Quotes from the Bible
#3: Kenton Sparks
When we read the Bible with historical and contextual sensitivity, we notice with ease that Scripture does not speak consistently on all matters. It is a diverse book written by numerous authors and editors who addressed different audiences and social situations. Sometimes their discourses are contradictory and, in extreme cases, convey ideas that verge on what we would call vice. But Scripture also offers undeniable beauty as it encourages us to love God and neighbor with a spirit of abandon and self-sacrifice. If this is right — if Scripture speaks the truth through perceptive yet warped human horizons — then how can we use it to weave a useful and coherent understanding of God and of his relationship with us? How can the Bible, as a diverse and broken book, serve as a primary source of our theological insight? My pursuit of an answer to this important question begins below and continues into the next two chapters.
First, if we wish to take Scripture’s human authors seriously, then theological interpretation necessarily includes a “two-step” process that appreciates the distinction between Scripture’s human and divine discourse. Cardinal Ratzinger (now Pope Benedict) put it this way:
[T]exts must first be restored to their historical locus and interpreted in their historical context. But this must be followed by a second phase of interpretation, however, in which they must also be seen in light of the entire historical movement and in terms of the central event of Christ.’
…I would maintain that the brokenness and diversity of Scripture do not negate its essential unity.’ In saying so, I do not intend to deny the truth in Pope Benedict’s judgment that, apart from our faith in the God of Scripture, “nothing is left beyond contradictory speech fragments which cannot subsequently be brought into any relation.”‘ There is a sense in which, on a human level, Scripture is incoherent. Nevertheless, I would say that even apart from faith, one can sense in Scripture a narrative portrait of the human situation and of God’s redemptive plan to put it right. I would attribute this coherence to the ancient authors and editors of the Bible, who were modestly “systematic” in their effort to present a coherent theological picture. This systematic tendency appears in the arrangement of the biblical canon as a whole and in some of its individual books, such as the effort of the author of Hebrews to relate the Old and New Testaments theologically.
Because of this editorial effort, Scripture from Genesis to Revelation presents a tolerably coherent story, what one scholar has called a “theodrama.” It begins with God’s creation of the cosmos and humanity, describes the Fall of humanity and its damaging effects, testifies to God’s redemptive work to put his fallen world aright through Christ, and ends with predictions of Christ’s return and a final reckoning of all things. Such is the general effect of Scripture’s narrative shape. I do not believe that this biblical narrative should be construed mainly as a “story world” alternative to the world we live in, as some narrative theologians have suggested. Rather, the Bible seeks to explain what is actually going on in this world, whether we realize it or not, and invites us to see this world in a certain The fact the some biblical narratives depict the world as it should be in contrast to how it actually is only supports this conclusion. To be sure, as Richard Bauckham has pointed out, the biblical story’s unity is “broken” and is neither complete nor perfect.’ But again, on the whole, the coherence and shape of the biblical story give us important clues about how to organize our theology.
The shape and substance of the biblical story explicitly point us to a fourth principle for organizing our theology. Namely, our theology should grant priority to Jesus Christ, to knowing him, his teachings, and the redemptive significance of his resurrection, ascension, and eventual return. As Pope Benedict expressed it, “Christ is the key to all things…. [O]nly by walking with Christ, by reinterpreting all things in his light, with him, crucified and risen, do we enter into the riches and beauty of sacred Scripture.” Benedict’s point is thoroughly biblical. For the entire canon of Scripture, with the first testament leading to Jesus and the second reflecting back on his life, is oriented around the revelation of God in Christ. John’s Gospel, in particular, warns us not to seek life in Scripture itself but rather by embracing it as a testimony that points us to Jesus (5:39-40).
• Kenton L. Sparks
Sacred Word, Broken Word: Biblical Authority and the Dark Side of Scripture