Wrestling with Scripture

How do we reckon with passages of the Bible that seem inconsistent with the way Christ wishes us to behave and think? In what ways does the Bible reflect the divine will, and in what ways does it bear the marks of fallen humanity? What are we to think when the Bible offers us two or more inconsistent ethical perspectives?

These are the kinds of difficult questions that Kenton L. Sparks deals with in his book, Sacred Word, Broken Word: Biblical Authority & the Dark Side of Scripture (Eerdmans, 2012). Sparks serves as professor of biblical studies at Eastern University in St. Davids, Pennsylvania. He is an accomplished scholar who moves with great skill between the disciplines of biblical studies, theology, and philosophy (and particularly epistemology).

Reflective Christian readers will often find themselves wrestling with scripture. Sometimes we might find factual disagreements in scripture, such as the two different accounts of the Sacred word broken worddeath of Judas (Matt 27:3-8, Acts 1:18-19). Sometimes we might see disparities in the Bible’s ethical imperatives, such as the difference between Deut 20:16-18, which commands the Israelites utterly to  destroy their enemies, letting nothing in their villages live, and Jesus’ command in Matt 5:43-45 that we love our enemies. And sometimes there are stories in the Bible that simply give us ethical heartburn, such as the complete destruction of the city of Jericho—men, women, and children. Let’s be clear: our discomfort with passages like these isn’t a sign of unfaithfulness. It is a product of our Christian formation, formation that comes in part from the Bible itself.

In a relatively short book (180 pp. including bibliography and indices), Sparks develops a very sophisticated argument. I will not fully do justice to it here, but I do want to point out some of its more salient features. He begins by claiming, “Scripture’s goodness and beauty stem from its Trinitarian character, and from the way that it advances our relationship with the Godhead. Foremost, Scripture demonstrates that God wishes to speak to us and, to some extent, that we wish to hear from him. It is an overture of love from God the Father to humanity” (9). God loves us and wishes to communicate with us, but we stand within a fallen order of creation. The world is broken by sin, and therefore we encounter what is sometimes called “natural evil” (think tsunamis) and “moral evil” (human agency). Creation is broken, and the Bible stands within the broken created order. For Sparks, “the problem of Scripture is one permutation of the larger problem of evil” (his italics). Scripture is good, but it still bears the marks of the fallen creation.

At this point, you may be ready to go to another website, but don’t give up on the argument yet. If this assessment of the nature of scripture seems harsh, keep in mind that classical Christian orthodoxy makes the same kind of claim about Jesus. Jesus was fully divine and fully human. His divine and human natures are joined together in the hypostatic union. Because Jesus is fully human, he partakes in all that is human, and part of that is our fallenness. So, as Gregory of Nazianzus put it, “what is not assumed is not redeemed.” If Christ does not assume our fallen nature, he does not redeem our fallen nature. An earlier perspective on this comes from Hebrews 2:17, which tells us that Christ “had to be made like his brethren in every respect… to make expiation for the sins of the people.” We also see this idea in Romans 8:3, which states that God sent the Son “in the likeness of sinful flesh, and to deal with sin, he condemned sin in the flesh.” This does not mean that Jesus sinned. As Sparks puts it, “sinful nature and sinful deeds are two different things” (25-26).

Why does Sparks wade into this complex Christological territory? The reason is that his understanding of scripture is analogous to this patristic understanding of Christ. No, there is not a direct analogy between his understanding of Christ and his understanding of the Bible, but there is what he calls a “theological analogy.” He writes, “[I]f we wish to draw a theological analogy from the old Christological debates that explains Scripture’s character, I would suggest that the adoptionist metaphor is closer to the mark. Understood in this way, Scripture is God’s word because God providentially adopted ancient human beings, like Paul, as his spokespersons. In so doing, God ‘set apart’ or ‘sanctified ‘ their words for use in his redemptive activity. Hence we can affirm with a straight face that Scripture, while written by sinful human beings, is rightly referred to as Sacred or Holy Scripture” (29, his italics).

