God’s Autograph

A few week’s ago, I let you know that Peter Enns has been posting an in depth series over at the BioLogos blog in which he interacts in quite some detail with the Chicago Statement of Biblical Inerrancy. Since then, he has posted a few more articles in the series, and I can only imagine such will continue into the future.

I really appreciate what Enns is doing, even applaud it in some sense. Although he is mainly engaging in such to help the whole discussion of how Christians are to understand and engage with the relationship between science and faith (especially our faith as expressed in Scripture), I think what he is doing has wider ramifications.

Now, if one were to read his series, they might wonder why I would appreciate such, much less applaud it. It seems so ‘liberal’, in that Enns is questioning some of the articles found in the Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy. For many evangelicals, the Bible is inerrant, right? – Why challenge such? This is what we believe.

While, in this article, my plan is not to discuss in detail the idea of inerrancy (though maybe another time), I really want to focus in on one particular article within the Chicago Statement that I believe could cause problems if examined further. It is found in Article X, which states this:

We affirm that inspiration, strictly speaking, applies only to the autographic text of Scripture, which in the providence of God can be ascertained from available manuscripts with great accuracy. We further affirm that copies and translations of Scripture are the Word of God to the extent that they faithfully represent the original.

We deny that any essential element of the Christian faith is affected by the absence of the autographs. We further deny that this absence renders the assertion of Biblical inerrancy invalid or irrelevant.

I believe it would be obvious to most that the ancient biblical manuscripts that we do have are not the original biblical manuscripts, or autographs, as scholars and theologians identify it. We have very solid resources that have helped biblical scholars in their textual research of the biblical manuscripts. With the Old Testament, there are two main texts most easily referred to: 1) that of the Masoretic text and 2) what was found amongst the Qumran caves back in the mid 1900’s, which is known as the Dead Sea Scrolls. You can also take a look at the Center for the Study of New Testament Manuscripts and all the available manuscripts that have been unearthed as of today to help us in textual studies of the New Testament. For some, this will be fascinating!

We have so much, such a rich history through the various critical studies that help underline and confirm the veracity of what we have in the whole of Scripture. I don’t even think I could begin to comprehend the treasures we have. Such resources are not perfect, but they are both reasonable and sufficient in helping us in both Old and New Testament textual analysis.

Still, they are not the originals, those ever-blessed autographs.

If we had them, could we claim perfection? Well, again, that’s another whole article (or series). But for now, I want to address the idea of the autographs, especially as outlined in Article X of the Chicago Statement.

You see, in October 1978, some 30+ years ago, more than 200 evangelical scholars invested their idea of inspiration (or Scripture being God-breathed, as coming from the Greek word theopneustos) in the well-known originals. I say well-known not because we study them regularly, since we possess them not, but because so many have identified inspiration with the originals.

Now, the statement found in Article X does say, ‘strictly speaking’We affirm that inspiration, strictly speaking, applies only to the autographic text of Scripture, which in the providence of God can be ascertained from available manuscripts with great accuracy. That qualifier is helpful, in some sense. But the last sentence of the first statement still shows how much is invested in those originals – We further affirm that copies and translations of Scripture are the Word of God to the extent that they faithfully represent the original.

The benchmark remains the originals.

Now, we could say, ‘Come on, Scott. What’s the problem? The originals are the perfect ones but we don’t have the perfect ones. So we recognise that we can qualify such a statement by saying they are inspired as long as the represent the originals. Where is the problem?’

Below I share 3 points on why I believe the Chicago Statement might be too stringent on its idea of inspiration of Scripture.

1) God Himself did not seem overly concerned with preserving the originals.

Think about it. We don’t have the originals. That’s simple. But, as I noted, most evangelicals build their whole doctrine of Scripture, or at least their central understanding of that doctrine, around the originals. Read many statements and church creedal confessions. The central factor is that of the originals, the autographs. But we don’t have them.

Was God so concerned about the originals? If they, and they alone are the true and faithful and perfectly inerrant versions of Scripture, and we substantially invest a considerable amount of our doctrine into those originals, then why didn’t God preserve them?

