I have been reminded by a correspondent that some time ago I promised to open a discussion on the relationship between inerrancy and textual criticism. This is it. I'll start with my thoughts and hope that others will contribute theirs as well as explore specific applications of the principles explored.
The first thing I should say is about the relationship between inerrancy and this blog. As the blog's founder I am very, very happy to sign inerrancy statements in almost whatever shape or form they take. However, the term I preferred when establishing this blog was simply to say that the scriptures were 'true'. Although this might seem a weaker term, I do not mean it in a weaker sense. Moreover, it has the advantage of being self-evidently in continuation with all historic mainstream views of scripture that have been articulated down church history. Using the term 'true' also means that I am not forced into instant qualifications of the term I use because I am not using a technical term.
The second belief that I see as fundamental to this blog is the belief that God may be said to be the author of specific sequences of words which constitute scripture (i.e. belief in verbal inspiration). Though this belief is not without its problems, it is less problematic than alternative accounts of inspiration (e.g. that God inspired thoughts in scripture, but may not be said to be the author of specific words—the question 'which thoughts?' is even harder to answer than the question 'which words?'). That said, for the sake of discussion I want to use the term 'inerrancy', since, in this context, I believe it will optimise the point I am trying to make.
My basic thesis is that inerrancy may only be used at the most as a secondary criterion for the original reading. It cannot be used to overturn strong external support or to support conjecture. If inerrancy is allowed to be a primary criterion then we are adopting a method that is
1) highly subjective
2) does not adequately control human bias
3) beyond the remit of an evangelical textual critic
1) Apologists are often naturally concerned to be able to present a Bible 'without problem'. There can therefore be a tendency to want to solve problems prematurely. There are therefore numerous cases where apologists adopt readings in the name of inerrancy that are text-critically highly dubious otherwise. For one example you can see a brave but misguided attempt to suggest that the name Cainan was not originally in Luke 3:36 (I do not intend to 'shame' this site, which has some merit to it).
For me a major problem with the attempt to solve a problem by taking a text-critical decision that would otherwise be judged unlikely is that it is hard to see any non-subjective criteria by which one could decide when to take such a step. There are, after all, difficult texts of various kinds within scripture: texts that can readily be read to suggest that Jesus' would return to earth within a generation of his ministry, texts that make the relationship between Synoptic and Johannine chronology problematic, etc. Who is to decide which texts are so problematic that the doctrine of inerrancy can be invoked with the result that the reading otherwise judged best be set aside? This is the problem of subjectivity.
2) Evangelicals have often taken a rather dim view of when critics of other persuasions have allowed their own interpretative framework to be decisive in adopting readings. Thus we have not been too impressed by von Soden's adoption of the reading without the virginal conception in Matthew 1:16 (on the basis of the Sinaitic Syriac), nor by the way Ehrman sometimes allows his framework of 'orthodox corruption' to be decisive in deciding between readings. The problem with these approaches is that the doctrinal framework does not appear to be adequately constrained by the external evidence. Advocates of inerrancy need to demonstrate to others that they too are accountable to the external evidence and will not ignore it simply to demonstrate the truthfulness of their position.
3) Ultimately, I think that to use the doctrine of inerrancy to override the manuscripts is to enter into a domain to which we are not called. I, personally, am of the conviction that an editor of the NT should never accept a conjecture into a text (though see earlier debate on this blog, e.g. 'Ephesians 1.1 update', 'conjectural emendation', 'more on conjectures'), not because I hold the absolute conviction that no conjecture could ever be correct. I strongly doubt that any conjecture is correct, but acknowledge in theory that some may be. My view that an editor should not accept an emendation into the text is not based on the view that there are no correct emendations, but on the view that even if some were correct it would not be an editor's business to print them. Similarly, if it be that God has not given us every word he inspired within the manuscripts that is essentially his business, not ours. I do not have to take it upon myself to 'restore' what he has not seen fit to preserve. That's why if editing 1 Samuel 13:1 I would simply preserve MT. If something has dropped out, I have no way of knowing what it is (despite the conjectures of the early versions), so it is not my business to put it in. My job as a textual critic is not to ensure that readers have an inerrant edition of the Bible in their hands.
Inerrancy is a belief that is derived from God's character as one who does not err and the inference that if words may rightly be said to be 'his' they should therefore share that characteristic. Historically, authors like Jerome or Calvin were convinced that God's words were entirely true, but almost certainly did not believe that they had an errorless copy of those words in their own possession.
Comments? Disagreements? Issues raised?