Friday, January 11, 2008

Nineteenth century innovation?

I have recently come across, "Don't You Believe in the Inerrancy of the Original Autographs or Have You Stopped Beating Your Wife Yet?" by Theodore Letis, ( The author suggests that the question, "Do you believe in the inerrancy of the autographs?" is a loaded question that presumes too much and goes on to argue two main points. First, Letis complains that the doctrine of inerrancy cannot possibly be the historic position of the church because the word "inerrancy" did not even come into existence until the nineteenth century. Second, he provides evidence that a preoccupation with autographs was Warfield's innovative attempt to dodge textual critical arguments that were being made by scholars who would denied verbal inspiration.

Although I am not an inerrantist, I cannot bring myself to agree with Letis' article. I have had occasion to think a little about the 19th century innovation thesis when Don Bloesch asked me my thoughts on the matter (in a letter). I think the thesis has some of it right, but it also has much of it wrong. Although the article by Letis sets out to articulate what's right about the thesis, it seems to me he widely misses the mark. Although Letis talks about inerrantists being illogical, his own argument contains a major flaw. For if there is no evidence for the word "inerrancy" before the nineteenth century, that does not mean that there is no evidence for the concept of inerrancy. Inerrancy is not tied to any word. There is a concept behind the word that any number of terms and phrases can connote. In any event, I think Craig Allert (A High View of Scripture?) has a better angle on inerrantist, begging-the-question questions. Allert responds to the query, "Do you have a high view of scripture?" by asking, "Why should inerrantists decide for everybody what a 'high' view of scripture is?"

I am not in a position to comment on Letis' point about Warfield's continuity with some of the Reformers with regard to focusing upon the inerrancy of the autographs. What I can say is that Warfield was not the first to argue for inerrancy (of the fundamentalist kind) with regard to the autographs. Ronald S. Satta's The Sacred Text: Biblical Authority in Nineteenth-Century America easily establishes that to my satisfaction.

What does "authoritative Bible" mean in a given historical context? That is the million dollar question. It will mean something (whether slightly or glaringly) different to every generation insofar as each generation will attempt answers (and attach meanings) to the question from within disparate cultural/ philosophical contexts and on the basis of disparate bodies of scientific knowledge. "Authoritative" is bound to mean one thing when the possibility of countervailing evidence to scriptural accounts is unthinkable and quite another when such evidence is present in overabundance.