Friday, March 9, 2007


I heard again this week a common (but easily-refuted) charge against the Christian view of the Bible's inerrancy. The charge goes something like this...
Since fallible humans were involved in the process of writing the Bible, it must therefore contain error.
This charge has at least two fatal logical problems. First, it involves a non-sequitur. That is, the conclusion doesn't follow from the premise. The premise itself is okay; forty or more humans were involved in the process of writing the Bible, and they were (on the Christian belief) fallible men just like the rest of us. But this only means that what they produced may have contained error, not--as the charge claims--that it must have contained error. The charge is fallacious in this regard.

Parenthetically, it is just at this point that the Christian doctrine of inerrancy is applied. We believe that in the specific case of the writing of the canon of Scripture, God miraculously intervened to ensure that what these human authors wrote was His error-free Word. He did not dictate Scripture, but used the human authors' own styles, images, life experiences, and such to faithfully write his Word.*

The second problem with the charge made above is that it is self-refuting. If the involvement of fallible humans necessitates in every case that the proclamation contains error, then the charge itself--made, as it is, by a fallible human--is erroneus. The charge is quite simply both fallacious (it involves a non-sequitur) and self-referentially absurd.

* That errors of copying and translation have occurred is readily acknowledged (and easily demonstrated). The doctrine of inspiration (of the Scriptures) does not hold that God inspired the copying and translation, but only the original writing (the autographs).


Anonymous said...

So if God only inspired the autographs, how do we weed out the fallacies or deviations that have occured throughout translation and ascertain the truths of His Word today? My approach has been to attempt to pull the greater lesson or teaching and apply that to my life. How do you get around this issue, if, in your opinion, it is even an issue?

Rick Gerhardt said...

Hey, Ben! Glad to know you're reading, and thanks for the question.

I'm not going to attempt a full answer here (it would take way too long), but will promise to address this issue on the blog proper (and even then in bite-sized bits).

Moreover, the answer is slightly different depending on whether it is the Old or New Testament that is at issue. For the Old, there is general unanimity (that is, very little variation) among the manuscripts that come down to us. Most scholars acknowledge that there are some difficulties with large numbers especially (since number systems were in great flux during the centuries during which the OT books were written). It is important to note that Jesus treated the entire OT as historically accurate, even some of the narratives that strike the modern mind as most difficult to accept (Jonah and the whale, fire and brimstone on Sodom and Gomorrah).

As for the New Testament, there's an entire discipline--New Testament Textual Criticism--whose goal is to ascertain what the autographs said from the wealth of manuscripts from which we have to work. That wealth of manuscripts contains something like 10,000 places where there are more than one reading (variants), though the vast makority of these are different spellings and other insignificant things. Of those (about 2,000) places where variant readings are more significant, many will be found in the marginal or foot notes of any good study Bible. (That is, the translation team makes a choice of which set of manuscripts to use generally, but then informs us--in the margins--of those places where another set of ancient manuscripts has it different). Scholars in this field believe that they have accurately reconstructed the autographs to the level of 99+%, and no doctrine depends upon or is even affected by any of the passages containing variants.

That was already a longer answer than I intended. If you need a fuller answer urgently, I'd be glad to carry on an e-dialogue with you about this. Otherwise, I'll address it bit-by-bit over the course of the next few months. Most churches don't teach about textual criticism, and yet making the best use of your study Bible requires a basic understanding of it. In the end, such understanding should only increase our confidence that what we have is truly God's revelation to us.

Again, thanks for reading and commenting, and I hope all is well with you. (I deliberately left a misspelling in the above, as an example of an insignificant error. I trust the you a) noticed it, b) recognized how or why the error occurred, and c) understood exactly what the word should have read and the meaning of the sentence in which it was found.)

Anonymous said...

Very clever object lesson, Rick. I passed right over your misspelled word, lumping it in with the countless solecisms and typos I read every day. Have you noticed that in recent years the plural form has come in for great changes, usually with the use of an apostrophe? If western literacy is to be preserved for coming generations I am convinced it will be Christians who, once again, do it.

As to textual criticism, you've already answered many of the common objections. It's only intellectual laziness that creates the fascination with "the new", as in the case of the apocryphal gospels and such fads as the Da Vinci Code.

I studied under Bruce Metzger, who died recently at 93. Metzger was one of the leading textual critics of all time. He tells the tale of C. H. Roberts finding a scrap of five verses of the Gospel of John amidst some Egyptian manuscripts, a document that has been dated to the end of the first century. This finding, Metzger states, has "literally rewritten popular views of history." This discovery and many others like it, Metzger goes on, has removed "the last foundation for any doubt that the scriptures have come down to us substantially as they were written."

I have taken these quotes from Lee Strobel's THE CASE FOR CHRIST, Chapter Three.

There is, of course, much greater literary substantiation for the Bible than for any other book of antiquity. The issue is not the accuracy of the texts, but the disposition of the reader's heart and mind.