The Lost World of ScriptureBy John Walton and Brent Sandy (InterVarsity, 2013)

The Lost World of Scripture: Ancient Literary Culture and Biblical Authority (Paperback)
by John H Walton, D Brent Sandy

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John Walton and Brent Sandy, both professors at Wheaton College, combine their expertise in Old and New Testament to craft a detailed study of ancient literary culture and its impact on biblical interpretation. “Our specific objective is to understand better how both the Old and New Testaments were spoken, written and passed on, especially with an eye to possible implications for the Bible’s inspiration and authority” (9). They examine traditional expressions of inerrancy and offer a theologically and hermeneutically nuanced restatement of this important doctrine.

Walton and Sandy structure their work in twenty-one detailed propositions that sequentially build upon each other. In all, the book has four parts focusing on Old Testament composition culture (Walton), New Testament composition culture (Sandy), literary genres and concluding affirmations on the origins and authority of Scripture (both). At the outset, we acknowledge the breadth of this work and its usefulness for a number of audiences, both seminary-trained and otherwise. The issues raised are pertinent, the discussions are sound, the tone irenic, and the ideas stimulating. The authors push the reader to reevaluate how to think and talk about Scripture.

Walton and Sandy affirm a “very high view of Scripture” and inerrancy; they subscribe to the 1978 Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy. Their affirmation of inerrancy, however, does not stop them from offering sound critiques of traditional expressions of inerrancy. For one, they specifically emphasize that the Bible is free from error only when read, “in light of the culture and communications developed by the time of its composition” (12).

Early in the work the authors explain that communication requires culturally sensitive accommodation (Proposition 3). In describing accommodation, Walton employs Speech Act Theory to assert that what is inerrant is the illocution of a text—the author’s intention, affirmation, or claim in/through the text (41–48). The accuracy of an author’s illocution is what must be judged, not that of the locution itself, which might often be an accommodation to the cultural and scientific understandings of the author’s time. “God accommodates human culture and limitation in the locutions that he inspires in the human communicator, but he does not accommodate erroneous illocution and meaning” (47). This emphasis on the illocution (perhaps better: what the author is doing with what he is saying) is a breath of fresh air for interpreters, and especially, for preachers. It is the illocutions of the author that are to be the focus from the pulpit, for that is what the A/author is affirming—the agenda of the author. Ultimately, it is by understanding that agenda that preaching can achieve the goal of changing lives.

However, there is a danger in being too discriminatory between locution and illocution, since the locution is the only source of the illocution. What an author does (illocution) can only be secured from what an author says (locution). For instance, Jesus’ replacement of the Decalogue’s “You shall not covet” with “Do not defraud [from apostereō]” (Mark 10:19), is clearly intentional and cannot be relegated to some locutionary inaccuracy or accommodation to a particular version of the Torah. It is likely that defrauding was the very problem afflicting the “rich young ruler” in that pericope—the one thing he “lacked” (from hystereō; 10:21)—this is Jesus’ (and Mark’s) illocution. The locution does affect the illocution, and potently at that. Inspiration and inerrancy, of necessity, have to apply to both. Indeed, it may very well be that it is because illocutions are inspired and inerrant that locutions also have to be, for inspired and inerrant illocutions can never be guaranteed from uninspired and errant locutions. The two are inextricably intertwined. While they may be distinguished, too much separation—and the ascription of inerrancy exclusively to illocution and inspiration exclusively to locution (276–77)—is not wise.

Sandy asserts: “Much of what Jesus sought to communicate entailed an emotion and poignancy that can only be partly conveyed in written form” (134). True enough, but was that “emotion and poignancy” necessary for distant readers to catch? If it were, then the written text alone is insufficient for these to grow to maturity, without the other paralinguistic and outside-the-text elements of communication (2 Tim 3:16–17). “To have been present and to have observed Jesus’ body language, to have seen his facial expressions, to have heard the tone of his voice, such invective [referring to Luke 11:29–32] would have been much more astonishing. Did he raise his voice? Was there fire in his eyes? Or were his words full of compassion?” (134). All interesting questions no doubt. But we do not think these are essential for the reader to apprehend the thrust of the text. Privileging the text is sufficient. What is inspired is not anything that happened behind the text (often conceived by the reader’s imagination), but the text itself. The text must be preached—no more, no less. In other words, it is not the event that must be given prominence, but the Holy Spirit’s (Luke’s) account of what happened that ought to be.

Elsewhere Walton and Sandy seem to affirm that it is the Spirit-inspired account of the event that is “inspired” and “profitable.” “Truth may not be relative, but an artist makes a choice of which truths to represent and how to do so” (203). Biblical “artists” are no exception. Therefore, “We should not be asking, What is the event? (typically the goal of modern historiography).” Rather, “[t]he operative question … must always be, What is the communicator’s illocution” (212). This makes a great deal of difference for preaching, for now it behooves the interpreter to pay close attention in each pericope to the illocution of the author derived from the locution—what the author is doing with what he is saying.

Proposition 21 on the authority of the Bible is also helpful in this regard. “[N]ot everything that is true comes with the Bible’s authority. If we view truth and authority as concentric circles, authority should be pictured as a smaller circle fully within the circle of truth …. We cannot be content to search Scripture for truth; our search is for that which has authority.” The authors add that while Esther may have been truly courageous, and Nehemiah truly a great leader, it is questionable whether either book is authoritatively affirming those possible truths. “Scripture contains all sorts of incidentals that carry no authority, though they are true” (290–91). We concur. Far too often sermons are made up of “all sorts of incidentals that carry no authority.” And such an understanding also ought to put to rest the myriad discussions that attempt to correlate science and Scripture (see Proposition 4). Rather, what must be preached is what the biblical authors are doing with what they are saying: that alone carries authority and that alone changes lives for the glory of God by the power of the Spirit.

Other propositions in this volume helpfully engage the hearing-dominant culture of the ancient Near East and the distinctives of the oral and literary worlds of the Old and New Testaments, helping the reader “understand better how both the Old and New Testaments were spoken, written and passed on” (9). In sum, this book is an excellent tool for students and teachers of biblical studies. The discussions are comprehensive and substantial, providing extremely useful background material for biblical interpretation of any genre of either Testament. The Lost World of Scripture carries lots of bang for the buck. It is high time for a book such as this and we are glad it has been written.

[This review was co-written with Sawyer Nyquist.]

Bibliotheca Sacra 172 (2015): 234–36

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