Whose Word is it anyway?

Debra Anderson
30 June, 2003 5 min read

‘All Scripture is given by inspiration of God …’ (2 Timothy 3:16). There is no question as to what makes the Bible ‘profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness’. It is the fact that God himself is its author.

How can this be? The Holy Spirit inspired men of his choosing to pen the histories, letters and poetry that make up the Bible. While the writers employed their own styles and idioms, the Spirit superintended their work so that the result was exactly what he wanted.

Conservative view

The commonly held conservative view is that the various books of Scripture in the originals – the so-called ‘autographs’ – were subject to plenary inspiration, that is, they were without error down to the individual words.1

The New Testament writers clearly concurred with this high view of inspiration, because they sometimes hinged their teachings on a single word from the Old Testament (for example, Galatians 3:16).

This acceptance of the verbal inspiration and inerrancy of Scripture has advanced and solidified in conservative circles, particularly in the last two centuries, as the Scriptures have been assaulted by those who would demean them.

The teaching of plenary inspiration permeates conservative Christianity, providing a firm foundation for the Christian’s growth in grace and enabling the preacher to proclaim with authority, ‘Thus saith the Lord’.

Single text

Of course, we no longer have the original autographs, these having long ago been reduced to dust. Instead, we have thousands of manuscripts taken from these originals – some containing large portions of Scripture, others only fragments; some being careful reproductions of the originals and others less accurate.

It is through these copies that God chose to provide his Word to our forefathers in the faith, as also to our generation and beyond.

The existence of thousands of manuscripts would make Bible study unwieldy if individual believers were left to deal with them, and the benefit was recognised of having a single text produced from the manuscripts.

Accordingly, scholars – particularly at the dawn of the Reformation – set about the task of collating the available manuscripts, a task that continues today, as more manuscripts become available for study or as principles of textual criticism are honed or reapplied.

Just another book?

The principles applied today are very much the children of those originated in the 19th century, a period of great flux in the intellectual and spiritual communities.

Late in the century, Freudian psychology and the influence of Darwinism brought a decrease in respect for theology, and biblical scholars found themselves under pressure to answer questions of faith with scientific reason.

The text of Scripture came to be viewed as an object of scientific study – just another book among many ancient works. ‘Higher criticism’ gave the interpretation of Scripture, and ‘lower criticism’ gave the text for that interpretation.

Sadly, both were presented by men who viewed the Scriptures as nothing special. Christians who would never have accepted the higher critical views espoused by these men, found themselves at their mercy in the search for a single text of Scripture.

The late 20th century has seen a small but growing number of theologians and laymen who question how one can reject higher critical thinking and yet accept a lower criticism that adopts the same basic presupposition (namely, that the Bible is just another book and can be treated as such).

Not only has higher criticism been left to men of little faith, but lower (textual) criticism is also largely in the hands of scholars who openly reject the inspiration and inerrancy of the autographs.

Both the scholars themselves and the principles they use in textual study, commonly ignore or even oppose belief in the divine origin of the Scriptures.

The question being asked, particularly in some conservative Reformed circles, is whether or not the prevailing principles of textual criticism adequately address this divine authorship.

Human authorship

A major aspect of the textual criticism of any document is ‘authorial intent’ – what was the text intended by the author? Which version of King Lear is Shakespeare’s actual final text? Or was his desire for multiple texts? How far removed from Homer’s autograph is our current edition ofThe Iliad?

The responsibility of the textual critic is ‘to come as close as possible to the text intended by the author’.2

Biblical textual critics also begin with the author of the text. They undertake in-depth study of the lives and writings of Paul and Matthew, Isaiah and Moses, in order to ascertain which of numerous variants each man would have been more likely to have penned.

However, in the textual criticism of the books of Scripture this is problematic in several ways.

First, too often the scholars undertaking the work depend upon unacceptable higher critical principles. For example, many do not believe the biblical authors ever existed. Or if they did, they did not write the books attributed to them.

How many different ‘Isaiahs’ penned the book of that name? Who wrote 2 Peter? In addition, many scholars believe that the various books were edited (or ‘redacted’) over decades or centuries, before coming to their final forms.

How many ‘Yahwists’ and ‘Elohists’, working over how many years, did it take to produce the book of Genesis?

It is obviously impossible to delineate from a book the style and grammar of its writer, if one believes that the book was actually penned by someone else or several other people, or was edited numerous times before coming to its final ‘authorised’ form.

Thus, the entire question of authorship becomes moot, and the textual critic is left to deal with each individual book as an isolated document of indeterminate origin.

Divine authorship

More problematic, however, is that by focusing on the human authors of Scripture, scholars fail to take into account the impact of having God as its ultimate author.

While it is true that God did not pen the Scriptures himself, he nevertheless worked through the minds and skills of chosen writers, moving them to set down exactly what he wanted – producing the inspired and error-free autographs.

If the goal were to reproduce as closely as possible a 4th or 8th century text, the focus of textual criticism would of necessity be upon the human copyists – their habits and foibles would have fashioned the text which they produced, warts and all. But textual scholars claim that their goal is to discover the original text of the books of Scripture.

Furthermore, most textual scholars use the term ‘original’ to mean simply the final edition. This, they believe, may have been compiled from legend and edited over many centuries before reaching this state of ‘originality’.

Determining factor

This is problematic – indeed unacceptable – to those who believe in inspired autographs. For them the aim must be to reproduce as closely as possible the texts as originally inspired by God – the single autographic manuscript of each book of Scripture.

Some will no doubt argue that even if we arrived at the autographs, we would not know it, having nothing with which to compare them.

However, that should not stop us from seeking to reproduce them, any more than not having an autographic copy ofIliad would stop a Homeric scholar from attempting to produce one. His goal is the author’s intended text, as should be ours.

Thus the first step in the textual criticism of Scripture must be a recognition of the true Author, whose impact upon Scripture far outweighs that of human authors or copyists.

Accordingly, conservative theologians, particularly during the past century, have stressed the inerrancy of the autographs – an inerrancy based upon the character of the divine Author of those autographs.

This, then, should be the primary determining factor in biblical textual criticism – which reading among several variants best supports the divine inspiration, and thus inerrancy, of the autographs?


In seeking the proper text of Scripture, we must begin not so much with what the author intended, but what the Author intended.

We must not begin by asking which reading most likely gave rise to the others, but rather which reading best fits the verbal inspiration of Scripture.

With this as our basic principle of textual criticism, we will be better equipped to ascertain the original text of the Word of God. Our faith, and that of our spiritual descendants, depends upon it.


1. There is question as to whether such aspects as spelling can be included in inspiration and thus also are free from error. For the purposes of this article we will confine ourselves to the less debated aspects of Scripture.

2. G. Thomas Tanselle, ‘Classical, Biblical, and Medieval Textual Criticism and Modern Editing’, Studies in Bibliography 36 (1983) 21-68: 49.

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