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Sunday, November 18, 2012

A New Faith Paradigm -- Part IV

Fourth in a series inspired by Kenton L. Sparks’ Sacred Word, Broken Word: Biblical Authority & the Dark Side of Scripture
First post here.
After telling us, more or less, where he intends to go, Sparks encourages us to realize that it is not actually such a radical position to suggest or say or admit that the Scriptures are “broken,” or are in error at different points.
Oh, yes, it is radical in extremely conservative or fundamentalist circles in the United States to say such things. But if you look historically even at various bastions of the faith to whom conservatives and fundamentalists turn for confirmation that they are walking in the truth: if we are coming from such a hyper-conservative or fundamentalist perspective, we will find some truly remarkable statements.
Sparks refers to statements like Luther's judgment concerning the Book of James as an "epistle of straw." If you are at all familiar with Protestant history, that particular judgment on Luther’s part should be an old one. Sparks references, too, however, something I didn't happen to find out about until a few years ago as I was reading up on old- v. young-earth creationist arguments. John Calvin plainly states that the cosmology (view of the created order) presented in the first chapters of Genesis is not according to reality, but is “accommodated,” as it were, to the limitations of understanding of the human beings who were to receive God’s word back when it was written. (Sparks doesn't quote passages from Calvin, but you can find them easily enough. Here, for example, is a whole list of references.) One minor example from the Institutes of the Christian Religion, 1.13.1: “God, in so speaking, lisps with us as nurses are wont to do with little children.”
But Sparks references other church leaders or church fathers whose names I know but whose statements I was not familiar with: Gregory the Great, John Wesley, Gregory of Nazianzus, Justin in his Dialogue with Trypho . . .
I don't want to get into the specific things Sparks quotes from these men. I found the quotes fascinating. And, strangely, reassuring.
But "[i]f these 'giants' of church history were willing to admit that errant and even sinful viewpoints were included in Scripture," Sparks asks (and he notes that Justin in fact openly refers to Ezekiel 20:25 to affirm that God gave the Jews “laws that were not good”; can we say “sinful,” maybe even “evil”?), 
how did they avoid the conclusion that God had erred in Scripture? In every case, they argued that the errors were not God's errors but rather his wise "accommodations" or "condescensions" to the spiritual and/or intellectual limitations of human beings. . . . Paradoxically, these Christian scholars were able to admit the human error in Scripture and, at the same time, to affirm that God does not err in Scripture. In their theological hands, biblical error became God's wise accommodation to the intellectual and spiritual limitations of the human audience. [Emphasis mine—JAH] (pp. 52-53)
Except, Sparks suggests, such a “solution” is a little too clever by half.
First, as understood by these earlier Christians, the human authors of Scripture were colluding partners in the act of accommodation. [Again, my emphasis—JAH] In Calvin's account, for instance, we find that not only God, but also Moses, knew but kept secret the proper scientific cosmology. So God and Moses accommodated their discourse to the confused Israelites. In contrast to this view, I would argue that accommodation did not occur between Scripture's human author and audience but rather between God and the human author himself. God adopted the author of Genesis as his author and, in doing so, adopted that human author's ancient view of the cosmos; God knew the right cosmology, but neither "Moses" nor the Israelites did.
My second amendment regarding accommodation would be its extent. Earlier Christians appealed to accommodation only at certain points. . . . I would argue instead that all Scripture is accommodated discourse for the very reason that, on every page of Scripture, God has adopted the words and viewpoints of finite, fallen human authors as the words and viewpoints of his holy book. (pp. 53-54)
And one final point.
Sparks actually wants to avoid the word accommodation altogether and replace it with the phrase providential adoption. Why? Because if we suggest God "accommodated" his speech to our human level, we come mighty close to suggesting that God took an “active role in communicating errant human viewpoints."
I suspect that a more nuanced account should honor the human will by making this more passive. That is, . . . God allowed his human authors the freedom to be precisely who they were when they wrote Scripture. (p. 54)
