Book Review: Kenton Sparks, Sacred Word, Broken Word: Biblical Authority & the Dark Side of Scripture

Kenton Sparks, interim provost and professor of biblical studies at Eastern University in Pennsylvania, sets out in this volume to expand upon–in a more general format–his contributions in his God’s Word in Human Words. Despite this more general readership sought, the book is rich, dynamic, and thoughtful, covering a number of seminal issues relating to the Bible and reading it properly, especially within more conservative/evangelical communities, in which Sparks offers a progressive voice.

The book is divided into 13 chapters, in addition to a “First Thoughts” and “Final Thoughts” section. Sparks’ overarching thesis is that the Bible itself is a part of our fallen creation and is therefore, just like humanity, in need of redemption. This is, at least in part, attributable to the fact that humans wrote the Bible, a point Sparks will nuance as the book goes on, resurrecting the old adoptionist Christological heresy (!!!) as a way to explain God’s “adoption” of human authors–with all their errors and foibles–to communicate the divine word.

In the “First Thoughts” section, Sparks affirms that “it really must be the case that, at some points, every branch and bough of the Christian tradition is getting something wrong,” (4) precisely because Christians don’t agree on any manner of things! For this reason, Sparks suggests tradition, while an important vector of interpretation, is not beyond scrutiny and, if need be, revision. As a compelling example, he cites the old Christian conception that the earth was at the center of the cosmos and the church’s less-than-mature response to Copernicus and Galileo; of course, he says, Christianity now clearly affirms that Scripture is ‘wrong’ on this point and the universe is heliocentric.

In chapter 1, “The Truth and Beauty of Sacred Scripture,” Sparks (briefly, and perhaps apologetically) opens by affirming, unsurprisingly, the truth and beauty of Scripture. It is “a vital resource that guides people to Christa dn that helps us become healthier people” (10). He goes on to cite five illustrative texts that testify to the truth and beauty of Scripture, though it is interesting that of the five examples, 4 are from the NT and only 1 from the OT (Exod 23:4-5, a fair though rather odd choice in comparison with the NT texts selected). In fact, one of my main issues with this book, as with many others in this vein (see for example my review of Seibert’s Disturbing Divine Behavior in RBL, or my multi-post review of David Lamb’s God Behaving Badly beginning HERE), is that while they affirm the centrality, beauty, and importance of the OT, it continues to get short schrift; Marcion’s shadow is indeed cast very long.

Chapter 2, “Creation and the Problem of Evil,” uses creation as a lens to understand Sparks’ larger argument. He does this for two reasons: 1) “the created order is historically prior to Scripture”; 2) “Scripture itself highlights the priority of creation” (12). The central question raised is theodical: how can one affirm a good and loving God, and a good creation, when suffering and evil predominate in the world? For Sparks, human sin has also adversely affected the cosmos. Creation does indeed, Sparks affirms, contain “evils monstrous and unspeakable,” though this, he says, provides an apt analogy for understanding the character of Scripture; Sparks writes “The Bible actually stands within the fallen order that we seek to understand. . . . the problem of Scripture is one permutation of the larger problem of evil” (22, italics original).

In chapter 3, “The Contribution of Christology,” Sparks asks whether Jesus Christ had a fallen human nature, a question he answers in the affirmative, choosing to separate out sinful activity and sinful nature. He rejects a rigid “Christological analogy,” that is “according to this logic, because God has given us Jesus Christ as a sinless and errorless word in the flesh, we can say by analogy that he has also given us a sinless and errorless word in Scripture” (28), opting instead for an “adoptionist” approach that sees “Scripture [as] God’s word because God providentially adopted ancient human beings, like Paul, as his spokespersons”; those who wrote Scripture, thus, erred as do all humans. This posture allows Sparks to affirm the fallenness yet sacredness of Scripture.

Chapter 4, “The Problem of Sacred Scripture,” Sparks emphasizes that of all the difficulties and problems of Scripture, God is implicated in none of them; the ‘perpetrators’ are in fact sinful humanity, both in narrative action in the various stories and also in the very writing of the Scriptural text. In essence, the biblical authors got things–including God–wrong at some points. He wrestles with the diversity of Scripture (which, while perhaps a facile response, in this reviewers eyes is ultimately not a problem at all, precisely because this diversity–and I think Sparks would agree–is one of Scriptures great gifts, and is evidence of the fact that Scripture was written and compiled over a long period of time, written by different authors addressing different situations with different ideas about how the world and God works; for this reason, I think the label “contradictions” is a terrible misnomer), as well as with ethical issues such as herem in Joshua. Sparks understands these fallible ideas to be refracted through the lens of fallible authors and traditions produced and propagated by fallible people. Moreover, the diversity and ethical issues are attributable not only to human finiteness and fallenness but also to the vast cultural separation between our world and the ancient world of the biblical text and its authors. As to the issue of herem specifically, Sparks avers that within the Bible itself this behavior is challenged, and it is not portrayed as “spiritually laudable behavior” (44).

