God’s Word in Human Words: An Evangelical Appropriation of Critical Biblical Scholarship
Kenton S. Sparks, God’s Word in Human Words: An Evangelical Appropriation of Critical Biblical Scholarship, Ada: Baker Academic, 2008. 356 pages. $36.00 ISBN: 978-0-8010-2701-7
Kenton Sparks shows his ability to explain the intricacies of critical biblical scholarship and the merits that the multi-pronged approach of critical studies brings to the field of biblical studies. There exists an abundance of quotes and examples to convince the reader of the advantages that accepting biblical criticism brings to the reading of the Hebrew Bible. However, I believe Sparks fails in his main objective in his writing. I will explain a highlight and an area of growth that I observed while reading this book.
Sparks makes an important observation regarding critical biblical scholarship. “I should point out that I do not believe for a moment that healthy theological interpretations of the biblical text necessarily require correct critical judgments about the text in question… Indeed, if historical criticism were as important as that, no Christians living prior to the modern era could have read the Bible fruitfully” (p.168). This sort of self-reflection and concept reflection is the type of dialogue that teachers and pastors need to be having in order to join together the academic and church divide. The earliest translation of the Hebrew Scriptures, the Septuagint (LXX), faced a similar divide with complex wording and hapax legomena Hebrew that had no easy Greek translation. We see that Paul in the New Testament relies on this early translation and yet we also see difficulty reconciling some of Paul’s Septuagint observations with our Masoretic Text copy of the Hebrew Bible. We also see Jerome’s Vulgate translation making difficult decisions as Jerome worked to create a copy of Scripture for the Latin speaking Western Church. Yet, many of the church fathers used accommodation or other interpretation methods in lieu of literal meaning interpretation on many occasions. So we do see a history of “critical judgments,” as Sparks calls them, throughout the 2000 years of Church History.
I believe Sparks fails in his objective in this book to convincingly explain why Evangelicals should accept critical biblical scholarship. While he does explain how The Fundamentals essentially began the modern Evangelical movement, and the worldview and roots of thinking behind the earliest Evangelicals, his effort to build a bridge between the two worldviews fails. I am not saying that this bridge cannot be crossed. However, the divide for many Evangelicals’ way of “traditional” interpretation combined with a mistrust of the university and seminary settings for the study of Scripture creates a wide bridge to be crossed. I noticed throughout this book that the language he uses relies on a background of academic knowledge that the average and even lifetime Evangelical will not understand. Therefore, the book remains unconvincing to the reader who is already hesitant about the idea of biblical criticism. The language is not meant for a layperson but for a pastor who has been introduced to critical studies. I will give proper due to Sparks for his warning to the newly graduated seminarian who accepts biblical criticism to not be too hasty in bringing up these critical assumptions and observations in pastor settings. He recognized and warned that the foundation of knowledge that was laid is not present in most congregants of Evangelical churches.
Critical biblical scholarship is by no means a new phenomenon. Beginning with the Church Fathers and culminating in the Enlightenment era archaeological discoveries and observations, there is no doubt we live in a world marked by critical scholarship. There abounds a plethora of resources regarding biblical study. I offer a word of caution regarding the contents of this book. I would be hesitant to recommend this book to many of my Evangelical friends. I think the hesitancy many of my friends show toward this topic is the use of the social sciences to aid in critical biblical understanding. An example of this hesitancy is found in the response of one Evangelical friend to one of my source criticism questions, “Well, couldn’t Moses have influenced these other ancient civilizations and their literature?” His response was obviously yes despite my protest regarding the older age of these civilizations. This shows a difference of worldview regarding biblical studies that would need to be bridged in order for Evangelicals to consider biblical criticism. I would recommend this book to a seminarian or pastor who wishes to understand the framework for why I have embraced critical biblical scholarship in my own hermeneutical approaches toward Scripture.
Micah R. Brewster, MA