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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.

Pete Enns, Ph.D.

Peter Enns (Ph.D., Harvard University) is Abram S. Clemens professor of biblical studies at Eastern University in St. Davids, Pennsylvania. He has written numerous books, including The Bible Tells Me So, The Sin of Certainty, and How the Bible Actually Works. Tweets at @peteenns.