John Walton and Brent Sandy - "The Lost World of Scripture"
4:30AM Jun 26, 2020
Jonathan J. Armstrong
We are delighted today to be speaking with Dr. Brent Sandy and Dr. John Walton, authors of the Lost World of Scripture: Ancient Literary Culture and Biblical Authority. Dr. John Walton is professor of Old Testament studies at Wheaton College, and is the author of the Lost World of Genesis. Dr. Brent Sandy is retired Chair of Religious Studies at Grace College in seminary in window Lake, Indiana. Dr. Sandy Dr. Walton, thank you for joining us today.
If I may ask a question that I can address to both of you here. Your book is a book about the significance of texts in ancient societies, but it's also a book about modern evangelicals and modern evangelicalism and inerrancy In your view, why is it that evangelicalism seems to persistently return to this doctrine of inerrancy? What is it about our doctrine of inerrancy? That that requires or calls for revision frequently?
Well, I'll start out here and john can jump in as he likes. I guess the first thing I would want to emphasize is that I think all theology is a human construct. By that, I mean, it's human in the sense that it's incomplete and imprecise. And it's construct in the sense that we take the data from various places in Scripture, and try to put those Lego pieces together and make sense of it. It's a little bit like I think, scientists trying to understand the galaxy and black holes and exploding galaxies and all these things. They're, they're pulling pieces together. What they're doing is imprecise, it's incomplete. But yet they come up with theories about what's there. So, when we think about theology, we come up with inerrancy, as a term to try to describe what we find in Scripture, what we think scripture is. And that's necessary because the Bible is not an encyclopedia, that we can go to and find a complete discussion, any point about what we want to know, we have to sort of bring all the data together. So the Bible being a living and breathing document, it challenges us to engage with it and pull together all this material on what Scripture is and inspiration and inerrancy. I do think the Holy Spirit empowers us in this process to guide us into all truth, which is his role in that. So the Holy Spirit's acted there, but at the same time, it's a human endeavor also. So all that to say that the construction of theology is never a final Word. I mean, each generation kind of thinks we've got a good handle on it. But then somebody else comes along with new insights. And so whether we're talking about inerrancy, or whatever, we're always sort of reshaping or refining, defining, clarifying our understanding of that. I think, and I'm sure we agree on this, john and i, that we've made some contribution to the discussion that will hopefully sharpen our understanding of inerrancy. As time goes on.
I would add that but I think we need to constantly look at the way that we formulate this important doctrine, so that we make sure that it is taking account of how our ever changing understanding of the composition and compilation of Scripture to place the doctrine isn't going to serve us well. If it does not take account How our understanding is growing, developing about the Bible's composition and compilation. So that's why you're visiting because we're always learning more.
Dr. Walton, Dr. Sandy at the beginning of your book, you cite David Dockery, his definition of inerrancy, which is, as I quote, the Bible, properly interpreted in light of the culture and communication developed by the time of its composition will be shown to be truly excuse me completely true and therefore not false. In all of that it affirms to the degree of precision intended by the author in all matters relating to God and His creation. I'm quote, the book that explores how this the culture and communication of a hearing dominant culture of the biblical world seek is significantly different from our text dominant world today. What Factors went into your decision to pursue this multifaceted research project.
I think maybe I can start out the just the idea that we've learned so much more about the nature of the hearing dominant culture in the ancient world. And that changes things. We, our tradition has been to kind of start with the idea that somebody sat down to write a book. And so book comes first. And when we start to recognize the significance of a hearing dominant culture, it really turns out that the book comes last. And so the idea that we moved through a whole process of oral tradition, and a combination of documents and smaller literary pieces, and then all of that developed over time, to end up with a final result that we recognize as the book in our Bible today. When we recognize that, again, that that changes how we think about the documents side of our inerrancy and authority discussion.
By analogy, um, I don't understand Shakespeare in English very well. And I think that's because I know this because I don't put the time and effort into digging back into the culture and the language to understand all that. So the point is, oral culture is so different from what our book culture is today, that we need to think our way back into that culture. And when we do then it gives us new insight into how the Bible was composed and put together. So what john is saying, yes, we're getting new insights along the way here, and that's necessary for our understanding of Scripture.
Thank you for those reflections, your text The Lost World of Scripture, ancient literary culture and biblical authority. You divide the text into Through a series of 21 propositions, and let me just work through a couple of those propositions and ask for your reflections as the authors. For example, if we can turn to proposition four, proposition four reads, the Bible contains no new revelation about the workings and understandings of the material world. If I can turn this question to you, Dr. Walton, can the Bible be trusted on matters of science?
