The Lost World of Scripture


WaltonSandyI’m beginning to feel that my reading of John H Walton’s books is in danger of resembling that of a Harry Potter fan: the next in the “Lost World” series is always a must-read. The Lost World of Scripture is actually a joint effort with NT scholar D Brent Sandy, and being from 2013 isn’t his latest work. And though it arises from Walton’s overriding concern with comparative studies in biblical understanding, its purpose is to apply such studies to the key issue of “Scriptural Inerrancy” in the light of American Evangelicalism’s recent loss of focus and confidence on this issue. It’s an important contribution.

The book is mediatorial in purpose, seeking to answer the shortcomings of the twentieth century evangelical concept, whilst seeking to maintain a more robust idea of what it really means to believe that the Bible is fully inspired by God. As such, much of the case is made to challenge simplistic and untenable notions of inerrancy amongst mainstream evangelicals. But where the authors see the greatest dangers lurking is evident between the lines – or rather, is spelt out plainly in the footnotes. Commenting on how some have robbed the term “inerrancy” of its utility by making it infinitely pliable, they remark:

This pliability was tested in the early 1980s in the discussions surrounding Robert Goundry’s interpretation of Matthew as Midrash, in the following years in the debates over open theism and most recently by Peter Enns and Kenton Sparks in their embracing the skepticism of critical scholarship.

I find this interesting coming from a scholar who is on the staff of BioLogos, an organisation that has been unusually friendly to open theism and the skeptical young bloods mentioned. It seems that the issues may be more profound and truly divisive than is often acknowledged. In their attitude to inerrancy, in its recent form, the authors acknowledge that the attempt to draw boundaries was a necessary response to the hermeneutic of disbelief in a century and a half of critical scholarship. Since this had focused on questioning the nature of God as presented in the Bible, and the truth of its historical claims, it was understandable that the evangelical response was couched in terms of factual inerrancy. Likewise, the attempt to deal with textual and source criticism by placing the focus of inspiration in the “original autograph” was a legitimate response to the nature of the challenge at the time.

But as Walton points out, there are genres of literature where the term “inerrant” is simply inappropriate. Apart from such categories as poetry, which depend on metaphor and rhetoric and are directed to feeling more than logic, he mentions that proverbs, which by their very nature are generalisations, by that same necessity are not universally applicable. Indeed, even when Proverbs 26.4 and 26.5 directly contradict each other, both proverbs are, after the manner of proverbs, true.

As might be expected from Walton’s work on Genesis, such exploration of the true nature of ancient genres is a big part of the book, and one of its most useful aspects. Exploration of how the ancients customarily “did” literature shows how they didn’t ever, as a rule, make things up. But their norms of rhetoric and language, being universal for them but alien to us, need to be recaptured in detail before we can make sweeping claims either that biblical claims are (in our modern sense) “literally true” or, on the other hand, “errors” or “myths”.

For example, we need to understand that history, “as we understand it”, is just that – a particular and heavily encultured way of handling the past. It is by no means the only, or even the best way of handling events and, more to the point, didn’t even exist in Old Testament times. And the historiography of the Hellenic-Roman NT period also differed fundamentally in its norms from ours. What was selected for inclusion in both periods was different, and was handled quite differently, from what nineteenth and twentieth century scholars insisted was the “only” scientific way to do history. The latter therefore did injustice to the biblical accounts by judging them on their own anachronistic criteria. These, of course, included a modernist belief in naturalism that cut directly against the entirely theological purpose of biblical history and therefore labelled it as “religious bias” or, worse, as “politically motivated fiction.”

Needless to say the book explores similar genre misjudgements in depth – the false dichotomy between “history” and “myth”, the role of ancient law-codes (which shows they were not legal systems in Israel any more than under Hammurabi) and so on. There’s a lot of meat there for current debates.

Most importantly, though, the “worldview re-education” on which the book majors is to help us understand the profound difference between our own post-Gutenberg literary culture, and the predominantly oral culture of both the Old and the New Testaments. This is not to go the old liberal route of denying there was literature in biblical Israel, but rather to try to wrap our minds round the radically different way in which written literature was conceived then. Its purposes were completely different from documents in our print-culture, and its construction and authority were entirely different from what we understand nowadays.

