There is circulating at present a rather serious misunderstanding of the evangelical restriction of inerrancy (or inspiration, infallibility) to the autographic text and of the implications of that restriction. DeKoster claims that there are only two options: either the Bible on our pulpits is the inspired Word of God, or it is the uninspired word of man. Because inspiration and inerrancy are restricted to the autographa (which are lost, and therefore not found on our pulpits), then our bibles, it is argued, must be the uninspired words of man and not the vitally needed word of God. Others have misconstrued an epistemological argument for biblical inerrancy as holding that, if the bible contains even one mistake, it cannot be believed true at any point; we cannot then rely on any part of it, and God cannot use it to communicate authoritatively to us. From this mistaken starting point the critics go on to say that the evangelical restriction of inerrancy to the autographa means that, because of errors in all present versions, our Bibles today cannot be trusted at all, cannot communicate God’s word to us, and cannot be the inspired Word of God. If our present Bibles, with their errors, are not inspired, then we are left with nothing (since the autographa are lost).
Such a dilemma rests on numerous fallacies and misunderstandings. In the first place, it confuses autographic text (the words) with autographic codex (the physical document). Loss of the latter does not automatically entail loss of the former. Certain manuscripts may have decayed or been lost, but the words of these manuscripts are still with us in good copies. Second, evangelicals do not, by their commitment to inerrancy, have to commit the logical fallacy of saying that if one point in a book is mistaken, then all points in it are likewise mistaken. Third, the predicate “inerrant” (or “inspired”) is not one that can be applied only in an all-or-nothing fashion. We create a false dilemma in saying that a book either is totally inspired or totally uninspired (just as it is fallacious to think a book must be either completely true or completely false). Many predicates (e.g., “bald,” “warm,” “fast”) apply in degrees. “Inerrant” and “inspired” can be counted among them. A book may be unerring for the most part and yet be slightly flawed. 1
While the Bible teaches its own inerrancy, the inscripturation and copying of God’s Word require us to identify the specific and proper object of inerrancy as the text of the original autographa. This time-honored, common-sense view of evangelicals has been criticized and ridiculed since the days of the modernist controversy over Scripture. Nevertheless, according to the attitude of the biblical writers, who could and did distinguish copies from the autographa, copies of the Bible could serve the purposes of revelation and function with authority only because they were assumed to be tethered to the autographic text and its criteriological authority. The evangelical doctrine pertains to the autographic text, not the autographic codex, and maintains that present copies and translations are inerrant to the extent that they accurately reflect the biblical originals; thus the inspiration and inerrancy of present Bibles is not an all-or-nothing matter. Evangelicals maintain the doctrine of original inerrancy, not as an apologetic artifice, But on sound theological grounds: (1) the inspiration of copyists and the perfect transmission of Scripture have not been promised by God and (2) the extraordinary quality of God’s revealed Word must be guarded against arbitrary alteration. The importance of original inerrancy is not that God cannot accomplish His purpose except through a completely errorless text, but that without it we cannot consistently confess the veracity of God, be fully assured of the scriptural promise of salvation, or maintain the epistemological authority and theological axiom of sola Scriptura (for errors in the original, unlike those in transmission, would not be correctable in principle). We can be assured that we possess the Word of God in our present Bibles because of God’s providence; He does not allow His aims in revealing Himself to be frustrated. Indeed, the results of textual criticism confirm that we possess a biblical text that is substantially identical with the autographa. 2
the message conveyed by the words of the autographa, and not the physical page on which we find printing, is the strict object of inspiration. Therefore, because that message was reliably reflected in the copies or translations available to the biblical writers, they could be used in an authoritative and practical manner. Contrary to the extreme and unfounded inferences drawn by Beegle, the exhortation and challenges based on the copies of Scripture pertain to the conveyed message and tell us nothing about the extant texts per se. Much less do they demonstrate that the biblical authors made no distinction between the original text and its copies. Otherwise the unique and unalterable authority of the biblical message would not be guarded so strenuously by these same authors.
Because Christ raised no doubts about the adequacy of the Scriptures as His contemporaries knew them, we can safely assume that the first-century text of the Old Testament was a wholly adequate representation of the divine word originally given. Jesus regarded the extant copies of His day as so approximate to the originals in their message that He appealed to those copies as authoritative. The respect that Jesus and his apostles held for the extant Old Testament text is, at base, an expression of their confidence in God’s providential preservation of the copies and translations as substantially identical with the inspired originals. It is thus fallacious to argue that inerrancy was not restricted by them to the autographa and to say that their teaching about inspiration had reference to the imperfect copies in their possession. 3
The assumption throughout Scripture is that we are obliged to follow the original text of God’s written Word. Present copies function authoritatively because they are viewed as reflecting the autographa correctly. This foundational perspective comes to the surface from time to time. For instance, Israel was required to do what God “commanded their fathers by Moses” (Judg. 3:4). This reference implicitly points to the original message, which came from the author himself. Isaiah was explicitly told to write, and his book was to be a witness forever (Isa. 8:1; 30:8); the autographical text was the permanent standard for the future. Daniel “understood by the books” (which we can assume to have been copies), but these very books indicate that the God-given words were “the word of Jehovah [which] came to Jeremiah” (Dan. 9:2). The perfect aspect indicates completed action with respect to the coming of the word of God to Jeremiah specifically.
