Arguments against inerrancy that don’t work: “But we don’t have the original manuscripts”

woman-shrugging-shoulders-oMost 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.

A Bible that’s infallible but not inerrant: A credible option?

magnifying-glass-162886_640Is the Bible completely without error, or is it sometimes mistaken about historical or cosmological details? And just how significant is this question? If you do much reading or discussing with other Christians, you’ve probably encountered the growing controversy regarding the nature of Scripture. Part of the divide between evangelical Christians and liberal Protestants in the early 20th century involved their respective views of Scripture. Increasingly today, though, this is a debate taking place between evangelicals.

The primary views have coalesced around two identifying terms: inerrancy and infallibility. The way these words are used can be confusing to those new to this debate because they’re usually defined as synonyms. But among evangelicals the words have taken on differing nuances. The traditional (many would say historical) view is that Scripture is both infallible and inerrant—meaning that it is both trustworthy in accomplishing God’s purpose and also completely free from error in everything it affirms, including details of history and science. Most who hold this view believe it follows naturally and necessarily from the divine inspiration of the Bible; if all Scripture is God-breathed it must be both infallibly trustworthy and free from error.

The differing view is that the Bible is completely trustworthy and infallible as far as its theological message is concerned, but that it was never intended to be free from incidental and mistaken details of history or science (and that it does indeed include such errors). Some label this view as “partial inerrancy,” the difference being how much of Scripture is error-free, and from what kinds of error the Bible was preserved.

The purpose of this post is not to argue for or against inerrancy (so please resist doing so in the comments). Discussions about the infallibility view tend to become focused entirely on disproving or defending inerrancy. But my interest here is to explore the question (regardless of whether the Bible actually contains error): Is the infallibility view even a plausible option? Here are a few reasons why I haven’t found this view to be credible:

Special pleading
You’ve heard the old saying: “What’s good for the goose is good for the gander.” It means the rules for you should be the same as the rules for me. If I’m allowed a certain leeway, so should you be. To apply a different set of rules for me than is generally applied for everyone else is called “special pleading.” The proponents of the infallibility view are asking for a level of trustful acceptance I don’t think they would ordinarily accord other religions. Let’s be clear, we’re being asked to accept writings that allegedly contain blatant factual errors as divinely-inspired and infallible Scripture. But would any of us so easily dismiss errors in the Book of Mormon, or inconsistencies in the Qur’an?

Imagine a group of people claiming that Gandhi was God incarnate, that he rose from the dead and that all people must be saved through faith in him. They further claim that his closest followers wrote accounts of his death and resurrection, and these accounts tell of his teachings, of the nature of salvation, and give instructions regarding how his followers should corporately live out this faith. But—they say—these aren’t just the fallible, human writings of these people, they constitute the divinely-inspired Scriptures that infallibly explain and define spiritual truth and that authoritatively determine the community life of Gandhi’s followers. So you check out these writings, but you begin to notice far too many blatant mistakes and contradictions regarding pertinent historical details and matters of science. Now, you might still consider these accounts as historically significant, and you may even regard them as containing spiritual insights—but would you accept them as the infallible words of God himself? I think that’s doubtful. If you truly believe these writings contain errors, it’s unlikely you’ll accept them as completely divine. (Witness both the challenges to the Book of Mormon and its defense.)

Not long ago a prominent scholar was asked why he believes in an infallible, but not inerrant, Bible. He answered that he believes this about Scripture because of the internal witness he’s received from the Spirit. Others challenged him that this sounds disturbingly similar to the Mormon “burning in the bosom” (which is supposed to confirm to skeptics that Mormonism is true). They asked how the two are different. His response? “One is from God and the other isn’t[!]” This puts us in the untenable position of telling the Mormon ‘my subjective inner feeling is valid but yours is not.’ And what of those who have an inner testimony from the Spirit that the Scriptures are inerrant? This is special pleading, applying different standards to one’s own view. To use a different old expression, it’s “trying to have one’s cake and eat it too.” In my days as a skeptic, I would never have accepted this idea of a factually errant but divinely infallible Scripture, from either a Latter-day Saint or an evangelical Christian. I would not have found either remotely credible.

A “lesser to greater” problem
When Jesus was taking with Nicodemus, he asked him (in John 3:12):

If you don’t believe me when I tell you about earthly things,
how can you possibly believe if I tell you about heavenly things?

That’s a good question. Some protest that we trust textbooks and the constitution without them necessarily being 100% error-free. But these people are missing the point. No one accepts our constitution or a textbook as divinely inspired Scripture. We don’t grant them the same kind of authority in our lives as the Bible. If a textbook is wrong, we correct it. If the constitution is inadequate, we amend it. It’s not the origin of these documents that gives them even their limited authority—it’s our acceptance and affirmation of them as a society. Unless we’re to accept the Bible as merely a majority-ratified authority that can be amended and modified when we feel the need, the comparison is not valid. And this leaves us with a similar question to the one above:

If the Bible can’t be trusted to tell us about earthly things without error,
how can we possibly trust it to tell us about heavenly things without error?

Can I get a witness?
As I mentioned above, the case for infallibility seems to be all about the case against inerrancy. Every time I’ve asked why someone holds this view I get an earful about why inerrancy is all wrong. Maybe they’re right. Maybe the Bible contains undeniable error. The problem is that disproving inerrancy does absolutely nothing to establish infallibility. Yet these discussions inexorably lead to attacking inerrancy (often using very poor reasoning, but that’s another post).

