Friday, September 14, 2012

Book Snap: Kenton Sparks' "God's Word in Human Words"

From the June 2009 E-Block.


I suppose it should be said at the start: My judgment of Kenton Sparks' God's Word in Human Words (hereafter GWHW) would have been a great deal more positive had Sparks shown any indication that he had followed his own advice.
It is not that Sparks does not have a message worth hearing. Indeed, some critical portions of this book (which is overlong by at least five times the necessary length) could have been written by yours truly. Sparks advocates a contextualized reading of Scripture, over and against a too-tight fundamentalist reading such as the one that occupied his own past intellectual horizon (as a former fundamentalist). He is also quite the advocate of serious education, even in our churches, which I cannot help but applaud. The problem is that like many "fundy atheists," Sparks has not quite cleared the room of every stick of fundamentalist furniture. (The brighter side of the equation being that unlike fundy atheists, he remains a committed Christian.) 

What I mean is this: Nearly every time Sparks raises some Bible difficulty that falls within my purview of study (and some of the issues he raises are outside that purview), I find that he has notably and regrettably failed to do anything like the necessary digging to arrive at a full-orbed answer. As a result, Sparks compromises the integrity of an otherwise worthwhile message, as he all too often waves the white flag and surrenders to a sub-par solution in which the Bible "accommodates" human perceptions to a degree that is unnecessary to suppose. (In this light as well, it is rather ironic that Sparks demeans certain evangelical scholars for not giving him "the whole story when it came to the Bible and Biblical scholarship" [12] or presenting evidence "incompletely or unfairly" [150]. He has hardly read the whole story himself, or even a chapter of it in some instances.) 

For example, Sparks simply dismisses literature comparing Deuteronomy to Hittite treaties, and showing that this better reflects the provenance than Neo-Assyrian treaty forms [89-91], with a wave of the hand, and a begged-question supposition that some of the parallel material (such as Deut. 1-4) was added later (! - it seems a remarkable coincidence that someone added a portion to Deuteronomy that happened to reflect customary forms from hundreds of years in the past!). Turning to the New Testament for a premier example, Sparks raises the usual grievances against passages like 1 Cor. 14:34-35 and 1 Tim. 2:11-15 [246, 344-5], but shows no evidence of having even heard of the contextualizing analyses of either passage (e.g., showing that the first is Paul's quoting of a Corinthian letter, and the second is directed towards a Gnostic heresy; see Miller's item here). 

For these and many other issues -- the unity of Isaiah, Ezekiel's Tyre prophecy, Gospel harmonization, the authorship of the Pastorals, the authenticity of Daniel, slavery in the Bible, eschatology, and so on -- Sparks shows little indication of having seriously consulted or critically compared opposing views; and even when he does, it is often the case that Sparks' remaining fundamentalism causes him to restrain himself from seeing beyond a narrow horizon of possibilities. For example:
  • Kenneth Kitchen is pilloried for not dealing with (in his case for the unity of Isaiah) the fact that "Isaiah's name, though frequent in Isaiah 1-39, does not appear at all in Isaiah 40-55." [147] The valence of non sequitur rides heavily in on thunderous steps: Who has said that the author naming himself is a required practice, and required to be consistent through all chapters as we have divided the work? Why not also deny Is. 3-6, 8-12, 14-19, and 21-36 to Isaiah, since his name appears nowhere in those chapters? Would it happen to make any difference that Isaiah mostly uses his own name in narrative contexts, while Is. 40-66 has so little of that? Sparks' other rebuttals to Kitchen are equally without dimension. He cites Is. 48:20:
    Go ye forth of Babylon, flee ye from the Chaldeans, with a voice of singing declare ye, tell this, utter it [even] to the end of the earth; say ye, The LORD hath redeemed his servant Jacob.
    This is said to be "convincing" to many scholars in terms of saying that Is. 40-55 was post-exilic, but it does not occur to Sparks that Kitchen did not provide a refutation because none was needed. A directive to "flee" doesn't make a great deal of sense directed towards captives who are not free to leave. Could it have escaped Sparks that this is a warning to flee the impending and predicted invasion by Babylon (Is. 39:7)? Completing the non sequitur, Sparks observes that Jeremiah never cited Isaiah's prophecies in his predictions of the Babylonian exiles [148], though why Jeremiah would be obliged or even ought to be supposed to want or need to do such a thing is not explained; if Jeremiah believed he had the voice of God in his own consult, what need will he have to repeat or appeal to the words of Isaiah? Finally, Sparks does not conceive of the idea that "Cyrus" in Isaiah did not need to be a known figure in Isaiah's time (per analysis here) for his name to be used in a prophecy.
  • Kitchen is also criticized for saying that scholars would never parse other ANE texts as they do the Pentateuch. The problem with that analogy, Sparks says, is that the texts Kitchen uses as examples are "stone inscriptions" [151] rather than material copied on something like papyrus. Apprently Sparks cannot conceive of this as hardly forming a barrier to the creative hyper-critical mind: It's a simple solution (tongue in cheek) that the stone version is the "final" version which had previously undergone redaction and editing on more perishable media now lost to us.
  • Evangelicals are criticized for using works by critics of the JEDP theory like Whybray [153-4] who also reach other conclusions that evangelicals would disagree with. This "all or nothing" approach is especially odd from Sparks to the extent that he willingly quotes as authorities persons he would otherwise disagree with on other issues. Sparks also merely dismisses Whybray's approach as "unusual and idiosyncratic" [154] which is again little more than a refusal to engage his arguments.
To be sure, Sparks is correct to suppose that many evangelicals are unwilling to look past their modern, decontextualized readings of the Bible. I know this myself from having to explain to people that, e.g., the NIV in their laps is not inerrant; and it is fair to note that some of Sparks' points are indeed valid (e.g., Moses was more likely a compiler of much of the Pentateuch, rather than a direct author [78], though Sparks seems to be notoriously missing that in such a case, he would be regarded as the "author" as ancients understood the concept). To that extent, then, I agree with Sparks that we need to be more generous in understanding how God accommodated human limitations and spoke to us using genres with which Biblical peoples were familiar.

Unfortunately, Sparks' own shortcomings as a contextualizer undermine the integrity of this message as he has presented it.

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