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The Lost World of Scripture: Ancient Literary Culture and Biblical Authority Paperback – November 1, 2013
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"[T]here is much to think about in this volume. I recommend it as a thoughtful reflection on the intricacies of an important doctrine." (Richard A. Taylor, Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society, 57-4)
"The Lost World of Scripture carries a lot of bang for the buck. It is high time for a book such as this, and we are glad it has been written." (Sawyer Nyquist with Abraham Kuruvilla, Bibliotheca Sacra, April-June 2015)
"The Lost World of Scripture is clearly written and carefully reasoned; the authors have laid out the chapters in propositions to help readers follow the logical progression of the contents. Recommend this book especially to pastors, seminary and Bible college students, and other serious students of the Bible." (Daniel Johnson, CBA Retailers + Resources, December 2013)
"The nineteenth-century doctrine of inerrancy is gently introduced to the twenty-first century by two sympathetic insiders. As an inerrantist myself, I fret that Scripture is being stretched Procrustean-style onto an Enlightenment framework. There's nothing inherently wrong with the doctrine; it's merely a poor fit. Elsewhere, I argued that modern authorship describes poorly NT letter-writing customs. Walton and Sandy take those same concerns to the entire canon. Noting that Scripture arose in a 'text-possible-but-hearing-prevalent society,' they argue that text-dominant cultures like ours inappropriately emphasize documents (versus texts which can be oral or written). We tend to view oral societies as the uneducated country cousins of our more sophisticated, urban, literate societies. For us, an oral story is just intrinsically inferior to a written story, and thus we want our Scriptures to have been written texts from the very beginning. This is our bias, not God's. He spoke, not wrote. While evangelical systematic theologians rally for traditional inerrancy, evangelical biblical scholars (who are more likely to wrestle with the origins of the text) see how inerrancy works better for Luke than it does for Jeremiah. Walton and Sandy suggest a model that emphasizes an authority as the 'fountainhead'; they posit a process that resembles more Wikipedia than our solitary, contemporary author but still results in an inerrant canonical text. Jeremiah was the authoritative prophet who first spoke, not the author of the final book. Admittedly, this is hard for modern Westerner evangelicals; however, our digital age may carry us back to the future where a solitary author stops being the sole model for authority. Writing to fellow inerrantist scholars, Walton and Sandy ask all the right questions--the questions many are afraid to ask--and they seek to affirm the absolute authority of Scripture as the inerrant, infallible Word of God. Some will hail them as paving the way forward; others will paint them as caving to liberalism. All of us need to read this book." (E. Randolph Richards, professor of biblical studies and dean, School of Ministry, Palm Beach Atlantic University)
"Clear, rigorous, innovative, well-informed and honest wrestling with a perpetual problem: how the phenomena of Scripture and the doctrine of inerrancy interrelate. Its application of cultural theory ('oral' vs. 'literary' cultures) and speech-act theory bears much fruit. Rich food for thought for students and scholars alike." (Robert Hubbard, professor of biblical literature, North Park Theological Seminary)
"In The Lost World of Scripture authors John Walton and Brent Sandy have put together in a reader-friendly format the results of several decades of learned scholarship in ancient literacy and book culture. Scholars and laity alike have not understood well this vital topic, often unconsciously reading (and judging) the Bible with modern expectations and then either criticizing or defending it unfairly and unrealistically. Lying behind this thinking is often a brittle fundamentalism, whether motivated by skepticism or zealous apologetic, that simply does not understand what biblical literature really is. Walton and Sandy expose the confusion and provide readers with a reliable road map. This book belongs in every library." (Craig A. Evans, Payzant Distinguished Professor of New Testament, Acadia Divinity College, Nova Scotia, Canada)
"Walton and Sandy have given us an important, even courageous, book. Firm advocates of the high authority of Scripture, they fully understand the deficiencies of many evangelical conceptions concerning the Bible's literary production as well as its interpretation. Those who read and appreciate this book will find their understanding of Scripture enriched and their love for God, its ultimate author, deepened." (Tremper Longman III, Robert H. Gundry Professor of Biblical Studies, Westmont College)
"Exciting discoveries are occurring in the field of biblical studies, providing insights for the interpretation of biblical texts. Walton and Sandy discuss some of these findings--specifically, how the oral culture and the biblical literature proceeding from it were not concerned with reporting events with a modern idea of precision. This finding touches directly on the doctrine of biblical inerrancy. While both authors teach at Wheaton College and hold the doctrine of biblical inerrancy, they contend that the term 'inerrancy' may have become inadequate for defining 'our convictions about the robust authority of Scripture' and propose alternate language for discussing biblical authority. This well-written volume provides a fresh, careful and timely contribution to the field of biblical studies and is a must-read for serious students of the Bible." (Michael R. Licona, associate professor of theology, Houston Baptist University)
"Walton and Sandy are to be commended for giving significant time and thought to the theological implications of their propositions. Lost worlds are attractive to explorers for the wonders to be found there, and this book has the potential to help a wider audience find the joy of a scholarly and trusting reading of the Bible, rather than merely seeing the dangers of modern scholarship." (Lyndon Drake, Pacific Journal of Baptist Research, November 2014)
About the Author
John H. Walton (PhD, Hebrew Union College) is professor of Old Testament at Wheaton College and Graduate School. Previously he was professor of Old Testament at Moody Bible Institute in Chicago for twenty years. Some of Walton's books include The Lost World of Adam and Eve, The Lost World of Scripture, The Lost World of Genesis One, Ancient Near Eastern Thought and the Old Testament, The Essential Bible Companion, The NIV Application Commentary: Genesis and The IVP Bible Background Commentary: Old Testament (with Victor Matthews and Mark Chavalas). Walton's ministry experience includes church classes for all age groups, high school Bible studies and adult Sunday school classes, as well as serving as a teacher for "The Bible in 90 Days." John and his wife, Kim, live in Wheaton, Illinois, and have three adult children.