This discussion covers multiple topics of relevance to biblical inspiration, including the completely different way the ANE viewed authorship itself (and therefore authorial authority), “intellectual property”, transmission of texts before committing to writing, transmission of texts after writing (including updating and editorialising), the role in an oral culture of the community in maintaining the integrity of a text and, in the case of the Bible, in subsequently canonising it. In such thinking, the idea of “the” author, or of an original inspired autograph, begins to unravel – and that has always, in fact, been obvious when dealing with collections of writings like the psalms or proverbs, or compilations from contemporary annals like Kings, for example.

The net result is to place the locus of inspiration, for us as readers, in the final text as we have received it. Sandy points out that Paul in his famous “All Scripture is God-breathed” text referred to the Bible that Timothy would be reading, probably the Greek Septuagint, though Paul was well aware of variant texts. Indeed, as Hodge said over a century ago, the process of inspiration is not merely a question of God’s Spirit and a prophetic writer (though it includes that), but a providential oversight of everything which leads to the Bible. What Walton and Sandy add is that such providence is not diminished by the presence of composite texts, variant readings or even (as in the case of Jeremiah) alternative textual traditions.

Such considerations also do much to defuse the alleged dichotomy between the “word” as Jesus and the “word” as Scripture, as if the latter was a kind of idolatry. Correctly understood, there is a continuum between the mind of God perfectly expressed in Jesus, and the words spoken through his Spirit, which are preserved for us in the tattered translation by our bedside. Both are the word of God.

They come to this conclusion not only by a consideration of normal literary practice in ancient times, but by an examination of the recent insights of Speech Act Theory. As they adopt it, any communication consists of the locution (the actual words said or written: this includes such things as genre and so covers the field of “literalism”); the illocution (the intention of the message to command, remember events, or whatever); and the perlocution (the intended response of obedience, encouragement, etc).

Inspiration is applicable to all these areas, but in different ways. So it is true to say that the locutions of Scripture are, truthfully, God’s words, for all we have received in Scripture are words. Yet they are couched in the genres, culture, language and thought-forms of the human authors, and need to be interpreted in that light to our own circumstances.

The illocutions behind the words are the principal loci of God’s authority in the text – and that’s why, to our authors, if a text is intended to tell us about a salvific historical event, we usurp God’s authority if we deny its basic truth, albeit understood in the light of the locution. Likewise the authority of the text is diminished if we change the illocution at our own whim – for example, by undertaking a character study when that is not the purpose of the text. Most importantly, nothing is more clearly part of the illocution of inspired Scripture than its teaching on God’s own character, and so to selectively reject biblical teaching on God’s wrath (for example) is an unwarranted denial of what belief in “inspiration” must entail.

Our authors, in fact, say that in order to be responsible readers who acknowledge the inspired text, we need a triple response. We must first work at understanding the locutions in their true context, since they are God’s words; we must accept the illocutions by faith; and must obey the perlocutions as disciples. To neglect any one of these is to undermine the authority of the Bible, which is in the end that words like “inerrancy” point to.

All three of these (including our faithful response) are matters of the Holy Spirit and of faith – and so the book moves away from any idea of “inerrancy” as a matter of apologetics to persuade outsiders, instead embracing the idea that trust in Scripture as God’s word is, whilst entirely rational, a response intrinsic to the community of faith.

I like their thesis (though I’ve not mentioned my few points of disagreement) because it is informed by the best of current scholarship, yet arises, like Scripture itself, from faith, rather than from skepticism and doubt. Definitely one to read.

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About Jon Garvey

Training in medicine (which was my career), social psychology and theology. Interests in most things, but especially the science-faith interface. The rest of my time, though, is spent writing, playing and recording music.
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8 Responses to The Lost World of Scripture

  1. Cath Olic says:

    “Indeed, as Hodge said over a century ago, the process of inspiration is not merely a question of God’s Spirit and a prophetic writer (though it includes that), but a providential oversight of everything which leads to the Bible.”

    But who should provide such providential oversight but the Church which formed (canonized) that Bible?

    The Protestant answer to that question is “Me”.
    As in “Me, my Bible, and the Holy Spirit.”

    And the results are the farthest thing from Ephesians 4:5.

    • Avatar photo Jon Garvey says:

      On the contrary, Cath Olic, I think the story of the Old Testament shows that the whole process was everything to do with divine providence through the Holy Spirit, and little to do with any “authorised organisation”. (I also incidentally reject your characterisation of what Protestants believe, though I can understand why you say it from what a smörgåsbord American Christianity has become).

      To start at the beginning, whatever traditions were gathered into Genesis, they can only have been transmitted through the patriarchal families, as there wasn’t even a nation in Israel’s time in Egypt.

