The Bible’s support for inerrancy of the originals


By Spencer D Gear


How are the Christian Scriptures divinely authoritative? Evangelicals like myself have come to the conclusion that both Old and New Testaments are inerrant (without error) in the original manuscripts. How have I reached that decision? It did not come from an a priori assumption. I had to examine the Scriptures carefully and examine the teaching of the church throughout its history.

An example of a statement on inerrancy, representing many in the evangelical church, is The Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy (1978), Section VI, which states:

WE AFFIRM that the whole of Scripture and all its parts, down to the very words of the original, were given by divine inspiration.

WE DENY that the inspiration of Scripture can rightly be affirmed of the whole without the parts, or of some parts but not the whole”.

Why is it necessary to include “down to the very words of the original”? Why include the original manuscripts (called the autographa) in a statement on inerrancy? Why is this important? Is there a chapter and verse in the Bible that states that “the originals” must by in an orthodox doctrine of the inerrancy of Scripture? Why aren’t the various Bible translations authoritative and inerrant?

Are these translations inerrant? – The King James Version (KJV), New King James Version (NKJV), Jerusalem Bible (JB), New Jerusalem Bible (NJB), Revised Standard Version (RSV), New Revised Standard Version (NRSV), English Standard Version (ESV), Good News Bible (GNB), New American Bible (NAB), The Message (TM), New International Version (NIV), Today’s New International Version (TNIV), New English Bible (NEB), Revised English Bible (REB), J. B. Phillips translation (JBP), Living Bible (LB), New Living Translation (NLT), Douay-Rheims Bible, Contemporary English Version (CEV), the Revised Version (RV), the American Standard Version (ASV), and the New American Standard Bible (NASB).

These are but examples of some contemporary English Bible translations. Are the translations inerrant or does this status belong only to the originals (autographa).

I was responding on a Christian forum on the www and came across this post. AVBunyan asked and commented:

“Who Says Only the Originals Are Inspired?
“The issue seems to be inspiration – can a translation be inspired?
“Where in any Bible does it say ‘only the originals’ are inspired? Who invented this doctrine and ‘made it a fundamental of the faith’? Some folks are really hung up on this ‘original’ issue. There is no verse in any Bible that say ‘only the originals are inspired” – someone dreamed that one up – sounds really good – just not scriptural” (Christian Forums, Christian Apologetics, “All Scripture God breathed“, #11).

These are good questions that deserve biblical answers. Back in 1881, scholar C. A. Briggs, had similar questions about making the autographa (the original writings of Scripture) inerrant. He wrote:

“We will never be able to attain the sacred writings as they gladdened the eyes of those who first saw them, and rejoiced the hearts of those who first heard them. If the external words of the original were inspired, it does not profit us. We are cut off from them forever” (Briggs 1881:573-74).

In a summary of his chapter addressing the topic of the inerrancy of the original documents, Greg Bahnsen wrote: “While the Bible teaches its own inerrancy, the inscripturation and copying of God’s Word require us to identify the specific and proper object of inerrancy as the text of the original autographa” (Bahnsen 1979:150).

Yet Bahnsen also stated that “there is, as one would expect, no explicit biblical teaching regarding the autographa and copies of them (1979:161). Therefore, how can the doctrine of inerrancy in the autographa have any meaning without the original manuscripts? Is what we have in translations less reliable than the original manuscripts? How can we have an authoritative Bible when we only have copies and these could be centuries after the originals?

In about the year A.D. 180, church father, Tertullian, wrote that originals of the New Testament manuscripts (NT Scripture) could be inspected in churches of his day. These were his words:

“Come now, you who would indulge a better curiosity, if you would apply it to the business of your salvation, run over the apostolic churches, in which the very thrones of the apostles are still pre-eminent in their places, in which their own authentic writings[1] are read, uttering the voice and representing the face of each of them severally” (Tertullian n.d.)

Do we have any hints or direct statements in the Old and New Testaments of the original texts being authoritative or even inerrant? While the evidence is not extensive, “Scripture has scattered indications of interest in or recognition of copies and translations of God’s Word in distinction from the autographical manuscripts” (Bahnsen 1979:159).[2]

The Old Testament position on the original documents

There are four OT situations where the importance of the authority of the original documents of Scripture has some significance (based on Bahnsen 1979:165-166):

1. Exodus 32 and 34

We know from Exodus 32:15-16[3] that God himself wrote the first “two tablets of the testimony” (the law). These tablets were the work of God, but in his anger, Moses destroyed these tablets (32:19). So what did God do? God arranged for the rewriting of the original tablets (Ex. 34:1, 27-28) by whom? “And the Lord said to Moses, ‘Write these words, for in accordance with these words I have made a covenant with you and with Israel” (34:27). In Deut. 10:2, 4, the Scriptures emphasise that the copy of the law contained “the words that were on the first tablets that you broke” (10:2) and were “in the same writing as before” (10:4).