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The purpose of the book, as the authors state in the introduction, is to explore the way the Bible was composed "with an eye to possible implications for the Bible's inspiration and authority" (9). They also use the introduction as a platform to make two important declarations. First, they warn the reader that the book will delve into areas that may make readers uncomfortable. They understand the sensitive nature of the material and openly admit that they are placing themselves "at risk of being misunderstood" (14). Even more interesting is how they close their introduction: by affirming the Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy. By the very nature of the book, one would assume that what is contained in the subsequent pages will fly in the face of inerrancy, and yet Walton and Sandy openly affirm it from the beginning. It now falls to the authors to show how their propositions are compatible with the CSBI.
The book is divided into four main parts, and within each part are what the authors call "Propositions." There are twenty-one propositions in all. Structuring the book this way is helpful since every proposition (chapter) comprises a premise in support of their overall argument. In the first part Walton delves into "The Old Testament World of Composition and Communication." Propositions 1 and 2 respectively establish (1) that the ancient world was hearing dominant and did not rely on written documents, and (2) that when documents did exist, they were often revised and expanded. These two propositions lie at the heart of the entire book, and both Old and New Testament material is treated in light of this. The conclusion of these first two propositions is that authority resided in the oral traditions and not in written documents.
Proposition 3 shifts the discussion to communication, specifically the speech-act theory as it applies to divine inspiration. Based on his assertion that God accommodates human culture and limitations (scientific, geographical), Walton suggests that authority resides in the illocution (core message) rather than the locution (form of communication). Proposition 4 builds upon the idea of locutionary accommodation, suggesting that instead of adding to our knowledge of science, God accommodated man's understanding of the natural world. In a fifth chapter, "Stepping Back and Summing Up," the Walton suggests that because authority resides in the initial oral sources, one need not be concerned about a possible late date of composition for the OT texts.
Sandy writes Part 2 where the focus shifts to a similar discussion of the New Testament. This section is almost twice as long as the first, both in chapter and page count. The main reason for this proportional imbalance is because Sandy has more issues to wrestle with. In Propositions 5-7, he discusses both the close relationship between and the distinctive uses of orality and texutality in Greco-Roman culture. Proposition 8 transitions to a specific discussion of Jesus' non-literate and oral culture, leading to his argument that logos was an oral, not written, concept (Proposition 9), and that Jesus' oral style was how he trained his followers to pass on his teachings (Proposition 10).
In Propositions 11-13 Sandy deals with the inevitable issue of textual variants, and here we see him building a syllogism which becomes important in the book's overall conclusion. First (Proposition 11), he contends that textual variants were common in oral transmission and did not pose an issue of factuality in the first century. Second (Proposition 12), he examines New Testament epistles to demonstrate (1) that the emphasis of authority was always on the oral texts, and (2) that written texts neither replaced nor superseded oral texts. Third (Proposition 13), because textual variants were not a concern for ancient writers and readers, we cannot impose a "print culture" mentality on an oral or manuscript culture like the first century. Sandy also closes with a "Stepping Back and Summing Up" chapter. His purpose here is to demonstrate that "exact wording was not necessary to preserve and transmit reliable representations of inspired truth" (193).
