The Happy Threads of Divine Providence

Today’s blog is personal. I hope you will indulge me while I explain a certain happy providence that has brought a smile to my face here recently.

Sixty-one years ago this month (October, 1951) my dad, then age 22, preached a week of special meetings in a small town in northern Wisconsin. The church was newly being pastored by my dad’s best friend since high school, George Cable. Dad and George were ordained by Dr. B. Myron Cedarholm there in that church just a month previously (September), the weekend before my dad and mom were married. If you know me well you’ve likely heard me remark that my dad’s ministry was one that was unusually effective and blessed, and it was so from the very beginning. Several people came to Christ that week. One man in particular was named Dwight Duncan, a successful farmer in the area who, invited to come to those meetings, came to Christ and then raised his family for Christ, became a pillar in the church there, serving as a deacon I think until his death in the late 1990s, and remained a good friend of the Zaspel family. I recall staying at his farm as a boy in the mid 1960s. He was a bit older than my parents, and he became close with my dad’s parents also, etc. The Duncans were dear family friends. My last memory of Dwight Duncan was shortly before he died — I was home visiting my parents when Dwight phoned dad just to thank him for coming to Camp Douglas, Wisconsin, to preach the gospel so long ago.

Okay, you get the picture. There has long been a real soft spot in Zaspel hearts for Dwight Duncan and family, even though as the years have progressed the contact has been increasingly slim.

Fast forward to Lansdale, PA, 2012.  The students at Calvary Baptist Seminary are required to seek out a professor for personal mentoring — anything and everything from theology to marriage to spiritual life, etc.  When carried out conscientiously, at least, it’s a wonderful program. At my first meeting with a student here recently, over lunch, just to get better acquainted, I asked him where he was from. When he told me Wisconsin, I asked where. He replied, “Oh, a small town you’ve never heard of. Camp Douglas.” “Yeah,” I said, I think I know something about Camp Douglas.” As I began to mention my connections he of course was surprised, to say the least. Then I asked him if he happened to know the Duncan family. You can imagine my delight as he told me that Dwight Duncan was his great-grandfather. So of course now his grandmother (Dwight’s daughter) and my mother are enjoying the connection also, etc. Looking back on our lunch I feel a bit guilty — there wasn’t much “mentoring” going on, but there was a lot of tracing out our family connections!

So, sixty-one years ago this month a man came to Christ through my dad’s preaching ministry. Now that man’s great-grandson is one of my students. I hope you understand the smile that I’ve been wearing here lately!

I suspect that one of the joys of heaven will be the tracing of the many happy threads of divine providence.

God’s Word in Human Hands, Part 7: Conclusion

Several additional corrections to Kenton Sparks’ characterization of presuppositionalism need mentioning. Third, in regard to the nature of man’s knowledge, Van Til believed, with Reformed theology, that there exists a distinction between God’s knowledge and man’s, but rather than being entirely similar, they are analogous. That is, God’s knowledge is archetypal and man’s is ectypal, patterned after God’s.[1]Archetypal knowledge is perfect knowledge and is only possessed by God. God is identical with his knowledge; his knowledge is not a universal external to Him. All human knowledge, on the other hand, is ectypal, patterned after God’s knowledge. This has two implications: first, since man’s knowledge is derived from God’s knowledge, it is true knowledge; second, because it is not archetypal, it is necessarily finite. This distinction, then, allows for humans to possess true, but incomplete knowledge. Nowhere in this distinction is “perfect” knowledge demanded or expected, as Sparks seems to characterize most of evangelical theology. Human language is, therefore, adequate to communicate true knowledge. Van Til recognized the difference between archetypal and ectypal knowledge, and knew that man could never attain perfect knowledge.

The bridge between archetypal and ectypal knowledge is revelation. In revelation, God condescended to man and revealed himself, making knowledge possible. The two main forms of special revelation, incarnation and inscripturation, communicate clearly and perfectly what God wanted man to know. Sparks’ epistemology, like that of many evangelicals, does not require revelation. Revelation is added later, but is not necessary to make the system coherent. Sparks’ division between God’s knowledge and our knowledge makes God’s knowledge unattainable. Human knowledge (all human knowledge), therefore, must contain error. Sparks leaves no room for revelation in which God condescends to reveal himself through his Word. Scripture seems primarily human, and only distantly divine in his reading.

