Why Affirm Biblical Inerrancy and Ignore Missing Original Manuscripts and Other Errors?

Sadly, it is no longer a surprise for Malaysians to come across pastors and seminarians who reject the historic doctrine of biblical inerrancy. The two common reasons given for rejecting inerrancy are (1) we cannot ignore the historical errors or discrepancies found in the Bible. Examples of discrepancies include the confused sequence of events describing Jesus’ healing of blind Bartimaeus, the death of Judas, Jesus’ cleansing of the Temple and Luke’s ‘erroneous’ dating of the Roman census at the time when Quirinius was the governor of Syria etc. and (2) we do not have the original manuscripts of the Bible. All that we have today are flawed copies.

(1) Alleged historical errors
These alleged discrepancies are straw men. We may conclude that the biblical text is in error only if we can demonstrate that it is in conflict with clear and unambiguous evidence given in other reliable historical sources.  However, the evidence from the extra-biblical sources remains inconclusive and its interpretation is disputed among scholars.  There is no necessity to presume that the biblical sources must be in error just because we are presently unable to integrate seamlessly the biblical accounts with other historical accounts. In instances where there is controversy among scholars (e.g. the conquest of Canaan by Joshua), there is room to maintain an agnostic position in the details, pending further information gleaned from more archaeological research and historical investigation.

One may even argue that the existence of ambiguities and apparent discrepancies are marks of genuine eyewitness reports. At least, we are assured that the eyewitnesses were not coached by a legal counsel or that the records have been refined by an editorial committee. Indeed, apparent discrepancies and surface incoherence are often encountered when we try to collate independent eyewitness accounts given in various historical records. It seems to be the case that critics of biblical inerrancy are only too eager to make hasty judgments against the Bible every time they come across an apparent discrepancy. Norman Geisler and Howe have identified some of the common mistakes committed by these critics:

1. Assuming the unexplained is not explainable.
2. Presuming the Bible guilty until proven innocent.
3. Confusing our fallible interpretations with God’s infallible revelation.
4. Failing to understand the context of the passage.
5. Neglecting to interpret difficult passages in the light of clear ones.
6. Basing a teaching on an obscure passage.
7. Forgetting that the Bible is a human book with human characteristics.
8. Assuming that a partial report is a false report.
9. Demanding that NT citations of the OT always be exact quotations.
10. Assuming that divergent accounts are false ones.
11. Presuming that the Bible approves of all it records.
12. Forgetting that the Bible uses non-technical everyday language.
13. Assuming that round numbers are false.
14. Neglecting to note that the Bible uses different literary devices.
15. Forgetting that only the original text, not every copy of Scripture is without error.
16. Confusing general statements with universal ones.
17. Forgetting that later revelation supercedes previous revelations.

Evangelicals have always been measured in their affirmation of biblical inerrancy. For example, Millard Erickson offers a nuance understanding of inerrancy, “The Bible, when correctly interpreted in light of the level to which culture and the means of communication had developed at the time it was written, and in view of the purposes for which it was given, is fully truthful in all that it affirms.” He adds that the doctrine of inerrancy applies in the strict sense only to the originals, but in a derivative sense to copies and translations, that is, to the extent that they reflect the original. /1/

This definition of inerrancy is elaborated accordingly:
1. Inerrancy pertains to what is affirmed or asserted rather than what is merely reported
2. We must judge the truthfulness of Scripture in terms of what the statements meant in the cultural setting in which they were expressed. We should judge the Bible in terms of the forms and standards of its own culture.
3. The Bible’s assertions are fully true when judged in accordance with the purpose for which they were written. This applies not only to the use of numbers, but also to such matters as the chronological order in historical narratives, which was occasionally modified in the Gospels
4. Reports of historical events and scientific matters are in phenomenal rather than technical language. The writer simply reported what was seen, how it appeared to the eye.
5. Difficulties in explaining the biblical text should not be prejudged as indications of error.

Sometimes it is possible to work out a plausible solution. However, if the historical data remains insufficient, we should refrain from fanciful harmonization. We are prepared to leave these difficulties unresolved, confident that the matter will be resolved when additional data becomes available. Meanwhile we remain optimistic that the difficulties will be clarified with new data. As Paul Feinberg explains in his classic definition of biblical inerrancy – “[W]hen all the facts are known, the Scriptures in their original autographs and properly interpreted will be shown to be wholly true in everything that they affirm, whether that has to do with doctrine or morality or with the social, physical, or life sciences.” /2/

Inerrancy is not just a defensive doctrine. It is the immediate implicate of the doctrine of inspiration which says that Scripture being God-breathed (θεόπνευστος), is the Word of God who cannot lie. Inerrancy is rejected by critics as an artificial theory that is vulnerable to the domino theory syndrome, “false in one, false in all.” This is surely a faulty generalization. The correct deduction should be “false in one, uncertain in all.” It is possible that one may continued to uphold the central doctrines of Christianity even though one has rejected inerrancy, but the foundation of one’s doctrine remains in doubt when it is not founded on the infallible authority of the Bible.

(2) Missing original copies
But some critics would retort, “If textual inerrancy is so vital to the doctrine of Scripture, why did God not preserve the autographa? Indeed, if inerrancy only applies to the autographa  then surely it is a somewhat pointless affirmation since we do not have the autograph?” That is to say, it is illegitimate to claim that the Bible is inerrant since we do not have the original copies. This criticism is famously echoed by Bart Ehrman in his book, Misquoting Jesus,

I kept reverting to my basic question: how does it help us to say that the Bible is the inerrant word of God if in fact we don’t have the words that God inerrantly inspired, but only the words copied by the scribes—sometimes correctly but sometimes (many times!) incorrectly? What good is it to say that the autographs (i.e., the originals) were inspired? We don’t have the originals! We have only error-ridden copies.

