Sacred Word Broken Word: Kenton Sparks and the Adoptionist View

This post is the second in a series on the nature of Scripture and inspiration. See the first one on perspectives of some of the early church fathers here.

In his book, Sacred Word Broken Word, Kenton Sparks proposes an “adoptionist” view for understanding the nature of Scripture. Specifically, “Scripture is God’s Word because God providentially adopted ancient human beings, like Paul, as his spokespersons. In doing so God ‘set apart’ or ‘sanctified’ their words for use in his redemptive activity” (29, 156). Interestingly, he chooses a 2nd century heresy as an analogy. Adoptionism denies that Jesus was eternally pre-existent with the Father, but rather he became divine when “adopted” by God at his baptism and the Spirit of God descended upon him (e.g. Luke 3:22). Sparks says “there is a theological purpose behind God’s choice to use human beings as we are, so that the glory for redemption will truly be his” (156). However, he does not expand on this theory of theological purpose.

Sparks believes the biblical authors were sinful human beings who erred like any other human beings (29, 32, 46-47, 59). They sometimes “thought and wrote ungodly things.” He also believes the Bible not only has errors (6, 29), but also contains within its pages evil that is in need of redemption (46-47). He compares Scripture with creation—good, but fallen. Some texts should be prioritized for reading above “those that are more partial or distorted by the human condition” (49). A significant influence on his view of the Bible as fallen is difficult texts such as the Israelite conquest of the Canaanites. He also mentions discrepancies such as the variant tradition on whether or not one is to boil the Passover meal (Exod 12:9; Deut 16:7). He doesn’t believe that “diversity” in Scripture is a sufficient explanation for addressing textual difficulties (38). He categorizes the problem of Scripture three ways: finiteness, culture, and fallenness. The biblical authors exhibited their finiteness, for example, when they wrote about waters above the heavens (39). Culture is evident in the variant traditions such as with Passover meal rituals. And, most distinctively, he views the Bible as fallen given its questionable morality in certain places (patriarchal systems, war tactics etc).

For Sparks, the Bible is not a guidebook and is not necessarily helpful for ethics (22). He believes we can discern right from wrong through natural law and Scripture might offer some supplemental assistance. Instead, the Bible “is a book where God infallibly achieves his redemptive aims through the fallible words of human authors” (49). The Bible is not a necessity to be accountable before God. He cites Paul’s reference to laws written on the human heart (Rom 2:14-15). Sparks indicates that Scripture is not the only text in which God has spoken to people. Other religions’ sacred texts can show some evidence of God speaking too (60-62). However, Christian Scripture is unique in its revelation about Jesus (63). Scripture reveals to us God’s plan of redemption.

Sparks places himself somewhat in Christian tradition, and yet remains distinct. He shows affinity with the accommodation views of the early church fathers. Many of them also noticed difficulties in the text. Sparks cites the accommodation views of Justin Martyr and Gregory of Nazianzus (however, in my opinion, he misinterprets Justin as suggesting Mosaic Law was evil. Justin was pointing out its insufficiency to address the hardness of the people’s hearts; 51-52). Sparks also references Gregory of Nyssa who believed the killing of Egyptian firstborn babies was not congruent with the character of God and thus, the narrative should be understood as an allegory for killing sins (41). Augustine wrote: “Anything in the divine writings that cannot be referred either to good, honest morals, or to the truth of the faith, you must know is said allegorically . . . . Those things . . . . which appear to the inexperienced to be sinful and which are ascribed to God, or to men whose holiness is put before us as an example, are wholly allegorical, and the hidden kernel of meaning they contain is to be picked out as food for the nourishment of charity” (On Christian Doctrine 3.10, 12). Similarly, Gregory the Great and John Wesley believed that if the literal reading is absurd or contradictory one should look for a different or “looser” meaning (51). Sparks also quotes Calvin who says, “Moses wrote everywhere in homely style . . . . Certainly in the first chapter [of Genesis] he did not treat scientifically the stars, as a philosopher would; but he called them in a popular manner, according to their appearance to the uneducated rather than according to truth” (Commentaries on the First Book of Moses, called Genesis, 1.256-57).

At first glance Sparks would seem to have an accommodation view. However, he tries to distinguish himself from the traditional accommodation view by saying he believes accommodation was between God and the human author, not the biblical author and the audience (53). The latter he attributes to the early church view. He also says he believes accommodation extends to the whole Bible and not just parts in distinction from tradition (54). However, on both of these accounts, he seems to overstate the difference. Certainly, anyone who reads Gregory of Nyssa would recognize his understanding of language implies the entire Bible exhibits accommodation. And many of the early church fathers would have understood the accommodation as between God and the biblical author, as well as author to audience. However, Sparks does differ from all these previous theologians in one very crucial way: even though they acknowledged difficulties in the text, they always viewed Scripture as the infallible Word of God. Sparks acknowledges “no pre-modern Christians . . . have explicitly suggested that the problems in Scripture closely parallel the problem of evil as it relates to the created order” (50). Thus, Sparks proposal represents a significant shift in perspective of the Bible.

Evaluation of Spark’s View:

I can appreciate Sparks effort to wrestle with the realities of the text. But I can’t say I resonate with his proposal. Here are some of the concerns I have:

1. Sparks prefers “adoption” language to “accommodation” because he feels the latter is anthropomorphic in suggesting God had an “active role in communicating errant human viewpoints” (54). However, it’s not clear how his understanding of God “permitting” human beings to write errant views is substantially different. If God was active in adopting a human being who wrote errant views, the difference seems negligible. His interpretation of “accommodation” here also seems reductionistic. The early church fathers did not necessarily view accommodation as God intentionally communicating error. Rather, God only provided so much illumination at a time such that human beings could handle (in this paradigm genocide would relate to ignorance as a result of only seeing through a glass darkly, not God’s intentional misleading. The only ones the church fathers suggest God deceives are Satan and evil men in order to pull off the plan of salvation).

