The Divinely Inspired, Inerrant, and
Infallible Original Autographs -
But Can We Say More?
Rev. John S. Erickson
Lutheran Biblical Inerrancy Conference
August 10 and 11, 1994
I would like to begin my comments this morning with some rather practical considerations. Some of which I would consider to be very obvious, but as a result of attending the presentations by pastor Thorson and Dr. Jungkuntz at the recent AALC convention and hearing some of the comments and questions that were shared in response to those presenta- tions, I felt I wanted to at least state some things that will lead me into the topic of this presentation.
First, I could draw the conclusion from some things that were said, that there may be those who understand the inspiration and inerrancy of scripture to be somehow dependent on what one believes it to be. It is similar to some today who seem to think that God is who or what one may believe or make him out to be. But I think it is not only important, but necessary, to begin our theological discussions, and then that we build our theological understandings, from the premise that YEHWEH IS THE ONE, AND ONLY, ALMIGHTY AND EVERLASTING GOD, and he is who he is, because of who he is. The fact that he is, or who or what he is, is NOT determined by human perception no matter how brilliant or profound that perception may be.
And this leads us to how we ought to understand scripture. The Holy Scripture is God's Word to us. As Luther said, "When the scriptures speak, God speaks." And so, with regard to the scriptures, since God is one who cannot lie (Nu 23:10; Titus 1:2), there is no other option open to us than to conclude that the Scriptures are also true, true as a whole and in all its parts. And since God is faithful, steadfast and sure, so his Word to us, must be completely reliable!
Another point that I believe needs to be made concerns the comments that I sensed were leveled at Pastor Thorson and at anyone who sided with him at the AALC convention, and I'm referring here to some who said, and others who implied, that Thorson was saying that if the gospel was going to have any power to effect change in a person's life, then that person must first be firmly convinced of the inerrancy and infallibility of Scripture.
In a book titled, Moorings In A World Adrift Clayton Bell, takes a look at the Apostles Creed. In his chapter 3, dealing with the phrase, "...who was conceived by the Holy Ghost, Born of the Virgin Mary," Bell states,
"In conclusion, I what to make it plain that you do not HAVE to believe in the virgin birth to be a Christian. Such rejection, however, leaves faith incomplete and less than biblical. What makes that person a Christian is that person's faith, trust, and confidence in Jesus Christ as his or her own Lord and Savior. But on what evidence do we put our faith and trust in Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior? Is it not on the evidence found in the New Testament? Then how can we reject the evidence from that same New Testament concerning the virgin birth of Jesus?" (p. 34).
I didn't understand, because I couldn't understand, what the Bible was all about when I was brought to faith through water and the Word at the tender age of 3 months. But as my faith was fed and watered from the Word, God's Holy Spirit guided me into the truth. He did just what Jesus promised he would, when he told his disciples "when he, the Spirit of Truth, comes, he will guide you into all truth" (Jn 16:13). And among the various truths I and all true believers will be led to see is that, God's "Word is truth" (Jn 17:17)... and that it is true in all it says.
The Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy - 1978 - speaks to this issue also in its final article, Article 19, where it says,
"We deny [that a confession of the full authority, infallibility and inerrancy of Scripture] is necessary for salvation. However, we further deny that inerrancy can be rejected without grave consequences, both to the individual and to the Church."
Let's not be tricked into thinking that the cart has to come before the horse, that understanding has to come before faith, not at all. The Word of God is a 'living and active Word' and it has the power to change the lives of men, women, and children. If we, through the power of the Holy Spirit, are open to the Word doing its work in us, part of the change God will work in us, through that same Word, will be a growing understanding of that Word, not only as to what it says, but as to what it really is, the inspired, inerrant and infallible Word of God to humankind.
