Chapter 1 of Kent Spark’s book God’s Word in Human Words (GWHW) continues the exploration of the influence of culture on human understanding of scripture with a discussion of the postmodern era. While it is not correct to say that our current culture is postmodern it does appear to be correct to say that we are in a time of transition from enlightenment modernity into “something else” and postmodern is as good a word as any.The transition began in the late 1800’s and continues today.
Sparks describes two types of postmodern thought developing from the weakness of the modern optimism that certainty and rational objective knowledge were obtainable goals. The first, antirealism, gets most of the bad press, and is not really worth serious consideration – but the second, practical realism, makes much more sense of the world we see and experience and, for the present purposes, of the Biblical text we have received.
According to Sparks practical realism recognizes that even the best instances of human knowledge are good and adequate but also finite and imperfect. As we look at the text of scripture it seems apparent that this is true of the text we have. The human authors of scripture were subject to the same limitations as everyone else, including the original audience of the texts and every generation since. God in scripture uses adequate means and adequate texts to convey his message to adequate readers capable of adequate wisdom.
In fact, I suggest that this is all that 2 Tim 3:14-17 teaches – scripture is God given, God breathed (θεόπνευστος), and adequate for his purpose; wisdom that leads to salvation and training for righteousness.
Is it reasonable to suggest that God used and uses adequate rather than perfect means to convey his message in scripture?
Practical realism is a Third Way approach – but it is not gray or lukewarm, resulting from a mix of black and white or hot and cold. Rather it is a new path of epistemic humility and optimism. Perhaps here it is best to simply quote Sparks – but the whole chapter is well worth reading.
For practical realists, tradition does not blind us to truth. It is instead the imperfect but useful way that humans grasp, discover, and perpetuate truth. (p. 42)
It is not terribly difficult to see where this line of thought leads us. If practical realism has it right that tradition is the path of understanding but also a road sign that partly misleads, then the epistemic result will be neither pure fancy nor belief emancipated from human error. Human beings enjoy a modest and adequate capacity to understand and successfully live in the world. But we understand things always partially and always in some respects wrongly. (p. 42)
Implicit in this practical realist account of epistemology is an account of human language and textual meaning. If human thoughts and ideas do not perfectly mirror reality, still less this will be true of our words. Words are not bearers of full meaning so much as the specific clues by which we infer meanings when we read or hear verbal discourse. … That is, according to practical realists, we are able to understand verbal discourse very truly – but always partially and to some extent even wrongly. (p. 43)
According to this view human communication is at best adequate. And scripture is ultimately human communication because the audience is human and language is human. Even if we had a perfect “inerrant” text of scripture in the modernist or fundamentalist sense, human comprehension and inference from the text is at best adequate. But the human authors of scripture are subject to the same limitations as everyone else, including the human audience. There is no reason based on the evidence we have – the text of scripture itself – to think that God protected scripture from the humanity of the human authors. God in scripture uses adequate means and adequate texts to convey his message to adequate readers capable of adequate wisdom.
I would have objected to being classified as “postmodern” before reading this chapter, largely because of the perception that postmodernism = antirealism. But Sparks’s description of practical realism is a good description of the way I think about scripture among other things.
So what does this mean?
There are two common ways of looking for authority and certainty in the Christian faith.
In one view authority is vested in the institutional church and our faith is founded on the inerrancy of church tradition and church hierarchy. This is the rock upon which we stand. The search for authority drives many converts from evangelicalism to Roman Catholicism (See Scot’s book Finding Faith, Losing Faith: Stories of Conversion and Apostasy). But when the church fails – and it often has and still does – this undermines the foundation of faith.
In another view – the reformation view – authority is vested in scripture and our faith is founded on scripture. Scripture is the rock upon which we stand. In the context of modernist thought this foundation is only secure if scripture is inerrant. If any piece of scripture is questioned and found wanting – all is open to question and we start down the slippery slope … Our belief in the historicity of the resurrection depends on the historicity of Noah or Exodus. No distinction is possible.
This is something of a caricature I admit, but the image I am left with is a house of cards faith. We have a construct built by taking the pages of scripture and assembling an understanding of the faith and church. If any page, any card, is removed the whole structure is shaky and may collapse, some would say will collapse. The foundation of faith is Scripture – but more than this, the foundation of faith is every jot and tittle of scripture.
But aren’t we better served by a third view – our faith is founded on God alone. The rock on which we stand is God alone – and his work in this world, including the atoning work of Christ. Scripture illuminates God, his nature and his interaction with his creation.
In this view our questions about scripture do not shake the foundation. The idea that the story of Gen 3 tells important theological truths in mythic form; the suggestion that the story of the exodus from Egypt may (likely does) have elements that are not exactly historical in the modern sense of literal – factual reporting, even the redaction of Matthew and the authorship of 2 Timothy … these are ideas, questions, suggestions that we can consider and discuss without fear, but with reverence.
In this view we require that scripture is reliable (the lamp must give off light) – but we do not require that scripture be inerrant in the common evangelical use of the term (it is not the foundation of knowledge). A reliable scripture is consistent with the evidence and not demolished by modern biblical scholarship. And we can use modern biblical scholarship to help us better understand the text and the message. Mark Roberts’ book Can We Trust the Gospels? is an excellent readable discussion of one aspect of scripture along these lines. The Gospels are reliable. God in scripture uses adequate means, adequate witnesses, and adequate texts to convey his message to adequate readers capable of adequate wisdom.
And to go back to the notion of authority vested in the Church. The church is on the rock, but it is not the rock on which we stand. In this view the Church, the traditions, are not foundational, but paths blazed before us on the rock. We do well to take with utmost attention the wrestlings and opinions of those who have gone before us and those who stand alongside us, but we also do well to consider when and where the Church as institution has and does go astray.
Ok – this is my thinking at this point. Now I open it for discussion and refinement.
Is practical realism – and the consequent view of scripture as both reliable and adequate a workable approach? Why or why not.
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