I have just started re-reading a book that made a profound impact on me during my sophomore year of college. The book is God’s Word in Human Words: An Evangelical Appropriation of Critical Biblical Scholarship by Kenton L. Sparks. Just as the title suggests, the book is about how Christians with evangelical convictions can utilize and make the most of the historical-critical method of studying scripture. Sparks’ main idea is that when God inspired the Biblical authors, he accommodated his revelation to the limited knowledge and perspectives of the writers. This understanding of Scripture allows us to read the Bible as God-inspired, yet also not get too bothered by some of the results of historical-critical scholarship that have traditionally made evangelicals and other theologically conservative Christians nervous.
For those who are unfamiliar with the term “historical-critical,” it simply means studying the historical and literary content of the Bible with the same tools and methods that one would use to study any other ancient text. This method began in the middle ages when scholars began to learn that languages evolve over time, and that by studying them, one can approximately determine when or where a text was written. These methods of studying the past evolved through the Renaissance and the Enlightenment which gave rise to other disciplines, such as archaeology, that shed more light on the historical context of the ancient world. These disciplines and methods were also applied to the Bible in an effort to better understand its meaning and the world that it was written in.
Historical criticism got a bad name among certain Christians when its findings started challenging some traditional beliefs about the nature and composition of the Bible. For example, the authorship of the Pentateuch (Genesis–Deuteronomy) had historically been attributed to Moses. The tools of the historical critical method, however, seemed to indicate that it was not the work of one author, but of multiple authors and was likely compiled centuries after Moses had died. This is one major example, among many. These conclusions, along with the challenges that new discoveries in geology and biology were putting up against some interpretations of creation and Noah’s flood, naturally caused some Christians to become uncomfortable.
Sparks’ main aim in this book is to show evangelicals that the methodology of the historical critical method is pretty sound, and also that it is not the enemy of faith. He does acknowledge that some scholars have used the tools of historical criticism to deliberately try to undermine faith, but overall, they are neutral tools that can be used just as well by believing scholars. Sparks believes that one can fearlessly utilize the historical critical method and not be afraid of where the evidence leads us.
What about when the findings of historical criticism contradict a traditionally held view about Scripture? Well, Christians have traditionally had to revise certain views they held about Scripture when the evidence confronted them. Though it is an oft-used example, Christians had to adjust their interpretation of Scripture when Galileo discovered the earth orbited the sun. After all, the Bible explicitly teaches that the earth is stationary: “The world is firmly established, it cannot be moved” (Psalm 96:10). While we may laugh at that example today, in Galileo’s time, passages like that were used as ammunition against his ideas. In the same way, today we may have to revise our understanding of Scripture from time to time when the available evidence seems to demand it.
What I love the most about Sparks’ book is that he shows how one can seriously use the tools of historical study to profit from Scripture and still maintain that it is inspired by God and does what it is supposed to do. He does this by utilizing an idea that predates, but was really developed by John Calvin about divine accommodation to the limited perspective of human beings. This idea says, God knows everything, but humans do not. Therefore, God has to tailor what he reveals to what humans can understand. This is just what parents do when explaining complex things to young children. They put the big idea in words and concepts the child understands.
When God inspired the authors and editors of Scripture, he utilized them in all of their humanity. Just as God became a 1st century Jewish man in the incarnation, so his revelation comes in the context that the receivers can understand and work with. Therefore, we shouldn’t be too worried when we see evidence of the Bible’s humanity in its pages.
This book helped me put a lot of things in perspective as an undergraduate. It helped me see the value of historical-critical tools, and it inoculated me against the radical skepticism that some people develop when their previously held ideas are challenged. The world is full of people who were taught to believe the Bible conformed to an unrealistic standard of precision, whose faith was shattered when they discovered it did not. Sparks helps show that in their case, it was their standards that were flawed, not the Bible. We have the text that God wanted us to have, so maybe we need to just let it be itself.