Wednesday, 26 November 2008

Inerrancy, Authority and the Original Text

I had a good chat with a long time scholar friend who bristled at the term inerrancy. He does believe in the authority of the Bible, but argued that we should avoid the term inerrancy since we don't have the original manuscripts of the Bible.

But nonetheless, the Bible is authoritative, he assured me.

The problem with this line of argumentation is that it fails to understand that the text is something which is non-physical. The Word of God is "immaterial" and is merely reflected (more or less) in the various manuscripts of the New Testament, depending on the accuracy of the scribe and exemplars. We reconstruct the inerrant Word of God as best we can based upon these material witnesses. The physical manifestation of the text (i.e., the manuscripts) are patently not inerrant--they have errors in them; yet the ultimate reality of God's Word behind the physical manuscripts is perfect.

My friend would not accept this argument of mine, insisting that it is impractical to argue for the perfection of something which has no physicality. So I asked him what is it then that he thinks is "authoritative." He replied, "The Word of God." But I replied, "Do you mean the physical manuscripts, or the real text behind the physical manifestation of the text reflected in the manuscripts?"

This stumped him. Ultimately, if you can't have an inerrant text without the original manuscripts, neither can you have an authoritative text without the original manuscripts.

Of course, for myself, I have no problems with saying that the real text behind that which is physically manifested in the manuscripts is inerrant, and the fact that we don't have the original manuscripts doesn't impact this perception.

10 comments:

crevo said...

Personally, my view of authority is not tied quite so tightly to inerrancy. I differ from other non-inerrantists in that I couldn't tell you one definitive error in the Bible - most of the ones put forth by skeptics are very silly. But the fact is that my belief in the authority of scripture is there whether or not there are errors in scripture.

To put the question in perspective - does the existence of errors in the _present_ text affect the authority of the Bible in the present? Obviously not. Likewise, if you take inerrancy back a step further (where it is God, not the written word, which is inerrant), you arrive at the same situation, and, I think, with the same implications (or lackthereof).

Rev. James M. Leonard said...

Thanks for the thoughtful comment, Crevo.

Petros said...

Hi Jim. I remember having a discussion with you about inerrancy in Boston at the Regent College breakfast. But since I don't remember the details that you mention here, it makes me wonder if you had more than one discussion like ours so close to the same date? Am I the friend about whom you write?

In any case, I found your that your statement that the "Word of God" has no physicality and that the actual physical text has problematic. First, I consider the "Word of God" to be a member of the Trinity, Jesus the λογος του θεου. The Word of God is not some construct of that some perfect entity that has no physicality. Secondly, it is indeed impractical to speak of this immaterial inerrant Word--because we would only have its imperfect reflexion here on earth.

I wonder if you have come up with some new heresy regarding the Bible, or are you reflecting opinions that you have read elsewhere. It seems gnostic to me, or at the very least, platonic.

As for the authority of the text, that is based upon its relation to Jesus and the apostles, and its acceptance as canonical tradition by the church.

Rev. James M. Leonard said...

Petros,

Good to hear from you and thanks for contributing to this conversation.

Don't take my description of our discussion at SBL in a personal way; think of it as my construct of a conversation built upon semi-historical elements of what you said, what I heard you say, what I thought you should have said, what I might have said which you didn't hear, what I wish I had said, and what some other people might have said. :)

I'm not sufficiently a dogmatician to articulate the relationship between Jesus as the Logos and the Bible as the Word of God. But I will agree with you that Jesus, the incarnate Son in all his corporeality, is the Logos.

But still, IF we cannot speak of the INERRANCY of the text since we don't have the originals, then how in the world can we speak of the AUTHORITY of the text since we don't have the originals?

Obviously, we don't have the original biblical manuscripts, and no single (substantial) manuscript is free of error. So, therefore, we necessarily conclude that the written Word of God in its perfection no longer has materiality. But this does not negate the notion that it does exist within the manuscript tradition--it just needs to be reconstructed.

Despite our inability to reconstruct it perfectly, an inspired, inerrant text does exist within the manuscript tradition. It has an immaterial form. My argument is not so Platonic as it is practical.

Peter J. Williams has written on this rather extensively on the Evangelical Textual Criticism blog, although I can't put my finger on it immediately, and my presentation of his discussion is probably not inerrant.

Petros said...

Jim: Ok. I don't personally remember being stumped, as you suggest in the original post. I do remember not having really sufficient time to discuss this very important issue with you.

You help me to see how it is that a textual critic of all people could hold to inerrancy. It does seem to me to be essence of platonism, though I accept your attempted dodge that it is not your intention to be heretical (bear in mind that this is not an attempt to say that you are not a part of the body of Christ, but that none of us has a perfect doctrinal stance, and even if we did, that itself would be an occasion for heresy--i.e., schism).

In that realm of friendship and brotherhood then, I offer my view that the basis of the authority of the Bible is not its inerrancy (which is a late American dogma), but that in the case of the NT, its proximity to Jesus and the apostles--the criteria were catholicity, apostolicity (both its proximity to the apostles and its agreement with their with the Rule of Faith). The early canons don't say, "we found this text to contain no errors, therefore we accept its authority" but they said, this book is read in all the churches, or they said, this book is associated to the apostles. They rejected a book if it contained false doctrines and if it was written lately (e.g., Shepherd of Hermas in the Muratori Canon), and therefore could have no association with the apostles.
Peter

Rev. James M. Leonard said...

