The book was co-written by two Wheaton professors, John Walton and Brent Sandy, in response to questions they inevitably receive as a result of students’ paradigms about inerrancy being shattered. The book is laid out as a series of propositions (twenty-one of them), which can be viewed here.
The basic premise of the book is that the cognitive environment of the ancient world—and scripture by extension—was oral. Given that our cognitive environment is written (they call it the “Gutenberg Galaxy”), we have a difficult time understanding how something oral can be authoritative and accurate. We unconsciously import the presuppositions of written culture into our reading of the text. When the text falls short of our expectations, as it will, we begin to doubt the authority of scripture. This is especially true for those who hold to some form of inerrancy. This book attempts to adjust our expectations and rewrite what inerrancy means.
For example, in an oral culture, what does authorship mean? If the stories have been repeated for generations before being written down, to what degree are they still the same story? And does it matter?
Walton and Sandy appeal to speech-act theory in an attempt to answer these questions. Their thesis is that God has an illocution (intended meaning) which is translated into a locution (the current text) by the “author,” resulting in a perlocution (action or response) on the part of the intended audience. A chart illustrating this is shown on page 41. They maintain that the illocution is the focal point of inspiration, with the locution being the speaker’s culture-bound attempt to get that message across.
The majority of the book is spent explaining how an oral culture operates. The Old Testament (part one) is the focus of the first four propositions, while the New Testament (part two) is the focus of the next nine. Part Three discusses four propositions about literary genres in the ancient world, three relating to the Old Testament and one to the New. Part Four has four final propositions which are their attempts at applying what orality means for the authority of scripture in general, and inerrancy in particular. The book concludes with a set of conclusions on what it is safe and not safe to believe concerning the nature of scripture and its authority/accuracy.
It would be easy for me, not working from a position of inerrancy, to throw stones. I am not employed in an environment that requires me to subscribe to inerrancy, so I can simply say to jettison it. I recall the “Battle for the Bible” of the 1970s and ‘80s. I didn’t subscribe to inerrancy then and don’t now. I’ve always felt it was a misguided attempt to bring scientific certainty into matters of faith—the result of the church subscribing to the rationalism of modern society. That being said, Walton and Sandy do a very good job of explaining the ancient world and its environment. Their attempt at redefining what inerrancy should mean is admirable. The section delineating the differences between inerrancy, inspiration, and authority was very well done, as well.
Nonetheless, throughout the book, I couldn’t help but keep asking myself if it wouldn’t be better to just jettison the term…but I also have to be a realist. The fight about inerrancy isn’t going to disappear; you only need to pick up a copy of Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society to see what I mean. I picked up one while I was working at Eisenbrauns that dated from the 1980s and compared it to one from 2011. Same debates. Same arguments. Same conclusions. Same anathemas being hurled around…it just isn’t going to disappear. In an environment as toxic as that, this book could be a real asset. But, I suspect not. Michael Bird recently pointed out that it is a strictly North American construct. (If you subscribe to inerrancy, you owe it to yourself to read that post, by the way.)
The introduction does a good job of putting the whole question of inerrancy into perspective:
It [the Bible] is a literary masterpiece, a magnum opus, a stellar performance. But there’s more to the story. The ultimate importance of the Bible lies elsewhere: it is the inspired revelation of Almighty God, a heavenly treasure in a world of impoverished ideas, a sparkling mountain stream in the driest of deserts. Our point, however, is not to worship the Bible; we worship the God of the Bible…I can agree with all of that, although I would remove the sentence on shame and added that all is possible only through the power of the Holy Spirit living within us. And I would have stopped there, but they continue in the next sentence:
Christians may forget or not take seriously that the Bible is the one and only, absolutely authoritative book, that it demands our utmost attention. Living out its truths is the highest of callings. If we fail to show the Bible the respect it is due, we are to be shamed. And it’s more than theory; it’s the practice of bringing our thoughts and lives into line with God’s thoughts and life.
We hold a very high view of Scripture. We confess that the Bible is God’s self-disclosure. The Old and New Testaments are the literary deposit of divine truth. The ultimate revelation is Jesus himself. The central message is creation, fall, redemption and restoration. (page 12)
We affirm inerrancy…Among other things, the evidence assembled in this book inevitably leads to the question of inerrancy. While we wholeheartedly affirm what the Bible itself reveals about its origin, authority and truthfulness, we recognize that there is always a bit of uneasiness when discussing inerrancy and related concepts in fresh ways. This is sacred turf, but the truth of the matter is, no term, or even combination of terms, can completely represent the fullness of Scripture’s authority. (pages 12, 13)A hearty amen to all of the thoughts there except for the statement about affirming inerrancy!
If you are from a faith tradition that subscribes to inerrancy, you really should read this book. People whose faith has been shaken because of exposure to academic biblical studies would also benefit from it. Even if, as I, you don’t affirm inerrancy, you can learn a great deal about the cognitive environment of the biblical world.
A few random thoughts:
They really should have used the Oxford/serial comma. There are several places where it would have clarified a statement.
I think they go too far in their openness to potential later additions to the prophetic books, but am open to being persuaded. But it would have to be pretty strong evidence (as I suspect it would be for them, as well).
The discussion of joint authorship of the Pauline epistles was fascinating. Sandy suggests that we should take seriously the introductory paragraph of Paul’s epistles where it says they are from a list of people. He suggests that they should be considered co-authors. Fascinating idea!
As I was reading this book, I kept thinking of the fate of Peter Enns. It is a good thing that John no longer teaches at Moody and that Brent is no longer at Grace. I doubt those schools would tolerate this book, irenic and tentative in its conclusions as it is. I hope Wheaton is more gracious and open to their ideas.