God's Word in Human Words

By Kenton L. Sparks
Grand Rapids : Baker (2008). 415 Pages.

Reviewed by
20.1 (Spring 2009) : 121-124

Kenton L. Sparks is Professor of Biblical Studies, Special Assistant to the Provost of Eastern University, and has written the latest book seeking to reframe the debate on biblical inerrancy. Because of its vastness in scope and broadness in scholarly engagement, Peter Enns refered to it as “Inspiration and Incarnation on steroids” (cf. opening remarks on recent debate on “Is the Bible Ever Wrong” at Duke Divinity School, 22 Oct 2008 [ /2008/09/is-bible-ever-wrong-conversation-with.html, accessed 17 Jan. 09]). Written by an evangelical to a scholarly evangelical audience, Sparks makes a case for believing historical-criticism that he hopes will benefit the church, giving it a “biblically informed worldview” (18-20, 328, 356).

With a strong aversion to “Cartesian” philosophies, Sparks moves to integrate faith and historical-criticism which, he asserts, offers the very best in Christian scholarship (170, 183, 366, 373). Accordingly, instead of being a case of disobedience, he suggests that the cause of Adam’s fall in Genesis was a misplaced desire for certain God-like knowledge (49, 52).

Favorably noting advances in critical scholarship, Sparks’s framework is arguing that historical-criticism will aid the study of the Bible through the academic expertise of intellectually gifted scholars (58, 70). Early in the book, while interacting with postmodern epistemology, Sparks identifies himself as a “practical realist” (42-44, 263), suggesting an appropriate definition of historical-criticism as “reading texts contextually” (72). He then makes a case for distancing himself from the standard evangelical view of inerrancy while still remaining theologically orthodox. He does this by seeking to uphold God’s inerrancy and that “God does not err in Scripture,” while yet paradoxically finding errors in the Bible attributed to the human authors (139, 227).

Sparks’s position seems very similar to that offered by John Goldingay (Models for Scripture [Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1994] 282-83) who argues that the Bible can be “adequately factual” but not “inerrantly factual.” Cf. also Telford Work’s recent treatment of the subject (Living and Active [Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2002] 81) along with that of John Webster, who gave a similar notion that the Bible’s authority “does not lie within itself, any more than the sacraments have inherent effectiveness, but in its testimony to the authority of the one who appoints Scripture as his servant” (“Scripture, Authority of,” in Dictionary of Theological Interpretation of the Bible, ed. Kevin J. Vanhoozer [Grand Rapids: Baker, 2005] 726). This notion would also be allowed by Denis O. Lamoureux (“Lessons from the Heavens: On Scripture, Science and Inerrancy” in The Journal of the American Scientific Affiliation 60/1 [June 2008]:13), who identifies “incidental statements” in the Bible regarding things such as the cosmology of the universe, to which “biblical inerrancy cannot extend.”

Serving in the broader academic arena can be good for evangelicals, breeding rigorous scholarship in an exacting context. But one wonders if Sparks himself is really willing to be tested there. Specifically, with serious engagement of postmodern epistemological issues, the question begging to be posed to historical critics is whether or not their discipline can be performed with any confident relevancy at all (cf. S. M. Baugh’s reference to Wayne Meeks’s 2004 presidential address to the Studioreum Novi Testamenti Societas, cited in Baugh’s Aug. 2008 review of God’s Word in Human Words [ review-gods-word-in-human-words.php (accessed 4 Nov. 2008)]). Can one really depend on critical scholarship, all the while seeking to be dislodged from constraints by modernist philosophy? And does a postmodern or non-foundational historical-criticism really exist? Or is “reading texts contextually” from a tamed, practical realism (with little criteria to determine this and no description of how this might work) simply unrealistic? Furthermore, with seeming absence of little if any argumentation advanced from recent critical scholarship, this book easily could have been written ten years ago. This matter could have been improved on had he paused to consider the work of Francis Watson, Text and Truth (London: T & T Clark, 1997) and Christopher R. Seitz, Figured Out (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2001) in more than a meager footnote. What if historical-criticism becomes passé even in the broader academic arena as a modern, rationalistic, Cartesian edifice built by 19th- and 20th-century German scholarship? Does Sparks have a backup plan?

The latter portion of the book is spent trying to synthesize criticism with theology (203). This point is noteworthy, for theology seems to be the only means by which any sort of critical methodology might be redeemed for biblical studies (e.g., Daniel Treier, Introducing Theological Interpretation of Scripture [Grand Rapids: Baker, 2008]). Sparks observes that not all criticism is healthy and helpful when speaking of that which acknowledges Scripture’s authority “in word but not in deed” (23, 356). However, he neither identifies unhealthy criticism nor seems to apply this observation in any practical way. This is seen in the critical comment he makes about conjectures of NT authors who purportedly viewed extracanonical works as “inspired Scripture” (125-26). And Sparks gives no merit whatever for what he calls “speculative” harmonizations from evangelical scholars (164). Whatever bearing these observations and others may have on one’s ethical deeds escapes this reviewer.

Sparks employs “accommodation” for understanding differences between divine and human accounts in Scripture (202-3, 230), though never explaining how to determine which is which or what might identify an accommodation. It seems, however, that whenever normal interpretation yields something unexplainable or an error, “accommodation” is that “theological explanation for the presence of human errors in Scripture” (256). So then would a literal hermeneutic guide Sparks’s process for determination? This is doubtful, but if so, then in the “inerrant” parts about the “inerrant God” (wherever they may be), does Scripture speak univocally of Him, allowing the reader to judge Him empirically to be either in error or sufficiently errorless? (327). If so, problems have quickly moved from the doctrine of Scripture to epistemology, theology proper, and the doctrines of man and sin that the spurious “practical realist” reading of Scripture cannot avoid. One also wonders what Sparks’s “practical realist” reading of Scripture looks like, and what criteria might be for determining where an error isn’t? A better position seems to be that Scripture is both human and divine—where one ends and the other begins is impossible to discern, for they are inseparable.

This does not seem to be the last word of the third-wave of the inerrancy debate, the first response to which has been given by Greg Beale, professor of NT at Wheaton College (The Erosion of Inerrancy in Evangelicalism : Responding to New Challenges to Biblical Authority [Wheaton, Ill.: Crossway, 2008]). Many of Sparks’s challenges are countered by methodology employed in Beale’s recent work. This reviewer is also aware of at least one other two-volume work forthcoming that will seek to offer a constructive evangelical Scripture principle in light of recent criticism against the standard evangelical view (i.e., that of the Evangelical Theological Society).

In conclusion, Sparks does not offer much for evangelicals to consider regarding how historical-criticism might be merged with an evangelical Scripture principle that does not balk at the Bible’s inerrant authority throughout. And while seeking to integrate theology with historical-criticism, he pays little attention to new developments in the interdisciplinary engagement between Scripture and theology, which seems to be the most hopeful location for his agenda. Sparks offers no helpful interlocution for evangelical scholars and pastors, and his agenda barely endures on its own terms, contributing very little if anything helpful to the inerrancy discussion.