As Dr. Murray's definition indicated, we are interested in the affirmations that the Bible makes and therefore what is revealing as as truth as God's truth? And we have to keep that focus in mind. What we find is that, on the way to revealing the truth that God intends to reveal, he also uses what is very familiar to his ancient world, rather than upgrading them to some better understanding. So for instance, God doesn't reveal to them physiology. They don't know the physiology of the brain. They don't know the physiology of the kidney, the liver, the physiology, the heart, they know that it pumps blood, but they, they, they really attach cognitive processes to the heart and the liver and the kidney. And God doesn't upgrade their understanding of physiology, doesn't upgrade your understanding of Meteorology, of epidemiology, none of these areas of science. So in that sense, God kind of leaves that for people to grow your knowledge as they go. God isn't revealing those things or the truths of those things. He rather is revealing his role in the world and all of those his nature in this person. So in that sense, I don't find those aspects what we call science. I don't find those as being the affirmations that the text is trying to make. And that's okay. There is going to communicate a communicator and effective communicator is always going to find a connection with where people are and what what they would be expected to know. Nothing in the Old Testament thing in the realm that we would call science that would not have been understandable to an ancient audience when the Israelites are Babylonian or Egyptian. You can go all the way through it. There's no new information
through good Dr. Walton, thank you for that nuanced response. And let me continue down that track ask a traditional question that's often asked in evangelical circles. If the Bible cannot be trusted on matters of science, as we conceive of science today, can the Bible be trusted in matters of history as we can Strike history today.
It's not that the Bible can't be trusted with regard to science. It's just that it's not undertaking the process of revealing science and upgrading science and, and bringing that along. We trust what the Bible affirms when the Bible affirms historical events as really events in a real past involving real people. Well, that's its affirmation. And we accept that we embrace that. So again, it goes back to Dr. Murray's explanation. A good one of what it is that the text is affirming what its messages.
Dr. Walton I appreciate that response. Rudolph boatman and other New Testament scholars have suggested that the New Testament is doing history in a very different way than we do history today that it may be a series of myths intended to inspire religious consciousness or religious devotion. If it is the Bible doing history, it two and three things thousand years ago in a way that we can recognize today.
I think it's, it's certainly agreeable, that they don't do history The way we do. But that does not mean that along with boatman, we have to go all the way to delve into the spectrum and say that it's myth. Certainly they had different values. They're different conventions. It's an ancient world, some ancient Near Eastern scholars have made statements like there's really nothing like our modern historian in the ancient world. They wrote history with different kinds of purposes than what we did. We can see that in the Bible, because the Bible is very interested in writing history, in light of what God is doing. We don't write history that way today. And so in that sense, we can say certainly, they wrote history differently than we did. But that doesn't mean that you can therefore say, if these are not really events in in a real past or that they're not real people That's That's too far jump. Again, we're going to try to understand their conventions and their values, and try to understand what the text is.
Great, thank you for that reflection. Dr. Walton. Dr. Sandy, if I can turn and ask you concerning proposition five of the 21 propositions here in this text, in our core proposition five, much of the literature of the Greco Roman world retained elements of a hearing dominant culture, unquote. When we seek evidence and an ancient text for a hearing dominant culture, what is it precisely that we're looking for, given that we're looking in a text?
That's a very good question. And a number of people have that question, because if all we have is literature, how do we understand the oral culture behind it? The interesting thing is that literary works tend to preserve the antecedent orality that was preceding that. So these are documents were written, they were written not to be read privately, but they'd be read aloud to people. So in other words, they were thoughtfully constructed with mnemonic devices and various structures and alliteration in various patterns, it would be very oral in our format. So we can, in a sense, recover some of the orality even through the literacy or the literary works that are written. Now, a big Case in point, of course, is Homer and the lnd Odyssey, and how they came into being they sort of dropped out of nowhere. You got 15,000 lines in the 12,000 lines of the Odyssey, beautiful examiner poetry, and suddenly is there. Okay. There has to be some precedent running up to that. So Millman Perry and Albert Lorde earlier part of the century Sorry to 20th century did amazing work in Slavic lands. And these singers of Tales discovering that these people with amazing skill could compose on the fly this amazing example of verse or hammers case, and then they could remember that, and they could repeat that another time. So by the repetition of these oral doc oral texts, let's call them. They weren't written yet. But these oral, this oral poetry by the repetition eventually became sort of standardized, and became like an old text. It wasn't written yet, but it was orally shaped and formed in a standardized way. So what I'm saying is we can get at some of the morality through what's preserved in the literary form.
