Saturday, June 24, 2006

Biblical Inerrancy and Errors of Transmission

Let me again take up my assault on the doctrine of Biblical inerrancy. (As before, I say that it is the doctrine that the Bible, when interpreted appropriately at every point, is at every point wholly without error.)

But let us take a bit more care than we have before when we state the doctrine. In particular let us ask, What version of the Bible do we mean?

Versions of course exist. Not all include the same texts in the canonical set of Biblical texts. But let us put that issue to the side. Perhaps we'll return to it at a later time.

I wish to concentrate now upon errors in the transmission of Biblical texts. These can be of various sorts. When a text is copied, deletions might be made. Additions might be made. Changes might be made.

Such errors inevitably result in versions of the Bible. An error in transmission creates a new Bible. The new one of course overlaps with the old. But because it is not wholly overlap the old, it is not identical to the old.

I expect that my readers will be familiar with the Pericope Adulterae. It is the story told in John 7:53–8:11. There a young adulteress who the Pharisees are ready to stone is saved by Christ. Christ in her defense utters that famous sentence "He that is without sin among you, let him first cast a stone at her".

This is my favorite of the Christ-narratives. He is there at once wise and compassionate. But alas, it is not authentic. It is not in the earliest of the New Testament manuscripts and thus was very likely inserted into John's gospel by a later scribe.

How does this amount to an objection to the doctrine of Biblical inerrancy? In this way. How does the inerrantist explain the inerrancy of Scripture? How does she believe it came to be wholly without error? Inerrantists answer in a single voice. It is inerrant because it is Spirit-breathed. It was, when first composed, so guided by the Spirit in its composition that it contains no error. But note that this alone is not sufficient to explain the inerrancy of the Bible we now possess. We do not have the original Bible manuscripts. Rather we have but copies of (copies of copies . . .) of the originals. (Moreover, we have not the total set of texts that some thought deserved a place in the canonical set. Rather the texts of the Bible we now possess were selected from a much larger set of texts. But let us put that issue to the side.) But as the example of the Pericope Adulterae makes clear, those who copied the Biblical texts were not wholly faithful to the texts before them. They made additions (and deletions and changes, too).

Now, my question for inerrantists is this: Why would the Spirit allow such copy errors? The Spirit wished to produce a Bible wholly inerrant. The Spirit guided the authors of Biblical texts so that their manuscripts would be inerrant. The Spirit of course could have so guided the scribes whose task it was to copy Biblical texts that their work would have introduced no error into their product. But the Spirit did not do this.
This is an inexplicable oversight on the part of the Spirit. Indeed, given how the inerrantist portrays the work of the Spirit, it seems quite un-Spirit-like. What might be said in response? Was the Spirit simply inconsistent in its actions? This is hardly consistent with divinity. Did the Spirit perhaps lack the ability to guide thescribess as they made their copies? The Spirit is God and so lacks the ability to do nothing. Might the Spirit have been ignorant of the errors of the scribes? Again we must say that the Spirit is God and thus lacks knowledge of nothing.

There is nothing for the inerrantist left to say.

The conclusion is obvious. We must assume that the Spirit is consistent in its actions, and it is moreover both perfectly knowledgeable and perfectly powerful. Thus since it did not act so as insure that the scribes who copied Biblical texts did not introduce any error, it did not act so as to insure that the authors of the Biblical texts made no errors when they wrote. The doctrine of Biblical inerrancy must be abandoned.

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