when inerrancy no longer works: Carlos Bovell on Robert Yarbrough

c bovell 2014Today’s guest post is by Carlos Bovell, a frequent contributor to this blog (for a recent post go here and work backwards). 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).

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Robert Yarbrough is a New Testament professor at Covenant Seminary, an inerrantist school, and served as president of the Evangelical Theological Society in 2013. He is the author of a commentary on 1, 2, and 3 John in Baker’s Exegetical Commentary of the New Testament series and also co-author of the textbook, Encountering the New Testament: A Historical and Theological Survey. He has recently published two articles (”The Future of Cognitive Reverence for the Bible,” and ”Should Evangelicals Embrace Historical Criticism? The Hays-Ansberry Proposal”) defending the importance of inerrancy.

My purpose here isn’t to disagree with Yarborough’s position. He is free to defend his understanding of scripture as inerrant as I am free to point out what I see are the problems with the concept.

I am more interested here in highlighting the unhelpful rhetoric Yarborough uses in both of the linked articles above, which I have found to be common among defenders of inerrancy:

Yarbrough presents three lines of argument for inerrancy’s continued importance.

  1. Theological: Inerrancy is theologically and biblically viable.
  2. Sociological: Inerrancy is what motivates students into biblical studies and into ministry.
  3. Historical: Inerrancy is what the world-wide church has always and still today believes.

On one level, those not disposed toward inerrancy should nevertheless take these considerations seriously. American evangelicalism made an inerrant Bible a core—if not the core—component of its theology. I feel we must be charitable and grant that, even if we disagree with the concept, the reasons for doing so were not entirely unfounded.

But that said, those who have doubts about inerrancy are not coming at their faith from a place where these arguments have much force, for we have come to experience personally that the spiritual life of churches and of believers is a journey and that the journey has to be “adaptable for life” (as James A. Sanders put it in his 1978 SBL presidential address) if it’s going to survive. (Thus the “aha” series on this blog describing some of the experiences.)

Despite Yarbrough’s assertions, an inflexible, all-or-nothing inerrantist doctrine of Scripture, impervious to change and development along the way, is hardly sound spiritual advice. For many believers, inerrancy as the default view of Scripture has already proven ill-equipped to handle biblical phenomena. It simply doesn’t allow for healthy adaptation, and in many cases will not permit needed growth in one’s faith—or in some cases even allow the faith to stay alive.

I don’t think the best way forward is to deny those experiences and strong arm Christians to adapt a paradigm they see as faulty.

To illustrate the differences in perspective between us, let me rephrase Yarbrough’s three points according to the questions I ask myself about the Bible:

  1. Theological: What is the best way to try to describe the Bible’s “authority”?
  2. Sociological: How has an “inerrant” Bible become so central to faith that it is thought to be what motivates believers to study scripture, go into ministry, remain a believer, etc.? If it truly is what’s motivating people, is this a good thing or does it suggest a deeper problem?
  3. Historical: How have Christian communities throughout the world and throughout history thought about their scripture, why have they done so, and what bearing does this have on the views we formulate today?

These are some of the questions I find myself asking and not only does Yarbrough not provide satisfactory answers to them, but his very style of defense does indeed seem to me “embarrassingly retrograde” (to use Yarbrough’s phrase in “Should Evangelicals?”).

Consider what theological advice Yarbrough might offer a student who has come to doubt inerrancy because of academic study of the Bible:

We can no more separate God and his words to us, if that is what Scripture is, than we can separate human friends and family from the words we exchange with each other. Neither God nor people we know are sphinxes whose identity we ultimately intuit by solely spiritual (or even Spiritual) means. To separate knowledge of persons’ identity, human or divine, from their verbal self-disclosure would in the end be both unproductive and perverse. (“The Embattled Bible,” 12)

Jesus regarded Scripture as words from God’s mouth. That should be understood analogically, of course, and not crudely literally, but the integral link between God and divine enscripturated speech remains. (“The Future of Cognitive Reverence,” 17)

This kind of answer would only be compelling for those who are satisfied with inerrancy as the default view. Not only is Yarbrough’s rhetoric here not persuasive, but it comes across as strong arming and emotionally manipulative.

Post-inerrantists are not trying to sever the relationship between God and scripture but rather to establish it by critically investigating scripture and conceptually clarifying it. It is not “perverse” or “unproductive” when a believer suspends judgment on inerrancy, takes a searchingly fresh look at the Bible, and concludes that inerrancy simply does not do justice to what the Bible is and how the Bible behaves.

Given the significant number of thinking people who have left inerrancy (as opposed to moving toward inerrancy from a non-inerrantist position), dismissing this scenario as invalid or spiritually stunted, or minimizing the experiences of those who have walked this path by rhetorically pitting them against the “faithful” who have not walked that path, is pastorally unwise and harmful.

