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The Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy makes the statements:

WE AFFIRM that inspiration, though not conferring omniscience, guaranteed true and trustworthy utterance on all matters of which the Biblical authors were moved to speak and write (Article IX).

WE AFFIRM that inspiration, strictly speaking, applies only to the autographic text of Scripture, which in the providence of God can be ascertained from available manuscripts with great accuracy (Article X).

We further affirm that copies and translations of Scripture are the Word of God to the extent that they faithfully represent the original (ibid.).

Thus, the Chicago Statement draws a distinction between the "autographic text of Scripture", which is inerrant; and "copies or translations of Scripture", which may not be.

It would seem, therefore, that it has little practical bearing on everyday Bible-readers, since they are reading "copies and translations" and not actually the "autographic text of Scripture". It states that believers can rely on these copies and translations to the extent that they "faithfully represent the original", but how does one ascertain that what they are reading does, in fact, "faithfully represent the original", without appeal to some extra-Scriptural authority such as a Church, tradition, or other human source (viz. Article I).

How do prominent supporters of the Chicago Statement (e.g. Evangelical Theological Society) address this criticism?

  • Not sure what the stock response is, but I can myself think of many ways Chicago-style inerrancy can make a practical difference. Two examples: (1) In Mt/Lk Jesus is said to be born of a virgin. A noninerrantist might argue that this miracle story didn't actually happen; an inerrantist would say it did. (2) A KJV-onlyist might claim that, due to the end of Mark, we can drink poison safely. A Chicago-style inerrantist could point out that the end of Mark was very likely added later; he is therefore in a far better position to predict the effects of drinking deadly poison! – Ben W Sep 7 '16 at 20:13
  • I guess another way of framing my question is how can a "Chicago-style" inerrantist even be sure of what text should go into Matthew and Luke; or, by extension, whether the books are even in the "autographs" to begin with. – user22553 Sep 7 '16 at 20:20
  • I don't think a Chicago-style inerrantist would claim to be absolutely sure that any given part of the text is authentic to the autographs. But he can still be fairly sure, can't he? – Ben W Sep 7 '16 at 22:04
  • @BenWallis - how so? According to (gulp) tradition? – user22553 Sep 7 '16 at 22:16
  • not tradition, no, but because of the way ancient texts are transmitted to modern readers. Usually, the text is transmitted intact without corruption. And when there is significant corruption, there are usually red flags to indicate it. But no red flags are here. – Ben W Sep 8 '16 at 3:50
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The standard answer to the questions you've raised—determining text of the original autographs from the copies that we have, and of translating the texts—is that they issues should be addressed with a commonsense approach to the problems, rather than by an appeal to a specific authority, and certainly not to a religious authority.

So for instance, the task of textual criticism can be carried out just as effectively by a non-believer, because the arguments invoked in that field are not religious in nature: they depend on assumptions about what kind of mistakes are likely to occur when copying a text (any text) by hand, and how those mistakes are likely to be corrected by later copyists.

By the same token, translations can be evaluated from a strictly secular perspective—as of course a translation of any book would be.

The extent to which “everyday Bible-readers” engage with these issues will of course depend on the person. For evangelical scholarship, the key point is that in principle the decisions made are accessible to anyone's scrutiny. A person who was concerned about different translations could simply read several translations, to see how important the differences are. Textual criticism would be harder to get into, but a good study Bible has comprehensible footnotes about those things.

Perhaps the most succinct summary of the state of affairs comes from Mark Noll's book The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind, where he comments that evangelicals, or at least fundamentalists, have basically accepted a scientific approach to the Bible. They're willing to collect the individual facts and synthesize them for themselves—or to trust experts to do that work for them. I believe he was speaking specifically to problems of theology, but the comment is no less applicable to issues of translation and textual criticism.

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It's not exactly that the statement is saying that the originals are inerrant, but that the copies "may not be" and hence we simply do not know or must rely on outside "authorities" (Pope, Patriarch, Pastor, Prophet, Tradition, etc). The statement says "WE AFFIRM that inspiration, strictly speaking, applies only to the autographic text of Scripture, which in the providence of God can be ascertained from available manuscripts with great accuracy (Article X)."

In other words, the available manuscripts can be trusted to surely represent the originals with great accuracy.

The point of the statement isn't to cast doubt on whether our Bibles are useless or not, but rather that certain translations may or may not be 100% accurate.

The easiest example of this distinction is the 1611 King James Bible that is commonly known/used as the 1769 revision at Acts 12:4 wherein the Greek word Pascha was translated Easter. Pascha (the original) is correct; Easter (the translation) is not. Although I will say that there was a good reason for that particular translation, if one understands a certain history.

And when he had apprehended him, he put him in prison, and delivered him to four quaternions of soldiers to keep him; intending after Easter [πάσχα pascha] to bring him forth to the people.

There are other examples of this same distinction. So, the original is inerrant, and we can trust that God would care about His prophetic and apostolic written witness, but the translation may not faithfully represent the originals.

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