5 Reasons My Confidence in the Bible Is Not Undermined

This week in the book of Matthew we come to 17:14-21, and verse 21 is not in the Bible! At least it is not in most modern versions. How are we to understand what some might deem errors in the Bible? Enter textual criticism. Textual criticism is the discipline of maintaining the accuracy of the biblical text amid textual variants. We believe in the inerrancy of God’s Word, which means the absence of error in the original manuscripts of the Bible. Since we have no original manuscripts, but only copies, then inerrancy is undermined if we cannot have some sense of confidence not only in the originals but also in the remaining copied manuscripts. Complicating this transmission of copies through the ages is the presence of copyist mistakes and deterioration of old and even ancient manuscripts such as holes in the manuscripts or scrolls that are torn leaving only a partial document. In these instances, textual criticism seeks to determine what reading most faithfully reflects the perfect original manuscripts. 

1. Textual Criticism most often explains obvious human errors. 

In the copying of text, scribes would occasionally make mistakes, most of which are simple mistakes consisting of misspellings or transposing letters or words. The vast majority of these instances are blatantly obvious to translators, in which case publishers only produce the accurate words and we never see the misspelling. Occasionally, however, variants exist, which are words or phrases which have multiple legitimate options, but the original is clear even in most of these instances. We are left with a notation for explanation in the margin or footnote of our Bibles. For example, the notation in the instance of Matthew 17:21 reads, “Some manuscripts include verse 21,” yet the words are not included because it is clear they are not original. The answer is not as clear in some rare cases, so translators will include the text but then give notation that manuscripts differ on whether or not the word(s), phrase, or verse(s) are original. 

2. Inerrancy applies to original manuscripts and allows for human transcription. 

You may have heard of the term inerrancy of the Bible, which means the Bible contains no errors in the original autographs. This belief stresses two details: perfection of God and imperfection of man. First, as God has inspired His Word (2 Timothy 3:16), He has done so without error. Those original manuscripts, though, cannot be examined because we do not possess them. Had we possession of the actual original autographs, we would wrongly worship them instead of God who inspired them. He has withheld them from us in His providence, and we are left with copies. Secondly, we can discuss the possibility of questions in those copies while maintaining the conviction of inerrancy and while remaining staunchly confident in the inspiration of God without error. 

3. No difficulty presented by text criticism places a major doctrine in question.

As you may research and/or encounter various notations of textual criticism in your copy of the Scriptures, you may be confident to acknowledge those instances and comfortable facing each of those questions without concern for upsetting your faith or someone else’s faith. Even if you were to grant the worst case scenario for each variant text and conclude that we are totally unsure what the conclusion ought to be for any of the texts in question, you can still rest assured that no major doctrine of Scripture will be made uncertain or disproven. A variant text does not exist that, if accepted or rejected, disproves or solely proves any major doctrine of Christianity. 

4. Scripture interprets Scripture. 

This principle, that Scripture interprets Scripture, reinforces the previous point. No major doctrine rests independently on a single text of Scripture. Rather, the Bible is cohesive, fitting together as one, consistent revelation from God. If you were without a particular text, you would still have others to reinforce the same point. This principle helps interpretation also. If a text raises questions or seems particularly complex, you can appeal to the rest of Scripture, being confident of its consistency. The more simple and straightforward texts can bring clarity to the more difficult texts. 

5. God is trustworthy. 

God’s sovereignty and faithfulness must not be left out of this discussion. While it is true we are dealing with the reality of textual criticism and the transmission of God’s Word by human copyists, it is also true that we have a sovereign and faithful God who gives us this Word and who is sovereign and faithful over its transmission. Our God says we can trust His Word, and we can. He says that He does not lie, and we can trust Him. He says that He will not lead us astray, and we can follow Him. He says we should love, cherish, and obey His Word, and so indeed we will by His grace and help. We should be informed of textual criticism, but we should not lose sight of the trustworthy God who is giving the revelation. 
New Testament Textual Criticism by David Black is a great resource for further study.