Accommodation: God's Word in Human Words (Biblical Criticism and Inerrancy)

That was me. I really enjoyed it! Happy reading!



The last chapter went through traditional responses to Biblical criticism that seemed to fail badly. This one goes through more constructive responses. We see a brief overview of Kerygmatic exegesis, narrative theology, pneumatology, the Biblical theology movement, Child’s Canonical Inspiration, James Barr, the Roman catholic understanding, Barth and several others.

Offering some commentary and then a summary of Barth’s view of scripture and hermeneutics, and while Sparks mentions he may appear inconsistent at times and leave us with “loose ends,” he reduces his views to three prongs:

  1. Genre
  2. Accommodation
  3. Sovereignty

Genre: The errors in scripture are only errors insofar as it is assumed God chose to reveal himself through narratives that must be factual history.

“In sum, Barth believed that the errors in Scripture became a theological problem primarily because Christians mistakenly embraced a docetic doctrine of inerrancy. So while evangelicals fancy inerrancy as a doctrinal firewall against the destructive effects of biblical criticism, Barth avers that inerrancy was actually the cause of the fire.” Pg 174

Accommodation: Scripture comes from a limited and errant perspective. Though not raised by Sparks this seems obvious to me when we assume it was written by people who use sources, reflect incorrect cosmology and scientific thinking of their time and so on. It seems odd to imagine God in his heavenly office writing a Gospel like Mark and then expanding it twice. Scripture is fully immersed in human writing conventions to the point where it looks completely normal. God is “adopting the words of finite, fallen human beings as his own, thus accommodating his divine speech to the needs of the human audience.” Pg 176

Earlier Sparks wrote this: “No—at its heart the failure stems from evangelicalism’s commitment to a faulty Cartesian epistemology, to an epistemology that assumes human beings have the capacity to see the world as God sees it. This theological error is quite natural, inasmuch as it confuses entirely adequate human knowledge with entirely perfect divine knowledge. But it is an error nonetheless. . . . If human knowledge could perfectly mirror God’s, and if this knowledge could in turn be expressed in human language, then evangelicals would be right to assume that the Bible is likely to be a perfect book, hermetically sealed from humanity’s imperfections.” Pg 171

Sovereignty: “According to Barth, Because God freely chooses to reveal himself through Scripture, the human errors in scripture are not–in fact, cannot be–an impediment to this sovereign act of revelation. Indeed, according to Barth, God could speak to us in any number of ways: “God may speak to us through Russian Communism, a flute concerto, a blossoming shrub or a dead dog. We do well to listen to Him if He really does. But, unless we regard ourselves as the prophets and founders of a new Church, we cannot say that we are commissioned to pass on what we have heard as independent proclamation.” In Barth’s view, to assume that God can speak to us only through the Bible, or only through an inerrant Bible at that, is a foolish and direct assault on God’s sovereignty.” Pg 175-6

Kind of interesting how this last prong tends to turn conservatism on its head. The idea that to be inspired by God the Bible must be perfect is to deny God his sovereignty. In the conclusion once again Sparks answers the question of why the Bible, though inspired by God can be less than perfect: “God has chosen to speak to finite human beings through the context of our finite cultural and social horizons.” Pg 200 Of course, there are a lot of loose ends and some difficulties with Barth’s views.

Going forward in the chapter it seems many authors are trying to understand the Bible as a theology rather than history book. The Genre approach. While this is mostly true, the problem is that there are also divergent theologies in the texts. Childs thinks that the “cacophony of theological voices” and “theological diversity of scripture” can be explained in the larger context of the canon. Basically, a more “sophisticated implementation” of scripture interpreting scripture that accepts basics of Biblical criticism. Sparks writes on slavery as an example of Child’s view, “For example, although some Biblical texts might suggest that slavery is ethically permissible, the canon as a whole—which contains the venerable Golden Rule—will suggest that it ultimately is not. Essentially, the canon profiles the theological antidote for the Bible’s diversity.”pg 181 I must admit I am very sympathetic to this view but fully understand Spark’s criticism and how subjective it can be. It’s a weakness that it is not obvious from scripture that slavery is bad. This is only so for those who think slavery is bad. Those who owned slaves before us clearly had no lack of exegetical ammunition in justifying the practice from “Gods word.” Both testaments clearly allow (condone?) it and it is hard to deny we simply are reading what we already believe into the Bible rather than letting is serve as conscious and corrector. Though in the end I do think a good argument could be made from the behavior of Jesus against it, but it seems no first century Christians immersed in the times seems to have made this connection. None the less, I like the idea of a non-inerrant scripture tempering itself. Coming up with a less subjective hermeneutic seems more challenging though.

