For fundamentalist-leaning evangelicals, biblical inerrancy carries a ton of freight. It remains something of a shibboleth that 1) Provides a litmus test of orthodoxy, 2) verifies that one actually takes the Bible at face value, and 3) leads one to appropriate positions on issues ranging from origins to eschatology. With so much riding on this one word, it is little wonder that inerrancy has had a polarizing effect in some quarters of evangelicalism. For some, the notion that biblical revelation could be both a product of the normal processes of historical/human development as well as a divine book without mistake just isn’t possible.
John Walton and Brent Sandy are no strangers to these tensions, and their recent book, The Lost World of Scripture: Ancient Literary Culture and Biblical Authority (Intervarsity Press, 2013) seems to be written with this context in mind. Although I don’t know Walton personally, Brent Sandy (PhD, Duke University) taught at Grace Theological Seminary for many years and remains a research fellow on our campus. He and I also attend the same Grace Brethren Church. So I often enjoy conversations with him. A few months back I asked him to talk about the book and posed some questions to him about how it intersects with the historical debates over hermeneutics. (Currently, Brent teaches New Testament and Greek at Wheaton College. One of his previous books is Plowshares and Pruning Hooks: Rethinking the Language of Biblical Prophecy and Apocalyptic.)
Jared: From my reading, it seems that the crux of the book’s thesis is that modern Christians often (mis)read the Bible through the lens of the modern world and that we need to work hard to take into account ancient mechanisms of communication, both written and oral, that have become “lost” in the midst of our own cultural context. A secondary (but equally important) thesis is that (fundamentalist) evangelical devotion to the notion of inerrancy has exacerbated anachronistic readings of scripture and we need to jettison the term in favor of something more nuanced. Is this a fair restatement of the main argument/s? Would you clarify or add to this?
Brent: On your two points, I agree completely with one, but not on the other. First, regarding misreading the Bible, yes, the ancient world is farther outside our grasp than most realize. While thoughtful Christians appreciate the value of backgrounds for enhancing their understanding of the Bible, generally they think in terms of supplementary information about how people lived, worked, traveled, and so on. But there’s another form of backgrounds that is better referred to as “foregrounds.” This entails going deeper into ancient culture in order to understand how people thought. When we read Scripture, these insights need to be in the foreground. Whereas backgrounds may fill in interesting details in our pictures of biblical culture, foregrounds may paint surprisingly different pictures. Orality is a good example of how a picture takes shape differently as we dig deeper into the cognitive world of the Bible. And that is the focus of our book.
Second, regarding inerrancy, I would say, no, we are not ready to jettison the term. But we do contend that for many people it miscommunicates what Scripture itself reveals about how it was written and transmitted. In English, as probably in all languages, terms we commonly use may actually be misnomers. Scientists, for example, refer to the “God-particle,” even though many do not believe in God. Another example is the term “evangelical,” which many of us use even though it is inaccurate in certain respects and is widely misunderstood (“fundamentalist” may also be in this category). From the perspective of the philosophy of language, it’s technically impossible for any term to be 100% accurate in what it communicates. So it’s not the goal of our book to throw inerrancy under the bus because it’s not 100% accurate. We acknowledge the term’s inadequacies yet affirm that the word has a legitimate place. At the very least, it is metonymy for a high view of Scripture. But more than that, our intent is to help reduce the misunderstanding caused by the word and to bring the concept into line with the evidence presently available.
Jared: In the book’s discussion of science, there is mention that God never intended Genesis to teach us “how” creation took place. In other words, we can only speculate about the details. I couldn’t help but think of your relationship with your one-time mentor, John C. Whitcomb [long time Grace Old Testament professor (1950s-1980s), proponent of “flood geology,” and strident inerrantist]. It would seem that if what you say is true, then the methodology of Whitcomb and Henry Morris [co-author of the 1961 The Genesis Flood: The Biblical Record and its Scientific Implications] is built on flawed assumptions from the start. Any comments on this?