Fourth, Van Til’s presuppositional epistemology takes the fallenness of humans far more seriously than Sparks’ practical realism. While Sparks makes much of the effects of the Fall on knowledge, Van Til emphasizes the effects on man himself. “Owing to man’s ethical depravity, man is unwilling to recognize himself as a creature. Accordingly, he assumes that the foundation of the validity of human reasoning lies in himself.”[2] Again, “The result for man was that he made for himself a false view of knowledge. Man made for himself the ideal of absolute comprehension in knowledge…In conjunction with man’s false ideal of knowledge, we may mention here the fact that when man saw he could not attain his own false ideal of knowledge, he blamed this on his finite character. Man confused finitude with sin.”[3]

Finally, Van Til would never have accepted the idea that only presuppositionalists can arrive at proper interpretations. What he would say is that only presuppositionalists have rational warrant for their epistemology, because only Scripture provides the principium for human knowledge.[4] Van Til did not often discuss biblical hermeneutics as Sparks supposes. This is another indication that Sparks’ failure to distinguish epistemology from hermeneutics has left him with confusion on this point. Van Til was more concerned with demonstrating that any attempt to establish knowledge by means of autonomous human reason was necessarily flawed and irrational.

Much more could be said about Van Til’s revelational epistemology.[5] Suffice it to say that Van Til saw only two options for epistemology. A revelational epistemology begins with the ontological Trinity as the principium essendi of knowledge, and Scripture as the principium cognoscendi by which we know the principium essendi. All other epistemologies began with autonomous human reason as that which judges all truth claims, including those of Scripture. Revelational epistemology begins with God and proceeds to human knowledge, unlike other epistemologies that add God after the system has been established. Whereas rationalist and empiricist epistemologies begin with human belief and seek to progress to knowledge, revelational epistemology begins with the sensus divinitatis, the implanted knowledge of God in every person, which is true knowledge. On the basis of this sure, universal knowledge, it proceeds to judge beliefs as true or not. In addition, the role of the Holy Spirit in leading a believer to truth plays a central role in Van Til’s thought. He took seriously the Scripture’s distinctions between the knowledge that fallen man possesses and that which redeemed man possesses, especially when it comes to knowledge of God through the Scriptures.

In contrast to practical realism, then, which posits high confidence in human perception, and low confidence in human ability to know, revelational epistemology places lower confidence in human perception and high confidence in human ability to know, and more importantly, total confidence in Scripture to judge both. The problem, as Van Til saw it, was not that humans want to know, but are hindered by their limitations (a metaphysical problem). The problem is that humans have the ability to know, but their fallenness has resulted in rebellion against knowledge, even the most basic knowledge—that there is a God—making man’s problem an ethical problem (Rom. 1:18-25). The portrayal of man as suppressing truth in rebellion against God is absent in discussion of realism, whether it be Sparks’ practical realism, Murphy’s holism or Hiebert’s critical realism. Realism assumes that humans are, for the most part, on a genuine search for the truth. This contrasts sharply with the futile thinking and foolish hearts of unbelievers in Romans 1:21. While this view of man may not hinder the unbeliever from discovering truth, he can never account for his discovery properly. It also means that his “search for truth” will always be taking place simultaneously with his suppression of truth in rebellion against God.

Conclusion

God’s Word in Human Words faces a dilemma. If its epistemology is flawed and inadequate, its conclusions regarding the text of Scripture are suspect. Practical realism has been shown to be unable to support its own weight. The adoption of this epistemology by some evangelicals is troubling, for to subject Scripture to the scrutiny of autonomous human reason can only result in theological and spiritual disaster. While the “humanity” of the text of Scripture must be addressed, the answer lies not in a proposal undergirded by practical realism.[6] Any doctrine of Scripture must begin with its primary characteristic—its supernatural inspiration. Only in light of the divine authority of Scripture can an exploration of its “humanity” be safely pursued.

Wrestling with difficulties in the Scripture must begin with an epistemology that proceeds from God himself, bounded the Word of God. Sparks, by contrast, has begun with an approach that places too much confidence in the conjectural conclusions of scholars examining “evidence” in a self-professed neutral and objective fashion. This is too much like foundationalism to be plausible for evangelicals. For an epistemology to be faithful to Scripture it must proceed from Scripture. By this method alone can evangelicals be sure that they have not accommodated the truth to the criticism of human reason.


[1] Van Til describes these types of knowledge as “original” and “derivative.” He notes that our knowledge is not merely symbolic, but true, though derivative; Intro to Systematic Theology, 324 n9.

[2] Van Til, An Introduction to Systematic Theology, 98.

[3] Van Til, The Defense of the Faith, 36-37.

[4] For a detailed explanation of the role of principium in epistemology, see K. Scott Oliphint, Reasons for Faith: Philosophy in the Service of Theology (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing, 2006).