Thus, says Sparks, when we read passages like Deuteronomy 20:16-18 where the Israelites are commanded by God to annihilate the Hittites, the Amorites, the Canaanites, the Perizzites, the Hivites and the Jebusites without mercy, in fact what we ought to understand is that God—the God we read about in Matthew 5:43-45, the God who commands us to love our enemies and pray for those who persecute us that we might be his children; this God has canonically adopted the authors of these passages as his speakers and, “in doing so, he has permitted these authors—fallen as they were—to write the sorts of things that ancient, fallen people would write about their enemies.” (p. 54)
Put another way (my summary, here!), when God’s word (the Bible) tells us that God said something to Moses . . . which Moses then passed on to the people of Israel and attributed to God: we are supposed to “understand” that God never said what Moses attributes to Him.
[And yet, somehow, this (what else can we call it but) lie—this untrue testimony about what God supposedly said, this perjury . . . —We are supposed to understand that this is, somehow, really and truly “God’s word”?!?
Once more, I find my breath being taken away. And I need to give you—and me—a few moments to get our breath back.
But once it is back, . . . I would like to encourage you to plow forward with me just a few more sentences.]
Sparks continues:
It is one of the great mysteries of faith that God's redemptive activity is carried out successfully and beautifully through the agency of fallen men and women. . . .
I would add that a good theology of adoption depends to some extent on the venerable doctrine of providence, a belief that God is active in ordering creaturely realities to their proper ends. . . . As this applies to our theology of Scripture, [this means] that God, in adopting human texts as his own, was involved both in the production of the texts and in their canonical adoption as sacred Scripture. Precisely how God did this . . . is not something we can explicate. But . . . [i]n my opinion, it is a better explication of the “dark side” of Scripture than an approach that seeks to harmonize Gospel love and genocide as theologically compatible ideas. There is no such thing as Martin Luther’s “severe mercy,” which combined the violence of Deuteronomy and love of Jesus to justify the persecution of Jews “for their own good.” (pp. 54-55) 
Sparks doesn't go on at this point to develop his theme of God’s use of fallen men and women to carry out His redemptive activity, but I want to make the point here that I believe Sparks makes quite clear almost 40 pages later.
As I continued to read Sparks, what I heard him saying was that, in the same way that we can learn from (and many of us do learn from)—or, put another way, in the same way that God can use (and, many times He does use)—elder brothers and sisters in the faith, pastors, teachers, martyrs, missionaries and kingdom heroes, and even parents who claim no faith at all—so, too, we can learn from and God can use (but, no, in fact, God has especially chosen to use) this collection of ancient writings called the Bible to teach us today: even if and even as it is broken.
Sparks says we ought not to do what so many of us evangelicals have done through the years: "[set t]he human authors of Scripture . . . to one side (more or less) so the greater emphasis can be laid on hearing the words of the Bible's divine author” (p. 90). Rather, we should recognize that "[t]he Bible is a collection of texts written using ancient literary models by authors steeped in the pragmatic concerns of everyday life in an ancient world. [And w]e should read it as such” (p. 92). "[A] healthy approach to Scripture takes seriously the significant historical and cultural gap that separates the original discourse from its later readers" (p. 91).
In essence, then: YES. These ancient authors made mistakes. They spoke sinfully. They spoke wickedly. Maybe they claimed that God said things that God, in fact, didn't say! And these false, sinful, wicked statements are to be found in the pages of Scripture. And yet, in the same way God has used wicked, sinful, fallen pastors and teachers and church leaders of the modern world to lead Christians today into truth—into the Truth: so He can and has and will use wicked, sinful, fallen authors of ancient literature to lead His people into the Truth. Despite themselves. Despite their errors. Despite their lies. Despite their distortions or misspeaking or truly vile and wicked statements. God, in His good providence, has adopted these fallen, inadequate, broken writings—writings by fallen, inadequate, broken human beings—as His Scriptures. He has permitted His name to be placed upon them—even as He has permitted His name to be placed upon us. He has permitted these words to be identified as His words (and/or His “word”; though note—and this is a very important point that Sparks emphasizes heavily, and I intend to emphasize it appropriately when we get there!: these words, and/or this “word” is not the Word, “the Word made flesh” that dwelt among us!) . . . –Even as God has permitted us to be identified as His people, so He has permitted these words to be identified as His words, His word. And He has used these words (this “word”)—even as He has used us—and He will use them (even as we ought to expect Him to use us) for His good purposes.

