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In a post a couple of weeks ago (here) we opened a discussion on Kent Sparks’ thought-provoking, and somewhat controversial book God’s Word in Human Words (GWHW). Over the next several posts we will delve into this book more deeply.

In the first chapter Sparks lays some groundwork on epistemology and hermeneutics before digging into biblical criticism and effective and ineffective responses to the challenges of biblical scholarship in the rest of the book.

Epistemology is the branch of philosophy concerned with the nature and scope of knowledge. It seeks to answer questions about how we know what we know.

Hermeneutics is the study of interpretation. Traditionally it referred to the interpretation of texts, including the interpretation of biblical texts.  Modern hermeneutics concerns interpretation in general – from sights and sounds to thoughts and experiences. How do humans communicate and interpret communication.

Consideration of epistemology and hermeneutics leads to three conclusions: (p. 54-55)

1. We have finite capacities and there is nothing inherently wrong about the limited perceptual horizon that God has granted to human beings. We will never have certain knowledge.

2. All individuals interpret Scripture according to methods practiced by their interpretive communities and in accord with their general cultural outlook.

3. The human authors of scripture are subject to the same limitations as everyone else, including the human audience. God in scripture uses adequate means and adequate texts to convey his message to adequate readers capable of adequate wisdom.

This leads to the question I would like to consider today.

How much of our view of scripture – our interpretation of scripture – is determined by our cultural context – and how much of our view of scripture is inherent to the viability, the truth content, of the Christian faith?

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Sparks considers epistemology and interpretation as they relate to scripture and the church in three general historical contexts, the premodern, modern, and postmodern eras.  It would take a dissertation or ten to work out all the details here – and Sparks provides but a broad brush outline – a general sketch of the highlights. Today we will look at the first two – the premodern and modern trajectory leading to the current situation. In the next installment we will look at the postmodern context.

The Premodern Period extended from the early church to the Renaissance in the 14th century. In this period the authority of the church was generally accepted on matters of faith. Scripture was important – but ultimate authority rested with the church.

Even when their minds suggested alternatives to tradition, premodern scholars tended to follow the church’s judgment because they were profoundly aware of the great gulf that separated divine knowledge from human knowledge. … So premodern scholars were theoretically and theologically committed to humility in matters of interpretation and human knowledge. In general they thought it better to trust the judgments of tradition more than the impulses of their private individual judgments. Whether they always lived out this humility in another matter, but they were certainly aware of the limitations of human knowledge. (p. 27)

The interpretation of scripture in this period highlighted both literal and figurative meanings in scripture.  In fact allegory and typology were key aspects of the content of the text. Because God authored the text both the literal and the figurative meanings were intentional and authoritative within the text.

The Modern Period beginning in the Renaissance and continuing through to the present is characterized by the a full-blown suspicion of tradition. The Reformation rejected the authority of the church as the ultimate repository of God’s truth – and found this authority, repository of truth, instead within scripture.

Reformation theology was critical of many things, even recognizing and struggling with the textual problems in Scripture. But in the end it did not doubt the authority and correctness of Scripture, nor did it doubt our human ability to understand Scripture with God’s help. (p. 31)

But the modern search for knowledge was not limited to religion – it was and is a character of the age. Modern search for certain knowledge – and the conviction that careful and deliberate search for truth could and would yield such knowledge supported scientific investigation – with great success; but the same search for truth in the realm of history led to increasing doubt of religious faith. Sparks notes:

In the English-speaking world, this Enlightenment-era tendency is no better illustrated than by the influential Scottish historian Thomas Carlyle (1795-1881). Carlyle believed that there were in fact two basic genres of writing, “Reality” (meaning history) and “Fiction.” … indeed Carlyle went so far as saying that fiction “partakes of the nature of lying.” This Enlightenment tendency toward historicism tended to undermine biblical authority, since scholars of that era increasingly believed that the biblical narratives, or parts of them, were more fictional than historical. (p. 34)

The search for truth in the realm of science and in the realm of textual criticism and Ancient Near East Studies relegates, or appears to relegate portions of the Biblical text to the realm of fiction – equated with “lying.

The battle between traditional Christian faith and rational enlightenment thinking was intense and gave rise to many of the conflicts we see and suffer from today. The fundamentals and fundamentalism arose from this context. Likewise the conflict over science and faith, evolution, creation, and intelligent design are intimately tied with the push for rational proof and the insistence that fact = truth; myth or story = fiction.

As I see it (I don’t know what Sparks would say here):

The struggle over Genesis is driven by an insistence that story and myth = fiction = “lying” and God does not lie.  But Genesis did not arise from the modern – or even a premodern – context. Rather it is pre-premodern and imposing a modern expectation on the authors and editors of the text is a fundamental error. Truth need not be related as historical fact.

The emotional structure of the discussion of Intelligent Design is driven by the desire to prove (in a rational modern sense) that God exists.

Our culture – at least among the educated elite – is imbued with rational ontological naturalism. It is in the air we breathe and diffuses into the soul.  This environment makes it difficult to take the faith seriously. After all, how can we know that there is a reality beyond the material world we see before us – isn’t ontological naturalism the obvious rational choice?

This leads us (in a round about way) back to the questions posed above.

How much of our view of scripture – our interpretation of
scripture – is determined by our cultural context – and how much of our
view of scripture is inherent to the viability, the truth content, of
the Christian faith?

If you wish to contact me directly you may do so at rjs4mail [at] att.net.

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