Why was He ok with the scribal transcriptions and even scribal edits? Yes, edits and updates are there. None of these are detrimental to our faith. But they are there. And some scholars would suggest the finalised form of even earlier parts of the Old Testament didn’t really come into being until the exilic or post-exilic times. This is not fully provable, just mainly suggestions through studies in textual criticism, etc.

Still, as I understand it, the main point is that God did not seem so concerned about the originals. Matter of fact, I would suggest we have become more enamoured with them than God Himself. To invest our full understanding of inspiration into the originals, the originals that God did not preserve in His providence through thousands of years of the community of faith, is more than what God holds as most important.

When we have moved beyond God in our doctrine, I believe we have moved too far.

2) The New Testament writers did not quote from the Hebrew originals and they even quoted from a translation of the originals.

You might not know it, but the preferred translation in the days of the first century was known as the Septuagint, the Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible, or what we know as the Old Testament.

So, it would be easy to note that they did not have the originals. But they, these apostles and the early church, did not seem in the least bothered by such. Matter of fact, the famous 2 Tim 3:14-17 was stated in the midst of those first apostles and early church not having the originals. They were not making statements about the God-breathed nature of Scripture based upon a lofty idea of originals. They were making it about what they knew and had, which again, this would not only have been a copy hundreds of years removed from the originals, but it was also a translation into another whole language, Greek.

As I mentioned, the New Testament writers would have mainly quoted from the Greek Old Testament. Not every time, but most of the time. And, if you ever compare an Old Testament quotation in the New Testament with what our English Old Testament says, it will usually come out a bit different. The reason being is that most Bible translators believe the Old Testament translation should come to us from the Hebrew. And I think this is due to the love affair with the originals.

You see, I’m actually fine with this practice. But, again, not even the authoritative first century apostles felt the need to invest so much in those originals. Greek was fine with them. A translation was still worthy as being authoritative.

An example of such a difference would be seen in Matthew’s quotation of Micah’s prophetic words about the Messiah to come. Matthew states:

But you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah,
are by no means least among the rulers of Judah;
for out of you will come a ruler
who will shepherd my people Israel. (Matt 2:6)

But Micah stated it this way:

But you, Bethlehem Ephrathah,
though you are small among the clans of Judah,
out of you will come for me
one who will be ruler over Israel

He will stand and shepherd his flock
in the strength of the LORD. (Mic 5:2, 4)

Of course these are both English translations, but I think we get the point. Though Matthew is combining the words of of Micah found in two verses (vs 2 and 4), one can still see the slight changes between the two statements. Micah’s are from the Hebrew; Matthew’s are from the Greek.

Of course, nothing is detrimental to our faith here. There is no major theological shift that must take place because of such. And I don’t point this out to make us doubt the reality of the inspired nature of Scripture. I simply point out that the New Testament authors, some of them apostles, were not so bothered as to quote from a translation, which was not the original. They were not so picky as to need to develop a theology centred around the original autographs. They were very fine with a Greek translation, or even a Hebrew copy if they decided to take such up.

Again, why invest so much into what both God and the main authoritative preachers and writers of the New Testament were not investing their theology into? I even believe the great 2 Tim 3:16 does not have in mind the originals.

Why do we feel we must bestow so much upon the originals?

3) We do not have the originals.

Let me be very clear on this point – I don’t believe this specific point #3 is the great argument here. Not having what we value does not devalue that which we highly value.

Still, the reality is that we don’t have the originals.

Simple enough.

Do I believe that, if we did have the originals, every word and sentence and paragraph and book, that it would be beneficial? Oh yes. Very much so.

But we don’t have it. And I can pretty much ascertain that we never will.

And this point is a whole summary pointing back to my first 2 points. The originals must not be so important in the eyes of God as for Him to not ultimately preserve them. Nor does 2 Tim 3:16-17 state:

All original manuscripts of Scripture are God-breathed and are useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that the servant of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work.

