Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Book Review: "Sacred Word, Broken Word" by Kenton Sparks

Sparks, Kenton L. Sacred Word, Broken Word: Biblical Authority and the Dark Side of Scripture. Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans, 2012. $13.51. pp.ix-180. ISBN 978-0-8028-6718-6. ★★★★★

In just over 150 pages Kenton Sparks has addressed the controversial topics of biblical authority and the dark side of Scripture. The result is a book I cannot recommend enough. His treatment of these topics is concise, well-informed, diverse in its considerations, and actually quite profound.

Sparks highlights the Bible's theological diversity, as well as the presence of divine accommodation in Scripture (one of the reasons for theological diversity). He also covers well the difficulties in moving beyond the Bible to theology, bringing one almost to despair, but then to revival with sagacious recommendations for how to construct theology realistically and wisely.

Sparks makes a good case for Christ's 'redemption' of certain Hebrew Bible ideologies, without falling into supersessionism, and without stinking of Enlightenment arrogance. The significant accomplishment of this should not be minimized. He also does a good job of backing his views with church fathers, rendering his discussion not only thought-provoking, but also historically enlightening, as he presented several quotes from several church fathers that most conservative evangelical Christians would be (at least somewhat) shocked to read. While certain comments of his might make him seem like a heterodox liberal, he again and again shows himself to be well within the bounds of orthodox Christianity.

Sparks establishes the problem of the dark side of Scripture quite well: "is it not a very deep paradox," he asks, "that the Shoah, in which Nazis systematically exterminated the Jews because of their religion and ethnicity, is mirrored so vividly by the Deuteronomic ban in Jewish Scripture, according to which Israel exterminated the Canaanites because of their religion?" (p.45). He goes on to say, "the Canaanite conquest would strike us as flagrant evil were it not a story from the Bible" (p.46). The severe problem we have with biblical stories like the conquest could not be captured better.

With this, Sparks suggests that "the problem of scripture is the problem of evil" (p.46). After summing up the problem of evil and its infection of God's creation, he exchanged the word 'creation' for 'written word' and 'Scripture', saying, "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" (p.47). One should not go so far as to think that Sparks considers all of Scripture evil; but he does acknowledge that portions of the Bible reflect sinful humanity more than God's nature, because the Bible is a product of both God and humans; as Stephen Chapman said, biblical inspiration is "a cipher for a mysterious process of divine-human co-writing" (p.58). And wherever there are humans hands at work, there's a good chance the results will include imperfection and evil.

Included in the discussion of the effect of humanity's imperfection on Scripture was a list of Bible contradictions (pp.34-35), which could have benefited from diminution, as a few of them aren't that hard to explain, or aren't actually contradictions. He could have made his point perfectly well without those, or he could have included other, stronger ones. For example, he said, "We have a text that claims God is not willing for anyone to perish, and another that seems to say he predestines some human beings to eternal judgment (2 Pet 3:9; Rom 9:1-24)" (p.35). I rolled my eyes at this one, as it isn't an actual contradiction, like the differing accounts of Judas' death (Matt 27:3-8; Acts 1:18-19; see Sparks' assessment, p.33). The Romans passage does not say that God predestines some human beings to eternal judgment. It might 'seem' to say this to those who have had that interpretation presented to them, but the text itself does not imply it, so it in no way belongs in a list of Bible contradictions.

Also incorporated into Sparks' work was a fantastic discussion of epistemology in chapter 8, in which Sparks observes that "human capacity for knowledge is potentially adequate" (p.71)--humans can never actually know Truth with certainty. It was a chapter after my own heart, as I just recently wrote a blog making this same point (here). While it is a great chapter, the reasons for its presence were not made clear. Even when the discussion is referenced later in the book, the necessity of his elaborate assessment of epistemology struck me as without justification. It seemed like the chapter was part of a separate project that the author added in to this book because he felt it contributed to the discussion. However, Sparks did not explain this contribution adequately, as it did not not flow well with, nor seem relevant to, the rest of the book.

The last few chapters are not as captivating as the first chunk of the book, but they are still good chapters worth reading. They address practical matters of how we should approach interpretation and theology. While he provides fine advice in those three chapters, they end up being (perhaps inevitably) not near as interesting as the rest of the book, and one is left with an anti-climactic finish.

Sparks' assessment of the problem of the dark side of Scripture is by no means comprehensive, and he might be guilty of over-simplifying the solution. Much is still to be said about the nature of revelation, particularly with regard to the Hebrew Bible, as well as how we can deal with the utterly human and even evil parts of Scripture in a way that does not make the construction of biblical theology impossible, relative, or just too complicated. Much is also left to be said about what parts of Scripture should be considered the flawed results of sinful humanity. However, I do think Sparks has the right ideas that can guide further study. Out of all the books I've read so far that have wrestled with the dark side of Scripture, Sacred Word, Broken Word has the most to offer. I definitely recommend it.

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