Does Textual Criticism Threaten Inerrancy?

Bible One of the frequently asked questions that we receive is whether or not we believe that the Bible is inerrant. The problem with the question is that rarely does the questioner explain what they mean by the term inerrant. It has become popular for the media to use the question of inerrancy to ridicule those who are Christians. Fundamentalism is said to be a blind belief in the inerrancy of the Bible, and since there are obvious errors in much of what fundamentalism teaches, the credibility of the Bible is called into question.

Scrolls In modern times, a process called Textual Criticism has been used to evaluate the Bible. The King James translation of the Bible was translated from what is called the"received text." What that refers to is the dominant manuscript in Greek published in 1516 and available for the King James translators. Since 1516, there have been numerous discoveries of new manuscripts which in many cases were older than the one used by the King James translators. There have also been better understandings of what words mean and how the culture of the time understood the words. Sometimes the translator's understandings of what the original writer was trying to say may have been affected by the translators own conceptions or misunderstandings. Comparing the older and more credible manuscripts with the ones used by the King James translators shows some of these differences (some errors), and that is what textual criticism is all about.

It is important to understand that this process of textual criticism does not change meanings of words a lot. In the New Testament, only about one word in 1,000 is in any way different. Even when there is a difference, it is rarely of any consequence at all. Sometimes it has happened because someone made a copy error. Sometimes a copyist put a comment in the margin as they translated and printers inserted it into the manuscript. Making the comparisons allows us to get better and better translations, and this is a good thing.

The problem for some of us is what we understand inerrancy to mean. Inerrancy does not mean that a particular translation is without mistakes, or that there is a particular set of English words that have biblical credibility while others do not. J. I. Packer (executive editor of Christianity Today and a professor of theology at Regent College in Vancouver) says it well:

Belief in inerrancy involves an advance commitment to receive as from God all that the Bible, interpreting itself to us through the Holy Spirit in a natural and coherent way, teaches.

The notion that those of us who believe the Bible is the Word of God have something to fear from textual criticism is misguided. It is the same kind of error that has caused some people to claim that a particular translation of the Bible is the only one that we can use. We can trust God's Word, but we have to work to overcome the problems of culture and time and the changes of the meanings of words as well as mechanical problems of translation and reproduction. It may take some work, but we need not question the fact that "All Scripture is given by God and is profitable for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness, that the man (or woman) of God may be perfect, completely furnished to every good work" (2 Timothy 3:16-17 from a combination of various translations).

--Reference: Christianity Today, October 7, 2002, page 102.

--John N. Clayton

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