The more I work through John Frame’s The Doctrine of the Word of God, the more impressed I am with this book. It seems that no matter what question I have concerning the Bible as inspired Scripture, Frame has provided a thoughtful and nuanced answer steeped in Scripture’s own self-testimony.
In preparing to teach a Sunday School class on copies of biblical books found among the Dead Sea Scrolls, I started looking through my library to see if anyone had written about the copying of Scripture, especially with a concern for theological implications of this question. Of course Frame had – chapter 33 is entitled “The Transmission of Scripture.” Among the many nuggets in this chapter, I was especially impressed with how he treated the relationship between inerrancy and copies of the autographa (i.e., the apographa).
Frame considers the question, “Why did God not give us perfect copies?”, and gives an interesting ecclesiological hue to the answer:
[W]e need to consider this question from a larger perspective. Recall the second list of events that I presented at the beginning of this chapter: copying, textual criticism, translation, teaching, and so on, right down to understanding and assurance. These are all steps on the way for us to receive edification from Scripture. God intends that we will receive such edification, so he provides all these operations. But note that in each of those operations we may ask why God did not institute perfection. After all, he might have provided not only perfect copies, but also perfect textual criticism, perfect translations, perfect teaching, and so on. Indeed, he might have guaranteed that all our attempts to understand might be perfectly successful. He might even have determined to skip the steps between inspiring the Scripture and giving us understanding of it. For why should we go through the whole process of copying, translating, and teaching, if God is able to give us an immediate understanding of his Word? Why should God institute such a process? Why should he not rather give each of us an immediate, intuitive understanding of his revelation, so that we could magically understand it all, with a glance at the Hebrew or Greek text? For that matter, why did God even bother to place his revelation in a book? Why didn’t he simply reveal it immediately to every human being?
God has not given us a clear answer to any of these questions. But they are all similar. If it seems unlikely that God would provide an inerrant book, but consign the publication to fallible copyists, then is it not equally unlikely that he would turn the work of translation, teaching, and theology over to fallible human beings? And if it seems likely that God would provide infallible copies of Scripture, the it is equally likely that God would provide perfect translations, and so on. If we think that God would probably not provide a perfect translation, then it is equally unlikely that he would provide us with perfect copies.
The question then becomes: why did God inspire an inerrant Word, and then consign that Word to a fallible process of distribution and appropriation? That way of putting it may suggest an answer. I think it most likely that God wanted us to appropriate his personal words in a communal way. Had he given us perfect copies, perfect translations, and so on, each individual could have come to an understanding of Scripture without help from anyone else. He could have gone to the bookstore and bought for himself a perfect translation of Scripture, taught it to himself, and gained thereby a perfect understanding. But that was not God’s intention. He wanted the church to gather around the Word together, covenantally. He wanted each individual to benefit from the gifts of others in the body. Some would be gifted in languages; they would translate. Others would be gifted to teach, and they would instruct. Some would teach by words, others more by the example of their lives. Everyone would contribute something to the “edifying of the body,” building up one another. Each individual would rely on the gifts of others. Listening for God’ Word would draw the body together.
Granted, the communal process of assimilating the Word often works in the opposite way. Churches are divided over Bible translations, interpretations, theological understanding, and the rest. Sin always messes things up. But at its best, the process of learning God’s Word together is, even now, a precious one. It leads us not only to love God, but also to love one another, to honor one another’s gifts, to grow in relationships as well as knowledge.
Of course while this answer has much to commend it, Frame himself admits that God may have “additional, or completely different, reasons for his decision to give us fallible copies of infallible book” (pg. 251). But this exercise in answering the question goes a long way in pushing back against the claim made by some that an inerrancy limited only to the autographa of Scripture is just a defensive, apologetic dodge by fundamentalists who refuse to cry “uncle.” Frame’s answer also highlights the wonderful opportunities we have as Christians to come together and benefit one another in our study of God’s Word, each bringing a set of skills and gifts different from the other.
R. Andrew Compton
Christ Reformed Church (URCNA)