Tuesday, February 16, 2016

The right kind of reliability of the Bible?

Continuing from the post below ...

I have huge confidence in the (right kind of) reliability of the Bible. Despite all the variations between manuscripts of New Testament gospels and epistles (most of which amount to tiny differences, with no impact on doctrine), and the wide variations between manuscripts of the Old Testament (especially between Hebrew and Greek manuscripts in places), my confidence is high. But we need to talk about the right kind of reliability.

The difficulty - having written the above paragraph yesterday - is that I am short of time to write an extensive explanation for the above assertion! However I am glad that Bowman Walton put in an extensive comment to yesterday's post which merits reading and reflection. (Thanks, Bowman!)

Perhaps I could briefly explain why talking about the reliability of the Bible, even the right kind of reliability, cannot be done concisely.

First, there are two quite different parts of the Bible to explain, the Old Testament and the New Testament. The composition of each testament took quite different pathways, the first being more dynamic around multiple writers, confluence of sources, successive editors, greater freedom to change things as copying and/or translating went along, the second also having multiple authors but fewer confluent sources and less freedom to change things in the copying process.

Secondly, there is a bit to say about "reliability" because it is a term which can lead to a wrong deductive conclusion. Thus "reliability of the Bible" could be taken to imply "we can know that we have a reliable record of what Jesus said (and what Moses and Isaiah said, etc)" but, in actuality, since there were no tape recorders and the like in those days, a quest for that kind of reliability is impossible to achieve. The reliability we are talking about is reliability of transmission of ancient manuscripts, including the question of the reliability of transmission from the original manuscripts, where there is much to be discussed about what "original" means in respect of books as diverse as Isaiah (likely composed over several centuries), John (was there a school of writers,working their way through successive drafts?) and Paul (perhaps the best candidate, in at least some letters, for there to have been one and only one "original" from which all other copies derive).

Must stop there. Work to be done "off blog."

6 comments:

Bryden Black said...

Peter; there is a vital characteristic of our own age which has largely determined how we approach this question of the “Bible’s reliability”.

Janet Martin Soskice puts it concisely in her contribution, “Naming God: A Study in Faith and Reason”, in Griffiths & Hütter, eds, Reason and The Reasons of Faith, pp.241-254, at p.242:

“The early modern crisis of knowledge was such that philosophy in many quarters became epistemology - the problem of knowledge. In retrospect, the anxieties about salvation that shook the late medieval church, although doubtless provoked by clerical corruption, indulgences, failed conciliar movements and so forth, had a good deal to do with uncertainty about everything. It is not clear that we are beyond the trauma of knowing yet.” (emphases original)

In other words, the early modern and modern desire for alleged “certainty” (viz. Descartes) has precipitated a multitude of issues. Nowadays (in our so-called postmodern context), we have to address both radical scepticism, even nihilism, and the kind of pathway proposed by the likes of Newbigin after the likes of Polanyi - “knowing with confidence” (NB the root of that last word). All of which greatly colours the topic of your two recent posts.

Yet again, a high degree of self-awareness, both collective and individual, is desirable ...!

Anonymous said...


"Nowadays (in our so-called postmodern context), we have to address... radical scepticism, even nihilism..."

Bryden, that "we have to" sounds rather imperative. What do you say to those who bracket that fixation on epistemology as a Western modern hangup now so properly stripped and whipped by Western postmodern critique that only the faithless would bother with it, and who prefer to just get on with life in God among people who do not waste precious time on it? Perhaps one can either try to satisfy rationalists, or one can let the dead bury their dead, but one cannot do both.

Bowman Walton

Bryden Black said...

Reasonable question based on a reasonable observation, Bowman. Yet there remains the matter of “truth” (of various kinds); and so I’d offer to both hyper-rationalists and sceptics what I hinted at earlier: a form of “confidence” re human knowing. Otherwise, what’s the difference between a triune fideism and Vedanta - or “the man who mistook his wife for a hat”?

Anonymous said...


Yes, Bryden, Newbigin, Polanyi, and Black probably can sell "knowing with confidence," as you suggest; neglect of the *tacit dimension* of lived faith is very much the problem. But alas you know what I mean...

"The tendency, particularly amongst patristic scholars, to challenge the legitimacy of personalist readings of the fathers by Zizioulas and others has led one theologian, Alan Brown, to pen a somewhat fiery and provocative article defending the latter. He accuses the whole field of Western patristic scholarship of being enslaved to a postliberal Anglican model which cannot acknowledge or accept any approach to the sources that is in conflict or even tension with the historico-critical method. Such an approach (which seems to be characterized according to Brown by a dull, uncreative repetition or bland historical investigation of the texts) has seeped into Western Orthodox scholarship too, he claims. This results in making ‘the consensus of Anglican patristic scholarship Orthodox theology simpliciter’. From here he goes on to deplore this attitude encapsulated in ‘the fact that Zizioulas’ position cannot be derived straightforwardly from the scholarly positions obtainable within the modes of enquiry acceptable within Anglican patristic scholarship’ which thence ‘entails that it is therefore illegitimate as Orthodox theology’. Whether or not Brown’s comments are justified, it is evident that the issue of Orthodox personalism touches not simply on narrow questions of matching a certain patristic text or patristic terms to this or that idea, but stirs up far wider questions related to how we in fact read, study, assimilate, and expound patristic (and not just patristic, but biblical) thought in the modern world."

-- Alexis Torrance, Personhood and Patristics in Orthodox Theology: Reassessing the Debate. Heythrop Journal LII (2011), pp. 700–707.

Bowman Walton

Brian Kelly said...

Postmodernism is (or was) a fixation of certain university common rooms; I do not know if it has pervaded wider culture much. That is not to say it can't or won't, because cultural Marxism certainly has, and that is largely a product of the university.
But postmodernism - the offspring of cultural Marxism - in its most advanced (and degraded) form is really a species of literary studies which had the capacity to corrupt the study of literature (which it has done) and philosophy (which no one pays attention to).
For people who take historical study (and historical texts) seriously it really has nothing to contribute, while scientists think it is nonsense from soup to nuts.
Christianity is not opposed to rationality since God is the author of both faith and reason (the two means of knowing).

Anonymous said...


Some, Brian, use postmodernity to refer to the lost currency and reach of the institutions and practises that were legitimated for a time in some of the world by the modern episteme. Thinking of an Anglicanism simultaneously engaging Pentecostalism, Orthodoxy, and the global south, that is what I have in mind when I use the word. The question is not so much what Right Thinking People will give the Church their permission to be, but what sort of church one gets among peoples and in places where voting in representative synods modeled on parliaments looks like a foolish and confused way to try to know God.

Bowman Walton