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.

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.

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

  1. Gordon Lovik says:

    Old Liberalism in a new suit bought at a second hand store with the same holes.

  2. L. Mark Bruffey says:

    Copernicus has helped us to understand neither the source nor the signification of the things that do appear.

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

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