When I took advanced Greek grammar with Dr. Dan Wallace way back when, we read a fair bit out of A. T. Robertson's massive tome A Grammar of the Greek New Testament in the Light of Historical Research. In class Dr. Wallace would point out that occasionally Robertson was inconsistent, on one page saying a grammatical feature functioned one way and then soon thereafter stating something different. I actually found one of these inconsistencies the other day, which felt like finding a needle in a haystack. In Galatians 1:22 Paul states that he was unknown "by face" to the Judean churches. The Greek words he uses for this phrase are τῷ προσώπῳ (to prosopo). Robertson's inconsistency is really pretty minor, but it is there: On p. 487 he classifies this dative as instrumental but then as manner on p. 530. But I'm willing to give Robertson a pass on this because it's such a minor point and in 99.99% of his work he is completely and totally correct.
So when do scholars (or ministers, for that matter) get a pass for their "mistakes"? I'll offer my reaction to this example from Robertson's grammar as a helpful paradigm:
- You get a pass when the mistake is minor. Clearly the difference between calling this dative instrumental and calling it manner is pretty small. Making small mistakes in scholarship or ministry is part of being human, so I think small mistakes should get a pass.
- You get a pass when your mistake is in line with everything else you have done. Robertson is inconsistent here, but instrumental and manner are in the same intellectual domain, so to speak; they are both reasonable ways to understand this word in this context. He didn't call it something that was totally off, like an objective genitive. Sometimes mistakes come because we are thinking or working in a particular track but we're just a little off. I think that gets a pass.
- You get a mistake when the sum total of your work exhibits quality and rigor, such that it is clear that the mistake is an outlier, not a normal occurrence. This is the really big point here. Robertson was so strong, so scholarly in his work, that any inconsistencies or mistakes are practically impossible to find. He was defined by accuracy and correctness if he was defined by anything. Once mistakes reach a critical mass, however, they begin to define the character of the scholar's (or minister's) work. So a few mistakes can be forgiven. But lots of them begin to speak about the fundamental quality of a scholar's work and eventually cannot be overlooked any longer.