God’s Word in Human Hands, Part 1: How Epistemological Failure Leads to Accommodation of Critical Biblical Scholarship

Kenton Sparks’ book, God’s Word in Human Words: An Evangelical Appropriation of Critical Biblical Scholarship,[1] is perhaps the boldest proposal yet by those evangelicals who have abandoned modern epistemology in favor of a postmodern, practical realist epistemology. Sparks’ conclusions throughout the book regarding hermeneutics and critical scholarship constitute a paradigm shift for evangelical interpretation. In chapter one he includes a chapter on epistemology and hermeneutics because he felt it was necessary to defend his philosophical basis in order to advance the thesis of his book—that evangelicals must consider and assimilate the fruits of critical scholarship in its interpretation of Scripture.

Sparks is correct that epistemology is central to his later chapters. What he fails to consider, however, is that practical realism is ultimately inadequate as an epistemology, and certainly as a Christian epistemology. This chastened, realistic approach to knowledge, while helpful in working through phenomenal evidence concerning the Bible, its context and contents, is not a sufficient starting point for human knowledge. As an epistemology, practical realism does not require belief God or Scripture as authoritative. Any Christian sense of practical realism is purely contingent. Additionally, one of the epistemologies Sparks easily dismisses, revelational epistemeology (developed most thoroughly by Cornelius Van Til), is seriously misrepresented, and therefore, not given its due in the discussion of appropriation of critical biblical scholarship. The aim of this presentation will be to correct these failures and present an alternative proposal.

The Aim and Virtue of God’s Word in Human Words

Sparks proposes an alternative to secular (liberal) and traditional (evangelical) scholarship that he believes defuses the destructive power of critical biblical scholarship (CBS), and puts it to good use in theology. He does so, in part, out of concern for the many young believers who have entered university graduate programs “with a vibrant devotion to God only to emerge on the other side of their studies with a dead or failing faith, and with the firm conviction that historical criticism easily bests the traditional viewpoint.” [2] He asks,

“Is it possible that the persuasive power of historical criticism rests especially on its correctness? 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? If so, then we may eventually have to face a tragic paradox: the church’s wholesale rejection of historical criticism has begotten the irreverent use of Scripture by skeptics, thus destroying the faith of some believers while keeping unbelievers away from the faith.[3]

Sparks summarizes his purpose in God’s Word in Human Words (GWHW): “I would like us to consider the possibility that historical criticism—in spite of its potential faults and negative import—might offer a relatively accurate portrait of Scripture that will be of theological value once the church correctly understands its insights.”[4]

At this point in the book, many thoughtful evangelicals could probably find some agreement with Sparks’ concerns. Certainly no honest student of Scripture wants to duck the hard questions concerning the nature of the biblical text. No evangelical believes that Scripture was lowered from heaven on golden plates untouched by human hands. We have all encountered “problem passages” and as yet unresolved difficulties in Scripture, both textual and theological. Sparks is to be commended for his attempt to deal with the phenomenal data of Old Testament studies. Through the increasing rigor and discoveries of studies in Old Testament, Ancient Near East, and related fields, it is hoped that the portions of Scripture that confound us the most will continue to find resolution.

Additionally, Sparks is to be commended for taking seriously the context of special revelation, that is, general revelation. Special revelation depends on the context of general revelation, since it is given in, and therefore heavily depends on the cultural, natural, linguistic and historical context. We understand ancient Israel not only from the Bible, but also from studying history, texts, linguistics, archeology, geography and other disciplines that study general revelation. Theology and the church are blessed by serious research in these fields.

Finally, Sparks is to be commended for trying to clarify what evangelicals mean when they talk about the humanity of Scripture. A number of recent works attempt to do the same, and each raises some questions worthy of careful consideration.[5] The humanity of the text impacts many disciplines, including text criticism, linguistic analysis and hermeneutics to name a few. Sparks takes seriously the difficulty of holding to inspiration (and to some degree a form of inerrancy) and the genuine human involvement in the writing of Scripture.

In regard to the humanity of Scripture, then, evangelicals must grapple with both the text of Scripture itself and all the empirical phenomena of these other disciplines. While most evangelicals will certainly accept some conclusions of critical scholars, as Sparks suggests, it is important to understand the extent of Sparks’ appropriation of CBS to fully grasp his proposal.

In Part 2 we will examine Sparks’ proposal in more detail.

[1] Kenton L. Sparks, God’s Word in Human Words: An Evangelical Appropriation of Critical Biblical Scholarship (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2008).

[2] Ibid., 21. Sparks is a self-professed evangelical (p. 12, 21, 134) and former fundamentalist (p. 255), whose confusion about the unity of the Bible’s message and the consistency of its words began at age fourteen. At the age of twenty-seven, he became convinced of certain tenets of CBS, not by liberal scholars, but by an attempt to rebut CBS by the evangelical Egyptologist Kenneth Kitchen. Further study led Sparks to conclude that many of the arguments of CBS were “far better, and carried much more explanatory power, than the flimsy broom that Kitchen was using to sweep them away” (p. 12). One of Sparks’ chief concerns in the book is that by harboring false ideas and beliefs such as the historicity of Genesis 1, evangelicals are “shutting their church doors to countless scientists and scholars who might otherwise come to faith” (p. 12). Additionally, he believes that rather than proposing something new, he is actually standing “in continuity with the long-standing traditions of Christian theology and with important strands of the evangelical tradition (p. 13).

[3] Ibid., 21.

[4] Ibid., 23.

[5] Representative works include Peter Enns, Inspiration and Incarnation: Evangelicals and the Problem of the Old Testament (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2005); Craig D. Allert, A High View of Scripture? The Authority of the Bible and the Formation of the New Testament Canon (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2007). For an inerrantist view of the nature of Scripture, see Richard B. Gaffin Jr., God’s Word in Servant-Form: Abraham Kuyper and Herman Bavinck on the Doctrine of Scripture (Jackson, MS: Reformed Academic Press, 2008). For a non-inerrantist critique of using an incarnational model of the humanity of Scripture such as Enns’, see A.T.B. McGowan, The Divine Authenticity of Scripture: Retrieving an Evangelical Heritage (Downers Grove: IVP, 2007), 119-121.

About Mark Farnham
Professor of Apologetics and Director of the Pre-Seminary Major at Lancaster Bible College, Lancaster, PA. Founder and Director, Apologetics for the Church (apologeticsforthechurch.org). PhD in Apologetics at Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia; ThM in New Testament at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary.

2 Responses to God’s Word in Human Hands, Part 1: How Epistemological Failure Leads to Accommodation of Critical Biblical Scholarship

  1. Richard L. Lindberg says:

    I share your concern about Sparks’ work, though I only know of it second-hand. Of the titles you list in footnote 5, I have read all 3. The first 2 titles share a similar focus and approach which is not shared by Dick Gaffin’s work. His work upholds the integrity of Scripture.

  2. Pingback: God’s Word in Human Hands Series by MARK FARNHAM « The Domain for Truth

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