Strange? Terrifying? Unbelievable? Yes. All of these things. At least for this conservative evangelical. What kind of authority can such a fallen, broken, messed-up literature hold? And how can one ever say the kinds of things Sparks says about a word that, we are told, was—at least in part—written by men who were "carried along by the Holy Spirit" (2 Peter 1:21)? And what about 2 Timothy 3:16 where we are told all Scripture is "God-breathed" and "profitable"?
Doesn't Sparks' proposed doctrine make a hash of these passages?
As I wrote last time, at this point in reading Sparks’ book, I was very much not ready to embrace Sparks' proposal(s).
But despite all the problems such a view might create for the theological systems I have been taught, I was still left with the conviction that I could not dismiss his proposal out of hand. It seemed to me it might yet turn out to be a potentially viable hypothesis. I needed to permit him to present whatever additional evidence he might be able to show me for why and how such a view might actually be workable.
But we have covered enough for one more post. And so I will stop here.

Saturday, November 17, 2012

A new faith paradigm -- Part III

Third in a series inspired by Kenton L. Sparks’ Sacred Word, Broken Word: Biblical Authority & the Dark Side of Scripture
First post here.

One of the recipients of my last post commented on Sparks' use of the word brokenness with respect to Scripture. To talk of problems? Okay. Difficulties? We can talk about that. Sparks uses the word diversity with respect to the way different human authors of Scripture speak concerning the same subject; their testimonies are diverse, they diverge, they do not all accord one with another very well—or very easily, anyway. Okay. We can handle those kinds of statements, too. But when Sparks begins to speak of brokenness, he is treading in some very deep waters and his terminology is quite troubling. On what grounds can a human being question God's word and claim that it is somehow “broken”?
Is Sparks simply trying to be provocative? Or wanting to point us to some kind of "failure" on God's part to preserve His word from minor (or—all right, in some cases—semi-kinda “major” (depending on how you want to characterize it)) verbal corruption over the centuries?
Chapter 5 makes it clear: No. Sparks is not simply trying to be provocative. And he is not speaking about corruption of the text. He is pursuing something deeper. Far deeper.
Chapter 5 is titled "The Brokenness of Scripture." And Sparks begins in this way:
When someone in Western culture wishes to emphasize how bad things have been or are in our world, one turns almost invariably to the era of the Second World War and the Shoah (or “Holocaust”) as an example. . . . The Shoah has become the quintessential symbol of our fallen world and of fallen, sinful humanity.
But is it not a very deep paradox that the Shoah, in which Nazis systematically exterminated the Jews because of their religion and ethnicity, is mirrored so vividly by the Deuteronomist ban in Jewish Scripture, according to which Israel exterminated the Canaanites because of their religion? . . .
I am reminded, here, of the famous study by the Israeli scholar Georges Tamarin. Tamarin surveyed two groups of Israeli children about the morality of genocidal conquest. To one group he told the story of Joshua's conquest of Jericho, and to the other he told the same story but substituted a Chinese general in Joshua's place. About 60% of the Israeli children approved of Joshua's conquest, but only 7% approved of the Chinese assault. One can read Tamarin’s discussion for the details. His main point is also mine: the Canaanite conquest would strike us as flagrant evil were it not a story from the Bible.
What we face, I think, is the ethical difficulty I mentioned earlier in passing: the problem of Scripture is the problem of evil. (pp. 45-46)
And now Sparks lays his cards—or, should I say, the “game plan” of his “argument”—on the table. He states where he plans to go before presenting his “argument” for it. And, once more, I will confess personal astonishment—shock, dismay—at reading what he writes. “No! No! You can't say that!” And yet he does:
Just as God's good and beautiful creation stands in need of redemption, so Scripture—as God's word written within and in relation to that creation, by finite and fallen humans—stands in need of redemption. (p. 46)
Are you kidding me!?! Can you believe he said that? Scripture needs redemption?!?
He goes on:
Scripture does more than witness explicitly to the fallenness of the created order and humanity. Scripture is implicitly, in itself, a product of and evidence for the fallen world that it describes. . . .
