Tuesday, April 28, 2009

"The Embattled Bible"

As mentioned in an earlier post, the latest issue of Themelios is out. Of particular interest to regular readers of this blog may be the review by Robert Yarbrough of four new books on the Bible. One of the books that Dr. Yarbrough reviews is God's Word in Human Words by Kenton Sparks of Eastern University. Dr. Sparks has commented on this blog and is a gracious man although I have profound disagreements with him.

Dr. Yarbrough's review is, I believe, fair. He points out the strengths of Dr. Sparks' book. But as an evangelical scholar with a high view of Scripture Yarbrough takes issue with the substance of Sparks' book. Commenting on the conclusion of God's Word in Human Words Yarbrough writes:

In “Conclusions: Biblical Criticism and Christian Institutions” (357–74), Sparks takes up thisquestion. The answer is, basically, that it must be embraced judiciously but maximally. As questions arise in a church setting and as parishioners can bear the truth, it should be shared with them. This will take time, perhaps generations. But it is a vital mission, as Sparks shows by adapting terms from WilliamCarey—so vital, to note one contrast, that nothing is said here or in the whole book about missions in the more usual sense. This mission to promote criticism is the particular responsibility of the Christian college. While this has the effect of giving professors like Sparks their way with impressionable students away from any guidance by their pastors and parents, that is not his point. He rather seeks to implement a merciful protective measure: taking care of this business in the Christian college classroom means “rank-and-file church members are better insulated from the potentially destructive effects of intense academic inquiry and debate” (364). It is not clear why these members should be spared but their children (likely funded by the members) fully exposed to this inquiry and debate. Nor is it clear why the results of criticism that Sparks promotes as so salubrious throughout the book must now suddenly be hidden from the view of people in churches.

Sparks quotes Duane Litfin, president of Wheaton College, but totally rejects his conception of “revelation and creation, or of faith and reason” (365), because it is too narrow and biblicistic. What happens at places like Wheaton is that leaders cater to “uninformed constituencies,” whether because they agree with them or “because they wish to attract their tuition dollars” (366). Instead, there must be
academic freedom; otherwise “ill-guided fundamentalist populism” will continue to drive schools like Duke, Emory, and Southern Methodist University “further away
from their traditional Christian roots”(367). Sparks does not document how this populism drives the direction of these institutions.

He likens “many evangelical theologians and biblical scholars” today to Edward Carnell (191 9–67), who died from overdose and possibly suicide because rigid evangelical institutional expectations at Fuller Seminary were so repressive that he cracked under the strain (368–69). There need to be changes and adjustments in institutional models so that full academic freedom can flourish even when this “flies in the face of external, populist constituencies” (369). The implication seems to be that otherwise evangelicalism can expect further tragedies among its psychologically victimized leaders.

“Students schooled in biblical criticism” should be cautious about airing what they know from college or seminary—Noah’s flood did not occur, nor (probably) the exodus, Nineveh did not repent, the Gospels disagree, Revelation errs in predicting Christ’s return, and so forth (371). So studentsshould be careful where and how they say what they now know, not because the facts are in question (historical criticism assures that) but because people in the pew are not yet ready for these historical critical insights, the church will recoil, the Christian academy that taught these things will be criticized, and Sparks’s mission of seeing historical criticism accepted in the church will be set back (371).

While Sparks sounds a conciliatory note at the very end—“The evangelical scholars that I know are wonderful people, and in many cases their scholarship is excellent” (373)—the grim truth is that “the evangelical tradition” is “equally culpable” with “Enlightenment rationalism and post-Enlightenment relativism” in destroying faith and fomenting apostasies (374). “A more robust faith” like Spark’s “believing criticism” “would chart a different course, one that is at the same time critical in its disposition and wholly committed to the theological and ethical demands of Christian orthodoxy” (ibid.).


Mark W. said...

Hmmm . . . that does explain a few things I've wondered about concerning Dr. Sparks' employer. After reading this I'm glad I was among those "uninformed constituencies" that schools like Wheaton cater to.

Mike L said...

So am I to understand Mr. Sparks as saying that ultimate and truly reliable truth is best taught in universities rather than the church? I don't believe I have seen that model put forth in Scripture although it sounds a bit like Gnosticism.

Todd Pruitt said...


As someone who until November of 2008 spent his entire life in Southern Baptist Churches I can tell you that the strategy at one time was, "Get 'em when they get to college of seminary."

In other words the Southern Baptist Convention almost went the way of the American Baptists, PCUSA, and United Church of Christ because our seminaries had become theologically liberal. They utterly rejected the inerrancy of Scripture (and a whole host of essential Christian doctrines).

Now, in many cases they were very careful. In the case of Southern Seminary, generations of professors signed the statement of faith without believing it. These teachers knew that as go the seminaries so go the churches.

There was a very low opinion of the churches by the faculty of these seminaries. They did not want to be accountable to the "ignorant masses" populating the pews on Sundays and so they acted as it they weren't. Of course by the late 1970's and 80's they learned differently.