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Why inerrancy of the Bible is so important to Evangelical Christians

By Eric Johnson

For a 5-part Viewpoint on Mormonism series that aired March 1-5, 2021, click on these links:  Part 1  Part 2  Part 3  Part 4  Part 5

There is a term called “inerrancy of the Bible” that is considered a most important belief by those calling themselves Evangelical Christians. Many Latter-day Saints criticize those who hold to this view, pointing out that their church’s Eighth Article of Faith says in part that the Bible is true “only as far as it is translated correctly.”

In other words, this argument says that the Bible has many “translation” errors and therefore cannot be fully trusted–although those who say this are not referencing the “translation” of the Bible but rather the transmission of the text. LDS Church founder Joseph Smith expounded on this issue when he said, “I believe the Bible as it read when it came from the pen of the original writers. Ignorant translators, careless transcribers, or designing and corrupt priests have committed many errors” (Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith, p. 327).

There is a difference between inerrancy of the Bible and transmission/translation of the manuscripts/text. Inerrancy means that Christians hold the Bible, as it was originally written, as trustworthy in all aspects of doctrine and teaching. Should the Bible be trusted in this way? Let’s talk about inerrancy and we can also spend a little time talking about the transmission of the text.

Defining inerrancy

Christian theologian Gleason L. Archer writes,

Throughout the history of the Christian church, it has been clearly understood that the Bible as originally given by God was free from error. Except for heretical groups that broke away from the church, it was always assumed that Scripture was completely authoritative and trustworthy in all that it asserts as factual . . . (Encyclopedia of Bible Difficulties, p. 19).

For a definition of inerrancy, Christian pastor John MacArthur explained:

Inerrancy means literally “without error.” When applied to Scripture, it means that the Bible is without error in the original copies. It is therefore free, when properly interpreted, from affirming anything that is untrue or contrary to fact (Biblical Doctrine, p. 109).

He also wrote,

The Bible is the inerrant, infallible Word of God. It is the result of divine inspiration, which produced divinely authoritative and factual accounts that are truthful in what they record. This doctrine applies directly to the original autographs and indirectly to the texts and translations of today (p. 113).

Inerrancy is the belief that the Bible, as it was originally written in the 66 books of the Old and New Testaments, contains full truth in the original copies, which we call “autographs.” Infallibility is the idea that the original autographs were written exactly the way God intended. Paul claimed that the Bible is “inspired by God” and that it can be used by humans for “teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness” (2 Timothy 3:16). God used human authors to write down what He intended (2 Peter 1:21). While God did not use “automatic” writing and instead allowed each author to use his own style, the words written down are considered inspired and are exactly what God intended to be said.

Describing the “three elements in inspiration,” Geisler and William E. Nix explain,

The first element in inspiration is God’s causality. God is the Prime Mover by whose promptings the prophets were led to write. The ultimate origin of inspired writings is the desire of the Divine to communicate with man. The second factor is the prophetic agency. The Word of God comes through men of God. God employs the instrumentality of human personality to convey His message. Finally, the written prophet utterance is invested with divine authority. The prophet’s words are God’s Word (From God to Us: How We Got Our Bible, p. 54).

Referring to the Bible, Archer writes,

If the statements it contains concerning matters of history and science can be proven by extrabiblical records, by ancient documents recovered through archaeological digs, or by the established facts of modern science to be contrary to the truth, then there is grave doubt as to its trustworthiness in matters of religion. In other words, if the biblical record can be proved fallible in areas of fact that can be verified, then it is hardly to be trusted in areas where it cannot be tested. As a witness for God, the Bible would be discredited as untrustworthy (Encyclopedia of Bible Difficulties, p. 23).

The idea that the Bible is fully trustworthy can be found in this syllogism (logical sequence) put together by Norman Geisler and Thomas Howe in their book When Critics Ask. It goes like this:

God Cannot Err

The Bible is the Word of God

Therefore, the Bible cannot err.

