Inerrancy and the “Lost World of Scripture”: An Interview with D. Brent Sandy

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 adWalton & Sandy, The Lost World of Scriptured 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.

JFile:Escribano.jpgared: 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.

Sandy, Plowshares & Pruning HooksJared: 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.


One thought on “Inerrancy and the “Lost World of Scripture”: An Interview with D. Brent Sandy

  1. I don’t see what benefit there is to the Christian to affirm the inerrancy of a bible text, if they must also recognize their own interpretation is not infallible.

    What benefit is there to confessing the inerrancy of Judges 5:20, if one must never characterize one’s interpretation of it as infallible? What sense does it make to say your mother’s assertion “I love you” is inerrant, but to then also say you can never be sure your interpretation of the assertion is also inerrant? What fool says “yes, mom, I know you love me, but its more honest of me to admit that I can never be infallibly certain of what you mean by those words.” (!?)

    Secondly, such a distinction between inerrancy of text and inerrancy of interpretation would appear to be purely academic and isolated from the real world. Christians might “say” they don’t think their interpretations of bible passages are infallible, but in actual practice, they end up treating their interpretation as if has been confirmed true with absolute finality. That’s exactly what explains why Christians can be premillenialists for 40 years, then become postmillenialists afterward. Or maybe it explains how Hank Hanegraaff can push traditional protestant evangelicalism as the most true form of Christanity on earth today on the “Bible Answer Man” show for more than 20 years, then convert later to Greek Orthodox, much to the chagrin of James White and others who find the change befuddling.

    Thirdly, despite Jesus and Paul equipping the church to evangelize specifically the Gentiles (that one target group who most likely wouldn’t believe in the inerrancy of the OT), nothing in the NT ever expresses or implies that refuting skeptical attacks on OT inerrancy is an acceptable form of apologetics. Jesus and Paul both dealt with Gentiles, and never do they try to show any doubting Gentile that the OT is inerrant. That must be kept in mind when reading Jude 3 and other texts that generally call for Christians to make a defense. You’d have to agree that Paul fulfilled Jude 3 and other such texts when he started arguing with the philosophers on Mars Hill (Acts 17:18-32, who were people most likely to find fault with the OT), yet when they replied to his defense showing they weren’t impressed, Paul immediately left (v. 33). It would appear that when the NT texts telling Christians to defend the gospel, are interpreted in light of the way Jesus and Paul carried out such things in actual practice, those texts do not justify the ceaseless terabytes of back and forth bickering that has come to characterize 99% of conservative Christian defenses of inerrancy.

    Some might argue that the more the church pushes defense of biblical inerrancy, the more they render unreasonable any notion that the Holy Spirit has an actual job to do. If inerrantists had their way, appreciating the truth of biblical inerrancy can be achieved in the same way as appreciating that Lincoln was once a U.S. President: by study, no Holy Spirit necessary.

    It makes no sense to credit to the Holy Spirit with any instance of an unbeliever finding bible inerrancy to be true after reading Gleason Archer’s “Encyclopedia of Bible Difficulties”, any more than it would make sense to credit the Holy Spirit with the child’s learning how to make a peanut butter and jelly sandwich immediately after her mommy demonstrated it. Beware, ye, lest by your intent to spell everything out and refute all the gainsayers, ye lower the level of the Holy Ghost from “Third Person of the Trinity” to “gratuitous afterthought”.

    And yet you have to live in a modern culture that will just jeer inerrancy all the more if you sit back and let the Holy Spirit do his invisible work. What’s more important, confirming to the biblical way, or impressing modern western minds with great learning?

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