Wednesday, March 13, 2019

Fundamentalism and its Rhetoric of Fiction

Let’s begin with a few definitions:

Rhetoric: the art of speaking or writing effectively.
Fiction: something invented or feigned by the imagination.
Fundamentalism: A movement in 20th century Protestantism emphasizing the literally interpreted Bible as fundamental to Christian life and teachings.*

One of the so-called “fundamentals of the faith” of Fundamentalism is that the Bible is “The Word of God.” Here are two articles from the Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy (1978).** 

Article I: We affirm that the Holy Scriptures are to be received as the authoritative Word of God…
Article X: We affirm that inspiration, strictly speaking, applies only to the autographic text of Scripture, which in the providence of God, can be ascertained with great accuracy. We further affirm that copies and translations of Scripture are the Word of God to the extent that they faithfully represent the original…

Fundamentalists who work with the original languages of the Bible, however, know that justifying this confessional tenet is an uphill battle for several reasons. We do not possess a single “autographic” text (i.e., the original author’s copy of the manuscript). The manuscripts of the Hebrew Bible date for the most part from the middle ages.

There are over 5000 manuscripts of the New Testament writings. The earliest are in fragmentary condition and date from the third century and later. There are only a few fragments surviving from the second century. Complete manuscripts of the New Testament date from the fourth century and later. None of these manuscripts agree alike in all particulars. Standardization does not begin until the 19th century with the science of textual criticism. Textual critics have established a more or less agreed upon standardized text of the New Testament—not with prayer but with hard-nosed scientific observations.*** While most papyrus and vellum manuscripts date from the third century and later, all of the New Testament, except for Second Peter and perhaps Acts, are thought to have been composed in the first century.

The fundamentalist “fictional rhetoric” is that somehow God has protected the readings of the original author’s personal copy (which has ceased to exist) through the vicissitudes of the historical evolution of copying the manuscripts. Further, fundamentalists confidently assert that the readings of the non-existent autographic versions “can be ascertained with great accuracy” from the some 5000 extant manuscripts. We do not, however, have a single copy of any autographic text in either Hebrew Bible or New Testament. And if we did how would we recognize it as an original author’s copy? The truth, no doubt disturbing to many, is that the Bible is not inerrant. It is a flawed human product; it constitutes Man’s word about God, as well as many other things. And as an afterthought: if there are no autographic copies how can we verify that the later copies and translations “faithfully represent the original”?

Charles W. Hedrick
Professor Emeritus
Missouri State University

*these are dictionary definitions.
***This paragraph touches only on the tip of the iceberg; see the Anchor Bible Dictionary 6:393-435: “Textual Criticism (OT and NT).” These two articles will give readers a good idea of the complexity of the situation text critics face in reconstructing what they regard as the “earliest recoverable form” of New Testament texts (which is not the same as the autographic copy).