what is “safe” and “not safe” to think? (part 3 of Bovell’s review of The Lost World of Scripture)

Today’s post is the third and final part of Carlos Bovell’s review of  The Lost World of Scripture: Ancient Literary Culture and Biblical Authority (previous post here).

Inerrantists are indebted to Walton and Sandy for the time and care they took in their new book Lost World to explain why the doctrine of inerrancy needs to be updated in light of development in biblical scholarship and for suggesting that inerrantists should begin thinking about ways to incorporate the Bible’s oral culture into their doctrinal schemes.

Today I conclude with a few remarks on how they decided to draw their discussion to a close.

I was disappointed to see that, rather than encouraging students in their research to critically pursue the leads proposed in the book, the authors seem intent to protect them from pursing the implications of the data they just presented. I understand that the authors are not at liberty to disagree openly with the Chicago Statement, and so perhaps this should come as no surprise.

The book ends with two lists for their readers to keep in mind as they think about scriptural authority. The lists explicitly advise students as to what is “safe” and “not safe” for them to believe.

So while on the one hand Walton and Sandy are trying to alleviate some of the pressures that students face when doing biblical studies, they also feel pastorally obliged to set express limits on what students can think about the Bible, putting them, in effect, right back where they started.

Walton and Sandy include some sensible items in their list of things that are “safe” for students to believe (293–303), for example:

  • It is safe to believe there could be duplicate texts with variation.
  • It is safe to believe Old World science permeates the Old Testament.

These are important points and need to be stressed. There are some other items, however, that Walton and Sandy present as “safe” for students to believe, but without sufficiently discussing them. For example:

  • the inspiration of written texts of the New Testament is an inference based on the inspiration of the Old Testament.
  • conventions for reporting events in the Bible differ from our contemporary conventions of history writing.
  • Old Testament prophecy and New Testament identifications of fulfillment do not need to align.

On the first point, although the inspiration of the NT is hardly contested for their readership, the examination of the nature of the NT should probably have awaited a separate treatment rather than abruptly included in this list.

The second point is true, though “reporting events” already subtly privileges the evangelical assumption that events are being “reported.” I went to great lengths in my book Rehabilitating Inerrancy in a Culture of Fear to argue that nothing is restricting the biblical authors—even when they appear to us to be writing history—to be “reporting events.” They could very well have been intentionally creating a narrative, or thinking they were reporting history but weren’t, or operating under very different notions of what “reporting events” even means.

Third, the manner in which OT prophecy is “fulfilled” in the NT is also an issue that, again, most believers would agree on. But hermeneutically speaking, this “fulfillment” is a complex issue that cannot be tacked on like this, especially as it does not seem entirely germane to the topic of the book

Immediately following this list of what it is safe for students to believe, there is a list of what it is “not safe” for them to believe (303–306). And perhaps we can simply say “dangerous,” for that is the opposite of “safe.”

The following, according to Walton and Sandy, are “not safe” (i.e., dangerous) to believe:

  • the Bible is just like any other book.
  • inerrancy is falsified by the orality of Scripture.
  • the Old Testament is derivative mythology combed from the ancient world.
  • everything we find in the Bible can be explained in natural terms.
  • people and events portrayed in narrative about the real past are fictional or literary constructs.
  • biblical books have used pseudepigraphy, forgery, or false attribution.

Many students working through scholarly issues in these areas (orality, ANE mythology, documentary history of the Bible, the epic nature of some historical narratives, pseudepigraphy) will not likely be appeased by merely being told “it is not safe” to believe them.

This begs the question, “Why?” and the answer seems obvious: It is dangerous to believe them because they cause serious problems for the theory of inerrancy, and undermine particularly the Chicago Statement of Biblical Inerrancy.

I would also add that referring to these issues as “beliefs” rather than considered, intellectual conclusions aids, perhaps unwittingly, to removing them from the sphere of honest academic discussion.

Walton and Sandy end the book with one last list, a list of questions that they regard as safe for students to ask (306–309):

It is safe to ask

  • whether our doctrine of the authority of Scripture has become too enmeshed in apologetics.
  • whether some formulations of biblical inerrancy are faithful to biblical revelation itself in the historic understandings of the church.
  • whether doctrinal discussions regarding the authority of Scripture should focus exclusively on written texts.
  • about variants because they do not necessarily constitute errors as understood in the cultural context of the original communication.
  • how the body of Christ would be best served by our formulations of biblical authority.
  • what constitutes a robust evangelical doctrine of biblical authority.

These are all very good questions to ask. We should note, though, that not a few items in the “safe to believe” category would, just a few years ago, have appeared in most evangelicals’ “not safe to believe” category.

To take just one example, it has not long been acceptable for an evangelical to declare to fellow evangelical believers that the OT is permeated by Old World science. What drove that shift, which I can say without fear of contradiction, is the irony of the impact of critical biblical scholarship that showed evangelicals that not only was it safe to ask but also safe to believe in such things.

Without critical scholars doing the work that evangelicals have prematurely refused to do, evangelicals would not likely have learned what they have learned about the Bible. In Inerrancy and the Spiritual Formation of Younger Evangelicals, I suggest that critical scholars are owed an “I’m sorry” and a “Thank you” from evangelical scholars.

It would certainly seem wiser, then, especially for the sake of students to not tell them in advance what “it is not safe to believe.” Much rather, we would better serve them by encouraging them that it is always safe to ask and to test whether the Bible might turn out to be this or that.

Evangelicals need to get out in front of what’s happening in biblical studies instead of lagging a generation or two behind and waiting to see what critical scholarship discovers before deciding what sorts of things are safe or dangerous.

The problem, as many of us know, is that this has proved exceedingly difficult for evangelicalism to pull off.

 


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