I want to point out also, that one's coming to an understanding of the inerrancy issue and one's belief in it, is going to make all the difference as to the place that Word is given in one's life. I will be eternally grateful for the witness my parents gave to this inerrancy issue. The Bible was not just another book in our home. It was not handled in the same way as other books, but it was used, it was heavily used. It was used morning and evening for our family devotional times. It was read by my parents for their own private devotional times and outside of that, for the purpose of study. It was the final rule for conduct, and I'll never forget how my father could, and would, bring the scriptures into the picture almost every time I was disciplined by him. Other books were judged by it. People in authority (in public and in the church) and what they said, were all measured by what God's Word said. On the other hand, It was God's Word that gave them comfort, assurance, confidence, peace of heart, joy and hope. And interestingly, I am convinced that what I saw in my parents as to their confidence in the authority and reliability of God's Word, served in large measure to bring me to the place where I came to have a similar trust and confidence in that Word.
My cousin and her husband were ALC missionaries to Brazil. My cousin, Ruth, died in 1977, several months after giving birth to their last child. There in Brazil, these folks were thousands of miles from American medical help and for months before her death, Ruth spent most of her time in a coma. This left her husband alone with a young child to care for along with their other children. All this, plus his work, and no family nearby to step in and help... things seemed only to get worse and worse for her husband, Don.
I began my seminary studies at Luther/Northwestern Seminary in the fall of '79. I had just begun my fall quarter when I received a letter from Don. Don shared with me in that letter how those months preceding her death, and then Ruth's death and the months following, had been very, very difficult. He shared how even as a trained pastor, he could find no answers, no comfort and no peace. Then he told how he had picked up some of the books Ruth's and my great uncle had written. Our great uncle was John Lavik. Lavik was a pastor, seminary professor and seminary president who was well up in years when I knew him. Don shared how when he was in seminary in the early 60's, the professors and students poked fun at the simplistic faith and understandings of men like Lavik, and he shared how he joined in with them in their thinking. They saw the scriptures in 'new light' and had a much more reasonable approach to them. But interestingly, when Don began reading Lavik's writings, his eyes were opened to accept the Word of God without all the intellectual wrappings he had gained in his seminary training. And, he told me, God's Word began to speak to him, and he found forgiveness, comfort and hope. And that was the reason he wrote to me. He wanted admonish me, that as I was about to begin my seminary training. that I let God's Word be God's Word, and that when I finish seminary and begin in the pastorate, that I teach and preach the Word for what it really is, even if that is not popular.
As we think of Deut. 6, where we are told to speak of God's Word to our children "when we sit at home and when we walk along the road, when we lie down and when we get up" then I think it is important that we speak not only the Word, but that we begin early to speak of what that Word really is, and of our confidence in that Word as God's completely true and reliable Word to us. And that we speak of our belief that God's Word, that all of God's Word is indeed, useful for teaching, for rebuking, for correcting and training in righteousness in order that we as believers might be thoroughly equipped for every good work" (2 Tim 3:16). How we understand the Holy Scriptures, the Bible, is going to make all the difference in the world as to how we face and live out our life as individuals, as family members, as parents, teachers, pastors, or in whatever we understand to be our calling in life.
And this moves me, then, to the issue of what we understand the Biblical text to be. There are numerous ways people view the Biblical text. Some see the Biblical text as nothing more than the text of any other book, merely words of human thought and composure. On the other hand, there are those who understand the Bible as something unique, that it somehow contains God's Word but that it also contains some strictly human elements. There are others who say, "Yes, the Bible was originally God's Word, but through copying and translation it has come to contain a number of errors, deletions and additions so it can no longer be considered divinely inspired, inerrant and infallible in many areas. One may however, consider its message, the gospel, to be inerrant." But there are also those who would simply say, "the canonical books of the Old and New Testaments, as a whole and in all their parts, constitute the divinely inspired, revealed, and inerrant Word of God, and we submit to this as the only infallible authority in all matters of faith and life" (AALC Confession of Faith).
This latter group is that to which I had been led to understand the AALC belonged. Events preceding our June convention and more lately the June convention itself, have proved me wrong!
I was interested some years ago now with the debate over biblical inerrancy that went on within the Southern Baptist Convention. James Draper, Jr., president of the Southern Baptist Convention in the middle 80's wrote concerning their struggles. In his book, Authority: The Critical Issue for Southern Baptists, Draper defines what he means by the term biblical inspiration. He says,
"...biblical inspiration does not mean that the translations or editions or versions are inspired - only the original manuscripts, the autographa" (p. 82). A bit later in that same chapter Draper shares his conviction that whether one is speaking of inspiration, or infallibility or inerrancy... "all of these terms essentially say the same thing..." (p. 90).
