The Implications of Persistent Biblical Pluriformity (2)

Persistent Pluriformity and the Doctrines of Inerrancy and Divine Inspiration

The Chicago Statement on Inerrancy was written and signed by more than 334 evangelical scholars and church leaders in 1978. The DSS manuscript evidence had yet to be made fully available. However, this statement is still widely affirmed among fundamentalists and conservative evangelicals. Several statements are contained within which double down on the doctrines of divine inspiration and inerrancy (emphases below are mine).[1]

  • “We affirm that the whole of Scripture and all its parts, down to the very words of the original, were given by divine inspiration” (Article VI).
  • “We affirm that inspiration…applies only to the autographic text of Scripture, which in the providence of God can be ascertained from available manuscripts with great accuracy. We further affirm that copies and translations of Scripture are the Word of God to the extent that they faithfully represent the original. We deny that any essential element of the Christian faith is affected by the absence of the autographs. We further deny that this absence renders the assertion of Biblical inerrancy invalid or irrelevant” (Article X).
  • “We deny that biblical infallibility and inerrancy are limited to spiritual, religious, or redemptive themes, exclusive of assertions in the field of history and science. We further deny that that scientific hypotheses about earth history may properly be used to overturn the teaching of Scripture on creation and the flood” (Article XII).
  • We affirm that the doctrine of inerrancy is grounded in the teaching of the Bible about inspiration” (Article XV).
  • “We deny that such confession is necessary for salvation. However, we further deny that inerrancy can be rejected without grave consequences both to the individual and to the Church” (Article XIX).

For this discussion, the key concept is how the Chicago Statement links inerrancy to divine inspiration and divine inspiration “only to the autographic text of Scripture.” While its authors indirectly acknowledge the absence of these autographs, they indicate that their absence presents no problems for the doctrines of inerrancy and inspiration because these autographs “can be ascertained from available manuscripts with great accuracy.” Therefore, these articles imply that people can read their Bibles today with complete confidence that they are reading the divinely inspired Word, that is, with one very important caveat: that their copies and/or translations “faithfully represent the original.” But how can anyone know that God has providentially preserved the originals in the manuscripts copies we do possess and that translators of those manuscripts faithfully represented the original if we do not possess the originals for comparison? Yet, again with confidence, the authors of the Chicago Statement deny “that this absence renders the assertion of Biblical inerrancy invalid or irrelevant.” How can such a statement not be seen as a perfect example of “the fallacy of begging the question”–that is, the authors of “The Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy” affirm the conclusion without providing any evidence to support it.[2]

In light of more recent evidence presented by biblical scholars and textual critics, many evangelicals now acknowledge that the biblical texts are not inerrant, yet still hold tenaciously to the doctrine of their divine inspiration. Very few, however, make any effort to define or even describe what they understand divine inspiration to be or to entail. The main challenge with claiming any form of divine inspiration lies in how to understand both the process and product in light of the persistent pluriformity and polyphony of the biblical texts. Which manuscripts and/or translations “faithfully represent the original” and thus are inspired? Which canons of Scripture contain all, and only, those that “faithfully represent the original” and thus are inspired? As has been established, many of the church’s earliest biblical scholars and theologians advocated for the divine inspiration of the Greek translations, over and against the Hebrew texts which many claimed had been corrupted by Jewish scribes.[3] Yet, it is those very Hebrew texts that were used to create the Masoretic text that is the textus receptus for most modern translations of the Christian Old Testament. 

Given the persistent pluriformity of the biblical texts, the doctrine of inerrancy of the lost, or never-having-existed, “originals” must be abandoned, and the doctrine of divine inspiration either needs to be abandoned or else carefully redefined and explained in a way that can account for the pluriform and polyphonic nature of the biblical texts.[4]


[1] See “The Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy,” (https://www.etsjets.org/files/documents/Chicago_Statement.pdf)

[2] As Peter Enns has noted, “One implication of understanding the history of the Hebrew and Greek Old Testaments is that it sort of takes the wind out of the sails of biblical inerrancy… The problem, however, is that we don’t have the originals and we’ll likely never know if we do. And the earliest manuscripts we have from the Dead Sea Scrolls take us back to, again, the 2nd century BCE and give us more confusion, not less…. And if God is so concerned about an inerrant original, God sure did a good job of hiding it by not preserving the original and by making a messy imperfect Greek translation the go-to Bible for the early Christians. The notion of an inerrant autographs, or inerrant originals, doesn’t do justice to the complexity we see in the Dead Sea Scrolls” (https://peteenns.com/episode-164-where-did-our-bible-come-from/).

[3] McDonald, The Biblical Canon, 239, “Linking inspiration of Scripture with the original languages is rooted in a theological belief that is driven by the need to protect the inerrancy of Scripture, but it does not reflect the practice of the NT writers or the early church fathers. In fact, some early church fathers argued that the Greek Jewish Scriptures were themselves inspired.”

[4] In Chapter 5, a new paradigm of divine inspiration will be presented that could account for the pluriform and polyphonic nature of the biblical texts. Also, in Appendix A, a variant, but grammatically plausible, translation of 2 Timothy 3:14-17 will be offered that will give insight into what θεόπνευστος means and produces.

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