How Reliable is our Bible?

For 1,800 years the church of Jesus Christ accepted as axiomatic the verbal inspiration and inerrancy of the Bible. The theological giant Augustine is exemplary in this view. In a letter to Jerome in A.D. 405 he wrote: “I have learned to yield this respect and honour only to the canonical books of Scripture: of these alone do I most firmly believe that the authors were completely free from error. And if in these writings I am perplexed by anything which appears to me opposed to the truth, I do not hesitate to suppose that either the manuscript is faulty, or the translator has not caught the meaning of what was said, or I myself have failed to understand it” ( Letter 82).

This ancient belief in the infallibility of the Word of God has been under pressure in the last two hundred years. Today’s challenge is exemplified in Karl Barth, who writes that the Bible authors “can be at fault in any word, and have been at fault in every word.”1 He goes on to state: “If God was not ashamed of the fallibility of all the human words of the Bible, of their historical and scientific inaccuracies, their theological contradictions, the uncertainty of their tradition, and, above all, their Judaism, but adapted and made use of these expressions in all their fallibility, we do not need to be ashamed when He wills to renew it to us in all its fallibility as witness, and it is mere self-will and disobedience to try to find some infallible elements in the Bible.”2



Between these two beliefs, thinking students have to choose. In order to choose intelligently, a student must know what he is choosing and rejecting. Today, it is not easy to know what the church’s position has been, for the attackers of the doctrine of verbal inspiration have thrown up many images of the doctrine which are only caricatures of it. Permit us to state at the outset, therefore. what we shall attempt to do in a few articles. We will not set forth the authority of the Bible or its proofs or the doctrine of the testimony of the Holy Spirit to the Bible, but we will simply concentrate on the oft-represented caricatures. We will describe what the doctrine of verbal inspiration and the inerrancy of the Bible does not mean.

Verbal inspiration does not pertain to the “apographa” but only to the “autographa.”

The autographa (au-tog’-raph-a) of the Bible are the original leather or papyrus manuscripts which the Bible authors actually wrote in Hebrew or Greek. These have all been lost. No one knows what happened to them. The apographa (a-pog’-raph-a) are copies of these original manuscripts. The church has held that only the autographa are inerrant and not the apographa.3

The reason for asserting this is twofold. First of all, the Bible does not attribute inspiration to copyists, translators, or printers. It says that “holy men of old spoke as they were moved by the Holy Spirit” (II Peter 1:21). “Holy men” refers to Biblical authors such as David, Jeremiah and Amos, and not to an early copyist who sleepily made a mistake in copying the Bible or to a twentieth-century translator (however sensitive he may be to the problem of a faithful and yet not stiff translation) or to a printer who transposed two lines.

Another reason for asserting that the Bible is infallible only in the autographa is to be found in the comparison of the variations in the apographa. Such a study will reveal that no two versions of the Bible agree in all details, but that some add to, subtract from. and may even contradict other versions. When one version omits a verse that is in another, it is obvious that both cannot be faithful to the original. To mention only three examples. note that the Revised Standard Version omits the doxology to the Lord’s Prayer as found in the King James Version (Matthew 6:13b), skips verse four in John 5, and begins John 8 with verse twelve.

As for translations, it is often impossible to give the precise shade of meaning that a word has in another language. In one language words build up certain connotations because of a definite kind and number of contexts in which it is used. In another language the contexts, which determine the meaning, may be somewhat different. Compare any two versions of the Bible in any part to see how translators have differed as to the precise nuance of meaning. Perhaps it is in the choice of words (“keep” or “guard,” “blameless” or “without blemish,” “falling” or “stumbling”—as in Jude’s doxology, v. 24), or in the order of words (a different emphasis can be conveyed by a different position), or in a hapax legonuma (a word that occurs only once in the Bible). There are many names of birds, fish and animals which we cannot identify. For instance, is the last of the “unclean” creeping animals in Leviticus 11:29 a land crocodile (Septuagint), a tortoise (AV), a great lizard (ARV, RSV), or a crocodile (Douay)? And how do we translate the beautiful Greek word paracletos of John 14:16,26; 15:26; and 16:7? Is the Spirit hereby designated as a helper, a comforter, or an advocate, or all three?

For all of these reasons it should be obvious that, when the church asserts the infallibility of the Bible, it cannot mean that the apographa are infallible.4 To say so will involve it in insoluble embarrassments. To state the case very strongly, no ancient manuscript, version, or translation that we have today may be unqualifiedly considered the Word of God. The simple reason is that no manuscript, version, or translation that we have is exactly as it came from God, free from error. Only the autograpba are the inerrant Word of God.

However, no one should worry because we do not have the originals. As we shall see in a moment, for all practical purposes we do. The difference from the autographa is infinitesimally small. The student may firmly declare of the King James Version or the American Standard Version or the Revised Standard Version: “This is the Word of God”—if he remembers that God wrote only the autographa and is not responsible for translators” errors and language change.

Certain corollaries of this main thesis are the following:

1) The punctuation of modern Bibles is not to be regarded as infallible. The autographa used little punctuation. Words and sentences were run together; capitals did not set off new sentences; and periods, commas, semicolons and question marks were not used. Because quotation marks were not used, for example. we do not know with certainty if John 3:16 was said by Jesus or by John.