This is a pertinent example of how copies were made of the original.

2. Deuteronomy 17:18

“And when he sits on the throne of his kingdom, he shall write for himself in a book a copy of this law, approved by the Levitical priests” (Deut. 17:18). The original manuscript written by Moses was placed beside the Ark of the Covenant by the Levites (Deut. 31:24-26). But the copy of the original received the approval of the Levitical priests.

3. Jeremiah 36:1-32

Here the prophet dictated the word of God to Baruch who wrote it on a scroll. However, because the message was not beneficial to King Jehoiakim, the king cut it up and burned it. God moved upon Jeremiah: “Take another scroll and write on it all the former words that were in the first scroll, which Jehoiakim the king of Judah has burned” (36:28). The standard was the original and this was a copy, but its words were “all the former words”.

4. 2 Kings 22 and 2 Chronicles 34

Here the Jews showed particular respect for the original text. The story relates to the temple copy of the Book of the Law during the reign of Josiah. The Book of the Law was already known as it had been placed beside the Ark of the Covenant for public reading (see Deut. 31:12, 24-26; 2 Chron. 35:3). It is possible that copies of the Law were with some priests and prophets (Keil 1970:478).[4]

5. Warnings

The biblical writers knew how to distinguish between the original manuscripts and copies. Deut. 4:2 states: “You shall not add to the word that I command you, nor take from it”. In Deut. 12:32 is clear: “Everything that I command you, you shall be careful to do. You shall not add to it or take from it”. From Proverbs 30:6 we have this command: “Do not add to his [God’s] word, lest he rebuke you and you be found a liar”.

For the Jews, the honest approach to the Word of God was to remain faithful to the originals.

So from the OT we can see some indications of the value of original documents for an authoritative Scripture. This led Bahnsen to state, “The sufficiency of a copy is proportionate to its accurate reflection of the original. Deviation from the autograph jeopardizes the profit of a copy for doctrinal instruction and for direction in righteous living” (1979:167).

The New Testament position on the original documents

The NT also coveted the value of the original manuscripts of an authoritative document. Perhaps one of the best known examples is:

1. Revelation 22:18-19

These verses counsel, “I warn everyone who hears the words of the prophecy of this book: if anyone adds to them, God will add to him the plagues described in this book, and if anyone takes away from the words of the book of this prophecy, God will take away his share in the tree of life and in the holy city, which are described in this book”.

While these verses particularly apply to the Book of Revelation, the originals as the standard are assumed.

2. Various NT emphases

The normative standard of the originals is assumed with these emphases:

a. In passages such as Matt. 15:6 and Col. 2:8, the originals were the principal standard when there was a conflict between tradition and the doctrines taught by Christ and his apostles.

b. In passages such as Matt. 5:21ff, the tradition of the OT text was not allowed to hide the genuine word of God (see mark 7:1-13).

c. What did Jesus do when the Pharisees altered the OT text? They were condemned in their teaching on hatred (Matt. 5:43) and divorce (Matt. 19:7).

d. Paul told the believers not to tamper with the God’s word (2 Cor. 4:2);

e. Only accept teachings that do not contradict the original apostolic message (see Rom. 16:17; Gal. 1:8; 1 John 4:1-6);

f. 2 Thess. 3:14 gives a warning to “anyone who does not obey what we say in this letter” (the apostolic message).

g. Believers are warned not to be troubled (“quickly shaken”) by “a spirit or a spoken word, or a letter” that was purported to be from the apostles but was not (2 Thess. 2:2);

h. Paul usually wrote his letters with the help of an amanuensis (see Rom. 16:2) which could provide an opportunity for forgery. To guard against this, he would sign with his own hand (see I Cor. 16:21; Gal. 6:11; Col. 4:18).

These emphases cause Bahnsen to

“summarize the attitude that the Bible itself displays to the autographa and copies in this fashion. The authority and usefulness of extant copies and translations of the Scriptures is apparent throughout the Bible. They are adequate for bringing people to knowledge of saving truth and for directing their lives. Yet it is also evident that the use of scriptural authority derived from copies has underlying it the implicit understanding, and often explicit qualification, that these extant copies are authoritative in that, and to the extent that, that, they reproduce the original, autographic text” (Bahnsen 1979:168-69).

