Reading Walton’s Views on Genesis, Part 4: Reworking Inerrancy

The third and final book of John Walton’s Lost World trilogy, The Lost World of Scripture (LWS), expands its scope from reading the first few chapters of Genesis to the whole Bible. Written together with New Testament (NT) specialist D. Brett Sandy, the book sets forth a more enlightened understanding of what biblical inerrancy should mean. There are only a few direct references to the previous two books of the trilogy, but the thrust of the book is clearly integral to finishing the project laid out therein. In a nutshell, Walton and Sandy urges us to read the entire Bible through the lens of the ancient cultures in which the Bible was first “written,” or rather arose. (This is a distinction which is central to the argument, as we shall see.) The main, crucial ingredient of this lens is the ancient literary culture of orality that dominated the recipient cultures of both the Old Testament (OT) and the NT. Combining this realization with speech-act theory, the new theory of inerrancy attempts to effortlessly explain issues such as variants in Biblical manuscripts and minor differences between Gospel narratives while retaining the high position of Biblical authority.

Inerrancy and infallibility is a hot button issue which has set off controversies and disputes within American evangelical Christianity. (An infamous case was when otherwise orthodox Christian historian and apologist Michael Licona was denounced for arguing that several passages in Matthew 27 were likely apocalyptic fiction.) The seriousness of the issue is reflected in the numerous assurances throughout LWS that despite some daring arguments about inerrancy, the authors are still evangelical “good guys.” Despite these disclaimers, many of the propositions put forth by Walton & Sandy break away from the more straightforward, “literal” approach to Scripture common in evangelicalism. An example is the notion of “original autographs” prevalent in discussions about inerrancy. Here is a quote from the famous Chicago Statement on Inerrancy, often used as a theological shibboleth in evangelical circles:

Transmission and Translation

Since God has nowhere promised an inerrant transmission of Scripture, it is necessary to affirm that only the autographic text of the original documents was inspired and to maintain the need of textual criticism as a means of detecting any slips that may have crept into the text in the course of its transmission. The verdict of this science, however, is that the Hebrew and Greek text appear to be amazingly well preserved, so that we are amply justified in affirming, with the Westminster Confession, a singular providence of God in this matter and in declaring that the authority of Scripture is in no way jeopardized by the fact that the copies we possess are not entirely error-free.

(Emphasis mine.) In contrast, W&S argue at length that this concept of “original documents” is anachronistic and not very meaningful in the context of an oral-transmission-dominant society, the one inhibited by the authors of the Bible. The argument for the Old Testament is developed in Part 1 of LWS, and New Testament in Part 2. Here we shall recap the core of their arguments.

Orality in the Old Testament

In the case of the Old Testament, the literature of ancient peoples were not created from an author penning their thoughts on a piece of parchment or papyrus and having the document copied and disseminated. Instead, authors such as Moses or Jeremiah are more accurately described as “authority figures” behind the text. They are the fountainheads from which the oral traditions sprang. The content inside the Pentateuch or book of Jeremiah originated with them, but the written document we have today only came into being after a transcription and compilation process by scribes (or “tradents,” bearers of tradition, to use W&S’s term). This is why it is not surprising that modern readers can seemingly identify sections of Genesis or other books that seem slightly disparate in style from each other, pointing to evidence of an editorial hand compiling and putting it together.

More controversially, the logical consequence of W&S’s view is that it is entirely possible that some sections of the Old Testament were expanded or interpreted by these scribal tradents. According to W&S, this is evident from what we know about early manuscripts including the Dead Sea Scrolls. Despite this perhaps alarming conclusion, W&S rescue their evangelical commitments by affirming that the Old Testament is still authoritative, inspired, and (more implicitly) inerrant: the difference is that the Holy Spirit guided and inspired the entire process of locution, transcription, and compilation, instead of just the initial putting of words of pen on paper which is the case in more conventional models of inerrancy. Unlike some modern scholars, they also affirm that the traditional authority figures behind the text actually existed: Moses, Isaiah, Jeremiah and others were indeed personally responsible for the books associated with them – the scribes, rather than being biased factions with agendas, were faithful towards transmitting the original traditions throughout the entire, perhaps centuries-long process.