Wink thought that while Biblical criticism could date a work such as Daniel, it could never help use grow spiritually when reading it. I find this to be in error. I think historical criticism can often allow us to find greater nuance and appreciate the meaning of scripture more. Wink did think biblical criticism was useful in one regard. Sparks summarizes him as believing “historical criticism was valuable as a theological critique of fundamentalism, whose docetic view of scripture, left unchecked, can breed a kind of bibliolatry that distracts us from God and Christ. Perhaps Wink’s concern on this point seems very close to that expressed by Jesus: “ You search the scriptures, because you think that in them you have eternal life; and it is they who bear witness to me; yet you refuse to come to me that you may have life” (John 5:39-40 RSV).” Pg 183

Burn. Pew pew. Shots fired.

Steinmertz sought a return to precritical exegesis. Some in the ancient church had a fourfold method of interpretation: literal, allegorical, tropological and analogical. A sensus plenior adopted from Greek philosophy. Sparks quoted Steinmetz at length on the notorious Psalm 137:

“How was a French parish priest in 1150 to understand Psalm 137, which bemoans captivity in Babylon, makes rude comments about Edomites, expressed an ineradicable longing for a glimpse of Jerusalem, and pronounces a blessing on anyone who avenges the destruction of the temple by dashing Babylonian children against a rock? The priest lives in Concale, not Babylon, has no personal quarrel with Edomites, cherishes no ambition to visit Jerusalem (though he might fancy a holiday in Paris), and is expressly forbidden by Jesus to avenge himsekf in his enemeies. Unless Psalm 137 has more than one possible meaning, it cannot be used as a prayer by the church and must be rejected as a lament belonging exclusively to the piety of ancient Israeal.” (Superiority of Precritical Exegesis, Theology Today 37 (1980) 27-28.

I think I quoted Augustine’s allegorical interpretation of this much earlier.

I enjoyed the section on the Roman Catholic Church. It has been marvelously progressive and sensible on the nature of biblical criticism and science the last ~100 years. To be honest, Protestants are just starting to catch up which is a good thing. Maybe this is why I don’t hold negative feelings towards Biblical criticism. I started off reading Raymond Brown’s Introduction to the New Testament. He was a very sober critical scholar but he also had a tremendous love for Jesus, the Church and a deep appreciation for Scripture as God’s word. From there I purchased his Birth of the Messiah and then his 2 volume commentary: Death of the Messiah. I also got my hands on the single greatest resource I think there is in Biblical studies, the New Jerome Biblical Commentary . Hands down there is no better or more exhaustive single work. Then it was on to Meier and his HJ stuff, Fitzmyer on Luke-Acts and on and on wit the Anchor Bible series. Now I have books coming in the mail every other day from every angle. I certainly read many books that challenged my views especially when just starting out but I think starting with Brown gave me a solid base. I never really feared the findings of Biblical criticism.

I found the views of James Barr interesting and somewhat similar to my own. I think they do tend to lead to a more Catholic type of understanding as Barr believes. The main point here was that Christianity is not dependent on historical accuracy, Ultimately, outside of Jesus being crucified and rising from the dead, there is very little in the Bible that must be historical. For sure, there are a lot of historical references in the bible but per Barr “no one supposes that all these bear a relation to Christianity analogical to Jesus’ crucifixion under Pontius Pilate or his resurrection from the dead.” The Bible can actually be “bad as literature, or quite erratic as history, or untenable as world-view,–or dubious as science if it comes to that—none of these should seriously affect the basis of its authority, though by taking them into consideration we may be helped to understand better the nature of that authority. But the basis of that authority lies in its efficacy in the faith-relation between man and God.”

It seems the authority and accuracy of the Bible does not lie in the truthfulness of the “facts” it narrates, but in its salvific purposes and ability to mediate the Sacred. Clearly as a witness to Jesus the Bible has been extremely accurate over the centuries. Yet Barr seems good at criticizing other beliefs but doesn’t offer as many positive statements of his own beliefs per Sparks.