I would join other scholars in suggesting that a robust doctrine of Scripture should not presume that "the text is immune from criticism." Scripture was written by godly but fallen human authors who sometimes thought and wrote ungodly things. If this is right, then the church should not defend Scripture's uniqueness as the divine word by appealing to its perfection. Rather, a proper account of Scripture's goodness and divine origins will closely follow the traditional Christian response to the problem of evil . . . :
God's creation, which is good, nevertheless includes evil. But these flaws in creation should not be blamed on God but rather on humanity and its sinful, fallen state.
God's written Word, which is good, nevertheless includes evil. But these flaws in Scripture should not be blamed on God but rather on humanity and its sinful, fallen state. (pp. 46-47)
Sparks discusses the problem of evil from a relatively conventional, orthodox perspective. He refers, for example, to Genesis 50:20, where Joseph tells his brothers that though they intended evil by sending him off as a slave to Egypt, "God intended it for good to bring about this current result: to preserve many people alive." Similarly, he references Philippians 1:15-18, where the apostle Paul speaks of those who preach Christ—some from envy and rivalry, but others from good will. “But what does it matter? . . . Christ is proclaimed in every way, whether out of false motives or true; and in that I rejoice.”
I'm sure you can think of similar Scriptures. Sparks summarizes:
Acts of human sin, intended by ill will, are understood as standing within God's providential, redemptive activity. And in spite of this . . . we cannot trace the human evil back to God. Humanity is ultimately responsible for what ails the world.
And then:
I believe that the same conception of human and divine agency holds for Scripture.
Or, quoting Bonhoeffer:
We must read this book of books with all human methods. But through the fragile and broken Bible, God meets us in the voice of the Risen One. (Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Reflections on the Bible: Human Word and Word of God, tr. M. E. Boring (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 2004), 15.) (pp. 48-49)
No! No! No! Sparks! You are destroying the Bible as I have been taught to know it!
But he rolls on:
[W]e have the paradoxical circumstance in which God's creation and written word, though truly his, include horrible things that he neither created nor said. These terrors, whether of life experience or biblical "texts of terror," cannot be fully resolved by really smart human beings with well-honed hermeneutical tools. They will only be resolved by the eschaton—God’s redemptive activity to set his world aright through Christ. (p. 49)
At this point, in my heart of hearts, I was not ready to embrace Sparks' proposal(s), but I will admit that, despite all the problems such a view might create for the theological systems I have been taught, I felt incapable of dismissing his proposal out of hand. It seemed to me a potentially viable hypothesis. I needed to permit him to present whatever evidence he might be able to show me for why such a view might actually be workable.
I will stop here with this post. As a matter of fact, this was about where Sparks ended his Chapter 5.

Friday, November 9, 2012

A new faith paradigm -- Part II

Second in a series inspired by Kenton L. Sparks’ Sacred Word, Broken Word: Biblical Authority & the Dark Side of Scripture
First post here.
Okay. Another email I sent to my family just a few hours ago.


I have been struggling with how to continue this series on my “new paradigm.” I feel the need to continue because I sense I need to attempt to summarize or “wrap up” what I have been thinking. At the same time, I realize that I am highly reluctant to state things in such a way that I somehow give the impression I am “locked in” to my new position, unwilling to listen to additional input.

Still, I am also unwilling to let myself be so “squishy” that I come across as “riding the fence” or something. (Or, if I may refer to something InterVarsity’s His magazine, back in the ’60s, quoted from G.K. Chesterton (and, yes, I have remembered it from that time, though I looked it up just now to find the attribution and to ensure I had remembered it accurately!): “The object of opening the mind as of opening the mouth is to close it again on something solid.” Seeking diligently to be as open-minded as I have been, I do want to close on something solid!)

In what follows, you will find two lengthy side notes. If you want the gist of this message, I think you will do just fine to skip the side notes. But I thought they were relevant and possibly helpful to at least some of those who will read this message.