Section 3 (Propositions 14-17) looks at the issue of genre as the crucial element in understanding the idea of illocutionary authority. This section will undoubtedly be the most difficult for many conservative readers to accept since it touches on sensitive nerves such as authorship and prophecy. The basic contention here is that since revelation is the ultimate source of authority, the recipient of the revelation naturally becomes the primary human authority. They emphasize that we need not identify the human authority as the author of the text. The text of Isaiah, for example, could have been composed later by his disciples and still carry revelatory authority if the community accepted it to be so. This, the authors explain, is the key difference between authoritative texts and pseudepigraphy. They proceed to show how the genre issue applies to the New Testament (Proposition 17).
Finally, Section 4 (Propositions 18-21) offers "Concluding Affirmations on the Origin and Authority of Scripture." These chapters assert (the authors prefer the word "affirm") that speech is God's preferred method of communication (Proposition 18), that authority and truth reside in the divinely inspired illocutions (Proposition 19), that inerrancy, while useful, has imposed unnecessary demands on scripture that ignore genre concerns (Proposition 20), and that the correlation between truth is not derived from authority but vice-versa. The final chapter, "Faithful Conclusions for Virtuous Readers," lists, in light of their 21 propositions, what is safe to believe and what is not. In this final summary they offer helpful thoughts on how our views of biblical authority should be affected by what they have presented.
Although the doctrine of inerrancy remains a hallmark of conservative evangelical theology, concerns have arisen regarding its efficacy. Walton and Sandy have been among those whose questions about the nature of scripture have helped mend the fissures in the doctrine and kept many doubtful from abandoning it completely. This book may be the most important treatment on the doctrine of inerrancy in the present century for the latter reason. It will likely polarize the evangelical community initially, but I anticipate that it will win many going forward.
One of the most interesting aspects of the book is, as mentioned above, its authors' commitment to the "summary [note the specific language] of the Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy." This affirmation in the introduction was certainly an unexpected move, though it makes sense in view of their employment at Wheaton College. Unfortunately I am not convinced that their thesis truly syncs with the CSBI. If one were to stretch his imagination, the notion of inerrancy residing wholly in the illocution could pass for sound inerrancy. But this only works if the CSBI's summary alone is in view. The problem is that the CSBI's emphasis is on the written text--Scripture. Because Walton and Sandy's thesis is driven by their emphasis on the oral text, it is difficult to fully meld the two together. Regardless of how the authors pay homage to the Holy Spirit's superintendence and authentication (which they do frequently), the fact remains that the notion of a locution that is both scientifically and historically inaccurate would not sit well with those who penned the CSBI. Therefore the subtlety with which the authors selectively affirm only the summary of the CSBI is both clever and somewhat misleading. Ultimately what their affirmation appears to be is a ruse to keep readers interested. Those who have doubts about the doctrine will continue reading simply out of curiosity, while hardline inerrantists will likely continue out of a sense of duty.
One way to demonstrate the books' failure to truly sync with the CSBI is by comparing one of its specific affirmations with what Walton and Sandy have concluded. In Article X of the CSBI, the writers affirm that inspiration resides in the autographs. According to Walton and Sandy, however, this is a faulty assumption, as they state in their list of "Errors of Inerrancy Advocates" (279). This is just one way in which proponents of the CSBI might feel scandalized to find that the authors have only affirmed what they could use to fit their thesis (and even that is a stretch). To their credit, in the final chapter the authors do admit that "inerrancy needs to be redefined in light of the literary culture of the Bible" (303). Surely they have the actual articles of the CSBI in view here, though they do not say so.
Despite what I perceive to be a dubious selling point, I found this book to be an immensely useful supplement for biblical education. Sandy's chapters on the New Testament, for example, could be extremely helpful when introducing the reality of textual variants to students who are learning it for the first time. Often the realization that the Bible is not as perfect as once thought can be troublesome, even earth-shattering. But explaining that variants do not undermine the authority of scripture can alleviate much of the shock that will accompany one's growing knowledge of the nature of Scripture. Especially helpful here is Sandy's discussion in Proposition 13 as well as in the final chapter. His deviation from the traditional belief that authority rests in the autographs is important (even if it goes against Article X of the CSBI). If such an "original autograph" did not exist, as we have defined it, then belief that authority resides in such a document becomes extremely hard to defend.
Sandy's discussion in this regard is helpful in two ways. First, he locates the authority of the revealed message in both the oral and written texts. This redistribution of the weight of authority takes pressure off of the manuscripts in which thousands of variants reside. Second, he views the existence of variants as a non-issue for the text's authority. He states that since authority rested with Jesus and the apostles, the oral tradition they passed on would carry their authority as well. The result is that textual variants become a non-issue because the essential message would have been preserved. This, for Sandy, is the right perspective for viewing the variants. This lays the foundation for the significance of the field of canonics as a way to reinforce the student's trust in the integrity of Scripture. Needless to say, this proposition also has severe implications for the life-long work of many textual critics who have spent a considerable amount of time trying to discern the original text. Walton and Sandy would certainly never call this a pointless venture, but their propositions certainly seem to lead to that conclusion. The epistles, by their very nature, become the only texts for which an original autograph could be posited, though even variants within these become a non-issue. If the authority of oral texts was not affected by variations, neither would the authority of epistles because, according to Sandy, they carried the same kind of authority for their recipients.
