Errors of Inerrancy

In The Lost World of Scripture John Walton and D. Brent Sandy offer a nice list of errors made by both advocates of inerrancy and of those of skeptical scholarship. They first list the errors of inerrancy advocates.

  • They have at times misunderstood ‘historical’ texts by applying modern genre criteria to ancient literature, thus treating it as having claims that it never intended.
  • They have at times treated events, people, composition, science and theology all on the same plane–even though they are not, and each needs to be treated separately.
  • They have often misunderstood the nature of literary production in the ancient world.
  • They have assumed there were single original autographs that were inerrant, whereas composition may not always have come about through a single autograph.
  • That have at times confused locution and illocution. (Inerrancy technically only applies to the latter, though of course, without locutions there can be no illocution.)
  • They have failed to account for Israel’s immersion in the cognitive environment of the ancient Near East.
  • They have often too easily ignored similarities between the Old Testament and ancient literature.
  • They have at times been too anxious to declare sections of the Old Testament to be historical in a modern sense, where it may not be making those claims for itself.
  • They have insisted on the application of the term inerrancy to genres for which it offers little clarification on the nature of authority. (279)

Errors of Skeptical Scholarship

  • They have believed they could sort out sources in a manuscript with confidence.
  • They are frequently driven by skepticism and doubt.
  • They are willing to read against the text or across the text, thus denying its authority.
  • They sometimes have no regard for the theology of the text.
  • They have generally believed they could assign dates to their sources.
  • They are often too quick to disbelieve events and people.
  • They have too easily ignored differences between the Old Testament and ancient literature.
  • They have often been too eager to dismiss sections of the Old Testament as mythological.
  • They have often been too willing to replace the agendas of the text with their own agendas.
  • They too often critique the Bible by applying modern standards of historiography and attempting to make the text conform to modern conventions and objectives.
  • They too often are dismissive of the idea that God acts in the world. (280)

Lost World of Scripture

Was Adam Literally Formed From Dust?

Genesis 2:7 reads “Then the Lord God formed a man from the dust of the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living being.” (NIV)

John Walton discusses this passage in the new counterpoints book Four Views on the Historical Adam.

The traditional interpretation sees the passage as “describing a material process of special creation characterized by discontinuity with any previously existing creature.” (92) But Walton says “there are limits to how far this concept should be taken.” He continues,

“One of the difficulties with this way of thinking is that dust is characteristically resistant to being molded. If a sculpting process is being used, clay would be a much more likely ingredient to use (cf. Job 4:19; 10:9; 33:6, homer). Another is that if the dust was only to be transformed, it has nothing to say about the material process and, in fact, plays no role at all.

“The verb yaṣar, however, need not be thought of as suggesting a sculpting process. We only need to look at the verb’s range of usage to see that it does not require a material context. Especially noteworthy is Zechariah 12:1: ‘The Lord, who stretches out the heavens, who lays the foundation of the earth, and who forms [yaṣar] the human spirit within a person….” Here Zechariah is speaking specifically about the creation narrative and sees the ‘forming’ as pertaining to the spirit rather than the body and thus not referring to material origins.

“The same concept is represented in Egyptian reliefs where Khnum, the craftsman creator deity, is shown shaping a human on the potter’s wheel (here it is clay, not dust). The context of the relief and the text that accompany it, however, make it clear that it is not the material formation of the human that is conveyed, but the shaping of the pharaoh to be pharaoh. He is being designed for a role. This imagery pertains to the function he is destined to have and not to the process by which he was created as a material individual. One could say that his ‘royal spirit’ is being formed to highlight similarity to Zechariah 12. In Egyptian thinking this is not referring merely to his training or preparation; rather, it is an indication of his election and sponsorship by the gods who have ordained his for his task. It reflects his high calling and his exalted status.

“Returning to the role of ‘dust’ in Genesis 2, we can reasonably deduce from the passage itself that dust carries an archetypal rather than a material significance. Genesis 3:19 explains this significance (in case we might have failed to grasp it in 2:7) when it states, ‘Dust you are and to dust you will return.’ Dust refers to mortality, and everyone is formed from dust. Psalm 103:14 substantiates this as the psalmist says that the Lord ‘knows how we are formed, he remembers that we are dust.’ This verse uses the same vocabulary as Genesis 2:7 and indicates that humankind (archetypally) is formed from dust. In fact then, it would not be a distortion to say that each of us formed from dust (that is, we are all frail and mortal).