So, as I understand it, Draper wants his constituency to understand that the Bibles they hold in their hands and that they carry to church each Sunday and from which their various teachers teach and their pastors preach, those Bibles are not in fact, divinely inspired, inerrant or infallible. Only the original autographs from which their Bible eventually came, were inspired, inerrant and infallible. I think it is clear that there are those at our last AALC convention who would quickly side with Dr. Draper. But I, for one, am not ready, willing or able to do that.
It may be fine to claim that the Bible in its original manuscripts was a unique book among books, but I believe we need more than that. We need a Word from God today that we can count on as being a true and reliable revelation of God and his message for all of humankind, and for me. And I believe the Bible, or should I say the Bible or Bibles I possess today, is such a book. I believe it because of the claims it makes of itself that it is indeed God's Word, and further I believe it because I have witnessed the power and effect that Word can have in my own life and in the lives of others.
In an article, The Legitimate Limits of Biblical Criticism, Merrill Tenney comments on the need for people to recognize the unique character of the Bible as over any other book -
"Its dynamic is different from that of any other piece of writing that has survived from antiquity. The reality of this dynamic is amply attested by its effect on history. Throughout the period in which the Scriptures have been known and circulated, they have produced a moral impact upon men that cannot be duplicated by any other literature. The reading of the Law by Josiah moved the king to repentance and reform (2 Kgs 22:10-13; 23:1-25). The public translation by Ezra stimulated a sweeping change in the conduct of the people (Neh 8:1-6; 9:1-3). And in more recent times the Bible, wherever it has gone. has proved to be a potent force in producing righteousness. Not all of its characters were moral and not all of its history can serve as a model for present behavior, but the standards by which it measures both these characters and that history are far above those of contemporaneous religious belief. Neither Homer nor Plato nor any other writer or philosopher has had the influence for moral change or given such a lofty concept of God as has the Bible."
Any criticism that seeks to explain the Bible must take this fact into account. To treat the Bible simply as the Hebrew-Christian contribution to the literary achievements of the race, neither better nor worse than the other surviving documents of antiquity, is to undervalue it and to ignore the most striking characteristic of the book. A criticism that does not allow for this dynamic and that does not recognize its existence will draw partial if not faulty conclusions. Such criticism will tell as much about the Bible as a dissection of a corpse will tell about the living man. It fails to recognize its living quality.
I am not willing to limit what the Bible says of itself to only the original manuscripts (of which, I might add, not only do we not possess so much as one. And I don't expect that in my lifetime we will ever find and possess so much as a fragment of one). Neither am I willing to limit what the Bible says of itself to the Old Testament in Hebrew, or to the New Testament in Greek. I want to suggest that the Bible's inspiration, inerrancy and infallibility is not limited to one language or to any one translation. I really believe it is a much bigger thing than that! When I read various passages of scripture, and when I teach, and when I preach, I want to be able to say as the prophets of old, "Thus says the Lord!" And when I read that in my Bible, I don't want it to be just some nice verbiage, I want it to be the truth! I want to be able to say it with conviction and with the assurance that, yes, these words are indeed, God's words for me and for others in this time and place!
Although I believe this, yet how does one make sense of it? How can our Bible and how can the various translations of the Bible, all be God's inspired, inerrant and infallible Word to us today. There are several points that have lead me to this conviction...
First, and I don't want to in any way minimize the significance of this, I am greatly encouraged by the way our Lord dealt with scripture while he walked this earth. I'm not going to take time to go into all this, but there is no question, when one looks into the gospel accounts, but that Jesus regarded the recorded statements and affirmations of the Old Testament writers as completely factual and trustworthy. And it seems that it didn't make any difference to him as to whether these passages dealt with matters of theology, history, or science.