[5] Another important distinction Van Til made was between created reason, fallen reason and redeemed reason. Each of these bears on the question of the nature of reason in human knowledge today.

[6] For a more orthodox treatment of this topic, see Gaffin, God’s Word in Servant-Form.

God’s Word in Human Hands, Part 6: Cornelius Van Til and Revelational Epistemology Correctly Understood

Sparks gives a brief nod to Van Til before summarily dismissing him as a Cartesian foundationalist. Sparks is correct to criticize Cartesian foundationalism, but wrong to associate Van Til with that epistemology. Those who understand Van Til know that his epistemology was developed (through the influence of Herman Bavinck and Abraham Kuyper among others) with the express purpose of refuting foundationalism. Van Til believed that a Christian epistemology must necessarily flow from an explicitly Christian philosophy. Foundationalism, on the other hand, is anything but necessarily or explicitly Christian. As Jonathan Wilson states, “A foundationalist epistemology seeks to ground knowledge in truths that anyone can accept. Thus an inerrantist who applies a foundationalist epistemology might say, ‘Set aside any convictions about Jesus Christ, God and salvation through the cross of Jesus Christ. I will show you that the Bible is true through historical, geographical and scientific study that everyone agrees on.’”[1] This is clearly not the approach of Van Til’s epistemology. In fact, this is exactly the model Van Til argued against in almost everything he wrote.[2]

Sparks misunderstands Van Til’s epistemology as radicalizing the postmodern claim that all interpretation is contextual. He believes Van Til to say that, “we must know everything (the whole context) in order to know anything (that which we are interpreting).”[3] Based on this statement, Sparks concludes that to know anything, a person would have to know the ultimate thing—God. Since an unbeliever does not know God, he would be missing the most important element in interpretation, and therefore, his interpretations would not be good. Sparks believes that Van Til held that correct interpretation requires a belief in God. Sparks disagrees, for he has great confidence in the ability of unbelievers to arrive at truth, often doing so more consistently than believers, in his account.

Additionally, says Sparks, presuppositionalists deny that the Christian beliefs required for good hermeneutics can be acquired through general hermeneutics. The only healthy way to interpret anything is via a special hermeneutic that presupposes the truth of Christian belief. Sparks concludes that this makes presuppositionalists “strong Cartesian foundationalists, for whom the basic beliefs needed to reach incorrigible truth are gifts of grace available only to genuine Christians.”[4] Unless one approaches Scripture presuppositionally, he will fail as an interpreter. Hence, good interpretations are only available to presuppositionalists.

A Van Tilian presuppositionalist will immediately see serious problems with this characterization of presuppositionalism. First, Van Til’s discussion of particulars and universals took place in the context of the way that the Christian belief in the Trinity solves the philosophical problem of the one and the many.[5] So, Sparks’ reference to this unrelated point of Van Til is not germane to epistemology.

Second, Van Til never claimed that theological constructions by presuppositionalists or anyone else were incorrigible. What he claimed was that unless one utilizes a revelational epistemology in which the search for knowledge begins with the ontological Trinity as revealed in the Scriptures, there would be no logical necessity for any truth proposition, and no way to prevent irrationality. Apart from God in whom actuality and necessity exist, and in whom possibility finds its grounds, these properties are difficult to imagine, let alone demonstrate conclusively.

In Part 7 we will conclude this critical analysis of God’s Word in Human Words with the conclusion of Van Til’s revelational epistemology.


[1] Jonathan R. Wilson, “Toward a New Evangelical Paradigm of Biblical Authority,” in The Nature of Confession: Evangelicals and Postliberals in Conversation (Timothy R. Phillips and Dennis L. Okholm, eds. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1996), 155.

[2] Representative works include Cornelius Van Til, The Defense of the Faith (4th ed. K. Scott Oliphint, ed. Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing, 2008); An Introduction to Systematic Theology (2nd ed. William Edgar, ed. Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing, 2007); A Survey of Christian Epistemology (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing, no date)..

[3] Sparks, God’s Word in Human Words, 45.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Specifically, Van Til was answering the question of how we can know how any one particular relates to another. Because philosophy could not find a universal, there was no way to establish any necessary link between any particulars. Van Til’s answer to philosophy was that the unity of God in his oneness, and the diversity of his triunity gives an answer to the question of the one and the many. All the diversity in the world finds unity in that it is all created by God who is distinct from all created matter. We know everything truly, therefore, only in light of the unity and diversity of the Trinity. “In God’s being there are no particulars not related to the universal, and there is nothing universal that is not fully expressed in the particulars.”[5] What Van Til said about particulars and universals is, therefore, true. Unless one accepts the biblical picture of the Trinity and all it entails, he can never know the why of any particular, even though he may know a great deal of the what of that particular. Would Van Til accept the idea that an unbeliever may arrive at a proper theological interpretation? Certainly, but the unbeliever could never account for why that interpretation is correct.

