Thinking in the background

As one of the consequences of having a short attention span, I tend to be reading several (non-fiction) books at a time. Two books I’m reading now are Bruce Ellis Benson’s Graven IdeologiesL Nietzsche, Derrida & Marion on Modern Idolatry and Kenton L. Sparks’ God’s Word in Human Words. Since the latter is an ILL book and I’m pressed for time, I’m not able to read it as closely as I’d like. (I read ILL books (a) because books are expensive, (b) I’ve run out of bookshelf space. This way I can “test-drive” a book and evaluate it for future purchase.)

One of the features of phenomenology (the philosophical context of Benson’s work) is a feature of the essential role of background in human acts of interpretation and understanding. Various theological and philosophical phenomenologists take different stances toward the background, but all address it.

Sparks doesn’t engage in great detail with the tradition of thought covered by Benson (he includes a small section on postmodern hermeneutics), the same issues are relevant nonetheless. Sparks’ objective is to accommodate biblical criticism (broadly conceived) within a high (even inerrantist) view of scripture. In his discussion of general and special revelation he says:

If it is true that the meaning of God’s written word depends so much on the larger context in which it was written and subsists, then it stands to reason that the best interpretations of Scripture will be those that best understand that larger context – the created order. This will mean, for instance, that the best readings of the early chapters of Genesis will be from scholars who are informed not only about theology and the nuances of ancient Israelite literature but also about matters of modern science and cosmology. The whole of the created order, including the whole of human observations and theories about it, provides the ideal context for biblical interpretation. If this is so, then it would seem that in some respect God’s divine speech in creation precedes his written words, for creation is the larger context that makes his written words intelligible. It is not only the Bible but also creation itself that speaks a “word” from God. This assertion not only makes reasonable sense but is also given biblical expression [Psalm 19:1-6]… Surely it is metaphor to describe the created order as ‘word,’ but the metaphor is not so different from what makes Jesus Christ ‘the Word.’ Creation speaks God’s ‘word,’ and its ‘voice’ is heard by all humanity. Implicit in this theology of creation is that the created order was made to be known; it discloses itself to us. In this sense, all that we come to know through the created order can be understood as revealed truth. Readers may know that this line of thought brings us inexorably to the sticky matter of natural revelation and natural theology. How much theology can human beings known apart from God’s special revelation in the written Bible and the incarnate Son? (p.264-5)

I find this quote very provocative  – in the sense that it provokes much thought on my part. My initial evaluation is that Sparks seems to jump to quickly from Creation as an act (or speech act) of God to taking the complete world of human experience as an act (or speech act) of God. I do not take every act within my experience, whether I experience them directly or indirectly, as an act of God. Surely within the horizon of my interpretive experience (my experience has horizons – I don’t experience everything), some of what I experience I can take as act (speech act) of God. But only some. Other parts of my experience are clearly acts of humans.

But can an act of a human be accurately described as also an act of God? Can God act through human actions? Reading the bible I’d have to answer affirmatively. But I’m also inclined to deny universality here. Not every human act is best described as also an act of God. There are some human acts (some of which we’d call “sins”) that are best described as purely human acts.

So part of the background of understanding the word of God in the bible is the word of God we find in creation. I also don’t have any trouble saying that because of the humanity of the bible (it’s obviously a book about and for humans), the human background is also essential to consider in interpreting Scripture.

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