The Stumbling Block of Inerrancy

What people often misunderstand

Christians usually use three words to describe the Bible: inspired, inerrant, and infallible. Now while I’ve done videos on the topic, wrote about the doctrines, and even addressed mistaken notions about it, I’ve never interacted with an articulated problem with it from the believing side of the equation. Well, I found one (h/t to FloridaLine in Twitter) from Randal Rauser, aka “The Tenative Apologist”, has a post on his blog titled, “Inerrancy: Still Hazy After All These Years”, that would seem to be worth looking at.

Randal begins with a little biographical information, telling his reader of his childhood spent in a, “Pentecostal fundagelical church where we prided ourselves on taking Scripture seriously.” Of course, Randal—like so many atheists who come out of similar backgrounds—seems to equate “taking Scripture seriously” with taking the most literal reading of Scripture that it allowed as good, pre-millennial dispensation allowed, including,”…a literal six days of creation to a literal thousand year millennium,…” Moving to the heart of the matter, Randal writes,

“Literal interpretation aside, if there was one doctrine that demonstrated our commitment to Scripture, it was biblical inerrancy. We thought of the Bible as a repository of propositions describing God and our relationship with him.

I would happily agree that Scripture is meant to be the means by which we know God. After all, Paul in his letter to Timothy writes,

“All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness,that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work. (2 Timothy 3:16-17, ESV)

We can say that this is a purposeful reflection, by the apostle, on the nature and purpose of Scripture. If we are to be able to make any positive arguments about the world or man in the world—as believers—we begin with what has been revealed by God, and the only authoritative source that we—as followers of Christ—have is the Bible. Randal continues,

“[The doctrine of] inerrancy promised that every one of those propositions was a fact. Since we imagined doctrine to consist of simple deduction from the Bible, inerrancy thereby provided confidence in the facts of Christian doctrine from creation to new creation. (Emphasis original)

I would agree—provisionally—with that assessment of inerrancy as a doctrine. After all, in point four of the Short Statement, from the Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy, it states,

“Being wholly and verbally God-given, Scripture is without error or fault in all its teaching, no less in what it states about God’s acts in creation, about the events of world history, and about its own literary origins under God, than in its witness to God’s saving grace in individual lives. (1)

Randal jokingly reflects on inerrancy as a tool used to expose liberal theology then suddenly shifts, “…if any view of Scripture is liable to the charge of Jell-O nailed to the wall, it is – ironically enough – that of inerrancy itself.” He continues,

“Indeed, once we begin asking some basic questions we soon find the doctrine dissolving before our eyes.

Well, does it? I guess that we will have to see if he can support his thesis.

Randal begins by asking a relevant question: Do we read the Bible in the original languages?

Obvious answer, unless you’re skilled in the original languages, is a resounding and emphatic, “No!” The vast majority of us are not familiar with or are able to read the original languages. We are dependent upon translations. Randal sees this as a problem, writing,

“[Very] few Christians are able to read the Bible in the original Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek languages. On the contrary, we almost inevitably read the Bible in translation. And as the saying goes, much is lost in translation. (Emphasis original)

It’s true that often something does not translate when you’re translating from one language to another. Situations of word-play, allusion, culturally specific metaphor, and numerous other language factors are often obscured either by the method of translation or cultural barriers. I would argue that this is where exegesis plays a vital role in interacting with Scripture. Having an understanding of historical, cultural, and linguistic backgrounds is vitally important to understanding any translated text, lest misunderstandings should arise. This is why it’s good to use multiple translations and even employ scholarly sources, like exegetical commentaries, to probe the text to make sure that you—the reader—understand what is going on. The fact that most people have to use a translation feeds Randal’s misunderstanding as he writes,

“That’s one reason that we are well served by using a variety of translations: the NIV, the NRSV, the ESV, the Message, and so on. But while many translations are useful, the fact remains that no translation is inerrant.