      The torah may well have had its origin in God’s prophet and leader, Moses, but he faced constant rebellion, even from the priests, and after the settlement Israel was a scattered affiliation racked by unfaithfulness – even the central shrine at Shiloh was served by Eli’s self-interested sons, and God destroyed it. For years there was no central priesthood and no king.

      The story of the kings is overall that of apostasy, and that of the priesthood no less so in its lapse into idolatry both in Samaria and Jerusalem. The canonical prophets speaking from God were often outweighed by official false prophets who had the ears of rulers: Jeremiah’s scroll was burned by King Jehoiakim, and King Zedekiah had him imprisoned. The book of the Covenant was found in some forgotten corner of the temple in Josiah’s time. God later destroyed both temple and kingdom.

      Earlier, in Ahab’s time, Elijah thought he was the only faithful Israelite left – and God told him there were 7000 (just 7000!), invisibly scattered across Israel, who had not bowed the knee to Baal. At those times, however God’s word was preserved, it wasn’t by any official structures of king, priest or prophet, but by whatever “faithful remnant” God providentially retained.

      After the exile, rule of the priesthood evetually passed to the Sadducees, who rejected the inspiration of all the OT except the torah. The Pharisees were a self-appointed and unofficial body, and were locally organised synagogue by synagogue: their power came only from popular acknowledgement of their authority as teachers. They were one sect amongst several in a diverse and non-centralised mass of “Judaisms” – and God’s faithful remnant was somehow present amongst all of them, preserving both true faith and God’s word.

      We catch a glimpse of that in the birth narratives of the Lord – Zechariah is a low-level priest, Mary and Joseph worshippers at Herod’s Sadducee temple who, presumably, attend the local Pharisees’ synagogue week by week. The scribes Jesus disputed in the temple are independent Rabbis whose theological weight attracted disciples. Simeon and Anna are unofficial prophets on nobody’s payroll but God’s.

      Meanwhile the Greek translation of the Bible that was used by the first Christians (and which underpins the Vulgate and defines the Catholic canon) was commissioned, apparently, by the Egyptian King Ptolomy II of ex-pat Jewish scholars in Alexandria, who were not under the auspices of the Jerusalem priesthood at all.

      But the oldest manuscripts we have were, the Dead Sea Scrolls, were it seems preserved by yet another splinter sect, the Essenes, who considered the Jerusalem priesthood corrupt. And we should not forget the despised Samaritans’ Pentateuch, whose readings are nowadays sometimes preferred as retaining early textual testimony.

      Fast forward to the Massoretes of the 6th-10th centuries, whose work is at the heart of modern OT Hebrew texts, and they were self-appointed scribal families (at a time when Judaism had no central organisation at all), working variously (and competitively) in Jerusalem, Tiberias and Babylonia.

      There are old traditions about good kings like Hezekiah organising the collation of some historical and prophetic books, but mostly anonymous and varied individuals copied, augmented and preserved the books; and it would seem to be some kind of collective consensus of the Jewish community, rather than an act of any official body, that canonised them and didn’t canonise other popular books like Jubilees or Enoch.

      All that looks extremely untidy and ad hoc – but God’s providence often looks that way. The common thread is that the OT was produced and preserved by God’s faithful people within the covenant nation of Israel. As a remnant they were recognisable by no overt sign, but they were nevertheless marked by God. As Paul later put it, “For they are not all Israel who are descended from Israel; nor are they all children because they are Abraham’s descendants.”

      One may draw close parallels there with the New Testament situation.

  2. Cath Olic says:

    “The torah may well have had its origin in God’s prophet and leader, Moses, but he faced constant rebellion, even from the priests, and after the settlement Israel was a scattered affiliation racked by unfaithfulness …

    The story of the kings is overall that of apostasy, and that of the priesthood no less so in its lapse into idolatry both in Samaria and Jerusalem…

    All that looks extremely untidy and ad hoc – but God’s providence often looks that way. The common thread is that the OT was produced and preserved by God’s faithful people within the covenant nation of Israel…

    One may draw close parallels there with the New Testament situation.”

    Indeed. Especially with that last, you practically took the words out of my mouth.