I also found an interesting snippet on parables that made me think of what Sparks said earlier about the Exodus. It also made me think of something I read in Crossan many years back. A quip that was written so elegantly written I almost want to believe it is true on those grounds alone (“Emmaus never happened. Emmaus always happens.”). It is possible Emmaus did happen and that Emmaus always happens as well. Anyways, the quote from Sparks:

“The parable of the good Samaritan, for instance, is not about a particular sequence of events in time; but it is certainly about real victims and real crimes, and about those who help—or do not help—their neighbors in distress. Because the parable can describe many times and places rather than a single time and place, its depiction of history is actually better than if it were a genuine historical report.” Sparks pg 189

I would qualify better to mean more useful to the human predicament but I wonder if we can say the same thing about the Exodus, while not being historical, the story of such bondage and liberation occurred over and over again did it not? Sparks did write the following on page 99-100: “It requires only a little imagination to see how the biblical story might dimly reflect actual events in ancient Egypt. Many of the motifs in the exodus story have an historical flavor—not in the sense of specific events but rather as recurring historical patterns in ancient Egyptian history. Good examples include the motifs of Pharoah and his Asiatic slaves, of the Egyptian oppression of Palestine, of travel and trade between Egypt and Palestine, of the great plagues that commonly wreaked havoc in ancient Egypt. These kinds of things certainly did happen. So it is quite possible that the exodus tradition is historical, at least in the sense that it summarizes as one story what were actually the repetitive patterns of live in ancient Egypt.” Sparks does go on to point to a potential historical kernel during the Hyksos period dealing with Asiatic invaders. Josephus already made the connection between the Hyksos and Israel in the first century.

I suppose chapter 6 is where Sparks begins to start defending his own hermeneutic and model.


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Thank you for the recommendation.



Chapter six is all about eliminating Biblical errors through genre. I felt like I was reading a much more sophisticated form of “Chicago Statement” style reasoning. If that treatise can be accused of moving goal posts to avoid errors, Spark’s outdoes it by a mile. We can simply change the genre of the Biblical books so that telling history is not their chief concern but rather telling and reshaping history to express theological ideology is their concern. Thus, it does not matter if what is authored is fiction or fiction blended with history. It makes little sense to accuse a theological retelling of history of factual inaccuracy. That was never its concern or intended purpose. Sparks is correct in that it is absolutely true the interpretation of a specific work ties specifically into its genre and intended purpose. I have personally believed for a logn time now that the Gospels—not just John-- are not strictly biography in the modern or even in the ancient sense. They blend history with theology and the ever present transforming and risen Jesus all into one. The genre view is troubling because a lot, and I mean a lot, of plain, straightforward statements in the Bible, giving the appearance of history, can no longer be interpreted the way the majority of the Church has the last 2,000 years. We are basically saying “no no no” this has been understood wrong for 2,000 years. Though admittedly, as long as we glean the same general message from the stories, has anything really changed?

Of identifying genre Sparks speaks of a “locutionary act (“what is spoken or written)” and an illocutionary act (authorial intent) and uses the following small conversation:

Mary: “Would you like a cup of coffee?”
Sam: “That would keep me awake.”

Based on this Sparks highlights that we can’t actually know from this whether or not Sam likes coffee. If Sam were driving far at night he might be positively affirming he would like some coffee. If he were ready for bed “in his pajamas” this might be a rejection of the offer. The life setting of this conservation matters. Without the proper context, how “the words fit into the world,” it is difficult to decide what is meant. If Mary was Sam’s wife of fifteen years, we might assume she would not offer him something he doesn’t like. But if they were hitting a travel center, driving late into the night, this might not hold true. Given the importance of context, Sparks writes:

“Given that human beings never understand contexts completely, this implies that we never understand instances of verbal discourse perfectly. Even when our interpretations our essentially correct, each involves subtle and inevitable elements of misinterpretation. Nevertheless, in the final analysis, our capacity for language is a beautify thing that allows us adequately and meaningfully to share our lives and experiences with one another—adequately, but never perfectly.” In my eyes this not only applies to Biblical discourse but also to Jesus during his incarnation., Melville’s Moby Dick is used as an example of purpose. Was the central concern of Melville getting whaling completely correct or was it about the obsession of Ahab? “To read Moby Dick as if it were a book about whales misconstrues Melville’s discourse.“ pg 209 Thus we need to examine Melville based on his intended purposes and the things that matter in the text. He may very well have gotten whaling wrong on a number of things but to judge the book by that given that wasn’t his purpose is a “petty criticism” according to Sparks who notes along with Barth that “many of our modern difficulties with Scripture arise precisely because readers are seeking the wrong things from Biblical authors.” Against this interpretation it must be mentioned that throughout much of the Church, the Bible has been interpreted this way. Did we really discover something radically new the last two thousand years of exegetes missed? Though @Chris_Falter brought up a good point recently:

Cardinal Bellarmine likewise affirmed the absolute inerrancy of Scripture, and applied that doctrine to Psalm 104:5 and many other passages that speak clearly of the Earth not having any motion.

