“If it’s true that the English Bibles we have now have some inconsistencies, what does it matter if the ‘original’ manuscripts didn’t? I don’t ask this question rhetorically, but honestly... So, then, if I trust what I have and believe what I read, and work with the text that I have to understand God, etc., more deeply and fully, is it even important what I believe about the original documents?”
I believe your question is honest, and here is my honest response.
In my opinion, if the original biblical documents contained errors, it simply makes no sense to “trust what I have and believe what I read.” It is naive and misguided to trust what is errant. Unless God revealed that “the following chapters are errant, and these others are inerrant,” in which case I would trust the ones that were inerrant, and mistrust the others. Since we are left on our own to figure out what’s true and what isn’t, without inerrancy all truth is up for grabs. Furthermore, the Bible is no longer a book for the common man, who does not know the original languages and is not trained in textual criticism, and is not “educated enough” to figure out for himself which parts are true and which aren’t (as too many “scholars” presume they can).
Now, on the other hand, if the autographa (original manuscripts) were God-breathed, and therefore without error, I can easily look at the manuscripts and the translations and say, “I can live with this 0.3% uncertainty that involves a very small number of passages, none of which affects a major doctrine.” Since I am certain the 99.7% is what God really said, I can rely on it as a whole, judging the remaining .3% in light of the vast majority of inerrant text, which will help suggest what the uncertain text may or may not have said in its original inerrant state.
If on the other hand I believe that within that 99.7% there are any number of errors—how many neither I nor anyone else can know, and we are all left to figure out or guess or rely on someone else’s theories about which parts are right and which are wrong—then I can have no confidence either in the original—much less the Bible in my hand, which is even further from the truth than the original, which itself was errant. And since it was errant, I have no authoritative basis upon which to judge or correct the other .3% by it. By comparing the great bulk of manuscript copies which agree, it can usually be readily determined when a copying error appears in a manuscript with a different reading. But why even bother comparing and trying to figure out the original, if the original itself is errant? In other words, if the original is errant, why is it any better than the copy? In fact, the aberrant copy may actually have served to correct the errant original!
In all the years I’ve pondered this, it still just makes no more sense to me to trust an errant written Word of God than to trust an errant Living Word of God. If you believed Christ was errant—even if he made fewer errors than other men—would you wholeheartedly and unreservedly trust Him in everything He said and did? I wouldn’t. If you believe the Bible is errant (which doesn’t mean that it’s ALL error, of course, just that SOME of it is), why would you wholeheartedly trust it? I do not mean to engage in name-calling of those who affirm the Bible’s authority but reject its inerrancy, but I honestly believe it is foolish to trust what is wrong. When you have no objective basis to know what is wrong and what isn’t, why should you trust any of it? This is why I think those who claim to believe in the Bible’s authority but not its inerrancy, are playing word games and placing themselves in an impossible position, and will inevitably move on to outright reject clear teachings of Scripture that don’t fit the modern worldview (which changes with the wind).
So to me it is extremely important what I believe about the original documents. If they were not dependable (and I cannot rationally stake my eternity upon what is a mixture of truth and error), then I become the judge, the authority, my own “god” who decrees what parts of the Bible I will believe and what parts I won’t. That is happening right now among evangelicals, and I have to say that a great deal of it goes back to those who first determined that there’s no inconsistency in being an evangelical and believing the original biblical manuscripts contained errors. For if they did, we are left to ourselves to guess at what’s error and what’s truth, and history shows we are notoriously bad at guessing. I thank God that when I look at Scripture I don’t have to guess what’s true and what isn’t. (For instance, I don’t have to wonder, as many who don’t believe in innerancy are now wondering, if the Bible portions that condemn homosexuality are errant.)
I remember many years ago reading Paul K. Jewett, Fuller seminary professor, in his book Man as Male and Female. He rejected the notion that we must believe and embrace the teachings of a variety of Scriptures related to male leadership. He rejected some of Paul’s teachings, pointing to Paul’s own hang-ups. So did Virginia Ramey Molenkott, an outspoken “evangelical” lesbian who wrote the forward to Jewett’s book. How did Jewett come to the point that he felt the freedom to reject the teaching of Scripture and replace it with beliefs more palatable to current American thought? I believe it came with his rejection of inerrancy—and the inevitable subsequent substitution of belief in himself, his culture, academia, his circle of influence, etc.. He wrote,
“Historical and critical studies of the biblical documents have compelled the church to abandon this simplistic view of the divinity of Scripture [he was referring to the doctrine that the Bible is inerrant] and to take into account the complexity at the human level of the historical process by which the documents were produced. Instead of the simple statement, which is essentially true, that the Bible is a divine book, we now perceive more clearly than in the past that the Bible is a divine/human book. As divine, it emits the light of revelation; as human, this light of revelation shines in and through the ‘dark glass’ (1 Cor. 13:12) of the ‘earthen vessels’ (2 Cor. 4:7) who were the authors of its content at the human level” (Jewett, Man as Male and Female, p. 135).
If the Bible contains errors and Jesus didn’t know it, He is not God. If He knew it, why did he say “the Scripture cannot be broken” (John 10:35) and that the very jots and tittles are authoritative and preserved by God (Matthew 5:18)? When Paul stated that “all Scripture is God-breathed” (2 Timothy 3:16), he obviously understood that there is a human element in Scripture, but he knew that God controlled the writers of Scripture in such a manner that the product is the inerrant Word of God. Any doctrine of the Scripture that disagrees with that taught by Christ and the apostles is...well, in my opinion, heresy.
I say this with sadness. I have no desire to criticize brothers and sisters in Christ. I am just saying they have gone down a road that many of them will not turn back from. It is inevitable that they will end up rejecting the teaching of Scripture when they reject the truth of Scripture. Why wouldn’t they? Why should they trust and submit to and regard as authoritative what they believe contains errors? I certainly wouldn’t. They can say they accept biblical authority without inerrancy, but in fact their conclusions (e.g. Jewett’s) demonstrate that by rejecting inerrancy they have in fact rejected authority. How could it be otherwise? You simply cannot trust what you believe to be false. Every time Scripture teaches something difficult and unpopular, you will inevitably conclude it’s “another one of those errors.”
Here is a link with info on this that may be of interest.
Also, here’s something from a pastor friend of mine, Mark Dever, that gets into the history of the inerrancy debate. He mentions Fuller’s role in it, but it gives you a much larger picture of the whole.