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

can speech act theory rehabilitate inerrancy? (part 2 of Carlos Bovell’s review of The Lost World of Scripture) January 31, 2014

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.

"I think you're arguing with what I'm not saying. I'm not saying there are no ..."

the best defense of the Christian ..."
"Don't you have one? Or do you just want to read it twice?"

we have lift off…my new website ..."
"Ooh yes. Free copy of 'Inspiration and Incarnation'?"

we have lift off…my new website ..."
"My first comment. You should get a prize or something."

we have lift off…my new website ..."

Browse Our Archives

Follow Us!

What Are Your Thoughts?leave a comment
  • Jeff Martin

    I like the review. Dr. Bovell should have been more bold. Even the editors of the Bible got things twisted. Regardless of meaning, if one is relaying an account either one hangs himself or throws himself over the cliff, it is not both. I don’t see how Walton’s and Sandy’s view would help this problem.

    Also many scholars have said that certain Biblical writers exhibit poor grammar skills. Regardless of the intent to get across, if you put the wrong preposition it is not going to be clear, hence meaning will suffer.

  • sanctusivo

    The problem remains that, re. the OT certainly, we have “authors” and we have redactors. Who’s inerrant? In any event, when the true basis of one’s faith is in one’s hermeneutics, where is the faith actually directed?

  • copyrightman

    I think you’re correct about the disconnection from the Chicago Statement’s cognitive-propositionalist model finally being incompatible with speech-act theory. However, I think your understanding of “authorship” within speech-act theory is thin. Certainly a historical process of communal transmission and redaction leading to a final canonical text is consistent with speech-act theory generally.

    Why is anyone bothering with the Chicago Statement? It’s not like the Nicene Creed or something.

    • Why is anyone bothering with the Chicago Statement? It’s not like the Nicene Creed or something.

      True, but unfortunately, the ETS references the Chicago Statement for prospective members, and many evangelical colleges/seminaries use Chicago as a litmus test for biblical fidelity. For up-and-coming evangelical scholars, who hope to network and find a job, there is sufficient pressure to retain an identity with “inerrancy,” even if you modify the Chicago Statement far beyond its original claims (as Walton has done). And, needless to say, the mainline is not a very attractive option for most of us (speaking as an “evangelical” myself).

      • Just Sayin’

        Only in the U.S. though. Like YE Creationism, this seems to be largely a U.S. problem.

        • Carlos Bovell

          Yes, I emphasize in my book that this is a cultural problem that contemporary American evangelicalism has inherited from a bygone era. In hindsight we can see that many of the institutions within evangelicalism were too quick to completely identify themselves as belonging to this segment of evangelical culture. Now with entire institutions having to decide how to navigate the culture war surrounding inerrancy, the problem brings with it a political component for both teachers and students within (American) evangelical academia and ministers in their corresponding church denominations.

      • copyrightman

        Kevin, you’re right of course. Maybe the ETS needs to decline in importance. In any event, it’s useful to observe that fidelity to the Chicago Statements is largely a sociological rather than an intellectual or spiritual issue.

    • Why is anyone bothering with the Chicago Statement? It’s not like the Nicene Creed or something.

      Rejection of something like the Chicago Statement seems often correlated with what I call ‘fuzzing’ of scripture, whereby it becomes less poignant for life. For example, the idea that the Exodus didn’t really happen has a tendency to reduce its applicability to life in the here and now. I don’t thinking ‘fuzzing’ necessarily follows from rejection of the Chicago Statement, but people often think that correlation is causation.

      What I suspect is actually going on is that Satan is fracturing the church catholic into two groups:

           (A) the analytic, logical, concrete thinkers
           (B) the intuitive, fuzzy, holistic thinkers

      If you’re very much A or B, you’re probably aware that it can be hard to communicate with your opposite. And yet, the trio of passages, Mt 5:43-48, Jn 13:34-35, and Jn 17:20-23 indicate that the evidence that (i) we are Jesus’ disciples; (ii) God sent Jesus, is our unity. Splitting people apart by how they think instead of how they act is a masterful stroke by Satan; it weakens the church and it weakens the evidence that Jesus is Lord.

      • copyrightman

        Do you have actual statistical correlations on this? I don’t mean this to be overly argumentative, but often we make statements like this without any basis in data.

        • Carlos Bovell

          What Luke writes above sounds very much like the Chicago Statement’s position:

          “In our affirmation of the authority of Scripture as involving its total truth, we are consciously standing with Christ and His apostles, indeed with the whole Bible and with the main stream of Church history from the first days until very recently. We are concerned at the casual, inadvertent, and seemingly thoughtless way in which a belief of such far-reaching importance has been given up by so many in our day.”

