The Epistle to Diognetus and Why I Disagree with the Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy

Posted by Clark Bates
Monday, September 23, 2019

What do we mean when we say the Bible is inerrant?  Do we mean that it is without errors of any kind?  Do we mean that everything it says is true in every respect?  Do we mean that everything it says in light of its genre and time period is true?  Is the Bible in your lap or on your bookshelf inerrant?  How do you know?

For every Christian, these questions should be meditated upon, but beyond that, they need to be investigated.  If for no other reason than because skeptics, and Christians, around the world are challenging the notion and plausibility of the doctrine of inerrancy.  Most famously, Bart Ehrman stated in his early book, Misquoting Jesus, that it was discovering the existence of textual variants that led to his deconversion.[1]  In like manner, there are believers on the opposite side of the spectrum that believe as Dr. Ehrman did, that if there is even a single variant in the a manuscript text, then the doctrine of inerrancy fails.  As a result, these groups often demonize the practice of textual criticism and adhere to a singular translation or singular group of manuscripts as the only, true Bible.  In so doing, they believe they have effectively protected their faith from failure, by limiting what evidence they will accept.

So, ask yourself, “Are they right?”  “If the Bible has errors or variants, can it still be considered inerrant?”

The Chicago Statement

Some reading this might already have the prepared answer.  “The Chicago Statement!” they might say.  The Chicago Statement on Inerrancy is often the fallback for any evangelical discussion on inerrancy.  But I have a problem with the Chicago Statement.  Before I say what it is, a little background may be necessary for some readers, especially those who aren’t in this country and have no idea what I’m talking about.

In October of 1978, a little more than 200 evangelical protestant leaders held a conference called The International Council on Biblical Inerrancy.  The conference was attended by such theological giants as W.A. Criswell, Wayne Grudem, Norm Geisler, Edwin Yamauchi, and D. James Kennedy.  The singular purpose of the council was to affirm the doctrine that the Bible was inerrant in all that it teaches, as it is handed down from God to mankind.  The end result of this council was The Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy.

There is much to be commended about the statement, as a statement of faith.  The statement acknowledges the divine transmission of the text of Scripture, while respecting the use of literary genre and the agency of the individual writers to craft the text themselves.  But then we get to Article X, which says,

“We affirm that inspiration, strictly speaking, applies only to the autographic text of Scripture, which in the providence of God can be ascertained from available manuscripts 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.”

Inerrancy, or in the case of this article, inspiration, ONLY applies to the autographs of Scripture.  You might nod your head in agreement as you read this.  Undoubtedly, if you work or operate in an apologetic environment, you are familiar with this Article.  But this language is very problematic.  Certainly, the authors attempt to clarify their point in the following text that the manuscript copies are accurate enough to convey the inerrant originals, but this doesn’t really negate that the ONLY INERRANT Bible is the ORIGINAL AUTOGRAPHS, according to this statement.

Dr. Ehrman has identified the issue here repeatedly, and even if we disagree on many points, he has a point here.  To paraphrase him, “What good does the doctrine of inerrancy do anyone, if it only applies to the original autographs, AND WE DON’T HAVE ANY OF THOSE!!?”[2]  Sure, we might say that the copies are accurate enough to communicate the message, but this still leaves us with less-than-inerrant Bibles, according to the Statement.

The Epistle to Diognetus

Enter the Epistle to Diognetus.  This epistle is often included in the collective writings of what is called “The Apostolic Fathers”.  These collected works are believed by many to be the writings that came from church leaders immediately after the lifetime of the apostles.  Locating the Epistle in this collection is a bit hopeful given that its author is unknown, but it is believed to have been written in the mid-second century.  Diognetus stands out in early Christian writing as the first known apologetic defense of the Christian faith.  If you’re an apologist and you haven’t read this work, you should, and you can do so here.[3]

The Epistle is believed to be a response to Diognetus, the tutor of Marcus Aurelius, or Claudius Diognetus, procurator of Alexandria, circa 200 CE, but this is never explicitly stated in the text. The reason I bring this up, and why I want to draw a parallel to the Chicago Statement, relates to the idea of “autographs”.

Not unlike the rest of the manuscript evidence for the Apostolic Fathers, the Epistle to Diognetus has very few existing copies.  It actually has none.  That’s right, 0.  If there aren’t any manuscript copies, how do we know what the text says?  We know because there used to be 1 existing copy.  It was a 13th or 14th century codex of 260 pages containing 22 different Christian works.  These works were all apologetic or polemical in nature and spanned a roughly 1,000-year timespan.  It was discovered in 1436 in a pile of packing paper in a fish shop in Constantinople.  The text passed through many hands until it was moved to the Strasbourg Municipal Library in 1794.

