A lot of evangelicals–many of them very important to my faith formation–believe and assert that Scripture is “without error in the originals.” A lot of seminaries and Christian colleges and para-church ministries require one to sign a faith statement with just such language.
First, there’s nothing I can discern in Scripture that says that. I can understand the conclusion some reach from some of the verses used to justify it, but no where is it a clear, decisive statement like “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you,” (a command) or “Mary Magdalene went to the tomb and saw that the stone had been removed from the entrance” (something to believe as fact).
We are no where commanded to believe that Scripture is inerrant in the originals nor is it revealed to us as fact. It requires a conclusion to be drawn using human reason and understanding. And, as far as I have read, none of the Church Fathers taught this. Protestants do not have, regrettably, I’ve come to believe, any institutional body of authority called the “Church” to demand that one must accept this as a dogmatic point because it’s what the Church teaches, or I would gladly submit my intellectual qualms about the phrasing and accept it. Instead we have individual denominations and ministries demand we accept it, while others don’t, so it becomes a source of conflict and disunity.
I believe the Bible is God-breathed (this is given as fact) and the only infallible guide (notice the adjective modifies the “guide” not the follower or his understanding of what the guide says) to faith and life, and I believe it is inerrant in all it teaches (but not all that I think I learn from it). Inerrancy isn’t a very useful word. Of course God is right, but do I understand his meaning?
Which is why, precisely, I have a problem with the phrasing. Why put the qualifier “in the originals”? God is without error. Jesus Christ, the Living Word, is without error. However, Man’s understanding will always be full of error. Even if the originals, even if the copies, even if every fragment ever produced is without error, Man is still full of error.
Besides, from the moment the words were put down, from the moment they were spoken or written, from the moment they were put into language it became bounded and limited. Though it never binds or limits God, language is bounding and limiting for Man. This is something the West doesn’t deal with nearly enough. Wittgenstein did (e.g. “That which can not be spoken about must be passed over in silence.”), but not many, except to the point that they try to invalidate language all together.
2 Timothy 3:16, says God-breathed (in the NIV), not God-transcribed. “Breathed” is like when Jesus gave the disciples the Holy Spirit on the first Easter. (“And with that he breathed on them and said, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit.'” John 20:22) God-breathed allows for a dynamic between Spirit and word that makes it possible for God to guide those with fallible understanding. The phrase “in the originals” implies that if we could but find them there would be no need for the clarifying, prompting and illuminating work of the Spirit.
The limitation lies in us, not the words. It is impossible for God to put Himself so completely into language that we can understand Him totally and without error. Deep calls to deep, and it is the Spirit in us who calls to the Living Word in Scripture.
Another problem with the phrase is it strikes me as an attempt to put the discussion off-bounds. The only reason I can see for adding “in the originals” is because there’s no way to dispute it; we have none of the originals! How convenient. It makes it so much easier to dismiss any challenges. (“Well, you see, if we had the originals here you’d see clearly what God means.) At the same time it focuses attention away from what is truly important; that is, how, exactly, is God trying to transform me into the image of the Living Word by my reading of His spoken word?
Look at the disciples on Easter morning: “Finally the other disciple, who had reached the tomb first, also went inside. He saw and believed. (They still did not understand from Scripture that Jesus had to rise from the dead.)” “They still did not understand from Scripture.” ! (Meaning the Tanakh, at that time.) There is plenty that we still can not understand from Scripture, even if it is “without error in the originals,” or in the copies.