Next: How has an “inerrant” Bible become so central to faith that it is thought to be what motivates believers to study scripture, go into ministry, remain a believer, etc.? If it is what’s motivating people, is this a good thing?

In Yarbrough’s view, it’s the reliability of scripture that led a large percentage of ETS members to go into ministry and scholarship. Is it, really? Has inerrancy really always been so central to Christian faith and the motivator for most Christians to study scripture, go into ministry or be a believer? Or has the true motivation come from the love of God in Christ for us and ours for him? 

If inerrancy is what is motivating some to believe, perhaps they have misplaced their first love, or even allowed scripture to substitute for God. As I explain in Rehabilitating Inerrancy in a Culture of Fear, we come to scripture already immersed in God’s Spirit. It’s because of God’s love for us and ours for him that we read and meditate on scripture in the first place not the other way around.

Third: How have Christian communities throughout the world and throughout history thought about their scriptures, why have they done so, and what bearing does this have on the views we formulate today?

Yarbrough continues to appeal to Woodbridge’s claim that modern day inerrancy is the historic position of the Christian churches through history. No thought is given, however, to the overwhelming changes that have occurred in the ways we see the world today and what we know about scripture today.

Our views of scripture had better be different in many respects from how the ancients thought about scripture—and indeed they are.

And when examining what the ancients did say with respect to their views of scripture, we must keep in mind that even when they use language similar to ours (“no errors”), the church hasn’t always meant the same thing by it, nor does it mean that the ancients are poised to adjudicate for us the pressing challenges of modernity. We cannot simply appeal to ancient voices to settle or table current challenges. 

One thing to notice is that the questions post-inerrantists tend to ask and the arguments inerrantists like Yarbrough tend to put forth speak to two different sets of concerns.

Post-inerrantists are trying to find ways to adapt their faith to keep their journeys going, while inerrantists are trying to make sure journeys stay in line with what they perceive to be historic, orthodox faith, and that insists on inerrancy as defined by the Chicago Statement.

When it comes down to it, both groups are grappling with how to deal with change.

I suggest that at least part of what keeps the latter from giving their blessings to what the former is trying to do is a culture of fear that defines parts of inerrantist evangelicalism. (See my chapter on Bart Ehrman in By Good and Necessary Consequence: A Preliminary Genealogy of Biblicist Foundationalism and also Rehabilitating Inerrancy in a Culture of Fear.)

I say this based primarily on personal experience within inerrantist culture, but it also comes up in some writings by inerrantists themselves when they defend their position. We hear that too much is at stake to yield to criticism, and as long as there are inerrantists scholars around who can defend it as a plausible or possible view, a believer need not worry about making any changes to inerrantist doctrine.

Yarbrough not only asserts that the historical church held to inerrancy, but that the global church does to. Although he presents the point as an afterthought, I wonder whether it plays a larger role:

The history of movements sacrificing the whole truth of the whole Bible for the sake of extending an olive branch to parties not committed to the whole range of historic Christian conviction (God not being a piecemeal God) is not encouraging. . . . not to mention the disastrous pastoral and missiological implications of church leaders. . . suddenly announcing to Bible-honoring congregations, or proclaiming to the lost in the post-Christian West, to Muslims in the Middle East, or to Hindus in India (or anywhere), that the Christian Bible long claimed to be true by the ‘Church’ is now known to be, well, substantially less so. But believe our testimony to Christ (testified to historically almost no where else besides this Bible) anyway! (“Should Evangelicals Embrace Historical Criticism?” 50–51).

In other words, inerrantists have been insisting to everyone for decades that the Bible is inerrant, imagine what would happen if we changed our minds now.

This is an appeal to emotion such that if believers want to support what missionaries are trying to do, they must hold on to inerrancy lest they undercut their efforts. But the perceived centrality of inerrancy among missionaries, wherever that might be, speaks not to the actual centrality of (western) inerrancy but to how these missionaries were taught to think about scripture, which, in turn, passed it on to their congregations.

Yarbrough and other inerrantists at ETS will continue defending the centrality of inerrancy for the spiritual life. But for those who have already experienced the change authentically from within their journey, Yarbrough’s defense rings hollow at best, and appears emotionally manipulative at worst.

 

“aha” moments: biblical scholars tell their stories (13): Carlos Bovell

c bovell 2014Today’s “aha” moment is brought to you by Carlos Bovell, a frequent contributor to this blog (for his last post go here and work backwards). 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).

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I can very definitely remember that “aha” feeling in my spiritual journey. But truth be told, I doubt it was really just a moment, or if it was, it had to be a moment that was years in the making.

