Sacred Word, Broken Word: Biblical Authority and the Dark Side of Scripture

Written by Kenton L. Sparks Reviewed By C. John Collins

Kenton Sparks, Professor of Biblical Studies and Provost at Eastern University in Pennsylvania (USA) and author of God’s Word in Human Words: An Evangelical Appropriation of Critical Scholarship (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2008), has written this book for “confessing Christians” to expound for them a position about the Bible: being the product of fallen human beings, it cannot help but err—not only in matters of fact, but also in ethics and theology. Sparks doesn’t tell us more about his intended audience; I have envisioned them as perhaps undergraduates in his classes or the classic “intelligent layperson.” I will evaluate it accordingly.

The book has 13 fairly short chapters, and space prevents me from laying out his case in detail. His initial contention is that we should approach the Bible believing that “Scripture is good, not only because it offers what is good, but also because it provides the remedy for where it is not so good”; this should lead to “a hermeneutic of respect rather than suspicion” (p. 11). However, the notion of the fall of humankind assures us that “human beings are beautiful but also broken in a way that does not permit us to wholly separate what is beautiful from what is not” (p. 20), which means that “the Bible actually falls within the fallen order that we seek to understand” (p. 22, italics original). He goes on to engage the old question of whether the human nature Jesus assumed was fallen or not, siding with those who answer fallen. From this he concludes that it was therefore possible for Jesus to err, including on matters of faith and practice: specifically, he cites with approval the claim of Howard Marshall that “Jesus, in his parables, assumed a doctrine of hell (as an abode of horrendous, eternal torment) that is not wholly compatible with a Christian theology of love and compassion” (pp. 26–27, citing I. Howard Marshall, Beyond the Bible: Moving from Scripture to Theology [Grand Rapids: Baker, 2004], 66–69). Sparks offers no suggestions for other topics on which he believes Jesus to have erred.

Many of his points arguing that “a thoughtful reading of Scripture suggests that it is neither wholly consistent nor error free” (p. 32) are familiar territory: he cannot harmonize the different accounts of Judas’s death; there are a number of cases “where the biblical and scientific evidence do not cohere” (p. 33); and so on. But these are mere skirmishes; his real point is that Bible writers erred on moral matters, such as the commands to destroy the population of the Holy Land (e.g., Deut 20:16–18). For further examples, he lists Gospel texts where Jesus “negates or reverses the law” of Moses (p. 67); the endorsement of slavery; the “very low view of women at points” (p. 71); and the way the New Testament “throws ethnic slurs at Cretans” (p. 71).

Sparks warrants his approach with a highly compressed history of epistemological thought, the trends of which he labels “tacit [i.e., unreflective] realism” of the ancient period; “reflective realism” associated with Plato, Aristotle, and Aquinas; “modern realism” of the late medieval through Enlightenment periods; and, in the post-modern period, “anti-realism” and “practical realism.”

Sparks does not wish to jettison Scripture. Rather, he thinks we must use it in a way that takes account of its brokenness. This will involve, among other things, respecting tradition (which is vaguely defined as to its extent and to its critical role) and following the “trajectory of God’s voice” (p. 114). This “trajectory” is not always the same as chronology: for example, he finds the attitude of Genesis 2 toward marriage to be “somewhat healthier than Paul’s advice (based on his limited perspective) that we forego marriage in anticipation of Christ’s imminent return (1 Corinthians 7)” (p. 115).

In assessing this work, it is hard to remain brief, since there are so many unexamined assumptions and debatable assertions on every page. Let me group key argumentative difficulties I found under a few headings.

First, he oversimplifies the options, and this tactic is pervasive. For example, he organizes the Christian world as “very conservative” and “very liberal,” with the in-betweens being those “who are laboring to take Scripture seriously while admitting that doing theology is far more complicated than simply quoting the Bible” (p. 6). And who wouldn’t want to be in that sensible middle, “moderate,” group? But this classification is far too coarsely cut to do anything like justice to the complexity of the different interpreters! Speaking as someone who fancies himself to be laboring in light of complications, I did not find myself, or most of the people I know, in any of his categories.

