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.

About Mark Farnham
Associate Professor and Coordinator of Pastoral and Pre-Seminary Majors 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 5: How Epistemology Affects Ontology and Why It Matters

  1. Good stuff!

  2. Trey Medley says:

    I’d have to disagree on a few points. While I don’t necessarily agree with the direction that Kenton Sparks takes Practical Realism, there is nothing inherently wrong with Practical Realism as a criteria, provided we do not exclude the possibility of divine historical action (such as preservation of His Word) from our understanding of Practical Realism. Practical Realism is more a statement about our ability to attain knowledge of the world than a statement about the veracity of that knowledge. In the same way, foundationalism is not inherently antithetical to a high view of scripture (or scritpural inerrancy). In fact, I’m surprised at the remarkable resistance to these ideas. If we assume that the intent of the biblical authors (including God) was to make self-referential truth claims (i.e. the bible is inerrant because it says it is, so we assume a priori that it is, finding verification within it for these claims), then where does that leave us with respect to other major religious texts, particularly those which also make claims to inerrancy such as the Book of Mormon (among some) or the Koran (which arguably makes a stronger claim to inerrancy since the argument is that they have a near or exact representation of what would be their “original” or autographa).

    In these instances, it seems that having an external objective criteria should be welcomed. If we assume that the primary type of material contained within the bible is historical, then it can be verifiable through historical methodology. Clearly modern historical method is biased against the idea of supernatural interaction, but there is nothing inherent about this bias that makes it critical to historical theory and so, rather than outright assume or deny it, we may suspend our determination on supernatural intervention in history. If then, we find that the non-supernatural events can be verified historically, which should be the case if the bible is true, then we might be able to examine the non-supernatural elements regarding some of the most miraculous events (chief among these being the Resurrection). If the non-supernatural elements can be verified, then we have no reason to doubt the supernatural intervention, especially if this offers the best explanation viewing it from a neutral standpoint. We should be flocking to history to demonstrate the objective truth of the Scripture.

    Does subjecting the veracity of the biblical witness to an external source undermine its authority? By no means. To do so is to confuse both the foundationalist and realist epistemologies with the anti-realist or idealist position. Rather, both the foundationalist and the realist assume that there is an objective truth about the text (i.e. it is objectively either inerrant or not) independent of the investigation. Further to assume that this objective nature is found in the text itself elevates the text too high. It may be the ultimate source of authority in human language upon the earth, but its validity as that source of authority is not found in itself, but rather in the fact that it accurately describes what God, in fact did. Thus the authority is not in the text, which runs much closer to Barthian/Bultmannian ahistoricity, but in the historic actions of God. God’s acts within human history, and the fact that these actions genuinely occurred historically (including, possibly, the preservation of the truth of the report concerning these acts) is the source of the authority, not the report itself. If a King issues a proclamation, it is authoritative not because of the proclamation, but because of who issued and sent it out. While it may remain true that much of this is not verifiable by historical methodology, it does not stand that *none* of it is so verifiable. It also seems that if enough of it is both verifiable and shown to be more likely true than not, that the text as a whole may be taken as true in its depiction and thus, likely, its interpretation. While this may be mere likelihood than absolute verification, it requires no less of a logical leap to move from this lesser verification to assuming the truth of it as a whole, than it does to move from nothing to assuming truth in itself.

    In the end my argument is thus: While I disagree with Sparks application of practical realism, there is nothing inherently faulty about either realism or foundationalism that precludes them being used as an epistemological framework to arrive at the justification for belief. Otherwise, we are just being arbitrary and have no good reason to accept our beliefs over those of the Koran, and that is not a step I am willing to take. Instead, I argue that there is an objective truth about the veracity of the biblical witness and aspects of it may be attained by human investigation, but this investigation is not the source of its truth, merely the verification of an external authority (in this case the actual historical events). The fact that some of it is beyond the purview of objective human analysis does not diminish the fact that it is, nevertheless, objectively true or false external to its own claims.

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

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