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

Review of The Lost World of Scripture (Walton and Sandy) by Carlos Bovell January 20, 2014

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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  • Just Sayin’

    Good, helpful review; thanks. You and Dr. Enns need to write a similar, better book!

    • I second that!

      • Carlos Bovell

        Thanks for your support! I do have a short book where I put forth some ideas on biblical inspiration and authority due out later this year.

  • Very good. Carlos asks the right questions. It seems that “inerrancy” is fulfilling a role within evangelicalism for lack of a better alternative. That is what drives Walton (and Vanhoozer as well) to retain the term, despite his own awareness of its deficiencies. Evangelicals, in America at least, have not done the hard work of constructing a dogmatic framework in which to situate the authority of Scripture, wherein the text is sanctified and appropriated within the triune economy — all of which renders “inerrancy” superfluous and misleading. Without this dogmatic framework, evangelicals are left with an either/or between “inerrancy” and a “free for all” (next stop Bultmann!).

    • AHH

      Some evangelicals have tried to articulate a framework that affirms the authority and inspiration of Scripture without the unhelpful and unsupportable “inerrancy” doctrine.
      Some guy wrote a book called Inspiration and Incarnation 🙂
      Then you have Kenton Sparks, Clark Pinnock, NT Wright …
      But the conservative evangelical gate-keepers have tended to disown such voices, preserving the false either/or (and their own power)..

  • Jeff Martin

    Great review! You are spot on!

  • Trevor

    Don’t all professors at Wheaton have to sign on to a statement of faith that includes inerrancy? It always amazed me after reading The Lost World of Genesis One that Walton somehow still managed to assent to Chicago Statement-style inerrancy…but perhaps it’s just not to get let go from his teaching post??

    • The thing is, there are some frankly untenable philosophical positions that are the bedrock of CSBI. As a Lutheran, I have a lot of experience with people who believe in inerrancy and mean nothing at all like what CSBI espouses. The real issue, to me, is the way in which some evangelicalism has unconditionally wed their faith to modernist philosophy and epistemology. Really, I don’t believe any thinking person with a rudimentary understanding of rhetoric and historical philosophy can take CSBI seriously.

      • Breckmin

        I respectfully disagree with your last statement. Although I personally have always rejected the CSBI, I know a great many “thinking” individuals who place their faith in the Autographs based on their spiritual convictions regarding scripture. I think that spiritual conviction is the one thing that keeps CSBI alive in evangelicalism today. The Holy Spirit convicts you that the Bible is true…plain and simple. YET, not so will defined….If you are believing in higher criticism arguments or theistic evolution then I would say such a person is not “walking in the spirit.”

        The problem is how to articulate the Holy Spirit’s conviction that the scriptures are generally true. The Spirit of God may not convict you of verbal plenary inspiration, but the Spirit will give you the general sense that what you are reading is some form of God’s Word (logos) and that it is God’s sovereign will that the church has the canons (whether 72 or 66 books) it has. With the Holy Spirit’s conviction – details of inerrancy are often unimportant.
        Names in genealogies, times of event, numbers of soldiers, etc become non essential details and the things that really matter are the real “meat” of the scriptures (and what we would call the Word/Logos of God contained herein).

        It is my firm belief that CSBI came about by misunderstanding undefined spiritual conviction that the scriptures are generally true. There are a great many men of God who were part of CSBI with a great amount of wisdom.

        I think that if they had access to thoughtful alternatives to verbal inspiration to discuss such as capides revelation and more time to take an honest look at the science of textual criticism perhaps there would have been more dissent from the CSBI understanding of inspiration and/or inerrancy.

        • John

          (You forgot the part of my sentence that reads “with a rudimentary understanding of rhetoric and historical philosophy”)

          • Breckmin

            you honestly think that RC Sproul doesn’t at least have a rudimentary understanding of rhetoric and historical philosophy?

          • John

            I admit it is possible that he does, but has sacrificed any kind of intellectual responsibility in order to be accepted in certain circles. This was quite a common observation in seminary.

          • Breckmin

            I believe that he actually believes what he teaches on the nature of scripture, just like John MacArthur or Norman Geisler. They believe inspiration and inerrancy is the best explanation of what they are convicted of by the Holy Spirit. I don’t think that they hold their positions in order to be accepted in conservative circles. They looked up to their professors in seminary who also held this view, so they probable thought it was what God was teaching them. It is a position of concise not a position of precision.

    • BT

      I suspect that has something to do with it. I’ve never liked rigid statements of faith like that.

      My wife’s seminary asks you to sign one before you start classes. Makes me wonder, “Isn’t the thing you want me to assent to the very thing you are supposed to be teaching me? How about convincing me you’re right first, and then I will sign?”

  • Matt Parkins

    I think the conclusion – still managing to assent to the awful Chicago Statement of Inerrancy – may be more about keeping their positions within their establishments.