2) A second and simUar corollary is that the versi6.cation and paragraphing are not infallible. The Bible was not written with these features which are so familiar to us today. Their introduction was to facilitate reference, but they often have nothing to do with logical or natural divisions.

3) A third corollary is that the titles above the Bible books are not infallible. Paul did not begin his epistle to the Romans with the superscription “The Epistle of Paul the Apostle to the Romans.” Thus we may not appeal to the title above the Epistle to the Hebrews as an infallible proof of its author.

4) A final corollary is that neither the Hebrew vowel points (dots added to the consonants to represent vowels) nor the Hebrew accents used to indicate rhythmical pronunciation are infallible. The Old Testament Hebrew books were written with consonants only, the vowels being added later for clarity’s sake. At the time of the Reformation a controversy raged between Buxton (pro) and Cappel (con) on this issue, but all are agreed now that the vowels were added and probably after A.D. 600.

In connection with the thesis that infallibility pertains only to the autographa and not to the apographa, an old objection that is repeatedly raised today must be noted. If we have only the apographa with perhaps 200,000 variations, it is reasoned. then there is little value in holding to the infallibility of the Bible. We are left in a morass of uncertainty. The loss of the autographa is “fatal to the theory of verbal inspiration” and therefore “it is idle to maintain any doctrine of verbal inspiration.”5

The impression that there is not much left of the Bible text of which we are sure today must be quickly challenged. One way to do this is to examine a typical section of the Greek Bible. Consider, for example, the page that contains John 1:29-41 in Nestle’s Novum Testamentum Graece, which has an excellent textual appararus. Of the 217 words on this page. there are only fourteen textual variations in the text that Nestle found worth mentioning. Of those fourteen, only six would alter the meaning. Of these six, there are only two places where there is any significant amount of divergence of opinion as to the original. These two places concern whether the Greek in verse 34 should be translated as “chosen one” or “Son” and whether in verse 41 the word “first” is an adverb or an adjective. So for all practical purposes, it is possible to say that we do know what the autographa were. We are not groping in the dark.

The reason we are in such a favorable position today is that we have so many manuscripts of the Bible. Because the church has considered the Bible to be in a class by itself -as the Word of God and not just another word of man—the Bible was copiously and carefully copied as no other writing has been. As a result. we have today over 4,000 manuscripts of all or parts of the New Testament in Greek and innumerable translations and quotes from the early Church Fathers. In comparison to this there are only 50 manuscripts for Aeschylus’ plays. ten good ones of Caesar’s Gallic Wars, two manuscripts of only parts of Tacitus’ Annals, three of Catullus, and hardly an ancient translation of one classical writer. In addition to this astounding fact. the time lapse between the New Testament autographa and the extant copies is extremely short in comparison with that of the classical writers.

Because of this overwhelming mass of manuscripts and the relatively early dating of many of them. it is easy to see how we can be so sure of the precise wording of the autographa today, even though they are lost. Suppose, for example, that the President of the United States held a news conference for 200 reporters. Suppose his prepared manuscript was inadvertently destroyed by the press secretary after the conference. Hundreds of years later it would still be possible to find out what his manuscript was by reading the many newspaper accounts at the time of the press conference. A few newspapers such as the New York Times may have published the text in full. Others may have published it in part or given excerpts in their commentary on it. There may have been printers’ errors, imperfect French translations, faulty listening, and an inaccurate copying of the speech. But by comparing the hundreds of newspaper accounts, it would be possible to arrive at almost precisely what the President said. Similar comparison of manuscripts enables us to trust the Bible that we have today.

This being so, it makes all the difference in the world whether we have a book that was originally erroneous or one that was inerrant in all or some of its parts. In the one case, in addition to the textual problem, we will never know if the portion we are reading is true or not: whether it is the creation account or the changing of the water to wine at Cana or the resurrection of Christ. In the other case, we may not know whether “what” or “whom” should be the translation in John 1:38 or whether in verse 30 the Greek was peri or huper (they are both translated the same way), but we do know that apart from these trivialities the Bible teaches the creation account, the virgin birth, the miracles, and the resurrection and that therefore they are true. There is a vast difference between approximating a book filled with errors and approximating the infallible Word of God. The difference would be similar to but incomparably greater than that of attempting to get back to the manuscript of an idiot or to the earliest manuscript of the Odyssey.

1. Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics (Edinburgh, 1956), 1/2, p. 530.

2. Ibid., p. 531.

3. Compare the quote above from Augustine as well as the Westminster Confession of Faith (I,8).

4. The church should resist any attempts to canonize or nearly canonize any version of the Bible. 1be early church fathers thought that the Septuagint was inerrant. Although Rome has never declared the Vulgate to be infallible, Trent did assert it to be the “authentic” edition which “no one for any pretext whatsoever, may dare or presume to reject” (Denzlnger, 785). And some Protestants have nearly canonized the King James Version.

5. J. E. McFayden, “Inspiration,” The Teachers’ Commentary, ed. A. Richardson (London, 1955), p. 9.