“The conclusion of this line of reasoning is that being formed from dust does not refer to the material origins of any of us, nor does the fact that we are formed from dust preclude that we were born of a woman by a natural process. Following that line of reasoning back, we could also suggest that Adam being formed from dust does not preclude him being born of a woman. In other words, the statement in Genesis 2:7 is not essentially a statement about material discontinuity. It is a statement about our nature. The New Testament confirms this when it contrasts the archetype human as being from the ‘dust of the earth’ while Jesus as an archetype is ‘of heave’ (1 Cor. 15:47). Thus I conclude that being formed from dust plays an archetypal role in the context, with a debatable inference regarding material origins or discontinuity. If the text is not addressing material origins or asserting material discontinuity, there is no biblical claim being made about the mechanics or process of material human origins.” (92-93)

How Does Speech-Act Theory Help Us Understand Inerrancy?

In The Lost World of Scripture John Walton incorporates elements of speech-act theory as it relates to the issue of inerrancy. This new title from IVP Academic is a joint effort with D. Brent Sandy. Though Walton is careful to observe that they “do not agree with many of the conclusions associated with speech-act theory” they do “find its foundational premise and terminology helpful and have therefore adopted its three basic categories.” He continues,

“The communicator uses locutions (words, sentences, rhetorical structures, genres) to embody an illocution (the intention to do something with those locutions—bless, promise, instruct, assert) with a perlocution that anticipates a certain sort of response from the audience (obedience, trust, belief). A common illustration is the words spoken in a wedding. When the bride and groom say ‘I do’ they are using a very basic locution—words that could be used in any number of contexts with varieties of meaning. But in this context they are used for a specific illocution: a lifetime of vow of faithfulness and commitment. The resulting perlocution is the implementation of that vow throughout life.” (41)

Walton claims that “[i]nerrancy and authority are related to the illocution; accommodation and genre attach to the locution. There inerrancy and authority cannot be undermined, compromised, or jeopardized by genre or accommodation. While genre labels may be misleading, genre itself cannot be true or false, errant or inerrant, authoritative or nonauthoritative.” (45)

What this means is that “[c]ulture-specific aspects of a locution do not determine the illocution. That is, even though people in Israel believed there were waters above the earth held back by a solid sky, or that cognitive processes took place in the heart or kidneys, the illocution of the texts is not affirming those beliefs as revealed truth. Culture-specific aspects of an illocution do not have a universal perlocution (eating pork, circumcision, head covering). Culture-specific aspects of the perlocution need to be translated to an appropriate contemporary perlocution. So our response to the second or third commandment will be adjusted to our culture and will differ in specifics from the response expected in the ancient context. . . . To set aside such culturally bound locutions does not jeopardize the illocution or the authority. . . . In conclusion then, God accommodates human culture and limitations in the locutions that he inspires in the human communicator, but he does not accommodate erroneous illocution or meaning. . . .These human illocutions have authority because they are the means by which God gives his illocutions. We need not be concerned that culturally limited locutions will diminish the Bible’s authority, but we dare not dismiss the illocutions and focused meaning as accommodating error. If meaning that carries authority is derived from the human communicator’s illocution, we dare not supply our own substitute illocutions and meanings derived from the human communicator’s locutions.” (45-48)

It’s something to think about. I happen to think Walton and Sandy are on to something fruitful here.

The Lost World of Scripture is a paperback with 320 pages and sells for $24.00.

Does John Walton Believe the Early Accounts of Genesis Contain Revealed Truth?

