Inspiration of scripture equals inerrancy. That much obvious. Anyone who denies inerrancy has a deficient view of what is meant by the word “inspiration.” Liberals have argued that we cannot view the scripture as being 100 percent inerrant as long as there are questions about manuscript variations from the autographs (or original source documents) written by the apostles and prophets themselves. The original autographs were certainly inspired and inerrant – let’s start with that. This is something that all conservative Christians ought to agree on. If we deny this, then the Bible is just a book written by men that may contain some inspiration – but it cannot be called the Word of God – and it is therefore not inerrant.
The question of whether the received text of the Bible is accurate to the original manuscripts is a debate that has erupted since the 1800s. I recently came up with a thought experiment that seems to me to solve this problem. It involves first a definition of the word “inerrant” and a scenario on how the text of the Bible was preserved as the Word of God.
The simple definition of inerrancy is that the received text of the Bible we have today is preserved without error in content or transmission. For a more exhaustive treatment of the topic of inerrancy there is Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy. This was a document that was written to ensure that there would not be too much wiggle room for liberals who sought positions in conservative Bible colleges, seminaries and churches. The statement defines both what is meant by inerrancy in the affirmative, but also what it does not mean in the form of denials.
I am a high school teacher who works in a low income area. Most of my students are a few years behind in their reading level. Literacy is a problem. I sometimes imagine a Lord of the Flies type scenario occurring my students. I imagine that the entire world has been wiped out and only a few people are left behind, similar to a Noah’s Ark story. I sometimes look at my classes and ask: “If I had to rebuild a civilization with only these 34 students, which 10 would I choose and why?” (Yes, that is the size of just one of my classes.) It sounds somewhat cavalier, but it is an entertaining idea.
I choose in my mind the survivors. I then imagine what would happen once children were born are the basic necessities of life were being provided for. Could we preserve and eventually better the culture? Obviously, preserving the culture would be a must. People would have to write down what they had memorized from the civilization prior to its destruction. They would have to teach it to their children. If Christianity as a religion would be preserved, there would have to be some type of worship instituted and the Bible would have to be preserved.
What would happen if this current generation of young people had to reproduce the Bible from memory? I participated in a survey once in which Christians were asked to write out all the Ten Commandments in order. Less than two percent were able to do it. I can name all of the Ten Commandments and many Bible verses, but I have not memorized entire chapters of the Bible. On the other hand, my 17-year-old cousin attends a Christian school in which Bible memorization is required. She can recite from memory the most popular Bible verses and has memorized entire chapters including the longest chapter in the entire Bible, Psalm 119. I have known other people who have memorized entire books of the Bible and can recite them from memory.
I have read through the Bible several times and make it part of my weekly, if not daily, study. But I have not made an effort to memorize entire books or even entire chapters. If 10 people like me were left to produce the Bible, we could list all the books. We could produce many scriptures accurately. We could even provide a basic outline of each book with a great degree of doctrinal accuracy. But without a proof text, we could not reproduce the entire Bible without errors.
Let’s consider the next step in the thought experiment. Let’s say a group of 50 Bible college and Christian seminary professors and their families are traveling to a conference on a remote island. As they are nearing the island, a nuclear war occurs. Most of civilization is destroyed. They crash land and are marooned on the island. Let’s say that there was only one Bible that survives between all of them. What would be the chances that in several generations that this Bible would be preserved perfectly with no errors in transmission?
The point here is that if you were to choose ten people at random and put them in a world without a Bible, they could not reproduce it. But take a group of a few thousand people in the first century who are steeped in Old Testament scripture, who were required to memorize scriptures and catechisms from childhood. Give them access to the New Testament, the Apostles in person and copies of letters and Gospels they wrote. Give them almost daily recitation and teaching of the Apostles, their disciples and successors. Charge them with the responsibility of teaching the New Testament scriptures to their children and to new converts. Would they be able to transmit without error the writings and teaching of these Apostles over a period of 300 years?
Not only would they be able to do this, but they would also be able to preserve the spirit of the original intent and the orthodox interpretation of the Apostles teachings. In 325 AD, about fifty complete New Testament manuscripts were produced by scribes under the direction of Eusebius of Caesarea.
Prior to the widespread use of durable vellum, the only copies of the New Testament scriptures we have for study are several hundred delicate papyri containing manuscript fragments and portions from all the New Testament books. In fact, it is amazing that any of the papyrus manuscripts survived at all. While vellum can last over 1000 years, papyri must be stored in a cool, dry and almost air-tight environment in order to last more than a few hundred years.
According to Bruce F. Harris, “This collection of papyri, dated to the second and third centuries A.D., provides important textual evidence for OT and especially NT prior to the great vellum codices of the fourth century and later.”
Most of these manuscript fragments have been found in the last 100 years or so. Prior to these finds, the Higher Critics imagined that much of the original content of the New Testament would have been lost. However, textual criticism of these manuscript fragments has revealed that the New Testament was preserved over a period of almost 300 years with an amazing degree of accuracy unrivalled by any otehr ancient text.
The higher criticism came about because we had skeptics from the time of the Enlightenment who had embraced positivism and rationalism. They were looking for over one hundred years for some excuse to discredit the Bible. The most common method was to claim that the Bible was not inerrant because it was full of contradictions. But when one actually reads these arguments most if not all the arguments seem trite. Certainly, every objection can be answered.
These arguments were so flimsy that even rationalists of the day who were themselves free thinkers saw that these works were embarrassments to the authors. In fact, Benjamin Franklin once accused Thomas Paine of “spitting in the wind” when he reviewed his book, Age of Reason.
TO THOMAS PAINE.
I have read your manuscript with some attention. By the argument it contains against a particular Providence, though you allow a general Providence, you strike at the foundations of all religion. For without the belief of a Providence, that takes cognizance of, guards, and guides, and may favor particular persons, there is no motive to worship a Deity, to fear his displeasure, or to pray for his protection. I will not enter into any discussion of your principles, though you seem to desire it. At present I shall only give you my opinion, that, though your reasonings are subtile and may prevail with some readers, you will not succeed so as to change the general sentiments of mankind on that subject, and the consequence of printing this piece will be, a great deal of odium drawn upon yourself, mischief to you, and no benefit to others. He that spits against the wind, spits in his own face.
But, were you to succeed, do you imagine any good would be done by it? You yourself may find it easy to live a virtuous life, without the assistance afforded by religion; you having a clear perception of the advantages of virtue, and the disadvantages of vice, and possessing a strength of resolution sufficient to enable you to resist common temptations. But think how great a portion of mankind consists of weak and ignorant men and women, and of inexperienced, inconsiderate youth of both sexes, who have need of the motives of religion to restrain them from vice, to support their virtue, and retain them in the practice of it till it becomes habitual, which is the great point for its security. And perhaps you are indebted to her originally, that is, to your religious education, for the habits of virtue upon which you now justly value yourself. You might easily display your excellent talents of reasoning upon a less hazardous subject, and thereby obtain a rank with our most distinguished authors. For among us it is not necessary, as among the Hottentots, that a youth, to be raised into the company of men, should prove his manhood by beating his mother.
I would advise you, therefore, not to attempt unchaining the tiger, but to burn this piece before it is seen by any other person; whereby you will save yourself a great deal of mortification by the enemies it may raise against you, and perhaps a good deal of regret and repentance. If men are so wicked with religion, what would they be if without it. I intend this letter itself as a proof of my friendship, and therefore add no professions to it; but subscribe simply yours,