God’s Word in Human Hands, Part 5: How Epistemology Affects Ontology and Why It Matters

In choosing an epistemology of practical realism, Sparks alters the ontology of the Bible. That is, he reimagines the essence of the Bible itself. In adopting an epistemology that does not require the existence of revelation of God,[1] Sparks has altered the very nature of Scripture. The ontological implications of epistemological revision were noticed already in the late 19th century by B.B. Warfield. “A special school of Old Testament criticism, which has, for some years, been gaining somewhat widespread acceptance of its results having been accepted, a ‘changed view of the Bible’ follows which implies a reconstructed doctrine of inspiration, and, indeed, also a whole new theology.”[2] One cannot evoke an epistemology counter to that presented in Scripture and expect to maintain the same ontology of Scripture.

Therefore, while Sparks likes to speak of the similarity between foundationalism and anti-realism, it is the practical realist who arrives at a view of Scripture similar to foundationalism, and both are significantly different from how Scripture portrays itself. The foundationalist, arriving at certain truth through either rationalism or empiricism, subjects Scripture to tests of reason and historical and scientific scrutiny, and finds it to be lacking verifiability (this is the modernist critique). The practical realist, arriving at approximation of truth through a dialogue of text, community and culture, subjects Scripture to scientific, cultural and linguistic analysis, and finds the clear statements of Scripture about itself to be lacking verifiability (this is the postmodernist critique). Both approaches, modern and postmodern, in effect do the same thing to Scripture, albeit from opposite ends of the spectrum.

Warfield proceeds to consider exactly what Sparks is eager to discuss—the presence of “problems” in the text of Scripture. Warfield delineates the two-fold strength of the claim to inerrancy that any criticism of the Bible must overcome if it is to be considered a serious challenge to the authority of Scripture. First, there is the testimony of Scripture itself about its ontology. Cornelius Van Til, following Bavinck and Turretin, emphasized the self-attesting authority of Scripture. That is, the primary way of knowing what Scripture is requires us to take at face value what it says about itself. Any other starting point of determining the nature of Scripture places man’s autonomous reason over the Bible’s testimony about itself. After considering the genuine difficulties that the human involvement in Scripture brings, John Murray warns that to attempt to establish the authority of Scripture by any other means would be fruitless. “Thus, on the question of warrant for the proposition that Scripture is infallible, what are we to say? The only ground is the witness of Scripture to itself, to its own origin, character, and authority.”[3] So our starting point for claiming the authority, infallibility and character of Scripture must remain its own testimony about itself.

Second, says Warfield, there is the whole mass of evidence that shows that the biblical writers were trustworthy. Now, here is the very issue with which Sparks wrestles. For him, the external evidence shows that the Bible is not what it says it is, at least not as it has been historically understood. Certainly, no inerrantist would object to external evidence clarifying and sharpening our understanding of inspiration. Yet, this is not always recognized by critics of inerrancy. Many assume that inerrantists hold to an unsophisticated and unnuanced dictation theory of inspiration. This is simply not true. As an example of the complexity of evangelical positions on inerrancy, Norman Geisler lists eighteen clarifications regarding mistaken notions of inerrancy.[4] These clarifications take into consideration such elements as interpretation, context, style, differing accounts, phenomena, literary devices, genre, and grammar.

The options for evangelical theology of Scripture, then, are not limited to a either flat, dictation theory of inspiration or a text that is to be doubted and assumed to contain error. Inspiration and inerrancy can be held while recognizing the complexity of the issue, and taking seriously the apparent contradictions between what the text says about itself, and how it appears to us. Once again, one’s epistemology will either allow or disallow working toward a solution. Practical realism, as Sparks presents it, seems to disallow a doctrine of Scripture consistent with Scripture’s testimony of itself.

If practical realism, then, is inadequate, are evangelicals only left with foundationalism as an epistemology? The answer is, “no.” Sparks is right about many of his criticisms of foundationalism, but that, as we have seen, does not make his proposal any more plausible. There is another option available that avoids the pitfalls of both foundationalist and realist epistemologies. Sparks (improperly) dismisses Van Til as a foundationalist, and further misconstrues his epistemology, which can provide evangelicals with a theory of truth that is faithful to Scripture and can stand up to intense epistemological scrutiny.

In Part 6 we will look at the more biblically faithful revelational epistemology of Cornelius Van Til.


