion turns back on theological prolegomena.
This is a sore point to be sure. Sparks is saying “the gate-keepers have no clothes.” If Sparks argues, “such-and-such point of evangelical doctrine is wrong for this demonstrable reason,” a response such as “it is not evangelical theology to say such things,” or “here is a list of evangelicals who would take offense at that,” or something similar, is inadequate. A defense of evangelical theology against Sparks’s arguments cannot be simply a reassertion of evangelical theology.

Evangelical biblical scholarship has a history of falling prey to Cartesian dualism and employing certain “strategies” whereby critical insights can be held at arm’s length from evangelical theology, what Sparks refers to as “Critical Anti-Criticism” (a term borrowed from church historian Mark Noll), and is marked by special pleading and a selective engagement of the evidence at hand.
Again, leaving Descartes out of it, Sparks here is making a rather bold point, one that has ruffled a few feathers. I can understand why, but the point remains whether Sparks is correct or not, or perhaps better, to what extent he is correct or not. I do not think this charge of Sparks’s can be dismissed lightly.

If anything, for apologetic purposes, an evangelical doctrine of Scripture cannot be developed in the absence of true engagement and general acceptance of modern criticism.
This is one of the ironies of the book. It will be said, as already has been, that the positions outlined in GWHW will lead the sheep astray. It is, therefore, a “dangerous” book. Sparks would contend that biblical criticism has indeed led people astray, but that is not a necessary consequence. By failing to offer viable and persuasive alternate paradigms, evangelicalism has been an unwitting accomplice by inadequately addressing the very real challenges of biblical criticism. As counterintuitive as it might appear to some, Sparks is writing an apology for Scripture, but one that asserts the need to adjust seriously evangelical doctrine.

Although Sparks understands the difficult interplay between academia and the church (including the world of Christian academy, where progress of thought and constituency expectations often collide), it is high time for the church to embrace true developments in our knowledge of Scripture rather than automatically adhering to older models of thinking or bowing to constituency (i.e., economic) demands.
This is where Sparks argues all of this has to lead. Agree or disagree, he is to be commended for deliberately expressing the sociological factors that (at least in my view) drive many of our theological discussions.

That is my basic summary of God’s Word in Human Words. I am truly hopeful that both supporters and critics will do their part in not allowing the emotions of the moment to compromise the very serious intellectual energy required to address the real and pressing issues Sparks has outlined for us.

*   *   *   *   *   *   *   *

Continue to Part Two: SBL Panel Discusion of GWHW