In other words, the Bible—the special revelation from God—is provided to humanity as God’s very mindset. How is a Christian believer supposed to Believe? Think? Live? The answers are given in the pages of the Bible. God cannot lie (Heb. 6:18), as “He remains faithful; He cannot deny Himself” (2 Tim. 2:13). As far as the Word of God, it cannot be broken, Jesus said in John 10:35. Over and over again, Jesus used the words “It is written” to make an authoritative point. Paul also called the Scriptures the Word of God (Rom. 9:6). And the author of Hebrews said that “the Word of God is living and active. Sharper than any double-edged sword, it penetrates even to dividing soul and spirit, joints and marrow; it judges the thoughts and attitudes of the heart” (Heb. 4:12). Since this is the case, the “God of truth has given us the Word of Truth, and it does not contain any untruth in it. The Bible is the unerring Word of God” (When Critics Ask, p. 12).

It should be made clear at this point that inerrancy and infallibility do not say that any particular English translation of the Bible is perfect. Rather, these words are referring to the autograph copies. A person can believe in inerrancy/infallibility and still hold that there could be errors in the Greek and Hebrew manuscripts. Determining whether or not the copies are accurate is a science called textual criticism. Carl F.H. Henry explained:

Inerrancy pertains only to the oral or written proclamation of the originally inspired prophets and apostles. Not only was their communication of the Word of God efficacious in teaching the truth of revelation, but their transmission of that Word was error-free. Inerrancy does not extend to copies, translations or versions, however (Greg Bahnsen, “The Inerrancy of the Autographa,” Inerrancy, edited by Norman Geisler, p. 157).

Greg Bahnsen added this on pages 175-176,

As things stand in Scripture, however, inspiration refers to the original words produced under the Holy Spirit and not to the production of scribal copies. . . . the fact that the original Scripture had its origins in God does not mean that the copies, as textual copies, also have their origin in God, but that the message they embody traces ultimately back in some measure to God’s given revelation. . . . restrictions of inerrancy to the autographa is based on the unwillingness of evangelicals to contend for the precise infallibility or inerrancy of the transmitted text, for Scripture nowhere gives us ground to maintain that its transmission and translation would be kept without error by God. There is no scriptural warrant for holding that God will perform the perpetual miracle of preserving His written Word from all errors in its being transcribed from one copy to another. Since the Bible does not claim that every copier, translator, typesetter, and printer will share the infallibility of the original document, Christians should not make such a claim either.

Of course, multiple manuscripts from a variety of sources, called “manuscript families.” These copies are not exactly the same, as there are many variants. However, the vast majority of these variants normally do not have a major impact on the meaning, such as one manuscript saying “the fulness of deity lives in Jesus” (Col. 2:9) and another saying “the fulness of deity does not live in Jesus.” For those who get confused about different possible readings of some passages that are a result of manuscripts that are not the exact same, modern translations of the Bible do the readers a huge service in the footnotes of particular passages to explain possible problems with the rendering of a particular text, something not provided by the King James Version of the Bible.

Does the lack of original autographs minimize the inerrancy of the Bible?

A Mormon may point to the fact that the original autographs of the Bible have been lost or destroyed. “We don’t even have one single autograph!” someone may complain. “How can anyone believe in inerrancy without these original writings?” It is true that we do not have the original manuscripts of the Bible, but we do have many different copies to help us see what the originals would have said. MacArthur writes,

Every book of the Bible was originally composed under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit by a human author. These original works—called autographs—were completely without error as the result of divine inspiration. None of these original manuscripts are in existence today. Instead, copies were made and soon thereafter copies of copies. These copies and multitudes of translations have been passed down through the centuries (pp. 111-112).

Multiple copies help us to understand that “ignorant translators” and “corrupt transcribers,” as Smith called them, would have had a terrible time in trying to get their changes to stick.

