14 May 2008

pure autographic texts

In comments elsewhere I offered a few thoughts regarding aspects of the doctrine of scripture as that appears in the Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy (CSBI; 1978) and in the Westminster Confession of Faith (WCF; 1646).

The documents in question include statements concerning the text of scripture. First, in the Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy we read, “Since God has nowhere promised an inerrant transmission of Scripture, it is necessary to affirm that only the autographic text of the original documents was inspired and to maintain the need of textual criticism as a means of detecting any slips that may have crept into the text in the course of its transmission” (III.E).

Second, the earlier Westminster Confession of Faith states, “The Old Testament in Hebrew (which was the native language of the people of God of old), and the New Testament in Greek (which, at the time of the writing of it, was most generally known to the nations), being immediately inspired by God, and, by His singular care and providence, kept pure in all ages, are therefore authentical” (1.8).

What are we to make of these statements? With regard to the CSBI, what is the purpose of affirming the integrity of the biblical “autographs” when, in some instances, we are unable to determine with any certainty the precise text such an autograph might have offered? And with regard to the WCF, what can it possibly mean with regard to the “purity” of the biblical text in its original languages, when it seems clear that our Hebrew and Greek texts are imperfect?

While I am open to questioning received opinions, I am nonetheless keen to make sure any questioning emerges out of some degree of charity, especially where deference is due, so that a classic text is given the best reading it can bear before it is critically scrutinized.

In that light, I find the WCF more congenial in several respects than the CSBI. But let me try to parse out what I think the respective documents are trying to say.

Regarding the CSBI, it states that “only the autographic text of the original documents was inspired,” but doesn’t hold to inerrancy in the transmission of those texts. Elsewhere the CSBI says that “inspiration, strictly speaking” only applies to the the autographic originals.

Now, I don’t have the sort of qualms about this that some might, the question of “what good does that do?” That's to say, one might ask, what good is it to assert the existence of inspired autographs when we don't actually have those autographs at hand? But I don't find this sort of objection especially troubling.

After all, as a general principle, there may be compelling reasons for asserting that an object possesses a particular characteristic, even if we don’t have any direct access to that object. Thus, in science, one often posits the existence of something and attributes qualities to it, even if there is no way at present to prove its existence, because it has some kind of explanatory value. Or one may posit something about the Sitz im Leben of a text, even though we have no direct access to that original setting because it helps explain features of the text we are attempting to interpret.

So the question here, with regard to the CSBI, would be the explanatory value of positing the existence of inspired original texts. It seems to me that the explanatory value lies in the relationship between the texts we do have and the original texts. If the original “autographic” texts are inspired, then insofar as the text we have represents continuity with the original texts, both in transmission and in translation, then (as the CSBI elsewhere says) we “have no cause for hesitating to conclude that the true Word of God is within [our] reach.”

Now, it seems to me that there are still two sorts problems with the section of the CSBI quoted above.

First, when the CSBI says that “only the autographic text of the original documents was inspired,” it would seem to suggest that what we encounter as the scriptures is not inspired, at least strictly speaking. And that seems troubling. Yet if, as the CSBI maintains, the “true Word of God is within our reach” through translations, then how can that “true Word” be anything but an inspired Word of God? And if even translations have the character of inspiration in some degree, then how much more the original language manuscripts that are the basis for translation?

Here’s where the WCF might be a help to the CSBI, with the WCF’s implicit distinction between “immediate” and “mediate” inspiration. Thus, while only the “autographic” original text (to use the terminology of the CSBI) may be “immediately inspired,” the transmitted manuscripts and even our translations are “mediately inspired.” That is to say, insofar as they accurately communicate the original, derivative texts have the character of inspiration conferred upon them by their relation to and mediated by the immediately inspired originals.

As William Lyford - a member of the Westminster Assembly - wrote:
…divine truth in English, is as truly the Word of God as the same scriptures delivered in the original Hebrew or Greek; yet with this difference, that the same is perfectly, immediately, and most absolutely in the original Hebrew and Greek, in other translations, as the vessels wherein it is presented to us, and as far forth as they agree with the originals. And every translation agreeing with the originals in the matter, is the same canonical Scripture that Hebrew or Greek is, even as it is the same water, which is in the fountain and in the stream.
If this is true of translations, then how much more so is it the case with the transmission of texts in the original languages. Thus, the WCF’s emphasis on the immediate inspiration of the original text, rather than placing a distance between us and the God-breathed text of scripture, is designed to assure us that the scriptures we hear and read partake derivatively, yet truly, of that same inspiration.

