Thursday, March 24, 2011

Original Autographs

So, I've been thinking.  As a person who desires to make a living pastoring and teaching in the Evangelical world, I might be incredibly stupid to bring this up, but I don't like statements of faith that talk about the Bible being inspired "in the original autographs".  So many churches and educational institutions have this line in their doctrinal statements, often as the first line of it.  This doesn't sit right with me.

What don't I like about it?  Well, I'll tell you.

I'm pretty sure this is what people mean by "original autograph".
First, the historical reality of something called an "original autograph" is entirely doubtable for many books of the Bible.  What was the "original" version of the Psalms?  Does "original autograph" refer to the first written version of each independent Psalm? The first time a collection of Psalms were brought together? The collection as we now have it in our Bibles?  Statements which limit the scope of inspiration to original autographs show a lack of appreciation for the processes involved in bringing much of the Old Testament into the form we have it.  Why limit the Spirit's inspiring work to a particular stage in the life of a text's production, especially when a term like 'original autograph' is so ill suited to specify which stage we have in mind?

Second, more importantly, and more in line with what Evangelicals really care about, explicitly limiting the inspiration of Scripture to a supposed "original autograph" calls into question the authority of Scripture as it is present in the church today.  It makes Scripture's authority in the church today definitively dependent on the human work of text criticism rather than the divine work of the Holy Spirit.  Our confessions need to be statements of faith in God in his work of revelation and reconciliation, while of course including his use of creaturely media to accomplish his will, among which Scripture is essential.  That is to say, our confessions need to be biblical!  Scripture speaks of no such things as original autographs, so why make them an object of confession? (If you say, "the Bible doesn't have the word 'Trinity' in it either", I'll seriously punch you.) New Testament writers appeal to the Old Testament as authoritative without ever grounding those appeals on a distinction between original autographs and anything else.  In fact, they freely cite the Septuagint, a translation of the Hebrew Old Testament into Greek, obviously not original autographs, yet there is no qualifying of its authority.  Likewise, if we are to confess the inspiration of Scripture, which we certainly must do, we need to define that inspiration in terms broad enough to see the Spirit's work include the whole range of processes by which the books of Scripture were composed, redacted, collected, and preserved through the ages. (Actually, we first need to see the composition of the biblical books in coordination with the redemptive acts God has done in the foundation and life of Israel and the church in which Scripture has its authority and is to be interpreted).

The questions brought up by the admission of stages of composition or redaction, questions such as "if there were several versions of a book along the way, which version is God's Word", make the mistake of thinking of divine revelation entirely in terms of the verbal form of Scripture rather than in terms of the living God continually speaking of himself through those verbal forms by his Spirit.  In other words, anxiety over such questions manifests a view of the Spirit's work in history so narrow and punctiliar as to be nearly deistic.  If the Spirit doesn't speak now through Scripture as he spoke through it as it was first received, then it is of no use to us.  If he does speak now through it, then our statements of faith out to reflect such a trust in Scripture in the unity of its original reception (if it even makes sense to speak of such a thing) and its present reception.

That being said, I am still willing to sign statements containing language about original autographs.  It is not that I hold suspicion about the inspiredness of Scripture in any earlier version than we have now, its just that I see no reason not just say that we believe Scripture to be inspired and authoritative for Christian thinking and living.  I see no benefit gained by the inclusion of "in the original autographs", only problems.  Am I missing something?


  1. When I first started hearing this phrase in my high school years it seemed as if it was an attempt to side step apparent contradictary accounts or citing of numbers or years. That is, minor discrepancies were explained away as "copyist error". I believe this stemmed from the view that "inspiration" meant every word and punctuation mark.

  2. Thanks for this Adam. Question: What do you make of my denominational statement of faith which speaks of the OT and NT as 'inerrant as originally given'? Tying it not to inspiration but to inerrancy, and using the word 'given' rather than 'autographs'?

  3. "Original autographs" language is pretty much always tied to inerrancy. It is, as Steve pointed out, a way of qualifying the claim of inerrancy so that it can account for the varying readings text criticism has discovered. Making it clear that it was the original versions of each book that were inerrantly inspired gives Evangelicals a reason to care deeply about text criticism, saying basically "text criticism's confirmation that what we have now is 99% what the original autographs said (all the differences being minor and having no doctrinal relevance) means we can put our whole trust in the Bible we are reading now."

    The point is that tying "original autographs" to inspiration is aimed precisely at safeguarding inerrancy, so "inerrant as originally given" means essentially the same thing. These statements presuppose a modern understanding of literary authorship that just doesn't work with much of the Bible, plus they call into question the current authority of the Bible as grounded in the Spirit's ongoing work by circumscribing inspiration to a hypothetically punctiliar event. Like I said, I'd still have no problem signing such a statement because I don't think it actually says anything directly false or heretical; I just think they ought to be in fact much stronger in their statement of trust in Scripture as a reality given a historical unity throughout the life of the church by the Spirit.