Before attending Westminster Theological Seminary I audited courses in Old Testament studies at Philadelphia College of Bible (later Philadelphia Biblical University, and now Cairn University). I eventually graduated with a math degree at The College of New Jersey, but I had had a life-changing religious experience before enrolling here, which is what prompted my sitting in on courses at PCB. I enrolled as an M.Div. student at Liberty Baptist Theological Seminary. It was as a result of studying at PCB and Liberty that I had learned a really valuable lesson.

(Side note: My spiritual counselors at both PCB and Liberty insisted I disregard my religious experience—even though it changed my life—because God doesn’t do those kinds of things anymore. He rather makes provision for us through holy scripture.)

While at PCB my OT professor, Brian Toews, was teaching us about the “canonical approach” to scripture of late Yale professor Brevard Childs. To help us understand how it would look when done by evangelicals, my professor had us work through numerous readings by John Sailhamer–a well known inerrantist OT scholar who had taught briefly at PCB but moved on to Western Seminary by the time I took classes there.

A quote from Sailhamer’s Introduction to Old Testament Theology: A Canonical Approach illustrated for me just how much preliminary work a student of the Bible is actually doing, philosophically, before thinking about how and whether the Bible is inerrant:

Thus the world that one stands before as a reader is never more than a representation of the “real world.” In the case of the Bible, the text is a true representation and an accurate representation. However, no matter how true or how accurate the text is, the accuracy of the Scriptures should not be allowed to obscure the fact that the text is, in fact, a representation of those actual events.

Now I should make clear that “what the Bible represents it always represents accurately” was not something I had any interest in criticizing at the time. I had wholeheartedly believed that. It was just that there was something about the way Sailhamer mentioned it here that seemed forced, contrived. What is he so worried about here?

Then, after spending a semester studying at Liberty Baptist Theological Seminary, I read a book by Liberty faculty that talked about the nature of Christian scholarship. The book was a compilation of essays and bore the title, Opening the American Mind: The Integration of Biblical Truth in the Curriculum of the University.

Each chapter gives an overview of a specific university discipline and was written by a professor who was active in that specific field so that the mathematics chapter was written by a mathematics professor, the economics chapter by an economics professor, the arts chapter by a music professor, and the biblical studies chapter by . . . a philosophy professor!

What’s wrong with this picture? Why is it that for every other field a practitioner of that field can explain how it relates to faith, but when it comes to biblical studies, a philosopher (none other than Norman Geisler) has to be called in to tell students in biblical studies what biblical studies must ultimately look like?

Both the Sailhamer assignments and the Liberty book got me thinking more intently about evangelical spirituality—particularly how it is shaped by evangelical philosophy—and cumulatively contributed to an “aha” moment for me: evangelicals, at least some, use philosophy to shield them from the “threats” of biblical studies.

Why the need to emphasize what inerrancy “requires” from biblical studies—ahead of time—before actually doing any biblical studies? I found this to be a very troubling question. Why are inerrantists going to settle matters for students before they gained some familiarity with the discipline of biblical studies?

It seems that the reason is to protect students from drawing “dangerous” conclusions. Even Sailhamer, a biblical scholar, felt the need to put on his philosopher’s hat while he did his biblical studies.

This raised a larger question for me: Where does biblical studies begin and inerrantist philosophy end? Is inerrantist philosophy driving the evangelical engine?

As much as I did not want to, I had to answer this question with a “yes.” An inerrantist historical Jesus scholar, for example, is not able to say that the early church put words into Jesus’ mouth in various portions of the Gospels or that a number of events recounted in the Gospels never really took place, being made up by a later generation of well-meaning disciples. Evangelical philosophy will already have decided these matters ahead of time. Thus evangelical, historical Jesus scholarship would have no choice but go through the motions of “discovering” that the Gospels are actually “true.” And this pattern carries over to other aspects of biblical studies.

I sensed a clear and widespread pattern among evangelical writers. The Liberty book I read thought that it would be best for an inerrantist philosopher to explain to students what biblical studies is and what it cannot find. Sailhamer wanted students and others reading him to know upfront that their researches in biblical studies would never come into conflict with inerrantist philosophy.

What I came to understand is that when inerrantist, philosophical pre-commitments of this kind are at work, the kind of scholarship needed to be done most by evangelicals would never get done from inside of evangelicalism.

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.

 

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.

Review of The Lost World of Scripture (Walton and Sandy) by Carlos Bovell

Today’s post is the first part of a book review by Carlos Bovell, who has been a guest here numerous times (most recently here). Carlos 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).

There’s a new book on the authority of scripture by John Walton and D. Brent Sandy (OT and NT professors respectively at Wheaton College) that I would encourage inerrantists to take the time to read: The Lost World of Scripture: Ancient Literary Culture and Biblical Authority.

The authors explain up front their motive for writing the book. When they talk about the literary world of the Bible in class, students would stay after to ask privately “the” question: “Why do we still use the word inerrancy?”