I was also helped in this by touching base once again with Dr. Gleason Archer. I first met Dr. Archer some years ago when I taught with his brother-in-law at Lutheran Brethren Schools. Following our convention this year I called and spoke with him again, and asked him about some of these inerrancy issues. Among other things I shared with him the concern that a number of us have over the AALC Seminary personnel with regard to their close links with Fuller Seminary. Dr. Archer more or less just groaned when I mentioned this. I knew he had been a professor of Biblical Languages and Acting Dean at Fuller Seminary some years ago, but I hadn't realized that he had left Fuller way back in 1960 because of the compromises he and others witnessed taking place, even at that time, with regard to the inerrancy issue.
You may find it interesting to read Dr. Archer's Introduction on the importance of Biblical Inerrancy from his Encyclopedia of Biblical Difficulties a volume he told me he was challenged to write in answer to those who criticized him over his view of inerrancy. There he points out that Jesus' use of the Old Testament scriptures points out what is really at stake. It is the...
"level of truthfulness that is involved rather than technical infallibility in the art of transmission. The copyist who inadvertently misspells some word in John 3:16 cannot be said to have introduced error in the sentiment or message of that salvation verse even though he may have slipped in his orthography. It is something more essential than typographical errors that is under consideration when scriptural inerrancy comes up for discussion." (P. 28).
And with regard to this thing of typographical errors creeping into our texts... he points out that it has in fact been,
"long recognized by the foremost specialists in textual criticism that if any decently attested variant were taken up from the apparatus at the bottom of the page and were substituted for the accepted reading of the standard text, there would in no case be a single significant alternation in doctrine or message. " (p. 30).
Let me continue to quote Archer -
"This can only be explained as the result of a special measure of control exercised by the God who inspired the original manuscripts of Scripture so as to insure their preservation for the benefit of His people. A degree of deviation so serious as to affect the sense would issue in failure to achieve the purpose for which the revelation was originally given: that men might be assured of God's holiness and grace, and that they might know of His will for their salvation " (p. 30)
This ties in well with pastor Thorson's comments on page 15 of the booklet he has put together on Principles of Biblical Interpretation where he comments, "We are persuaded that Jesus is the great 'Inerrantist' Who has personally guaranteed the Biblical texts, their accuracy, PRESERVATION (my emphasis), fulfillment, and application." And then also on page 16, "The Holy Spirit has been at work in every generation PRESERVING (my emphasis) the sacred texts .
It is also worth noting Article X of the Chicago Statement on Inerrancy where we first read:
"We affirm that inspiration, strictly speaking, 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."
But now note what is added to this -
"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."
Now again, I am claiming that I can have confidence in the fact that the Bible I have, is inspired, inerrant and infallible... in spite of the fact that I know there have been some transmission difficulties over the centuries. And how, you might ask, can I make such a claim?
It is here that one's understanding of the original autographs comes into play. I think a good number of people are open to a claim for the inspiration, inerrancy and infallibility of these autographs. Not everyone is open to that, but among those with whom we have now lately had concern, I think most all would agree with this, that in the original manuscripts of the various books of the Bible, they were all without error.
Now obviously we are talking here about something we do not possess, about something we have never seen, about something most of us never expect to see. But it is very important that we hold to the fact that such a perfect original did, or still does exist somewhere, even if it cannot be found and/or examined.
In the introduction to his encyclopedia, Dr. Archer touches briefly another area that gave me help in this. He points out that there is, in the Bureau of Standards in Washington, D.C., various models of the standard weights and measurements we use in engineering and commerce in this country. Now I have been to Washington, D. C. several times, but I never felt the need to check this thing out. And, I'm sure a number of you have been there too, and that you did not consider it a necessary stop on your itinerary either.
In other words, I've never seen those standards, and even though I know the significance of those standards, I don't know that I will ever feel a need to actually see them for myself, and yet I am fully convinced they are there. I should also add that it gives me great confidence and assurance knowing they do exist, and that the weights and measurements used in much of what I purchase, and do, are careful reproductions of those standards.
