Thursday, July 26, 2012

Scripture, Inerrancy, and its Detractors

The doctrine of the “Inerrancy of Scripture” claims that in their original writing, Scripture was fully God-breathed and without error, as many verses affirm:

  • All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that the man of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work. (2 Tim. 3:16-17)
  • Above all, you must understand that no prophecy of Scripture came about by the prophet's own interpretation. For prophecy never had its origin in the will of man, but men spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit. (2 Peter 1:19-21)
However, many have faulted this doctrine, claiming that we can’t even begin to talk about inerrancy without the original writings in hand. New Testament Critic Bart Ehrman is one of them:

  • What good is it to say that the autographs [the originals] were inspired? We don’t have the originals! We have only error-ridden copies. And the vast majority of these are centuries removed from the originals and different from them…(Bart Ehrman and Daniel Wallace in Dialogue: The Reliability of the NT, 86)
Does the fact that we do not have the originals present an insurmountable obstacle? I don’t think so. For one thing, we have the overwhelming affirmation of Scripture that it is all God-breathed. We also have reason.

When we look at a sunset, we also do not see (or have) the “originals.” We do not see directly what we are looking at. Instead, we “see” an electro-chemical mental reproduction – a “copy” – of the “original.” Our eyes break down the incoming light – and the light is not even the seen objects – into millions of simultaneous electro-chemical reactions that are transported into the depths of our brain, and immediately we have a trustworthy series of images of the external world.

Although we cannot literally see the external world, we have a trustworthy facsimile of it. This facsimile or “copy” enables us to drive our cars and make thousands of appropriate decisions every minute.

Can we therefore say that there exists a stable, fully reliable and believable external reality, even though we cannot directly apprehend it? Certainly! Likewise, can we say that there exist fully reliable and believable inerrant originals, even though we don’t possess them?  Why not?

Ehrman might challenge the analogy in this manner:

  • When it comes to the Scriptures, we have thousands of textual variants among the 5,800 NT manuscripts and fragments. There are no “variants” when it comes to the external world.
However, such a response misses the point of the analogy. Ehrman’s point had been that “We don’t have the originals.” Therefore, it is not possible to talk about inerrant originals. However, we can talk about a totally reliable external reality even though we can’t directly see it. Even though we don’t directly have the originals, we can still assert that they are/were fully reliable.

Besides, we see reality in “variant” ways. However, despite this very obvious fact, we should not conclude that reality is “variant.” Nor should we conclude that our textual variants in any way undermines the doctrine of “inerrancy.”

Of course this raises another question:

  • Even if the originals are inerrant, in light of the many textual variants, can we say with any confidence what the originals looked like?
While the radical critic Ehrman would answer “no,” the faith of many has only been reaffirmed through the study of the variants. NT scholar William Warren writes:

  • I would say that our [present composite NT] text almost certainly represents a form that is almost identical to the original documents. (122)
Another NT scholar, Craig Evans, affirms the same thing:

  • Given the evidence, we have every reason to have confidence in the text of Scripture. This does not mean that we possess 100% certainty that we have the exact wording in every case, but we have good reason to believe that what we have preserved in the several hundred manuscripts of the first millennium is the text that the writers of Scripture penned.
Similarly, NT textual critic Silvie Raquel writes:

  • I also have studied New Testament textual criticism and, by contrast with Ehrman, have found confirmation about the validity of the text…by defective reasoning, misuse of the evidence, and a misconception of inerrancy, Ehrman fails to build a case for the unreliability of the New Testament text as a sacred and inspired text. (173, 185)
Don’t think that this question of “inerrancy” is just a stale and irrelevant academic disagreement. It is essential to our lives. If we are convinced that the Bible isn’t entirely trustworthy, then we are doomed to always have to decide what parts of Scripture we are to trust and what to discard as untrustworthy. Consequently, instead of Scripture judging us, we are judging Scripture. Instead of Scripture reigning over us, it is our judgment that reigns over Scripture. And if our judgment is more reliable than Scripture, well, we might as well just read the New York Times!

However, all of the books of Scripture regard Scripture as supreme and authoritative.  Isaiah would certainly agree:

  • The grass withers and the flowers fall, but the word of our God stands forever. (Isaiah 40:8)
Only God’s Word can stand forever, despite Bart Ehrman’s protestations

(My thanks to W. Gary Crampton’s review of the Ehrman-Wallace dialogue in The Trinity Review)   

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