My question would be—aside from probably King James Onlyists—who is claiming that a translation is inerrant? I certainly wouldn’t make such a claim and neither is such a claim affirmed in the Chicago Statement, as the exposition on it declares,

“[No] translation is or can be perfect, and all translations are an additional step away from the autographa. Yet the verdict of linguistic science is that English-speaking Christians, at least, are exceedingly well served in these days with a host of excellent translations and have no cause for hesitating to conclude that the true Word of God is within their reach. Indeed, in view of the frequent repetition in Scripture of the main matters with which it deals and also of the Holy Spirit’s constant witness to and through the Word, no serious translation of Holy Scripture will so destroy its meaning as to render it unable to make its reader “wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus” (2 Tim. 3:15). (2)

The starting point of inerrancy—which is about the truth propositions of Scripture—begins with what is inspired: that being the autographs.

Under the heading, Do we have the autographa?, Randal writes,

“The problem, as I soon discovered, is that we don’t have the original copies of the biblical documents (what scholars call the autographa). Instead, all we have are copies of copies (of copies). To be sure, given the thousands of manuscripts in the early church, we can reconstruct the original form of the New Testament documents with a high degree of confidence. (Alas, the Hebrew Scriptures are a very different, and more complicated, matter.)

Sounds like Randal has been reading Bart Ehrman. Indeed it would seem to be a problem that we don’t seem to possess any autographs, or fragment of an autograph that we know of. But is it a problem?

“[If] we only possessed a single manuscript of the New Testament, there would be no discussion of scribal variations and changes we would not know of such things unless we compared one copy with another copy to see where they differ. Although such a scenario may, on the surface, seem desirable (because then we would not need to worry about debating which variants were original!), having only one manuscript would raise a substantial problem: how would we know that we possess, in this one single manuscript, the words which were originally written by the author? If this single manuscript were simply a later copy of the original (which is most likely the case), then there is a good chance that some scribal mistakes, errors, and other variants have slipped into the text during the copying process. With only a single manuscript in our possession there is no way to be sure that no words have been lost or altered. (3)

The problem is that we don’t have only one copy, we have thousands of copies, and not only original language copies, but we also have early translations that number in the thousands, as well as countless of citations in 2nd and 3rd century church fathers, some have argued enough to reconstruct the text simply from them, that we have confidence in what the original New Testament authors wrote. Indeed the Old Testament poses a different set of problems, however we have a thousand year time jump between what was the earliest Hebrew example and what is present in the surviving contents of the Dead Sea scrolls, which demonstrated that there was a strong, relatively consistent scribal tradition that preserved the text. For Randal though, this is a problem, because he writes,

“[R]econstructing the original forms of the texts with a high degree of confidence is not the same as having the inerrant originals. The fact remains that we only have the errant copies of the originals. (Emphasis original)

Randal seems to be confusing the means of transmission with the content of the transmission. As such, it becomes important to remember that,

“Belief in the inspiration of the original autographs does not require that every individual copy of the autographs be error-free. The question is simply whether the manuscript tradition as a whole is reliable enough to transmit the essential message…(4)

The doctrine of inspiration, from which inerrancy springs, helps us recognize certain facts about the means of transmission. The relative accuracy and multifocality of the manuscript tradition gives us a unique confidence,

“[The] wealth of manuscript evidence at our disposal (both in quantity and date) gives us good reasons to think that the original text has not been lost but has been preserved in the manuscript tradition as a whole.(5)

See: How Badly Has the New Testament Been Corrupted?

Randal’s next question, Do all books of the Bible trace back to an original (inerrant) autograph?, needs to be answered carefully. He writes,

“[Many] biblical books have a very complex history of development. A text like Genesis or Isaiah was likely formed over decades if not centuries; sections of text were written, revised, and gradually edited together by one or more redactors until they resulted in the books we have now.

The obvious answer would be that whatever would have been the final form of the text from which all existing copies descend would be considered to be the inerrant autograph. As Dr. Michael Heiser puts it,

“[If] we believe the final product is what God approved, we ought to judge the final product by its’ self-described intent (2 Tim 3:17) – our argument for inerrant truth is therefore with God, not his human agents.

The final product is the intention of God in making revelation of himself and his will, the means by which that occurs is also within his will, that included the processes by which the inspired text comes into being, which includes what would appear to be normal human practices.

Another problem Randal has is…well…a human problem: What good is an inerrant text in the hands of an errant reader? He writes,

“Finally, we come to what may be the most disconcerting and yet baldly undeniable fact of all: we are fallible readers.