[1] In no way does practical realism require revelation. Practical realism can be and has been developed as a system with no need of revelation. As a result, its suitability as an epistemology adequate for Christian theology is in question..

[2] Benjamin B. Warfield, The Inspiration and Authority of the Bible (Samuel G. Craig, ed. Phillipsburg, NJ: Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Co., 1948), 170.

[3] John Murray, “The Infallibility of Scripture,” in Collected Writings of John Murray, Volume 1: The Claims of Truth (Carlisle, PA: the Banner of Truth Trust, 1976), 10.

[4] Norman Geisler, Systematic Theology: Volume 1 Introduction, Bible (Minneapolis: Bethany House, 2002), 507-12.

God’s Word in Human Hands, Part 4: The Inadequacy of Practical Realism as a Christian Epistemology

Epistemology is “the philosophical study of the nature, sources and limits of knowledge.”[1] An epistemology, to be adequate, must address not only the aspects in the definition above, but be able to determine a starting point for knowledge and a demonstrable standard by which to adjudicate conflicts between proposed interpretations of data. Practical realism posits high confidence in human perception, while positing low confidence in human ability to know. Sparks’ work bears this out throughout his book, God’s Word in Human Words. The observations of Critical Biblical Scholarship (CBS) are accorded a high degree of probability based on (what he perceives to be) the careful, critical and scholarly study of available data. To remain consistent, he continually frames these conclusions in terms of probability, and not certainty, but it is clear that CBS is to be trusted much of the time. One almost gets the sense that Sparks considers the work of CBS to be objective, since he seems to believe that critical scholars approach their work in a more unbiased detached manner than evangelicals who are saddled with the burden of trying to make all the “contradictions” of Scripture go away.[2]

As an epistemology, however, practical realism comes up short on several accounts. First, as Sparks describes it, practical realism fails to address the issue of conflict in data and perceptions. He assumes that the “sciences” of historical criticism, and scientific and socio-linguistic analysis yield clear results. He does not say much about what to do in the event of conflicting conclusions in these disciplines (of which there are myriads). Neither does he ever justify the placement of these disciplines over the text of Scripture, so that when Scripture and the conclusions of CBS conflict, critical scholarship should be believed.

At this point a practical realist may object that Scripture does not say anything clearly, that all restatements of Scripture are purely interpretive, and are unintelligible on their own. This begs the question of the first of the pillars of practical realism—if the nature of human knowledge is always interpretive and therefore limited by community, is this description of human knowledge itself also interpretive and limited by one’s community? This is the Achilles heel of the interpretive view of knowledge. It must either be arrived at from a transcendent, “uninterpreted” view of reality outside the world (a God-like view), or it is merely an interpreted view of knowledge colored by its adherents’ community, and not universally applicable to all human knowledge.

Practical realism also fails for a second reason in that if our perceptions of the data of CBS are allowed to triumph over Scripture, perception becomes the foundation for knowledge, and practical realism has slipped right back into an empiricist soft foundationalism. This seems to bear itself out in God’s Word in Human Words. Repeatedly Sparks rejects the clear teaching of Scripture in favor of the “evidence” of CBS. Although he never claims certainty for the results of CBS, one wonders why he would go to the trouble of writing nearly 400 pages of argument for adopting CBS unless he had a high degree of confidence in its ability to discover truth.[3]

Although he does not articulate his methodology as clearly as Nancey Murphy, Sparks seems to propose something like her holistic approach which allows all contributors (science philosophy, historical theology, the Bible and psychology) to “have their say, though eventually the strongest voice will rise to the fore to make its will known.”[4] Or Sparks may have a program in mind akin to Paul Hiebert’s critical realism,[5] in contrast to modern positivism and postmodern idealism. Either way, while practical realism may be a sufficient framework for sorting through historical and scientific data that falls within the orthodox interpretation of Scripture, on its own, it is an inadequate starting point for knowledge since it requires a neutrality that it also denies.

This results in a theology that has to constantly pass the scrutiny of the “contributors” mentioned above. Anything in Scripture that is accepted as true is ultimately accepted purely on the grounds of personal taste. Sparks states, “We believe in miracles, like the virgin birth, not because the are supported by so much historical-critical evidence, but because they are theologically reasonable and necessary.[6] He then attempts to delineate which events in Scripture are “theologically necessary.”  His answer is that very few events in Scripture necessarily have to be completely historical. Most are either not necessary at all, or may simply be partly true. Sparks makes no attempt to explain how one could determine into which category any event would fall. Each person’s reason stands over what Scripture says, for what may be theologically reasonable and necessary to one person may be unreasonable and unnecessary to another.