I also realize that the yardsticks I possess, or the tape measures, the cup and gallon measures I possess, have gone through an extensive process of transmission and reproduction. Even the most finely calibrated micrometer I could put my hands on, would have gone through this reproduction process. And, it could be justifiably questioned as to whether that reproduction I possess is completely conformable to the standard preserved in Washington at the Bureau of Standards.
On the other hand, it would be foolish for me not to be concerned about those standards, and to be content to settle for an imperfect measure for use in business or in my personal use. No, the existence of those standards are absolutely vital to the proper functioning of our entire economy, to all Americans. In fact, in one way or another, they are essential for the trustworthiness of all the standards of measurement used in industry and commerce throughout the entire world.
We have the confidence, that those who reproduce our measuring tools check back, not necessarily to that standard in Washington, but to a standard as close to that standard as possible. And what is the result of all the care taken in the production of our measuring tools? With the exception of some obviously cheap and carelessly produced reproductions, we call them 100% accurate, we would label them 'inerrant,' we consider them to be completely trustworthy. We measure, and depending on what we are doing, we say with complete confidence, "This is one foot." "This is 5/16" of an inch." "This is 2/3 of a cup." "This is 6 ten-thousandths of an inch." And interestingly we are seldom, if ever, questioned on it.
But when it comes to the Word of God, which has been not only transmitted to us with extreme care, but which has been transmitted to us under the watchful eye of our Lord and the Holy Spirit, and when we dare to stand on that Word as the divinely inspired, inerrant, and completely reliable Word, then we are called into question. Some may yield that in the original it may have been so, but the Bibles we have now? No... it's not too likely!
Yes, I acknowledge there are some poor and even bad translations, and yes, there are some highly questionable paraphrases, just as there are poor and unreliable yardsticks. But, it doesn't take an Einstein to detect a questionable tape measure, and I would suggest it doesn't take a seminary professor with four doctorates strung behind his name to detect a poor edition of the Bible. And one would want to use some common sense and care in choosing a Bible translation to be sure the translators had a concern in getting back to the original, and that they concern more for accuracy of translation than for readability in some of the more difficult passages. I might suggest here that we would do well to remind ourselves as well as our lay people of the importance of checking out the preface or notes on the translation process that are included with most any Bible translation or edition or checking out the articles on Bible translation that can be found in various periodicals and journals.
In this regard, it would be an interesting topic for discussion as to the place a paraphrase such as that of Taylor's Living Bible, or that of that of J. B. Phillips, might have in this discussion. But my concern here is that the Bible we use in our teaching and preaching as well as that which we use for our private devotion and study, that it - if some common sense care has been used in its selection - can be counted upon as truly being God's Word to us. And as such, that not only in its conveyance of the gospel message, but also, as pastor Thorson has stated it, (see statement on the AALC from Christ Lutheran, Chippewa Falls) it is "historically accurate in all that it reports, ...prophetically reliable in all that it promises, ...and thoroughly reliable as our one source-book for doctrine and practice. [And]... insofar as we are faithful to the Bible, we can be confident that we will not wander form God's own truth."
I can understand where as an individual believer, one may have less of an understanding of the Word than I am setting forth here. But for those connected with the seminary of our church body, for those who are responsible for the training of our pastors, and for the denominational leaders, who are in a position to set policy, and for those we call to serve as pastors and spiritual leaders in our congregations, to have any less an understanding of scripture, I believe is unconscionable and without excuse!
There is no question whatsoever, but that as pastors, as teachers, as parents, as parishioners, we must to hold, unashamedly, to the Word of God as the Word of God , no more and no less! Further, our lives need to reflect the confidence we say we place in that Word. Why? Because our young people especially, the next generation of church leaders, needs to be led to see, without question, the place that God's Word should have in one's life. In this way they will come to see, by our example, even as I through the years have come more and more to see, that the Word of God is what our AALC and the ALC and the ELC before that, confessed it to be, that 'all the canonical books of the Old and New Testaments as a whole and in all their parts' ARE the "DIVINELY INSPIRED, REVEALED, AND INERRANT WORD OF GOD" and it is to this that we joyfully "submit, as THE ONLY INFALLIBLE AUTHROITY IN ALL MATTERS OF FAITH AND LIFE.