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The Lost World of Scripture

The Lost World of Scripture


320 PP.
John H. Walton and D. Brent Sandy, Bible professors at Wheaton College, describe a scene that is undoubtedly common in biblical-studies classrooms on Christian campuses across the country: A student lingers after class to ask “the question” in hushed tones, fi rst looking around to make sure everyone else has left the room: Why do we still use the word “inerrancy?”

Students’ unease is perhaps a result of their growing sense of the tension between what they have been taught about biblical inerrancy and what the discipline of biblical studies has to say about the development of the Bible and the contexts in which this development occurred.

On the one hand, evangelical descriptions of inerrancy, such as the famous Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy, tend to affi rm that the whole of Scripture was verbally given to particular authors and recorded in the autographic text of the original document (the very manuscript on which the text was fi rst written). As such, Scripture is said to be wholly united and consistent in all that it affi rms (such as the historicity of the creation account in Genesis 1:1-2:4a).

On the other hand, biblical scholarship tends to affirm as foundational that the biblical texts arose out of a complex process of development, collection and editing by anonymous scribes over a long period of time – especially in the case of the Old Testament – and in cultures that were largely nonliterate. As a result, scholars often face diffi culties in accounting for the textual evidence before us (for example, in making sense of the longer and shorter versions of Jeremiah), and it is taken for granted that the biblical canon preserves a range of literary sources and diverse theological voices.

It is not surprising, then, that Walton and Sandy recognize that the question regarding the aptness of the word “inerrancy” is “inevitable,” and one “which the evidence raises on its own.”

As scholars who are committed to the inerrancy of the Bible, Walton and Sandy set out in The Lost World of Scripture to reframe how this theologically weighty word might be better applied to Scripture in light of biblical scholarship on ancient literary culture. Their goal is in part to “bring students back from the brink of turning away from the authority of Scripture in reaction to the misappropriation of the term ‘inerrancy.’”

Their attempt to reframe inerrancy is laid out in 21 closely related propositions. Along this nexus two central emphases predominate: The fi rst is that the Bible took shape in oral and hearing-dominant cultures. This is hard for us to comprehend in our own digital age, when books, along with authors to write them and readers to consume them, are bountiful. This was not so in antiquity. While traditional accounts of inerrancy place an emphasis on the pristine, inspired texts of original authors and manuscripts, Walton and Sandy point out that such expectations are entirely modern: “It would not be an overstatement to say that in the ancient world there were no authors and there were no books. … Instead there were authorities, documents and scribes.” Drawing on the latest scholarship on orality, literacy and scribal culture in antiquity, they argue that the traditions that eventually crystallized in the biblical texts would have originated among authoritative figures and circulated primarily in oral forms in nonliterate communities, being preserved and passed along by various tradents or stewards of the tradition. It is in this complex process that they locate the activity of the Holy Spirit, who “guides every part” of the Bible’s formation.

Second, as an alternative model for understanding how such a text could be authoritative and inerrant, the authors appeal to speech-act theory (SAT). Speech-act theory pays attention to how a “communicator uses locutions (words, sentences, rhetorical structures, genres) to embody an illocution (the intention to do something with those locutions – bless, promise, instruct, assert) with a perlocution that anticipates a certain sort of response from the audience (obedience, trust, belief).” Moreover, for any such act of communication to be effective, the locutions of the communicator must accommodate to the culture, nature and capacities of the audience. For Walton and Sandy, the locutions of the Bible – its culturally steeped words, genres and conceptual worlds – are the result of God’s accommodation to the culture(s) to whom God was communicating. This point meshes with the Reformed tradition’s emphasis on Scripture as an act of divine accommodation (see, for example, Calvin’s Institutes at 1.13.1; 2.11.13). These locutions are what God, in concert with the human authors or tradents, inspired in the Bible’s formation. According to their model, however, Scripture’s authority is vested rather in a text’s illocutions, “the meaning intended by the human communicator and given to him by the Holy Spirit … because they [the human communicators] are the means by which God gives his illocutions.” The task of the interpreter, then, is to attend to the culturally specific locutions of the biblical text in order to understand what the biblical author intended to communicate through them (the illocutions).

It is easier to see how this model might work by considering a specific case. In one of the book’s highlights, the authors defend the proposition that “the Bible contains no new revelation about the workings and understanding of the material world.” Put differently, there is nothing found in the Bible that reflects modern scientific notions or insights. This follows from their conviction that for God to effectively communicate illocutions with and through the human authors, the locutions had to take on culturally accommodated forms. With regard to the material world, this entails assuming the Old World scientific understanding of how the universe works (the earth is flat, and the sun occupies space along with the birds of the sky). This does not mean that the biblical texts ultimately err but only that the locutions are culturally accommodated to their audience. They rightly emphasize that it is unfair to undermine the authority of such a biblical text or to criticize it on the grounds that it does not reflect modern scientific notions. At the same time, they also argue that it is theologically dubious to read modern scientific knowledge into the biblical texts. To do so is to attribute “to the text a meaning [or illocution] that the ancient human communicator could never have intended,” and because “we have no authority” to do this, to “add our own meaning to the text is to dilute the text’s authority.” So, in relation to a text as important as Genesis 1, one should attend carefully to the culturally accommodated locutions, not in order to defend or criticize its science but to interpret what the text is communicating through those locutions (God created and ordered the universe, human existence is contingent on God, etc.). In our own context, in which unhelpful and unfortunate debates about the Bible and science often become litmus tests for orthodox faith, the approach that Walton and Sandy take through SAT is a very welcome one indeed.

The Lost World of Scripture represents a courageous and pastorally sensitive attempt to reckon seriously with the implications of biblical scholarship for conceptualizing biblical authority. In the current ecclesial environment, in which debates over biblical authority are so divisive and the stakes are set so high, let’s hope their work and that which follows in its wake will create some space for students of the Bible to ask similar questions without having to utter them in “hushed tones,” like Nicodemus, who came to Jesus under the cover of night.

Justin Pannkuk is a doctoral student in Hebrew Bible at Emory University, Atlanta, Georgia.