Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Inerrancy and illocution

I'm going to quote, then comment on Walton's theory of inspiration. I believe he initially discussed this in Reading Genesis 1-2, but has a more detailed discussion in the new book he coauthored with Sandy.
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).
The implied audience refers to the audience as the communicator perceives it. In the same way, the implied author refers to what the audience can infer about the "author" and his or her meaning from the communicative act. That is the audience cannot cross-examine or psychoanalyze the "author." HIs/Her meaning is determined by unpacking the communication that has been offered by means available in the language, culture, and context in which it took place.
By applying the tenets of speech-act theory, evangelical interpreters are able to associate the authoritative communicative act (God's illocution) specifically with the illocution of the human communicator. God's authority in Scripture is therefore accessible through the illocution of the human communicator–that is how God chose to do it.
Accommodation on the part of the divine communicator resides primarily in the locution, in which genre and rhetorical devices are included. These involve the form of communication. Yet our conviction is that even though God accommodates the communicator and his audience in the trappings and framework of locution, he will not accommodate an erroneous illocution on the part of the human communicator.
God may well accommodate the human communicator's view that the earth is the center of the cosmos. But if God's intention is not to communicate truth about cosmic geography, that accommodation is simply part of the shape of the locution–it is incidental, not part of God's illocution. In contrast, God will not accommodate a communicator's belief that there was an exodus from Egypt and speak of it as a reality if it never happened. God will accommodate limited understanding for the sake of communication–that is simply part of accommodation in the locution. But we would maintain that he will not communicate about how he worked in events (e.g., the exodus) or through people (e.g., Abraham) if those events never took place and those people never existed. Such accommodation would falsify his illocution and invalidate its reliability. Authority is linked to the illocution. Consequently there is a higher incidence of accommodation in the locutions; indeed that is entirely normal and expected. Authority is not vested independently in the locutions, and communication could not take place without such accommodation. In contrast, that which comes with authority (illocution) may involve accommodation to language and culture, but will not affirm that which is patently false.
We can distinguish "high context" communication as pertaining to situations in which the communicator and audience share much in common and less accommodation is necessary for effective communication to take place; this is communication between insiders.
In the contrasting "low context" communication, high levels of accommodation are necessary because one is communicating to outsiders.
We  believe that God has inspired the locutions (words, whether spoken or written) that the communicator has used to accomplish with God their joint illocutions (which lead to an understanding of intentions, claims, affirmations and, ultimately, meaning), but that those locutions are tied to the communicator's world. That is, God has made accommodation to the high context communication between the implied communicator and implied audience so as to optimize and facilitate the transmission of meaning by means of an authoritative illocution. Inspiration is tied to locutions (they have their source in God); illocutions define the necessary path to meaning, which is characterized by authority and inerrancy.
Even though people in Israel believed there were waters above the earth held back by a solid sky, or that cognitive processes took place in the heart or kidneys, the illocution of the texts is not affirming those beliefs as revealed truth.
We propose instead that our doctrinal affirmations about Scripture (authority, inerrancy, infallibility, etc.) attach to the illocution of the human communicator. This is not to say that we therefore believe everything he believed (he did believe that the sun moved across the sky), but we express our commitment to his communicative act. Since his locutionary framework is grounded in his language and culture, it is important to differentiate between what the communicator can be inferred to believe and his illocutionary focus. So, for example, it is not surprise that ancient Israel believed in a solid sky, and God accommodated his locution to that model in his communication to them. But since the illocution is not to assert the true shape of cosmic geography, we can safely set those details aside as incidental without jeopardizing authority or inerrancy. Such cosmic geography is in the belief set of the communicators but it employed in their locutions; it is not the context of their illocutions.
In conclusion then, God accommodates human culture and limitations in the locutions that he inspired in the human communicator, but he does not accommodate erroneous illocution or meaning. The authority of Scripture is vested in the meaning intended by the human communicator and given to him by the Holy Spirit, which is guided by an understanding of his illocutions.  
J. Walton & D. B. Sandy, The Lost World of Scripture: Ancient Literary Culture and Biblical Authority (IVP 2013), 42-47.
This analysis suffers from multiple problems:

i) Walton fails to explain how communication necessitates accommodation. This is not to deny that a communicator must sometimes accommodate his audience. But Walton lays this down as a universal principle.

ii) Even in cases where communication requires accommodation, it doesn't follow that communication, even at the locutionary level, requires erroneous accommodation. 

Suppose a child asks his parents where babies come from. The parent might accommodate the child by using an illustration. The parent might use the illustration of planting a seed in the ground. Indeed, the parent might actually do that, or have the child to that. Or, to be a bit more graphic, the parent might use a turkey baster to illustrate insemination. 

These accommodations employ analogies. But there's nothing inherently erroneous about using an analogy to illustrate insemination. Even though the parent is coming down to the child's level of understanding, the comparison can still be accurate.

iii) Walton fails to explain why divine communication necessitates accommodation. Perhaps the unspoken assumption is that since God is so different from man, divine revelation must resort to accommodation.