When it comes to “preservation” of the scripture, many of the Dead Sea Scrolls that were composed between the 3rd century BC and the 1st century AD are available to scholars. Before the Dead Sea Scrolls were discovered and later translated, the earliest copies of the Old Testament came from the tenth century Masoretic text. While there are discrepancies, the discovery of the Scrolls has helped ascertain the accuracy of the biblical transmission of the text.

First, they show the accuracy of the Old Testament text. According to archaeologist Randall Price,

Every person with a cursory knowledge of the Dead Sea Scrolls has been told that they are significant because they confirm for us the accuracy of the Old Testament text. This is true, and it was one of the most obvious benefits derived from discovering the Scrolls (Secrets of the Dead Sea Scrolls, p. 126).

These texts, which could have been dated no older than AD 68, predated the earliest Masoretic text copies from the 10th century AD. As Price explains,

Before the Dead Sea Scrolls were found, the biblical text of the Old Testament was known only from a text dating to the Middle Ages. The earliest known complete Hebrew manuscript of the Old Testament was the Ben Asher Codex in the Public Library of Leningrad. This was our oldest copy of the Bible, dating to about AD 1008 . . . Because of the vast amount of time that passed between the writing of the originals and the tenth-century copy, it was assumed that generations of scribes had entered mistakes of transmission into the Bible text. . . . These doubts were settled forever with one of the first Scrolls discovered, which was a copy of the entire book of Isaiah (p. 126. Ellipses mine).

The Great Scroll of Isaiah discovered in Cave 1 of Qumran

Amazingly, a comparison of the earliest Masoretic text from the 10th century AD with the Great Scroll of Isaiah (circa 125 BC) shows how similar, not different, they were despite the 1,000-year time gap. Price states that “it was evident that, except for minor details (such as spelling) that do not affect the meaning of the text, the two were almost identical” (p. 127). Explaining how textual variants do take place in the different biblical manuscripts while not taking away from the preservation of the Bible, Price states,

Yet we can say–and say with greater confidence than ever based on the witness of the Scrolls–that our present text is accurate and reliable, and that nothing affecting the doctrine of the original has been compromised or changed in any way in the manuscript copies. . . . Those who expected the Scrolls to produce a radical revision of the Bible have been disappointed, for these texts have only verified the reliability of the Old Testament as it appears in our modern translations (pp. 144, 146). (For an article on this topic, click here.)

In addition, there are more than 5,700 copies of the Greek New Testament as well as more than 24,000 manuscripts in other languages translated directly from the Greek. Scholars are able to study the earlier, most accurate manuscripts, including their manuscript families, to determine to a high degree of accuracy what the original actually said. BYU professor Lloyd Anderson argued this to be the case, claiming that the New Testament is 99% percent accurate!

One can disagree with the textual assumptions behind some of the modern translations of the New Testament and still not be overly concerned with differences that are immaterial. For a book to undergo progressive uncovering of its manuscript history and come out with so little debatable in its text is a great tribute to its essential authenticity. First, no new manuscript discovery has produced serious differences in the essential story. This survey has disclosed the leading textual controversies, and together they would be well within one percent of the text. Stated differently, all manuscripts agree on the essential correctness of 99 percent of all the verses in the New Testament. The second great fact that such a survey demonstrates is the progress that has placed the world in possession of manuscripts very near to the time of their writing. One would have to be a student of ancient history to appreciate how much superior the New Testament is to any other any book in its manuscript tradition (“Manuscript Discoveries of the New Testament in Perspective,” Papers of the Fourteenth Annual Symposium on the Archaeology of the Scriptures, Presented April 13, 1963, pp. 57-58).

This is a telling quote, and remember, Anderson was LDS!

There are several other reasons why the lack of the autographs should not be a concern to the Latter-day Saints. For one, if the autographs of the Bible existed today, then we can ask the important question, “Who would own most of them?” With the material wealth of the Roman Catholic Church, one could assume that this is the most likely candidate to own these copies. However, if the originals were owned by a religion that certainly has a particular mindset, wouldn’t the skeptic have a plausible argument in pointing out that this church could have made changes to the autographs it possessed? How would we know if that autograph was sound? Perhaps it’s better that we have no autographs, as this charge cannot be made.

