Review of Kenton Sparks, God’s Word in Human Words

Sparks, Kenton L. God’s Word in Human Words: An Evangelical Appropriation of Critical Biblical Scholarship. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Academic, 2008. Pp. 415. Paperback. $26.99. ISBN 0801027012.

In this volume Kenton Sparks invites Evangelicals to reconsider biblical authority according to a paradigm which, rather than undermine critical biblical scholarship, seeks to integrate it. Sparks, an Evangelical himself, speaks directly to an Evangelical readership as he builds an erudite but broad argument for (1) a tendentious Evangelical view of biblical authority and inerrancy, and (2) the futility of Evangelical opposition to the methodologies and conclusions of critical scholarship. God’s Word in Human Words is Spark’s attempt to correct the former and provide a more constructive alternative to the latter.

Spark’s Preface narrates a crisis of faith which may sound familiar to many Evangelical scholars. Through this crisis, Spark’s describes the problem which is the impetus for this book. His Introduction describes this problem with a bit more detail and invites the reader to consider the possibility that critical scholarship, the antagonist in his original crisis of faith and the opponent to so much contemporary Evangelical biblical scholarship, is built on a solid foundation and is crucial to the future of that scholarship.

Chapter 1 is a useful sketch of the history of epistemology and hermeneutics. In addition to providing a background for the modern critical approach to the Bible, it lays the foundation for the epistemological position that will inform much of Spark’s hermeneutic, namely practical realism. According to this position, a kind of “soft” post-modernism, real knowledge is sufficiently available to the investigator, even if theoretically never absolute. Hermeneutic is a secondary concern of this chapter, but it will receive more attention in later chapters.

Chapter 2 constitutes a defense of historical criticism as it has been applied to the Bible. Many conservative Christians presume that the critical eye that has been trained on the Bible is the result only of bias against religion and the supernatural, but as Sparks shows, with Assyriology as the case study, the same critical eye forms the foundation of other scholarship. It is not bias that compels scholars to question the unity and inerrancy of the Bible, it is intellectual curiosity and methodological conventions developed over the years in a variety of disciplines. The following chapter, “The Problem of Biblical Criticism,” is the longest chapter of the book and lays out the issues which form the cornerstones of modern historical criticism. It surveys issues with (1) the Pentateuch (the largest section), (2) Israelite historiography, (3) Isaiah, (4) Prophecy in Ezekiel, (5) the gospels, (6) the pastoral epistles, (7) Daniel and Revelation, (8) the Bible’s theological and ethical diversity, and (9) the Bible’s own exegesis. In addition to this survey, this section also serves to provide a contrast for the conservative responses to biblical criticism of the following chapter, and to undermine any tradition framework which may color the reading of that chapter.

Chapters 4 and 5 discuss two kinds of Evangelical responses to biblical scholarship. The former discusses the “traditional” responses of conservative scholars, dividing the responses into four categories: (1) warranted but erroneous rejections of biblical criticism, (2) fideistic refutations of biblical criticism, (3) critical critiques of biblical criticism, and (4) “critical anti-criticism,” which Sparks defines as the (mis)application of critical methodologies to biblical criticism itself in an attempt to undermine its conclusions. The last category is further broken down into a variety of strategies which scholars employ in that endeavor. Sparks finds a “faulty Cartesian epistemology” (171) to underlie and undermine all these strategies. This chapter is widely characterized by others as a bit selective and unfair.

Chapter 5 analyzes responses to biblical scholarship which Sparks describes as “constructive,” or integrative. Rather than seeking to dismiss critical scholarship, these approaches integrate biblical criticism to one degree or another, and although they all leave issues unresolved and some are more successful than others, in Sparks’ estimation, they move forward the cause of the Evangelical appropriation of critical biblical scholarship (see subtitle of book). Barth holds a place of distinction in this discussion, but Sparks also moves through Kerygmatic exegesis, the Biblical Theology movement, and the work of Brevard Childs, Walter Wink, James Barr, and others. Sparks also highlights the approach of the Roman Catholic Church.

With chapters 6 and 7, Sparks begins his construction of a new approach to integrating critical and Evangelical scholarship. Chapter 6 outlines the literary genres of the Bible, while chapter 7 argues for the necessity of accommodation, or the view that God’s message has been accommodated to the contours of human discourse. This, he argues, is the only intellectually honest way to account for the thoroughly human shape of the biblical text. Sparks seeks to anticipate arguments against this view, and argues strongly that “accommodation is theologically and philosophically necessary, carries a long-standing historical pedigree, and can help us provide better answers for many of the problems we face in the sacred text” (258). This discussion is perhaps the least developed of the book.

The purpose of chapter 8, “The Context of the Whole and Biblical Interpretation,” is to “accentuate and elucidate the vital connection between the Bible and the created order” (277). This is intended to support a more prominent role for general revelation against special revelation. Sparks echoes Wright: “God needn’t reveal to us anything that we can figure out for ourselves” (277). Chapter 9 seeks to then apply this “context of the whole” to a variety of what Sparks finds to be important topics, such as “biblical authority and theology beyond the Bible,” “biblical theology and the Christian metanarrative,” and “the spiritual and psychological health of the interpreter.”

Sparks’ tenth and final chapter seeks to apply the methods he has developed to the biblical text itself. He chooses three topics: David in the books of Samuel, the imminent eschaton in Daniel and Revelation, and gender, authority, and theology. He is not so much interested in promulgating his specific readings of these texts as he is in promulgating his approach. In his conclusion he describes two ways in which his methodologies  depart from those of conservative Evangelical scholarship: (1) he allows, more so than traditional Evangelicals, the scriptures to set the agenda for his theology, and (2) he emphasizes the “‘peripheral use’ of scripture” (355), or appealing to the text for insight that is not central to the author’s purposes.

Sparks’ volume is an ambitious endeavor for a book of only moderate length, but he displays a firm grasp of the critical scholarship with which he interacts, and its history. In his criticisms of traditional scholarship he appears slightly less informed in places. He has been criticized for his characterization of Craig Blomberg and others, and appears to be selectively reading some of their publications. He has perhaps let his rhetoric get away from him in emphasizing his point.

Elsewhere Sparks’ presentation is a bit ambiguous, whether intentionally or otherwise. For instance, in discussing accommodation, he seems on the fence regarding whether accommodation is carried out by God himself, or whether it is a result of the coloring his message receives upon passing through the fallible filter of human authors. In other words, does he do the accommodating, or does he allow his message to be accommodated by humans? Sparks seems aware of the difference, but also seems to appeal to both conclusions. On p. 230 Sparks states, “Accommodation is God’s adoption in inscripturation of the human audience’s finite and fallen perspectives,” but on p. 246 he states, “Scripture’s words are truly informed by and convey revealed truths from God, but these truths were received by and communicated through the finite, fallen horizon of a human author.”

Despite some concerns over clarity and fairness, Sparks’ volume is a welcome contribution to Christian scholarship. It serves to forward a larger movement which aims to capacitate Christian scholars and laypersons regarding the real nature and function of scripture. It is also valuable as an introduction to the challenges facing Evangelical scholarship, even if readers differ regarding the proper synthesis of the data Sparks supplies. As he states in his final chapter, after all, his intention is not to settle once and for all the theology of certain texts, but to provide a heuristic analysis of where we have erred and what direction we should be moving. I am not an Evangelical myself, but the concerns he raises are applicable to any Bible-based community of faith, and he has at least provided some answers to spur further discussion.


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