With this foundation in place, Sparks begins to chart his way forward in chapter 5, “The Brokenness of Scripture,” by trying to balance Scripture as God’s word with an appreciation for its ethical diversity. Sparks adduces the Holocaust as “the quintessential symbol of our fallen world and of fallen, sinful humanity” (45), but also draws a fair though troubling comparison between the Holocaust and the herem texts in Deuteronomy and Joshua. The analogy is somewhat apt, thought part of the issue revolves around well-known scholarly arguments that such a conquest likely did not occur as described in the Bible. By noting this I do not wish to affirm that historical inaccuracy is a way to address or redress ethical issues (just the opposite, in fact!), but there is one glaring difference that Sparks ignores, it seems: in the herem texts it is clearly God who is the voice behind the extermination command (whether it is human authors who put these words in God’s mouth or not), whereas in the Holocaust, most Jewish theologies–and many Christian ones–would affirm that there was no divine voice either commanding the genocide (Rubenstein’s central question) or intervening on behalf of the victims. This is where Sparks’ analogy breaks down for me: how do we address not the theodical issue but the theological issue of divine silence during the Holocaust in comparison with divine mandate for genocide in theherem texts? For Sparks, again, this evil cannot be traced back to God, though all we can confess is that “we do not have a complete answer” (49). Personally, this response sounds overly apologetic; we cannot and do not know the answer, but surely it must not be God. This does not mean I wish to indict God so readily on this matter, but Sparks dismisses the divine origin of the command all too easily, ascribing it simply to human authors; why that itself is not an adequate enough defense for him given his thesis remains unclear. I would echo many of my same critiques I raise in my RBL review of Seibert (link above).

Chapter 6, “Some Theological Queries,” tackles a number of questions related to the nature of the Bible and proper interpretation. Sparks addresses a number of issues: inspiration, revelation, the continued authority of Scripture for the Christian faith if it has error and lies within the fallen order, if Scripture is as Sparks describes then why believe it is God’s word at all, could not such a view of Scripture lead to doubt or rejection of the faith, what is to stop readers from picking and choosing the theology they like and don’t like. Sparks concludes this chapter poignantly: “in the end, the success of biblical interpretation depends a great deal on whether we want to listen to God or merely tell him what he ought to say. For it is only by listening to God–to what he says in all of Scripture, and through all avenues by which he might speak, such as the voices of the Spirit and of creation–that we can finally arrive at the best understanding of how the Spirit is directing us to love God and our neighbor” (65).

In chapter 7, “The Redemption of Scripture: Biblical Examples,” Sparks adduces biblical evidence that Scripture itself is in need of redemption. The first example he cites is the famed Sermon on the Mount, in which Jesus cites a precept from the Torah and proceeds to offer a “contrast” in his own teaching, introduced by the phrase “but I say to you.” I must confess that I do not find this to be what Jesus is doing in the majority of cases; rather than offering a contrast and reversing its teaching (Sparks’ words), Jesus seems largely to be ratcheting up the Torah’s requirements. For example, Jesus affirms that the Torah says one shall not kill, but Jesus says those who get angry are liable to judgment; Jesus doesn’t draw a contrast between his assessment and the Torah . . . he takes Torah seriously and makes it even more strict. Sparks also argues, based upon an earlier CBQ article he had published, that the Gospel of Matthew as a whole is meant as “a deliberate and sustained attempt to redeem the Old Testament law and make it serve the purposes of the Gospel of Jesus Christ” (69), evident in the juxtaposition between the command “go and kill all the nations” with “go, make disciples of all the nations.” Sparks anticipates a fair critique, namely that the OT is the one typically associated with needing redemption, though he maintains that the OT is vital still for several reasons, among them that it is the basis for Christianity’s message of redemption, that OT authors also sought to redeem broken parts of Scripture (2 Sam 24:1 cf. 1 Chron 21:1; not the most compelling example in my view), and that even the NT is not without its problems given slavery, misogyny, and ethnic slurs, the latter two of which I would argue Jesus is implicated (see perhaps most disturbingly Matt 15:21-26). It remains, though, the death, burial, resurrection, ascension, and return of Jesus that redeems both Testaments.

Chapter 8, “Christian Epistemology: Broken Readers of Sacred Scripture,” surveys several epistemological foundations for reading the biblical text. Sparks discusses Ttcit and reflective realism, modern realism (which develops into the Enlightenment), postmodernism (anti- and practical realism). Practical realism is the approach Sparks advocates, which he summarizes as follows: “God has it perfectly right, while human beings are partially right and partially wrong, but in a way that admits some human perspectives are better or more adequate than others” (87).

