Kenton Sparks’ Sacred Word, Broken Word: Biblical Authority and the Dark Side of Scripture cuts to the heart of how Christians understand revelation and the truth of the Bible. This is a more popularly pitched version of an argument that Sparks, a professor of biblical studies at Eastern University, made in his book God’s Word in Human Words: An Evangelical Appropriation of Critical Biblical Scholarship. The issue is: How can the Bible be a revelation from God and normative for Christian faith and practice when it contains passages that depict God in morally horrifying ways and ethical commands that seem downright evil, not only by modern standards, but by standards embedded in the Christian tradition itself?
Sparks argues, correctly I think, that this presents a more difficult issue than biblical “errancy” regarding history or science. It’s relatively easy to make peace with the idea that the Bible did not adhere to modern standards of historical accuracy and that it was not meant to teach scientific cosmology or biology. However, the “texts of terror” threaten to undermine what Christians claim is the central message of the Bible: a revelation of God’s gracious character, will, and purposes for humanity and the world.
The touchstone example Sparks uses is the story of the Canaanite genocide recorded in the book of Joshua. How can the God who commands Joshua to slaughter men, women, and children be the God of limitless compassion that Christians claim to believe in? Some of the church fathers dealt with these passages by adverting to allegorical interpretations: they should be interpreted as referring to our internal spiritual warfare against our sins, for example. Sparks argues (again, correctly, I think) that such readings will seem strained to modern readers. Instead, he says we should frankly admit that such passages are not part of God’s word, at least not directly.
To articulate his position, Sparks draws an analogy between the “problem” of the Bible and the problem of evil as it’s usually discussed in the Christian tradition. Briefly, theologians–however much their specific approaches may differ–have generally maintained that creation is good but fallen and that the source of sin and disorder is in humanity not God. The Bible, Sparks says, is part of the fallen creation–it is not perfect or inerrant but reflects human sinfulness. “Scripture is a casualty of the fallen cosmos” (p. 66). But just as God uses fallen human beings to advance God’s purposes, God uses the Bible–taken as a canonical whole–as a medium for revelation. The Bible is both human and divine discourse.
The inevitable question, though, is how we are supposed to distinguish the divine message from those parts of Scripture that reflect human error or sin. Sparks offers several responses to this: first, Scripture sometimes corrects itself, as in Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, where he relativized certain parts of the Mosaic law; second, we should read individual passages in the context of the whole sweep of the biblical narrative and message; and third, we need to read the Bible in light of the ongoing activity of the Holy Spirit, the revelation of God in the natural world, the Christian tradition, and our own experience. Sparks emphasizes that most passages of the Bible admit of a surplus of meaning and we should be cautious in thinking we’ve arrived at the one true interpretation. He also points out that a key test of Christians’ Bible-reading is whether it leads to Christ-shaped lives.
Sparks identifies, at least to some extent, as an evangelical, and much of what he says may not seem particularly controversial to mainline Christians, who generally admit that the Bible is a humanly conditioned document. But mainliners have not always been clear on what their positive doctrine of Scripture is; Sparks’ book clearly articulates a position that is honest about the text while also maintaining a “high” view of the Bible’s authority. Such a position should in principle be acceptable to a fairly broad swath of Christians, from fairly conservative to fairly liberal. My one complaint is that Sparks is vague (as he himself admits) on how he understands the Bible’s inspiration, as well as the closely related concept of revelation. For example, is the medium of revelation the text itself, an overall message or regula fidei derived from the text, or the events that the texts witness to? But on the whole, I’d recommend this book as a sane and balanced approach to a difficult topic.