The only reason I’ve heard for accepting this view is the claim of some subjective inner feeling (as I mentioned above), or the indignant reminder that the Bible is both divine and human. I guess this is meant to prove that Scripture necessarily contains error because of its human aspect. But Jesus was both divine and human, yet he never sinned. Why is this not similar with the written Word of God? Why can Scripture not be both divine and human, yet without error? We still await a case to be made, and simply saying that Scripture is also human doesn’t establish anything. Why would God supernaturally preserve the human writing of Scripture from any theological error but not bother to preserve it from factual error (especially when factual error would call into question the veracity of the theological content)? Assuming, for the sake of discussion, that the Bible does contain these historical and/or cosmological errors—we still need answers to these questions:

Why should we accept factually erroneous writing as divinely inspired and infallible Scripture?

How can you have God-breathed error?

I’m still waiting for a positive case for this idea.

h-armstrong-roberts-1960s-man-in-tree-sawing-off-the-branch-he-is-sitting-onMay be arguing too much
If the inerrancy of Scripture follows naturally from divinely inspired Scripture, and if there’s no plausible reason to accept erroneous writings as divinely inspired and infallible Scripture, then errantists may be unintentionally undermining the foundation of their own beliefs. They may be trying to saw off the branch on which we both sit. That would be ironic and sad.

Where do you draw the line?
To what extent is a factually erroneous Bible authoritative? Who decides what is sufficiently theological and therefore infallible? It’s interesting that some (please note the “some”) egalitarians have concluded that Paul was simply wrong about his views on gender-distinctive roles. I assume Peter was wrong too. They were apparently basing their teachings on their cultural understandings rather than divine inspiration. Of course, this isn’t just historical minutiae we’re talking about now, but the life of the church. Given Paul’s theological defense of these distinctive roles, do we now have theological error in the Bible? And if they were wrong about this, why not homosexuality? If we aren’t tied to the explicit content of the written text, who determines just how far some “progressive” trajectory flows beyond it? If the apostles could be bound to their cultural understandings of these issues, why not the concept of hell, or the exclusivity of Christ, or penal substitutionary atonement, or justification by faith? If we know the Bible affirms things as true that are not, then how do we determine what is true and what is not? Where do you draw the line, and on what basis do you draw it there?

I’m not saying that anyone who denies inerrancy cannot be a sincere evangelical Christian. I’m also not saying there’s an unavoidable slippery slope from a rejection of inerrancy into liberalism. There are many wonderful Christians who do not accept the idea of inerrancy. Thankfully, many of these brothers and sisters continue to view the Bible as the authoritative Word of God, and they seek to draw their theology and practices from Scripture. I appreciate their dependence on Scripture, but I believe it to be inconsistent with their rejection of inerrancy. I think to the extent they are thinking and living biblically it is despite their rejection of inerrancy. Actually, many of these believers live as functional inerrantists even though they dismiss inerrancy. They enjoy the residual security of the very doctrine they deny.

Sadly though, we have example after example of individuals, schools and denominations that began by questioning the inerrancy of Scripture and eventually came to question the very tenants of the faith. This slip may not be inevitable, but I don’t think any can deny it has happened, and happened far too many times. You may be able to reject the idea of an inerrant Bible and remain orthodox in your beliefs, but what of those who follow you and adopt your views of Scripture? What if they reject more than you do? What if they “correct” more of Scripture than you do? Within the parameters of your view, how can you defend against a slip into liberalism? (And who’s to say you even should?)

Please don’t misunderstand the last paragraph. I’m not arguing that because of some danger to our precious evangelicalism we must circle the wagons and defend inerrancy to the death. What I am saying is that we need to be completely honest about the options available to us. If the Bible is errant, then we need to be forthright about the consequences. Consider these propositions:

1. Because the Bible is divinely inspired it is infallible and inerrant Scripture.

2. Because the Bible is divinely inspired it is infallible Scripture even though it contains undeniable error.

3. The Bible contains undeniable error and so is not divinely inspired Scripture (although it may still be of historical and spiritual value).

Scripture that is divinely inspired, and therefore infallible and inerrant, makes perfect sense. This view is consistent and logical. On the other hand, a Bible that is simply the writings of well-intentioned followers of Jesus could also make sense. These writings could still be of great historical value and they could contain profound spiritual insights—but they would be no more “inspired” than the writings of AW Tozer or DA Carson. They wouldn’t be factually inerrant or theologically infallible. They would only be authoritative to the extent we accept them as authoritative.

I don’t believe the third option, but it’s consistent and plausible. Either option 1 or 3 would make sense depending on the actual errancy or inerrancy of the Bible. But a claim that factually erroneous writing can somehow be God-breathed and theologically infallible seems irrational. This is the completely subjective blind leap, plugging our ears and closing our eyes against the evidence and yelling, ‘But it’s still infallible.’ I don’t reject the second iStock_000016462169XSmallproposition simply because I don’t like it or don’t believe it, but because it’s incredible (i.e. unbelievable). If you truly believe the Bible to contain factual error, then I challenge you to have the intellectual consistency and courage to follow your belief to its logical conclusion.

Notice again that disproving inerrancy doesn’t establish the second option over the third. Those who hold to the second proposition are alone in denying any connection between inerrancy and divine inspiration. Everyone else would see this as special pleading and irrational. Merely scoffing at the idea of such a connection is inadequate. If you hold this view you need to present a positive case why any one should accept it. I invite you to answer this simple question:

Why should we accept factually erroneous writing as divinely inspired and infallible Scripture?