“It’s an inevitable question,” Walton and Sandy observe, “which the evidence raises on its own” (9). Their aim in writing the book, they explain, is to convince students not to give up on the authority of scripture, especially those who may be on “the brink of turning away” (9).

This is the same reason I began to write about inerrancy, although my concern was not to change the minds of students who were about to “turn away,” but rather to address evangelical leaders and teachers and warn them that they need to be more careful in the ways they teach students about inerrancy.

In my first book, Inerrancy and the Spiritual Formation of Younger Evangelicals, I described six things students learn about the Bible that inerrancy has great difficulty accounting for. It is reassuring that the topic that I considered to be the most pressing at the time—the incredibly complex process that gradually produced the collection of literature we call the Bible—is the same topic that Walton and Sandy center their book on.

Only recently has scholarly literature on orality in ancient Israel been incorporated into evangelical discussions of biblical authority. Walton and Sandy are, therefore, breaking new ground in evangelical culture by having orality in both the NT and OT play such a central role in their study of biblical authority.

For example, we read that the OT developed in a “hearing-dominant” society where documents were mostly written for “storage and consultation in archives.” This means that “[t]he general population did not own documents, had little access to documents and would be largely incapable of reading documents.” As a result, “they did not have a major role in the functions of society or in the transmission of the traditions they held” (27).

This observation cannot be emphasized enough. In a hearing-dominant culture, an “autograph” would not have had the same kind of significance as in a text-dominant culture, which means that the focus on the autographs of documents, which dominates the evangelical discussion of biblical authority and inerrancy, is anachronistic.

As a result, Walton and Sandy have come to understand that evangelical believers need to begin appreciating just how thoroughly immersed the Bible is in the cultural conventions of its time. Once readers see this, they will also begin to appreciate that the evangelical doctrine of inerrancy does not really get at the kind of authority the Bible has for Christian churches today.

This is a very important—and perhaps somewhat risky—point to make, one that evangelical scholars on the whole need to communicate to the evangelical public.

Despite their protests, however, Walton and Sandy are still interested in remaining inerrantists—perhaps awkwardly so. Their introductory section goes to great lengths to keep their firm commitment to inerrancy before their readers, including a lengthy quotation from the text-autograph-centered Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy. For example:

“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” (14).

In my opinion, a rather obvious doctrinal conflict presents itself between the authors’ desire to affirm these parts of the Chicago Statement and what they find through the fruits of their scholarship:

“When we talk about the authority of Scripture, we can now see that we cannot construe authority around the idea that each book of the Bible was first constructed as a literary document—a book, by an author. . . . 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).

It becomes difficult to see what can be understood by “verbally God-given” when in the case of the NT, for example, the authors observe:

“In the general epistles, we find no evidence that written texts began to replace oral texts. Records of things said were still being passed along orally. Oral texts were fully authoritative and were repositories of divine truth. Proclaiming the truth orally, along with people remembering what they heard, continued to be the basis of the church’s preservation of truth, propagation of the gospel and resistance to false teaching” (165–66).

Walton and Sandy are right to have us think again about what inerrancy can and can’t realistically accomplish theologically in light of orality in ancient cultures. They are also right to submit, for example, that inerrancy must allow for textual variants “even in initial editions of [Paul’s] letters” (250).

They are wrong, however, to conclude that “it is not safe to believe that inerrancy is falsified by the orality of Scripture” (303), because the type of inerrancy that the authors themselves are committed to, the one delimited by the Chicago Statement, is an entirely text-centered statement, resting entirely on the notion of a literary culture, the very culture Walton and Sandy have spent considerable effort in correcting.

It would have made more sense for them to simply assert that inerrancy, given its privileging of text-centered ways of thinking about the production of scripture, now needs to be rethought in terms of orality—and then give us models of how they think inerrancy works today given the realities of ancient oral culture.

Instead, they critique the anachronistic privileging of a literary culture, but then seem content to remain within what the Chicago Statement accepts as a simple matter of fact–the Bible as a product of a literary culture. The authors cannot tell us on the one hand that understanding orality is a corrective to assuming a literary culture for the Bible and then on the other assert the adequacy—even binding validity—of the Chicago Statement’s model of inerrancy.

The following proposition would be easier to defend in view of the book’s content: “Inerrancy as it is defined in the Chicago Statement is falsified by the orality of Scripture, and another way forward is needed that takes into account how the biblical writers, Old and New Testaments, thought.”

The question begs to be asked, why would Walton and Sandy work so hard to make clear that the Bible was produced in an oral culture, only to declare their commitment to a statement that clearly envisions a Bible that was produced in a text-dominated culture? It is difficult not to conclude that the reason has something to do with the restrictive academic culture that evangelical inerrantism has set in place. The same culture of fear that I complain about in Rehabilitating Inerrancy is severely limiting the extent that scholars like Walton and Sandy will be able to help evangelicals come to grips with the authority of the Bible.

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