Let's have a talk about inerrancy.

A few days ago I happened upon a statement about biblical inerrancy in Bob Godfrey's little book, An Unexpected Journey, Discovering Reformed Theology, which has left me somewhat puzzled.  I've read it over several times and yet find myself with more questions than answers:
"Today that attack on the full trustworthiness of the Bible comes in many forms.  Some see the Bible as simply a record of human religious experience from which one may or may not learn something useful.  Others believe that the Bible contains the Word of God in the midst of other human thoughts that are not true.  Still others believe that the Bible is the Word of God, although flawed with a few errors.  All of these approaches to the Bible require that we as students become the judges of Scripture, separating truth from error.  But God has revealed his Word to be the judge of our thinking and living.  His Word is completely true and shows us the errors in our lives.  For sinners to stand in judgment of the trustworthiness of any part of the Scriptures is to let the prisoners run the prison.
 "In response to these various attacks on the Scriptures, Bible-believing Christians...have come to refer to the Bible as inerrant - that is, without error....I learned that the Bible was inspired by God, breathed out by him (2 Tim. 3:16), so it is as free from error as God himself is." (emphasis mine)
Let me preface my questions with the statement that I am not an expert on Biblical inerrancy, nor have I read extensively on the subject. I have a basic understanding of textual criticism, along with a some understanding of the challenges of the translation process. I don't approach the Scriptures with the intent of finding falsehood in them. In fact, I approach them with a heart full of confidence.  I consider the Scriptures to be God's words to man and the authoritative guide of my life, thought, and faith. Yet will all that said, I find Godfrey's statement confusing rather than helpful.  I understand his point, which is that we view the Bible as the Word of God, accepting its authority over our lives rather than trying to discount it or explain it away.  With that point I am in full agreement.  It is the unqualified statement he ends with which leaves me with a host of questions.

Let me illustrate the first of my questions, if you will, with a hypothetical one.  Early in my Christian life, I used to like to write out entire books of the Bible by hand.  Somewhere around here is a copy of Romans in a pretty spiral notebook.  In another is all the writings of the Apostle John in my own cursive. I don't remember if I have any others or not, but suppose I did.  Suppose I had copied the whole Bible in this manner and then tucked it away somewhere.  Suppose also that I was not the only nut on the planet writing out entire books of Scripture for personal devotion, that in fact there were quite a few.  Then suppose there was a sudden and cataclysmic persecution of Christianity, which led to Scriptures all over the world being destroyed, except these handwritten texts, overlooked simply because they looked like ordinary notebooks or journals and nothing at all like Bibles.

In such circumstances Christians, in desperate hunger for the Scriptures would furtively seek out gather, copy, and redistribute whatever they could get their hands on.  But here is a problem, I know that when I hand-copied books of the Bible, I made a few errors - missed words/phrases, duplicated words/phrases, possibly some misspellings, you get the idea.  I think I was able to catch and correct most of them, but it's likely some errors remained. I'm not even certain all my copies were from the same version of the Bible.  I did not use any paraphrases, to be sure, but some of the other copies floating around, handwritten by others may have come from these sources, or may not have been so carefully copied.

The scenario I've just painted is hypothetical (except for my handwritten books of the Bible - those exist), yet it really is the story of the Bible.  It is through similar circumstances over the course of thousands of years that the Bible has endured.  So, my question is this: at what point is a Bible a Bible, or not a Bible? Does the hand-copied compilation of books, even though it contains some errors, count?  What if no "genuine" or "original" Bible can be found for comparison and correction - does what has been copied cease to be the Word of God? If we manage to compile a purportedly complete collection of all the books of the Bible, is it wrong to check its accuracy?  Would Godfrey call this "sinners standing in judgment" or "prisoners running the prison"?  I don't think he would; but what does he mean?

Can you understand my quandary here?  I grew up with the RSV Bible, and still do a lot of my reading from it.  I know, however, that it had a couple of problematic word translations which other versions, like the ESV, have since sought to improve upon. My ESV and NIV both bracket off the last bit of the Gospel of Mark (16:9-19) and note it as a likely later addition.  They do the same with a favorite of many - the story of the woman caught in adultery.  These are the kinds of discrepancies, that can cause even well-meaning people to question the trustworthiness of Scripture.  These are the kinds of things scholars, whose life calling over the ages has been to preserve the integrity of the Bible, have worked all that time to clear up.  They are trying to get us as close to the actual original text as possible, but they would likely be the first to admit that what we have now is not "perfect".  It is extremely close, closer than likely any other historic document to its original, and all key doctrines are preserved throughout; yet there is clear evidence that it has passed through the hands of thousands of imperfect men.  That is one of the great wonders of Scripture - that it is so clearly handled by filthy men, and yet so clearly preserved the Holy and pure word of God. 

And so, what am I to do with a statement as simplistic as this: "it is as free from error as God himself is"?

I welcome your thoughts.


Joel Radford said…
You might find it helpful to read the Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy - signed by the all the good guys :)

It is generally understood by theologians that only the autographs (original writings) are inerrant. Your copies under your bed would not be considered inerrant.

Quote from the statement: 'Since God has nowhere promised an inerrant transmission of Scripture, it is necessary to affirm that only the autographic text of the original documents was inspired and to maintain the need of textual criticism as a means of detecting any slips that may have crept into the text in the course of its transmission. The verdict of this science, however, is that the Hebrew and Greek text appears to be amazingly well preserved, so that we are amply justified in affirming, with the Westminster Confession, a singular providence of God in this matter and in declaring that the authority of Scripture is in no way jeopardized by the fact that the copies we possess are not entirely error-free.'
Laurie M. said…
Thanks Joel. I'll check out that document. You've fairly well described my own view of Scripture, and your statement "it is necessary to affirm that only the autographic text of the original documents was inspired" is, if recall the statement of my church's membership covenant (though I can never seem to find that thing whenever I turn to refer to it!). Godfrey's wording, I believe in an attempt to condense the teaching - and to focus on the authority of Scripture, really muddied the waters for me.

I may open another discussion soon on paraphrases. But that's a whole 'nother can of worms.
Anonymous said…
Good post, Laurie. I agree with your view of inerrancy. You can find the Chicago Statement on Inerrancy and some other good articles and documents at Monergism.com:

J.Random said…
If only the original autographs were inerrant, then not only have we never had inerrant copies -- but Jesus and Peter and Paul and all the others never had inerrant autographs either, since the originals of the Old Testament books had long been lost by then.

And by the time the New Testament canon was agreed upon, all the New Testament originals had been lost.

Therefore, an inerrant Bible has *never existed*...

I think the quest for it arises out of a false need to elevate something physical and tangible to the level of God. It's easier to worship and obey a text than it is to remain in constant communion with the Holy Spirit who inspired that text.

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