Third, practical realism fails because of its view of language. Taking a Wittgensteinian approach to language, Sparks reduces the power of language to mere clues by which we infer meaning, so that a discourse itself bears no meaning, but meaning inheres only when the discourse suits certain contexts and situations.[7] This view of language faces the same critique that all views of language influenced by Wittgenstein face—it is seriously reductionsitic, cannot account for the rich variety of language, and depends upon the inability of language to access reality. If Sparks is correct that language cannot access reality, are we to suppose that his explanation of knowledge is accessing language as it really is? If so, he has contradicted himself.

While there are other ways that practical realism fails as an adequate epistemology, only one more will be presented here. Much of Sparks’ argument against any kind of foundationalism and certainty is the correct criticism of past pronouncements by scholars that were “certain” when they shouldn’t have been so. But to suppose that a sense of unfounded certainty is warrant to deny certainty altogether, or that only evangelicals have been guilty of arrogance and impudence is patently false.

Now the problem here is not that Sparks is completely wrong in everything he writes in the book. There certainly is social influence on the way any reader understands a text, and many of our theological pronouncements should contain a measure of humility. He is correct that science, history, social and literary analysis inform our understanding of truth, knowledge, and even the Scriptures. But Sparks makes the same mistake that many who drink at the fountain of postmodernism make. He takes certain justified criticisms of modernity and totalizes them into a system. So, for example, rather than giving social construct theory and linguistic analysis an auxiliary place in his epistemic system, he allows it to be a guiding principle for his view of language. He seems to refuse to do the one thing that Scripture demands of its readers—submit all other claims to truth under its authority (Col. 2:8; 2 Cor. 10:5)

The net effect of a practical realist epistemology is that it affects the ontology of Scripture itself. The next section describes the ontological impact of an epistemology that judges Scripture not by what it says about itself, but on interpretations of the “evidence” of both the Scriptural text and disciplines such as historical, scientific, and literary criticism.

In Part 5 we will look at how epistemology affects ontology and why it matters.


[1] Paul K. Moser, Dwayne H. Mulder and J.D. Trout, The Theory of Knowledge: A Thematic Introduction (NY: Oxford University Press, 1998), 4.

[2] Vern Poythress exposes the myth that secular science is performed from a neutral position free of religious bias: “Secularism conceals its own religious commitments by claming that it is independent of religious commitment;” Redeeming Science: A God-Centered Approach (Wheaton: Crossway, 2006), 51. Also, “Secularism is a whole worldview, and in its approach to the nature of scientific law, it is intrinsically religious, in that it exchanges God for an idolatrous view of scientific law” (p. 66). The same could be said for many of the views of critical scholars.

[3] Additionally, Sparks portrays the conclusions of CBS as almost objective, and even more, necessary if one is to be “honest” with the evidence. Many evangelicals will find quite a few of Sparks’ “appropriations” of CBS to be highly conjectural. A more balanced attempt to wrestle with the problems of the Old Testament can be found in Iain, V. Provan, Philips Long and Tremper Longman, A Biblical History of Israel (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2003). In this volume the authors counter many of Sparks’ interpretive principles such as the idea (following Troeltsch) that sources are generally not to be trusted until they are properly interrogated and considered. Provan, Long and Longman recognize this approach as an unsubstantiated assumption, and counter that “we should assume in advance that any testimony about the past, whatever its ideological shaping and partiality, does not speak about the past truthfully…That biblical scholars so often seem tempted to make just such a facile connection between form and substance in the case of ancient Israelite literature is therefore astonishing” (p. 68-69).

[4] This is Chad O. Brand’s evaluation of Murphy’s Quinean epistemological holism; Chad O. Brand, “Formulating Theology In Der Luft: A Critical Evaluation of Nancey Murphy’s Postmodern Theological Method,” Southern Baptist Journal of Theology 5 (2001), 44. For Murphy’s views of epistemological holism, see Theology in the Age of Scientific Reasoning, Cornell Studies in the Philosophy of Religion (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1990) and Beyond Liberalism and Fundamentalism, Rockwell Lecture Series (Valley Forge, PA: Trinity Press International, 1996).

[5] See Paul G. Hiebert, Missiological Implications of Epistemological Shifts: Affirming Truth in a Modern/Postmodern World, Christian Mission and Modern Culture (Harrisburg, PA: Trinity Press International, 1999).

[6] Sparks, God’s Word in Human Words, 320; emphasis mine.

[7] Ibid., 43.

