Enns, Sparks, Arnold, and Chapman on the OT: Part 3

Sparks ds2Kent Sparks’s book God’s Word in Human Words (GWHW) was the subject of a session organized by Peter Enns at the Society of Biblical Literature meeting last November. Dr. Enns has made some of this session available to a broader audience on his blog, starting with his review of GWHW, and continuing with his response and Bill Arnold’s response. We also discussed these posts here in parts one and two of this series.

Late last week Stephen Chapman’s response to GWHW was posted on Enns’s blog. This is excellent timing. Chapman provides an insightful review that brings up several questions that confront me in reading GWHW. And relevant to our last post on GWHW, Chapman’s review touches on the issue of accommodation in the interpretation of scripture. You can read Chapman’s review for yourself. Here I will highlight just a few of his points and open it up for discussion.

Chapman brings up three important points I think particularly worthy of discussion.

First: Sparks proposes that God accommodates to human error – human fallenness. This is a more radical proposal than standard views of accommodation where God accommodates to human capacity for understanding.

The accommodation of ancient near east cosmology in Gen 1 is an accommodation to human capacity and finite human understanding. This is a relatively straightforward example and it seems obvious that God did accommodate himself to human perspective in Gen 1 and many other places. There is no sin involved – any error is simply related to human finitude.

On the other hand Sparks suggests that in the conquest accounts God has accommodated to Israel’s errant understanding of ethnic identity and genocide. In the context of New Testament teaching violent protection of ethnic identity is sin. We would now hold the same for slavery.

Is accommodation theory really able to handle moral error in scripture and is Sparks asking it to?

Second: According to Chapman…

Sparks never gives sustained attention to the issue of inspiration, which is traditionally how evangelical theology has attempted to do justice to the double agency at the heart of Scripture’s composition. One might therefore think that Sparks simply gives no credence to any view of inspiration at all, that the human authors of Scripture had done the best they could in their fallen state to imagine the ways of God, and that God had had to make the best of it afterwards.

Does Sparks’s view of accommodation really do justice to the inspiration of scripture? How should we view inspiration?

Third: Sparks seems to have overcompensated for evangelical disdain of historical and biblical criticism by placing too much confidence in the results of biblical criticism. This was also my (untrained) impression as I read GWHW. Chapman goes on:

As someone who was trained largely within the historical-critical paradigm but has increasingly registered the limitations, blind spots and delusions integral to the methodology, I find myself hoping that it will not now be necessary for evangelicals to make all the same mistakes that historical-critical biblical scholars have made already!

I venture to suggest that evangelical biblical scholarship will need … to respond more openly to the full challenge of historical-critical biblical scholarship (just as Sparks urges) but also (more than Sparks advocates) to remain watchful for the limitations of historicism, engaging in historical study that can be brought into productive relationship with the life of the church. I do not actually think that Sparks would disagree with this point, I just think he has not emphasized it as much as it needs to be emphasized. Here again the rhetoric of his argument pushes him too far to one side of what is always, to be sure, a tricky balancing-act.

How do we take the balanced approach – accepting the clear evidence of biblical scholarship yet retaining a robust view of scripture as the Word of God?

Don’t get me wrong – I think that Sparks’s view of accommodation is important and one we would do well to consider seriously. It is undoubtedly a significant part of the answer to the problems we see in scripture. The tendency by some Evangelical scholars to disavow accommodation is, I think, indefensible. But I don’t think that accommodation can carry the whole load.

What do you think?

If you wish to contact me directly you may do so at rjs4mail [at] att.net.

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