Now let me stop for a moment and address a couple of issues. If it is your belief that the Bible is utterly without error–historical, factual, theological or ethical—you will find Sparks’s arguments immediately unsatisfying. There is no problem of Scripture, you might respond. There are only human problems related to our misunderstanding of scripture. Fair enough. Many Christians, however, hold what might be called a “high view of scripture,” though without affirming its inerrancy on all matters. A high view of scripture is one in which we believe that the Bible offers us special divine revelation disclosing God’s singular plan of salvation for all of creation. Without affirming inerrancy, one can still affirm that the Bible is an invaluable, unique, and reliable guide to what we believe and how we live. I think that is where Sparks is. He holds a high view of Scripture, but not a wholly inerrant view. That is where I would say most Christians in the Wesleyan traditions are, too. Consider, for example, Article V of the Anglican/Methodist Articles of Religion, or Article IV of the Evangelical United Brethren Confession of Faith.

Now back to Sparks’s argument. Is the Bible inspired by God? Yes, indeed it is, he contends. But God worked through human authors, editors, and compilers to give us the Bible, and human beings, one and all, bear the marks of a fallen nature. We are not perfect. The problem of scripture, he says, is 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” (46). To clarify his point, he offers the following parallel propositions:

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 (47).

If this is the case, then, how can we say that the Bible is uniquely revelatory of God’s will for creation and plan for salvation? In other words, what of the Bible’s uniqueness? How is the Bible the “word of God” in the way that other works are not? Sparks states, “I would say that the Bible’s special status as God’s inspired word stems, not so much from the unusual spiritual experiences of its authors (whatever those were), but rather from its divinely-ordained relationship to the incarnate word” (62-63).

Sparks does not stop, however, with “problem” of scripture. He also speaks of the redemption of scripture (chapter 7). Here he sounds very much like the canonical critics, particularly James Sanders, who speaks of the Bible’s “self-correcting” function. Within the Bible there are conversations, even arguments, about the nature of God and God’s relationship to humankind. Think, for example, of the differences between Proverbs and Ecclesiastes. These two Wisdom books represent very different perspectives on divine action. Think about Jesus’ reinterpretation of the law in Matthew 5 and 6. There are places where the Bible refines and even corrects its own perspectives. Sparks warns, however, “We cannot carelessly pit one biblical author against another, as if one had it all right and another was all wrong. Each author spoke for God in a particular way” (71).

There are several other chapters that make very important contributions to Sparks’s overall thesis, but a full discussion of this very complex book requires more than a blog post. I want to commend this book to your reading, though. You may not agree with it. I’m not sure about the extent to which I agree with it. But it does provide a very well-thought-out perspective on some of the difficulties we encounter when we read the Bible. Adam Hamilton (in Making Sense of the Bible) has brought these issues very much to the attention of the Methodist world by arguing that there are some scriptures that eternally reflect the will of God, some that do not now reflect God’s will, and some that never did. I have never been comfortable with this way of framing the issue. If you would like a different perspective, one that helps us to reckon with the difficult passages of the Bible while maintaining a strong sense of the canon’s revelatory function, take some time and read Sacred Word, Broken Word.

7 thoughts on “Wrestling with Scripture

  1. Fear underlies all of these scriptural debates: fear of getting it wrong and the consequences of getting it wrong. Once we accept that we cannot control God with our behavior or our beliefs then these scriptural debates, while interesting, do not become divisive. What is needed is not a better understanding of scripture but rather more faith in God. As Paul said, “For today we look through a glass darkly, but one day we will know fully, just as we are fully known.”

      • 1 Corinthians 13:12:
        (KJV) “For now we see through a glass, darkly; but then face to face: now I know in part; but then shall I know even as also I am known.”
        (NRSV) “For now we see in a mirror, dimly,[a] but then we will see face to face. Now I know only in part; then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known.”

  2. Britt, in other words… you quoted St. Paul’s use of Scripture to suggest we don’t really need a good understanding of Scripture….hmmmmmmm

    • Yes. And Paul would agree with me. Understanding Scripture won’t save you. Even the Devil quotes Scripture. Read 1 Corinthians 13:8-13 for context. Paul talks about how his understanding has matured but everything still remains a “riddle” (original Greek) i.e. “we see in a mirror, dimly.” He says that one day all things will disappear, including knowledge, but that love, faith, and hope will remain.

  3. David, do you think Sparks’ argument gives warrant to those progressives who would know posse up with it on a mission to revise what the church believes the Bible says about marriage and sexuality, and any number of other things? Some delight in citing passages from (sympathetic) authors who are “expert” on parsing (culling) “God’s word” from God’s Word. When I hear these rise to their moment, I think “here we go again.”

    • I don’t see Sparks’s argument moving in that direction, though some could take it that way. But remember, Sparks affirms the inspiration of the whole canon, even as he acknowledges the limitations of the human authors and editors.

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