Review: John H. Walton and D. Brent Sandy’s The Lost World of Scripture

The inerrancy debate among evangelicals has recently received heightened attention, with last year’s Evangelical Theological Society meeting having inerrancy as its theme and Zondervan subsequently releasing the published version of the “5 Views on Biblical Inerrancy” panel. The debate amongst those who hold a high view of Scripture is largely between those who feel that an affirmation of the classic position on inerrancy (a la the Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy) is essential to evangelical integrity, and those who feel that the classic position is inadequate and needs to be nuanced/recast.

In The Lost World of Scripture, Wheaton professors John Walton and Brent Sandy aim “not to deconstruct inerrancy but to put it on surer footing by carefully accounting for the worldview of the biblical world, which is different from the worldview of modern Western culture” (303). The chapters are laid out in propositions in a manner similar to Walton’s The Lost World of Genesis.

In Part 1 Walton illuminates the hearing-dominant ancient Near Eastern world of the Old Testament, showing how information was disseminated, how authority operated, and how oral tradition transitioned to written tradition. Here Walton also introduces speech-act theory as a helpful framework:

“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)” (41).

In communicating with humans, God accommodates in the locution but not erroneous illocution on the part of the human communicator. “Inerrancy and authority are related to the illocution; accommodation and genre attach to the locution. Therefore inerrancy and authority cannot be undermined, compromised, or jeopardized by genre or accommodation” (45). For example, God accommodated his locution to the ancient Israelite belief in a solid sky; but since the illocution is not to assert the shape of cosmic geography, those details do not jeopardize authority or inerrancy.

In the final proposition of Part 1 Walton argues that the Bible’s illocutions do not offer scientific description or explanation.

“[T]he perspectives on the material world that we find in the text accommodate the Old World Science of the time and are part of the locution adopted in order to communicate clearly to the target audience. . . . We should not expect to be able to draw many, if any, necessary, mandated conclusions about the regular material operations and nature of the cosmos in which we could attach biblical authority. Scripture is not making those claims” (52, 54).

Hence, for Walton, science cannot affirm or deny theological beliefs such as God’s role in creation. Neither scientific discoveries nor text critical issues would undermine the authority of Scripture in Walton’s model.

Part 2 builds on the foundation laid in Part 1 by addressing the oral, hearing-dominant world of the New Testament. Sandy devotes some time to New Testament manuscripts and textual variants, arguing that exact wording was not necessary to preserve and transmit reliable representations of inspired truth. Since variants did not obviate the early Christians’ confidence in Scripture, it should not hinder ours either. “Further, the variation in details as the stories were passed along in communities, as scribes recorded those stories in writing and as copyists duplicated them may mean that there never was a single, original word in every spot” (180). The common notion that variants are mistakes or corruptions are, for Sandy, a case of worldview prejudice and judging manuscript culture by the standards of print culture.

Part 3 addresses the biblical world of literary genres, devoting attention to Old Testament narrative literature, Old Testament legal literature, Old Testament prophetic literature, and finally, genres of the New Testament. The book concludes with a section on the origin and authority of Scripture. This section addresses some essential roles and limitations of inerrancy. For Walton and Sandy, inerrancy is no longer the clear, defining term it once was.

“If we question the continued sufficiency of the term inerrancy, it is not that we now admit that the Bible has errors. It is rather that the term inerrancy may no longer be clear enough, strong enough or nuanced enough to carry the weight with which it has traditionally been encumbered…If the term inerrancy, however, has become diminished in rhetorical power and specificity, it no longer serves as adequately to define our convictions about the robust authority of Scripture” (275).

This is a great book for evangelicals with a high view of Scripture to wrestle with how best to understand the Bible. The light this book sheds on ancient literary culture and how the various parts of the Bible were spoken, written, passed on, and edited illuminates important implications for the Bible’s inspiration and authority. While conservative classical inerrantists may have a hard time with some of the assertions in this book, it raises some good points about limitations of inerrancy and demonstrates how a nuanced model of biblical authority can eliminate some problems caused by a rigid view. Walton and Sandy present a case for the necessity of a redefinition of inerrancy in light of the literary culture of the Bible. This book is a significant contribution to the current inerrancy debate.

Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from the publisher. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255: “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”

Jennifer Guo is a bean counter by day and a book eater by night. She is passionate about the gospel and loves biblical and theological studies. She also loves the arts and is part of a performing arts ministry that uses a variety of mediums to communicate the gospel, God’s heart, and His design for sexuality, relationships, and marriage. Jennifer also loves running and cooking (and not because running allows her to eat more). You can follow her @JenniferGuo or read more reviews at her blog Jennifer Guo.