Back in 2005, when I was a brand new blogger, I had occasion to interact with a Unitarian heretic on the nature of the infallibility and inerrancy of Scripture. My Unitarian antagonist was drinking the postmodernist Kool-aid that truth is uncertain and not entirely, if at all, knowable, and for any Christian to say with strident confidence that the Bible is God’s infallible and inerrant Word, is childishly naive.
He posted a few articles that gave the standard arguments against the doctrines of infallibility and inerrancy that have been soundly answered over the years, but he pretended did not exist, or were not worth his investment of time to engage.
At the time I was looking for post fodder for my fledgling blog. I was also interacting with a number of King James Onlyists on various internet forums. I began to notice several similarities between what the Unitarian heretic argued against the inerrancy of Scripture and what KJV onlyists argue for the exclusivity of the KJV as the only reliable English translation. One of the primary talking points was that we do not have the original autographs of Scripture, merely copies, and they have been corrupted over time. Even though the reason why the Unitarian heretic believed they were corrupted is different than why the KJVO believes they are corrupted, their arguments for their position share many common facets. With that strange union in mind, I compiled a post about it.
The 2015 Shepherd’s Conference has been called a summit on the doctrine of inerrancy. This being the week leading up that summit, I want to repost my article I wrote on the subject some 10 years ago now, slightly updated and edited.
My Unitarian challenger alleges that the doctrine of inerrancy is erroneous. The reason being, he argues, is the fact the Christian church does not possess any of the original autographs written by the prophets and apostles. We don’t have Paul’s original epistle to the Colossians or John’s original Gospel, etc. All we have in our possession today are copies upon copies; and those copies are several hundred years removed from the first century.
In other words, no one can be absolutely sure what the Bible originally said, because unless God safeguarded the manuscript copyists from error, He never really intended to give the church an inerrant Bible. Thus, evangelical fundamentalists are mistaken to be so dogmatic about any of their convictions and the postmodern leanings of free thinking Unitarians are vindicated.
Now, in an odd twist, our Unitarian finds himself in agreement with some extremely strange bedfellows from the King James Version Only camp. That is because KJVO advocates hold to the same belief about the autographs as the liberals do. They claim we no longer have the autographs either and the copies have been corrupted.
However, rather than believing the Bible is errant and unreliable with its content, the KJVO advocate believes God’s Word is perfectly contained in one, infallible, purely preserved translation: the King James Version original published in 1611. Here we have two entirely different conclusions about the Bible, but the exact same starting point regarding the original writings.
How does a biblically thinking Christian approach the doctrine of inerrancy? Can we trust the Bible is inerrant even if we don’t have the original autographs? Or, must we appeal to a special translation that is supposedly marked with God’s hand of providence?
The doctrine of inerrancy is built upon three important pillars. Let’s consider them in order.
First, inerrancy is bound to the character of God. The Scriptures declare God’s desire to reveal Himself to men. Because we know God is holy, righteous, and incapable of lying, we are certain we can trust any revelation from Him as being truthful and accurate in all areas.
Some non-inerrantists may suggest the truthfulness of God’s revelation only pertains to spiritual truths, or even perhaps one central focus of Scripture that can be separated from the unbelievable portions. God, they will argue, is not concerned with the precision of historical information and other non-spiritual details. So that, when the Bible comes into conflict with man’s knowledge about science, archaeology, and other similar disciplines, it is concluded the Bible is probably in error. God didn’t care to preserve the accuracy of such facts anyway, so we are at liberty to change them if need be.
But, in response, we also know God is the sovereign Lord of all things, and that most definitely includes His revelation. If He has the absolute authority to create everything that exists, govern nations, raise up and put down kings and their societies, then God can certainly govern the accuracy of the details recorded by the writers of Scripture. Peter confirms God’s sovereign hand in recording Scripture when he writes, for the prophecy came not in old time by the will of man: but holy men of God spoke as they were moved by the Holy Spirit (2 Peter 1:21).
It is presumptuous to automatically conclude man’s speculative theories and ever-changing views of the world take precedent over the codified revelation given by the sovereign God of the universe.
This leads to a second pillar,
God safeguards the transmission of His written revelation through the thousands of copies handwritten by His people, both during the time of the OT and the time of the NT. The body of textual evidence for the Bible is compiled from hundreds upon thousands of entire manuscripts, portions of books, fragments of books, translations into various languages, historical citations and so forth, making it the most attested piece of ancient literature ever written.
It is correct to point out how every single biblical manuscript is copied from a previous copy, and each copy will contain discrepancies to some degree or another. However, those “discrepancies” are easily explainable, and the presence of copying errors have a proper historical, literary context within the biblical canon.