  4. "Original autographs" is a way to explain all of the textual variants that we have now. But I'm actually more with you on this, Adam (although I have no problem "still" with using language like inerrancy etc. qualified of course); I think we need to have a trust in divine providence and concursus on this. That said, I still think using the perfect tense for understanding God speaking in and through His Word is an acceptable way to think of inspiration. I.e. that God spoke and that He continues to speak lively and freshly through the spoken and speaking "Words" of scripture.

  5. Okay Adam - what if I flip this around? To what extent are you willing to confess the Spirit's work upon Scripture's coming-to-be? Are you willing, for instance, to say that the adulterous woman passage from John 8 is "scripture" because it has been so received, even if it is a late interpolation? Or, going further, do you think that the Vulgate's encouragement to "do penance" (dicere paenitentiam)in Matt 4:17 should be counted as authoritative b/c it stands at the end of editing process, instead of going back to the μετανοειτε of the Greek version?

    Just wondering.

  6. Not surprisingly, I follow Torrance in seeing the canonization of Scripture as the canonization (recognizing as normative) of apostolic testimony or what he calls the "apostolic mind" - the testimony of the apostolic generation of direct witnesses to Christ, their testimony itself being exegesis of the Old Testament by the standard of its telos in Christ (so OT and NT taken together), is our rule for faith and practice. That would make the apostolic generation's reception of all prior texts and editorial development of their own texts the boundary of textual development. That boundary is a) similar to what I think is intended by "original autograph" in that you don't canonize ongoing textual development up to the modern day and beyond (which I think is what you're question is getting at) but b) harder to define. There is a boundary to what is authoritative Scripture and what is not, but it is somewhat elastic and so our trust in Scripture cannot be in a certain knowledge of that boundary but in the Spirit's guidance.

    On the practical level, for me, that makes the John 8 addition "in" as normative Scripture though it was not likely included in what most people mean by "original autograph" because the church's inclusion of it is to acknowledge it as "apostolic".

    Regarding Jerome's translation of μετανοειτε, I would want to start by making clear that the Vulgate does not stand at the end of the editorial process but lies beyond it, falling under the categories of "reception" and "translation" rather than "inspiration". The Spirit's work crosses the boundaries between these categories, but it is still beneficial to distinguish between them. So why my beef with church statements on inspiration if recognizing a boundary between inspiration, reception and translation is legitimate? Because as I put it in the post, the trust is transferred from the Spirit's ongoing though differentiated work to a punctiliar event which essentially objectifies revelation, taking it out of the Spirit's hands at that moment and transferring it to the textual form of Scripture.

    Having said that, though this reflection is probably unnecessary, it would seem to me that dicere paenitentiam is a legitimate translation of μετανοειτε - isn't it basically equivalent to the English "repent" (itself being etymologically reliant on paenitentiam)? Is the Vulgate necessarily reading Cyprian's penitential system anachronistically into the text? Couldn't a reader understand "penance" in the later Latin context in its broader semantic range as simple repentance?

  7. I'm posting this on behalf of my friend Cameron who was for some reason unable to post it:

    First, you said, "Scripture speaks of no such things as original autographs, so why make them an object of confession?" But one may object by referring to the gist of verses such as Gal. 6.11, Phm 1.19. Paul is certainly referring to his authority as an apostle teaching the gospel in terms of the actual letter placed before his readers.

    Second, on the subject of Scriptural quotation/allusion: that in itself doesn't settle the authority of the source quoted. What of Paul's quotation of pagan sources, or Jude's of 1 Enoch? This means that one should consider Paul's, and other's, quotation of the LXX as suspect in so far as your argument tries to differentiate versions.

    Third, I grant you that the "original autographs" argument breaks down embarrassingly quickly when looking at the OT. However, I think this reveals a deeper problem in traditional exegesis (Calvin, Thomas, Augustine, Jerome and Origen excluded), or rather (I guess I should say, given my last parenthesis) "traditionalist" exegesis, that the OT is scripture only as it points to Jesus Christ. Ironically, I think, an "original autograph" appeal undermines the equally (if not more) important claim that the OT points to Christ. By attempting to slay that –oh-so-terrible dragon that is textual criticism, have they not succumbed to that, oh-so-horrible, historicist tendency in modern exegesis?

    Well, that’s my two cents (or three). Eager to hear your response…

  8. ...and here is my response to Cameron:

    Ok, so there are a couple places where Scripture makes reference to an autograph - but are these passages rendered illegitimate, non-authoritative or non-inspired because of our inability to read them according to the author's direction, to see the large letters he writes with his own hand?

    As far as I'm aware, no NT author ever refers to a pagan source with the words "Scripture says" or "The Lord says to so and so" the way it does with the LXX. The fundamentalists will make this argument for me, doing all the laborious work to demonstrate that the NT authors don't simply appeal to the LXX as historical record but as Holy Scripture. I know Warfield has some good stuff on that.

    Third point - right on the money. Thanks for the thoughts.

  9. Adam
    Don't worry, I think you fit right in with us Evangelicals.
    I wish I had an autographed copy of the original, but since I don't I guess we'll just have to trust God to make sure our version is close enough. He is still working with us, isn't he?

  10. I believe this stemmed from the view that "inspiration" meant every word and punctuation mark.
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