In his newest book, Against the Gods, John Currid explores the polemical theology of the Old Testament. He explains that polemical theology “is the use by biblical writers of the thought forms and stories that were common in ancient Near Eastern culture, while filling them with radically new meaning. The biblical authors take well-known expressions and motifs from the ancient Near Eastern milieu and apply them to the person and work of Yahweh, and not to the other gods of the ancient world.” (25) But as I was reading the first chapter Currid notes that some evangelicals in Old Testament studies appear to be drifting away “from the position that holds to an original, singular, and unique worldview on the part of the Hebrews.” (23) He offers Peter Enns and John Walton as examples. Then he states, “The reality for Walton and others today is that the early accounts of Genesis are ‘culturally descriptive rather than revealed truth.’” (23) The last sentence is a quote from Walton’s book The Lost World of Genesis One. But this raised a huge red flag for me since I’ve been following Walton for over 20 years now and this quote didn’t quite ring true. I know Walton firmly believes that the early accounts of Genesis contain revealed truth.  I decided to check the quote in context.

My initial difficulty came when I realized that Currid’s footnote was wrong. Currid cites page 19 as where the quote is found. It is not. It is on page 18 and reads in its entirety “If cosmic geography is culturally descriptive rather than revealed truth, it takes its place among many other biblical examples of culturally relative notions.” (18) Walton is specifically talking about the viewpoint of the author as it relates to the makeup of the cosmos or as he phrases it “cosmic geography.” He never states that the early accounts of Genesis do not contain revealed truth. The question is what is the nature of the truth revealed. Walton would say the author of Genesis is not trying to give us a 21st century scientific account of the makeup of the universe. Now I’m sure Currid understands that distinction but the average reader could easily take it to mean Walton does not believe anything in the “early accounts of Genesis” (How far does that go?) contains revealed truth. Walton says just a few pages earlier, “It [Genesis 1] represents what the Israelites truly believed about how the world got to be how it is and how it works, though it is not presented as their own ideas, but as revelation from God.” (Emphasis mine, 15) Later Walton says Genesis does “offer a very different perspective than other creation texts in a number of ways.” (104, See there for details.) He further notes that this “could be viewed as polemic. But it must also be noticed that the author of Genesis 1 is not explicitly arguing with the other views—he is simply offering his own view. His opposition to other ancient views is tacit.” (104. He says much the same in Reading Genesis 1-2, “I typically, do not identify Genesis 1-2 as polemical. I agree that the theology offered in Genesis stands in contrast to the world around Israel. But proper polemic would involve not only stating one’s own unique view but also citing problems or disagreements with other views, which Genesis does not do.” (138))

So is Currid right in thinking that Walton does not think Genesis 1 offers an “original, singular, and unique worldview.” He acknowledges that Enns believes the account is unique but “in reality, not to the degree that one would hope for.” (34) I assume the same would be said concerning Walton’s view. In another place Walton says, “The uniqueness of the Bible is in the God of the Bible, not in the world of Israel or the literary genres of the Bible.” (Reading Genesis 1-2, 71) I think Walton would affirm that Genesis is unique but that it is not unique in the way it portrays cosmic geography but rather in its understanding of God. Whatever the strengths or weaknesses of Walton’s position may be let it be clear that he does believe the early accounts of Genesis contain revealed truth. (See A Survey of the Old Testament by John Walton and Andrew Hill, especially chapter 1 “Approaching the Old Testament” where Walton affirms numerous times that the Old Testament is God’s “self revelation.” 21, 25, 27)

Is There a Wrong Way to Teach a Bible Story?

Our small group workshop will soon be here. In this workshop I talk about the study guides that have come out in the past year. So my days are spent immersing myself in study guides. I find some good and some not so good. John and Kim Walton in their book The Bible Story Handbook ask point blank “Is there a ‘wrong way’ to teach a Bible story?” Their answer is yes and I have to agree. They write,

“It is not important to the author of John 11 (the raising of Lazarus) that Jesus had friends. It is not important to the author of Exodus 3-4 (the burning bush) that Aaron is willing to help his brother. It is not important to the author of John 6 (the feeding of the five thousand) that the boy shared his lunch. If we teach these things, we are telling the story wrongly because we are substituting what we want to teach at the expense of the biblical author’s message. A story is told rightly when we can confidently claim that it represents the intention of the author and the authority of the text.” (24)

They identify five fallacies that draw a lesson away from scriptural authority. There isn’t a study guide I look at that doesn’t contain multiple examples of many of these.