Chapter 9, “Sacred Scripture as Ancient Discourse,” looks at the task of theological interpretation (which has become an especially and increasingly important avenue in recent scholarly works; see, for example, Briggs and Lohr’s Theological Introduction to the Pentateuch and Green’s Practicing Theological Interpretation). For Sparks, theological interpretation is creedal, ecumenical, biblical, and theological. It is also important, Sparks avers, to read contextually and with an eye toward genre. It is here that Sparks appears far more optimistic about getting at authorial intent than I am, though I am sympathetic to the importance of reading with a mind toward context. This, however, doesn’t have to be so intimately connected to authorial intention, as though that were an attainable interpretive goal (on this, see my Jacob and the Divine Trickster, the introduction, for a discussion on the necessity of understanding deception in its ancient context and not with the negative baggage our contemporary culture associates with it). But here we should also be mindful of Sparks’ affirmation that biblical authors too can make mistakes and be wrong about things. The Bible, Sparks says, is hard, so much so that even ancient authors struggled with it. Sparks compellingly writes that “the idea that Scriptures meaning is everywhere perspecuous (clear and obvious) to the average reader does not seem to be a biblical idea” (102). It is a living document that we all encounter through the work of specialists, be it because we are reading a scholarly commentary or, Sparks says, an English translation, which likely has behind it a team of scholars who have worked through the Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek so as to make the text accessible to the non-specialist.

Chapter 10, “Listening to the Diversity and Unity of Scripture,” Sparks wonders how unity and diversity succeed in communicating theological profundity. The answer is manifold. Approaching Scripture honestly entails acknowledging that there is diversity and contrast; it also leads to certain dangers (Sparks’ example: “kill the Canaanites transitions all too easily into “kill anyone whose religious ideology threatens you,” a terrifying reality that has unfortunately become a reality in the modern day battle for Israel). And so Sparks says that where God is portrayed as saying or doing something he wouldn’t do, such texts tell us more about the authors than about God. My question, however, and what Sparks leaves frustratingly undeveloped and unanswered, is how one is to adjudicate this matter. How does one know if God would be in the business, for example, of pronouncing judgment on Canaanites, or unfairly punishing someone, a la Job? By what hermeneutic can someone arrive at such conclusions? For Sparks, it seems self-evident that God would never be associated with anything evil or immoral. That, clearly, is the human side (though I wonder how Sparks would understand the imago Dei concept in light of this?). The only indication he offers is similar to what Seibert suggests elsewhere, that Jesus is the barometer. Sparks writes “our theology should grant priority to Jesus Christ, to knowing him, his teachings, and the redemptive significance of his resurrection, ascension, and eventual return” (107). While I am sympathetic to the Christian focus on Jesus (!!!!), Terry Fretheim has a word for this in his book The Suffering of God: he calls it Jesusology, that is, that God is kept at a distance and is feared while Jesus is the one we hold tenderly in our hearts and is, in essence, the one who comes to rescue us from a dangerous and wrathful God. Emphasizing Jesus is fine, of course, but at what point does this lead to a latent, or even functional, Marcionism? Elsewhere in this same chapter, Sparks hazards another, less precise, response to how one adjudicates the matter of whether God did/did not do X: Sparks simply acknowledges that there is “no guarantee” we’ll get the answer right . . . put simply, he doesn’t answer the question. But Sparks is right, at least, in arguing that “healthy theology” entails familiarity with all of Scripture, even its unpalatable moments, as contributing to the theological whole. Whether this is a reality Sparks attains (or something he rather gives lip service to) remains unclear to me.

Building on the previous chapter, chapter 11, “Theology beyond the Bible: Spirit, Cosmos, Tradition, and Experience” claims that there are times we must–and have, for example, with slavery, or the ordination of women–move beyond Scripture. What other voices warrant a hearing? The first, says Sparks, is the Spirit, which is both at work in believers/unbelievers and through activities of the faithful. Second, the cosmos, a sort of natural theology. Third, tradition, which is not itself infallible says Sparks, has regained a central foothold among Protestants, as well as maintaining its importance with Catholic and Orthodox circles. Tradition too is not beyond challenge, though I remain unclear why Sparks thinks reading tradition (creeds, catechism, etc.) is a task unlike how he has suggested we read the Bible. Fourth, experience. Sparks writes: “when our full-orbed ‘gut-feel’ comes to blows with our cognitive theological affirmations, this experiential evidence is a hint that our theological views may stand in need of refinement and modification” (131). And it is here that I would adduce the Holocaust as the quintessential example of not one person or group but the entire human race’s experience standing in stark dissonance with tradition. Sparks, however, unfortunately and problematically, doesn’t raise the Holocaust as an example here. The voice with which the Holocaust speaks here is deafening.