  3. Avatar photo Merv Bitikofer says:

    I’ll confess I’m a Walton fan too. But that doesn’t prevent me from thinking critically about one of his repeated claims (which I’ve repeated and defended myself): that the ancient world had no categories of “natural” and “supernatural” such as we’ve carved out for our mental frameworks today. Now, the more this gets repeated (and he hammers on this theme again in his latest video at biologos), the more I’m beginning to think he might be overselling it just a bit (understandably to make a point, perhaps, but maybe worth pushing on just the same).

    So they attributed *everything* to God, from all sides of what we now try to divide out as natural or supernatural. Fine. Maybe. But didn’t they also have notions of “I did this” or “you did that”, or “God did something else”? That is, if we look at human agency, then is it really so clear that they attributed everything to God? I know they would not have mused on things like “free will” (another exclusively modern concept I’m sure), but they did think in terms of personal responsibility. I.e. you don’t hear too much talk in the Bible of “God made me do this” or even “the devil made me do that”. It is pretty much assumed that we make choices. And they were sensitive to whether or not something was from God; hence all the discussion over distinguishing false prophets from true prophets. Of course the waters are muddied when you throw in the teasing passages of God sending a lying spirit to go deceive kings or false prophets, and for that matter the attribution of calamity and evil to God as well. They obviously had no share of our modern agenda to think of God as being “squeaky clean” by human standards, and in fact the only solidly anachronistic aspect of all that is that they had no notion of thinking of themselves as exercising judgment over God at all on any such score (though Job could be taken to be addressing temptations in that direction). But over all it didn’t seem to have occurred to them that God should ever be taken to task over anything God does, whereas it has more than occurred to so many moderns. But they still were eager, all the same, to know if something was “from God” or not (remember Gideon’s repeated tests) in some sort of special way. And that seems to poke at least a little bit at Walton’s denial of any ancient categories of such things. I still hear and agree with his point of contention that we go wrong today to think that something is not from God because we see or understand a natural cause for it, and that an ancient absence of such categories is a useful corrective in that regard. But I’m just not so sure that those kinds of categories were entirely absent to the ancient mind. It would be good to hear Walton speak in more detail on that. I guess I should seek out his book for myself and see.

    • Avatar photo Jon Garvey says:

      Hi Merv

      I suspect Walton would not contest the kinds of distinction you make here, and certainly at points in the reviewed book he states that you cannot make rejection of miracle (eg the parting of the Red Sea) a criterion for assessing the historicity of the text, ergo there is a category “miracle” to be distinguished.

      The area on which, it seems to me, he’s concentrating such talk is on agency, rejecting on behalf of the ancient writers the modern distinction between “Act of God” and “Act of Nature”, rather than the distinction between “Act of God” and “Act of Man”. What would be alien to the ancients is the idea of things going on in the created world apart from the agency of God. The audience he’s hammering away at is the one influenced by scientific naturalism, at least in the stuff on Genesis.

      I guess the overall ANE picture of human activity, on the other hand, would be some form of concurrent agency, so that what man intends for one purpose, God intends for another. In other words there is no question here of no agensts being involved as in the first case.

      That could be nuanced so that, at one extreme, the sons of Israel fully intend Joseph’s fate for evil, but God for good. At the other, a man draws a bow at a venture and God’s fatal will for Ahab is fulfilled. In between, the whole patriarchal narrative shows that ordinary human decisions good, bad or indifferent nevertheless serve God’s elective purpose.

      So man’s will and God’s will operate together, but in some cases it’s appropriate to stress one more than the other. People are fully accountable for their wrongs; yet the division of Solomon’s kingdom through various wrong acts is summarised as “This turn of events was from the Lord.” Such a theology is perfectly viable today, it seems to me – even mandatory, if we are to take God’s sovereignty seriously.

      Nevertheless it’s not impossible that Walton overstates the case: my main criticism of the reviewed book is that orality is stressed possibly too much in order to further the argument. If I’d had space, I’d have conceded a couple of mitigations for that which may also apply to your point:
      (a) Those who present “revolutionary” concepts in any field customarily tend to overstate their case, because they have to overcome the inertia of the entrenched assumption. Once the idea’s fully on the table, the qualifying nuances can be introduced.
      (b) In the “orality” case, he is pushing against a particular “local” phenomenon in evangelicalism, that is an overconcentration on the inspiration of the written text only, ignoring the inspiration of the oracles or teaching that were first spoken and which became the basis of the Scripture. (c) In the BioLogos case, I guess he’s similarly addressing those who, coming from a science background, have the clearest mental barriers to divine action in the world (though even Creationism depends on such a modern dichotomy between “divine” and “natural”).