Side note: About why I couldn't let this issue go
Over the years I have had many people say, "What you are talking about (whatever issue in life is bothering me at the moment) is simply not a problem for me." Put another way: "I don't worry about these kinds of things."
I have heard that kind of comment a lot. And that is fine. I find no fault with such people. If they mean it to say, “Please don't bother me with your problems,” I am happy to oblige. (And if that is the case here, with my emails, then please tell me. I don't want to bother you.)
If they mean, “Look, it doesn't bother me and (therefore) it shouldn't bother you”: With that I do have a problem. I understand that some things may bother one person and not another. But just because something doesn't bother one person doesn't mean, therefore, that pursuit of solution to a problem is invalid.
Among the people to whom I am sending this series of emails, I don't expect anyone to be in the latter camp. I think you understand that something may not bother you but it could be of deep concern to another person. And I thank you for your indulgence.
Let me note, however, that this problem of inerrancy was not something for which I looked at all. I have felt it has been forced upon me.
I was never a “strong” inerrantist, in the sense of a leader in the movement or a strong advocate for such a position.
Rather, I was and have been someone who has “gone along with” the perspective because that is what I was taught . . . and because it made sense to me . . . because the Scriptural evidence presented and the “good and necessary consequences” deduced therefrom led me, indeed, to agree: the Bible must be inerrant.
And I went merrily along with that position for many years until I had my nose pressed against the grindstone by some rabid young earth creationists—especially Ken Ham of Answers in Genesis and people in the Christian homeschool movement who follow him/them.
As most of the recipients of this email are well aware, I was, until (now going on) five years ago, closely associated with Sonlight Curriculum. I helped write the curriculum. And so I was confronted by questions about that curriculum. Many of Ham’s disciples asked me (in the form of “us”):
“You claim to be Christian. You claim to believe the Bible. And you claim to teach history. So why does your history program not begin where the Bible begins? Why don't you start your discussion of human history with the creation in [more or less] 4,000 BC?”
“Why isn't the Bible fully integrated in your history and science programs?”
“Why do you present biblical history as, in some ways, separate from the flow of ‘secular’ history?”
And so on and so forth.
(I should probably note, in fairness to Sonlight Curriculum: I don't think any of us who wrote the curriculum sought, intentionally, to keep the Bible and science or history apart. It was “just” that, when studying human history, we have certain information about and fragments from the earliest civilizations in Mohenjo-Daro and early China, etc., and no one has any coordinating evidence of where those come in comparison to the earliest chapters of Genesis in the Bible. And, moreover, frankly and honestly, I was raised in the church, but no one in any of the churches with which I was familiar had ever taught me to think about or to attempt to do what Archbishop Ussher attempted back in the 1600s when he attempted to calculate the age of the earth and of all humanity based on the genealogical records in the Bible. . . . So the attempt, even, to make some kind of coordination between biblical records before about 1000 BC had never even come up. . . . But then the questions started coming, as I have indicated.)
Suffice it to say: I couldn't escape the question. I couldn't leave it alone. It was constantly being shoved in my face.
How could I say I believe the Bible or take the Bible seriously if I hold any doubts about the historicity and accuracy and, based on the genealogies in the Bible, the calculability of the dates of different events and people mentioned in the Bible?
Clearly, if you want to allow for any hominids or humanoids prior to about 6000 years ago—or if you are willing to allow other believers to allow for such beings—then you've got some real problems with understanding and/or believing Genesis 1 and 2 (not to mention the other data in the genealogical records of the Old Testament) as straightforward, complete, thorough history. And if you're going to question the straightforward historicity of Genesis 1 and 2 (let alone the genealogical data), then you are questioning the factuality and trustworthiness of Scripture in general. . . .
But I am on a sidetrack, here. We will eventually have to deal with Genesis 1 and 2. But at this time I want to speak about Sparks.
Before we get to (possibly too-quick) “solutions” to what Sparks calls the "brokenness" of Scripture, I think it would not hurt any of us to permit him to dig the hole deeper. (!!!)

I thought the hole was deep enough when I began reading his book, but, actually, I found it almost a comfort to realize that he was not willing to shy away from probably the most difficult problems for anyone who wants to hold to the inerrancy of Scripture idea.

