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.

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.

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

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

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