Petros,

Mia culpa. I should have said, "This should have stumped him," but as you indicated, we ran out of time to pursue the discussion.

Canon is such a complex issue that I'm not even going to try to make a comprehensive statement about the basis of its authority. I've been intrigued with John Webster's (Aberdeen) argument that the scripture has authority not because of its proximity to the apostles, but because it has inherent authority in it derived from God himself. It's a massive argument, and I know that I can't articulate it adequately...but I'm working on researching this further.

But setting aside the issue of canon for the moment, are you sure that the inerrancy of scripture
is merely an American 19th century construct?

Perhaps it goes back to the early church fathers who reasoned that the Word of God was entirely perfect (and hence, without error), because it was in fact God's Word. They reasoned that because God never spoke imperfectly or uttered errors, his Word was likewise flawless, or to borrow that brilliantly coined American term "inerrant." This is why the church fathers never go around talking about errors in the Bible--they thought it didn't have any.

What is especially important about this early church fathers argument is that they were altogether aware that they no longer had the original manuscripts, and that none of their manuscripts could claim to be a perfect reproduction of the manuscript. Yet, this did not stop them from embracing God's Word as perfect and flawless in every way.

It seems to me, then, that the notion that the Bible has errors or is somehow imperfect is a late 18th or 19th century Western concept.

In this light, I'm not so sure that Warfield should get the credit for creating the concept of inerrancy.

Rev. James M. Leonard said...

Petros,

What's Platonic about saying that the original text can be found in the totality of the extant manuscript tradition, even though no single one of them perfectly reproduces it?

But let's forget the term Platonic for a minute and allow me simply to ask whether or not you think the statement is true? Is the original text located in the totality of the extant manuscript tradition?

If it is true, which I think is the case, then it doesn't matter whether it is Platonic or not.

If it is not true, then inerrantists just simply say that God originally gave his Word to us inerrantly, but we can't reproduce it any more because it no longer exists in the totality of the extant manuscript tradition.

Petros said...

You wrote: "The problem with this line of argumentation is that it fails to understand that the text is something which is non-physical. The Word of God is "immaterial" and is merely reflected (more or less) in the various manuscripts of the New Testament, depending on the accuracy of the scribe and exemplars. We reconstruct the inerrant Word of God as best we can based upon these material witnesses. The physical manifestation of the text (i.e., the manuscripts) are patently not inerrant--they have errors in them; yet the ultimate reality of God's Word behind the physical manuscripts is perfect."

This seems to me pretty classic platonism (not that that is necessarily heretical).

I however am not certain that the autographs themselves were or could be "inerrant" as fits most definitions of inerrancy. Consider Metzger's commentary on Rom 5.1 that Tertius himself may have made error of dictation (since εχομεν and εχωμεν were pronounced alike even as they are today in Greek). So then are we talking about something that may have never existed ever on the physical realm? (In the case of Rom 5.1, it existed in Paul's head but was not written down until later).

Finally, I agree that original text may be in the current textual tradition. For most of the NT we are very well-situated for that reconstruction, much better than, e.g., for the Acts of Paul. However, such a reconstruction would remain hypothetical, and I am not sure that we would be much better off than we were with the BYZ. For the very reason that God is able to touch our hearts and lives even through that which is imperfect, and by his Holy Spirit, able to guide his church. We would be better off to be sure, but even the NA26-UBS3 being called the standard text by K. Aland was a tragedy, because it takes the determination of what is the most likely text at any given point away from individual translators and exegetes and creates a new Textus Receptus.

Petros said...

"Perhaps it goes back to the early church fathers who reasoned that the Word of God was entirely perfect (and hence, without error), because it was in fact God's Word."
Well, not exactly. There are isolated statements that can be gleaned from the Fathers that could be used in a construction of a doctrine of inerrancy. However, saying that the Fathers were inerrantists because they make such statements, is like saying Irenaeus was a dispensationalist because he believed in the millenium.

The inerrancy doctrine is a response to historical criticism of the Bible, which itself is modern phenomenon. Just as Nicene orthodoxy is a response to Arianism. The question is whether the inerrantists have created a response which adequately provides the orthodox (right) view, and I would say that that hasn't happened yet. Many true and honest believers don't like the term and find it less than helpful in describing the Bible.

Rev. James M. Leonard said...

I suppose that my articulation of how the original text no longer survives in any one manuscript but
is nonetheless existent in the extant manuscript tradition could be construed as Platonism, but ultimately, the question is whether or not my point is true.

I'm open to learning more about the process of inspiration by means of which God's Word was passed down from God to humanity. I know there are complexities, and that you've only mentioned one of many (viz., Tertius and Romans). But I still see more problems with denying inerrancy than affirming inerrancy. In particular, I'm just happy to say that I don't think the Bible has errors in it.

I have no expertise in early Church Fathers. However, if we were to interview someone like Jerome or Ireneus and ask them if the Bible had errors in it, I'm pretty sure they would answer no. In fact, I'm pretty sure that it took more than 1800 years for committed Christians to evolve toward a perspective which would embrace the notion that the Bible has errors in it.

Thanks Petros for helping me clarify my own understanding. I really do appreciate your challenging comments.