I expect what Sparks wanted to do when he wrote chapter 4 in his book is to completely shut the door on the standard "solutions" that inerrantists commonly want to bring to the table—even the “original autographs” solution.

Side note #2: Arguments for Inerrancy
Differences in Perspective –and– If only we had the Original Autographs, then it would all be clear!
Let me note that a common means inerrantists use to protect the idea of inerrancy is to speak of the Bible being inerrant "in the original autographs." This was an idea I often heard while “growing up” or going through seminary: “Well, yes, the Bible right now has some difficulties to it. But if a problem is not due to a (relatively easily) explained difference in perspective or choice of words between two witnesses, then it is almost assuredly due to some scribal error or other textual corruption. If we simply had the original autographs (the textual version the original author wrote), we would see that these problems would disappear.
And before I jump any further into my discussion, let me note what I am referring to when I speak of differences in perspective or choices of words.
An example: One text might say, “Paul and John had pulled themselves away from the crowd to speak privately. And Paul said . . . ” –Image: They were talking by themselves. Another text says, “Then Paul, John and Peter went off to a room to talk privately. And . . . ” –Well, which was it? Two men or three? . . . It could very well be three. No “error” on the part of the first narrator. He only mentioned Paul and John because there was no narrative requirement for him to mention Peter, since, for the sake of his story, the narrator doesn't need to quote Peter as having said anything. . . . Peter’s presence is irrelevant.
That’s a very reasonable “explanation” for the apparent discrepancy.
And much of the work of people who write about the apparent/supposed “errors” or “problems” in Scripture (“How can the Bible possibly be true? Look what it says here . . . and compare it to what it says there.”) . . . –people who respond to such questions spend a lot of time attempting to demonstrate how two apparently contradictory narratives are really not contradictory. They can both be true; we just have to see them in the right light.
Ultimately, however, there come certain problems where the apologists say, “Hey. We don't know. We have no idea how to solve the problem.” And then they will often say something along the lines of, “. . . But if we had the original autographs, the source of the apparent contradiction would become clear and we would understand that there is no contradiction.” Put another way, “The text has, somehow, become corrupted, and we just don't know how.”
What are some examples of "problems" that Sparks refers to that, he claims, make Scripture “broken”—i.e., untrustworthy in the sense of being “inerrant”? He speaks of: 

Tensions within the Bible Itself.

Just a few examples:
  • Genesis 28:16 has Jacob addressing God as YHWH. Yet in Exodus 6:2-3, we read that God says to Moses, “I appeared to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob as God Almighty [El Shaddai], but by my name YHWH I did not make myself known to them.”
  • Deuteronomy 16:7 commands God's people to bashal the Passover meal; Exodus 12:9, however, explicitly forbids bashal’ing but, instead, commands tsaliy’ing.
  • “One text says King David paid 50 shekels of silver for Israel's temple site, and another that he paid 600 shekels of gold (2 Samuel 24:24; 1 Chronicles 21:25).”
  • “While Luke tells us that the apostle Paul went to Damascus and then to Jerusalem to meet the disciples immediately after his conversion, Paul’s explicit personal testimony is that he certainly did not go to Damascus or Jerusalem but proceeded instead to Arabia for a long period of spiritual retreat (Acts 9; Galatians 1:15-20).”
  • “Some texts permitted Israel to sacrifice at many places before Solomon's temple was built while others did not permit this (Deuteronomy 12:8-14; Leviticus 17:8-9).”
  • “There are texts that promise judgment on the children of sinners, and those that say God certainly does not harm children for the sins of their parents (Exodus 20:5; Deuteronomy 24:16).”
  • “We have a text that says that idol worshipers are without excuse, but another that excuses them (Romans 1:18-23; Acts 17:29-31).”
  • “We have a text that claims God is not willing for anyone to perish, and another that seems to say he predestined some human beings to eternal judgment (2 Peter 3:9; Romans 9:1-24).”
  • In Matthew 5:43-45 Jesus commands us to “Love [our] enemies and pray for those who persecute [us], so that [we] may be children of [our] Father in heaven.” Yet in Deuteronomy 20:16-18, we read that God commanded the Israelites to annihilate the Hittites, the Amorites, the Canaanites, the Perizzites, the Hittites and the Jebusites. Not only so, but in Deuteronomy 7:2 the Israelites were “specifically commanded . . . to resist the natural tendency to ‘show mercy’ to their human enemies; compassion was to be avoided at all costs.” So which is it? What kind of God do we serve?
Sparks lists many more of these kinds of internal-to-the-Bible difficulties. I attempted to focus on those that, in my mind, were least likely to be malleable to either the “different perspective” solution or the “original autographs” solution.

