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God’s Word, in spite of its humanness

I was brought up to believe that the Bible contains no ‘mistakes’ or ‘contradictions’. How could it—my seniors demanded—since it is the Word of an all-knowing and inerrant God?

Their assurances kept me happy for a while, but no-one seemed willing to take seriously some of the questions that kept cropping up as I read the Bible. Like, why does John have Jesus crucified on a different day from the other three Gospels? Why are there two creation accounts in Genesis, each with a different order of events? And why is King Manasseh the epitome of evil till his dying day in 2 Kings, while the 2 Chronicles account has him repenting and turning back to God?

There are books of alleged ‘Bible difficulties’ to help us sort out such issues, and I own several of them. But I’ve long felt that maybe some of the human authors of Scripture got things wrong, or interpreted things in light of a worldview which to modern readers is not only quaint but mistaken. When, at the Renaissance, the likes of Copernicus and Galileo declared that the earth goes round the sun, not vice versa, they were denounced as heretics because the church taught otherwise and, what’s more, Scripture taught that ‘the sun rises’. Nowadays, of course, that is no longer an issue for us. But if in some quarters you suggest that biological evolution has been shown by scientific research to be true, you are branded a heretic, because Genesis says otherwise.

It is such controversial issues that this book tackles head-on. It is God’s Word In Human Words: an evangelical appropriation of critical biblical scholarship by Kenton L. Sparks (Baker Academic, 2008, ISBN 978-0-8010-2701-7).

Sparks is an evangelical scholar, committed to the Scripture as God’s Word. But he holds that, while God himself does not err, he chose in his sovereign wisdom to use human authors who did, while at the same time ensuring that their shortcomings in no way prevent us from knowing his will. On this premise he undertakes an encyclopaedic treatment of a host of related topics, making his book a small-print 400-pager. But he is a lucid and flowing writer and you will have no problem sticking with him to the end.

Some Christians of the more naïve type will have difficulty with some of Sparks’s conclusions. Indeed, some could even be stumbled in their faith. So this is a book, I suggest, only for mature and thinking Christians, including pastors and teachers—all of whom would need to exercise some wisdom and restraint as to whom they share its conclusions with. Here’s the usual selection of quotations:

Could it be that historical criticism—like the astronomy of Galileo—has been destructive not because it is false, but because the church has often misunderstood its implications? (p21)

While we may wish to recall the Enlightenment as an intellectually arrogant retreat from God and biblical authority, and this it may have been, we should recall again and again—lest we forget—that the Enlightenment’s rejection of dogmatic religion was fuelled in no small part by the dark and oppressive side of faith. (p35)

If we find ourselves satisfied with the quite adequate communication experienced in our everyday life, and if that discourse serves us tolerably well, then why should we expect or even demand—as many conservative evangelicals do—an inerrant Bible? (p55)

While conservative scholars sometimes overlook it, the Pentateuch’s explicit content often implies that its author is someone other than Moses. (p78)

For all of the reasons cited above, most biblical scholars date the book of Deuteronomy to the first millennium BCE, during the reign of Josiah. This judgment is obviously at variance with the traditional view that Moses wrote the Pentateuch during the second millennium BCE. (p91)

If the practitioners of biblical criticism are right on even a modest portion of their claims, then God’s written Word certainly reflects far more humanity than tradition might expect. (p132)

Fideism, more popularly known as ‘blind faith’, is the term that philosophers use to refer to such instances in which religious views are held so intensely that factual realities and rational evaluation have no power to alter or affect these. (p136)

One of the strange paradoxes of conservative evangelical biblical scholarships is that conservative readers find it very convincing while critical scholars do not. (p146)

If Jesus was fully human, as orthodoxy demands, then it is likely that he learned—along with other ancient Jews—that Moses, Isaiah, and Daniel wrote their books, irrespective of factual and historical realities. (p165)

When bright and informed Christian scholars find it necessary to resort to these questionable strategies to preserve their views, it probably means that fundamentalism, and the evangelical tradition that still imbibes of it, are deeply committed to something erroneous, both epistemically and theologically. (p169)

The Catholic response to historical criticism was measured and in many respects prudent, moving from cautious enthusiasm, through a period of suspicion, to the eventual embrace of modern biblical criticism. (p193)

Ancient texts often seem to be something that they are not, primarily because we read them as if they were products of modern society rather than of an ancient and sometimes alien world. It is precisely this confusion that has prompted so much tension between critical and traditional views of Scripture. (p213)

On this point it would seem that all New Testament scholars agree: Jesus’s favourite teaching genre was the parable. Or to put this more brashly, Jesus’s preferred genre for conveying truth was fiction. (p215)

The theological diversity in the Scripture constitutes an important challenge for its interpreters. Among the tools that can help us negotiate these issues is accommodation, which has enjoyed a long and venerable history in the theology and hermeneutics of the church... Accommodation is not a threat to evangelical theology; it is, as the church fathers have told us, God’s wise oikonomia, by which he leads human beings back to himself. (p258)

In the case of Copernicus, it seems that God’s word in creation properly trumped his word in Scripture because the latter had been accommodated to an ancient and partially mistaken view of the cosmos. I would venture that the mounting scientific evidence in favour of biological evolution presents us with a similar situation. (p275)

The Catholic and Eastern Orthodox branches of the church have always maintained that healthy scriptural interpretation depends upon the traditional insights of creedal orthodoxy. Protestant Christianity has tended, as its name implies, to either reject or greatly minimize tradition’s importance, largely because the Bible itself is thought to provide an adequate theological guide for differentiating orthodoxy from heresy. Experience has proved otherwise, however. The religious landscape in the West, especially in North America, has long been dotted with heretical cults, whose leaders have practised a kind of biblical exegesis that is entirely unmoored from the church’s theological tradition. (p283)

I suspect that Paul and the other early Christians developed no agenda for social reform because of their expectation that Christ would soon return. (p290)

So long as Christian fundamentalists live in the real world, they will face a barrage of evidence that does not fit their view of things—evidence that the universe is very old, that evolution is true, that languages were not created at the tower of Babel, that there was no worldwide flood, and so forth… Fundamentalism fears the evidence that challenges its views; healthy Christian orthodoxy revels in the evidence, since it believes that all evidence, properly understood, will lead to a healthier view of lie and faith. (p308)

Even though evangelicals often deny the diversity of Scripture, the theological diversity within evangelicalism is a good and ready indicator of Scripture’s truer nature. Some evangelicals are premillennialists, others amillennialists; some are Arminians, others Calvinists; some evolutionists, others creationists; some require head coverings for women, others do not; some believe that Romans 7 describes a Christian, others that it describes a pagan; some believe in capital punishment, others find it murder. I could of course go on and on with this exercise, but the point is by now evident. It is hardly conceivable that evangelicals could assent to so many differing and contradictory viewpoints if the Bible spoke as clearly and univocally as we are wont to suppose. (p327)

When pointedly asked about when the end would come, Jesus resolutely claimed that he, the Son, did not know. Given that even the Son was in the dark on this matter, it will no longer surprise us that the authors of Daniel and Revelation, and also Paul, mistakenly anticipated that the eschaton would unfold within or not long after their own lifetimes. (P336)

If you find this interesting, take a look at my review of another book that takes a similar line: here.

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