“Oh, but Bellarmine was wrong! Those passages were not intending to teach science!” Of course we think that today. But at the time, Bellarmine had 1500 years of exegesis to back him up, and all Galileo had was a few telescopes.

It seems that there is a lot more than an immutable earth that the Bible “doesn’t teach” despite its plain language. So how does Sparks use genre?

Jonah and the Parables of Jesus

First he sees fiction as very valuable and appeals strongly to the parables of Jesus in defense of this: “If we aim to take the Bible seriously as God’s Word, this leaves us with only one possible solution: perhaps fiction is a more valuable genre for conveying truth than conservative evangelicals normally suppose.” Pg 214-5

An archetype, in his view, is actually stronger than a single historical instance. Using the parable of the good Samaritan, he tells us that if it were historical it would tell us about a few individuals from history and their impious behavior but “taken as a parable the story becomes something else altogether. It depicts not one historical situation but rather all instances in which religious people fail to love their neighbor in distress. In a very concrete sense, insofar as the parable describes and applies to many historical contexts rather than just one, we can reasonably claim that parables are more historical than conventional historical reports. So works in fictional genres can be quote true, not only theologically but also historically.” Pg 215. I think there is an equivocation in here somewhere utilizing the word history but I do get Spark’s point. An account that is made up to address a historical situation cannot be more historical than an account that is historically accurate. He seems to be waxing poetic here. But yes, even if Jonah is fiction, it is still meant to address and describe a specific historical reality regarding the Jews, repentance and salvation. He also says that given the world is fallen, scripture won’t only include factual narratives telling us “ what is ” but also fictional narratives depicting what “ should be .” I am not sure how he knows this and I can’t take it as self-evident, true or not. Sparks does point out that despite our preference for history, if Jonah is fiction it is none the less inspired by God and no less authoritative than a parable of Jesus. “Biblical fiction does not let us off the hook of obedience.” I guess I would ask why on earth should I believe this book was actually inspired by God in the sense of being written. Maybe it was merely inspire in the same way a mountain inspires an artists to draw it.

Usher and the Mimetic Genealogy of Genesis 5
Sparks points out the genealogy in Genesis 5, with its long life spans (365-969 years), is very much like a Sumerian kings list with even longer life spans (tens of thousands of years!). Bishop Usher used the Genesis genealogy incorrectly assuming it was straightforward history and mistakenly calculated the birth of the earth as 10/22/4004 BCE. At any rate, there are points of contact between the Genesis 5 and Sumerian King’s list:

· Both provide a list of pre-flood heroes with very long life spans.
· The seventh person in each list did not die but went to heaven (Enoch and Enmedur-Anna).

Given these points of contact and since Mesopotamian kings lists often stress the seventh king, many scholars feel that whoever wrote Genesis 5 simply took a Hebrew genealogy and patterned it after an older, Mesopotamian kings list. Supplementary evidence of this is found in the author of Genesis 5 possibly receiving most of this list from whoever authored Genesis 4. In addition, the final digit in the chronological information provided in the lists is 0, 2, 5 or 7 in all cases but one (26 out of 27 times!). These numbers are not strictly historical as this it not likely to arise by chance. Like some Sumerian kings lists they were probably influenced by “astronomical and mathematical figures.”

So Sparks argues the purpose of the list is not a factual genealogical listing. It mirrors Sumerian lists which “were important expressions of power and legitimacy in the Mesopotamian tradition.” This was meant to show the “value and significance of the Hebrew people.” This makes even more sense if we suppose Jewish culture was being threatened (during or after the Babylonian exile). As opposed to bad or second rate history, Genesis 5 is good “mimetic fiction” and “it is a truly masterful act of Israelite resistance to the arrogance of Mesopotamian culture.