Second, when the CSBI speaks of the “autographic” text of scripture, the term could be misleading. While this use of the term “autograph” with reference to the original text of scripture goes back to at least the 17th century, it seems to imply the notion of a single, individual author, composing a text so that, at the end of the process of composition, an “autograph” has been produced. But this is overly simplistic.

The letters of Paul, for instance, are often in the name of Paul and at least one companion, whose role in the composition of the letters is unknown. Moreover, it is clear from the closing greetings that Paul made use of an amanuensis whose role in shaping the vocabulary and diction of his letters is unknown. Other parts of scripture appear to involve complex histories of compilation, editing, and redaction. And the collecting together of diverse materials into a single book such as the Psalms and Proverbs, or perhaps some of the prophets, involve layers of authorial shaping. In all these ways, using language that implies a single, individual author producing an “autograph” is problematic.

Certainly, we may use the term “autograph” in a looser, stretchier way - to refer to all stages of the inspired biblical text insofar as it was authoritative in the life of God’s people as it progressed towards a more final, canonical form, as well as that more final form itself. But when arriving at that point, it might be better to develop a clearer, richer notion of what “original text” means than “autograph” would suggest.

Enough with the CSBI. Turning to WCF 1.8, I think it’s important to take it in its original 17th century context. The nature of this context is complex concerning the entire opening chapter of the WCF and has been the subject of much discussion (particularly surrounding the “Rogers/McKim thesis”). But I'll give it my best shot.

The point of the WCF here, as far as I can discern based upon the original context, is not to maintain a doctrine of “pure” textual transmission that would exclude the kinds of textual problems we find in scripture. 17th century theologians were well aware of textual variants and the like (as were their medieval predecessors, as is clear from the biblical commentaries of figures such as Aquinas). Indeed, the 16th and 17th centuries saw the production of various early critical editions of Hebrew and Greek manuscripts, working with the best available evidence, attempting to resolve various issues of textual variation, even when working within the tradition of the so-called textus receptus.

Rather, it seems to me that the WCF is setting itself against its understanding of the Council of Trent and certain sorts of Roman Catholic claims for the uniquely “authentical” character of the Latin Vulgate. Many Roman Catholic scholars maintained, for instance, that Jerome had access to Greek and Hebrew texts that were of greater antiquity than the texts available to the 16th and 17th century church, and therefore the texts Jerome possessed were more reliable, pure, and authentic. Thus Jerome’s Vulgate translation was to be trusted over the Greek and Hebrew texts that were becoming available as an object of study during the Renaissance and thereafter, which, in the view of some Roman Catholic theologians of the time, were impure and corrupt by comparison.

Furthermore, the Fourth Session of the Council of Trent stated:
Moreover, the same sacred and holy Synod - considering that no small utility may accrue to the Church of God, if it be made known which out of all the Latin editions, now in circulation, of the sacred books, is to be held as authentic - ordains and declares, that the said old and Vulgate edition, which, by the lengthened usage of so many years, has been approved of in the Church, should be, in public lectures, disputations, sermons and expositions, held as authentic; and that no one is to dare, or presume to reject it under any pretext whatever.
Now many contemporary Roman Catholic theologians will today dispute whether or not Trent meant to declare the Vulgate the only authentic text of scripture and the only final appeal in theological controversies. Nonetheless, that is how Trent was often understood in the 17th century by both Roman Catholic and Protestant theologians and how the state of discussion was passed along (through figures such as William Whitaker) to the Westminster Assembly.

Thus, it seems to me that, rather than ignoring issues of textual transmission and variation, the WCF is affirming that we should rightly turn to the available Hebrew and Greek texts of scripture - rather than to simply the Vulgate - in order to determine matters of theological controversy, making use of the best manuscript evidence we have available to us and not just assuming that Jerome had better manuscripts available to him because he lived longer ago than we do. Through study of the manuscript evidence, we can be assured that our results will be as “pure” as anything Jerome possessed and, indeed, very likely more so.

If anything, then, WCF 1.8 is an affirmation of just the sort of close, critical textual study that we might want to embrace. Such study is justified because, we are assured by the WCF, God has preserved for us original language manuscripts that are substantially correct and, through study, provide us with the resources we need to access the original Word of God with greater purity and accuracy than even Jerome.