  • Rick

    Perhaps they are seeing inerrancy as Vanhoozer does, and are seeing the oral influence as one would see genre.
    More than the impact on inerrancy, I think this stresses the importance of prima scriptura, over sola or nuda scriptura.

  • Seeker

    Excellent post and excellent analysis of the problem. It will be a happy day when Evangelicalism can free itself from these unhelpful ways of thinking about authority in relation to the Bible while trying to ground it in a puzzling conception of inerrancy. Keep up the great work Carlos and Pete!

  • It is entirely true that many doctrines Conservative Evangelicals take to be Biblical are actually projections of modern Western presuppositions into Scripture.

    Randal Rauser defends a much more sophisticated version of inerrancy I friendly criticized .

    It is true that if you openly reject inerrancy, you are at great risk of losing your job if you are an Evangelical.

    As for authority, I fail to see why the apostle Paul should have more authority than C.S. Lewis.

    Thus I would go one step further than Pete Enns and his student: given such results, it is not only hard to stay a Chicago inerrantist but also to keep locating authority within the Bible.

    I view the collective experience of the people of God as being the (fallible) authority.

    This might sound frightening to an Evangelical but believe me, there are ways to learn to come to terms with that 🙂

    • Interesting, but I think in most cases it is a distinction without a difference. What I mean is that I haven’t met too many evangelicals for whom the Bible is their authority. Rather, their authority is a (usually small) group of men, or philosophy, and the way in which those men or that thought-world interprets the Bible. It really is a way of saying, “My people believe such-and-such, and God agrees with us!” Post hoc, ergo proper hoc.

      • This is well said!

        They think that the Bible is their authority whereas they actually follow a certain interpretation of the Bible based on a tradition .

        Due to the presence of contradictions within the Bible, it is impossible to have a coherent Biblical worldview, you always have to distort the original meaning of a great number of verses.

        • Breckmin

          I reject biblical inerrancy in favor of reliability and authority. I do NOT at all find it impossible to have a coherent Biblical worldview. I interpret based on what I believe the author “meant” so I don’t know why you would say “you always have to distort the original meaning…” Perhaps you could give some examples.

          I have always rejected verbal plenary inspiration but often had sympathy for infallibility subject to minor error on non essential detail. My personal view on scripture is capides revelation which focuses on the sovereignty of God to bring us His perfect logos through the imperfect medium of human languages.

          I do not find many contradictions in the bible….the dozen or so that I do find can usually be resolved with practical wisdom on how to approach different situations or giving testimony from different viewpoints.

          Perhaps you could give us this great number of verses.

    • well

      Actually in the new testament the word governments is used in the same scripture passage as God set 1st apostles 2nd prophets 3rd teachers, this compliments the establishment of eph 4 and prioritizes Gods intent according to eph 4 and Christs gifts to the Body. In the Word it states God does not change. so we must look to scripture to establish what God meant. Apostle used over 80 times prophet used over 100 times teacher used over 100 times. evangelist around 5 and pastor less than 5 in regards to men. Deacons came about in acts and can be ministry offices of the deacons mentioned by name almost 2/3 held a ministry office which is clear in the original language. Scripture is infoulable however there was an apostolic authority paul demonstrated which is very clear in the original language, it is also widley noticed that one man may hold more than one ministry office. I have not studied out the rest of the scriptures as to that but feel free to study out anything given previously in the post. also ecclesia is almost always used in the text of fivefold ministries if not entirely, So much for deacons boards being scriptural as far as many have said. the form of church we now see to a large degree came from the 2nd or 3rd century and largley stems from the roman catholic model. much of what we see is not verifiable by scripture. a verse comes to memory here from the old testmament. priests bear rule by their own means every house out for it’s own gain and my people love to have it so but what shall be the end their of pharaphrase.

    • Breckmin

      Lotharson said, “As for authority, I fail to see why the apostle Paul should have more authority than C.S. Lewis.”

      I’m not certain if this was a joke or whether it was truly serious. If I missed any sarcasm I apologize. To treat this statement on a serious note we would need to look at early church’s attitude toward certain writings and why the considered them canonical. Clearly Paul was chosen by God to write and preach to the gentiles. Clearly Paul was First Century. Clearly Paul had been given an encounter with Christ that was not shared by C.S. Lewis.

      If I look at the writings of Paul I can see clearly that Paul was walking in the Spirit. I can not see clearly that C.S. Lewis was walking in the Spirit the same way in which Paul was. In fact, there is some questionable theology regarding some of Lewis’ writings which would make me wonder how much he was devoted to fasting and prayer. Finally, and most importantly, would be the circumstances regarding their anointing, calling and ordination. I am not aware that C.S. Lewis was ever ordained or that he ever worked through church ministry. This is important….if you are going to have church authority. Question everything.