While the evidence is scattered throughout both OT and NT, we can conclude that in Scripture there is a distinction between the original documents and copies. However, the authority relates to the original. This kind of emphasis is found in an oft-repeated statement in the Bible, “It stands written” or “it is written” (e.g. Isa. 65:6; Rom. 3:10).

Bahnsen notes that “Jerome maintained in his dispute with Augustine over this matter, [that] only the Hebrew text [of the OT] was strictly inspired” (Bahnsen 1979:170).

Does the Bible teach inerrancy?

Norman Geisler in his chapter, “Philosophical presuppositions of biblical errancy”, stated:

The doctrine of inerrancy is the only valid conclusion from two clearly taught truths of the Scripture: (1) the Bible is the very utterance of God; (2) whatever God affirms is completely true and without error. Anyone familiar with the basic laws of reasoning can readily see that one and only one conclusion follows from these two biblical premises, namely, whatever the Bible affirms is completely true and without error (Geisler 1979:310).

Let’s check out these two truths:

1.  The Bible is the very utterance of God.

This is what the Scriptures state:

  • 2 Timothy 3:16-17, “All Scripture is breathed out by God [theopneustos] and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be competent, equipped for every good work” (ESV). Theopneustos only occurs at this verse in the New Testament and indicates that the “author [Paul] is differentiating the writings ordained by God’s authority from other, secular works” (Schweizer 1986:454). Colin Brown states that this adjective, theopneustos, means literally, “God-breathed” and “it does not imply any particular mode of inspiration, such as some form of divine dictation. Nor does it imply the suspension of the normal cognitive faculties of the human authors. On the other hand, it does imply something quite different from poetic inspiration. It is wrong to omit the divine element from the term implied by theo-, as the NEB [New English Bible] does in rendering the phrase ‘every inspired scripture’. The expression clearly does not imply that some Scriptures are inspired, whilst others are not. The sacred scriptures are all expressive of the mind of God; but they are so with a view to their practical outworking in life (Brown 1978:491)
  • John 17:17. Jesus said, “Sanctify them in the truth; your word is truth” (ESV). Lutheran commentator, Richard Lenski, rightly affirmed that “’Thine own word is truth’ [his translation] certifies the inerrancy and the infallibility of the Word excepting no portion of it. The holy garment of the Word is seamless; it has no rents of errors – or call them mistakes – …. ‘Thine own word’ signifies all of it, the Word of the Old Testament on which Jesus placed his approval again and again, plus revelation that Jesus added in person with the promise of its perfect preservation through the Paraclete (John 14:26; 16:13)” (1943:1149).
  • Psalm 19:7. “The law of the LORD is perfect, reviving the soul; the testimony of the LORD is sure, making wise the simple” (ESV). While the “law” was originally associated with the first five books of the Bible, the Pentateuch, but it eventually became associated with what we know today as the Word of God – Scripture. Please not that it is the word of Yahweh, the covenant keeping God. So God’s law, which comes from God Himself, God’s Word is perfect.

2.  Whatever God affirms is completely true and without error.

What is the nature of God in what he says and does? Here are a few verses to affirm the truthfulness (without error) of the nature of God.

  • Numbers 23:19.  “God is not man, that he should lie, or a son of man, that he should change his mind. Has he said, and will he not do it?
    Or has he spoken, and will he not fulfill it?” (ESV). Thus God’s very nature is that he will not lie, change his mind or refuse to do what he has stated.
  • Deuteronomy 32:4. “”The Rock, his work is perfect, for all his ways are justice. A God of faithfulness and without iniquity, just and upright is he” (ESV).
  • Psalm 86:15. “But you, O Lord, are a God(A) merciful and gracious, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness“ (ESV).

These are but samples of God’s attributes. He is the God of truth who cannot lie. He only does what is just, upright and without iniquity. To these attributes he is the God of faithfulness.

Therefore, we can conclude that the Scriptures affirm the two assertions: (1) the bile is the very utterance of God, and (2) Whatever God affirms is true, without error, without iniquity and completely just.

