Without the Printing Press, Would Inerrancy Be A Question?

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A Bit of Background

Depending on your background, the term “inerrancy” might be a vaguely familiar idea that means something like “authority” or “trustworthiness” or, conversely, it might refer to an idea invented by fundamentalists that is at best unhelpful.

But whatever your background with the idea, you’ll likely be hearing more about it soon on the heals of Zondervan’s new book Five Views on Inerrancy and events surrounding its publication such as the Evangelical Theological Society’s recent debate (live blog) by the authors of the book.

We’ll touch on the meaning of inerrancy below, but first the point of this post is to propose that the development of the idea of inerrancy came about in part because of the printing press and the attitudes and expectations created by printed books.

What is Inerrancy?

For scholars, the term “inerrancy” comes with many technical definitions. Wayne Grudem defined inerrancy saying, “Scripture in the original manuscripts does not affirm anything that is contrary to fact” (Systematic Theology, 91) and more recently Al Mohler writes, “The Bible is ‘free from all falsehood or mistake’.” (c.f. The Chicago Statement on Inerrancy).

On the surface this doesn’t seem like a particularly difficult concept, but as Mohler says the devil is in the details. When a perfect God works through a fallen person, what exactly would it mean for Scripture to have a “mistake” or something that is “contrary to fact”?

For example, today we use the term “four corners of the earth” as an expression, but when the author of Revelation used the phrase (Rev. 7:1) did he think there really were four corners of the earth? If so, is that “mistake”? Or is it God working through the language and customs of the time? Or something else?

What about the ages of men in Genesis (any over 900 years)? Are those to be taken as scientifically accurate dates that are either chronologically right or wrong? Or was the author doing what many people did in the Ancient Near East which was to use “age” not as an index of time, but as an index of importance? If so, again, is this “contrary to fact” or  God working through the language and expectations of the original culture of readers? Or is the Bible just wrong on many factual matters but still correct when it comes to spiritual issues?

The examples could go on and on, but it is worth pointing out that in the last major “Battle for the Bible” which took place in the 1970s and ‘80s, some evangelical theologians took the position that they could still affirm biblical authority and infallibility, but not the technical idea of inerrancy. As Marsden tells the story in Reforming Fundamentalism many theologians essentially had the same basic view of Scripture, but struggled with the term “inerrancy” itself and all that it connotes. Today the debate is bubbling up again because of new concerns about what exactly constitutes an “error” and what can be considered the conventions of the literary genre.

While this is very interesting and will likely continue to be an important issue among evangelicals, its important to note that underneath the issue of “error” is an idea about “error” that can be traced, in part, from the move from hand-written texts to printed texts.

Gutenberg, Luther, and Erasmus

Gutenberg’s first printing press came online in 1450. When we talk about the printing press and Christianity, we often point out that Martin Luther nailed his 95 Theses to the Wittenberg Door in 1517 and then later used the printing press to great effect when distributing his German translation of the Bible.

But what we don’t normally mention is that Erasmus published the first critical edition of the Greek New Testament the year before in 1516. (A critical text is one that compares several hand-written copies of the Bible and notes where there are differences. For example, the ending of Mark is not in many early manuscripts, and Erasmus’ critical text noted all such known variations.)

An interesting question is: why was Erasmus’ generation the first to think of creating such comparative editions of the Bible?

The Value System of Print

Before the age of print, a book was something decidedly human. Each copy and every letter therein could be traced to living, breathing, fallible human being. Books were written by humans, copied by humans, ready aloud by humans, and listened to by humans.

But in the print age, a book was a product manufactured by a machine capable of precision and perfection. Every letter was an exact replica of the one before it and every page in one book matched the same page in the same edition of the same text.

Erasmus was part of the first generation raised with this new technology and its value system founded on the idea that texts should not vary from copy to copy. So when Erasmus encountered differences among hand-copied Bibles, he looked at them differently than previous generations of Christians who never expected books to be perfect replicas of one another. That’s not to say previous generations of Christians were unaware of such changes – Origen, Augustine, Aquinas and others commented on textual variations – but Erasmus and the generations that followed him devoted much more attention to textual criticism, and this study was both influenced and supported by the printing press.

Doubts Arise

Most of the changes he and others found were minor, but they were enough to create an entire field of study (biblical criticism) that didn’t exist before. More importantly, these differences among copies of the Bible started causing some people to doubt the trustworthiness of the Scriptures themselves.

As the story goes, seventeenth and eighteenth century Enlightenment thinkers began to question the historicity of certain parts of the Bible, especially anything miraculous. Modern, scientific man need not and could not believe in things like parting the Red Sea and resurrection from the dead. And though many of these critiques were over the content of the Bible, it was also subtly about biblical media – silly, hand-copied legends could never compete with rigorous scientific data hot off the printing press.

Up to this point, all Christians had affirmed the authority, trustworthiness, and truthfulness of the Bible. The scribes who copied it did their best to copy every letter and every word with precision and care. And yet minor mistakes and human variations in copying were just a part of their reality and part of what made a Bible beautiful.

It seems clear that the reason people like Erasmus started taking more note of the differences is that using the technology of print inculcated the expectation of perfect texts. This is important because the inerrancy debate is primarily concerned with the perfection of the biblical texts. The Scriptures teach us that God himself is perfect, but it is the technology of print that teach us us to expect a kind of perfection from our texts.