“Does not compute” problems.

In order to keep this email shorter than it would otherwise be, I will share just one such problem. It’s from Titus 1:12-13. And Sparks doesn't bring it up in Chapter 4. But he does bring it up in the book, and I think it is worth considering. ETA on 11/10, based on feedback I have received from a few readers: Please know that the following discussion is not based on any direct quotes from Sparks. The words (except when quoting from Scripture) are mine, and the reasoning is mine based on my personal attempts to integrate Sparks' discussions with my own thinking. Let me say, further, that my thinking, itself, has been deeply impacted by years of interaction with hyper-literalist/inerrantist homeschooling parents. I am writing with the thought that I need to speak to those same homeschooling parents: devout, serious-minded, studious and studied (but not necessarily scholarly) students of the Bible who are intent on obeying the word of God and teaching their children to obey as well: "Cut out all unnecessary theorizing. How are we to apply what we read?"

Titus 1:12-13 is part of Scripture. It is in the Bible. But I agree with Sparks that the following comment poses real problems for anyone who wants to claim that this Scripture, this word of God, is an unbroken, inerrant, fully authoritative-for-all-time word. It is a problem for anyone who wants to claim that, because it is from God Himself, it is not also—and, in many ways, more fundamentally—a word from a man and, as such, may be (indeed, by most of us will be judged to be) subject to (and/or the result of) sin, error, misjudgment, misspeaking, or some other human failing.

As I paused in my previous letter, let me pause here as well. Those are remarkable words. Horrifying words. Horrifying to me, anyway, as I think of where I am coming from, where I have been.

One doesn't say such things about God’s word! One doesn't say such things about the Bible! The Bible is perfect! How dare we—any of us—suggest that any portion of Scripture (I am referring to the way in which Scripture is written, not to the subject matter addressed!) might be tainted by sin, error, misjudgment, misspeaking, or some other human failing!

How dare we? How dare I?

But it is that question that Sparks urges us to ask with respect to passages like Titus 1:12-13. And so I dare to ask you to consider it as well:
Even one of their own prophets has said, "Cretans are always liars, evil brutes, lazy gluttons." This testimony is true.
Catch that?

From an inerrantist perspective that last brief sentence ought to be a clincher. Boom! Stamp of approval. Scripture. God’s word. It has to be true; we must trust it . . . and we should act upon its factuality: “This testimony is true: Cretans are always liars, evil brutes, lazy gluttons.


Or no?

If not, then what?

If you don't see the problem, let me note:
  • This statement about Cretans by a Cretan suffers from the obvious awkward logical difficulty of having a man who, according to his own testimony, is “always [a] liar.” . . . If this is God’s word, then do we not have God telling us that this “always lying” man is telling us something that is true? But, logically, how can that be? [I can imagine someone trying to wriggle out of this particular question: “But the man Paul quoted didn't say Cretans always lie. He ‘merely’ said, Cretans are always liars. So people who are habitual liars can sometimes tell the truth!” . . . –Oh. Okay. So he is “merely” casting an aspersion on the character of all Cretans. Okay. . . . So . . .]
Ignoring that problem:
  • In your heart of hearts, do you believe God wants us to believe that Cretans—all Cretans—are ALWAYS liars? ALWAYS evil brutes? ALWAYS lazy gluttons? This is a word from God? An inerrant word good for all time?
  • If you don't believe it yet you claim to believe in an inerrant word of God—and that the Book of Titus is part of that inerrant word—then how do you justify ignoring God’s word in that way?
  • If you don't want to believe it—because, in truth, it really “doesn't make sense” to you—but you feel “duty bound” to affirm it because, after all, “it is in God’s word, and God’s word is true and, therefore, I must believe it because if I give in on this point, then my whole Christian faith crumbles, since, where else am I to go than to Scripture? . . .” [And then you are likely to use a kind of sophistry with which I am very familiar from my years in the inerrantist camp: “Well, what that one ‘prophet’ Paul quoted said about Cretans, he could just as well have said about all people! We are all liars! . . .” —And  I would respond: “I'm afraid your attempt to salvage a ‘perfect word of God’ is destroying the meaning of language.” . . .] —We will deal with all of these things more, later. In the meantime, I would like “simply” to encourage you: I believe Sparks has shown us “a more excellent way” (with intentional allusion to 1 Corinthians 12:31!).
Problems of what Sparks calls “ethical diversity.”