My son, Paul Gear, has summarised material from one of Wayne Grudem’s articles. Paul Gear wrote: Wayne A. Grudem, “Scripture’s Self-Attestation and the Problem of Formulating a Doctrine of Scripture”, in Scripture and Truth, ed. D. A. Carson and John D. Woodbridge (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 1992), argues decisively that Scripture itself gives Christians no option but to accept inerrancy.

Here are some quotes from his article (emphasis in the original in all cases):

God’s words, especially God’s words as spoken and written by men … are viewed consistently by the Old Testament authors as different in character and truth status from all other human words; … In truth status they are seen as being different from all other human words, for human words invariably contain falsehood and error (Ps. 116:11), but these do not; they are spoken by God who never lies (Num. 23:19; 1 Sam. 15:29). They are completely truthful (Ps. 119:160) and free from impurity or unreliability of any kind … (Grudem 1992:35)

Perhaps it has not been stated emphatically enough that nowhere in the Old Testament or in the New Testament does any writer give any hint of a tendency to distrust or consider slightly unreliable any other part of Scripture. Hundreds of texts encourage God’s people to trust Scripture completely, but no text encourages any doubt or even slight mistrust of Scripture. To rely on the “inerrancy” of every historical detail affirmed in Scripture is not to adopt a “twentieth-century view” of truth or error; it is to follow the teaching and practice of the biblical authors themselves. It is to adopt a biblical view of truth and error. (Grudem 1992:58-59)

To believe that all the words of the Bible are God’s words and that God cannot speak untruthfully will significantly affect the way in which one approaches a “problem text” or “alleged error” in Scripture. To seek for a harmonization of parallel accounts will be a worthy undertaking. To approach a text with the confident expectation that it will, if rightly understood, be consistent with what the rest of the Bible says, will be a proper attitude. (Grudem 1992:59)

I have looked at dozens of [“problem texts”], and in every single case there are possible solutions in the commentaries. If one accepts the Bible’s claim to be God’s very words, then the real question is not how “probable” any proposed solution is in itself, but how one weighs the probability of that proposed solution against the probability that God has spoken falsely. Personally I must say that the “difficult texts” would have to become many times more difficult and many times more numerous before I would come to think that I had misunderstood the hundreds of texts about the truthfulness of God’s words in Scripture, or that God had spoken falsely. (Grudem 1992:367-368; 59, n. 84)

The Bible’s doctrine of the inspiration of Scripture is based on its being God-breathed, theopneustos (2 Tim. 3:16). The ESV translates this verse as, “All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction and for training in righteousness”.

D. A. Carson, in “What is inerrancy?” wrote:

Obviously the Bible is made up of many different literary forms and genres, so sometimes the ways God discloses himself are very different than other ways that God discloses himself even in words. For example, through the prophet Jeremiah in the Old Testament, about six centuries before Christ, God gives Jeremiah certain words. Jeremiah dictates these words to his secretary. And his secretary writes them down. In the story, eventually some bad guys come along and pick up the manuscript – the only manuscript – and they start tearing it up and throwing it into the fire. As the reader, you are supposed to laugh because, after all, this was not a PhD dissertation by
Jeremiah; rather God gave this to Jeremiah. Do you really think God has forgotten what he has said? So God gives it to Jeremiah again. This example is plain dictation

In other passages, like Psalm 23, David can say “the Lord is my shepherd. I shall lack nothing.” David was not given that by dictation. He was expressing his own feelings and own understandings from his days as a shepherd boy. He thought this was a terrific analogy to talk about God. In both cases – Jeremiah and David – God used human individuals. This is true in other cases – some by dictation, some by visions and the like. In the case of Psalm 23, through the experiences of David, God produces a text that is simultaneously a text of the human writer and God’s own ordained, providentially-determined words.

However, the doctrine of the inspiration of Scripture does not support the idea that God dictated all of his Word to all who were involved in the writing of Scripture. But all of Scripture is “breathed out by God”. That is not the case with the writing of C. H. Spurgeon, C. S. Lewis and others. Having a special gift from God for preaching, teaching and apologetics, is vastly different from Scripture that is breathed out by God.

I find it impossible to be convinced of the verbal, plenary inspiration of the Bible and support a dictation theory of inspiration in which God’s Spirit treated the Bible writers like a CD recorder. That kind of view would make the writers passive recipients or robots. If the Scripture were inspired through a dictation theory of inspiration, it would not make sense of passages like Luke 1:1-4 where Luke states that he depended on other sources:

1Inasmuch as many have undertaken to compile a narrative of the things that have been accomplished among us, 2 just as those who from the beginning were eyewitnesses and ministers of the word have delivered them to us, 3it seemed good to me also, having followed all things closely for some time past, to write an orderly account for you, most excellent Theophilus, 4that you may have certainty concerning the things you have been taught (ESV).

