Inspiration

In recent posts, we’ve worked through terms related to special revelation: canon, inspiration, and manuscripts. These terms relate to the all important subject of inerrancy.

Inerrancy is the doctrine that the Bible in its original autographs is without error. Inerrancy is a logical doctrine that flows from the doctrine of inspiration. If God is the Author of Scripture (albeit through human writers), then the original writings must be without error. God is incapable of flaw or falsity (Hebrews 6:18). If the Scriptures are authored by God, then they are inerrant and infallible (not capable of being wrong).

It is important to recognize, that those who hold the inerrancy and infallibility of Scripture do so with regard to the original autographs. Copyists and translators may have made mistakes in translations. One blatant example is the 1631 reprint of the King James Bible where the all important negative not was committed from the sixth of the ten commandments reading “Thou shalt commit adultery,” as opposed to “Thou shalt not commit adultery.” The previous posts on the canon and manuscripts detail that while a copy and translation may not be inerrant, they do clearly affirm the Biblical intentions from the original autographs. We can trust the Bible we do have.

As early as the fourth century, Augustine reflected on the importance of inerrancy.

For it seems to me that most disastrous consequence must follow upon our believing that anything false is found in the sacred books: that is to say, that the men by whom Scripture has been given to us, and committed to writing, did put down in these books anything false… For if you once admit into such a high sanctuary of authority one false statement as made in the way of duty, there will not be left a single sentence of those books which, if appearing to any one difficult in practice or hard to believe, may not by the same fatal rule be explained away, as a statement in which, intentionally, and under a sense of duty, the author declared what was not true.

Augustine, Letter 28 quoted by Robert Letham in Systematic Theology, 191. 

Augustine is absolutely correct. When one comes to the Scripture believing it can be in error, then the interpreter stands in judgment of Scripture. Potential errors will arise in biblical texts where the teaching of the Bible runs contrary to cultural and social norms.

To use a contemporary example of the importance of inerrancy, the Southern Baptist Convention turned back theological liberalism in its seminaries and entities using the dividing line of inerrancy.

Theological liberalism of the 18th century arose as an attempt to explain away the supernaturalism found in Scripture. Authority and truth post-Enlightenment came from what could be ascertained with historical or scientific certainty. The supernatural claims of Scripture (creation, miracles, Jesus’ resurrection), could not be verified by science or history. So many secular philosophers simply denied them outright. The theological liberalism that rose post-Enlightenment attempted to remake Christianity into religious system that could coexist without its supernatural claims. One way that liberalism attempted this move was to use textual, literary, and source criticism to explain away the supernatural claims of Scripture (particularly the Gospels and miracles of Jesus). Theological liberalism could not do this without rejecting the doctrine of inerrancy. This type of theological liberalism spread through Europe and then the United States in seminaries and universities. By the middle of the twentieth century, the six Southern Baptist Seminaries had some faculty members that were teaching from a theologically liberal point of view.

While there are other contrasting perspectives, the baseline for theological liberalism is inerrancy. The Southern Baptist Convention is the largest Protestant denomination in the United States. Denominational leaders recognized the trend toward theological liberalism at the seminaries and moved to secure leadership that held inerrancy. Known as the conservative resurgence, it is one of the only examples of a denomination turning back theological liberalism.

As an aside, the Southern Baptist Convention annual meeting will occur next week (June 15-16, 2021 in Nashville, TN). Divisions and debates still exist in SBC life. Some claim that the convention is returning to liberalism. I don’t believe that to be true. By and large, we are theologically conservative and believe the Bible to be inerrant. Our divides and divisions result from interpretive nuances and power struggles. If you are interested in reading more about the current divisions, Trevin Wax has written an insightful piece at the Gospel Coalition blog entitled, “What are Southern Baptists Really Fighting About?”

One of my mentors and heroes, Dr. Kenneth Ridings used to say, “I believe in the Bible from Genesis to maps.” His point was that if the Bible is not God’s inerrant Word, then it can be rejected and reinvented. If the Bible is God’s inerrant Word, and God is the Author, then we must submit to it.

I believe in the doctrine of inerrancy. I have staked my ministry on the authority of God’s Word. If you believe the Bible is God’s inerrant Word, then accepting it and obeying it are not up for debate. While it is appropriate to work through differences of interpretation (we’ll get there in these posts), we do so in a spirit of humility.

If we lose the doctrine of inerrancy, we will eventually lose the importance and simplicity of gospel truths:

Jesus loves me,
Yes I know,
For the Bible tells me so.