Orality in the New Testament

The case of the New Testaement is not much different. Here W&S argue that both the Ancient Greeks (Herodotus, Thucydides, Socrates and other philosophers) and Jewish were steeped in oral cultures. In those times oral means of transmitting historical narrative and philosophy were often viewed as preferred and even more reliable than written document, which illuminates why Socrates never wrote anything down. Discussion was seen as critical to understanding, thus the idea of someone learning a philosophy from purely reading was unthinkable. In the case of the Jewish tradition, the Torah existed both as an authoritative text as well as an authoritative oral tradition transmitted through rabbis. This oral tradition allowed the Torah to respond to constantly changing circumstances throughout the ages.

Going forward, Jesus himself existed in a culture where orality was prevalent. W&S speculate that Jesus himself was able to read and therefore probably had a literacy level similar to a scribe, but typically only the elites – Pharisees and rabbis – were fully literate in the modern sense. Everyone else was illiterate and Jesus adapted his speeches to suit this, speaking with vivid parables, stories, and metaphors. Jesus frequently refers to his audience as having “heard” something (e.g. in Sermon on the Mount), but never as having “read” – this was reserved for the Pharisees and elite (e.g. Matthew 12:3: “Haven’t you read what David did when he and his companions were hungry?”). This illustrates another important point, that though most people were illiterate, religious texts (i.e. the Torah) still played an important part in people’s lives as they were read aloud and heard regularly. In W&S’s words, it was still a textual culture. This also illustrates why Jesus never wrote any of his own teachings down.

With all of this evidence for oral primacy in NT culture, we are moved to understand the NT books as similar to the OT: written texts whose function is to “merely” record the rich oral tradition prevalent in the oral-dominant culture, such that other communities and cultures could also appreciate it. This also solves the problem of the Gospels having a few apparent inconsistencies with each other, as well as hundreds of thousands of minor variants in wording: these are common when one seeks out multiple oral narratives referring to the same event. Again, W&S argue heavily that its fundamental origin in oral tradition does not diminish the authority of Scripture at all. Instead, the Apostles treated oral tradition as fully sufficient to faithfully transmit all the required teachings.

Assessing the Implications of Orality

W&S’s arguments for the primacy of orality may seem very striking to someone (like me) accustomed to thinking of the Bible as “inerrant in its original manuscripts”. However, similar to Walton’s argument for interpreting Genesis, this is a refreshing, rather than shocking surprise. W&S push us to reconsider how crucial it is that Scripture is tightly bound to its written, documented form. At first, this seems alarming. Many debates in Christian circles (not just academic ones, but also in your local Bible study) often come down to close micro-analysis of a passage of Scripture. This practice of “staying faithful to the text” is actively encouraged and taught in many different settings. In my own experience this has come up most prominently during Intervarsity-sponsored events, where inductive Bible study is heavily pushed. A passage is chosen for the session, and various words and phrases are circled and their implications are reasoned through. Discussion of other texts, even of other Bible passages, is discouraged until this initial phase is passed.

Inductive Bible study sometimes does yield fruitful results, in that close, slow reading of the text may reveal interpretive angles not seen in a “normal speed” reading. Adherence to the text also helps to keep discussion on the intended topic. However, some of my friends more versed in different Christian traditions (such as Catholicism) have complained about how constricting this process is, especially if one is well-read in theology and philosophy and feels very obliged to commit on the obvious connections between Scripture and hundreds of years of intellectual tradition. My own unsympathetic observation is wondering whether this strict adherence to the text has contributed to the deep suspicion that many Christian evangelicals have towards any literature other than the Bible or something by a contemporary, approved evangelical author.

These cynical observations aside, does inductive Bible study (or any practice of extremely close reading of Biblical text) even make any sense if we accept that there was no such thing as an original manuscript? If we embrace (instead of explain away) apparent differences and inconsistencies in the Gospels as being part of that oral tradition? My argument is that if we accept W&S’s arguments, then this weakens the already-shaky intellectual basis of extremely close reading of the Bible, although it does not necessarily diminish the authority of the Bible’s teaching as a whole.

