Errant Notions Part One: No Autographs!

In this next series of posts I want to consider the major arguments made by proponents of “biblical inerrancy,” the belief that the Bible is without error and infallible in all that it teaches. These are the arguments I intend to address:

I will say this as often as I can throughout this series, but I want to say it clearly here at the start: I do not enter this debate because I have a low regard for the Bible or because I wish to undermine its authority for the Christian. I value the Bible highly and recognize its essential role in the formulation of Christian belief and practice. But that is precisely why I am a vocal critic of the inerrancy doctrine, which I believe to be a smokescreen of false certainty masking deep insecurity and doubt. Instead of engaging the Bible for what it is, inerrancy proffers a shortcut to certitude, as if deep spiritual convictions could be foregone, predetermined by a formula apart from soul searching and rigorous study. I believe as all Christians do that God can and does speak through scripture, but the presumption of inerrancy actually limits the extent to which we are willing and able to listen.

Nothing Tops The Originals!

In a way this first one is the most compelling argument for inerrancy. And yet, in another more accurate way, it is an utter non-argument. You’ll see why. The claim is this: “The Bible is inerrant, but only in the original autographs.” That is, only the original compositions written by the hands of the authors (or their scribes) are truly infallible and constitute the word of God. We’ll tackle the phrase “word of God” in a future post, and for now we’ll focus on the substance of this claim about the original manuscripts.

This argument is rather convenient in one sense and awkwardly inconvenient in another. On the one hand, it is helpful in dodging questions about canonization or scribal transmission or the interpretation of difficult texts. Forget all that noise, only the originals are perfect anyway! On the other hand, the original autographs do not exist, and we will likely never have access to them. No one outside of the Bible has left us a record of seeing or reading or handling the original texts, and our oldest copies of New Testament books are scribal copies of copies of copies made more than a century after the originals were written. The argument cannot be demonstrated or tested. The post could end here on a technicality.

Getting Down to Brass Tacks

But this is not really a technical argument. In fact, it’s not an argument at all, it’s an assertion. A religious claim. And that’s OK! Religious claims make great religious claims, but they usually make lousy arguments. This claim ultimately forces a question of personal belief: Do you choose to believe that the original biblical autographs are the infallible words of God Himself, perfectly true in everything they affirm? Each hearer must answer that personal, spiritual question for him or herself. I have great respect and brotherly affection for my Christian friends who answer “yes,” even as I must answer “no.”

For me, the evidence is the texts themselves. They are too obviously the product of diverse human personalities to have all been secretly authored by God, and even as they reveal Jesus they also seem to affirm too many horrors and ambiguities to be called “perfect” in their every teaching. If God actually did write them, that remark is wildly out of line. If, however, inspired humans wrote them to express their beliefs and experiences of the divine, it only makes sense. But this is where we discover that inerrancy isn’t really about the nature of the texts themselves, it’s about the will of the person who wants to appeal to their authority.

Without inerrant, unquestionable proof texts, our claims over the lives and destinies of others have no solid basis. We are left without a platform, with no posture of superiority, forced to rely on our own discernment and humility and experience. But isn’t that exactly where a Christian servant and follower of Jesus ought to be: vulnerable and teachable and selfless? This is ultimately why I reject inerrancy; it represents a false and self-serving front of arrogant certainty that denies our own humanity as much as the Bible’s. It doesn’t just misrepresent the living texts of scripture, it threatens to turn the believer into a fossil of empty certitude and an agent of unrighteous condemnation.

Hiding Behind the Text

The original autographs of the New Testament texts don’t exist and likely never will. But that’s why and how they have become a sort of safety net or trump card for those who seek to justify themselves with the Bible. We can prove that manuscript copies contain errors. We can demonstrate how even our best translations fall short. We can wrestle with voices in scripture that seem to promote retribution and hate. But we will never be able to scrutinize those originals, and so they provide a safe place for insecure believers to lay low, an impenetrable shield behind which to hide. It’s far easier than engaging messy reality with humility and an open heart.

I do believe that God speaks to us through scripture, but He does so as often in spite of what the text affirms as through it. In hindsight, I might have made this the last post in the series, since it gets so swiftly to the heart of the inerrancy debate. There is much more to say, but it will all hearken back in one way or another to this point: that inerrancy is a calculated rhetorical assertion, not a fact.