If we are not certain that God is the author of Scripture, and we believe the Bible is in error, how can we be certain about the truths we desperately need from Scripture?

Jesus loves me. This I do know. And I know it because God’s inerrant and infallible Word tells me so.

Photo by Aaron Burden on Unsplash

In last week’s post on the doctrine of Inspiration, we focused on the biblical claim that the Scriptures have been inspired by God. In this week’s post, we will go a little deeper into this important topic by highlighting the quality of the manuscripts that we have for the biblical texts.

I’m confident that the Bible we have (66 books with about 40 authors over 1500 years of writing) is God’s inspired Word. But just because I’m confident doesn’t mean everyone else is confident. Textual criticism is that discipline that investigates the content and reliability of ancient texts. It is a discipline used for other manuscripts, but primarily associated with the Old and New Testaments of the Bible. If it is right to hold a high view of the inspiration of Scripture (that God is the author), then it should follow that the manuscripts we have for comparison purposes would not disagree with one another and create uncertainty in the meaning of the text. Can we have confidence in the manuscripts of the Old and New Testaments?

Here are some basic facts about the manuscripts we do have. You can find out more on this subject from Jonathan Morrow’s book, Questioning the Bible: 11 Major Challenges to the Bible’s Authority.

  • There are 5,756 New Testament manuscripts that can be compared and contrasted for quality and consistency purposes. Other ancient writings for a comparable time and place are as follows: Greek historian Herodotus, 109 manuscripts; Greek historian Thucydides, 95 manuscripts; Greek philosopher Plato, 219 manuscripts; Roman historian Livy, 150 manuscripts; Roman historian Tacitus, 31 manuscripts; Roman historian Seutonius, 300 manuscripts; Greek classic Homer’s Iliad, 2300 manuscriptsThe sheer number of New Testament manuscripts affords confidence that the documents we are reading today are consistent with the original manuscripts.
  • The NT manuscripts are significantly earlier than other ancient literature, within 35 years in at least one case and all of the NT within 200 years of the events.
  • While there are variations between the manuscripts, they do not distort the consistency or meaning of the New Testament. Bart Ehrman, professor and author of Misquoting Jesus, claims 400,000 variants within the New Testament manuscripts. Ehrman uses this number to undercut the confidence in the New Testament documents. Essentially, he reasons if there are so many variants, how can we be confident in the accuracy of the text? However, Ehrman fails to look into the types of variations carefully. According to Jonathan Morrow, “A variant is any place among the existing NT manuscripts where there is not uniformity of wording” (p. 98). A variant then could be a misspelled word in 1 manuscript different from 2,000 manuscripts. This would count as 2,000 variants. Morrow notes, “the reason we have so many variants is because we have so many manuscripts to work with” (p. 98).
  • Note the types of variation within the New Testament manuscripts:
    1) Spelling=70-80% of all the variants.
    2) Minor differences such as word order or the use of the definite article with a proper name.
    3) Meaningful, but not viable differences such as, “gospel of God” vs. “gospel of Christ.”
    4) Meaningful and viable differences such as “let us have peace with God” vs. “we have peace with God” (less than 1% are meaningful and viable). 
  • The Old Testament manuscripts and the and the Dead Sea Scrolls affirm that the copyists of the OT were careful, and that the OT that we do have is consistent with the earliest manuscripts. According to Douglas Stuart, it is a safe estimate that 99% of original words in NT and 95% of original words in OT are recoverable (quoted by Jonathan Morrow in Questioning the Bible). In essence, we can be confident that we have the Word of God.
  • These basic facts can be found in Questioning the Bible, by Jonathan Morrow pages 96-105.

The Old and New Testaments have been questioned and critiqued for millennia. Particularly, the New Testament has faced textual and source criticism aimed at discounting its claims of the supernatural and the deity of Jesus. This critique should not surprise us. We live in a post-enlightenment age where we question and doubt anything that cannot be tested scientifically.

These facts about the New Testament manuscripts do not force one to believe the stories they relate. But here is what they do. The sheer number of manuscripts dating back so nearly to the occasions of writing provide confidence that the New Testament we are reading today was the same New Testament originally written.

If we can have confidence in the consistency and accuracy of the Old and New Testaments, then we cannot claim that over time the authors changed stories to build their case for the deity of Jesus or other theological concepts. What they wrote is what we have. You may or may not believe what they wrote. After all, that underscores the importance of faith that permeates Christianity.

But if we are honest with the data we have, we must accept that the biblical documents relate to us an accurate account of the original manuscripts. This becomes foundational to the doctrine of revelation regarding the inerrancy, sufficiency, and authority of Scripture.