Friday, March 28, 2014

Textual Criticism and its implications for inerrancy

As a Christian I’ve spent a lot of time dwelling on and pondering the case for inerrancy. The reasons for this are numerous. First, it was probably the doctrine that could have potentially led to the loss of my faith had I chosen to hold to the “inerrancy-or-bust” mentality that plagues fundamentalists. Second, it was after rejecting this doctrine that I truly felt my faith strengthened—I could put my faith solely in God instead of setting up the bible as my spiritual focal point. Third, it seems to me that this doctrine is more of a spiritual crutch to many to be held at all costs instead of a position deduced by pure logical inference.
 With such reasons thus stated, I find myself occasionally running through my mind the reasons why this doctrine is simply unwarranted and untenable. And let me say that the reasons I, personally, have for rejecting this doctrine seem to be miles wide in scope and miles deep in substance. Yet there are a few arguments I have come across (or have come up with myself) that I feel have really put the final nail in the coffin for the doctrine of inerrancy and it is in this post that I would like to expound one of those very arguments.

 This argument begins with the recognition regarding the findings of Textual Criticism. In case the reader is unaware, Textual Criticism is the endeavor of attempting to ascertain the original form of a text. Now, usually appealing to any kind of secular scholarly consensus regarding the bible is something that fundamentalists and inerrantists will not react favorably towards—since in order to affirm the doctrine of inerrancy one would have to reject almost all consenses reached by the academic community. Yet, there is one area where even fundamentalists will (usually) yield to academia and that is in the science of textual criticism. In New Testament textual criticism scholars have reached conclusions that cannot be denied, since these conclusions have concrete evidence to ground them. For instance, it is unanimously agreed that all the (thousands of) New Testament manuscripts we possess have scribal errors. Some of these errors are simple copying mistakes while others are blatant textual additions. These variants reach a mark as high as, and most likely higher than, 400,000.

It’s important to understand that most of these errors are completely insignificant (e.g. spelling mistakes). However, there are many that are quite significant indeed. 1 John 5:7-8 is one of the only places where the doctrine of the trinity is explicitly taught, and yet these verses are not found in a majority of NT manuscripts; the story of the adulterous woman (John 7:53-8:11) is completely absent from many early manuscripts of John; and the resurrection ending of Mark (Mark 16: 9-20) was not added until two centuries after the Gospel of Mark began to circulate. Let me articulate once more that these conclusions are based on concrete physical evidence of the manuscripts we possess.

 So, what is the significance of the above conclusions, and how do they affect the doctrine of inerrancy? Well, first let me begin by correctly articulating the inerrantist position. The doctrine of inerrancy only states that the original texts of the bible are inerrant, and not that God would keep the editors and scribes, who transmitted the texts, from error. Fair enough. But there is double standard employed here; and I believe presuppositionalist  Greg Bahnsen demonstrated it in his own writings:

There is no scriptural warrant for holding that God will perform the perpetual miracle of preserving His written Word from all errors in its being transcribed from one copy to another.

 Notice the problem? Did God ever claim that he would keep the scribes and editors from corrupting his word as it was transmitted textually? No. But, similarly, did God ever claim that he would keep the human writers of scripture from corrupting his word as they wrote scripture? No, he did not. (Let it be known that an appeal to the inspiration of scripture does not save this claim unless one already assumes that inspiration necessitates an inerrant text--which would need to be demonstrated.) So, how can one claim that the original text should be inerrant but not the text after transmission, since both of these assertions rest on the same lack of promulgation of the divine will?
Moreover, what makes the bible different after the original text is formed? Is it not still the “Word of God”? Of course it is. So, why would God not allow error to corrupt his Word during the writing of the original text but he would allow error to corrupt his Word during its textual transmission? Surely any answer given in vindication of the former would not also apply to the latter? So, I maintain that we can form a valid dilemma regarding the nature of scripture: Either (1) God desired that no human error intermix with his Word or revelation, or (2) God did not desire such a thing. But we know for a fact, again due to textual criticism, that human error did corrupt God’s Word as it was textually transmitted. So, we have warrant for rejecting (1) and are therefore completely warranted in accepting the conclusion that God allowed human error to intermix with his message—whether it pertains to the original text or not. Thus, we have logical airtight reasons for denying the doctrine of biblical inerrancy.

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