Along with this I find an argumentative tactic that has plenty of emotive force but no critical validity: attributing the follies of the worst adherents of a view to all adherents of that view. For example, he denounces the idea of biblical inerrancy as “biblicism, so called because its adherents believe that an inerrant Bible gives them foolproof access to the fundamentals of Christian doctrine and Christian living” (p. 28, italics original). Similarly, he cites an American colonist (actually, a secondary source purporting to quote the colonist; more on his problematic use of secondary sources below) who justified annihilating a group of Native Americans, apparently on the basis of the commands to destroy the Canaanites. He never even tries to show that such silliness and wickedness are inherent in the positions he doesn’t like.

Second, I find very little hesitation when Sparks asserts the sense of any biblical passage, and this is ironic in light of where he thinks he fits in the epistemological history. Surely a “pragmatic [or critical?] realist,” of all people, should say, “Here is how I read this text, and here is my warrant for reading it that way.” He is aware of this principle in theory (ch. 13), but it plays no practical role in his actual use of biblical texts. This is especially egregious in the places he is finding difficulties: he makes no allowance for the distinction between “I cannot see how to resolve this” and “this is unresolvable.” For example (just one out of many), “The Bible says human beings were created on day 6 of a six-day creation process, and science that tells us human beings were created through a complex evolutionary process that took millions of years” (p. 35). Now, any genuine “pragmatic realist” is aware that both of these statements are interpretations, which might or might not be supportable, or even qualifiable. Why not at least acknowledge that? And then when he writes of “the many Bible texts that explicitly or implicitly support slavery,” or “regard women as property or as second-class citizens, in some cases forbidding women to speak in public worship” (p. 7), the uninitiated reader would never get the idea that there is plenty of material on these matters challenging this blunt interpretation. To mention no others, why does he not refer to leading specialists in OT law and ethics such as Gordon Wenham and Christopher Wright—if for no other reason, to argue against them?

The fact that Sparks cites “ethnic slurs” being hurled at Cretans, apparently referring to Titus 1:12, reveals more about his sensibilities than about the biblical text. He doesn’t mention the general opinion that the “prophet of their own” Paul quotes is likely the revered poet Epimenides of Crete; nor is there any room for the likely use of sarcastic humor, which the addressee is supposed to sort out (as in the irony of a Cretan saying that Cretans are always liars). It becomes hard to take Sparks seriously.

I could go on. A final illustration of Sparks’s problematic approach comes from page 85, where we read that in 1 Cor 11:14–15, “the Apostle Paul incorrectly assumes that ‘nature itself’ proves that men should have short hair and women long hair.” I don’t blame him for not knowing that the exact words of Paul, “nature itself teaches,” appear in Aristotle’s Poetics, and is there apparently an idiom for “it is a matter of common observation,” without any claim about the “natural” order of things. (See discussion in C. John Collins, “Echoes of Aristotle in Romans 2:14–15: Or, maybe Abimelech was not so bad after all,” Journal of Markets and Morality 13.1 [2010]:147–48, But it would have been sounder for Sparks to follow the standard advice in such cases, namely, to express some hesitation about his reading and to await fuller light.

The brevity and generality of his survey of epistemological history is not of itself a problem for the purposes of his book. However, he has not been careful in grouping people into his categories: e.g., it requires some justification to relegate William Lane Craig, Richard Lints, and J. P. Moreland to the “modern realism” category with no nuance (p. 76n6), and this matters since it apparently allows Sparks to ignore any counter-arguments people like these might offer. I suspect he intends his “practical realism” to be similar to what others call “critical realism,” associated with figures such as Michael Polanyi, though he doesn’t explain this. It is ironic that he appeals to “recent work in cognitive psychology” to warrant his approach, when that work tends to reflect a fairly simple modernist realism (Sparks does not address that). But more importantly, I would have expected from him a stance toward his own arguments that was more self-aware about his assumptions. But, as I have noted, he asserts things about biblical texts with all the certainty of the modernist; and he rarely acknowledges other views, except occasionally to dismiss them.