If so, that fails to distinguish what any particular revelation is about. For instance, an incorporeal God might use picturesque metaphors to disclose something about himself, viz. eyes, ears, arm. 

However, a statement about God causing something to happen in the world needn't be accommodated. Take this statement:

"So God created the great sea creatures and every living creature that moves, with which the waters swarm, according to their kinds, and every winged bird according to its kind" (Gen 1:21). 

That's a statement about the world. A statement about God making avian and aquatic life. But does that require accommodation? 

iv) Apropos (iii), if the communicator's world is the real world, why is accommodation required to describe the real world? If locutions are tied to the communicator's world, and that's the real world, why is accommodation even necessary at that level? 

v) Assuming for the sake of argument that ancient Jews believed in a solid sky, this is not just a question of what the Genesis narrator believed

Rather, according to Walton, he is using locutions to express his belief. He is committing his belief to writing. 

In that event, how can Walton drive a wedge between the narrator's locution and his illocution? He chooses those words with the intention of expressing what he thought the world was like. "Asserting" or "instructing."

vi) By Walton's own admission, the reader has no direct access to the narrator's illocution. Rather, the reader must access the narrator's illocution via his locutions. He choses those words and sentences to express himself. Yet according to Walton, that's erroneous. 

vii) In addition, Walton thinks the original (implied) audience believed in a solid sky. So another entry point would be what the statement meant to them. Yet according to Walton, that's erroneous as well. 

How can Walton distinguish the narrator's (allegedly) inerrant illocution from his errant locution? All a modern reader has to go by is the narrator's locutions, as well as the scientific understanding of the implied audience.  Those are the two reference points we have at our disposal. 

We can't bypass the narrator's locutions to directly access his illocution. Our interpretive clues are confined to the locutions as well as the epistemic situation of the implied audience. Yet according to Walton, both the locution and the understanding of the implied audience is erroneous.

So how is a modern reader suppose to discern God's illocution regarding the historicity (or not) of the Exodus? 

viii) If God is accommodating the misconception of the narrator and the implied audience, then the narrator intended his locution to purport a solid sky. That is what he meant to convey.

ix) Moreover, that is what he meant it to mean to his audience. That's the correct interpretation. That's how his audience is supposed to understand his locution. The narrator wrote with a view to be understood.

x) Not only does this make it hard to see how Walton can distinguish the narrator's errant locution from his (allegedly) inerrant illocution, but how he can distinguish God's inerrant illocution from the narrator's illocution. How can he distinguish what the narrator communicates from what God truthfully communicates through the narrator–if the narrator's locutions and illocutions are erroneous? 

God knows what the narrator intends to convey. God knows how the implied audience will construe the locution. 

According to Walton, the locution is false. So God inspired the narrator to use locutions which will mislead the implied audience into believing falsehood. 

According to Walton, the locution describes (or implies or alludes to) a solid sky. That's what the implied audience would take it to mean. And that interpretation would be right. 

Even though God knows the sky not to be solid, the narrator and the implied audience aren't privy to God's correct understanding. 

Not only is it impossible to see how Walton's illocutionary model can salvage inerrancy, but it makes God an inept communicator. 


  1. In light of the above discussion, how should we understand Num. 16:30-33?

    A prima facie reading of this passage would seem to teach that Sheol is literally and physically underground. Rather than a realm or dimension that's "below" and inferior to our reality in terms of existence.

    Another example. If one takes the conjuring up of Samuel's spirit in 1 Sam. 28 as being really Samuel rather than a demon, then it too implies that Sheol is underground.

    I suppose one way around this problem is to posit that some aspects of the spiritual world may be dimensionally superimposed or overlaps the physical world in some mysterious way. Think for example something like what's often depicted in science fiction books/movies/shows. For example, the Star Trek TNG episode The Next Phase (which can be viewed from HERE).

    The problem is that it's just that, a posited speculation. Atheists would argue a contrived ad hoc one.

    BTW, similar things could be said about Elijah's being taken up to heaven via a chariot of fire or of Jesus' Ascension into heaven. They were literally, physically and directionally, taken "up."

    1. I meant to post Num. 16:30-33 (ESV) [bold added by me]:

      30 But if the LORD creates something new, and the ground opens its mouth and swallows them up with all that belongs to them, and they go down alive into Sheol, then you shall know that these men have despised the LORD."
      31 And as soon as he had finished speaking all these words, the ground under them split apart.32 And the earth opened its mouth and swallowed them up, with their households and all the people who belonged to Korah and all their goods.33 So they and all that belonged to them went down alive into Sheol, and the earth closed over them, and they perished from the midst of the assembly.

    2. I think a prima facie reading simply teaches that they were buried alive. A crevasse suddenly opened up beneath them and swallowed them whole. Normally, people were buried after they died, not before. But this is miraculous divine judgment. This is how they die.