I also refer you to Thomas Watson’s article, “The Truth of God” and D. A. Carson’s, “What is inerrancy?“.

In conclusion: an illustration

People commonly say to me: But we don’t have the originals so it is pointless to talk about the inerrancy of documents we do not have. Do you think so? I have found R. Laird Harris’s explanation helpful in explaining the need to have authoritative original documents behind the copies, even though we currently do not have access to the originals (autographa). He wrote:

“Reflection will show that the doctrine of verbal inspiration is worthwhile even though the originals have perished. An illustration may be helpful. Suppose we wish to measure the length of a certain pencil. With a tape measure we measure it as 6 1/2 inches. A more carefully made office ruler indicates 6 9/16 inches. Checking with an engineer’s scale, we find it to be slightly more than 6.58 inches. Careful measurement with a steel scale under laboratory conditions reveals it to be 6.577 inches. Not satisfied still, we send the pencil to Washington, where master gauges indicate a length of 6.5774 inches. The master gauges themselves are checked against the standard United States yard marked on platinum bar preserved in Washington. Now, suppose that we should read in the newspapers that a clever criminal had run off with the platinum bar and melted it down for the precious metal. As a matter of fact, this once happened to Britain’s standard yard! What difference would this make to us? Very little. None of us has ever seen the platinum bar. Many of us perhaps never realized it existed. Yet we blithely use tape measures, rulers, scales, and similar measuring devices. These approximate measures derive their value from their being dependent on more accurate gauges. But even the approximate has tremendous value—if it has had a true standard behind it” (Harris 1969:88-89).


Bahnsen, G. L. 1979, “The inerrancy of the autographa” in N. L. Geisler (ed.) 1979. Inerrancy. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan Publishing House, 150-193.

Briggs, C. A. 1881. “Critical theories of the sacred Scriptures in relation to their inspiration”. The Presbyterian Review, vol. 2, 573-74.

Brown C  1978. Graph?, in C Brown (gen end), The New International Dictionary of New Testament Theology, vol. 3. 490-492. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan Publishing House.

Geisler, N. L. (ed.) 1979. Inerrancy. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan Publishing House. Also available online at: Inerrancy.

Harris, R. L. 1957, 1969. Inspiration and Canonicity of the Bible. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan Publishing House.

Keil, C.F. 1970. Commentary on the Old Testament, vol 3, 1 & II Kings, I & II Chronicles, Ezra, Nehemiah, Esther. Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company.

Lenski, R C H 1943. Commentary on the New Testament: The Interpretation of John’s Gospel. Peabody, Mass: Hendrickson Publishers.

Schweizer, E 1968. Qeopneusto?, in G Kittel & G Friedrich, G (eds) 1968. Theological dictionary of the New Testament, vol 6, 453-455. Tr and end by G W Bromiley. Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company.

Tertullian n.d. De Praescriptione Haereticorum (The prescription against heretics), in P. Schaff n.d. The Ante-Nicene Fathers, vol. 3, ch. 36, “The apostolic churches the voice of the apostles”, Christian Classics Ethereal Library, available at:


[1] Latin, “authenticæ”. At this point Schaff notes, “This much disputed phrase may refer to the autographs or the Greek originals (rather than the Latin translations), or full unmutilated copies as opposed to the garbled ones of the heretics. The second sense is probably the correct one.”

[2] For many suggestions and some content in this article on “the biblical attitude toward autographa and copies” (Bahnsen 1979:159), I am indebted to the insightful article by the late Greg Bahnsen (1979). “Greg L. Bahnsen (September 17, 1948 – December 11, 1995) was an influential Christian philosopher, apologist, and debater. He was an ordained minister in the Orthodox Presbyterian Church and a full time Scholar in Residence for the Southern California Center for Christian Studies” (This biographical information is from the Preterist (Study) Archive, available at: [Accessed 21 March 2010].

[3] Unless otherwise stated, all Bible quotations are from The Holy Bible: English Standard Version 2001. Wheaton, Illinois: Crossway Bibles.

[4] Keil’s words were, “But it by no means follows from this that before its discovery there were no copies in the hands of the priests and prophets” (1970:478).


Copyright © 2010 Spencer D. Gear. This document last updated at Date: 14 September 2016.

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