reviewed by Scott R. A. Starbuck
The Chronicle of Higher Education recently reported a new breed of “evangelical” is emerging. This population group represents a different brand of evangelical than the anti-intellectualist anomaly of the 20th century. Ken Sparks, Eastern University professor and former fundamentalist, is exemplary of this new generation that seeks to navigate a path taking faith and critical thinking equally seriously. For pastors who see the arrival of these new evangelicals on the doorstep of the mainline church, Ken Sparks has produced a timely and well-reasoned treatise.
Evangelicalism has yet to come to terms with biblical scholarship. Case in point is the insistence that all biblical texts are inerrant. This perspective, according to Sparks, stems from faulty Cartesian philosophy proffering human grasp of absolute certain truth, a perspective that is no longer intellectually credible. Rather, “practical realism” (Gadamer) is the hermeneutic closest to the Bible’s depiction of the ability of sinful humanity to know God adequately, without assuming error-free knowledge of God is possible. Sparks suggests God speaks through adequate rather than inerrant words since human beings, themselves, grasp such words adequately rather than inerrantly. The discipline of historical-criticism (reading texts in their historical context) is necessary because not a single jot or tittle in Scripture transcends its essential human forms, intents, and rhetoric.
Yet, instead of recognizing the requirement for historical criticism, evangelical scholars and pastors have attempted to shield the church from it. Sparks summarizes eight different strategies for combating the methodologies and results of historical criticism; approaches ranging from fideism to specious arguments, misconstruing evidence, strained harmonizations, leaving out evidence, special pleading, and various forms of obscurantism. None of these approaches are intellectually credible or, frankly, honest.
Sparks believes hermeneutical models grounded in neo-orthodoxy (Barth) are able to circumscribe both divine and human aspects of Scripture. Through a sampling of cogent formulations of biblical theology, narrative theology, and Protestant and Roman Catholic biblical scholarship, he demonstrates that the vast majority of non-evangelical Christians are able to look wide-eyed at human error or historical limitation in Scripture and at the same time hear within it the divine and authoritative voice of God.
How? By interpreting genre properly and believing in divine accommodation. It is the task of historical criticism to discern genres of human discourse; myth, political propaganda, oracle, proverb, parable, etc. Accurate understanding is impossible if genre is misconstrued. Sparks is confident that once evangelicals read the scriptural texts genre-aware, most of the typical evangelical discomfort with the historical-critical method will become mute because interpretation will be anchored in the historical and human origins of the text. Equally important is the doctrine of divine accommodation. Evangelicals have rallied away from this ancient and orthodox stance posturing that God cannot possibly accommodate human error (such as believing that the world is flat) since it would imply that God is not sovereign over human language. However, God has spoken intentionally through an errant medium because it is how, in the end, human beings communicate. Regardless, God’s “discourse” in Scripture does not err when it accommodates human discourse that does.
Again, how? Here Sparks argues for an adoptionistic model rather than an incarnational model of the divine/human nature of Scripture; namely, God has adopted fallible human words as his own. Genre-criticism is thus essential. At the same time, one cannot ferret out limited or erring human perspective without significant study outside the Bible. Sparks suggests that all interpretation take into consideration the “context of the whole,” which is the totality of all knowledge available to humanity (historical, psychological, scientific, etc.) This daunting task is not for the uninitiated, but for academic communities of cross-disciplined research. Equally important, the exegete seeks God’s divine communication not so much within the text but through the text’s theological and creedal trajectories. This, too, is a tall order. Sparks does not believe that the common person or pastor is fully suited to interpret the Scriptures.
The author illustrates the method espoused through three case studies of recurring controversy. Although I take issue with his conclusions concerning gender hierarchy, these cases illustrate his method in observable concrete steps.
The book is not without weakness. First, Sparks would have been better served by an incarnational model of divine authority than his adoptionistic approach. As far as I can tell, Sparks is never able to locate where, in his exegetical process, transmission of accommodated words (whether by general or particular revelation) gives way to ontology and encounter with the Word itself. Second, as Presbyterians we have seen that excellent exegesis is often produced by well-trained clergy through interaction with their congregants. And third, instead of suggesting academic “sodalities,” specially set apart communities for the rigorous study of Scripture, a communally integrative approach such as Osmer’s (A Teachable Spirit) is a better fit for missional postmoderns.
Nevertheless, this book is well suited for Presbyterian clergy: those who want to bone up on issues surrounding the errant humanness of the Scriptures and the need for historical-critical exegesis, or those who are called to help old and new evangelicals come to terms with the divine/human nature of Scripture and the imperative to give both realities the very best of our minds, hearts, and scholarship.
Scott R. A. Starbuck is pastor of Manito Church, Spokane, Wash., and lecturer in theology at Whitworth University.