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Today we continue our series of posts on Kenton Sparks’s wonderful little book, Sacred Word, Broken Word: Biblical Authority and the Dark Side of Scripture. My first post is here and my most recent is here.

Sparks is professor of Old Testament and provost at Eastern University, and the author of God’s Word in Human Words: An Evangelical Appropriation of Critical Biblical ScholarshipAncient Texts for the Study of the Hebrew Bible: A Guide to the Background LiteratureThe Pentateuch: An Annotated Bibliographyand Ethnicity and Identity in Ancient Israel: Prolegomena to the Study of Ethnic Sentiments and Their Expression in the Hebrew Bible

Much of Sacred Word, Broken Word is a challenge to evangelicals to come to terms with the “dark side” of Scripture. In the closing chapters, Sparks begins to sketch a constructive way forward for reading a Bible that is broken. In chapter 12, the next to last chapter of the book, Sparks lays out four practical priorities for proper interpretation that go beyond a narrow focus on the Bible itself.

These priorities are: mystery, personal wholeness, praxis, and mission.

Mystery. “My main concern is to emphasize that theological inquiry requires a healthy respect for the limits of our human capacity to get at ‘the truth'” (p. 133). For Sparks, mystery is not just rhetoric but a vital component of biblical interpretation that reminds us we see only in part, and our theological reflections are always impaired by sin and human limitations. God is truly transcendent and there is much we do not know.

Personal Wholeness. Sparks is talking about spiritual, emotional, and psychological wholeness, and the more familiar rubric he is working with here is spiritual formation. “How do we become integrated individuals who live in vital, loving relationships with God and our neighbors?” (p. 135). A rather Jesusy kind of question, if you ask me (Luke 10:27). “Ideally, we are progressively equipped to travel the road to wholeness from birth to the grave by nurturing parents, loving families, close friends, those in the church, and pastors, teachers, and spiritual mentors who ‘equip’ us for love and good deeds” (p. 137). Sometimes, however, therapy is a needed component for personal healing that leads to wholeness.

Praxis: Performing the Scriptures. “Though it is quite possible to merely read and understand Scripture’s discourse, the text has not reached its telos–its proper end–until readers ‘perform’ it by living it out. If this is right, and if the chief end of humanity is to love God and neighbor, then we should not lose sight of the fact that all we have been discussing here–the Bible, theology, culture, philosophy, conscience, literary genre, ancient languages and contexts–properly stands in service of God’s redemptive plan to create a church that lives out the gospel of love” (p. 138). Although somewhat impractical, and probably lethal, I would like to see this tattooed on every seminarian’s forehead.

A Missional Hermeneutic. A missional hermeneutic lays the stress “not merely on Christian missionary work per se but rather more broadly on the missio Dei, the ‘mission of God’ to redeem the whole created order through the work of Christ and his church. Missional theology is concerned not only for individual but also for the social and political order, the welfare of animals, stewardship of the environment, and anything else pertaining to God’s redemptive work” (p. 140).

If anything, this chapter should alert readers–and critics–that Sparks has more in mind than critiquing the inadequacies of some approaches to Scripture (mainly mainstream evangelicalism). His greater purpose is to  goal is to build up the church to a more faithful reading of Scripture and a truer embodiment of the gospel.


Pete Enns, Ph.D.

Peter Enns (Ph.D., Harvard University) is Abram S. Clemens professor of biblical studies at Eastern University in St. Davids, Pennsylvania. He has written numerous books, including The Bible Tells Me So, The Sin of Certainty, and How the Bible Actually Works. Tweets at @peteenns.