Most evangelical Christians believe in the inerrancy of Scripture. By this we mean the Bible is completely without error in everything it affirms as true, including details of history or science. It’s not uncommon to hear some of us stipulate that it’s the original manuscripts (or what we call the ‘autographs’) that are inerrant. And it’s just as common to hear the challenge of those who reject inerrancy: “Yeah, but we no longer have these supposedly inerrant original manuscripts. So what good does that do us now?” Is this as devastating a problem for inerrancy as they seem to think? Let’s take a closer look at this challenge.
(I should first point out that we don’t have the original manuscript of any piece of literature from antiquity. All we have are copies. I don’t want anyone to think that the manuscript evidence for the Bible is somehow deficient. Actually the New Testament is the most well-attested literature we have from antiquity. For more on this, see here.)
Underlying this challenge is a bit of confusion that is actually quite easy to clarify. Is it the physical materials constituting the original manuscripts (which we no longer have) that are inerrant? No, of course not. It’s not as if we’re seeking to venerate the physical manuscripts as some kind of holy relics. So, what are we claiming is inerrant? The text of the original manuscripts. It’s what was written on these autographs that is inerrant, not the manuscripts themselves. Do we still have the text that was written on the original manuscripts?
Before answering that, let’s make sure we understand the implications. This is another case where the evangelical critics of inerrancy are arguing too much. According to their view, Scripture does not need to be inerrant, but it is divinely inspired and theologically infallible. But what exactly are they claiming is inspired and infallible? The written Scriptures. (Note that I’m referring to evangelical critics of inerrancy, who would still hold to an authoritative text of Scripture.) And what do we need today if we are to read the inspired, infallible Scriptures? We need translations that faithfully relay the inspired and infallible message of Scripture as originally written.
Do you see the problem here? If, as these critics claim, we no longer have the original inerrant text—because we don’t have the autographs—then we also no longer have the original inspired text or the original infallible text! You can’t have it both ways. Both sides are just as dependent on a faithfully preserved text that conveys the original reading of Scripture. I don’t know any evangelical critic of inerrancy who would accept the idea of an unreliable Bible that isn’t divinely inspired or infallible. Once again, we see them trying to saw off the branch on which we both sit—even if they don’t realize it.
Thankfully, we can be very secure in our reading of Scripture. For instance, less than 1% of the New Testament is in any doubt as to its original reading. And most of these uncertain passages involve very minor differences in wording. There are no Christian teachings that rely on this minuscule group of passages.
Then why do inerrantists make this caveat? This is simply to remind all of us: It is the original text that is inspired, infallible and inerrant. This keeps us from designating one translation (such as the Latin Vulgate or the King James Version) as the standard. It keeps us doing the hard work of faithfully translating the original text so that we can read the inspired, infallible and inerrant Scriptures.
So is the lack of original manuscripts a problem for an inerrant text? No more so than it’s a problem for an inspired or infallible text. To the extent our Bibles faithfully translate the original text of Scripture, to that same extent we confidently read today the inspired, infallible and inerrant message that was written down by the biblical authors.