          “We are conscious too that great and grave confusion results from ceasing to maintain the total truth of the Bible whose authority one professes to acknowledge. The result of taking this step is that the Bible which God gave loses its authority, and what has authority instead is a Bible reduced in content according to the demands of one’s critical reasonings and in principle reducible still further once one has started. This means that at bottom independent reason now has authority, as opposed to Scriptural teaching. If this is not seen and if for the time being basic evangelical doctrines are still held, persons denying the full truth of Scripture may claim an evangelical identity while methodologically they have moved away from the evangelical principle of knowledge to an unstable subjectivism, and will find it hard not to move further.”

          • copyrightman

            But if you use the language of “correlation” that’s a statistical term.

            We could of course discuss the numerous instances of historical mistakes and oversimplifications in the statement you quote above (as if the Apostles and Fathers had such a flat hermeneutic!) but that’s another issue.

          • But if you use the language of “correlation” that’s a statistical term.

            It is true that correlation is a statistical term, but its use traces back at least as far as Hume, who questioned the very possibility of knowing causation over correlation. Correlation is strictly weaker than causation. If you look at the second Chicago Statement quotation, above, you’ll see some confusion over correlation and causation, with the analytic content being correlation and the holistic content being causation (reject inerrancy and you’ll go bad places).

          • copyrightman

            Honestly, I think it’s an empty nonsense claim. It offers no parameters for even beginning to measure what might possibly be meant by something like “less poignant for life,” never mind any reliable way to sample such a thing, even anecdotally. It’s the sort of argument that substitutes for real conversations about truth, which is supposed to be the point to begin with. Certainly we could broadly say that careful study and devotional use of scripture leads to good things, whereas sloppy study and lack of devotional reading leads to bad things, which is sort of a faith claim grounded also in experience. But to suggest a “correlation” between some highly particular view of inspiration / hermeneutics and a lack of faith or piety seems to me unhelpful.

          • Your honesty is appreciated. Let’s start with an example. I’m sorry, but due to the examples, this will be a long comment. I’m not sure how to make it shorter and still include evidence.

            So if you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go. First be reconciled to your brother, and then come and offer your gift. (Mt 5:23-24)

            When combined with Rom 12:1-2, this is a very clear command: resolving problems with your brothers and sisters in Christ is more important than just about everything else. And yet, surely you know how easily people weasel their way out of obeying concrete commands like this one. They find wiggle room: “I don’t really think he has something against me; it’s just a small disagreement.” Or ‘sacrifice’ is defined such that it only happens once in a while.

            I think there is huge worry that those who ‘metaphorize’ bits in the Bible will find ways to avoid clear implications of scripture. We’ll conveniently ignore the implicit metaphor of ‘sacrifice’ in the passage, above.

            Recently, I had multiple prolonged discussions with a blogger, Tim Chastain, who goes by the nick “Jesus without baggage”; here’s a sample:

            I used to require specifics in any theological discussion. I used to debate everything I believed, but I have come to embrace ambiguity (I suppose that is equivalent to fuzzy), because we don’t know the answer to everything.

            However, there are some things I am passionate about:

            * Jesus is the clearest light we have on understanding and relating to God
            * The Father loves us and we need not fear him
            * The Father’s desire is peace and reconciliation with him, ourselves, and others
            * We should love everyone as we love ourselves
            * The Father will not punish us even though we are broken and imperfect

            In proper behavior, I think principles are more important than rules, and everyone has to learn how that relates to them as they better grasp the principles.

            I would describe the above as very ‘fuzzy’. Now, the Tim has the explicit mission of reaching out to those who have come from legalist churches and need an escape from that. He reserves specifics for individuals:

            you are right that I should be able to provide specific guidance to others, and I am willing to do so but only under two conditions:

            1. That the person asks for my opinion
            2. That we discuss their issue(s) in the context of a relationship together

            Another example with Tim is this conversation, where I argued for specifics, like a scientist wants specifics. Tim said the following:

            I have no problem with your list, and I am glad it works for you. But I don’t see it necessarily as a guide for other people, though it might be helpful to some.

            This sounds very relativist! I’m not certain it is (I am skeptical that there is one ‘best’ metaphysic for all Christians to hold), but Tim seems to be saying to do whatever works for you to accomplish the vague itemized list he gave in my first quote of him. He liked my bit about relational sin (including Mt 5:23-24), but didn’t necessarily see it as binding on other Christians. I think this well-captures my thoughts on the matter:

            To understand my position, consider how different people’s physiologies respond differently to a given medicine. We have two options:

            1. There is no pattern to how a given person’s physiology responds to a given medicine.
            2. There are actual, discoverable rules as to how physiologies respond to medicine, but not everyone’s physiology is sufficiently similar to the next person’s.