Brent: In my opinion, the most important development in interpreting Scripture in the past fifty years has been the recognition of the literary qualities of the Bible, particularly the various genres and their uniquenesses. Unfortunately, under the influence of the Enlightenment with its scientific methodologies and rational thinking, many Christians seek to objectify every part of Scripture, flattening it like a pancake. Take poetry, for example: its combination of insight and imagination transcends normal boundaries of expression; it speaks more to the heart than the head. Yet, remarkably, about one-third of the Bible is poetic, giving it priority as one of God’s favorite languages. Unfortunately, Christians are often poetry-phobic: the inherent imprecision in poetry seems to be an odd genre for divine revelation. So they do everything possible to objectify this genre, thereby missing out on much of its power. Now it is truly tricky business to decipher all there is to know about the genres of Scripture and how they function. And perhaps we don’t need to, at least most of the time. The important question to ask is, What is the illocution? A “locution” is a statement; the “illocution” is the function of the statement. (This is a simplified version of what is known as speech-act theory.) There are many places in the Bible where the intent is to transform rather than to inform. By analogy, if a student says to classmates over lunch in the cafeteria, “Yikes, class begins in five minutes,” the point is not primarily information. They can look at their phones and easily see what time it is. The point is transformation. The locution may say four minutes, five minutes, or six minutes; precise detail is not essential. The illocution is urgency. “Class begins in five minutes” is a speech act intended to persuade students to get a move on . . . to gulp down the last bite, to hurry to the conveyor belt with the dirty dishes, to grab the correct textbooks, and to rush down the hall. This leads back to the matter of Genesis 1-11. Whitcomb and Morris came to their conclusions before the extensive research on genres and speech acts. What if these chapters in Genesis were not intended to provide scientific information? Whitcomb and Morris also didn’t have the benefit of much that has been discovered in recent decades about the ancient world. I think—if they were doing their research now rather than then and were informed by recent evangelical scholarship—that they would have come to more cautious conclusions, if not different ones.
Jared: Can you comment on why or how inerrancy has become part of the “culture wars” among American Christians? Are there main points you could mention briefly? What detrimental effects has this had?
Brent: The “battle for the Bible” has been one of many disputed and divisive issues that the Christian community has faced. Unfortunately, Jesus’ appeal for complete unity . . . to let the world know that you sent me and have loved them (John 17:21) has been widely ignored. The truth of the matter is, unity is a priority of the highest order, underscored numerous times throughout the New Testament. So Paul wrote in his opening words to the Corinthians: I appeal to you, brothers and sisters, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you agree with one another in what you say and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be perfectly united in mind and thought (1 Cor 1:10). While it is true that Christians need to defend God’s eternal truth against the inroads of heresy, our priority should be to defend the historic, defining doctrines of the faith, not the individual beliefs of special interest groups (e.g., denominations). Scripture acknowledges that believing in Jesus will be a stumbling-block for many people. But woe be it to Christians when we allow other things to stand in the way, such as our lack of love and disunity. It’s troubling that inerrancy has been a stumbling-block for many who might otherwise become followers of Christ; the reverse is also true: it drives people away who once thought they were one of his followers. The point is, when believing in inerrancy is a requirement to be a Christian (which some Christians infer—if not outright claim), that can be a pill too big to swallow, especially when there is data in the Bible that doesn’t seem to fit what most people understand by inerrancy.
Jared: I’ve often wondered why some Christians equate a belief in divine accommodation with a belief that the Bible contains mistakes. I’m not a biblical scholar, but I have often thought that the process of inspiration (Bible) and incarnation (Jesus) are parallel. But no one would say that because God, through Jesus, accommodated or limited himself to a life among human beings that he made mistakes in the process. Can you help me out here … why is this so difficult for people to accept?
