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Inerrancy and The Originals: A Response to John FH

April 4th, 2010 by Matt

John FH of Ancient Hebrew Poetry has written a thoughtful hazing of some of my posts on inerrancy, Inerrancy and Biblical Authority and Two Forms of Inerrancy. The points he raised are issues worth taking up.

John’s first concern is that the two conceptions of inerrancy I set out, those of Verbal Plenary Inspiration (VPI) and Didactic Plenary Inspiration (DPI) constitute a false dichotomy. He notes that some people, such as himself, accept both VPI and DPI. This, of course, is correct. In fact I suggested as much in my follow-up post, Two Forms of Inerrancy, there I quoted Alan Rhoda,

A weaker, and I think more defensible view, may be called didactic plenary inspiration (DPI). This is the view that whatever the Biblical originals were intended to teach is inerrant. It is not necessary that the particular words of the Bible be chosen by God so long as the particular message that God wants to convey gets across. (VPI entails DPI, but not vice-versa.) [Emphasis added]

Rhoda explicitly suggested that VPI entails DPI; hence a person can accept both. What is interesting, however, is that one can also accept DPI and not accept VPI. One can accept that what scripture teaches is true and yet also hold that scriptures contain errors but that these errors are not part of what scripture teachers.

So John is correct that one can affirm both VPI and DPI; however, one can also affirm DPI and not affirm VPI and it was this possibility that was my major point. An implication of this point is that certain sceptical attacks on inerrancy fail because they attack VPI and leave DPI unaffected.

John’s second point is more interesting,

I also hold that God superintended the transmission (SPI) of the text such that it was, over time, faithfully edited and translated, and is, for all intensive purposes, just as inerrant in the Septuagint as it is in the MT; in the Textus Receptus as in Nestle-Aland; in the NIV as in the KJV.

He goes on to argue,

Since Matt likes to refer to the “originals” which we do not have, and applies the language of inerrancy to them alone, I am left to assume, which is absurd, that he considers the NIV or KJV Bible (or whatever) read and preached on in church on a given Sunday to be an errant text.

John here raises several questions regarding the reference to “the originals” in my initial post. In response let me say two things. First, I made reference to the “originals” because that is the position defenders of inerrancy typically take. Consider the statement of the Evangelical Philosophical Society, which I cited in my post, Two Forms of Inerrancy, “The Bible alone, and the Bible in its entirety, is the Word of God written and therefore inerrant in the originals.” The distinction between VPI and DPI made by Alan Rhoda, which I cited in my post, was an attempt to show two different ways this particular statement could be understood. Now given that this statement clearly applies inerrancy to the originals, whatever understanding one adopts of it, one must also apply inerrancy to the originals. The EPS are not being unusual here; defenders of inerrancy normally limit inerrancy to the originals. For example, Article VII of the Chicago statement on inerrancy states, “We affirm that the whole of Scripture and all its parts, down to the very words of the original, were given by divine inspiration.” Similarly Article X states,

We affirm that inspiration, strictly speaking, applies only to the autographic text of Scripture, which in the providence of God can be ascertained from available manuscripts with great accuracy. We further affirm that copies and translations of Scripture are the Word of God to the extent that they faithfully represent the original.

Second, it seems that the issue John raises actually illustrates another difference between VPI and DPI in that VPI has to limit inerrancy to the original documents whereas DPI does not have to. John attributes inerrancy to not just the originals but to contemporary English translations such as the NIV and KJV. He also suggests that ancient manuscripts such as the Septuagint, Masoretic Text, the Textus Receptus and the Nestle-Aland are all inerrant. The obvious problem here is that these texts do not agree on the precise words used to convey the message of scripture. A couple of examples will suffice. Take the following passage in the NIV version of 1 Corinthians 13:5, “If I give all I possess to the poor and surrender my body to the flames, but have not love, I gain nothing,” a footnote states, “some ancient manuscripts have body that I may boast.” Here we see that differing manuscripts disagree over the exact wording used in this text. They both cannot be correct, word for word, translations of this verse as they differ. Similarly, the Masoretic Text (MT) translates Exodus 21:22 as follows,

When people who are fighting injure a pregnant woman so that there is a miscarriage, and yet no further harm follows, the one responsible shall be fined what the woman’s husband demands, paying as much as the judges determine. If any harm follows, then you shall give life for life.

The Septuagint (LXX) renders the passage as follows,

If two men fight and strike a pregnant woman, and her unformed embryo departs, he shall be fined; according as the woman’s husband lays upon (him) he shall give according to what is thought fit. But if it be formed, he shall give a life for a life.

When it comes to the exact wording of this law the MT and LXX clearly use different words, as such both texts cannot both be verbally inerrant. Similar differences in wording can be found amongst the English translations.

Defenders of VPI acknowledge these facts. Norman Geisler’s response is fairly typical, “Actually, the variant readings which significantly reflect the sense of a passage are less than ten percent of the New Testament, and none of them affect any basic doctrine of the Christian faith.”[1] Similarly the Chicago statement in Article X states,

We further affirm that copies and translations of Scripture are the Word of God to the extent that they faithfully represent the original.

We deny that any essential element of the Christian faith is affected by the absence of the autographs. We further deny that this absence renders the assertion of Biblical inerrancy invalid or irrelevant.

