GWIHW: Ch. 9 Negotiating the Context of the Whole
I’m going to be a tad reductionist in this chapter synopsis as it is quite long and complicated, and should stand alongside all of my chapter summaries as completely inadequate to represent the deep breadth of Sparks learning and argumentation. I give you but a small glimpse of the trajectory I am following through his work, but there is so much more of value in the pages of this book that would be of benefit to budding scholars or theologians even if you completely disagree with Sparks! I am trying to represent the best I can what I think he is saying mainly, but it is quite possible I have failed in this, and another reader may nuance their reading slightly differently. If I have completely missed or misrepresented anything then I apologize now to Dr. Sparks. That said:
In conclusion of this chapter Sparks writes, “The best interpretations of Scriptures are those that read Scripture in relationship to its context, and that context is not merely Scripture’s immediate context–the worlds of David, Solomon, Jesus, and Paul–but the context of the whole, which comprises both the created order and any special revelation God has provided to humanity” (p 326).
This chapter needs to be read on its own to understand the totality of its argument, but as I said I am going to be reductionist because of the scope of the argument and merely whet your appetite. You will have to go to Sparks if you want the whole buffet, so please don’t feel this one example is indicative of everything Sparks would write or the entirety of his argument, but it is an example. One I am going to give that is slightly indicative of the whole. (It is sort of ironically apropos).
In negotiating the context of the whole Sparks argues that we must sometimes go beyond Scripture in our interpretation as we look to the other places we can learn from God and actively listen to his voice that still speaks today. As an example of this he offers the abolition of slavery.
The OT permitted fairly harsh treatment of slaves. This improves in the NT, and we may see the ideal of biblical ethics concerning slavery in Gal 3 “There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free…” but nowhere in Scripture is the wholesale release of slaves commanded. In that light there were many Christians who supported slavery including such church fathers as “Clement of Alexandria, Origen, Chrysostom, Augustine, Aquinas, Luther, Calvin, and the Puritans… George Whitefield Fought to bring slavery to his state…and their task was made easier by Scripture itself (p 290). Charles Hodge argued adamantly for the apparent biblical position that “allowed for slavery but demanded love for one’s neighbor” (p 291). So slavery was not a sin, but you had to treat them properly.
In Sparks opinion Christians were “prodded” in the direction of abolition, first by men such as John Wesley, but also by the Enlightenment emphases on human dignity and individual freedom (p 293). By being aware of the context of the whole early abolitionist recognized (under Enlightenment categories) the ethical trajectory of freedom for slaves in the Bible.
This “trajectory theology” is not only evidence in the abolition of slavery but Sparks argues is also evident in the Bible itself with the NT’s injunctions against circumcision for Gentiles. The Judaizers and the early Christians would have only had the OT texts for biblical authority, so certainly many of the good texts were on the side of the Judaizers, however, recognizing another trajectory (Amos 9:11-12) and, most importantly, the experience of the Spirit’s life in Gentile believers the leaders of the Church decided to “go beyond” their Scripture and declare circumcision not binding.
Out of his argumentation Sparks’ gives the reader a new metaphor for expressing the nature of biblical authority by “imagining the Bible as one part of the complex web of reality. Like all texts, Scripture depends upon this contextual web to make its words intelligible, but those biblical words then cast their light back onto the web so that all of its parts can them come back into a newer, Christian perspective. In this metaphor the Bible is like a good virus that gradually spreads and infuses its wisdom into the entire network of our worldview” (p 328).
It is in the next chapter Sparks gives the reader a taste of what this methodology and biblically informed worldview look like in theology.