can speech act theory rehabilitate inerrancy? (part 2 of Carlos Bovell’s review of The Lost World of Scripture)

Today, Carlos Bovell continues his review of The Lost World of Scripture: Ancient Literary Culture and Biblical Authority by John H. Walton and D. Brent Sandy (part 1 is here). Bovell is a graduate of Westminster Theological Seminary and The Institute for Christian Studies, Toronto. He is the author of Inerrancy and the Spiritual Formation of Younger Evangelicals (2007), By Good and Necessary Consequence: A Preliminary Genealogy of Biblical Foundationalism (2009), an edited volume, Interdisciplinary Perspectives on the Authority of Scripture (2011), and Rehabilitating Inerrancy in a Culture of Fear(2012).

The Lost World of Scripture is divided into three sections that bring to light features of the literary cultures of the OT world, the NT world, and the “biblical” world generally. In each section, the authors explain how the Bible came into being and, in light of this, how we may need to change our understanding of biblical authority.

In their introductory chapter, Walton and Sandy are clear in their intentions: at every point of the discussion they will set out to integrate the material discussed with the Chicago Statement of Inerrancy. I pointed out in my previous post that there is considerable tension between Walton and Sandy’s emphasizing of the Bible’s oral culture and their concomitant desire to adhere to the text-centered Chicago Statement of Inerrancy.

In this post, I suggest that the tension with inerrancy is also seen in Walton and Sandy’s valid observation that biblical authorship is a process “much richer and more sophisticated” than previously thought (293) and their embrace of speech act theory as a solution, insisting, for example, that “God’s authority in Scripture is …  accessible through the illocution of the human communicator” (42; my emphasis).

Throughout the book, Walton and Sandy focus on how the Bible was produced in an oral culture and how the role the Bible came to play in that oral culture substantially differs from the role it later came to play in text-dominated cultures. They explain,

Given what we have learned about literary production in the ancient world, authorship and the process that led to the final form of the canonical book are simply not as relevant as we have thought to our understanding of biblical authority. We need to develop new models that are based on an understanding of the roles of authorities, the nature of documents and the transmission of tradition in hearing-dominated societies (62).

In many ways, Walton and Sandy provide a great service for evangelicals by trying to bring critical biblical scholarship into genuine conversation with the evangelical doctrine of inerrancy. The way Walton and Sandy attempt to this is through an inerrantist appropriation of speech act theory.

They affirm, for example:

We believe that God has inspired the locutions (words, whether spoken or written) that the communicator has used to accomplish with God their joint illocutions (which lead to an understanding of intentions, claims, affirmations and, ultimately, meaning), but that those locutions are tied to the communicator’s world (44).

Not a few inerrantist writers hold strong to the hope that speech act theory can preserve inerrancy. In my book Rehabilitating Inerrancy in a Culture of Fear, I suggest that, although this may be possible, the form that inerrancy winds up taking would hardly be recognizable to believers committed to the Chicago Statement.

Further, in light of what Walton and Sandy argue for regarding biblical authors (that there are none), not only will the Chicago Statement of Biblical Inerrancy not do, but speech act theory itself will be inadequate.

My understanding of a speech act is that in order for a communication to qualify as a speech act, someone, a person A, has to want to communicate something to a second person B. What Walton and Sandy have effectively done, in driving home the role of orality in the production of the Bible, it seems to me, is remove that “person A” from the equation.

If this is right, speech act theory would seem not to apply to scripture, at least not in the way that Walton and Sandy apply it. Moreover, if speech act theory manages to collapse when applied to the oral nature of scripture, then Walton and Sandy should not appeal to speech act theory in their defense of inerrancy.

Don’t get me wrong, Christians have (and have had all along) the biblical texts to contend with hermeneutically.  Someone(s) had to have written them in order for there to be biblical texts for us to contemplate. It’s just that now, according to Walton and Sandy, the human communicator, the person A that is needed to appeal to for speech act theory to work, is not connected enough to the production of scripture for scripture to count as that person’s speech act.

It may be the case, then, that on account of the ancient cultures being oral cultures and not text-dominated as Walton and Sandy explain in their book, scripture should never have been construed as a speech act in the first place, or at the very least in the way that Walton and Sandy do in Lost World.

Walton and Sandy articulate their view this way:

Some community of people, we believe under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, determined that certain individuals, as well as certain traditions unattached to specific individuals, had authority—God’s authority. (63)

These human communicators—“some community of people”—are authoritatively involved for some unspecified development in the biblical text, but whatever that development turns out to be, it is not in a capacity to communicate something to someone else, at least not in the way that speech act theory tends to assume.

The communicators act rather as tradents of a body of common knowledge that is “out of their hands,” so to speak: a tradition.

By showing how little involvement biblical “communicators” actually had with the biblical texts in an oral culture such as the one that produced the Bible, Walton and Sandy open the door for evangelicals to begin focusing both on what involvement believers who receive the biblical traditions have on what the texts accomplish and on how God himself has had to constantly be active, working toward accomplishing his communicative act through biblical traditions.

This is a positive move, in my opinion, but we have also left any reasonable notion of an evangelical, inerrantist, doctrine of Scripture.

If Walton and Sandy want to appropriate speech act theory for a doctrine of scripture, however, they would be better served by opting for at least one of two scenarios.

First, uncouple God’s illocutionary act from that of the “human communicator.” This way, if the human communicator is removed from the picture, God’s speech act can still stand.

Second, they can, after arguing against an “author,” insist that there was some kind of final “redactor” who had a heavy hand in producing the Bible we now possess. This redactor could then act as the “person A” who is communicating something to person B.

Either view, if laid out carefully, would be a step forward, though whether either option would be compatible to inerrancy, at least as it is expressed in the Chicago Statement, is doubtful in my opinion.

In Lost World, Walton and Sandy have given inerrantists a new context for understanding what the Bible is. Let us hope that some will take seriously the orality of the Bible that Walton and Sandy have presented and work together to better integrate their findings into a more satisfying doctrine of scripture.

"aha" moments: biblical scholars tell their stories (13): Carlos Bovell
what is "safe" and "not safe" to think? (part 3 of Bovell's review of The Lost World of Scripture)
when inerrancy no longer works: Carlos Bovell on Robert Yarbrough
does an inerrantist culture "do good or do harm"?

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