Taking the first point first. Van Inwagen's position is essentially the neo-Fregean view of assertion, namely that the same thought or proposition may occur now asserted, now unasserted, that I have criticised in many places, particularly here, arguing that assertion is part of the semantics of a sentence, and that every complete sentence (i.e. one that is not a subordinate or noun clause) can be analysed into a sign for the content of the sentence - that which it states or expresses, usually signified by a 'that' clause, and a sign for assertion or denial. Thus "Snow is white" = "It is the case / that snow is white". If this is correct, then even fictional sentences contain an assertoric component, and hence are capable of truth or falsity, independent of what the narrator means or intends when he or she utters them. This is exactly what Van Inwagen denies, and it is, of course, why he calls sentences vehicles of assertion.
The same view is defended by Alvin Plantinga (The Nature of Necessity, Oxford, 1974, Ch. VIII, pp. 153-163 especially), who cites a famous passage by the English poet Sir Philip Sidney (1554-1586).
Now for the poet, he nothing affirmeth, and therefore never lieth. For, as I take it, to lie is to affirm that to be true which is false; so as the other artists, and especially the historian, affirming many things, can, in the cloudy knowledge of mankind, hardly escape from many lies. But the poet, as I said before, never affirmeth. The poet never maketh any circles about your imagination, to conjure you to believe for true what he writeth. He citeth not authorities of other histories, but even for his entry calleth the sweet Muses to inspire into him a good invention; in troth, not laboring to tell you what is or is not, but what should or should not be. And therefore though he recount things not true, yet because he telleth them not for true he lieth not; without we will say that Nathan lied in his speech, before alleged, to David; which, as a wicked man durst scarce say, so think I none so simple would say that Aesop lied in the tales of his beasts; for who thinketh that Aesop wrote it for actually true, were well worthy to have his name chronicled among the beasts he writeth of.This is not right. For it is not true, as Sidney implies, that there is absolutely no gap between saying something false, and lying. There are at least two things in between. The dictionary definition of ‘to lie’ is ‘to utter something that is false with the intention to deceive’. Thus (1) in the case of stories, the narrator utters something he knows to be false, but with no intention to deceive. There is a compact between the narrator and his audience. The audience knows that these are falsehoods, the narrator knows that they know this, and both sides agree the same. This does not change the fact that the things said are (typically) falsehoods. And (2) in many cases a person uttering falsehoods does not know they are false, but rather believes sincerely in their truth, and so does not intend to deceive either. For example, a story about some miracle that (we will assume) cannot be true, but which the teller genuinely and sincerely and believes, and which, to paraphrase Sidney “he telleth for true”.
Someone who is not a Biblical fundamentalist must deal with the possibility that some or all of the events recounted in the Gospel are not literally true. If so, then according to Inwagen’s neo-Fregean view of assertion, one who recounts the Gospels is not asserting anything, and is not saying anything true or false. Clearly not: the fundamentalist, for one, will strenuously defend the literal truth of everything that is stated there. The ‘truth’ of the Resurrection is fundamental to Christian belief, and is even something a Christian has to publicly state they believe in.
Nor can Van Inwagen exclude such texts from his account. For his account is designed to explain the truth and falsity of statements of textual criticism, in which Biblical criticism must be included. For example, in “Discipleship and minor characters in mark's gospel” Joel Williams writes.
The main character groups in Mark's Gospel are the disciples, the opponents of Jesus, and the crowd. In addition to these groups, a number of individual characters are included in Mark's narrative. Some of them, such as Andrew or Peter, are disciples, while others, such as the high priest or Pilate, oppose Jesus. Also a number of minor characters function neither as Jesus' disciples nor as His opponents.The statements are clearly true, and they include the sort of quantification (“some of them … others…”) that Inwagen’s account is designed to explain. But they are inconsistent with one of his key assumptions, which is that ‘textual criticism’ statements are vehicles of assertion, whereas the sentences in the texts they are criticising are not.
I will discuss the second point about 'reference' later.