Continuing on with this discussion about infallibility, inerrancy, and inspiration, Origen has a bit to say about this. Although some of Origen’s theology and perhaps interpretive principles are less than applaudable, his work as a textual critic and biblical scholar is of highest praise. He worked from the late 2nd century A.D. to the mid 3rd century (roughly 185 – 250), and other immeasurably important Church Fathers admired Origen in respect to his great learning and copious understanding of biblical manuscripts and scribal practice of copying: Jerome, Athanasius, and Gregory Nazianzen are known to laud Origen at one place or another in this way. Origen may be best known for his Hexapla, a six column (or seven some speculate) Old Testament, laying out the various versions of the OT in Hebrew and Greek. The first column had Hebrew, the second was a transliteration of the Hebrew in Greek, the third and fourth were of Greek translations of the OT by two prominent Jews (and maybe one was a Christian), the 5th was the LXX (the early Church’s most respected version of the OT), and the 6th was another translation from Hebrew into Greek that was similar to the LXX. Origen certainly knew if there were textual variations among these, and he had the learning to speak about these things with authority, having spent twenty-seven years of his life creating the Hexapla.
Origen speaks about textual variations in detail in a letter he writes to Africanus. He writes, “But why should I enumerate all the instances I collected with so much labour, to prove that the difference between our copies and those of the Jews did not escape me? In Jeremiah I noticed many instances, and indeed in that book I found much transposition and variation in the readings of the prophecies. . . . And, forsooth [truly], when we notice such things, we are forthwith [immediately] to reject as spurious [counterfeit] the copies in use in our Churches, and enjoin the brotherhood to put away the sacred books current among them, and to coax the Jews . . . to give us copies which shall be untampered with, and free from forgery [Origen is being sarcastic here]! Are we to suppose that that Providence which in the sacred Scriptures has ministered to the edification of all the Churches of Christ had no thought for those bought with a price, for whom Christ died. . .” (Letter to Africanus sec. 4, cf. 2 – 5; Origen, First Principles 4.1.15, 27).
This should strike us as an odd way to argue since Origen is not put off by the variations and admits their existence. He didn’t see the variations as an obstacle but as further evidence for Scripture’s inspiration, as seen in his phrase, “sacred Scripture.” He is calling the early church’s Scripture, which he admits has differences from the Scripture as kept by the Jews, “sacred” which means he understands the variations to be within the Spirit’s providential work of leading the Church. He took the slight differences in the manuscripts as part of God the Spirit’s inspiration because the slight changes allowed for more edification of the Church. To this Church Father, inerrancy would be a denial of this way of understanding inspiration — and he was writing in the 2nd century (around 240 AD) — since the variations, as he understood it, were part of God’s plan and God the Spirit’s preserving work. I do not recommend this way of understanding these matters, but I note Origen’s position because of his excellent scholarship and for the sake of laying out many options for us to consider. Origen effectively reverses the issue: the inclusion of variation among the manuscripts was evidence of God the Spirit’s activity, not His absence. We usually think the opposite, that the more variation, the less likely it is that God the Spirit is present in overseeing the copies of the manuscripts. This is a shocking change up for sure!
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