The Question I was asked: “I know that the accuracy of the Bible far outweighs any other ancient text and that most of the errors are irrelevant to the meaning of Scripture, but it still bothers me that there are significant errors or uncertain additions (like the adulterous woman section). How many mistakes are there that we don’t know about? What does it say about God that He would allow mistakes in His Word? How are we to practically approach Scripture and its truth knowing our understanding must be checked against our own cultural biases, the historical context of the texts, and translation or copying errors? Overall, how can we ever know the Bible is infallible when our own understanding must clearly be fallible at some level?”
Here is a whole bunch of questions packaged as one, but these concerns are real and are often grouped like this. Please forgive the complexity of my response over the next few posts, but the sophistication of the question demands such. I originally wrote my response as one long essay, but it was entirely too long so you will have to read this response in parts to get at the whole. I have given specific subtitles that clarify what I am aiming at in each post, each subtitle under the broader domain of the title “Infallibility of Scripture.”
First, infallibility and inerrancy are not the same thing. Infallibility of Scripture is a stance that Scripture is accurate and truthful in all it intends to teach. Inerrancy is the position that there are no errors, i.e., no mistakes or misstatements, in the original documents — the original writings of Scriptural Books are called autographs. What is sometimes suppressed in these conversations is that we don’t have any autographs of the NT (or OT for that matter). Thus, inerrancy, as a confession found in many Universities, Churches, ParaChurch organizations, and Seminaries’ core values, is a statement of faith that cannot be proven or disproved in the sense of 100% accuracy either way. This does not mean that there isn’t a probability of inerrancy being true, or false; it just means that no one can say the original autographs are 100% certainly inerrant or errant. If someone does, he is prideful and a deceiver, at least at the current state of knowledge. It could be the case that we discover an original autograph, but that is not the case now; the earliest manuscript is just a fragment of the Book of St. John from sometime in the 120s AD (125 is typically agreed upon), only a few verses visible (John 18:31 – 33, 37 – 38). This manuscript is called the Rylands Papyri, which is written in shorthand as P52, the “P” standing for “Papyri” and the “52” refers to it being the 52nd Papyri cataloged. There has been some rumors of a 1st century manuscript of Mark that has been discovered, but it is being treated with a “hush-hush” attitude. We know little about it to date, but this discovery will be announced publicly soon enough. If it is corroborated by rigorous testing to be from the 1st century, then we will finally be able to say that we have a 1st century fragment of the NT. As the Church, we shouldn’t rush to use this evidence to support our faith claims about the Bible; we will be able to do this in time, but we must first wait, vet, and remain open about what each new discovered fragment or manuscript portends. Why shouldn’t we rush to do this? I think we show ourselves to be ideologues when we do so; an ideologue is a person who advances an agenda despite evidence or simply because of the agenda itself without concerns for other matters that could disconfirm that agenda. The best example of ideologues are political pundits, who will twist, use, or adopt just about anything to advance their ideas (hence, ideologues). Evidence and reason for ideologues are tools to be used to confirm their ideas, but evidence and reason are abandoned if or when it disconfirms ideologues’ ideas. The Church of the living God, however, is to be devoted to the truth, sincerity, and honesty; we cannot advance the agenda of the Church by misleading people about the textual evidence to date. What do we call people who intentionally mislead? The answer is not flattering.