It's unsurprising that virtually every Christian catechism is founded on the authority of the Bible. But there are many ways in which this authority can be understood: does it mean that the Bible is infallible? What does it mean for scripture to be inspired, or God-breathed? Were the ancient prophets any more than human typewriters?
In a series of carefully considered propositions John Walton and Brent Sandy explore the concept of Biblical inerrancy using the evidence of scripture, history, and ancient culture. Working up from basic affirmations of inspiration, they demonstrate that the Bible's claims about its own origins are consistent with ancient literary culture, leading the reader to a more nuanced understanding of what it means for the Bible to be the word of God.
Central to their theme is the idea that inspiration is best understood in terms of authority, rather than as a seal of approved facts. Reading the Bible as a divinely ordained history or science book sets modern expectations of how the Bible should be approached and used, risking disillusionment when scripture subsequently refuses to adhere to the standards imposed upon it.
What to expect
The book1 is divided into four major parts. First the reader is introduced to the Old Testament world of composition and compilation, an informative tour of ancient literary culture and how it affects our understanding of how the Old Testament was formed. A slightly longer second part repeats the formula with respect to the New Testament.
I found that part three was the most refreshing, building on the material in parts one and two to describe a range of different Biblical genres, and what these mean for inerrancy. It's here that the most useful perspectives are introduced. Speaking of Old Testament narratives, Sandy and Walton explain:
...we often attach the label historiography to literature that we expect will help us to determine what "really happened". We are often interested in historical reconstruction. As interested as we might be in that pursuit, however, it would be a mistake to presume that ancient narratives that we label historiography automatically have the same goal. - The Lost World of Scripture (pg 201)
Passages like these help the reader to frame the concept of inerrancy, setting bounds that naturally resolve the ambiguities inherent in shorter, affirmation-style statements of faith. Sandy and Walton neither attack nor amend such statements, instead painting the wider landscape in which such statements are made. This is a constructive approach; thought-provoking without being combative, helping the reader set aside their preconceptions and appreciate the complexities of inspiration in humility.
In the final part the authors propose a number of models of inspiration consistent with the evidence of ancient literary culture and literary genres. Though this was exactly what I was looking for when I picked the book up, the material in part three had been so revelatory that part four felt more like a victory lap: the concepts had been so thoroughly addressed that the mechanics felt a little irrelevant.
Whilst The Lost World of Scripture is an extremely well researched book, it introduces a lot of contextual material that is likely to be outside the reader's area of expertise. Footnotes provide additional references and narrative, enabling the reader to find and review source material at their leisure.
However, I found the sheer volume of these references slightly overwhelming, and had to pick and choose carefully which ones I would follow up. It's hard to fault an author for providing too much evidence for their case, but I'd have appreciated a little more context (either in the content or footnotes) critiquing the source material that formed the basis for Sandy and Walton's conclusions.
If you're the sort of person who isn't content to accept conclusions without digging into the next level of detail, be prepared to do some legwork.
Should I read this book?
I enjoyed this book because it helped me to reconcile two apparently contradictory ideas: on the one hand, a body of issues that I am forced to concede are evident for a certain definition of error, and on the other a high-level statement of inerrancy typical to many community creeds. Maintaining this cognitive dissonance can be quite wearing and I was relieved to reach a level of understanding that I felt finally settled the issues in an honest way.
Based on my own experiences I'd therefore recommend the book to:
People who have reviewed the evidence of how Bible texts were transmitted, and are unable to reconcile this evidence with the ideas of inerrancy. This book will help you develop a more nuanced understanding of inspiration that maintains faith in this important foundation.
People in church leadership positions which involve teaching or building up the faith of others. This book will offer a range of perspectives and body of evidence for the authority of scripture that can be used to build a credible, rational faith in others.
People seeking to exercise their spiritual discernment by challenging their own understanding of textual transmission.
A word of warning though - this book is not for:
People who are content with their current, general, understanding of inspiration, and would risk loss of faith if this were challenged.
People who do not believe they will be edified by the assessment of complex, often academic, arguments that may not arrive at a definitive "solution".
This book is designed to broaden your understanding of inspiration, and it will probably do so whether you want it to or not.
Walton, John H. and D. Brent Sandy. The Lost World of Scripture: Ancient Literary Culture and Biblical Authority. Downer’s Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2013. 320 pgs. £18.63. Paperback. 978-0-8308-4032-8. ↩