the Bible is like . . . a room of wise elders . . .

Posted by PeteEnns on February 1, 2017 in nature of the Bible Old Testament 5 Comments

Cain and AbelBelow is a quote from Kent Sparks’s “Genesis 1-11 as Ancient Historiography,” which is his contribution to the 2015 book Genesis: History, Fiction, or Neither?, one of Zondervan’s many Counterpoints books, where multiple perspectives are offered on a given subject. The other contributors are James K. Hoffmeier (Wheaton College) and Gordon J. Wenham (Trinity College, Bristol, England, and professor emeritus of Old Testament at the University of Gloucestershire).

I revisited Sparks’s essay as I was preparing for a senior seminar I am teaching on Genesis, and this quote sparked some nice reflections. Sparks’s essay is much more satisfying to me intellectually than the other two (you can see my earlier post when the book came out, where I am critical of Hoffemeier’s manner of defending the historicity of Genesis 1-11).

Sparks is the most consistently historically minded in his essay; he doesn’t tie himself into knots defending the historicity of Genesis 1-11, treating it rather as “ancient historiography” that reflects the various ways in which ancient people told their origins stories.

Anyway, here is the quote. It summarizes nicely Sparks’s understanding of the nature and function of Scripture. Discuss amongst yourselves.

Scripture is not a room filled with clairvoyant theologians who have the same ideas and agree on every point. It is better understood as a room of wise elders, each an invited guest because of his unique voice and relation to God. Every elder has insight, but no elder has all of the answers, nor are any of them wholly liberated from humanity’s broken, sinful condition. Every voice is of value, but each will perhaps push too far in one direction and not enough in another, and each will push, in some way or another, in the wrong direction. When we read Scripture well, we listen in on the conversations of these elders, and, in conversations with other readers, seek as best we can to understand God’s voice. It is through this communal reading experience that God points us to his one and only solution for our broken condition: Jesus Christ.  (p. 116, my emphasis)

To be sure, Sparks’s view is no mainstream evangelical articulation of the nature and authority of the Bible. But, as I I haveGenesis... been known to point out, the problem may be less with people like Sparks and more with assumptions about the nature of Scripture that require special pleading and exhausting gymnastics to hold on to.

[Sparks’s other books that address the topic of the nature of Scripture are Sacred Word, Broken Word and God’s Word in Human Words]


  • Interesting, to say the least. Thanks for the link to the earlier post. As a newcomer here, I clearly have some catching up to do.
    Those who look to Gen. 1-11 (or most of the rest of the biblical writings, for that matter) hoping to find material that conforms to the modern canons of historiography apparently aren’t satisfied with the Bible that they have.

  • I’m probably overlaying my own current thoughts onto this but………As I wrestle on with how to get to know the big guy upstairs, I’m wondering about the role of scripture and the role of God’s Spirit.

    In some way I’m finding it puzzling to move from the certainties of an “inerrant” scripture, to the complete uncertainty of a diverse set of writings. In a way it just seems to confirm that we should not raise the collection of ink on pages up to the level of our God. I’m wondering how to trust God, through His Spirit, to inform me of Himself when I read these diverse writings.

    In our informal church service thingy tonight we were discussing the old “three legged stool” of; scripture, reason and tradition, where it occurred to me that an alternative view may be to stick scripture fully into the “tradition” leg and name the now vacant leg “God’s Holy Spirit”. (I also pointed out that the leg called scripture was a hell of a lot shorter than most people seem to think it is in its actual outworking).

    Although the three legged stool is a very limited and imperfect analogy (a bit like definitions of the “Trinity”) it does have some uses, however I do think it needs updating…or dismembering……or annihilating, to actually raise the actions of God in Himself working in us to show who he is.

    Anyway, possibly to get back to Mr Enns’ points above, If we get away from the idea that reading scripture is reading God’s dictation to us and that it’s more a discourse of Humans about who he is. Then maybe we can say that without His help we’re not likely to get far purely on our own ir/rationality. And without his help the writers weren’t able to get where they got.

    The next thing I need to do is convince some of my co-religionists that the Holy Spirit is not purely about ecstatic experiences, “pictures”, waving hands in the air and saying “Yamaha Shalamar Hustamahonda”, but that’s a battle for another day.

  • Additionally….and this has nothing to do with Pete’s post. Those of us outside the USA who only see it as a TV programme, have noticed that since Jan 20th America has “Jumped the Shark”. Luckily it must still be the home of Democracy and Freedom as all those pictures of people standing outside holding placards proves it.

  • That is a marvelous quotation, echoing Thom Stark in The Human Faces of God who wrote about the Bible as a debate within itself.

    On the other hand, how can one be sure which elder or parts of the Bible are “pushing too far in one direction and not enough in another?”

    And why prize the writings of the “elders” who wrote the Bible as if there words constituted the apex of divine inspiration? Shouldn’t one seek and explore the best in every book and person? Or as the Latin’s used to say, “Beware the man of one book.”

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