However, Peter Williams argues that Bart Ehrman’s criticism is confused and misplaced:

Ehrman claims that we do not have the words God inspired, but he has not demonstrated that to be the case. If John the Evangelist or his amanuensis wrote the letter sequence εναρχηηνολογος (John 1:1) then we have the words he wrote, whether we have the words in our minds or in a modern printed edition. One thing that Ehrman never seems to do is to attempt to show that we do not have (either in our minds or in manuscripts) all of the words that the authors wrote. In fact, the situation for the New Testament text is that there are no words that are known or even widely believed by textual critics to be missing from the New Testament text.

Though Ehrman does show what is widely known, namely that there are variants in the manuscripts, this does not amount to a demonstration that we do not have the words God inspired. To do this he would have at least to demonstrate that some words that were alleged to be inspired have been lost, and at most to demonstrate that all words that were alleged to be inspired have been lost…/3/

Ehrman’s critique simply assumes one may meaningfully talk about a text only if one is referring to its physical exemplar. But this is to ignore the distinction between “text type” and “text token”, where text token refers to physical aspects of the words (the ink marks in the parchment) while  text type refers to the bearer of the meaning intended by the author. The words that bear this meaning can be in the mind of the author (text type) or in the manuscript in front of us (text token). As such, the text type as the intended message or meaning of an author is not to be restricted what is directly accessible from the material copies that are transmitted to us.

We agree with Ehrman that we do not have the original text tokens (the manuscripts that contain the original words scribbled on the parchment), but modern textual criticism has given us great confidence that we are able to construct the original text type based on thousands of ancient manuscripts available today. For example, the UBS Greek New Testament assigns a “D” rating (on a scale of A to D) to  less than 1% of the variants. Notwithstanding the fact that the number of textual variants increases as we discover new ancient manuscripts, we share the confidence of Eldon Jay Epp when he writes, “The point is that we have so many manuscripts of the New Testament and that these manuscripts contain so many variant readings that surely the original reading in every case is somewhere present in our vast store of material.”/4/ Kurt and Barbara Aland explain, “The transmission of the New Testament textual tradition is characterized by an extremely impressive degree of tenacity. Once a reading occurs it will persist with obstinacy. It is precisely the overwhelming mass of the New Testament textual tradition… which provides an assurance of certainty in establishing the original text.” /5/ In short, we do have the original text type, even though we may not possess the original text tokens.

Critics have misunderstood Evangelicals to be ascribing the quality of inerrancy to a physical entity or ancient manuscript because it was somehow inspired by God. Hence, they presume that the doctrine of inerrancy would crumble with the loss of the autograph. However, for Evangelicals it was the words of the manuscript and not the manuscript itself that was inspired. The doctrine of inspiration-inerrancy pertains to the “inspired text” rather than the “inspired codex.” We may therefore confidently regard the inspired text that is recovered by modern textual criticism to be the inerrant Word of God.

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Recommended Seminal Works which Define and Defend Biblical Inerrancy
Critics of inerrancy choose to ignore the plausible explanations of alleged historical discrepancies because they seldom bother to engage with serious evangelical scholarship. Critics will persist in attacking caricatures of inerrancy until they interact seriously with some of the following works that define and defend the inerrancy of the Bible.

Norman Geiler, Inerrancy (Zondervan, 1979)
Earl Radmacher & Robert Preus, Hermeneutics, Inerrancy & the Bible (Zondervan, 1984)
Harvey Conn, Inerrancy and Hermeneutics (Baker, 1988)
N.B. Stonehouse and Paul Woolley, The Infallible Word (Tyndale, 1946)
E.J. Young, Thy Word is Truth (Eerdmans, 1957)

On alleged discrepancies of the Bible see, Gleason Archer, The Encyclopedia of Bible Difficulties (Zondervan, 2001). Archer remains a veritable resource on how to resolve alleged discrepancies of the Bible.

Finally, the latest Evangelical publication that interacts with recent criticisms of the Bible: D.A. Carson, The Enduring Authority of the Christian Scriptures (Eerdmans, 2016)

ENDNOTES
/1/ Millard Erickson, Christian Theology 3e (Baker, 2013), pp. 201-206.
/2/ Paul Feinberg, “The Meaning of Inerrancy,” in Inerrancy, ed. Norman L. Geisler (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1980), 294.
/3/ Peter Williams, “Ehrman’s Equivocation and Inerrancy of the Original Text,” in D.A. Carson ed., The Enduring Authority of the Christian Scriptures (Eerdmans, 2016), p. 395.
/4/ Eldon Jay Epp, Perspectives on New Testament Textual Criticism (Brill, 2005), p. 258
/5/ Kurt and Barbara Aland, The Text of the New Testament 2e (Eerdmans, 1989), pp. 291-292.

Part 2 – Why Affirm Biblical Inerrancy and Ignore Missing Original Manuscripts and Other Errors? Part 2: Debating with Bart Ehrman

Related Post: Inerrancy of the Bible: Defined and Defended. Part 1

One thought on “Why Affirm Biblical Inerrancy and Ignore Missing Original Manuscripts and Other Errors?”

  1. Understanding the difference between Text or words and text tokens or manuscripts is the primary issue we seldom understand. We have misunderstood the statements that the autographs are inerrant means the manuscripts we have cannot be.

    Thanks for that clarity expressed here. I must confess that I have entertained some form of agnostic position while preaching and reading the scriptures as if it is inerrant. There are issues of course. Hope to discuss with you if there’s time.

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