Thank you. And Dr. Sandy, if I can follow up with that to them. proposition 13 of the 21 propositions and it's text reads exact wording was not necessary to preserve and transmit reliable representations of inspired truth, unquote. What do you think Dr. Sandy, the evangelists would have made of our modern attempts today to harmonize these Gospel accounts?
Now, I love that question. Because I have a favorite assignment that I give to students, undergrad students. And that is, I tell them, they need to write a drama that's going to be performed on Easter Sunday morning in our church. And that drama is to reconstruct the resurrection scene on that first issue Sunday morning. So I send them to a harmony of the Gospels that has all four gospels in columns. And I say, okay, figure out what you're going to put together in that drama. Well, they come back after a week working on that and say, we can't do this. All these details. They're confusing. I can't make the mesh they don't line up. So everyone, your churches, counting on you to put together this drama for Easter Sunday morning, do it, you can make this work. Okay, so they come back after the second week. And they are thrilled to be able to say that, you know, the complexity of all that sort of coalesced into beautiful images of what was happening. I can't necessarily make every detail fit perfectly, but there's richness there. So they get impressed with the richness of the power of the story. And as I read, then these dramas that they write, it often brings tears to my eyes because they really do capture the essence of it. So my point is, I think the original authors would have looked at our attempt to fit every piece together in some sort of chronological sense, they would have said you're missing the point of what I'm what they were trying to do and writing that. Or maybe another example I can give. I have a friend who was a missionary in Brazil. Actually a missionary child in Brazil family. And he experienced something he couldn't explain. And that is when people in the Amazon Valley there would tell stories, different people will tell the same story. And details would be skewed differently a little bit. And he thought that was some sort of something wrong. But in interacting with the people, he realized that they expect the storyteller do that, because whatever emphasis or point the storyteller wants to make, he's expected to make the details fit what his point is. So there's an oral culture. And we can demonstrate this with Middle Eastern cultures as well. There's a certain amount of freedom on some little details to make the point of the story as powerful as possible. know exactly how that fits in the New Testament. I can't be sure, but clearly we have little different details and one the four gospels But the overall impact of the story Jay tell, has profound power and a strong gospel message, of course.
And Dr. Sandy, because one of the major themes of the text is the doctrine of inerrancy. And the question of inerrancy. Let me press into that. Differences in wording and the Gospel accounts ever threaten the truthfulness of the gospel record?
Yeah, well, that's a fair question. Um, I would say that if we want to apply our modern standards of historiography and criteria for writing history, um, it looks like there's something not quite meshing up there. But that's applying our modern standards on an ancient document. They didn't have the same kind of developed stir graphical standards that we do. So what may look to us to be a problem, wasn't it at all to them. So I think we need to look through their eyes rather than our eyes. It's wrong for us to impose some sort of Modern criteria on the writing of Scripture or on these, you know, these matters of details that differ.
Thank you, Dr. Sandy for that for that reflection. Dr. Walton, if I may address the next question to you, sir, when we realize that the culture of the biblical world was predominately oral rather than textual and therefore very different than our modern world today. How is it that this this understanding perhaps reshapes our doctrine of inerrancy?
Well, it reshapes it because we have to consider what we apply the term inerrancy to. If we think in terms of starting with the book, in a text oriented culture, well then we have this thing called the autographs, and we apply inerrancy to that stage. But if what we ended up with as a book didn't start as a book, but started in an oral world, where it was transmitted through many different I communicators where was placed in documents, which were recopy generation of generation and then eventually incorporated into literary work. It's it becomes a very different matter of where we are applying inerrancy. I think that we have to take all of that possibility. Remember, I'm not positing a theory of composition compilation, I'm rather offering one of the alternatives in ways that would have been logical that we can track to some extent in other texts into the world. And I'm only saying that our document inerrancy has to be able to accommodate to that way of thinking about textual development.
Dr. Sandy, do you wish to add anything to that response?
Yes, I do. Um, in the conclusion to our book, we list things safe to believe things not safe to believe and things safe to ask. And so we're trying to lay out there some guidelines for further discussion. We don't think we've solved all that needs to be solved on just redefining or recasting this idea of inerrancy. So we're asking people to join us in that discussion. I do think it's important to see, and I see this all over the New Testament, that there seems to be equal authority between oral and written, there is the written document, once it's written, has no higher authority than the oral forms that so we think the the authority of Scripture, whether it's an oral form, or whether it's a written form, is equal across the board. So I think that's an important thing for us to understand. When we think about inerrancy.
Dr. Wolfe and Dr. Dr. Sandy, what would it mean to uphold inerrancy in this world that's opening up before us many people Say that literacy is continuing to change rapidly with our internet culture. What will inerrancy mean for this future world?
