Enns, Sparks, Arnold, and Chapman on the OT

BiblesWe started a conversation on Tuesday that touched on the subject of the nature of inspiration and the nature of scripture as the inspired word of God. Many have serious questions about the intent and interpretation of the Old Testament and how the New Testament uses the Old Testament. Some of these questions arise from science, but the problem of the Old Testament is not solely a conflict between science and faith. There are serious issues and questions that arise from the text itself, from archaeology, from Ancient Near Eastern (ANE) studies, and from Biblical studies. The topic is often bracketed away and avoided because many find it threatening and controversial. Yet these issues come up again and again as educated Christians wrestle with faith. I would like to take a detour here and consider once again the issue of OT interpretation. This continues a conversation we began in a post last November (A Conspiracy of Silence?) and revisited to some extent in more recent posts on Arnold’s commentary on Genesis and in the post on Paul and Adam.

For many of us the issue is not the inspiration and authority of the Old Testament – but the nature of inspiration and the form of the Old Testament text we have inherited. We come not with doubts, but searching for answers, asking for wisdom before God. The traditional protestant approach that values literalism above all else appears as problematic as the emphasis on allegory among the early church fathers appeared to the reformers. Textual criticism, archaeology, history, science, – all of these subjects have made it difficult to read or study the Old Testament with exactly the same eyes and assumptions as our fathers and mothers in the faith. Truth doesn’t change, but human understanding does. This shouldn’t surprise us. The biblical narrative is not stasis – it is a story of God’s work in creation, and this work is ongoing.

What does it mean to accept the Bible as the inspired, authoritative word of God?

Two recent books wrestle with the challenge we face understanding the OT as the inspired word of God in the face of biblical scholarship (text criticism, form criticism, source criticism) and extensive study of the ancient near east (culture, archaeology, religion, history). Peter Enns published his somewhat controversial book Inspiration and Incarnation: Evangelicals and the Problem of the Old Testament in 2005. In this book Enns proposes a model for understanding the nature of scripture based on an analogy with the incarnation, an intriguing approach. In 2008 Kenton Sparks published God’s Word in Human Words: An Evangelical Appropriation of Critical Biblical Scholarship – a book I found interesting but somewhat more troubling than Enn’s book, and likely to be even more controversial.

Peter Enns has posted a review of God’s Word in Human Words on his site. This review summarizes the key points of the book in the initial post and promises interaction with his own response and the responses of Bill Arnold and Stephen Chapman from the SBL meeting last year in a second installment. I think that it would be worthwhile to discuss this book and the possible approaches to the Old Testament as the inspired Word of God.

Enns summarizes the key points of Sparks book as follows (with some of my own interpolations – you can find Enns’s original much longer summary from the link above):

(1) The Bible is God’s word expressed in fully human words, and so is, by God’s own design, subject to the types of analyses offered by modern biblical criticism.

(2) Modern biblical criticism has truly hit on many irrefutable re-articulations of Scripture that most certainly affect how we as evangelicals should think and talk about Scripture. A majority of evangelical OT scholars accept much of this, although without the necessary deliberate forethought and justification.

(3) God accommodates his word to fallible human modes of expression and thinking. Sparks uses a model of “accommodation” similar to Calvin’s approach to think about God’s word in scripture. This is an alternative to the incarnational model proposed by Enns. But both are suggested as methods for intentional evangelical engagement with the text we have before us.

(4) One cannot appeal to evangelical theology to decide the proper role of critical scholarship. We have to let God’s word be God’s word. Theology does not tell us how to read the Bible – the Bible gives us our theology. We study the Bible – and this includes the development of the text, the history and cultures in which it was written – to form our theology. “Critical Anti-Criticism” will kill us. Our evangelical doctrine of Scripture as we move into the 21st century cannot be developed in the absence of true engagement with our evolving knowledge of God’s creation and the nature of the text he has given us.

(5) By failing to offer viable and persuasive alternate paradigms, evangelicalism is an unwitting accomplice in the destruction of faith in many of our own, especially our youth. We cannot continue to stick our (collective) head in the sand and inadequately address the very real challenges of biblical criticism, and I would add to this the very real challenges of our scientific understanding of God’s creation. We need an approach to scripture that we can stand on as we look to follow God.

What do you think? Is it reasonable to propose that God has given us his word in human form, subject to the analysis of scholarly biblical criticism? Are the models suggested by Enns or Sparks reasonable approaches to describe the nature, inspiration, and authority of the Old Testament?

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