The Bible and Knowledge 4

Sparks ds2We have been working through Kent Sparks’s book God’s Word in Human Words (GWHW). A couple of posts ago (here) I suggested a way of looking at scripture as light rather than foundation; a change in perspective that I think takes some of the stress out of the discussion of the nature of scripture. Our foundation is God alone. But this is only a beginning. We still need to wrestle with the nature of God’s revelation in Scripture.

In Chs. 4 and 5 Sparks discusses traditional evangelical responses and constructive responses to the problems introduced by biblical criticism. These are interesting chapters. I recommend that you read them, but we won’t discuss them explicitly. Here we will focus on Chs. 6 and 7 – constructive approaches to understanding the nature of God’s discourse in Scripture, as we have it before us, as the inspired Word of God.

Sparks starts Ch. 6:

God can and does speak to us in diverse and sometimes surprising ways, including through our reading of books. But the Bible is profoundly unique among books because it is, in its essence, both divine and human discourse. It is the voice of God, but also of Paul, of the evangelists, of the Israelite prophets and sages, and of countless others through whom God has given us Scripture. (p. 205)

But why if scripture is divine discourse is there diversity and apparent human error in the text?

Sparks takes the position that we have both human and divine elements to scripture because God accommodates his communication with us to modes of human discourse and understanding. God condescends to our level to build a relationship with us – his creation made in his image. Perhaps he could have done it differently – but the very text we have before us provides evidence that he did not.

There are two aspects to the human nature of discourse in scripture.

Genre: The first part of this is relatively uncontroversial. The genres of human discourse can bear much of the load as we seek to understand the nature of communication in scripture. For example, research into genre suggests that the Pentateuch not a fictional history, rather it is an anthology compiled from existing sources, themselves composed in common genres of the time and place, to preserve Israel’s diverse traditions. This is the story of God’s interaction with his people. Different versions of the same story are common within the Pentatuech – but no more troubling than the different versions we have in Samuel, Kings, Chronicles or than the different versions we have in the Gospels.

Accommodation: But God’s accommodation to human communication goes beyond consideration of genre. He used human authors and thus the accommodation extends to include the limited perspective and human fallenness of both the authors and the audience.

Accommodation is God’s adoption in inscripturation of the audience’s finite and fallen perspective. Its underlying assumption is that in many cases God does not correct our mistaken human viewpoints but merely assumes them in order to communicate with us. (p.231)

The concept of God’s accommodation to human limitations has deep roots in the church. Sparks traces the idea in the writings of Justin Martyr, Irenaeus, Origen, Athanasius, the Cappadocian fathers (Gregory of Nyssa, Basil the Great, and Gregory of Nazianzus), John Chrysostom, Augustine, and John Calvin.

But there are, as Sparks points out, subtle differences between the ancient or traditional and modern views of accommodation. Calvin believed that God revealed creation to Moses – and Moses colluded in accommodating that revelation to the minds of his audience. In his commentary on Gen 1:16 Calvin writes as if Moses knew that the planets are larger than the moon when he (Calvin) commends the study of astronomy and its impact on our understanding of scripture:

Nor did Moses truly wish to withdraw us from this pursuit in omitting such things as are peculiar to the art; but because he was ordained a teacher as well of the unlearned and rude as of the learned, he could not otherwise fulfill his office than by descending to this grosser method of instruction. … If the astronomer inquires respecting the actual dimensions of the stars, he will find the moon to be less than Saturn; but this is something abstruse, for to the sight it appears differently. Moses, therefore, rather adapts his discourse to common usage. (Commentary on Genesis Vol. 1)

The modern view of accommodation is more far-reaching. The mind of God is not equated with the mind of the human author. The human authors of scripture are finite and located in time and space. The are inspired, sometimes directly (in prophetic and didactic writing for example) and sometimes indirectly (in the histories and the poetry for example). But the limits that necessitate accommodation for the audience apply also to the author.

God has accommodated his discourse to us, not by instructing the human author to express things simply, but by adopting the simple viewpoints of that author, whose perspectives, personality, vocabulary, and literary competence were well suited to the ancient audience of Scripture. (p. 245)

Sparks points out that this idea, while not common in the early fathers is not absent either. He quotes Augustine in his discussion of the John 1:1

I venture to say, my brethren, perhaps not John himself spoke of the matter as it is, but even he only as he was able; for it was man that spoke of God, inspired indeed by God, but still man. Because he was inspired he said something; if he had not been inspired, he would have said nothing; but because a man inspired, he spoke not the whole, but what a man could he spoke. (Tractate I, in Vol. 7 NPNF1 (Sparks’s quote is worded slightly differently – I took mine from the pdf copy of NPNF1))

For Sparks accommodation is an obvious and necessary part of scripture. It is obvious in the nature of the text we have. It is necessary as the only way for God to convey at least part of His infinite perception to limited human minds. And it is necessary because God’s message in scripture is mediated through human authors, fallen and finite.

What do you think? Is it reasonable to assume that God used the finite and fallen perspective of human authors to convey his message in scripture?

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