I've actually addressed some of what Sparks would refer to in this manner in some of the bulleted “internal tensions” points above. But Sparks brings out “ethical diversity” for special attention.

[The most serious] problem in Scripture . . . touches on the very heart of the gospel message. I refer . . . to the Bible's ethical and moral diversity, to the fact that Jesus summed up the law and Gospel in the words, "Love God and love your neighbor," and that this summation of Scripture—with its concomitant responsibility to love our enemies, to turn the other cheek, and to pray for those who persecute us—stands in glaring contrast to texts that list women as property, but praise God for smashing infants against rocks, that allow slaveowners to beat their slaves, and that present God is commanding the extermination of ethnic and religious groups. [Footnote from book: “The relevant texts (respectively) are Exod 20:17; Ps 137:9; Exod 21:20-21; Deuteronomy 7.”] . . .
There is a tendency among more conservative Christians to imagine that the ethical problem referred to here is really an illusion created by misplaced modern sensibilities, that this is just another case in which "contemporary human ethics" arrogantly presume to be better than "God's biblical ethics." . . .
Anyone familiar with the history of Christian theology will know how much early Christians struggled with the Bible's ethical diversity. Consider these comments from the pen of the great Cappadocian Father, Gregory of Nyssa (c. 335-395), who was deeply troubled by God's execution of Egyptian children in the Passover story of Exodus:
The Egyptian [Pharaoh] acts unjustly, and in his place is punished his newborn child, who in his infancy cannot discern what is good and what is not. . . . If such a one now pays the penalty of his father's evil, where is justice? Where is piety? Where is holiness? Where is Ezekiel, who cries . . . “The son should not suffer for the sin of the father”? How can history so contradict reason?
Gregory concluded that, ethically speaking, the Passover story simply could not pass as literal history.
Sparks’ conclusion: “[Gregory’s] fourth-century comment shows that the ethical problems in Scripture are not the result of modern imagination run amok.” And, “I do not believe that the whole problem of Scripture can be blamed on the skeptics; still less can we embrace the Canaanite genocide as a wholesome portrait of moral action.” And so,

I take it that any Christian readers, both liberal and conservative, will find themselves somewhere between the extremes represented by fundamentalism and skepticism. They embrace the Bible as God's word but are somewhat troubled by the difficulties in Scripture. . . . In the pages that follow, I will try to suggest a way forward that engages Scripture as God's word while admitting, at the same time, that the ethical diversity that it displays is a factual problem. . . .
[And, finally, i]f we acquire robust strategies for engaging the Bible's ethical diversity, then presumably will be better positioned to address Scripture's diversity unless pressing matters, such as science, history, and theology.
Those are the words with which Sparks concludes Chapter 4.


Before I sign off, let me note how Sparks begins Chapter 4. I found these words encouraging:

[I]n my opinion, there are potential downsides of a focused discussion of Scripture's “problems.” In any inquiry into the 'problems' of something, even of something otherwise very good, there is a danger that hyper-focused attention on difficulties and weaknesses will create or foster the wrong impression. . . . The best perspective on our world is fostered through a balanced experience with what is good about it and what its problems are.
I believe Sparks has attempted to maintain such a balance.

Okay. Enough for one email [and, now, one post]!

Till next time.