Part 1, Proposition 3 – Effective communication must accommodate to the culture and nature of the audience
Walton here tackles the prickly issue of accommodation, an area in which he has greatly helped me in my understanding of Scripture me over the years. Essentially Walton argues that God has accommodated the medium of human communication as the avenue of interaction between Himself and His creation. In so doing, God has chosen a means that would in some respects be temporally and culturally bound. This is an unavoidable tenet of communication since people are a part of a culture in which language, customs, and other elements change over time. Walton cites Kenton Sparks here, who says “in many cases God does not correct our mistaken human viewpoints but merely assumes them in order to communicate with us” (40). This is the nature of accommodation—the communicator must speak in terms that are relevant to the recipient if they desire the communication to be important and to evoke a response.
Because some elements of the beliefs held by the ancients were bound by their time and culture, readers/hearers of the Bible’s accounts must be conscious of them and interpret them in light of the culture they depict. One of the ways Walton suggests interpreters do this is through Speech-Act theory, which basically suggests that “communication is an action with particular intentions” (41). There are three levels at which speech works in this theory: locution, illocution, and perlocution. The gist is that elements of the text, e.g. genre, words, sentences, rhetorical structures, etc., or locutions, embody illocutions, and this is where the question of inerrancy should be addressed. Walton (not surprisingly) offers the example of cosmic geography to illustrate his point: “God may well accommodate the 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” (42).
In general I think that Speech-Act theory is helpful as one tool in the interpreter’s bag, though various approaches and methods should be employed to get to the meaning in the text (Walton doesn’t suggest Speech-Act theory as the only method). At the same time, there is a balancing act here. This allows interpreters to hold to a high view of Scripture without attributing historicity or scientific accuracy to accounts in the Bible; yet, if taken too far one could be left with a collection of stories that have been gutted of their value as truthful historical accounts (albeit often told with a theological slant). As with most things, the devil is in the details.
Whether or not one accepts Walton’s arguments thus far, he has done a service for the larger community of interpreters, though his refrain will echo more loudly in evangelical circles. If nothing else, Walton helps readers of Scripture to understand better how communication works between differing cultures, a matter that becomes highly complicated when you toss in the idea of divine inspiration of texts that purport to record such communication. Walton doesn’t seek to end the debate over inerrancy and authority, but seeks to shine much-needed light on the discussion of these important matters, and this he does well.
“We are not free to take the communicator’s locutions (whether considered divine or human) and use them to formulate our own fresh illocutions and associated meanings—authority is compromised at best or lost entirely when we do that” (42). 3
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