1)      Promotion of the trivial. A lesson is based on a passing comment within the text (Josh. 9:14, they did not consult the Lord), a casual observation about the text (Moses persevered by repeatedly appearing before Pharaoh), or even a deduction from the text (Joshua and Caleb were brave and strong). We are not teaching the Bible properly if we teach virtues that the specific text does not have in view.

2)      Illegitimate extrapolation. The lesson is improperly expanded from a specific situation to all situations. For example, Exodus 3-4 shows that God commanded Moses to do a hard thing and helped him do it, but the lesson taught from the text is that God will also help you do a hard thing—anything of your choosing. In such cases, we pass by the teaching of the text in favor of what we want to say, thus neglecting biblical authority.

3)      Reading between the lines. Teachers or students read between the lines when they analyze the thinking of the characters, speculate on their motives, or fill in details of the plot that the story does not give. When such speculations become the center of the lesson, the authority of the biblical teaching is lost because the teaching is supplied by the reader rather than by the text.

4)      Missing important nuance. This occurs when the lesson pinpoints an appropriate message but misses a connection necessary to drive the point home accurately. It is not enough, for instance, to say that God wants us to keep his rules; we must realize that God has given us rules to display his character and to show us how we ought to respond to him in our actions.

5)      Focus on people rather than on God. The Bible is God’s revelation of himself, and its message and teaching are largely based on what it tells us about God. This is particularly true of narrative (stories). While we tend to observe the people in the stories, we cannot forget that the stories are intended to teach us about God more than about people. If in the end the final point is ‘We should (or shouldn’t) be like X,’ there is probably a problem unless the X is Jesus or God. Better is, ‘We can learn through X’s story that God . . .’ The tendency to focus overly on people also shows up in questions such as ‘Who are the Goliaths in your life?’ The text is more interested in ‘Who is God in your life?’” (24-25)

 Bible Story Handbook

What Role Does ANE Literature Have on Interpreting Genesis?

In Reading Genesis 1-2 Todd Beall argues for a literal interpretation of these first two chapters. In his discussion of the role of Ancient Near Eastern (ANE) thought he asks this question: “Why would God have used ANE myths to reveal his truth to Moses concerning this unique event?” (52) The “unique event” he refers to is creation. John Walton, a prominent advocate of reading the Bible in light of ANE literature, offers the following as a response to Beall’s question:

“I do not claim that God used ANE myths to reveal truth, and I do not know many who would make such a claim. My position is that all ANE literature (not just myths) gives us access to the way that people typically thought in the ancient world and that Israel often would have thought the same way. God does not use myths to reveal himself; he reveals himself in terms of the ancient cognitive environment of which Israel is a part.

Of course, in the process God shows himself to be different from the gods of the nations around Israel, and he offers many revisions about the ways they should think. As a result there are both similarities and differences, but God’s effective communication is going to be rooted in the similarities even when he is providing alternative ways of thinking. I would there consider it an extreme reaction to suggest that the uniqueness of the Bible somehow demands total isolation from an ancient worldview, as Beall does when he says, ‘To argue that Moses or whoever wrote Gen 1-11 was so immersed in the ANE world that it caused him to write in the way of other ANE literature is to deny the uniqueness of the biblical record.’ The uniqueness of the Bible is in the God of the Bible, not in the world of Israel or the literary genres of the Bible.” (71)

Reading Genesis

John Walton and Mark Strauss Introduce the “Teach the Text” Commentary Series

While John Walton was here I asked him about the new commentary series he and Mark Strauss were working on. He is very excited about it. He explained that many pastors have very limited time. He didn’t need to tell me this but he elaborated. In one week a pastor may have to do multiple funerals, offer counseling sessions, take care of things around the church, and any number of other things that larger churches can delegate to other individuals. He said, “I told the commentary contributors to imagine a pastor calling them on the phone and saying, ‘I need to prepare a message for this Sunday. In a half hour give me something I can use for my preparation.’” In other words, time is at a premium but I have to have something–help me. The Teach the Text Commentary Series fills this very need. In the clip below both he and Mark Strauss explain in more detail the features and benefits of this new commentary series. Do we really need another series? Listen and find out why “yes” is the right answer.