            I see you getting close to advocating #1, which is a kind of subjectivism about how to love other people. My objection is that I think that love is actually according to Law—to how God made reality—and that we can increasingly discover Law. But lower-case law is merely an approximation of Law, just like all scientific discoveries are an approximation of how particle-and-field reality works.

            Can you see why a more analytical person might doubt that Tim’s methods will actually lead to him becoming more like Jesus, while he might think that trying to ever-better obey Mt 5:23-24 is a guaranteed way to become more like Jesus? Note that Tim rejects inerrancy. The inerrantist may worry that Tim will abandon the true principles of the kingdom of god and replace them with something that merely looks like love, along the lines of the protagonist in CS Lewis’ Till We Have Faces, who thought she was loving, but was not grounded in Truth.

          • copyrightman

            I appreciate these examples, Luke, but I don’t think they’re about the particulars of the Chicago Statement. We certainly agree that scripture must be central to any healthy church and any healthy spiritual life! But that doesn’t entail anything so particular as the Chicago Statement. I could give you lots of examples of hard-line inerrantists who are nasty, horrible, abusive people, along with plenty of examples of “liberals” who are far more advanced spiritually than I’ll ever be, and vice-versa. I just don’t think it’s all that simplistic.

          • Ahhh, you seem to be focusing very much on the Chicago Statement of inerrancy, instead of the Chicago Statement of inerrancy. Of course there is a great variety of belief in inerrancy, and the Chicago Statement is a very popular form. It seems like a fairly brittle form (as this series of blog posts is demonstrating), and yet there are many who think that what I call ‘brittle’ is very important. For a specific example, see those who think that doing away with the historical Adam torpedoes Christianity; the influential Al Mohler is someone to read (e.g. Adam and Eve: Clarifying Again What Is at Stake). Let’s go back to part of the Chicago Statement:

            We are conscious too that great and grave confusion results from ceasing to maintain the total truth of the Bible whose authority one professes to acknowledge. The result of taking this step is that the Bible which God gave loses its authority, and what has authority instead is a Bible reduced in content according to the demands of one’s critical reasonings and in principle reducible still further once one has started.

            The claim is that

                 (1) ‘dropping inerrancy’ ⇒ ‘less authority’

            . The authority changes in form, from

                 (2) ‘objective, clear meaning of the text’ → ‘interpreted subjectively by fallible people’

            . The authors seem to doubt that the latter is even ‘authority’. (1) and (2) are not unique to the Chicago Statement; they’re pretty standard fare when it comes to inerrancy. I think it is fair to equate ‘less authority’ with ‘less poignant’. Scripture is fuzzy if it means one thing to one person and another to another person. We have to be careful about Romans 14-type issues, but one could just rephrase the debate as to what is a Romans 14-type issue and what is an essential to the faith.

            (3) We certainly agree that scripture must be central to any healthy church and any healthy spiritual life! (4) But that doesn’t entail anything so particular as the Chicago Statement.

            Surely you realize that many Christians agree with (3) but vehemently disagree with (4)? My original comment was targeted at precisely these Christians.

            I just don’t think it’s all that simplistic.

            Precisely what are you saying isn’t simplistic? I am not a hardline inerrantist, and neither am I fundamentalist; it tends to be these groups who insist that the issue is really quite simple. “The Bible says it, I believe it, and that settles it.” I, on the other hand, think that we necessarily see through a glass dimly, and therefore all we ever have is the second half of (2).

          • copyrightman

            Sorry I thought this whole discussion based on the OP was about whether stuff like what John Walton is doing is consistent with the Chicago Statement and whether that matters. I like what Walton and VanHoozer are doing, and I don’t care whether it’s consistent with the Chicago Statement or not.

          • You do realize that they might get fired if they part with the Chicago Statement, right? That makes the Chicago Statement a pretty big deal.

          • Andrew Dowling

            “The authority changes in form, from

            (2) ‘objective, clear meaning of the text’ → ‘interpreted subjectively by fallible people'”

            But the latter is all there is; the former simply doesn’t exist; it’s a myth.

          • That is what I said at the end of that comment. :-p

          • Andrew Dowling

            Ah I see now . . shame on me for commenting before digesting the whole thing! 🙂

          • It’s ok; the fun arrows can be insidiously distracting.

        • I’d like to say I have something more than mere anecdotal data, but less than peer-reviewed data. I’ve read books by major figures in evangelicalism, and I think this constitutes something closer to representative sampling than anecdotal sampling. I’ve also seen this pattern in my personal interactions, although those interactions are distinctly anecdotal, since I’m not friends with any major, representative figures.