God’s Word in Human Hands, Part 3: The Epistemological Basis of Kenton Sparks’ Proposal

Kenton Sparks begins his book, God’s Word in Human Words, with a chapter on epistemology and hermeneutics.[1] He rightly notes that the Common Sense philosophy of Thomas Reid deeply influenced the early evangelical tradition. Evangelicals, however, misunderstood Reid, according to Sparks, in that they thought common sense yielded incorrigible knowledge, instead of the generally dependable and trustworthy knowledge that Reid genuinely posited.[2]

After critiquing Cartesian foundationalism, Sparks queries postmodern epistemology for answers. He distinguishes two forms of postmodernism—antirealism and practical realism. Antirealists believe that “all truth claims lie embedded within a matrix of cultural fiction. Interpretation, whatever it is, does not recover ‘the truth’ but creates it.”[3] Most antirealists are not epistemological nihilists, however. Most believe that justice is the proper objective of philosophical reflection. Justice is accomplished through the deconstruction of texts, which by their nature are oppressive. Because the intentions or wishes of the author of a text are inconsequential, recovering those intentions and wishes are not only impossible, but also uninteresting.

The problems and contradictions of antirealism are too obvious for a Christian, so Sparks opts for a mediating position—practical realism—or “soft” postmodernism. At this point in his description Sparks is setting up evangelical theology for a later fall. He creates a dichotomy between Cartesian realism in its search for indubitable truth and antirealism, which denies objective truth. The problem for both of these epistemologies is tradition, because it blinds us to the truth. Cartesian realists assume that we can escape tradition in our objective quest for certain, perfect truth. Antirealists believe that human viewpoints are always traditional, and therefore, objective truth is an illusion.

The practical realism that Sparks embraces sees tradition as an imperfect but useful way for humans to grasp, discover and perpetuate truth. This is a humble approach that allows for modest, but adequate knowledge. Knowledge moves on a continuum from better to worse, not a switch that toggles between perfect and wrong. God has given humans the ability to understand reality through interpretation. This means that we have good reasons for trusting both tradition and our own perceptions. Nevertheless, because of the finitude and fallenness of our faculties, “the knowledge we acquire through tradition and perception is always partial and always in need of critical appraisal.”[4] This means that no one can have access to knowledge that is error-free or God-like. “Certainty” of anything, then, is outside our grasp, if we mean by that incorrigible, epistemic certainty. We can say we are “certain” of something if we recognize that certainty is merely a mental faculty akin to confidence or assurance, but we cannot claim to be certainly right.[5]

Sparks reassures us that we should not mourn the loss of epistemic certainty. Our knowledge is adequate,[6] and the finiteness of our mediated interpretations makes us appreciate God’s immediate knowledge of the world. Additionally, since all interpretations of Scripture are inevitably colored by one’s community, we should expect that even Jesus and the New Testament writers could not have escaped this interpretive bias. If, then, our knowledge is adequate though inescapably interpretive, why should we demand an inerrant Bible? Could not God have chosen to speak through adequate rather than inerrant words?[7]

It is apparent from this summary that the main attraction of practical realism for Sparks is its epistemic humility, its consideration of human finitude and fallenness, its appreciation for the situatedness of all interpretation, and the inability of language to mirror reality. It is now time to examine practical realism as it is presented and seek to determine whether it is both adequate as an epistemology and true as an accurate description of reality.

In Part 4 we will examine the inadequacy of practical realism as a Christian epistemology.


[1] Sparks, God’s Word in Human Words, 31. One of the immediate problems of this chapter is that he merges a discussion of hermeneutics and epistemology. While the two fields are related, they are clearly distinct, and the failure to keep them separate is part of the problem of this book. His actual description of the history of epistemology and hermeneutics is problematic as it is fraught with conjectures and unsupported assertions (ex. The Reformers read the Bible plainly because they needed an inerrant Bible to trump the authority of the Catholic church). While more could be said here, this conflation of epistemology and hermeneutics is beyond the scope of this paper.

[2] At this point, Sparks seems confused about the nature of Reid’s common sense, as if Reid meant by it an unexamined perceptual sense. This is apparent when Sparks says that common sense is “that innate capacity by which we infer that the earth is flat” (p. 37). Although evangelical theology in the 19th and 20th centuries was influenced by Common Sense realism, it was certainly not based on unexamined phenomenal perception of reality. See  Paul Kjoss Helseth, “Right Reason” and the Princeton Mind (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R, 2010).

[3] Ibid., 40-41.

[4] Ibid., 51.

[5] Ibid., 54.