As for the use of “adoption” as a theological term here,  I am uncertain what that really means for Sparks. It sounds like God selected certain people and then let them do their own thing. He says God adopted the human authors’ ancient viewpoints (53). But it’s not clear how “adoption” serves as a better term here than “accommodation.” Moreover, it does not seem to correctly use the analogy of adoptionism. The adoptionist view asserts that Jesus received more of God, not less, upon adoption. In other words, if human beings were truly adopted by God, we would expect a transformation that heightened the biblical authors’ godliness and divine state, making them less prone to sin and error. If the adoptionist analogy is operative at all, it seems to be the diminishing of Scripture in the same way adoptionism demotes Jesus’ status.

Finally, the adoption view doesn’t provide a rationale for why God is not more actively involved. Sparks does not really have a theory of inspiration. He indicates “God in adopting human texts as his own, was involved both in the production of the texts and in their canonical adoption as sacred Scripture. Precisely how God did this while allowing room for everything human—including choice, success, error, goodness, and sin—is not something that we can explicate” (55). On a couple of occasions at the very beginning and in his concluding remarks, Sparks refers to “sanctified” biblical authors, but he never unpacks what that means. Sanctified usually has a connotation of holiness, implying a different state than just a typical sinful person. In essence, I have a good sense of how Sparks sees the human side of Scripture, but I don’t have any clear sense of how he understands God’s role in the creation of the Bible. Whereas inerrantists err on the side of minimizing human fingerprints in Scripture, Sparks seems to swing to the other side of the pendulum.

2. Sparks has an ethnocentric tendency to view ancient people as more primitive and ignorant than modern people, even with respect to Jesus. He sees Jesus as limited the way any other human being is, albeit without sin, implying a lack of knowledge or awareness of certain spiritual realities. Sparks quotes I. Howard Marshall approvingly when Marshall suggests Jesus held to primitive views on hell that “civilized people” today do not believe (26-27). It strikes me as odd that Sparks or Marshall would consider themselves morally superior to Jesus. That is the implication of such a proposal. Jesus who is God and Savior of the world is somehow not as civilized as we are. I don’t know how one can reconcile that with submitting to the authority and teachings of this same Person.

Sparks also comments that the biblical authors did not have the benefit of biblical criticism and thus, by implication, were deficient in their knowledge in some way (56). I agree there is much we can learn from historical critical work, but I do not think it follows that we have a better grasp of God and spiritual realities as a result. He also says those who lived before Christ probably knew less about theology and the character of God than we do (156-57). It surprises me that a Biblical scholar who is familiar with the Old Testament would not recognize some of the profound theology in it. Somewhat contradictorily he does admit that the New Covenant can be found in the Old Testament. Finally, Sparks doesn’t believe Scripture is immune from criticism and thus sets himself up as an interrogator of Scripture (46). I can appreciate many of Sparks concerns about problems in the text. I am not saying we shouldn’t ask honest questions, but I can’t agree with his posture towards Scripture.

3. Sparks wants to prioritize some texts over others. This is not problematic in itself per se. In antiquity Torah was primary, as were the Gospels. Certain books have been read more than others. For the Qumran community and the New Testament writers Deuteronomy, Isaiah, and Psalms were the most popular. However, even though some books have always been prioritized, the other biblical books were also esteemed. Choosing not to read certain texts because they are perceived to be flawed is problematic to me. Not only does it risk treating Scripture in a subjective piecemeal manner, but it also too easily lets us off the hook from wrestling with difficult texts. I find the Jewish perspective in the Tosefta to be instructive. Regarding commands to massacre the Apostate City in Deuteronomy 13, the rabbis said that such a city “never was and never will be”; the narrative was included in Torah in order to “study and receive reward” (Sanhedrin 14:1). Some rabbis seemed to think difficult texts were expressly for the purpose of grappling with complex moral issues, and not indicative of laws that were actually implemented. As Samuel Fleischacker states, it is “casuistry at its best.”[1]

Whether or not certain texts were intended to be pedagogical in this manner, I appreciate viewing the canon as a whole in all its complexity. This is more in keeping with a posture toward the Bible as sacred text. It’s sacred because the faith community across history has set it apart as something to be retained and studied, not dismissed. In this regard,  medieval historical-literal interpreter Hugh of St. Victor offers a helpful summation for interpreting Scripture with the “whole” in mind and not merely parts:

But you say, ‘I find many things in the historical narratives [of Scripture] that seem to be useless. Why should I spend my time studying these sorts of stories?’ You make a good point. There are, in fact, many things in the Scriptures that seem to offer nothing worth seeking, but if you read them in light of the surrounding passages and begin to weigh them in their larger literary context, you will see that they are as indispensable as they are suitable. Some things should be learned for their own sakes, but other things, although for their own sakes they do not seem worthy of our effort, nevertheless should by no means be carelessly passed over because without them we cannot have a clear and simple understanding of the former. Learn all things, and subsequently you will see that nothing is superfluous (Didascalicon, Book 6, chapter 3). [2]

The next post will examine a proposal of an incarnational analogy as a way of understanding the nature of Scripture and inspiration.


[1] Samuel Fleischacker, Divine Teaching and the Way of the World: A Defense of Revealed Religion (New York: Oxford University Press, 2011) 383.

[2] Translation in Franklin T. Harkins and Frans van Liere, eds., Interpretation of Scripture, Theory: A Selection of Works of Hugh, Andrew, Richard and Godfrey of St. Victor, and of Robert Melun (New York: New City Press, 2013) 165-66.