One of the frequently asked questions that we receive is whether or not we believe that the Bible is inerrant. The problem with the question is that rarely does the questioner explain what they mean by the term “inerrant.” It has become fashionable to use the issue of biblical inerrancy to ridicule Christians. Fundamentalism claims to be a blind belief in the inerrancy of the Bible, and apparent errors in fundamentalist teaching call into question the credibility of the Bible. What is the relationship between textual criticism and biblical inerrancy?
Scholars have used a process called “textual criticism” to evaluate the biblical text. The translators of the King James Version of the Bible used what was called the Textus Receptus (Latin for “received text”). That refers to the dominant manuscript in Greek published in 1516 and available to the King James translators. Since 1516, there have been numerous discoveries of new manuscripts and fragments. In many cases, they are older than the text used by the King James translators. There have also been better understandings of what words mean and how the culture of the time understood those words. Sometimes the translators’ understanding of what the original writer was trying to say may have been affected by the translators’ cultural biases. Comparing the older and more credible manuscripts with the ones used by the King James translators shows some differences (errors), and that is what textual criticism is all about.
It is important to understand that this process of textual criticism does not make major changes in the meanings of words. In the New Testament, only about one word in 1,000 is in any way different between the Textus Receptus and the newer manuscripts. Even when there is a difference, it is rarely of any consequence. Sometimes it was because of a copying error. Sometimes a copyist put a comment in the margin as they translated and printers inserted it into the manuscript. Making the comparisons allows us to get better and better translations, and that is a good thing.
The problem is what we understand biblical inerrancy to mean. Inerrancy does not mean that a particular translation is without mistakes. It does not mean that one specific set of English words have biblical credibility, while others do not. Textual criticism and biblical inerrancy need not conflict.
The notion that those of us who believe the Bible is the Word of God have something to fear from textual criticism is misguided. It is the same kind of error that has caused some people to claim that a particular translation of the Bible is the only one that we can use. We can trust God’s Word, but we have to work to overcome the problems of culture and time. We must consider the changes in word meanings as well as mechanical issues of translation and reproduction. It may take some work, but we need not question the fact that “All Scripture is given by God and is profitable for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness, that the man (or woman) of God may be perfect, completely furnished to every good work” (2 Timothy 3: 16-17 from a combination of various translations).
— John N. Clayton © 2019