Sunday, February 16, 2014

Dousing Sparks

I'm going to comment on some statements that Kenton Sparks made in the comment thread of this post:
Sparks published a book in 2008 which made a big splash. I don't know why. Books attacking the inspiration of Scripture have been around since the Enlightenment. Indeed, you had pagans attacking the Bible in early church history. Moreover, as one sympathetic reviewer admitted:
After his discussion of epistemology Sparks ranges impressively through a lengthy treatment of critical problems arising in biblical interpretation, in New Testament studies as well as Old. There will be little new here to those familiar with critical scholarship, but Sparks rightly recognizes the need to cover this ground thoroughly in view of his intended audience.
So this is turning back the odometer on a used car. 
Sparks is a former evangelical who lost his faith in graduate school. I'm struck by how impressionable some people are. 
To judge by both critical and sympathetic reviews, his book presents a familiar liberal dilemma. Liberals like Sparks typically employ a two-stage strategy. In the first stage they do their best to trash the inspiration of Scripture. This stage is indistinguishable from atheist attacks on Scripture.
However, liberals like Sparks don't wish to leave it there. After all, they still claim to be Christian. They are "rescuing" the Bible from fundamentalism. They still want the Bible to be relevant in the life of the church.
So the second stage is to salvage the Bible from their own demolition job. Having dismantled the inspiration of Scripture to their own satisfaction, they stand over the bullet-riddled corpse, attempting to harvest some useable organs. It's a dilemma of their own making. 
After all, in the end, even if we had inerrant human authors we’d only have our errant interpretations of the text. If that’s the case, then there’s no need to start with perfect discourse. We start with adequate discourse and end with adequate interpretation.
That's a popular cliche. Some critics use it to dismiss the value of inerrant autographa. Some critics use it to justify the Roman Magisterium. But the contention is specious. 
Let's consider a counterexample. When you buy prescription medicine, the bottle has directions. However, some patients misread directions. They underdose or overdose. Both can be fatal. Either they fail to take enough medicine to stay alive, or they inadvertently take a toxic dose.
Does it follow that because some patients made a mistake in reading the directions, the directions might as well be mistaken too? Since some patients misread directions, it is unnecessary to have accurate directions? 
If the original directions are erroneous, that compounds the problem. You will have more dead patients. 
Allegories, Accommodation, Speech-Act theory … all of these are interpretive theories that find a way of keeping parts of the biblical discourse by relativizing other parts of it. This is necessary because Scripture really is diverse in its viewpoints.
i) He seems to be criticizing accommodation, yet he himself appeals to accommodation.
ii) It depends on how we define accommodation. Accommodation isn't synonymous with error. 
Central to my epistemology is that human beings only need–and can only have–adequate understandings of the real world and never God-like, error-free perceptions.
At any rate, I stand by this point: any epistemology that believes human begins can have inerrant knowledge of the world stands in the modern Cartesian tradition, according to which we are able to sufficiently escape our human context to see things “as they really are”; no postmodernist would ever say something like this. We are ever and always looking at the world from a social and cultural perspective, and that perspective is always warped by our finiteness and fallenness.
But Jeremy is right about my book, in that I don’t believe human beings write inerrant books about God, history and theology, even if they are biblical writers. That is, it is clear to me that the illocutionary acts of the biblical authors–the very things that they wished to say–can sometimes be recognized as errant.
For postmodernists like myself, to be right is literally to be “like” … our understanding is close to reality in a useful way, but in no respect does it precisely match reality. Such an inerrant stance on reality (and here we must speak as fools) is only available to God. Now for those who still stand in the modernist tradition, they affirm that human beings have partial “atoms” of inerrant knowledge (true propositions) mixed with “atoms” of errant knowledge (“false propositions”). 
One problem with this dichotomy is that he is exempting God from error. But to do that, Sparks must tacitly exempt himself as well. His very dichotomy presupposes that his understanding of God escapes our warped perception. But if, by his own admission, our outlook fails to match up with reality, then that extends to his view of God. How does he know what's only available to God? Isn't Sparks viewing the world through dusty glasses? So he has no standard of comparison. How can he erect a wall, then tell us what's on the other side of the wall?
You recognize this as the propositional school of epistemology associated especially with Biola U. On this theory, the biblical authors—with God’s help—managed to include in their discourse only the true propositions and to avoid all false propositions. This last assertion seems totally false to me, both because Scripture is filled with human errors (because humans err) and because it fails to appreciate the contextual nature of interpretation (humans don’t know enough context to inerrantly interpret and then write about reality).
Among other things, he fails to distinguish between inerrant writers and inerrant readers. 
Speech-Act theory, as you are employing it, is just another tool that turns the human authors of Scripture into inerrant authors. It says something like this: “We must judge the locutionary stance of the author of Genesis 1 in light of his illocutionary stance, which was, to tell us that Yahweh alone created the cosmos. The fact that he tells us (apprently, in error) that there are waters above the heavens is irrelevant because he was not trying to give us science but theology.” Now I do think that we should attend carefully to what authors are trying to do when we read their discourse, but that doesn’t (in my opinion) change the fact that his cosmology was at some points wrong and that he clearly communicated that cosmology in his disourse. I’d prefer Calvin’s approach, which is that the cosmology in Genesis is mistaken and that God accommodated his speech to errant human views. In this way, God does not err, but the human author and audience of Scripture are in error (although, in a twist, Calvin wants Moses to know about the accommodation so that he is “in” on the matter).
