The Human Faces of God: front matter

Thom Stark’s The Human Faces of God is a book whose major arguments are developed through an essentially deconstructive methodology. Its purpose amounts to an undeception, stripping away unwarranted and harmful assumptions. As Yale’s esteemed OT critical scholar John J. Collins admits in the foreword, “Many critics will want to portray Stark’s book as negative, as an attack on biblical values.” Collins counters this assessment, perhaps hyperbolically: “No modern critic comes close to being as critical of the biblical tradition as were Amos and Ezekiel, or, for that matter, Jesus” (p. viii). I am reminded of the (probably apocryphal) story of Michelangelo describing the process of creating a sculpture as chipping away at what does not belong to the statute within. Although the main program of the book is the chiseling away part of the process, Stark’s goal – and my hope – is that the book’s message will be visible in the form of the material left standing rather than entirely in the chunks of discarded stone strewn around on the floor.

That positive message is first articulated in the Collins’s foreword:

If we are to appropriate the Bible as Scripture . . . we cannot affirm the canon whole and in equal measure. Rather it behoves us to listen to the critical voices within the tradition and proceed in a similar spirit. This is not to say that we should excise anything from the canon, as Marcion did. Some texts teach by negative example, and function as scripture by exhibiting attitudes that we must now condemn. But our condemnations, too, are inspired by biblical values. There is much in the Bible to inspire us, so long as we do not lay on the ancient texts burdens of inerrancy and infallibility that no text can bear. (pp. viii-vix)

If this book is to be successful, these ideas will need to be explicitly noted and developed rather than merely having their converse defeated, however soundly.

In his preface, Stark sets the stage by calling attention to the book’s targeted ideas and the discussion’s expected participants. Regarding the former, he declares war on the understanding of the nature of Scripture formulated in the Chicago Statement on Inerrancy:

Being wholly and verbally God-given, Scripture is without error or fault in all its teaching, no less in what it states about God’s acts in creation, about the events of world history, and about its own literary origins under God, than in its witness to God’s saving grace in individual lives.

With the target in his sights, he proceeds to give a little background on the principal of this book’s conversation partners: himself. Stark identifies his tradition as the Restoration Movement. He sadly notes that although the Stone-Campbell tradition began by denying hyper-formulated interpretations of Scripture in favor of returning to the Scripture itself (“No creed but Christ, no book but the Bible…”), it has essentially been absorbed into today’s Evangelical movement, whose own criticisms of Fundamentalism have abated in deference to an orthodoxy imposed by interpretive templates such as the Chicago Statement. Stark sees his own journey and this project as something of a strike to rekindle the spark that ignited his tradition: treat the Bible honestly, on its own terms. We must chip away at the ex post facto harmonizations and obliterations of the unique testimonies of its human writers.

Stark expects Fundamentalists and Evangelicals – in a word, inerrantists –  disillusioned by the obvious problems with treating as codswallop all the recent historical, literary, and scientific discoveries contradicting the Chicago Statement’s prescriptions to find some comfort in embracing those difficulties rather than denying them through fanciful apologetics tactics. To be sure, disillusionment is best avoided by not perpetuating the illusions to begin with, but catching the resulting process of self-destruction early on and offering an alternative way of viewing what Scripture has to teach us is the next best thing.

He also declares his intent to speak to more progressive, post-evangelical Christians like myself who may still be nursing unrealistic expectations of Scripture, relics of our heritage as inerrantists that need to be done away with so that we can read the text honestly. I suspect he’s referring specifically to popular post-modern revisions of NT eschatology such as preterism, among other things; at least, that’s one area I know he will deal with (in chapter 8), and one in all honesty for which I expect some personal discomfort, given my own lingering (though critically revised) preteristic views!

Although he expects the negative assertions of his book to be ignored by hard-nosed fundamentalists and its positive assertions dismissed by doctrinaire materialists, Stark harbors somewhat more hope for that great mass in the middle. I agree that the harvest is likely to be slim among the outer edges of his field, but I have high anticipation for the chance to revise some of my own unexamined assumptions and for the possibility that this book may be something I can commend to friends struggling with the sustained suspension of disbelief required by inerrancy and with what appears to be the vacuum left in our faith by abandoning it.

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