Again, please note that I believe textual studies and the ancient manuscripts are important. I believe we have faithful men and women diving into them, and new finds, to help us best translate the Scripture not only into English, but all languages of the world. But we don’t have the originals, and I don’t suppose we ever will. Yet, as far as I can tell, for thousands of years, we have got on just fine with the God-breathed Scripture we do have, knowing its true power to teach, rebuke, correct and train us in righteousness, all that the body of Christ may be thoroughly equipped for every good work.

I believe the Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy served its time and served its purpose. It was also probably somewhat reactionary to some of the liberal claims of that day and previous decades. There was a sense of a need to defend Scripture as God’s word. And such was and is noble.

But, in the end, God doesn’t need us to defend His word. We can and we will. Still, God doesn’t need articles of affirmation and denial to support such, ones that seem to go beyond that which even God Himself has divested into His own God-breathed word in Scripture.

We have not the original manuscripts, though if we did, I suppose you and I could probably not read them. But we do have the God-breathed Scriptures. And we will continue to have them and benefit from such, growing in righteousness as we read and study them, submitting to God through them, and staying in dialogue with the community of faith of now and of the past 2000 years.

If you are interested in Peter Enns’ thoughts on this topic as well, see his article here.


6 thoughts on “God’s Autograph

  1. Insofar as the Chicago Statement tacitly admits that our current Bibles are not inerrant, the question must be asked: what practical function does the doctrine of inerrancy serve, when we all agree that the only inerrant documents are the ones we no longer possess?

  2. Dave –

    Yes, that is another whole discussion, one I would like to take up at some point. While I think most evangelicals do it out of noble honour to God and Scripture, I do believe we take things too far at times, making things a little too tightly defined.

  3. @Scott: I understand what the CSBE is trying to say. It is acknowledging that there are important text critical issues while still seeking to hold to the Scriptures as the inerrant Word of God. It is assumed that this gives motivation for evangelicals to seek the “original” text because it gives further credence to text criticism for evangelicals.

    Of course, there are the problems you noted. What are the “autographs”? When I talk to scholars of the Fourth Gospel many say that the last chapter was added later, the prologue was added later, and we know that 7.53-8.12 was added much later. Are these part of the “autograph”? Do the autographs include editorial additions, subtractions, and other alternations? If so, who counts? The earliest editors? First century editors only? When does the evolution stop so that a text is no longer the “autograph”?

    This is part of the reason why I like the word “infallibility” better than inerrancy. Inerrancy leads down a lot of confusing paths like this one.

  4. Great thoughts, Scott. A brilliant book on “theopneustos” is Craig Allert, “A High View of Scripture?” from Baker Academic, 2005 I think. He does a study of how the Patristics actually used “theupneustos,” and it is radically contrary to how contemporary evangelicals use the term (and apply it to the supposed “autographs”).

    I think another reason evangelicals are so obsessed with the autographs and inerrancy is because they have a deficient understanding of what the Bible even is. For evangelicals, the Bible is the bedrock of our faith. By contrast, I would point out that Jesus Christ is the bedrock of our faith, and the Christian Church survived for literally centuries before the “Bible” even existed. And even then when it came into existence, it wasn’t the Protestant 66-book canon.

    It’s a misguided “biblicism.”

  5. Brian –

    I wonder if we should speak more ‘positively’ about what Scripture is, rather than in the negative. Meaning, we can say it is faithful and reliable, rather than using words to negate certain things, such as inerrant and infallible.

    It was just a thought. But it is mere semantics.

    I do understand what you are stating. And I want to uphold a very high view of Scripture. But sometimes I think we try a little too hard. Your questions show how we could dissect this over and over and it give us a headache.

  6. Chach –

    Another book to read. I still need to read a couple of other books, including Sparks God’s Word in Human Words. 🙂

    And I agree. The foundational bedrock to the Christian faith is Christ and the gospel, not the text. The text ultimately attests to it, and that is why it becomes very important. But it is not the bedrock, as you suggest.

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