I quite agree that Scripture’s testimony about itself must be taken seriously, but it seems to me that Scripture’s testimony has to be weighed along with Scripture’s actual features. Even if we find a biblical text that says something like, “God’s word in the Bible never communicates any errant human viewpoints” (not something we’ll find, but for the sake of discussion), that biblical word will not be God’s final word on the subject if the Bible has human errors in it.
If all of the scientific evidence shows that the earth is really old and live emerged over the course of a long process, then we’ll simply have to believe it and try to understand how that fits with Scripture. 
Now we witness a fundamental contradiction in his epistemology. On the one hand, he denies that humans can ever have an inerrant understanding of things "as they really are." On the other hand, he's sure that Scripture is errant. He has unquestioning confidence in his interpretation of Scripture to conclude that Scripture is full of errors. He's certain that science has given us a correct description of the world, which–in turn–corrects the faulty description of the world in Scripture. 
Sparks is trapped in the familiar dilemma of the relativist. On the one hand, he assures us that humans lack access to an infallible source and standard of knowledge. On the other hand, he can only disprove the Bible by retrieving the yardstick he summarily threw away. 
God never errs, so in all of Scripture–every page–he never errs in his discourse. However, because God accommodates his speech to us through human beings who inevitably err, there not a single page of Scripture that is entirely free of human error.
In principle, there are three logical options:
i) Bible writers never err
ii) Bible writers sometimes err
iii) Bible writers always err
Now Sparks can only say humans always err on pain of self-refutation. If every human statement is errant, then every sentence in his own book is errant. Then his book is systematically errant, from start to finish. 
So, to be minimally coherent, Sparks has to grant that humans are sometimes right. Otherwise, he instantly falsifies his own claims. 
But if humans can sometimes be right, why can't they always be right? If the authors of Scripture can be right some of the time, why can't they be right all of the time? Once you concede the possibility of true speech some of the time, how can you rule out consistently true discourse? Is there a quota? Isaiah can be true 37% of the time, but not 43% of the time?
Again, and I don’t mean this with any arrogance at all: If to be a Christian is to believe in the inerrancy of the Bible’s human authors, then to my mind Christianity has been proved wrong a hundred times over. I am still a Christian because of the sorts of things I write in my book; if anything, Archer’s “Encyclopedia of Bible Difficulties” and the books of conservative evangelicals only drive me farther from the faith.
Sparks is a postmodernist with a modernist inside him, clawing to get out. On the one hand you have his faux modest disclaimers about how humans can't be inerrant. On the other hand, you have his supreme self-assurance is proclaiming that "If to be a Christian is to believe in the inerrancy of the Bible’s human authors, then to my mind Christianity has been proved wrong a hundred times over."
A postmodernist skeptic about human knowledge who's absolutely certain that not a single page of Scripture is free from error. If that's the standard, then Christianity has been proven wrong "hundreds of times over." His lack of elementary objectivity is comical. 
BTW, note my quotation from Archer in which he tells us that the Israelites wrongly thought that rabbits chewed the cud and that the biblical author accommodated himself to that errant view; 
That's a very deception account of what Archer said. Here's what Archer actually says:
In this technical sense neither the hyrax nor the hare can be called ruminants, but they do give the appearance of chewing their cud in the same way ruminants do…We need to remember that this list of forbidden animals was intended to be a practical guide for the ordinary Israelite as he was out in the wilds looking for food (126).
Let's elaborate on this explanation:
i) Lev 11 is one of the OT purity codes. It distinguishes clean from unclean animals. That distinction is, itself, somewhat arbitrary. It's concerned with ritual purity. That's a symbolic distinction rather than a natural distinction. So the text doesn't intend to be scientific. 
ii) In addition, the aim is to alert the reader to superficial anatomical and behavior markers that enable him to recognize and avoid unclean animals. It isn't mean to be a scientific taxonomy. Rather, it's a rule of thumb for identifying unclean animals, in distinction to clean animals. "Eat this, don't eat that!"
That's not divine accommodation to error. Rather, that's hitting the intended target. You can't miss the target unless you were aiming at that target in the first place. 
Notice too his view that the author of Acts quoted from a faulty Septuagint, thus providing an incorrect chronology, but that this doesn’t matter because it didn’t concern his purpose. Now I agree with this, but Archer didn’t realize the implications.
I assume that Sparks is alluding to Acts 7:4. However, it's likely that the LXX preserves the original reading. That reading is multiply attested in Philo, the LXX, the Samaritan Penteteuch, and the Pentateuch Targum. Cf. E. Schnabel, Acts (Zondervan 2012), 367n16. 
Texts are, strictly speaking, neither errant nor inerrant. Rather, they are the artifacts of human actions that are the source of any correctness and and error. Hence, to say that a text is “errant” or “inerrant” is always a metaphor that means, “The views of the author that gave rise to this text were not in error, and/or the author did not err in the effort to express his/her views.”
Not clear what he means by this. Perhaps he means language encodes true or false beliefs. 
As for the resurrection, your question about it already assmes the Cartesian epistemology (i.e., any epistemology that believes humans can know that they have perfect, incorrigible knowledge) that I critique in the book. The simple answer is that the testimony to the life of Jesus and his resurrection is flawed in certain ways, as one can see by comparing the gospels. And even if they were identical, that wouldn’t prove that the testimonies were right. So I don’t “know” (in the Cartesian sense) that Jesus resurrected and ascended; I do truly believe it and live by it because there is evidence for it. But of course, I could be wrong. Maybe the universe is just a pack of little strings held together by impersonal forces and we all die and turn to dust … but that’s not what I believe.
That's not what he wants to believe, but his view of Scripture leaves him with little recourse. 

1 comment:

  1. I've recently been writing a 5000 word essay on the inerrancy of Scripture. What Steve writes here about turning the clock back is spot on. I've read a pile of people who think they've come up with new and clever objections to the church's historic position. But they mostly just endlessly recycle the same stock objections, and speak as if nobody has yet addressed those objections.