          Carlos’ quotations, below, greatly confirm what I’ve said, given that many people agree with the Chicago Statement.

  • Tim

    What was it Jesus said to the Pharisees?

    37“And the Father who sent Me, He has testified of Me. You have neither heard His voice at any time nor seen His form. 38“You do not have His word abiding in you, for you do not believe Him whom He sent.
    39“You search the Scriptures because you think that in them you have eternal life; it is these that testify about Me; 40and you are unwilling to come to Me so that you may have life.”

    The scriptures are a signpost, pointing us to Christ. We don’t need textual inerrancy to have scriptural authority. Seems that the more we dig into this, the more we find ourselves in need of letting go of our culturally-driven biblical idolatry.

  • James

    Some evangelical statements of faith say inspiration applies to “the original autographs.” We have lost the originals but textual criticism assures us current copies are so similar as to be largely indistinguishable. In line with the work of Walton and Sandy we should scrap the search for original autographs and be content with the discovery of older manuscripts. The Dead Sea Scrolls, for example, taught us much about the nature and transmission of scripture. I suspect we will never uncover an original recording orally accessible!

  • Bryan

    It seems as though this perspective would be trading one form of foundationalism for another indefensible and unassailable foundation. For inerrentists, the original autographs, which are purely theoretical, is clearly indefensible. For Walton and Sandy, it seems as if we remove person “A” from the equation and God’s speech act still stands, another indefensible statement and foundation takes its place, namely, God’s speech act. Another thought is, “what is the real difference between the removal of person A and the acceptance of redactors who issued numerous textual differences that now stand in our apparatuses today?” I have no problem accepting the latter but this entire proposition seems difficult to maintain. I applaud both of them but I have to wonder, since they are chaffing at the edges of inerrancy, if this does not reflect an internal struggle to maintain inerrancy.

  • Hello Carlos, we owe you much for your critical and scholarly review of that book.

    When arguing against books proper to the Catholic Canon or outside of both Canons, Evangelicals typically mention criteria such as false autrhorships or disagreements with other books.

    But if one takes seriously the results of Scholarship according to which many books of the Protestant Canon are concerned as well by the same problems, this line of defense becomes utterly untenable.

    Why could we not envisage, then, that God might have spoken as much in books outside the (Protestant) Bible?

    • Carlos Bovell


      Thanks for your kind words. Yes, we would hold that every book that is canonical is inspired but not all inspired books are canonical.

      Grace and peace,

      • Thanks for your answer.

        As I explained in the above link, I view C.S. Lewis as being inspired too among many others, even if he (like Paul) did mistakes.

        A progressive Christian pastor told me he views books from Martin Luther Kind as inspired which is perfectly fine for me 🙂

        I have strong doubts about the terror texts of the Bible being inspired in any meaningul sense.

        As I explained I view myself the stories as non-historical, but this changes nothing to the fact they promote a violent view of God.

        This confronts ALL Christians with a problem, namely that of divine hidenness: why did God allow so many people in Israel (and worldwide) to have false about Him with such dreadful consequences?

        How do you personally deal with this?

        Lovely greetings in Christ.

        P.S: by the way, are you a Spanish speaking American?
        I am a Germanic Frenchman.

        • Carlos Bovell

          Yes, I could see someone saying that C S Lewis or Martin Luther is inspired but not canonical.

          Texts of terror certainly fly in the face of our modern sense of ethical awareness. That being the case, we can be grateful that we have evolved enough culturally where we can truly be offended at these texts. We can acknowledge just how terrible humanity can be, particularly in the name of serving the Lord.

          For me, when I encounter these texts I view them as cultural expressions and ecumenical reminders of how, in principle at least, believers should take occult practices to be a fundamental impediment to personal and communal worship of God. From a spiritual angle, I do want to remember that there really IS some kind of war going on against powers and principalities in which we are blessed to be enlisted by spreading the love of Christ.

          With regard to your question about people’s false views about God, it seems to me that we have always had and will always have views that are dead wrong, even evil, but sometimes it’s the best we can do given what we know for that phase of human culture and human history we occupy. God really has given creation an integrity of its own and really is letting humanity “grow up.” We have signs of this even in the scriptures that were produced (which God nevertheless has seen fit to appropriate in his efforts to reveal the Savior of the world, the Shepherd and Bishop of our souls).

          Clearly, I cannot solve the problem of evil or the problem of how that evil is so far spread that it even impacts the ideas that are contained in “texts of terror,” but these are some thoughts that spring to mind at the moment.

          Thanks for your comments.

          Grace and peace,


  • Kelly

    This sounds like it gives favor to the Catholic Church and their view of authority!

  • James M

    Thanks for writing this 🙂 – it looks very thought provoking.