The Bible: inerrancy, inspiration, etc.

Questions from a man in the trenches, with answers from yours truly:

When we read a biblical passage, what is the criteria for determining when the biblical author is making an assertion; and when the author is expressing his opinion, or making an assumption?  The same question would relate to the Church Fathers scientific and historical knowledge of their day, compared with the scientific and historical knowledge of our day.

The initial problem here is that most of us are unaware of the intricacies of our own speech. We think there is a simple on/off between assertion and non-assertion, and we think it is fairly clear which is which, so we want to know what are the two or three criteria one would need to detect the on/off in Scripture. Newman’s An Essay in Aid of a Grammar of Assent is helpful for beginning to explore how many subtle distinctions there are within our own experience of thinking and claiming. Add in the further complications of multiple genres of text and distance in time and culture, and you can imagine that a list of criteria for determining when Scripture is or is not asserting could go on more or less indefinitely. How many ways are there for a human being to signal his intent linguistically? It would be like trying to make an exhaustive list of criteria for determining whether an individual from any given contemporary culture is serious or telling a joke.

In the end, we navigate Scripture mostly the way we navigate everyday speech, by a kind of prudence rather than by an exact science, and for the most part we succeed with Scripture, as with everyday speech, far beyond what one would expect once one has realized how many complex judgments we make at every turn without reflection. Here and there we are mistaken, and even then it doesn’t matter most of the time. So for practical work, we don’t need a list of general criteria. It suffices to determine the relevant criteria for those cases where we might be wrong and it would really matter.

Was Pope Leo XIII asserting that the Holy Spirit was actually dictating (Dictation Theory) His Words in the ear of the biblical author; and that the Bible was therefore inerrant, in all of its scientific and historical teachings.  This is where many Protestant Fundamentalists, and ultra-conservative Catholics are today.

If he were asserting this, he would be stepping outside some of the most important streams of Catholic tradition. This is not how Augustine considered inspiration, nor the way Aquinas considered inspiration, nor the way the later Magisterium considered inspiration. Outside the word itself, I don’t know why anyone would suppose he was espousing that theory.

If the science, and some of the history in the Bible, are not factually true; then are we essentially left with the Faith and Morals taught by the Bible, as the true assertions, made by the biblical authors?  Again, this would not have been fully understood by the Church Fathers; because they didn’t have access to the scientific information, and the vast archaeological data that we have today.

One cannot simply separate out science/history from faith/morals. The resurrection of Jesus was a historical event, as was the preaching of the Apostles, and so on. If you say Scripture is only inerrant on faith and morals, soon enough people will contradict the faith by saying that part is “just history”. So while people have tried to use this simple dichotomy to escape the necessity of interpreting whether Scripture means to assert something, there simply is no escaping the necessity. God wills that we interpret.

What level of confidence can we have today; that any of the different English versions of the Bible accurately report the original messages given to the biblical authors by the Holy Spirit, using their actual consonantal Hebrew, Aramaic and Koine Greek words, in the nonextant Original Autographs?

In my experience, reading in English and reading commentaries, the interpretation you would get by reading and comparing several English translations differs only here and there from what a super-scholar arrives at through examination of the original languages. People working only in English often arrive at insights the scholars never uncovered. The ability to read the original is an advantage, and more specifically a blessing, but the plethora of good translations has made the meaning of Scripture more available than ever. I wince when a preacher or an Internet celebrity speaks as though everything hangs in a given Hebrew or Greek word, so that everyone without access to those words is permanently on the outside. Things just usually don’t work that way.

How do we deal with the “actual errors” in the Bible, over its long development and transmission history, caused by: (1) scribal copying errors, (2) intentional scribal doctrinal changes, (3) words and verses that can no longer be translated or interpreted, and (4) direct references in the Bible to a number of nonextant books and non-canonical books?  All of these things have the potential to corrupt the original message, given to the inspired biblical author by the Holy Spirit.

There is no way to deal with this in the abstract. Obviously, some amount of textual corruption would corrupt the message, but it is not true that any textual corruption at all corrupts the message. Consider this popular bit that made its way around the Internet recently:

 Aoccdrnig to a rscheearch at Cmabrigde Uinervtisy, it deosn’t mttaer in waht oredr the ltteers in a wrod are, the olny iprmoetnt tihng is taht the frist and lsat ltteer be at the rghit pclae. The rset can be a toatl mses and you can sitll raed it wouthit porbelm. Tihs is bcuseae the huamn mnid deos not raed ervey lteter by istlef, but the wrod as a wlohe.

As we read words, so by analogy do we read entire texts and collections of texts. The canon of Scripture could contain a fair amount of copyists errors without affecting our understanding of the whole noticeably. So does the canon contain enough textual errors to corrupt our understanding or not? The only way to know is to consider the concrete texts we have and our actual experience of reading them.

The New Testament is better attested than any other ancient documents. We have around 5,000 texts of either the whole or the part of it, an astonishing wealth when you consider that Thucydides is known to us through eight manuscripts. And our texts for the New Testament are astonishingly old. But no one collected and collated all these manuscripts until the 19th century, so we went from crude expedients like the textus receptus to the astonishing marvel of the Nestle-Aland critical edition of the New Testament over the course of a couple of centuries. What have we learned?

In a way, not much. Certain passages have been greatly illuminated, but the vast majority of the textual variants do not even affect the meaning of the passage in which they appear, and no textual variant has ever changed a doctrine or even suggested that such a change might be necessary. There is no reason to suspect that the situation would be changed if we continued to discover more and better manuscripts.

One might have predicted this based on experience with apologetics: despite our love for citing the “smoking gun” text, we are almost never able to settle an argument by citing any one text. It seems there is always some alternative way to read the text to fit in with the opponent’s point of view, so we have to collect text after text until it the burden of stretching all of them becomes too great. Similarly, even if there is some textual error somewhere that is causing us trouble, that one text is not enough by itself to change our understanding of the entire canon of Scripture.

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Author: Dr. Holmes

Dr. Jeremy Holmes teaches Theology at Wyoming Catholic College. He lives in Wyoming with his wife, Jacinta, and their eight children.

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