Brent: The elephant in the room in this case is who decides what a mistake is. Many people on both sides of the inerrancy question fail to make the distinction between modern standards of historicity and ancient standards. The fact of the matter is, common ideas about inerrancy are rooted in modernity. If it was permissible in the culture of the Bible to pass along narratives so that they would have the most powerful effect on people, which might include tweaking certain details, then the differences in details—say between the gospels—are not mistakes by ancient standards. Many scholars conclude that the Bible is full of mistakes, but they are judging the Bible by modern standards not ancient ones. It’s inherently difficult for moderns to accept the range of freedom ancients had.
Jared: The book argues that the notion of inerrancy cannot fully capture the complexities involved in divine accommodation. Can you give an example of this?
Brent: It’s challenging to grasp the full significance of this, but God put in place a delivery system for his eternal truths that is largely dependent on humans. He initiated the process by choosing certain agents in two specific time periods and cultures and by placing in their minds what he wanted to communicate. But from there on it was in human hands. That meant everyone across the world and throughout the ages would be dependent on how those selected agents spoke and wrote divine truth and transmitted it on to others (both orally and in written form). In other words, between God’s initial step and our modern translations of inscribed truth there are hundreds of secondary agents. A critical question is how much room God allowed for human frailty in this delivery system. Or did he override every possible human limitation all along the way? For example, was every scribe perfect? Is every translator perfect? Is every commentator perfect? Or was part of God’s accommodation allowing humans to do what humans do, even if imperfect. This is not to suggest that God’s choice of delivery system meant that we cannot trust the Scriptures because they are full of errors. We have ample evidence that the believing communities faithfully passed along what they knew to be true. And we have multiple, independent sources that agree on the essentials of divine truth. But we have equally strong evidence that early Christians were not concerned with a precision of exactitude that would satisfy our modern standards. A good example can be found in the different versions of the events on Easter morn. Anyone who hasn’t compared the four gospels’ accounts and tried to figure out the details of who was present at the tomb and what happened (and in what order) ought to take the time to do so. It’s simply impossible to harmonize the accounts to the satisfaction of modern standards. The point is that in God’s revelation of the most important event in history, he accommodated the human inclination to report the same event from different vantage points and to pass along differing oral traditions about the event, which eventually became parts of the gospels.
Jared: One question about hermeneutics … If we read the Bible as Walton and yourself suggest, what do we do about the “jot and tittle” issue? In other words, Inerrantists make a big deal about dissecting words, drawing conclusions from Greek tenses, and what-not – all because God determined that these exact, precise words and tenses should be used. Do word studies and sermon illustrations about Greek tenses become irrelevant? Or does God’s sovereignty still mean the jots and tittles are important? Maybe it depends on Genre?
Brent: First, as noted in our book, Jesus did not intend his comment about “jots and tittles” to have anything to do with inerrancy. Unfortunately, his statement has often been taken out of context and misused. “Jots and tittles” was Jesus’ word picture for the precepts of the Law that would not pass away. Second, the notion of analyzing texts down to the smallest detail is a modern methodology, again under the influence of the Enlightenment. If we heard texts more holistically as they did in the ancient world—since it was rare for individuals then to have access to written texts—rather than reading them like we dissect frogs in a laboratory, we would recognize the limited value of such close readings. As linguistics has taught us, the smallest unit of meaning in most cases is a paragraph. So, yes, incorrect views of inspiration lead to incorrect views of interpretation. When our hermeneutics become atomistic, dissecting a text for every possible nuance of word and syntax, we may miss an author’s real intent. We murder to dissect.
Jared: What contribution/s do you see this book making to the historical debates over biblical authority among evangelicals? Are you concerned that your work will be misunderstood by some?
Brent: While much of Scripture’s lost world is increasingly becoming clear to biblical scholars, the new perspectives can create problems for conservative Christians: they cringe when different pictures come into focus. So, yes, we will not be surprised if our attempts to understand the oral culture of the Bible and its bearing on inerrancy result in push-back from some quarters. Hopefully the majority of readers will carefully consider the evidence we discuss and join us on the path toward a better understanding of how divine truth was given to a few select humans and passed on to millions.