[6] Nowhere does Sparks say to what our knowledge is adequate. “Adequacy” requires a reference point. Is our knowledge merely functionally adequate, in that it helps us to live a life pleasing for God? Or is there an additional aspect of adequacy? Sparks does not clearly say.

[7] Ibid., 55.

God’s Word in Human Hands, Part 2: A Look At the Bible Through the Lens of Critical Biblical Scholarship

In his book, God’s Word in Human Words: An Evangelical Appropriation of Critical Biblical Scholarship, Kenton Sparks proposes that he, more than many evangelicals, has allowed Scripture itself to set the agenda for a theology of Scripture. Also, he believes his proposal affirms both the authority and inerrancy of Scripture in the way it should be affirmed. “That God speaks inerrantly, and that he therefore speaks inerrantly in Scripture, cannot be doubted by any orthodox Christian.”[1] Inerrancy, however, cannot be married to a “docetic” view of the Bible that has no place for human ideas, viewpoints, and mistakes. Evangelicals need to give up their “Ptolemaic” scholarship and come into the Copernican age. This can no longer be avoided due to the massive evidence that has been caving in on evangelicals for some time.[2]

One can quickly see the serious implications of this work. First, it calls for evangelicals to lay down their arms against an opponent that has attacked and plundered orthodox theology for over 100 years. Sparks is trying to talk evangelicals into signing an armistice agreement with a strand of scholarship that has been perceived to be, for the most part, destructive to the faith. Either he is correct, that evangelicals have seriously mistaken and misrepresented biblical criticism for a long time, or he is wrong, and a parlay may cost us our faith. He seems to want evangelicals to forget the past destruction of truth, denominations, institutions and lives at the hands of biblical critics.

Sparks advocates a submission of the historicity of events in the Old Testament to Critical Biblical Scholarship’s (CBS) judgments. If CBS does not accept, among others, the creation narrative, universal flood, the exodus, authorship of the Pentateuch by Moses, the death of the firstborn throughout Egypt, and the penning of Daniel’s prophecies before they happened, then we should not either. Rather we should let the high priests of CBS mediate the Bible to us. “[H]istorical-critical judgments are products of academic expertise, in which intellectually gifted scholars apply their respective trades to very complex linguistic and archaeological data from the ancient world. This means, of course, that in most cases the average person is in no position to evaluate, let alone criticize, the results of critical scholarship. Such a dictum applies not only to Assyriology but also to every academic discipline, both of the sciences and the humanities.”[3]

Second, if accepted, this project would necessarily result in a massive reconfiguration and revisioning of evangelical theology, especially Bibliology. If the truth genuinely requires such a move, then we should not be resistant. If, however, no such revisioning is warranted, such a move would be irretrievably destructive.

Third, if our understanding of Scripture is to be shaped primarily by the “evidence” discovered by historical criticism, theology should be written in pencil, since new discoveries are happening continually, and what evangelicals now believe about a biblical text could change completely by tomorrow.[4]

Finally, if we accept Sparks’ proposal, we should do so completely and consistently, not sparing the texts and theology that he seems to preserve in a “hermetically sealed container,” such as the virgin birth, the crucifixion, the resurrection and the ascension. Why traditional interpretation of these doctrines is accepted, while others are rejected is never explained adequately. He refuses to submit these Christological doctrines to the scrutiny of historical criticism. One can almost imagine critical scholars scratching their heads at Spark’s refusal to be consistent. There is plenty of critical scholarship that would like to get its hands on these doctrines. Why Sparks reserves a special place for these and other core, historic doctrines is a puzzle.

The guiding principle in God’s Word in Human Words is Sparks’ epistemology of practical realism. He believes it provides the best method for interpreting the data of Scripture and the sciences, while recognizing the limits of human knowledge. An examination of his approach will allow us to evaluate its adequacy (and truthfulness) as an epistemology.

In Part 3 we will look at the epistemological basis for Sparks’ proposal.


[1] Sparks, God’s Word in Human Words, 357.

[2] Ibid., 373.

[3] Ibid., 70.

[4] Conversely, the conclusions of Critical Biblical Scholarship (CBS) that Sparks accepts are also contingent, and could be overturned tomorrow if new evidence arises. In such case, his work will be subject to the same kind of critique of tradition that he applies to evangelical theology, since that is what his work will have become—tradition. If Sparks seriously expects evangelicals to adopt the conclusions of CBS that he promotes, then what constitutes evidence for him will have to be delineated in much greater detail. That is, Sparks assumes, but never defends, a definition of evidence throughout his book that seems to take most conclusions of CBS at face value. No such criteria of evidence is even hinted at in this work, a sign perhaps that he assumes evidence to be a foundational idea.

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