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Inerrancy and the Text-Critical Problem in Romans 5:1

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In an email response I received in the last few weeks, a BSF reader wrote the following:

I was recently reading “Do Christians have peace with God?” and was a little disturbed at first by an idea in the last paragraph before the epilogue. The idea was stated to be “speculative.” The speculation was that Tertius misunderstood and therefore incorrectly copied down what Paul was dictating to him and that Paul had to correct the manuscript when he was checking it out before sending it. This kind of seems like it chisels away a bit at the concept (at least that I have had) of the inerrancy of the Word. Since God inspired not just the concepts but the very words of scripture, according to plenary, verbal inspiration as I understand it (and I admit to struggling some with this area of faith) God, it would seem, would surely be directing the process of making sure His Word was written down correctly in the first place. I know some denominations and Christian groups make a point of stating that they believe that the ORIGINAL writings of scripture are wholly inerrant. I believe God isn’t bound by our concepts of HOW He should accomplish His purposes, but the idea about Tertius actually writing down something erroneous feels kind of uncomfortable and kind of like it doesn’t belong with the concept of inerrancy. I am a “picky” persons in many things and maybe I don’t need to feel uncomfortable about this idea, since God can accomplish His purposes anyway He chooses. If you’d care to comment I’d enjoy hearing from you but if not, for any reason, that’s alright.

This brother’s question is an honest inquiry; it is balanced between wrestling with matters of the heart and the mind. As Christians, we are called to use both; unfortunately too many believers pour contempt on others’ intellectual inquiries as though to even raise the question is tantamount to heresy. Is it any wonder, then, that unbelievers often view the Christian community as full of simpletons? As this issue is important for a wider readership, the gist of my response to this believer is given below.

Dear brother,

Thanks for your honest inquiry. I must admit that when I first pondered this possibility, it struck me as opposed to a inerrancy as well. Actually, I first read the idea in Bruce Metzger’s Textual Commentary. (He is a fine, godly, conservative scholar, although his view of biblical authority is not quite the same as many other evangelicals.) But he says more than I do: he says that the original document went out uncorrected.

As I wrestled with the issue as well as several others like it, I had to struggle with a number of things, not the least of which was that our 20th century definition of things might not be what the apostles’ definition of things was. When, for example, we compare the synoptic gospels, we see significant differences among them even when they cover the same event. Mark’s grammar seems to be corrected by Luke and Matthew on scores of occasions, for example. There are demonstrable places where we would have to say that Mark’s grammar was certainly not the best. But does this contradict inerrancy? No, I do not think it does, for inerrancy has to do with the content that is communicated, not the spelling of such content! It’s as if Mark had said ‘ain’t’; this reveals his down-home approach.

But this raises another question that I’ve had to deal with: How should our doctrinal beliefs affect our inquiry for the truth? That is, what is the relationship of presupposition to method? I take it as axiomatic that God has given us not only hearts to believe with but minds to think with. And he doesn’t want us to dispense with one as we employ the other. The general approach I take toward scripture is to put my presuppositions on the shelf for the moment, and use my method vigorously, taking it as far as I can. When I’m finished with the investigation, there are often uncertainties, but there are also often strong convictions that grow out of my study. Then, I reintroduce my presuppositions into the equation and see what impact they have on the results as well as what impact the results have on my presuppositions. It’s more complex than I’m painting it, but suffice it to say here that I take the responsibility to love the Lord with my mind with all seriousness.

Now, regarding Rom 5:1, I noticed two or three other places in Paul’s letters where a similar thing had happened—that is, where it seemed that the best explanation for a textual variant was that Paul had altered the manuscript from what the secretary had written (cf., e.g., 1 Cor 14:34-35, where all the MSS have the verses, though the western MSS place them at the end of v. 40 while the Alexandrians and Byzantines keep them in this location; note E. E. Ellis’ suggestion about how to explain this). The cumulative evidence thus started to mount. But what about Metzger’s comment that Tertius made a mistake in copying and that Paul let it go uncorrected? Apart from my bibliological presuppositions, can I give evidence that this would not have happened? Yes, I can. In 2 Thess 3:17 Paul says that he appends some handwritten note in every one of his letters. The point he is making is to prove to the Thessalonians that the document is really his. But if it is really his, then he must add his final comments as kind of a seal of approval as well as authentication (as was the custom in Paul’s day). Thus, it is virtually unthinkable that Paul would sign his name or write a note at the end of a letter unless he had read through it and made all the necessary corrections. (This is similar to a boss signing a letter that he loosely dictated to his secretary; his signature is an implicit stamp of approval on all that is in the letter.)

So much for a correction on Metzger’s view. But this still doesn’t answer your question directly. A part of the answer is simply that we don’t know about the process of inspiration. It is a mystery to us. Men were moved by the Holy Spirit. Yet their personalities were involved. Was the amanuensis inspired or was the author whose name appears on the book inspired? I suppose that only if we assume that both were equally inspired could we then conclude that there could be no mistakes in the original document, even if they were corrected before the document was sent out. But I’m not sure that that is a necessary conclusion, nor is the supposition that the amanuensis was equally as inspired as the apostle. We are simply not told in scripture about such things. However, my guess is that since amanuenses were basically secretaries, their personalities would not be nearly as engaged in the writing process as the authors’. (There are, to be sure, exceptions to this, but this will have to suffice for now.) If so, then the process of inspiration would not involve them directly. Now certainly, the final document, as the written Word, would be inerrant. And to that extent, the secretary’s work would have to be checked. But the Bible itself seems to give us no real clues about the inner workings of this process. That is left for us to figure out on the basis of the data that we have.

What I am saying is this, in short (it’s about time!): Although inerrancy means that the words of the original document as it was sent out would be what the original author meant to say, inerrancy does not mean that document could not be messy. Should we suppose that every letter would be perfectly clear and legible, that the readers could make out all that was written with ease? I don’t think that inerrancy guarantees that. For one thing, if it did, then I think we would have no doubts about the authorship of Hebrews (the author’s name and the addressees were almost certainly written on the verso [or outer] side of the papyrus scroll and were smudged beyond recognition by the time the letter started to be copied). For another, papyri were, though relatively cheap compared with other writing materials, still not cheap enough to throw away if mistakes were made in a manuscript. This would especially be the case if the letter was very long. It would be better simply to mark up the document and send it out. Remarkably, an author would occasionally even let a document go as is, by clarifying or even correcting his own comments in the letter, rather than by starting over. For example, in 1 Cor 1:14 Paul says, “I thank God that I baptized none of you except Crispus and Gaius,” and continues on with his point. Then, in v. 16 he corrects this comment: “Now I did baptize also the household of Stephanas; beyond that, I do not know whether I baptized any other.” The correction is in two directions: (1) more names are added to the list of baptizees, and (2) tentativeness is expressed about what was previously asserted as certain. This text speaks well to the issue at hand: Inerrancy in this case must mean that Paul could correct his error ‘on the fly’; although the kind of correction he made here is different from the kind he makes in Rom 5:1, both instances affirm the same kind of thing Paul did with his original document: he corrected it rather than start over with a clean slate.

However we define inerrancy, we have to account for 1 Cor 1:14-16; and I think that the speculative suggestion I made for Rom 5:1 falls within the scope of what Paul definitely does elsewhere. Thus, the speculation is not in itself outside the scope of how I would define inerrancy.

Related Topics: Inerrancy, Soteriology (Salvation), Textual Criticism, Theology Proper (God)