Kenton Sparks thinks that the Bible isn’t the best guidebook for life, but it’s not for the reason that most of Christians think: because the Bible itself is a part of the fallen creation.
His argument is laid out in full in his newest book, Sacred Word Broken Word: Biblical Authority & the Dark Side of Scripture, which was published by Eerdmans earlier this year. Sparks begins by looking at the Incarnation and the union between the divine and human nature in Jesus. In the first few centuries of the church, there was the question of whether Jesus assumed a fallen human nature. Most church leaders said no; Gregory of Nazianzus argued yes. It is with this latter interpretation that Sparks agrees on the basis that something that is not fallen cannot be subsequently redeemed.
This will come back into play during the discussion on the Bible, about which Sparks, who believes that collection of books to be the word of God, also writes:
“If we take the Bible’s explicit content with any seriousness, then it is as clear as it can possibly be that its authors were not wholly consistent with each other, nor were they wholly right about all matters of science and history. Like any other book, the Bible appears to be a historically and culturally contingent text and, because of that, it reflects the diverse viewpoints of different people who lived in different time and places” (36).
The problem of Scripture, as Sparks puts it, comes from three sources: the limited ability of human beings; variations in culture; and the fallenness of people. The third problem manifests itself through the diverse ethics found in Scripture; to name two, the command of Jesus to love even our enemies and the command of God in Joshua to show no mercy to the Canaanites. Texts like that are an indication of the link between the problem of the Bible and the problem of evil:
“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. Scriptures 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. This is why there are texts in Scripture that strike any thoughtful observer as vile and morally compromised—texts that we simply wish were not in the Bible” (46).
Instead of blaming God for the Bible’s mistakes, though, the blame rests on fallen humans incorporating their flaws into the text in the same way that they’ve included their sins into creation itself. This is why Scripture possesses mistakes—Genesis’ claim that the sky is a firmament holding back water, for example—as well as horrible things, such as the psalmist praising God for when Babylonian babies will have their heads smashed upon rocks as payback for the destruction of Jerusalem. Says Sparks:
“The presence in Scripture of this distortion no more compromises its status as God’s word than the distortion in humanity compromises its status as God’s creation” (47).
If we’re dealing with a divinely inspired but flawed set of books, then how are we to approach it? For Sparks, we approach Scripture, keeping in mind tradition, the voice of the Spirit, our experience, and the testimony of creation. It involves not trying to cover up the discrepencies in Scripture, but recognizing that those mistakes can be revealed through a Christological interpretation of the Bible. (Scripture, according to the Lord, is designed to point to Jesus.) But the reader shouldn’t assume that Sparks thinks the Bible doesn’t have a central message. On the contrary:
“There is a sense in which, on a human level, Scripture is incoherent. Nevertheless, I would say that even apart from faith, one can sense in Scripture a narrative portrait of the human situation and of God’s redemptive plan to put it right. … It begins with God’s creation of the cosmos and humanity, describes the Fall of humanity and its damaging effects, testifies to God’s redemptive work to put his fallen world aright through Christ, and ends with predictions of Christ’s return and a final reckoning of all things” (106–107).
The author addresses more issues than I’ve recorded here (and I decided to leave those out for the sake of brevity). What I’ve included in this review are the subjects and quotes that stuck out the most to me, and I think that what I’ve included faithfully represents the author’s argument. I’d definitely recommend this book to evangelicals, particularly those whose faith is dependent upon the Bible being inerrant, without error, and who invest a considerable amount of time trying to convince either skeptics (or, if they’re being honest, themselves) that our holy books possess no error.
Now, I’m not naïve. I know many of those evangelicals would have huge problems with an author saying the Bible is part of the fallen creation. But then, I don’t think they’d be as far from Sparks’ thinking as they’d imagine, and here’s why: if they really thought about it, they’d realize that the language Sparks uses is more unsettling than the argument that language is describing.
I was skeptical of what Sparks of was saying and at first considered it to be an innovation in the history of Christian tradition. But then Sparks himself pointed out that in Matthew 19, Jesus does away with that portion of the Law that allowed husbands to divorce their wives and describes that provision as God’s way of accommodating the evil in men’s hearts. Jesus himself said there was a portion of the Law—a passage that is very much still a part of our holy Scripture, even today—that wasn’t what God wanted.
Now, Jesus doesn’t describe that provision as evil, and Sparks does. If Sparks hadn’t described Scripture as part of the fallen creation, then I’m not sure his proposal would spark as much pushback from certain circles. If Sparks has committed any crime here, it’s that he put into words what many Christians, without even realizing it, believe in practice.
I also thoroughly enjoyed the moment when Sparks addressed a concern that some people will have about his proposal: that this approach will give freedom to people who wish to make the Bible say whatever they want it to say. Sparks rightly points that there are many Christians who believe the Bible is inerrant while, at the same time, disagree on what that inerrant Bible actually says (64).
“No approach to Scripture, whether hermeneutical or theological, will prevent us from badly misreading it at points” (65).
I read Sparks’ book within a couple of days, but what the author has to say has lingered far beyond the moment when I put it down. If you give it a chance, then I imagine that Sacred Word Broken Word will do the same for you.