      "Sheol" is an ambiguous word with more than one meaning or referent.

      I've discussed the Ascension on several occasions.

    3. That's a good point about sheol having more than one referent. However, that doesn't address the apparently common belief among Jews during Biblical times that the dead were conscious in sheol which was underground. Scripture seems to almost teach it. There are also the "Rephaim." As you (Steve) know, the word in the OT sometimes referred to the giants and other times to the spirits of the dead. In the latter sense, there are passages in that directly or indirectly imply they are conscious underground. Admittedly, some of these passages may be poetic.

      5 "The departed spirits tremble Under the waters and their inhabitants. 6 "Naked is Sheol before Him, And Abaddon has no covering.- Job 26:5-6 (NASB)

      9 "Sheol from beneath is excited over you to meet you when you come; It arouses for you the spirits of the dead, all the leaders of the earth; It raises all the kings of the nations from their thrones. 10 "They will all respond and say to you, 'Even you have been made weak as we, You have become like us. - Isa. 14:9-10 (NASB)

      14 The dead will not live, the departed spirits will not rise; Therefore You have punished and destroyed them, And You have wiped out all remembrance of them.- Isa. 26:14 (NASB)

      21 The strong among the mighty ones shall speak of him and his helpers from the midst of Sheol, 'They have gone down, they lie still, the uncircumcised, slain by the sword.' - Ezek. 32:21 (NASB)
      [all bold by me]

      In the case of the conjuring up of Samuel from sheol, both the witch and Saul seem to believe that the dead are normally underground (1 Sam. 28:8, 11 [twice] ESV). Then the witch claims to see Samuel "coming up [from the ground]" (1 Sam. 28:14). Then "Samuel" asks (via the witch), "Why have you disturbed me by bringing me up?" (1 Sam. 28:15).


      10 so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth,- Phil. 2:10 (ESV)

      3 And no one in heaven or on earth or under the earth was able to open the scroll or to look into it,- Rev. 5:3 (ESV)

      13 And I heard every creature in heaven and on earth and under the earth and in the sea, and all that is in them, saying, "To him who sits on the throne and to the Lamb be blessing and honor and glory and might forever and ever!"- Rev. 5:13 (ESV)

    4. That fails to make allowance for mythopoetic imagery. I've been over that ground with Ed Babinski.

    5. Ah...okay. I'll do a search for mythopoetic imagery in the archives. Thanks Steve.

  2. This gets at what I was trying to point out to MelancholyDane. The illocution distinction is a rubber ruler.

    I see no rational basis given as to why the Exodus event couldn't have never really happened and we just find some illocutionary significance to that historical fiction. Seems like Walton just asserts that the illocution is tied to the locution in this instance. But why not Genesis? Walton asserts the illocution of the Genesis texts in question is not to affirm "those beliefs as revealed truth" ... but of course Walton can only know that from his 21st century vantage point. If Walton were a 1st century Jew, he would think the illocution and locution are just as tied as in the Exodus event. Because science has proven this cosmology false, Walton knows the illocution must be something else.

    So if archaeology proves an Exodus never happened, Walton will know the illocution must have been something different. If history uncovers the tomb of Christ and, lo and behold, it is NOT empty, Walton will know the illocution must have been something different. It's obviously a salvaging tactic in the face of (conceded) extra-biblical evidence.

  3. Necessary truths can't contradict. But must contingent created truths correspond/line up/match each other in order for them to be true? Why can't God, the owner and standard of truth, who is Himself the God of Truth/Amen (Isa. 65:16), and being the providential author of history (or "His story") and Scripture, write seemingly discrepant revelations? Why must General and Special Revelation match in every detail regarding contingent truths? Why should it matter if one is propositional and the other is physical? They are both God's revelation.

    It's not uncommon for even human authors to write stories that don't completely match yet we don't deny that those works were really written by the same author. For example, the Chronicles of Narnia seem to have discrepancies between the various books.

    Someone might retort that when that occurs in the oeuvre of human authors it's the result of error due to mental finitude. Since God is omniscient and omnipotent, that can't happen to God's creation and revelation.

    However, most Christians affirm the reality of Scriptural and theological paradoxes (c.f. James Anderson's Paradox in Christian Theology). If we can accept Intra-Scriptural paradoxes, why can't we accept Inter-Revelational paradoxes (i.e. between General Revelation in the physical World and Special Revelation in the WORD)?

    1. I suppose with this working definition and use of "truth", even if macro-evolution were true or if the Fall or the Exodus didn't occur in time and space, the Bible would still be true regardless. Admittedly, this approach would seem to mirror some of theories of Biblical truth propounded by unorthodox theologians in the early 20th century.

    2. I forgot to add something in the post before the one before this one.

      If God can ***intentionally*** inspire Scripture to have or lead to factual or theological paradoxes and seeming contradictions *within* itself, why not between Scripture and the physical universe?

    3. Walton isn't saying God inspires "seeming contradictions."