A couple of months ago Peter Enns posted on his blog part one of a review and discussion of Kenton Sparks’ recent book God’s Word in Human Words (GWHW). Although in writing part one Enns expressed hoped that part two would soon follow, that hope proved vain. Two months of anticipation followed. Yesterday however the long awaited post appeared – so today I would like to renew discussion of Sparks book.
God’s Word in Human Words is a rather blunt no holds barred discussion of the problems of evangelical biblical scholarship and the need to embrace what is good and true in critical biblical scholarship without fear (no this is not everything – but it is a large fraction). I read this book within a few days last summer. It is well written and held my interest the whole way.
Kenton Sparks starts with a discussion of epistemology and hermeneutics and then puts before the reader a good selection of the issues and questions raised by both historical and biblical criticism. I found these chapters fascinating, but it is not my area of expertise, so I am interested to see how scholars, evangelical or otherwise, might respond to his points.
The remainder of the book describes the problem with traditional evangelical responses to Biblical criticism and lays forth a proposal for a constructive use of scholarship in the context of faith. Sparks uses the issue of women in ministry to help flesh out some of the details of his approach (Ch. 10 pp. 339-356). One of the keys to the approach advocated by Sparks is “accommodation.” Read the book – it is a good read, and I expect that we will come back to many of the issues that he raises in future posts. You can also find audio of a series of lectures given by Sparks at Taylor University in Canada in 2007 here (scroll down the page to find all four lectures).
The key question of Sparks book is a good one for us to ponder.
What use should evangelical scholars make of critical biblical scholarship – and how should it filter down to the church?
So what is the scholarly response to Sparks’ book (or at least a small piece of it)?
In his second post on GWHW Enns describes some of the responses to the book at a panel discussion at the Society of Biblical Literature meeting last November. The panel consisted of Old Testament scholars Peter Enns, Bill Arnold, and Stephen Chapman – with Gary Anderson moderating. (nb. I wish there was an audio of the session). The session was well attended – Enns says remarkably well attended (300 people perhaps?) – which says much for the interest and timeliness of the topic. Enns paraphrases Chapman as saying that “this book had an “it’s about time” quality to it.”
Speaking of the overall positive tenor of the session, Enns continues on: “I agree with this assessment. In my view, evangelical theology has not engaged and adapted to modern biblical scholarship.” It is time for modern scholarship to be taken seriously in the evagelical church. According to Enns it is not that evangelical scholars fail to appreciate or understand the scholarship. Rather it is “either not taken to its theological conclusions in evangelical theology or is functionally ignored (i.e., the implications of evangelical biblical scholarship are not incorporated into how evangelicals are taught to think of Scripture)“
Now some more general comments from Enns and from Arnold. (You can read all of their comments here.)
Peter Enns expresses general agreement with Sparks, although he doesn’t claim to agree with all of Sparks’s conclusions. However his discussion does not focus on the scholarship – rather it is focused on the culture of evangelicalism.
Enns claims that the strong reaction to GWHW (and to his own Inspiration and Incarnation) arises from a perceived attack on the “social identity” of evangelicalism. And Sparks not only criticizes the conclusions of much evangelical biblical scholarship, he also criticizes the method, rather bluntly, and the culture that supports that method. “So, when Sparks says that evangelical positions have been misguided and need to be corrected, he is making far more than an academic claim to truth–he is criticizing an identity, and so reactions are (understandably) visceral.” This is an interesting observation in light of Scot’s post on Language Levels in Theological Debate yesterday evening.
How much of what we claim as foundational in our theology is in fact merely a boundary defining our social identity? A question well worth pondering.
We don’t need a commitment to methods of scholarship that are indefensible in the marketplace of ideas. We certainly don’t need a commitment to cultural boundaries that create crises of faith in students when they are exposed to the scholarship of the greater world. Ironically it is the nature of evangelical scholarship itself that challenges many and ultimately convinces many of the validity of much critical scholarship. Kent Sparks relates such a personal story in the preface of his book.
Enns concludes by suggesting that “What is needed is a true hermeneutical self-consciousness, one that aims a synthesis of theological commitment and higher-criticism. Such a synthesis is to be found neither in fundamentalism nor liberalism. It should, Sparks argues, be found in evangelicalism.”
Bill Arnold’s reflection on GWHW concentrates on another range of ideas including Sparks’ commitment to and reaffirmation of inerrancy. He claims that the need to hold to some form of inerrancy while also embracing critical scholarship drives too much of the book. This is a commitment Arnold attributes to the more reformed wing of evangelicalism – a tendency much less important in his own Weslyan-Arminian culture. He says that “A few scholars on our side of the interstice continue to hold to some form of inerrancy, but like Professor Sparks, they tend to ‘define is out of existence,’ so that it becomes an unfortunate (and often untenable) position to hold.” He goes on to suggest that Professor Spark’s “task is made more complicated by his tenacious commitment to inerrancy, regardless of how carefully he defines and nuances the concept.“
I found Bill Arnold’s reflection here interesting. I have his Genesis commentary before me and I have found it very readable and quite informative. But I must admit, I don’t know quite what Arnold means by inerrancy or letting go of the idea of inerrancy. It would be interesting to hear a more complete description of his approach to scripture. When I read Arnold’s commentary I am confronted by what seems to be an approach not significantly different from most commentaries dependent on the literal or plain sense of the text. I was hoping for more insight into how we can reconcile what we know about the world, both science and ANE studies, with the nature of the text and its theological importance. But it seems to me that he has the same reluctance to deal with the historicity of the narrative in Gen 1-3 that characterizes much of evangelicalism – he just doesn’t use the same word to describe his approach.
So at this point I leave us with three key questions to consider based on the work of all three of these excellent OT scholars.
How much of what we claim as foundational in our theology is in fact merely a boundary defining our social identity?
Is inerrancy a useful term or is it merely a boundary defining social and theological identity?
How does this impact our approach to critical biblical scholarship and to the text, for example, of Gen 1-3? How should critical scholarship influence our reading of the text?
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