My recent post on inerrancy —Getting Clear About Biblical Inerrancy — generated some discussion on Facebook. Within that discussion, two friends asked some good questions that I need to be addressed. Instead of writing a lengthy response in the comments section on Facebook, I thought I would devote a post to responding to their questions.
Why Bother With Inerrancy?
One friend asked this:
What [goes] wrong with Christianity if the Bible was just written down by people?
So why stress inerrancy? Here are two reasons why the divine origins of Scripture and the inerrancy matters:
First, inerrancy, as I understand it, is what you might call a protective doctrine. It’s meant to protect an implication of another, more important, doctrine — namely, the Christian teaching that the Bible is the Word of God. The typical gloss on this (though I admit this isn’t a rigorous form of the argument) is something like: “God cannot affirm a falsehood; the Bible is the Word of God; therefore, a falsehood cannot be affirmed by the Bible.” Inerrancy safeguards that doctrine by safeguarding an implication.
Second, inerrancy protects the authoritative role of the Scriptures in the life of the church. Though Catholics and Protestants disagree on what else deserves to be on the same level as the Bible, they both agree that the Bible should be placed in the highest level of authority for the church. The early church made a distinction between Christian writings that were (merely) helpful and the Christian writings that were authoritative. (For example, see Eusebius’s Ecclesiastical History 3.25.1-7 for a categorization of early Christian writings.) Simply saying that the New Testament is the record of what humans saw would simply place them in a position of being helpful, not of being authoritative.
Third, most Christian theologians have taught that we cannot know God (or, at least, cannot know Him in a salvific sense) unless God reveals himself to humanity. The divine origin of the Scriptures is meant to secure that the Scriptures are one of the places of God’s self-disclosure.1 So if the Bible is merely a record of humans recording their religious insights and experiences, we lose this sense of the Scriptures as God’s self-disclosure.
I hope that is a sufficient-enough response — at least for now.
Where Are the Original Manuscripts?
Another friend of mine had two objections. I will deal with them one at a time. Let me start with his objection about the original manuscripts. My friend writes:
The first (and substantive) issue concerns his definition: to the best of my knowledge, no one has the original manuscripts. So, even if the original manuscripts “speak truly in all that [they] affirm,” this wouldn’t get us very far. Indeed, I don’t see how it gets us anywhere at all: if no one has access to the originals, then no one can know what the authors originally intended, and thus no one can verify that they are indeed inerrant in the first place. Of course, we can take it on faith that the manuscripts are inerrant (I believe that this is the orthodox approach in any case), but if we don’t know what it is that’s supposed to be inerrant, then we’re left with something like a single stair in the middle of a plateau: a useless growth that contributes nothing to its surroundings and even less to our understanding of them.
This is a great objection, because it highlights the importance of Kevin Vanhoozer’s qualification that the original manuscripts are inerrant, not the copies and translations. The important question is whether textual critics have a justified confidence that our current copies are very close to the originals. We need to make sure we do not overstate the problem. This blog post by the textual critic Dan Wallace discusses the confidence of textual critics that we have the originals. It’s not the case that every word in the New Testament can be honestly doubted. But there are some cases where the original wording was uncertain. When I look at church history, though, I find the amount of consensus on orthodox beliefs remarkable. Furthermore, most of the disagreements throughout history have been matters of interpretation, not matters of different groups using varying manuscripts.
Second, I think we have to resist the urge to require a Cartesian level of certainty for our belief that a certain verse was actually in the originals. I think we can justifiably believe that the vast majority of the New Testament is a reliable reproduction of the originals. And I think Christians should be intellectually satisfied with that.
Third, if inerrancy is a claim about the original manuscripts, then not having the original manuscripts does not make the claim invalid. You might reply that not having the originals means that we do not have access to the best source for determining if any teaching of the Bible is false. So we do not have access to our best source for falsifying the doctrine of inerrancy. But this is only true if my first and second points are ineffective.
Fourth, one might argue that the lack of certainty about the original manuscripts means that inerrancy adds no practical benefit. If we have no certainty that our current bible matches the originals, then it cannot serve as a inerrant guide. But I think this overstates what the reasonable Christian needs; the intellectual Christian does not need absolute certainty. They just need to have justifiable confidence that the current text is a faithful rendition of the original. Then the Christian can use the doctrines of inspiration and inerrancy to use the Bible as a highly reliable guide to what God has communited to humankind.
Anyway, I ultimately think this objection reduces to two questions: (a) how do you view the evidence about the textual reliability of the New Testament? and (b) do you require that beliefs (or even just important beliefs) meet a standard of absolute certainty?
Augustine and Science
Finally, my friend wrote:
Augustine couldn’t possibly have held the position that the Bible was free from “scientific” error, because science as a discipline did not exist at the time he was writing.
I both agree and disagree with this.
First, I agree that what Augustine meant by the Bible being free from “scientific error” is not what we mean. And I do think it was misleading for Vanhoozer to phrase it the way he did.
But I do think that the concerns that Augustine had would have driven him to assert that the Bible is without scientific error in our modern sense of that phrase. If I recall correctly, Aquinas said something similar. And the concern is that if God is the author of the Scriptures (that is, the Scriptures have divine origin) and God is the Creator of the world, then those two sources will not contradict one another.
So Augustine certainly was not thinking about our modern definition of science. That does not mean, though, that his commitments would not lead him to make a claim about our modern understanding of science.
I know this does not solve all the problems or difficulties with the Christian view of Scripture. But we don’t think enough about these difficult issues. I’m writing about these topics because I think we need to think about them more. So I appreciate my friends’ pushing me on this topic. And I hope that I have given them something to think about.
- The ultimate self-disclosure of God is the person of Jesus Christ. I worry that sometimes what Christians say about the nature of Scripture crowds out the preeminence of Jesus as center-point of God’s self-disclosure. With that qualification, Christians have defended Scriptures as another place that we encounter God’s self-disclosure. ↩
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