The argument here is two-fold; first, both Geisler and the Chicago Statement affirm that textual criticism shows various manuscripts and English translations are reliable and reflect the original wording to a high degree of accuracy. Second, both go on to note where there is dispute over the exact wording of the text, this does not affect any doctrine or teaching of the Christian faith.

I am not going to contest the accuracy of either of these points. I am inclined to agree that many of the variant readings in different manuscripts do not really affect much of substance. Take the Corinthians passage mentioned above, whether Paul stated “If I give all I possess to the poor and surrender my body to the flames, but have not love, I gain nothing,” or whether he stated, “If I give all I possess to the poor and surrender my body so I may boast, but have not love, I gain nothing,” his point is surely the same – that a person who engages in massive sacrifices but does not actually love other people really misses the boat. Similarly, as I have argued in my Alexandrian Argument series, while the LXX and MT disagree on the exact wording in Ex 21:22-25 what they teach is essentially the same and the LXX appears to be an accurate interpretation and application of the law even if it is not an accurate word for word translation.

What I will say however is that the response of Geisler and the Chicago Statement shows that when it comes to any existent manuscripts, inerrancy can only be applied to them if one adopts a DPI view. This is evident from their responses; take the claim that various manuscripts and translations reflect the original to a high degree of accuracy. To say something is highly accurate is not the same as saying it is completely accurate or inerrant. Both Geisler and the Chicago Statement admit that when it comes to actually existing manuscripts, we do not have a verbally inerrant text. The second claim, essentially affirms that this verbal errancy does not really matter or carry much significance because what the originals taught is not affected by this difference in wording.  In other words, while we do not have VPI we do have DPI and apparently when we are talking about anything but the originals this is sufficient.

Geisler’s comments illustrate the point that DPI enables one to avoid the very criticism John raised whereas VPI does not. The fact that we do not have the exact wording of the originals and the fact that different English translations such as the NIV, KJV, RSV, etc differ in the precise English words they use to translate variant manuscripts threatens the inerrancy of these particular manuscripts and translations only if inerrancy requires VPI. If inerrancy is predicated of the teaching of the texts and not the exact words then the problem does not arise.

[1] Normal Geisler and William Nix The Bible an Introduction (Chicago: Moody Press, 1986) 489.

Sunday Study: Inerrancy and Biblical Authority

Sunday Study: Two Forms of Inerrancy

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3 responses so far ↓

  • This topic needs more clarity, something that will come if we distinguish inerrancy from inspiration. (I have written a post on my thoughts relating to this issue which I have yet to publish.)

    For example we both hold to DPI, yet I claim that the Bible is still inerrant in everything that it says, even tangential information, whereas you hold that such could potentially be errant, you the main teaching of the Bible is inerrant.

    This seems to be because you perceive that if God inspires the thrust of Scripture that allows for discrepancies from the authors in their writing, whereas while I agree about the thrust, I think God also prevents error creeping into the material.

    I guess theoretically one could hold to VPI without holding inerrancy, though if God meant for even the words to be written down including errant ones, though why God would do this?

    It seems that VPI would imply both DPI and inerrancy; but one can hold to DPI without VPI, and such a position can be held with either inerrancy or errancy, those who hold to errancy only think error is possible in the non-didactic aspects of Scripture.

  • Thanks, Matt, for picking up on this. You are a very careful thinker and I appreciate it.

    A few remarks. I’m wondering why you assume that if there are two or more attested versions of a given passage, only one of them must be correct.

    I am an OT scholar, so I’m terribly used to looking at texts that are noted for their multiformity in the manuscript tradition. A great place to start on the topic is The Dead Sea Scrolls Bible, edited by Peter Flint, Martin Abegg, and Eugene Ulrich.

    My own view: the assumption that among multiple versions of a given passage, only one of them must be correct, collapses in the light of the evidence in hand. It requires the postulation of a singularly improvident God who never bothered to supply the faithful with an infallible or inerrant text.

    But it’s all a non sequitur. I could illustrate at length that variant versions of specific passages differ, not just in wording, but also in what they teach, but that each text meets the requirements of plenary verbal inspiration and DPI. All that is needed is a focussed concept of inerrancy, of the kind Zwingli had, who said this about Scripture:

    “it is certain, it cannot err, it is clear, it does not let us go errant in the darkness, it is its own interpreter and enlightens the human soul with all salvation and all grace, makes it confident in God, humbles it, so that it abandons and throws away its pretensions, and places itself in God’s hands”

    I reject the notion that VPI means that the Bible is inerrant in the sense that its authors did not express themselves in terms of cultural assumptions they shared with their first audience, even as they challenged assumptions in that same audience.

    It is essential to have a hierarchy of truth in mind, something bethyada seems to deny. Luther, when asked about the numerous discrepancies between 1 Sam – 2 Kings and Chronicles, said, “Let it pass.” Luther was an inerrantist but he did not locate inerrancy in the exercise of resolving these discrepancies. I stand with Luther and not with those who dedicate themselves to exegetical gymnastics of a kind that came into vogue in a rationalist environment, but are now, thankfully, a little less popular.

    If and only if you are familiar with the Qumran data, or are used to comparing citations of the OT in the NT and comparing that with the Masoretic Text, or read the Septuagint on a regular basis, will the weight of my remarks hit home.

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