  4. Cath Olic says:


    “So they attributed *everything* to God, from all sides of what we now try to divide out as natural or supernatural. Fine. Maybe.”

    If they did, then they were probably better off and more Scriptural than many today. Nature is God’s creation and is sustained in every moment by God, so, it only makes sense to see God in all things.
    And as Acts 17 says, “for `In him we live and move and have our being'”.

    “I know they would not have mused on things like “free will” (another exclusively modern concept I’m sure), but they did think in terms of personal responsibility.”

    Free will an exclusively modern concept? You’re sure? How could they think in terms of personal responsibility without a belief in free will?

    • Avatar photo Merv Bitikofer says:

      To Cath Olic, regarding my “free will” statement … no I’m not sure at all (one of the ironic twists in common language use now in which following something with “… , I’m sure” means exactly the opposite.)

      I’m only guessing (with a little confidence, yes) that any free will debates are modern because only moderns have been bombarded with concepts like “natural law” and determinism, and reductionistic, atomistic philosophies — none of which were anywhere near any intellectual horizon for ancient Semitic peoples (again, not because I’m an expert on this, but just from my general absorption and readings of people who are … like Walton). So yes, it is obvious that the ancients were aware of responsibility, which was indeed my main point. And one could presume this acceptance of responsibility necessarily embodies a free-will philosophy. But I think that an ancient knowing that he makes choices (like a fish swimming in water) is different than the same ancient person making a critical philosophical appraisal of the concept of “free will” as we are compelled to do today (the fish musing about the presence of the watery medium it is in, as if that could be a contingency that could be otherwise). We don’t question things unless it occurs to us or we are given good reason to question it.

      I do say “amen” to the historically well-recorded traditions of seeing God in all things, and agree with you that we err today in losing that.

      By the way, Jon (and thanks for your observations that my own reflections may not be much removed, if at all, from Walton), here is a related you-tube video link about the historicity of early Genesis, which I received notice about from Dick Fischer. He has been a tireless advocate for a neolithic Adam’s historicity on the ASA and you may remember him from some of those circles. I wonder if he and Walton would have any significant differences?

      • Avatar photo Jon Garvey says:

        Merv/Cath Olic

        I’m sure that even in Christian theology “free will” was originally understood very differently by our ancestors from our post-Renaissance concept of “autonomy”, and far more so in biblical times. The modern evangelistic ploy “God did not make us robots” would simply not have made sense to them, even if one explained what a robot is.

        In fact, in the same way that (according to Walton) in the ANE material creation was simply not that upon which the idea of creation was focused, the idea of “choice and responsibility” was simply assumed on common sense grounds, and “freedom”, in the theological sense, meant something entirely different, and that’s what Bible writers focused upon.

        That something was more like what you find in the old philosophers – the freedom to be conformed to ones God-given nature. And so by sinning, man becomes a slave – it’s not an escape from bondage to God (as in the Prometheus myth), but becoming chained to a corrupted nature. And so “autonomy” is not an independent good, that ought to be directed towards godliness – instead it’s by definition a privation of the good (which is conformity to God).

        That’s why the most free human ever, the Son of God, saw complete conformity to his Father’s will as true liberty, and why the paradox in Paul is true, that to be a slave of Christ is true freedom.

        Augustine was, I think, the first to address “free will” in the modern sense, in order to answer the problem of how evil can exist in a good creation. To do that, he first focused on the (hitherto obvious) fact that “will” means “choice”, so you can’t have a will unless you’re at liberty to choose. But it’s important to realise he’s treating “liberty” in a different way from Scripture, in which conformity to God’s created order is liberty, and corruption is bondage.

        On the other point, I remember Dick Fischer well from BioLogos comments a few years ago. I have his book Historical Genesis. He’s more a swashbuckling amateur than an academic, so it’s hard to know how much he sees eye to eye with Walton. He’s happy to speculate beyond the hard evidence, whereas to Walton decades of painstaking research is put at the service of a carefully orthodox faith.

        But I find Fischer’s correlation of the ANE evidence of the Eridu Genesis, etc, with Adam, and his documentation of the Shuruppak Flood of c2900BC as grounding the Noahic Flood very interesting, in conjunction with Walton’s more scholarly study of the genre and intent of Genesis.

        In other words, once a Homo divinusmodel is seen to fit Scripture, and Adam is therefore taken to be an individual within human history rather than before biology, then there’s no reason why the Genesis narrative would not be reflecting the events paralleled in other ANE literature.

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