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.

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 3: The Epistemological Basis of Kenton Sparks’ Proposal

  1. Bob Metze says:

    I’m enjoying this series, Mark. Thanks for dealing with these subjects and for the summary of a subject that I’m certain you could go far deeper on.

  2. Richard L. Lindberg says:

    As Paul says in Romans 1, our knowledge of God from creation is adequate to know God. However, men have sinned and turned away from God even though they knew him. The Second London Baptist Confession (and the Westminster Confession of Faith) confess that the light of nature is sufficient to give knowledge of God, yet not so adequate as to give knowledge of salvation. Van Til reminds us that our knowledge of God is analogical. We know truly, but not exhaustively. Thus, we need Scripture to give us more complete knowledge of God that does lead to salvation.

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

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