In addition, isn’t the Mormon who argues against the Bible by saying its autographs don’t exist merely digging his own hole? After all, the Book of Mormon “autographs”—supposedly written on gold plates in “Reformed Egyptian” writing—were taken back by the angel and were never studied. Scholars do not have access to them, and no copies of the original wording were ever made. How many Latter-day Saints would suggest that the Book of Mormon cannot be trusted since the autographs are unavailable?

How does biblical archaeology help?

It is impossible to prove that the Bible is true. For instance, we are unable to prove in an empirical sense that God created the heavens and the earth. We cannot prove that the flood of Noah’s time was sent by God. And we cannot prove that Jesus sits at the right hand of the Father.

Tel Dan Inscription, proving David was a real person, displayed in the Israel Museum in Jerusalem

However, the Bible teaches all of these things. We can ask, “What evidence do we have that what the Bible teaches, in a historical sense, is true?” One of the best ways to help us understand that the Bible has accurately reported history is found in biblical archaeology. Archaeology can’t prove the issues listed in the previous paragraph. However, it can help us to see the evidence to support what the Bible says took place.  For instance, biblical discoveries include Herod’s temple (Jerusalem, Luke 1:9), the Pool of Siloam (Jerusalem, John 9:7), Pilate’s inscription (Caesarea, Luke 3:1), Erastus’ inscription (Corinth, Romans 16:23), the tomb of Augustus (Rome, Luke 2:1), Mamertime Prison (Rome, 2 Timothy 1:16-17), the Tel Dan Inscription (proving David was a real person) and the Arch of Titus (Rome, Luke 19:43-44).

Thanks to the many discoveries in the Holy Land, someone who disagrees with all of the Bible’s theology would be hard-pressed to show how the events portrayed in the Bible lack historicity. Artifacts such as pottery, lamps, coins, and other ancient pieces give strong support to the veracity of biblical history. Many of these objects are in such abundance that tourists and collectors are able to bring home abundant souvenirs of such items.

Here is a list of my favorite 20th century biblical archaeological discoveries from Israel—click here.

Why the doctrine of inerrancy matters

The authors of the Bible claimed divine inspiration. They said it was not their words but His. If the Bible is not trustworthy and did not originate by God, then we cannot be sure if we know what God wants people to believe and act. If this is a man-made book that could contain wrong ideas and beliefs, then it should not be considered a trustworthy divine source of understanding. Either God inspired the Bible or he did not. There is no middle ground. As theologian James R. White puts it, “Once the highest view of Scripture is abandoned by any theologian, group, denomination, or church, the downhill slide in both its theology and practice is inevitable” (Scripture Alone, p. 66).

Although we don’t have the autographs of the Bible, we can still trust it as true. Greg Bahnsen wrote,

Presupposing the purposes of God to the preservation of the biblical text, and noting the outstanding results of the textual criticism of the Scriptures, we can have full assurance that we possess the Word of God necessary for our salvation and Christian walk. As a criticism of this evangelical doctrine, suggestions that the autographic text has been forever lost are groundless and futile. The Bibles in our hands are trustworthy renditions of God’s original message, adequate for all intents and purposes as copies and conveyors of God’s authoritative Word (“The Inerrancy of the Autographa,” Inerrancy, edited by Norman Geisler, pp. 188-89).

As it has been shown, we have a solid preservation of the Bible, so much more accurate and reliable than any other ancient book ever produced! For instance, we have much of the Old Testament going back to the 3rd century BC and multiple copies of the New Testament going back to the first three centuries after Jesus died and rose from the dead. Even LDS scholars have attested to the authenticity of the biblical manuscripts. There is no doubt it is the inerrant Word of God.

For more on the archaeology of the Bible, click here.

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