Fighting Fire with Fire

It was in this context of biblical criticism that inerrancy emerged as a new way of re-establishing biblical authority in scientific and technological terms. Conservative theologians felt they couldn’t simply restate the historical view that the Bible is authoritative – they needed to do so through the lenses new media (print) provided.

Notice how Grudem’s definition is specifically concerned not merely with the content itself but with content respect to media. Instead of just saying that the Bible has no factual errors, his definition qualifies the lack of errors by saying there were none “in the original manuscripts.”

Grudem is arguing that some of the “errors” people find the Bible are really just mistakes in copying and if we had the original manuscripts, it would clear up what appears to be contradictions.

But notice that at its core this statement contrasts two forms of media: handwritten copies of the Bible and printed replicas of the Bible. What this means is that to understand, debate, affirm, or deny the concept of “inerrancy,” one must be familiar with print and its value system.

Put another way, inerrancy is a post-print doctrinal orientation.

Affirm, Deny, or Ignore?

Those who reject inerrancy often claim that it is a 19th century invention foreign to the early church. Conversely, inerrantists often claim inerrancy is the historical position of the church. I hope to have argued that neither position is truly accurate.

I am neither criticizing nor defending inerrancy (disclosure: inerrancy is one the seven doctrines students must affirm at the institution where I work), but pointing out that whether you affirm inerrancy, reject it, or simply find it unhelpful or unnecessary, these are postures only those familiar with printed books and the value system of the Print Age can take.

Again, this is evident in the way many definitions of inerrancy hinge upon the new realities created by print media and the kinds of things people today consider to be “mistakes” or “errors.”

The development of the concept of inerrancy doesn’t make it true or false, it simply means that answering the question of authority in this way was not required of pre-print Christians. And yet, whether we like it or not, it is a question we must to wrestle with today.

For those of us deeply concerned with fully affirming that, “All Scripture is inspired by God and useful …” (2 Tim 3:16), we must articulate what that means within our own cultural setting, even as that setting is again shifting media: this time from print to digital.

Published by

John Dyer

In my day job, I work at Dallas Theological Seminary, and at night I write Bible software for countries whose leaders could be called "overlords." This one time, I wrote a book about technology and Christian faith. You can find out more about what I'm up to at http://j.hn/.

11 thoughts on “Without the Printing Press, Would Inerrancy Be A Question?”

  1. Nice thoughts John. I appreciated the historical context you brought to the era of the printing press. I would be interested to know how authorial intent dovetails with this conversation, or if this tool is a more recent outcome of the further expansion of media/consumption.

  2. “Erasmus was part of the first generation raised with this new technology and its value system founded on the idea that texts should not vary from copy to copy.” I would disagree with you, this is a concern as old as writing itself. Ancient authors and scribes frequently warn and threaten that copies of their works should be accurate and word for word the same.

    Also, you note, “It seems clear that the reason people like Erasmus started taking more note of the differences is that using the technology of print inculcated the expectation of perfect texts.”
    But Erasmus or his generation were not the first to wrestle with textual variants in NT manuscripts and the problems this caused, this is as old as the second century AD (Irenaeus). Origen, Augsutine, Jerome et al all commented on scribal errors in manuscripts. Also Jerome spent years producing his corrected Latin text of the bible which took into account many text critical and source critical problems. The ancients were not oblivious to the problems caused by the human element in manuscript production.

    1. Shane,
      Thanks for the pushback, brother!

      I certainly don’t mean to portray the idea of noticing textual variants as a kind of binary change with Erasmus. Pre-print Christians were certainly aware of such differences.

      However, to your first point about scribes, I did mention that many copyists worked long arduous hours to preserve texts. At the same time, many textual variations are due not merely to accidental errors but to intentional changes such as spelling corrections, attempts at harmonizing, conflations, glosses, and so on. These kinds of changes make sense in a pre-print world, but not when the copyist is a machine. In this new post-print world, no more changes could be made to manuscripts, thus Erasmus and his generation saw things differently.

      And thus the need arose among evangelicals for some to restate the way they understood authority in scripture.

      1. Fair points. I think I would say in answer to your title, “Without the Printing Press, Would Inerrancy Be A Question?” Yes it certainly would be, and was.
        You say “The development of the concept of inerrancy doesn’t make it true or false, it simply means that answering the question of authority in this way was not required of pre-print Christians.” I think Jerome would disagree with you! (But he disagreed with almost everyone, so there’s no surprise there). His commentary on Matthew frequently addresses textual problems in the Gospels and how they relate to our idea of inspiration. In his comments on the textual variant at Mark 1.1 Jerome notes that this problem was used by Porphyry as an argument against the inspiration of the Christian Scriptures. To answer this problem Jerome followed the harder reading. There are numerous cases where inspiration and textual corruption come into play in the early church centuries before the printing press.

  3. Interesting… and if you will, a rightly placed reflection in light of the changes some languages are seeing with the speed and spread of social networking. In that wise, where (written) language itself is being challenged, it would see that digital could be a hearken back to the times before print in a sense (people writing about the text more or less what they feel) but then the ability for data to also be coded with where it came from, allowing for textual criticism.

    If that makes sense :)
    Gosh, that’s what I get for sitting on this for so long after the first read.

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