John Walton is professor of Old Testament at Wheaton College, where D. Brent Sandy teaches New Testament and Greek. Together, they’ve written The Lost World of Scripture: Ancient Literary Culture and Biblical Authority. In a way, this book is a follow up to Walton’s The Lost World of Genesis One, but not strictly a sequel (which is what The Lost World of The Word will be to this book). Here, Walton and Sandy are explaining the nature of ancient literary culture and how that affects our understanding of biblical authority. I suppose you might have guess that from the subtitle.
A less vague, but perhaps more revealing subtitle would have been “How the Orality of Ancient Literary Culture Impacts Inerrancy.” In other words, the primary focus of the book is on how ancient literary culture was primarily oral rather than written. This means that for many books, there was a preceding oral tradition. This tradition was not simply discarded once the book was put into writing, but rather continued on.
In chapters that are given propositional titles, Walton and Sandy try to explain in an accessible way the nature of an oral literary culture. The first part of the book focuses on the Old Testament background culture, while the second on the New. The third part applies this understanding to the different literary genres of the Bible. In the fourth part, they summarize the entire argument about ancient literary culture, and then draw some applications to our understanding of biblical authority in general and inerrancy in particular. The result is a book will potentially be a conversation changer when it comes to modern inerrancy debates.
Because of the oral nature of much of Scripture’s origin, Walton and Sandy use speech-act theory to explain where the authority lies. According to speech act theory, statements have three parts:
- The locution (the actual words)
- The illocution (the intended meaning)
- The perlocution (the intended effect)
Walton and Sandy propose that the authority of Scripture is in the illocution rather than the locution. This is a way of dealing with some of the issues related to science and history in the Bible, but primarily with discrepancies in the details of the Gospel accounts to give one example. If it is the locutions themselves that are inerrant, that doesn’t account for an underlying inspired oral account. But, if it is the illocutions (or the concepts/propositions) that are inerrant, and so also where the authority of Scripture is, then some of the issues that appear to threaten inerrancy at the exegetical level no longer do so.
In the end, I don’t know how many people will find this aspect of Walton and Sandy’s thesis helpful. I did, but I can also see how some might be less than quick to jump on board with it. To relate it to the Five Views of Inerrancy, I can see Franke, Vanhoozer, and Bird (maybe) more or less agreeing. Enns might agree but still say inerrancy doesn’t account for the biblical text. Mohler probably would not agree because he would want to tie inerrancy to the actual words of Scripture (making it therefore verbal and plenary). In that light, Walton and Sandy’s proposal might resonate with progressive accounts of inerrancy, rather than those more traditional ones.
I think it is a thesis worth exploring. And if much of what they are claiming about the oral nature of Scripture is true, then our understanding of how Scripture came down to us will need to be revised. The result will be an understanding in harmony with the background culture that the Bible was produced in and will help defend Scripture’s authority in a more nuanced way.
John H. Walton and D. Brent Sandy, The Lost World of Scripture: Ancient Literary Culture and Biblical Authority, Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, October 2013. 320 pp. Paperback, $24.00.
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Thanks to IVP Academic for the review copy!