There have been a few blogs lately discussing the topic of inerrancy, so it has encouraged me to produce on a post I have been working over in my mind. This was originally going to be a single post much in the spirit of Chris Heard’s Why I am Not a Creationist, but I have come to realize that such a post would be entirely too long. Thus, I commence a new series of posts on the subject of Scripture and inerrancy.
1. Inerrancy presumes a textual witness that does not exist. Insofar as inerrancy is a quality or characteristic that a text can possess, to state “Scripture is inerrant” assumes the existence of a well defined textual witness to which the word “Scripture” applies. This raises two particular problems in relation to a Christian conception of Scripture: textual tradition and canon.
Christians do not posses a textual tradition that has avoided the invasion of “error” in the process of transmission. Most articulations of inerrancy of which I am aware tend to focus on the autographs (KJV-only proponents aside), those texts produced by the human agents responsible for the human activity of putting God’s words into written form. This appeal to the autographs helps to escape the obvious error that occurred during transmission as well as the complexity behind identifying which textual tradition is the inerrant one. What this fails to acknowledge, in my opinion, is that the Bible does not purport to have one autographical tradition. Given that the book of Jeremiah testifies to multiple autographs (Jer 36:27-28), it is reasonable to conjecture that the multiple Jeremiah traditions in existence today could be traced back to do different autographs (more on this below).
Of course, the term “autograph” itself begs an important question: What is an autograph? Given the near universal recognition among scholars that the texts of Scripture betray different recensions, is an autograph the final recension of a text, or would it not also cover the original source(s) from which the final text was produced? Insofar as we are able to detect these editorial editions, are we to think of the revisions as expansions of an inerrant source or revisions of an errant one, or both? In the case of the book of Jeremiah, who’s to say that Jeremiah and Baruch did not ensure an event like the one cited above did not occur a second time by producing multiple copies, copies which in time produced two different Jeremiah traditions. Assuming both traditions go back to the pen of Baruch, what makes the Jeremiah in our Bibles (MT) an inerrant text and the Jeremiah in the LXX not an inerrant text, or might it be? Honestly, if the LXX Jeremiah were in our Bibles and the MT Jeremiah not, I suspect that the only real change that would be going on in this discussion would be the text that we consider inerrant. This suggests to me that inerrancy is more about feeling confidence in our own Scriptural tradition than a quality that tradition possess.
The issue of canon is another sticky point for those who argue inerrancy. There has never been a point in history where Christendom at large has subscribed to the same canon of literature. The mentality is often polemical–only one of these traditions is right. Maybe this is so, but it seems to me that this is more often an assumed conclusion, not a reasoned one. Why has there never been a clearly defined conception of canon and how should we allow that to affect our doctrine of Scripture? I think this question to be an important one because it demonstrates that inerrancy is not as much about a quality of the texts as the evangelical tradition (or other traditions subscribing to inerrancy) suggest. Why can the many traditions of Christendom not sort this mess out by using inerrancy as a guide to canon conception? Why not use inerrancy as the standard that determines the canonicity of any purported “Scriptural” book. What this actually shows us is that inerrancy is not as helpful as our Bible teachers growing up suggested.
In addition, it is worth mentioning that Scripture’s own understanding of Scripture is not as narrowly defined as inerrantists would have it (i.e. the purest “Scripture” is the autographical tradition). NT authors quote the LXX and call it Scripture even when it conveys a drastically different sense of the MT. Short of arguing that the LXX in these places is closer to the autograph, this presents a real problem to an evangelical doctrine of Scripture that is focused on the autographs.
As I see it, inerrancy simply assumes we have a canon and textual tradition that we do not have. Stay tuned for more!