Kenton (“Kent”) Sparks is professor of biblical studies at Eastern University (American Baptist) in Pennsylvania. He has authored books such as Ancient Texts for the Study of the Hebrew Bible and God’s Word in Human Words. He identifies as an evangelical. Some critics will question that identification, but I tend to give people the benefit of the doubt and view “evangelical” as a fuzzy category.
In my opinion, a person can be evangelical without adhering all the way to every part of the so-called “received evangelical tradition” (stamped as that tends to be by Old Princeton theology).
Without question Sparks’ argument is bold—at least among evangelical and relatively conservative Protestants. It will be interesting to see how it plays out among moderate to progressive (postconservative) evangelicals.
What’s especially interesting about the book is Sparks’ response to the Old Testament “texts of terror”—something we have discussed here quite a lot. If I understand his thesis correctly, it is very similar to what I have argued here—that the Old Testament must be interpreted in light of the New and that, at least occasionally, reports in the Old Testament (about what God commanded people to do) must be relativized in light of the character of God revealed in Jesus Christ who is the Word of God in person.
Here is one especially clear statement of the book’s overall thesis:
Scripture, as a book written by fallible human beings, is itself a book of theological discourse that that advances the truth but also stands in need of redemption. Scripture is beautiful and broken, and it is being read and studied in the church, and sometimes outside of the church, by beautiful and broken human beings. Nevertheless, Christians have theological and philosophical reasons to suppose that, when we read Scripture well, we are able to understand it. And as we understand it, we shall find that God’s truth and beauty run deeper, and are more potent, than the brokenness that God is healing. (88)
In other words, according to Sparks, there are records in Scripture that simply cannot be trusted as true because of the Bible’s humanity. He begins with blatant contradictions such as the accounts of Judas’ betrayal of Jesus and death in Matthew and Acts; they cannot be reconciled. Most people are not particularly bothered by that. Only neo-fundamentalists find it necessary to try to harmonize them. The differences are not important theologically. One can easily respond to them by saying that, in spite of such contradictions, the Bible is “perfect with respect to purpose” (John Piper). We can chalk such flaws to human fallibility so long as we hold to a dynamic rather than verbal view of inspiration. (By “verbal inspiration” here I mean the idea that God led the writers to the exact words he wanted them to use. By “dynamic inspiration” here I mean the idea that God led the writers to the ideas he wanted them to record but allowed their personalities and cultures and fallible memories, etc., to affect what they wrote.)
What will trouble many evangelicals more is Sparks’ handling of the Old Testament texts of terror:
Where we judge that Scripture presents God as saying or doing something he would not say or do, we should confess that “these texts tell us more about the purposes of their human authors than about the purposes of God.” We will simply admit that the author of Deuteronomy wrongly believed (as Luther did) that God told his people to slaughter their enemies. To express in theological jargon, Scripture includes both “God-talk” (first-order words from God to humanity) and “god-talk-talk” (mistaken, second-order accounts of what God has supposedly said. This is an important distinction…. (105-106)For the rest, click HERE.
Telling the difference between these two types of texts is a matter of Christological discernment, not cultural accommodation. Sparks adamantly rejects any idea that his proposal is based on modern sentiments. To those who disagree he rightly points back to church fathers such as Gregory of Nazianzus and John Chrysostom and others who freely admitted that the texts of terror in question could not be taken at face value. The way premodern Christians handled them was to allegorize them. That method isn’t open to us. So where does that leave us?