Growing up in a Holiness denomination it is no surprise that until I was about 31 I was unaware of any other position on the matter of Biblical truth than Inerrancy. To be clear, I am not associating inerrancy with infallibility. Inerrancy says that “…the Bible is accurate and totally free of error, that “Scripture in the original manuscripts does not affirm anything that is contrary to fact.“1 Infallibility maintains “…that the Bible is completely trustworthy as a guide to salvation and the life of faith and will not fail to accomplish its purpose.“2 These are two separate views on scripture – the first dictates a funnel through which all knowledge ought to pass before getting to the individual for critical thought. The second allows for further investigation and critical thought over time without assuming that we have reached an absolute truth through one single method of interpretation – although never denying the existence of absolute truth.
What we will be dealing with here is inerrancy – not as a tongue and cheek assessment, but to lay forth some honest questions that arise when confronted by this method of interpreting scripture.
The Inerrancy of the Original Manuscripts
One of the most popular positions taken on inerrancy is the claim that the Bible is inerrant in its original manuscripts. But this does not account for those interpretations of the Bible that follows. As anyone who studies scripture knows, the Bible comes in many different interpretations. One only need to reference a Biblical equivalence chart to see how this could play out in the average Christian’s study life.
Left: "word for word" | Right: Capturing what the author meant (Biblical Equivalence Chart) - Thompson, David L. "Bible Study That Works". (Anderson, In: Francis Asbury Press, 1994.) p.24.
Just for brevity, let’s take the New American Standard Bible versus the New International Version. The example here is from the parable of the Good Samaritan in Luke Chapter 10, but more specifically, Luke 10:33.
|LUKE 10:33 (NASB)
|But a Samaritan, who was on a journey, came upon him; and when he saw him, he felt compassion,
|LUKE 10:33 (NIV)
|But a Samaritan, as he traveled, came where the man was; and when he saw him, he took pity on him.
The NASB’s translation says “compassion” and the NIV’s says “pity.” So, which is it – compassion or pity? The meaning of pity has changed. Instead of its intentional use, to mean compassion, it now connotes more apathy then it does sympathy or empathy – as in “a pitiful excuse.” This may not highlight an inherent problem with the interpretation, but it does underscore an issue with semantics. Although the Bible’s meaning never changes, cultures do, and therefore do the languages of cultures.
So what? Do we just assume that the language within the Bible is something that can span across cultures and time with the help of the Holy Spirit? If so, then why even worry about coming up with the same translations? After all, if this were true, wouldn’t those people and denominations within the King James Only Movement maintain a purer doctrine of inerrancy? If not, what happens in between translations, if someone gets their personal doctrine wrong because they picked up the translation that doesn’t best jive with their dialect, are they destined to hell? These, along with other questions often challenge the doctrine of inerrancy and multiple translations.
The Inerrancy of the Original Manuscripts
One of the most popular positions taken on inerrancy is the claim that the Bible is inerrant in its original manuscripts. The first question that comes to mind is what happens when the original manuscripts are not available – because they aren’t. The simple fact is that the original manuscripts for the New or Old Testaments are not available – most say they probably do not exist anymore, they’re gone forever. Are we to trust that the current manuscripts are just as pure as the originals? What about the marginal notes written on the older manuscripts – are those from the author or copyist?
One of the most interesting questions to consider and research is how Jesus used Scripture during his ministry. This topic has a lot to say about the translation of the Old Testament used in the Christian bible. “In Jesus’ day, Hebrew was no longer generally understood by the people. The people spoke Aramaic. Therefore, Jesus taught in Aramaic. In worship services a translator would paraphrase the Hebrew Scripture passage into the language of the people. He did not give a literal translation but paraphrased it so that it would make the most sense to the hearers – something like Eugene Peterson’s lovely paraphrase of the Bible, The Message. Out of this practice a written version of the Aramaic finally came together in the fourth century. It contains paraphrases that were used in Jesus’ day mixed with later material from the first four centuries. These documents are called the Targums.”3
In addition to the Hebrew translation of the Old Testament, it is well known that the translation of the Old Testament most used by the apostles was the Septuagint. The Septuagint was the Koine Greek translation of the Old Testament in the Hebrew language. This, then, also gives some evidence that Jesus and the Apostles approved of the use of this translation. So, here is our problem: which translation should be used? The Septuagint was used by the Apostles, but there are also Hebrew translations of the Old Testament that are available, and they predate the Septuagint. But, then the Targums were written after Jesus’ ministry, and they expound a cultural dialect that could not be captured by the Hebrew or Septuagint. If not any one of the translations, how much of each, or when should one use the other?
The fact is that Biblical inerrancy has a lot of strikes against itself when it comes to a clear answer to both the what and how. If we are to assume the inerrancy simply on faith without critically testing it, we would being doing a disservice to ourselves and, to be honest, all of humanity. Nowhere in the Bible does it claim that it is inerrant. It simply says that it is “God-breathed.” How “God-breathed” equates to inerrant, I am unsure. The only inerrant thing that one could argue to ever have walked the earth was Jesus, who is the Word of God and not the word of God. The Word of God came from and is God; the word of God came from man and simply allows us to know of all things necessary for salvation and holy living. The former gifts us salvation for our faith in Him, the latter lets us know of our salvation in Him. The former died and rose again, the latter tells us of that event. The former is inerrant, the latter only infallible.
1Grudem, Wayne A. Systematic theology: an introduction to biblical doctrine. (Leicester: Inter-Varsity Press., 1994). p. 90.
2McKim, DK, Westminster dictionary of theological terms, Westminster John Knox Press, 1996.
3Stassen, Glen H., David P. Gushee, Kingdom Ethics, (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2003.) p23-24.