Defining inspiration, inerrancy, infallibility, canonicity, preservation & textual criticism

2 Timothy 3:16 New American Standard Bible (NASB)

16 All Scripture is inspired by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, for training in righteousness;

ΠΡΟΣ ΤΙΜΟΘΕΟΝ Β΄ 3:16 SBL Greek New Testament (SBLGNT)

 16 πᾶσα γραφὴ θεόπνευστος καὶ ὠφέλιμος πρὸς διδασκαλίαν, πρὸςἐλεγμόν, πρὸς ἐπανόρθωσιν, πρὸς παιδείαν τὴν ἐν δικαιοσύνῃ,

In today’s post I want to introduce the reader to some of the terms used commonly in describing the text of the Bible.  The definitions and discussion below are in no way meant to be exhaustive nor complete, but more of a “thumbnail” sketch of some of the words one may encounter when digging deeper into the textual characteristics of God’s inspired scriptures.

1. Inspiration (Exodus 24:4; 2 Timothy 3:16; 2 Peter 1:21) – The act by which the Holy Spirit superintended the writing of each book of the Bible through the writing styles of the Biblical authors.  This unique act of grace enabled each author to write perfect words despite the fact they were sinful human beings. It is often noted that to err is human, yet just as the photons of the sun shining on a trash heap are unaffected, so it is with the words of scripture that the Spirit supernaturally moved the Biblical authors to write. Two periods of historical composition are defined as when this unique act occurred: Old Testament era (1446 b.c – 396 b.c) and the New Testament  (beginning with James in 45 A.D, through the Gospels, Epistles and finally Revelation in 96 A.D)

2. Inerrancy (Proverbs 30:4-5; Titus 1:2) – The words of scripture are without error.  Positively stated, the words of scripture always tell the truth. Two sub-categories are useful in connecting inerrancy to our extant or existing copies of the original texts (also called the autographa or autographs) and translations.

The first is the term material inerrancy, referring to the actual “materials” used by the Holy Spirit in the revelation of scripture.  Hence only the autographa (original texts composed by the Biblical authors) have the quality of material inerrancy, being that the original wording and word order were what the Spirit miraculously led the Biblical authors to write.

The second term is “formal inerrancy”, referring to the doctrines and attending details that have been faithfully preserved in the copies and translations.  The term “formal” means the doctrines, teachings and contextual details of the text.  Insofar as a translation of the scripture adheres to the wording of the Biblical author in the original languages, that translation can be termed inerrant in the formal sense, being that it faithfully and accurately is communicating every doctrine, teaching and contextual detail communicated by the words.

A way to illustrate these two ideas would be the dollar bills we use every day to make purchases.  Though none of us have access to the original plates, the “material” used to make the dollar bills, nevertheless we have in a formal sense real currency that is genuine and just as useful as the presses themselves. Hence is is with the copies and translations of the Old and New Testament scriptures.  We can still say without stammer or stutter that our Bibles today are the authoritative, inspired and inerrant word of God.  

3. Infallibility (John 10:35) – The words of scripture are incapable of error. Positively stated, the words of scripture are always capable of leading a person to the truth in matters of life, salvation and eternity.  Just as inspiration and inerrancy materially applies to the autographs and formally includes every copy and translation, so it is with infallibility. Our many copies and translations of scripture do not militate against inerrancy and infallibility, but only lend to demonstrate it, being that God promised His word would not pass away.  Inerrancy and infallibility are the two main indicators of Divine authority – that authority being reserved for the Bible alone.

These three above terms designate the Divine composition of the scripture as the Holy Spirit so moved upon the 40 or so authors of both Testaments. The remaining terms represent the history of the Bible following the process of Divine inspiration:

1. Canonicity (2 Peter 3:16) – The process whereby the people of God received each Bible book after its composition.  The Holy Spirit Divinely inspired each Bible book. With regards to the ordering and arrangement of the books of scripture following their inspiration, legitimate differences can exist. Canonicity describes the stage of the collection, recognition and use of the Bible books by God’s people and is separate from issues of inspiration, inerrancy, or infallibility.  In other words, the Holy Spirit did not inspire an inerrant or infallible list of how He wanted the books arranged.

2. Preservation (Matthew 5:18) – Refers to the manner in which the manuscripts of the Hebrew Old Testament books and Green New Testament books are copied, copied repeatedly and in regards to their message retain the authority of the original manuscripts. Preservation teaches that the message and wording of the texts are preserved well enough to not compromise any major truth or teaching of scripture.  Though there may be allowances for variations between different copies of manuscripts, nevertheless preservation claims that the words of God have not been lost despite centuries of translation.  Only the original manuscripts of the Old and New Testaments are materially inerrant (see above definition).  Whereby the subsequent copies and translations of the Bible preserve the doctrines and details of the Hebrew, Aramaic and Greek writings, we can say that our Bibles today are “formally inerrant” (see above definitions).

3. Textual Criticism – Despite not having the original manuscripts or autographs of the Hebrew/Aramaic Old Testament books nor Greek New Testament books, can we know what those originals looked like? This blogger would say yes. The science of what is called “lower” or “textual” criticism evaluates every copy and ancient version of our Old and New Testament books to arrive as close as possible to the original text.

In all of antiquity, no other book or set of books enjoys as many copies and as much knowledge about scribal patterns as either the Old or New Testament text.  The Old Testament text has a longer history of transmission and is worked with through knowledge of scribal patterns and resolution of problem passages. When considering all of the ancient versions, both Hebrew, Greek, Aramaic and other language versions, Ellis Brotzman in his book “Old Testament Textual Criticism” cites scholar James Barr as describing the task of Old Testament textual criticism as focusing on problem passages existing in an otherwise uniform text whose word order has stayed more consistent throughout the course of its transmission, preservation and translation.

The Greek New Testament as far more manuscripts (over 5500) and far more variations among those manuscripts.  In working with the Greek New Testament we are dealing with variants that arose from copying as well as problem passages.  However whenever we take away the variations of spelling, homonyms and accent markings, the overall difference between the more than 5500 witnesses is a difference of only 2%, meaning that overall, we can arrive at a 98% certainty of the New Testament text as a whole and nearly a 99.5 % certainty in some cases. Both the Old and New Testament text are unparalleled in their transmission histories.

About pastormahlon

By the grace of God I was converted to saving faith in Jesus Christ at the age of 10 and called into the Gospel ministry by age 17. Through the Lord's grace I completed a Bachelors in Bible at Lancaster Bible College in 1996 and have been married to my beautiful wife since that same year. We have been blessed with four children, ranging from 7-18 years of age. In 2002 the Lord enabled me to complete a Master of Arts in Christian Thought at Biblical Theological Seminary, Hatfield PA. For nearly 25 years I have been preaching and teaching God's Word and have been studying the original languages since 1994. In 2016 God called my family and me to move to begin a pastorate at a wonderful Southern Baptist Congregation here in Northern New York.
This entry was posted in Biblical Inerrancy, Biblical Infallibility, Canonicity, Divine Inspiration, Preservation of the Biblical Text, Textual Criticism. Bookmark the permalink.

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