The Epistle to Diognetus remained safely in this library until 1870.  August 24, 1870, to be exact.  It was on this date, during the Franco-Prussian War that General August von Werder advanced his troops to Strasbourg.  Desiring a quick surrender, he proceeded to bomb the city relentlessly.  The municipal library caught fire as a result of the bombing and the fate of Diognetus was sealed.

All hope was not lost however.  All because of a man named Henri Estienne, who some refer to as Stephanus.

In 1592, Estienne had acquired the time to publish the principle edition of the Epistle, thanks to a transcription that he had made 6 years prior.  Along with Estienne’s transcription, a man named Haus, in 1580, had done one of his own, as had another man, J.J. Beurer, in 1590.  Only 2 of these 3 transcriptions remain.  What this means is that “one of the true literary gems of early Christianity”[4] has no existing copies, let alone autographs.  Yet, we still publish critical editions of the text.  It is still studied and revered.  It is marshalled as an argument in defense of the Christian faith in its earlies stages.  While no one would suggest that it’s inerrant, the lack of manuscript evidence has done very little to dissuade its authority.  Why?  Because it isn’t the autograph that matters, but the reliability of the preservation of the message.

Message over Manuscript

This might seem a little convoluted, and you might challenge me for making a category error using a later Christian text compared to the Bible, but I believe the principle is sound.  Where the Chicago Statement leads many into error is in its use of the term “autograph”.  When someone speaks of an autograph, they are thinking of a physical manuscript.  A tangible document that existed in time and space.  If inerrancy is affixed to this physical document then the doctrine must die with the passing away of the physical, but this was never the view of the church.  Men like Origen and Augustine[5] both made mention of variants within the texts that they used, yet both believed that they possessed the inspired word of God.  They believed this because their belief was not linked to a physical document but to the message contained within it.

If the message is faithfully transmitted, then the message is inerrant in the copies.  If you demand that copies exist without variation, you fall victim to applying inerrancy to particular copies or particular physical translations. The Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy fails the believer and the skeptic when it affirms doctrines like inspiration and inerrancy, but necessarily links them to a particular body of texts (the autographs) and I believe that this Article of the Statement should be reworded if not rejected.

In essence, to demand a physically unchanged document is to demand that God miraculously preserve a text in a way in which He has never before miraculously acted.  My mentor and friend, Dr. Peter Gurry has briefly written about this here, even acknowledging that C.S. Lewis understood this issue, and as such, I will conclude with the word of Lewis:

“If God creates a miraculous spermatozoon in the body of a virgin, it does not proceed to break any laws. The laws at once take it over. Nature is ready. Pregnancy follows, according to all the normal laws, and nine months later a child is born. We see every day that physical nature is not in the least incommoded by the daily inrush of events from biological nature or from psychological nature. If events ever come from beyond Nature altogether, she will be no more incommoded by them. Be sure she will rush to the point where she is invaded, as the defensive forces rush to a cut in our finger, and there hasten to accommodate the newcomer. The moment it enters her realm it obeys all her laws. Miraculous wine will intoxicate [but don’t tell Baptists], miraculous conception will lead to pregnancy, inspired books will suffer all the ordinary processes of textual corruption, miraculous bread will be digested. The divine art of miracle is not an art of suspending the pattern to which events conform but of feeding new events into that pattern.”[6]

[1] He has since suggested that his de-conversion was actually a result of unexplainable suffering and evil in the world.

[2] “Autograph” in this discussion is referring to the original text written down by the authors of the biblical books.

[3] The only earlier work of apologetics is a fragment from a man named Quadratus, which states, “But the works of our savior were always present, for they were true.  Those who were healed and raised from the dead were not only seen when healed and raised, but they were always present—and not  just while the savior was here, but even when he had gone they remained for a long time, so that some of them have survived to our own time.”

[4]Bart Ehrman, Apostolic Fathers Volume 2, 122.

[5] Augustine, On Christian Doctrine, 2.14,  “Those who are anxious to know the Scriptures ought in the first place to use their skill in the correction of the texts, so that the uncorrected ones should give way to the corrected.”

[6] C.S. Lewis, Miracles: A Preliminary Study.

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