Chapter 12, “Priorities for Theological Interpretation,” suggests that interpreters must attend to mystery, personal wholeness, praxis, and mission. 1) Mystery attests to the limits of our knowledge and should be “embraced and enjoyed” rather than “solved”; mystery is also, though, not an “escape hatch,” a point which I deeply appreciate as this approach is all too often used as an apologetic for God; 2) personal wholeness seeks our mental and spiritual health for the relationships for which we are built; 3) praxis understands interpretation to only be correct when it impels one to act on what God has said; “I have not interpreted Scripture adequately until I have acted on what God has said” (139); 4) missional hermeneutic sees, in a very NT Wright-ian way, an essential component of the Christian task as involving working to remedy our broken world here and now.

The final chapter, “Validity and Biblical Interpretation,” asks how we define in a postmodern context which interpretations are valid and which are not. Toward this end, Sparks draws a distinction between warrant (an interpretation that is reasonable though may be wrong) and validity (a right interpretation). Puzzlingly, Sparks says the only way to ascertain the validity of an interpretation is to know God’s perspective. Compounding this difficulty all the more is the “surplus of meaning” that texts are seen as having. Sparks says both text and community offer controls on what can and cannot be a valid interpretation. Where interpretations are deemed invalid, Sparks prescribes “gentleness and respect” as opposed to chiding and damnation.

A brief “Final Thoughts” section (2 pages) rounds out the book. Sparks basically rehashes his main points: that God “sanctifies and uses broken human beings to extend his grace to broken human beings” (156), that error and diversity and tension in the Bible does not make it useless, that anything negative in Scripture and/or our world stems from humanity and never from God, and that problematic images of Scripture derive from “our fallen condition,” though it is in and through Jesus that all–ourselves and Scripture–are healed.

Sparks has written a careful, nuanced, and thoughtful work with which I resonate a great deal. His insistence that the Bible is not without its complexities and difficulties, coupled with the reality that it must be read for what it is and not what we wish it was, are central and necessary insights that many need to hear and be reminded of often. But I cannot, as some of the comments above suggest, get on board with Sparks’ confidence that everything negative stems from human beings and our fallen condition. I do not wish to dispute the brokenness of creation or of humanity, though Sparks’ discussion assumes and takes for granted the Fall, seemingly, as an actual historical event. Even if he didn’t, the assumption that the text of Gen 2-3 can support an interpretation of the Fall is something scholars have wrestled with a great deal and is anything but self-evident. It is much more a Pauline lens focused on the Genesis text, perhaps, than it is a reading of Genesis in its own context. I also do not share Sparks’ optimism about the ease with which God can be exonnerated by simply attributing those texts to humans. Again, this doesn’t suggest that God in fact did all the things that the Bible suggests–good or bad–but I remain unconvinced that tracing these images to a human origin removes or even tempers the ethical difficulty. Even granting Sparks his point, the fact remains that someone or some group saw fit to portray God in some quite unsettling ways; what lies behind these portrayals? What is the impetus in portraying God this way? And relatedly, granting Sparks’ “adoption” understanding–whereby God adopts and uses fallen humans, where they are instruments to communicate the divine word–if humans get God so drastically and problematically wrong on some points (i.e., genocide of women, infants, and children in Josh 11 or 1 Sam 15, for example), would God not perhaps see fit to intervene and remedy such portrayals? Or, moreover, seeing something as inexplicable as the Holocaust from a “God’s-eye view,” would God not feel compelled or moved to intercede? My point is, simply, what are the limits to which humans can get God wrong?

Sparks’ book is an important and worthwhile voice that should be read carefully and critically by Christians of all stripes. Some will find him progressive, others will suggest he doesn’t go far enough. But no one should be able to fault him for at least not raising the questions that need to be asked.

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One thought on “Book Review: Kenton Sparks, Sacred Word, Broken Word: Biblical Authority & the Dark Side of Scripture

  1. Jeff martin says:

    Thank you for the review. I have read the book myself and had some of the same concerns you have. How do we know what God is trying to say through the texts? It seems to me that if Dr Sparks were to write a commentary on Joshua that it either would have little application to today and thus be really short, or be terribly inconsistent and pick and choose which bits of Joshua is where Gods voice is.

    One thing you didn’t mention which I think is huge, and a difference between Dr Sparks and Dr Enns, is that Dr Sparks would admit to the fact that sometimes Jesus talked pretty harshly as well and maybe even got carried away whereas Dr Enns would not want to admit that Jesus talked like this.

    I happen to agree that Jesus was harshlike similar to what one might read in the OT, however I am not quite prepared to say that he was wrong about that.

    Of course this leads to the problem with Dr Sparks that we are to follow Jesus except those times he got carried away. Okayyyy,,,,,,

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