First, we should realize how unnecessary the appeal to “original autographs” is in the conventional understanding of Biblical inerrancy. Such an appeal is only needed due to our culture being very text-based (as W&S point out) – we can only imagine the authorial process of the Scriptures as that of a typical modern work: a single author penning pen to paper their thoughts, presumably inspired by the Holy Spirit in some way. But this appeal doesn’t shed much light on why exactly we trust the Bible in its modern, transmitted form. After all, we don’t have the original manuscripts anymore. What we do have are two arguments that are the true pillars of Biblical inerrancy: first, that there is a strong case that the surviving manuscripts (and by extension, modern translations) are close enough to the originals. Second, we believe in a blanket argument that God’s providence takes care of any remaining doubts about errors in our earliest manuscripts that cannot be fully quelled by intellectual arguments based on OT/NT scholarship. Apparently this is enough to transfer the authority of the “original autographs” to the current copies of Scripture.

From here, W&S’s position can be accommodated very easily even in a traditional understanding of inerrancy: one can use a similar set of arguments to transfer authority from the living, dynamic oral tradition to that of the written document form that we have today. Just as we did before, we can examine early manuscripts and see whether they transmit the same teachings as modern translations. The only difference is that we will be unafraid to encounter variants in phrasing, grammar, or even minor inconsistencies, as long as they do not change the fundamental point of the specific teaching in the passage. (This is an important point: that we still take each passage of Scripture seriously, instead of subsuming them into a diluted, only vaguely Christian framework of moral and ethical principles.) We can also believe that God’s providence worked through the entire process of transcribing oral tradition – in fact, God’s providence would be even more important, as it encompasses the act of transcribing and to some extent interpreting the oral tradition, instead of just copying what was written in the “original autographs”.

In contrast, W&S’s position may undermine the relevance of extremely close reading and basing arguments on a specific wording of a phrase in the Bible. Inductive Bible study would have to be loosened up: it would not make much sense to do micro, word-by-word analysis. There is also less of a need to “harmonize” apparent inconsistencies between different Gospel accounts. However, Bible study does not become impossible. One can still closely adhere to the text, only that the smallest unit of analysis has to expand to passages and events instead of phrases. This isn’t an original argument: even in a traditional understanding of inerrancy, it doesn’t make much sense to do a very close reading unless one has access to the earliest manuscripts in the original Greek (or Hebrew) with all variants listed.

Some Christians might object that this undermines various moral arguments which have been traditionally based on a few specific passages of Scripture. However, this only points to the need to base our moral pronouncements on a holistic understanding of the Christian worldview and the Bible, instead of picking out isolated passages or verses. In Catholicism, such a framework exists in the form of natural law theory, developed mostly by Thomas Aquinas and based on metaphysics extending back to the days of Aristotle.

Final Comments

In Part 3, W&S develop their arguments further to the topic of genre. In a nutshell, they argue that ancient peoples would understand OT narrative, legal, and prophetic literature different from the way modern readers do. For example, instead of literal history, they would understand that the purpose of OT narrative literature was to present the world in a way that is meaningful to the readers. This is again in line with Walton’s argument in The Lost World of Genesis One that the purpose of Genesis is to give an account of functional, not material origins, because that was what the Israelites were concerned with. Again, W&S draw the line from modern, skeptical scholarship by arguing that their approach does not lead them to considering Moses and David as mere literary figures, simply because there are strong indications that the authoritative figures behind the OT books indicated through their words that these were to be understood as real historical figures.

In conclusion, Walton & Sandy present a well-developed new framework for understanding inerrancy, one which is notably easier to harmonize with the apparent difficulties of certain Biblical passages (including those with apparent contradictions between each other). One gripe I have about their book is that much of the argumentation to show that ancient cultures were an oral-dominant culture is simply asserted. There are examples given which are consistent with the assertions (e.g. pointing out that Socrates never wrote anything down, because obviously, he didn’t think it was important!). However, it would have been more convincing to do a more extensive analysis of more primary sources from the period(s), or elaborated on the arguments and evidence by which professional scholars conclude on the primacy of orality.

All in all, The Lost World of Scripture finishes the development of an updated framework to understand the Bible – one which places heavy emphasis on the culture in which the Bible rose, drawing attention to the different assumptions and context they had. This framework makes logical sense and is easier to balance with modern findings which seemingly put the traditional inerrant interpretations to doubt. Its weaknesses are the need to emphasize that ancient peoples were very different, intellectually speaking, compared to us, which may be hard to believe. (If it were true that people all used to care about only functional origins, at what point in human history did we start to get interested in material origins as well? Is the typical modern science curriculum in school sufficient to account for that?) More work needs to be done on developing arguments which support its fundamental premises, but the attraction of the overall framework is definitely there.

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