Third, I should have thought that the conclusion that Jesus erred might trigger a reevaluation of the whole position, along the lines of an incident in the Sherlock Holmes story “The Priory School.” Watson cries, “Holmes, this is impossible.” Holmes replies, “Admirable! A most illuminating remark. It is impossible as I state it, and therefore I must in some respect have stated it wrong.” A solid book such as John Wenham’s Christ and the Bible (3rd ed.; Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock, 2009) would help.

Finally, in the places where I have checked Sparks’ use of secondary sources I have found it unreliable if careful attention to the primary source would undermine his case. For example, he claims (seemingly following someone else) that Justin Martyr’s Dialogue with Trypho (§§18–21) “can easily be understood as saying: Scripture’s discourse is adapted to and reflects human sinfulness” (p. 52, italics added). But this is a bad misreading of Justin’s point: Justin contends that the aspects of the Mosaic law that were peculiar to Israel and not for Christians were instituted by divine appointment because of the people’s sins; in no way do they “reflect” sinfulness on the part of the Lawgiver.

Sparks insists several times in the book that John Calvin considered the cosmology of Genesis mistaken (e.g., pp. 34, 38–39, 50, 53). He bases this on Calvin’s comment on Gen 6:14, using the Calvin Translation Society’s version, where Calvin wrote, “Moses wrote everywhere in a homely style. . . . Certainly in the first chapter [of Genesis] he did not treat scientifically the stars, as a philosopher would; but he called them in a popular manner, according to their appearance to the uneducated rather than according to truth” (p. 34n3, Sparks’s italics). Now most readers of Calvin in context would suppose he was contrasting a popular description of the stars with a scientific one, and not really calling the popular one “untrue” in the strictest sense. And someone who wants to read Calvin the way that Sparks does should check the English against the Latin, in which case he will find that the last clause makes the contrast crystal clear: the words “according to truth” render ex re-ipsa, “according to the thing itself” (which is what a “scientific” description aims for). Calvin is indeed not calling the popular account “untrue”; Sparks (or his secondary source) has not read Calvin well at all.

On page 116 Sparks cites from Andrew Dickson White’s History of the Warfare of Science and Theology in Christendom (published in 1896) as if it is sound historiography, which left me wondering whether he knows that most professional historians of science and religion (e.g., Colin Russell, David Lindberg and Ronald Numbers) hold this work in contempt. Perhaps Sparks disagrees with these specialists, but it is a blemish not to acknowledge their judgment.

Now I have not checked all of his secondary sources, but these cases show why I have little confidence in his work. I think it unlikely that any of the church fathers whom Sparks enlists to contend that Christ’s human nature was in some sense “fallen” would have countenanced being used as support for the idea that Jesus could have erred.

I must finish. I agree with Sparks that some (but by no means all) efforts to justify morally difficult things such as slavery or the war on the Canaanites are too facile, but I also think he has treated these matters too superficially himself (oddly, the very speech-act approach that he rejects would help, as I see it—but I will develop that elsewhere). So I would write over this book, abusus usum non tollit (“abuse does not take way proper use”).

I come back to the question of the intended audience. Since it seems to be aimed at non-specialists in the Bible, I have to wonder at the form Sparks chose for presentation. Why not show the reasoning behind the conclusions, and thus instruct people in good critical thinking? Why not acknowledge seriously, and preferably address with respect, the counter-arguments to his own views? But Sparks has given us very little that is an actual practice of persuasion.

If someone were to insist that I use this book constructively, I suggest a class on the role of critical thinking in religious conviction, in which the other main text would be C. S. Lewis’s Christian Reflections (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1967). I would assign students to analyze one or two of Sparks’ arguments for critical strength, noting the argumentative errors they encounter. Then, with Lewis’s help, the students would treat the subject in a rigorous manner. Sadly, this is what Sparks has not done, and thus the book is a wasted opportunity at fostering conversation.

C. John Collins

C. John Collins
Covenant Theological Seminary
St. Louis, Missouri, USA

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