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Response to Misquoting Jesus – Ia

I wanted to follow up briefly on my first post on Misquoting Jesus to provide a quotation and make a couple more comments on inspiration. The quotation comes from page 13:

It is a radical shift from reading the Bible as an inerrant blueprint for our faith, life, and future to seeing it as a very human book, with very human points of view, many of which differ from one another and none of which provides the inerrant guide to how we should live. . . .

This is certainly a shift that often occurs when someone with a very strict view of Biblical inspiration is confronted with the facts of Biblical history. But there is a huge amount of spin that is possible in circumstances like this. Discussions of Biblical inspiration, for various reasons, tend to be dominated by extremes. Either one can trust everything in the Bible, or one can trust nothing. Either it is without error on everything, or it has no valid information at all. I’m not accusing Bart Ehrman of taking such extreme views, though he has made a very radical shift in his own appreciation of the Bible.

I could quite easily say that the Bible is “a very human book, with very human points of view, many of which differ from one another and none of which provides the inerrant guide to how we should live.” Yet at the same time, I regard the Bible as inspired. It seems to me that both fundamentalists and skeptics have a similar assumption about what a divinely inspired book must contain. Both agree that it must contain accurate information and precise instructions. The debate between them is over whether the Bible provides any such thing. But why should we assume that God wanted to provide us with that particular type of guide?

Christians place strong emphasis on 1 Timothy 3:16 and “God-breathed (theopneustos).” In fact, in any discussion I’m involved with on Biblical inerrancy someone is sure to quote that text in support of the doctrine of inerrancy. Once they have quoted this verse, which they seem to think I will never have read, they look hopefully at me, assuming they have made their point. When I fail to see support for inerrancy in the text, I can see that they conclude that I must surely be a very perverse man. (In this paragraph I use the term “inerrancy” in the very loose form in which it is normally used. The Chicago Statement is generally a bit more nuanced.)

But where is the definition of what happens to a speech, a text, or any form of message when it is breathed by God. A partial analogy might be found in Genesis 2:7, when God breathes the breath of life into the first human. The result was that the person became a living person, but Genesis 3 very quickly suggests that the man did not become inerrant.

I tend to take my clue on this from he remainder of 2 Timothy 3:16, which tells us that the scripture is useful for training, rebuke, correcting faults, and training in righteousness. The Bible can be all of those things without also being inerrant. In fact, we regularly manage to live our lives and learn new things while using resources that are not totally without error.

Of course a more nuanced view of inerrancy is normally included in doctrinal statements. That version applies only to the autographs. Ehrman mentions this issue a few times. The following question comes from page 11:

Even so, what is one to make of all these differences? If one wants to insist that God inspired the very words of scripture, what would be the point if we don’t have the very words of scripture?

While I agree with Elgin Hushbeck that we truly have substantially recovered the original text of the New Testament, I think that Ehrman’s question is relevant. Why must the autographs be inerrant, if we do not possess them?

Let me illustrate. (I discuss this in greater detail in the tract What is the Word of God?.) God speaks to a prophet, the prophet verbalizes the message, a scribe copies the message at the prophet’s dictation, then other scribes copy that. Not all of these steps occur every time, but that is a good general view. Let’s assume that God speaks the message correctly. If the prophet errs in hearing the message, then we have a problem with inerrancy. If a scribe to whom the prophet is dictating the message errs in hearing or writing, we have a problem with inerrancy. But once the text has gotten to paper, papyrus, or parchment, there is no problem if the next copyist makes an error.

Why? This certainly seems like the view of a textual society, where the written form is given priority. But no matter where the error is introduced, the result for us is the same–an error in the text as we possess it. And as most supporters of Biblical inerrancy would agree, we can get everything necessary from the Bible as we have it. So why worry about the state of autographs that we have never had?

Thus I think textual criticism itself makes it pretty clear that one can deal with a text in which there are errors, and in which we have doubtful readings in those few cases where the evidence is not extremely strong.

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