This is now a few days late for Reformation Day, but Ronald Hendel, editor-in-chief of the Hebrew Bible: Critical Edition (HBCE), has just put an article online that should be of particular interest to ETC readers. The essay looks at the relationship between inerrancy and textual criticism in Protestant-Catholic debates during the Reformation and Post-Reformation. The main contention is that the same concern for a “perfect text” led to both modern textual criticism and the modern doctrine of Biblical inerrancy.
I must say I was not convinced by the overall argument since it seems to me that both textual criticism and inerrancy as he describes them existed before his main sources. But Hendel is right, I think, to argue that the Reformation debates about Scripture (especially sola scriptura) raised new questions about inerrancy and textual criticism. One example we could cite is the debate about whether Hebrew vowel points are inspired and inerrant. (On which, see PJW’s thoughts here.)
Here is part of Hendel’s conclusion:
The dream of a perfect text in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries is a story worth telling—although I have only sketched the highlights—because the discipline of biblical scholarship still works largely within the conceptual space carved out by these controversies. In particular, the modern discipline of textual criticism and the orthodox Protestant doctrine of biblical inerrancy have a shared origin in early modern arguments about textual variants in the Hebrew Bible. Since then, textual criticism has become institutionalized as a non-theological practice, and most theologians are unaware of its inner workings. Yet the empirical realia of texts and variants were once central in theological discourse, providing a fulcrum for deep rifts in early modern culture. The conceptual changes were long lived....
The Catholic-Protestant controversy, based in part on the problem of textual variants, yielded the high doctrine of biblical inerrancy. As Philip Benedict sums up, “Controversy with Catholicism and the need to defend established positions had produced the doctrine of the literal inerrancy of the biblical text.” Text-critical issues were at the center of these fraught discourses about the perfect text.I would be interested to hear from readers on their take on the essay. You can read the PDF on Hendel’s Academia page.
As a side note, anyone looking for a good PhD topic (and whose Latin is good) could make a great thesis out of tracing the role of textual criticism in the 16th–17th century debates about Scripture.