Well, I'll begin by saying that seems to me that for this some present generation, a dogmatic top down Dukakis statement, this is what you have to believe about inspiration and about biblical authority. That doesn't work very well. They want to rethink, rethink things for themselves. They want to be more inductive in their approach. So, um, I think that inerrancy as commonly understood is going to, its near the end of its shelf life. So I think for the future, we need to be more thoughtful, more careful, more constructive in our interpretation in our understanding in our articulation of what biblical authority consists of.
We are going to keep adjusting whether we know we're doing it or not keep adjusting how we think about the ways that authority comes to us. Well, I have no trouble aligning myself with determined currency and I use it and I defend it properly understood. To me the issue of authority is the more significant one. inerrancy, in that sense, is sort of a subcategory. One of the ways we talk about the authority of the text being conveyed. So I think that as, as we continue to transition into new forms of communication and new ideas about authority, they will continue to shape these ideas. Basically, what's behind inerrancy is that we can trust what the Bible is affirming, again, that goes back to the doctrine statement. And, in my mind, the main thing that the Bible affirming is the picture of God that it offers. That doesn't mean it doesn't affirm other things. But the picture of God After all, it's God's revelation of himself. That's what the text is, first and foremost, affirming. That's where its authority is based. And basically that says that we submit to that authority by embracing that view of God that's being offered. Now, again, in the end, we may choose to find that there are other words that better convey what we want to get happen. inerrancy is a word often has been associated with an apologetics approach to the text. That is, you want to defend the legitimacy and accuracy authenticity of the text against skeptics who want to take an opposing position. And so inerrancy has grown up in the context of apologetics. apologetics remain important. Got it? faith that when it comes down to it our confidence in Scripture can never be fully satisfied by apologetics. And that, therefore we take a faith position on the truth of God's Word from a theological standpoint, not so much in apologetics one.
Dr. Wall. Dr. Sandy, if I can ask one final question that I've been asking all of our guests on this program, and that is this, what would it mean for the church to be united today? How would we recognize this unity and what can Christians do to pursue this unity?
Well, I applaud that question. I applaud what unit SPD is doing. It seems to me that the trend towards global theology is something really important for the body of Christ today, and that is to say that all Christians all across the globe are equal stakeholders. in constructing a unified theology, which expresses the defining doctrines of Christian faith, we're by internet and so forth, we're in a much better position to do that. But it won't be an easy process, especially for those of us in the west to have long assumed that we've got a corner truth. So regarding inerrancy, that's largely a concern of conservative American Christians. It's become a better word for us. And I think it's likely that we'll have difficulty surrendering that term because in the rest of the world has seemed like the, that's not so much of an issue. So it's more important to us. So I guess to get to more unity in the body of Christ. It's not to say there needs to be uniformity, but we will need to agree on what's the essential ways to express our faith. And then of course, what wazers liberty and a non essentials and of course, it All things charity,
I would agree that unity will, will happen when we focus on the core, rather than the outline issues as interesting and, and everything as they might be. Unity is going to be established around the core the essential elements. For that also, as Brent was also suggesting, we need to recognize that our that all of our own cultural issues that impact how we understand scripture, have to be brought under the microscope and to some extent set aside. When I encounter my students ideas in my Ancient Near Eastern backgrounds course. What I constantly have to urge them to do is to set aside their Western mentality in order to try to read the text in the culture in Which it was written. And that means setting aside culture. But of course, I have to encourage my African or Asian students to do the same thing. To set aside their cultures. Sometimes we think in terms of unity by accommodating all the cultures and bringing all in together. I would rather think that as we each try to set aside those things, which are purely characteristic of our own cultures, and get back to the text as it was written, intended in its own culture, we're going to find unity perhaps a bit easier.
Yes, if I may add something to that seemed to me that we focus a little bit too much on, let's say, the heady authority of Scripture and not enough the authority in the heart. That is to say, if God created us, he knows what's best for us. And scripture is revelation of His ways, and For us, then the real question is do we accept that final authority in our lives for all matters of faith and practice? So sometimes inerrancy is up here. And it doesn't filter down to a what I would call a functional authority. That really is what transforms lives. And I think that's what Paul was saying, In Second Timothy three. This isn't smart and as profitable for doctrine, reproof, correction, structure and righteousness. That's the focus, I think, of biblical authority.
It's been our privilege today to be speaking with dr. john Walton, Professor of Old Testament studies at Wheaton College, and also with Dr. Brent Sandy, retired Chair of Religious Studies at Grace college and seminary and we know Lake Indiana, authors of the Lost World of Scripture, ancient literary culture and biblical authority. Dr. Walton Dr. Sandy, thank you for joining us today. Thank you.