Likewise the New Testament assumes that correct teaching can be found in copies of Scripture then in existence because they trace back to the autographical text. Matthew 1:22 quotes Isaiah 7:14 as “spoken by the Lord through the prophet” (cf. 2:15). Jesus taught that we are to live by “every word that proceedeth out of the mouth of God” (Matt. 4:4), thus tethering the authority of the Scriptures iin hand to the original utterance given by divine inspiration. What people read as “Scripture” in the books of Moses was thought of as “spoken unto them by God” (Matt. 22:29-32; Mark 12:24-26). The inspired David himself spoke to them in the copy of the Book of Psalms that they possessed (Matt. 22:43; mark 12:35; Luke 20:42), just as when on e reads the copy of Scripture he will see that which was spoken by Daniel the prophet himself (Matt. 24:15; Mark 13:14). In each case the autographical text is assumed to be present in the extant copy that is consulted. When Christ asked, “Have you not read . . . [in extant copies, no doubt]?” (Matt. 19:4; cf. v. 7), He was actually seeking what Moses himself commanded the Jews (Mark 10:3). The Mosaic words that He quoted from Genesis 2;24 were viewed by Him as fully equivalent to what “God said” as the original author of Scripture (Matt. 19:4-5). Those who possess existing scrolls “have Moses and the prophets” themselves, who, accordingly, should be heard as such (Luke 16:29).
The actual distance between the autographa and the copies can be for present purposes ignored, because the original text is thought to appear in these copies.4
We may now summarize the attitude that the Bible itself displays to the autographa and copies in this fashion. The authority and usefulness of extant copies and translations of the Scriptures is apparent throughout the bible. They are adequate for bringing people to a knowledge of saving truth and for directing their lives. Yet it is also evident that the use of scriptural authority derived from copies has underlying it the implicit understanding, and often explicit qualification, that these extant copies are authoritative in that, and to the extent that, they reproduce the original, autographic text.
Biblical writers understood the distinction between the original and a copy and they manifest a commitment to the criteriological authority of the original. These two features – the adequacy of extant copies and the crucial and primal authority of the autographa – are rather nicely combined in the standard formula used in the New Testament for citing Scripture to clinch an argument: “it stands written.” This form (the perfect tense) appears at least seventy-three times in the Gospels alone. It signifies that something has been established, accomplished, or completed and that it continues to be so or to have enduring effect. “It stands written” expresses the truth that what has been written in the original Scripture remains so written in the present copies. Conversely, that to which the writer appeals in the present copies of Scripture as normative is so because it is taken to be the enduring witness of the autographic text. New Testament arguments based on a phrase (as in Acts 165:13-17), a word (as in John 10:35), or even the difference between the singular and plural form of a word (as in Gal. 3:16) in the Old Testament would be completely emptied of genuine force if two things were not true: (1) that phrase, word, or form must appear in the present copies of the Old Testament, or else the argument falls to the ground with the intended opponent because it is spurious to begin with (i.e., there is no evidence to which appeal can be made against him), and (2) that phrase, word, or form must be assumed to have been present in the original text of the passage cited, or else the argument loses its authoritative foundation in the Word of God (i.e., such an element of the text would have no more authority than the word of any mere human at best and would be an embarrassing scribal error at worst). If the New Testament authors are not appealing through their extant copies of the original text, their arguments are futile. 5
God has not promised in His Word that the Scriptures would receive perfect transmission, and thus we have no ground to claim it a priori. Moreover, the inspired Word of God in the Scriptures has a uniqueness that must be guarded from distortion. Consequently we cannot be theologically blind to the significance of transmissional errors, nor can we theologically assume the absence of such errors. We are therefore theologically required to restrict inspiration, infallibility, and inerrancy to the autographa.
There is nothing absurd about holding that an infallible text has been fallibly transmitted, and the fact that a document is a copy of Holy Writ does not entail that it is wholly right. Although we can agree with Beegle that there is no inherent reason why God could not have preserved from defects the scribes who copied the Bible, he is certainly mistaken to think we should assume that copies of Scripture were the result of inspriration unless the Bible explicitly teaches us that they were not. The fact is that inspiration is an extraordinary gift or predicate, which cannot be assumed to apply to just anybody. If one wishes to maintain that the scribes of the Bible were inspired in their work and automatically infallible in their results, then the burden of theological proof lies on him. 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. Again contrary to Beegle, the fact that the original Scripture had its origin 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 to some measure of God’s given revelation. E. J. Young’s reasoning is more cogent:
If the Scripture is “God-breathed,” it naturally follows that only the original is “God-breathed.” If holy men of God spoke from God as they were borne by the Holy Spirit, then only what they spoke under the spirit’s bearing is inspired. It would certainly be unwarrantable to maintain that copies of what they spoke were also inspired, since these copies were not made as men were borne of the spirit. They were therefore not “God-breathed” as was the original. 6
The great mass of the New Testament, in other words, has been transmitted to us with no, or next to no, variation; and even in the most corrupt form in which it has ever appeared, to use the oft-quoted words of Richard Bentley, “the real text of the sacred writers is competently exact; . . . nor is one article of faith or moral precept either perverted or lost . . . choose as awkwardly as you will, choose the worst by design, out of the whole lump of readings.” If, then, we undertake the textual criticism of the New Testament under a sense of duty, we may bring it to a conclusion under the inspiration of hope. The autographic text of the New Testament is distinctly within the reach of criticism in so immensely the greater part of the volume, that we cannot despair of restoring to ourselves and the Church of God, His Book, word for word, as He gave it by inspiration to men.7