Individually, the likelihood that our understanding is likely in error is higher than when we engage communally in the study of the text. The fact that no single person, outside of God, possesses all knowledge should be a rather humbling fact. Probably one of the most arrogant aspects of interacting with the Bible is the belief that any one person can understand all of it. The problem is that we have blind spots and we need the fellowship of other believers, who are also fallible, yet are indwelt by the Spirit of God, reasoning together to unpack and apply the truth of God in scripture. What’s funny is that Randal hints at the inadequacy of a single individual or a singular way of reading the text when he writes,

“[At] the beginning of this article I noted that as a fundagelical I learned to interpret the Bible literally straight from the six days of creation to the thousand year millennium. In university I majored in English literature and during that time I quickly realized that this is a terribly naïve way to read texts. The first step in interpretation involves the question of literary genre. And the Bible is no different in this regard. It is a complex library of texts written in a variety of genres and if we don’t begin by heeding the text and its context, we will be prone to some embarrassingly bad misreading.

So, Randal notes that it wasn’t until he learned something new, that his view of Scripture, more importantly his recognition that the Bible is not a singular work, but a “complex library of texts written in a variety of genres”, that he discovered he might have been misreading the text? And this has what exactly to do with the inerrancy of the text itself? Nothing. Absolutely nothing.

In his closing, Randal writes,

“It now seems to me that I was mistaken on all counts. The doctrine of inerrancy — at least as it is popularly understood — does nothing for the protection of doctrine which is not already secured by plenary inspiration. It turns out that its promise of maximal certainty is a chimera when considered in the light of human fallibility. And when it comes to guarding the boundaries of an orthodox commitment to Scripture, one might call the focus on inerrancy misguided at best.

Is inerrancy, as a doctrine, misguided? If it is then you can throw out inspiration and any belief in the authority of Scripture to define any doctrine, which makes apostles like Paul, who insists that the Scriptures are, “…profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness,that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work,” a lie.

Tripping over common mistakes

As I close, let me make a few things about inerrancy clear, and I want to take them in relative order to their discussion in the post.

1.Inerrancy does not apply to a particular interpretation. Far too often people will confuse what they think the text means or a particular traditional interpretation with an interpretation that is based upon new data drawn from archaeological, anthropological, or textual and linguistic insights. This can especially be seen in matters of creation or the flood. Most often, these kinds of interpretations are driven by matters of translation rather than a careful exegesis of the original language and context of the text. Any doctrine or teaching needs to be subjected to a thorough historical and textual examination.(6) Any interpretation from which a doctrine or teaching is derived must be coherent with the entirety of Scripture, by the guidance of the Spirit.

2.Inerrancy does not apply to translation. The job of a translation is to render a text understandable in another language. Translators do a fantastic job rendering the text, however it must be recognized that it is impossible to transport every nuance into another context. When it comes to the matter of translating the Scriptures, the facts that are translated carry the weight of the doctrine, since the doctrine of inerrancy is about the facts of revelation and not the means by which they are conveyed.(7)

3.Inerrancy does not apply to a single manuscript copy. Seeing as there is variance between individual manuscripts of various levels, it must be recognized that it is through the entire manuscript tradition that what is inerrant was transmitted. As a single witness cannot be used to establish a fact, a single manuscript cannot carry the weight of the doctrine.(8)

4.Ignorance on the part of the reader does not overturn inerrancy. A reader’s fallibility—through inattentiveness or ignorance—has no bearing upon a coherent doctrine of inerrancy. Apathy to history, cultural realities, or available resources, does not even begin to reproach the doctrine. Rather, it reveals our heart and the desire to subject the word of God to our understanding. Believers should equip themselves to understand the text through individual and corporate study.

Inerrancy, properly understood and properly applied, is a sound and secure doctrine. People like Randal, only stumble over it when they attempt to apply it to those matters where it was never meant to apply.

Notes

1. R. C. Sproul. Can I Trust the Bible?. p. xv

2. Ibid. p. xxviii

3. Andreas Köestenberger and Michael J. Kruger. The Heresy of Orthodoxy: How Contemporary Culture’s Fascination with Diversity Has Reshaped Our Understanding of Early Christianity. p. 315-6, emphasis original

4. Ibid. p. 342

5. Ibid. p. 345

6. See Michael S. Heiser’s book The Bible: Unfiltered for further discussion.

7. see Article XIV, Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy. Sproul. p. xix

8. see Article XIII, Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy. Sproul. p. xix

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