Before the invention of the Gutenberg press in the 1400s, all books and other important documents were handwritten. The one common occurrence with all handwritten documentation, especially documents transmitted by copying many times over several generations, like the Bible, is the duplication of copying mistakes. All human beings are prone to marginal error with anything they do, regardless of how talented a person may be. When it comes to copying a document, even one as valued as the Bible, people will still misspell words, miss a word here or there, repeat the same sentence and so on. Additionally, the text being copied may be damaged physically or maybe missing sections and it will contain copying errors made from the previous copier.
On the outset, numerous copies with many copying errors appear to be a serious dilemma for the Christian believing in a pure biblical text. It is at this point, once again, where the philosophies of liberal, non-inerrantists and KJV onlyists merge.
The non-inerrantist believes those copying errors demonstrate a hopeless corruption of the biblical text. Because the original autographs were lost, no one can be absolutely sure what those documents said. That means there is no real authoritative Bible today with any specific meaning to the text.
The KJV onlyists, on the other hand, also believe copyist errors demonstrate corruption, but corruption by heretical men who wanted to distort God’s Word. Just like the Unitarian inerrancy denier, however, they too believe no one can rightly appeal to the original autographs because they have been lost. Only the original language texts from which the KJV was translated represent the true, original autographs.
Yet, contrary to both of those erroneous viewpoints, the sheer number of copies, and their “errors,” affirms the certainty of textual preservation. God protected His revelation by allowing the biblical documents to literally “explode” across the ancient world at different times and in different locations through its many copies. In this way, His revelation was safeguarded from any one group gathering up the Scriptures and altering the content.
Within the first 300 years of the Christian church, those copies of the Scriptures were so far flung there could be no organized effort to genuinely corrupt the Bible. The one side effect, however, is the presence of minor copying errors that could always be corrected.
That leads to a third pillar.
God uses the human discipline of textual criticism to recover the originality of His Word. People have a negative misconception about textual criticism. They falsely believe it implies criticizing the supernatural aspects of God’s Word, or that it undermines the authority of the Bible in general. That is not the case at all.
Genuine, thoughtful textual criticism involves experts examining all the available textual evidence for the Bible, carefully analyzing all the various copying errors and other similar discrepancies, and then recovering and restoring, to the best of their ability, what the original documents actually said. Some believe we can know within about 98% certainty what the originals actually contained with the remaining 2% being discernable by the reader.
More importantly, scholars have discovered over the last few hundred years as they have poured over all of the available textual evidence, that those copyist errors have a minimal impact upon the Bible as a whole. Both non-inerrantist and KJV advocates exaggerate the significance of those discrepancies. The non-inerrantists insist the details of the Bible have been lost so there is no true absolute authority to be found in Scripture, and the KJVO apologists insist God’s true Word is only to be found in one 17th century translation. In reality, both positions are horribly mistaken.
Yes, it is true the Scriptures we hold in our hands today are translations from copies removed several generations from the original autographs. However, God in His marvelous sovereignty has worked His providence to preserve His Word in those copies in spite of all the variety of discrepancies. Sure, we don’t have 100% pristine accuracy with the original autographs, but God’s people can be confident they hold God’s infallible and inerrant revelation in their hands.
There are many great resources for further study on this important doctrine of inerrancy.
A good place to start is with the online edition of the Chicago Statement on Inerrancy.
There are also many fine books on the subject.
Two classic works worth the read are:
The Inspiration and Authority of Scripture by Princeton great, B.B. Warfield. Cornelius Van Til wrote a lengthy introduction to this work that is also a fine treatment on inspiration and inerrancy.
And, Inerrancy, edited by Norman Geisler. This is a large collection of essays by various theologians highlighting different areas pertaining to the doctrine of inerrancy. The work was out of print for some time, but I believe it has recently be made available again.
There are also some simple introductions to the doctrine of Scripture in general.
From God to Us by Norman Geisler and William Nix
Scripture Alone by James White
From the Mind of God to the Mind of Man, edited by Willams and Shaylor.
God’s Word in Our Hands – The Bible Preserved For Us, also edited by Williams and Shaylor. Both of these books compliment each other and I cannot recommend them highly enough. They both are a collection of essays on the doctrine of Scripture, preservation, translation and the transmission of the Bible. The book on preservation is probably one of the better modern treatments of that subject.
Some more advanced works include,
Canon Revisited by Michael Kruger
Inspiration and Canonicity of Scripture by R. Laird Harris
Holy Scripture – The Ground and Pillar of Our Faith, Vol. 1 by David King. The entire three volumes by Webster and King is worth the purchase, but the first volume deals specifically with Scripture’s infallibility and authority.
The Text of the New Testament – Its Transmission, Corruption, and Restoration by Bruce Metzger.
And the first section in the late Robert Reymond’s New Systematic Theology entitled, A Word from Another World is a fine review of the doctrine of Scripture.
Two books that specifically address KJV onlyism, but are good overviews on the doctrine of Scripture are,
One Bible Only? edited by Beacham and Bauder and The King James Only Controversy by James White.