Sparks goes on to point out the Pentateuch with its host of different genres is better viewed as an anthology. This explains contradictions between the same stories in multiple places where the same event is retold (e.g. the two creation narratives). “Viewing the Pentateuch as an anthology helps us understand why it contains two or more versions of so many stories, and also why it contains so many types of genres. Its author (or compiler) was clearly more interested in preserving Israel’s diverse traditions than in providing some kind of coherent book of history. Though the anthological result was unique, the basic impulse behind it—the desire to preserve cultural tradition—appears in some guise or other in every human culture, including our own.” Pg 219

He claims John wrote a theological Gospel and changed the timing of Jesus’ crucifixion to depict him clearly as the Passover Lamb. His argument is that because Jesus was a sacrifice that despite John changing historical details is theologically true because Jesus was a sacrifice. It is “not poorly researched biography” or “duplicitous fiction” but “a very effective theological biography.”

His treatment of Daniel’s ex eventu prophecies I agree with but it seems strange to simply reduce them to the sole point of expressing a theological truth: “God knows what the future holds because he is in control of human history. Daniel’s ex eventu predictions were one legitimate way of expressing the reality of God’s foreknowledge and sovereignty.” Sparks does go on to point out how genre does not solve all of Daniel’s problems.

I was a bit put off by some of his discussion of the different blocks of law in the Pentateuch and his treatment or of Chronicles theological retelling of history. Even while agreeing with it. “Not contradictions at all” and “not errors” seemed odd to me even if technically correct. I can’t fully finger it yet but it looked like I was getting the same old evangelical harmonization techniques, just with genre now. It’s a cute method of salvaging some form inspiration and maintaining Biblical integrity in face of a literal army of difficulties. If its fiction or a blend of fiction and history it doesn’t have to be accurate. It really is extremely difficult to tell what separates the Bible from any other work in Spark’s eyes? Sure, he operates under the assumption that it is God’s word but looking at its details there is not much to suggest this whatsoever. Daniel made this observation and it is poignant. In fact, outside of its salvific record, it looks like a completely human work on every level. In fact, he says as much, “even after generic criticism” accounts for many Biblical difficulties “ample evidence remains that the Biblical authors were subject to their own finitude and fallenness when they wrote Scripture.” He suggest Daniel screws up thinking the end was nigh. Paul and the author of Revelation, along with many early Christians also had a mistaken eschatology. Interestingly enough, Spark’s doesn’t go far enough with this yet. If much of the early church thought Jesus would return soon, and we have sayings to this effect, it is hard on historical grounds not to push this belief to Jesus. I think Meier ended up siding with early prophets in the church but it has to be a VERY EARLY development if it doesn’t go back to Jesus. At any rate, I will find it a bit suspicious if Sparks more or less reconstructs a traditional, evangelical Christianity while admitting the Bible contains large amounts of fiction. He is going to need to do a good job in selling a hermeneutic. Was Jesus really a sacrifice or is this just the natural interpretation of a culture steeped in animal sacrifices and “blood magic?” Why do we accept it as doctrinally true that the incarnation was a sacrifice? Even if it was Jesus giving his life for us, this could be viewed as merely creating solidarity alone and not in the sense most of the Biblical authors thought it.

At any rate, Sparks offers his own summary: “The genealogy of Genesis 5 is not bad history; it is mimetic Jewish propaganda. The Pentateuch is not a confusing blend of contradictory fictions; it is an anthology of Jewish tradition. Hebrew law is not a compendium of legal inconsistency; it is the result of a rational, necessary, ongoing process of statutory reformulation. The Chroniclers history is not a pack of duplicitous lies; it is narrative of retributive theology. John’s Gospel is not a poor and misleading biography; it is a theological portrait of Jesus’s life. Daniel’s ex eventu prophecies are not deception; they are theological expressions of divine sovereignty. Again and again, in these instances and others I have not mentioned, the problem of Scripture’s ostensible “errors” is resolved by generic considerations.” Pg 225

I am still digesting the contents of chapter 6. I feel a bit unsettled on some issues but I can’t put my finger on it yet. Maybe it is my modern tendency to favor true stories over fiction or to treat works with an appearance of history as if they were actually historical. This type of genre is a bit foreign to me. And my chief concern is how we maintain any hard model of inspiration. As I mentioned earlier, a mountain can be said to inspire an artist who paints it. But the mountain does not control the accuracy of the artists rendition. Most Christians have a higher view of inspiration than this but I can’t help but think this is all scripture looks like and needs to be viewed as by Christians. I am not sure why a significantly fictions anthology with diverse theologies and contradictions is viewed as “the authoritative word of God.” Why are we not compelled to view the whole Bible as a mere anthology of our beliefs?



Excellent review, Vinnie. Lots to think about there.


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