To my dismay, the authors never clearly explain how the Holy Spirit fits into the process. They certainly pay lip service to the Spirit's role in providing the message and guiding the communities to derive authority from those messages, but it's still not clear upon what this theology is based. It seems to amount to nothing more than an attempt to keep the readers' pitch forks at bay while they lay down the full implications of their thesis. As long as they keep conceding the Holy Spirit's role in the transmission and formation of the texts, the reader is supposed to accept without question the extensive role human writers and communities played in the affirmation of the text's authority. I say this not to argue these human roles (for that is what canonization is all about), but rather to stress what is lacking: a fuller explanation of the Holy Spirit's role in this process.
Some sweeping comments are made with little or no reference to primary sources. For example, in arguing that Paul's letters were meant to be orally performed for the recipients, he writes, "Performances of this sort were common in the Greco-Roman world" (250). No footnotes or examples are given to support this. The reader must blindly trust in the author's knowledge of such facts, which should not have to happen. At least general source reference should be given to direct readers to further study in the event that such a discussion would be too lengthy.
The doctrine of inerrancy, as staunch conservatives would define it, works in two directions. It begins with God's perfection and holiness, concluding that a perfect and holy God could only produce a perfect and holy book. This is a theological concern, and this is the notion Walton and Sandy seek to address. The other direction, however, is to take the perfection and holiness of Scripture and state, by way of apologetics, that everything it says not only must be true, but is true. Scripture's historical reliability becomes the basis for its reliability in relating truths of eternal concern, such as the divinity of Jesus and the promise of eternal life after death. Therefore my biggest concern with this book is that Walton and Sandy do not explain how their thesis accounts for the miraculous claims of scripture. Are the miracles in the Old Testament merely locutions for describing God's deliverance of Israel, or were they historical events? Inerrancy seeks to defend their historicity, as it must. Readers looking for an explanation of such will be left wanting. For some people the historical reliability of scripture is fundamental to their belief in its ontological, eschatological, and even moral claims. This is all the more reason to state more explicitly how one can hold on to these beliefs apart from the historical reliability of the Old Testament. Emphasizing the historicity of the life and resurrection of Jesus becomes the central issue here, and there must be an emphasis on this historical claim.
Despite my concerns and criticisms stated above, I found this book to be a helpful discussion on perhaps the most polarizing topic in Christendom today. A clearer understanding of the doctrine of inerrancy and the issues of textual criticism must become a more focused discussion in scholarly circles today, and this book is, to date, the boldest and most clearly articulated step in that direction. Many parts of this book are extremely helpful, most notably its defense of orality and the important distinction between locutions, illocutions, and perlocutions. I hold this book in high esteem and would gladly recommend (or perhaps require it) to the seeking student who, like me, has struggled to continually affirm the doctrine of inerrancy. As the authors write in their preface, I too seek to "bring students back from the brink of turning away from the authority of Scripture in reaction to the misappropriation of the term inerrancy." For this reason alone I believe the authors are to be commended. This book is a must for serious and thoughtful students of Scripture.
Our culture is in as great a transition as any since Gutenberg. From the informational/digital revolution we're undergoing, to the last dying vestiges of modernism, our world in general and evangelicalism in particular are almost convulsing as our culture transforms into something brand new. Anyone who claims to know what the west will look like in ten to twenty years is either lying or deluded.
Of course, for Christians, a bigger question than what the world will look like is how the church will handle the coming changes. And one of the crucial questions in this transition is what will we do with inerrancy?
Inerrancy is a concept coined to a great extent to defend the Bible from the onslaught of modernity. While incredibly helpful, it had the unintended consequence of bringing the church squarely into modernity. Now, with modernity dying, many Christians seem to be fighting as hard to hold onto it as Christians of an earlier generation resisted it. But instead of fighting for modernity, the church needs to be asking how we maintain the important concepts behind inerrancy (inspiration, authority, etc.) while letting go of the modern framework.
Walton and Sandy have written a book to potentially guide us into, if not all the way through, the transition. Carefully examining the cultural orality that dominated during both the OT and NT eras, the authors help make sense of what is most important about how the Bible came to be and where it gets its authority, They also point to the most important questions we need to be asking moving forward.
While not a book for the layman, both in content and in style, it should be required reading in every seminary, and every educated churchman should be wrestling with its concepts.