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.]
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.