The Theological Method and Preservation
The Theological Method for determining the text of Scripture heavily relies upon understanding the text that has been received by Christians, which is commonly called “exposure”. The text of Scripture is that which has been exposed to the people of God throughout the ages. John 10:27 says, “My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me” (KJV). Michael Kruger, in his book Canon Revisited, says this,
“When people’s eyes are opened, they are struck by the divine qualities of Scripture – it’s beauty and efficacy – and recognize and embrace Scripture for what it is, the word of God. They realize that the voice of Scripture is the voice of the Shepherd” (101).
This might seem like subjectivism, but this is the historic doctrine that has been recognized throughout the ages by the theologians of the faith, most notably John Calvin and Herman Bavinck. This doctrine is not to be confused with the Mormon doctrine of “burning in the bosom”, though they sound similar. Many false doctrines are based on truth, and here the Christian must recognize that God’s Word is the means that He is speaking to His people in these last days, regardless of how that doctrine has been twisted by other systems.
What distinguishes this doctrine from its Mormon counterpart is that this reception of the Scriptures by the people of God is not purely individualistic. The text of Scripture, as it has been handed down, exists ontologically, not just subjectively. There is a concrete shape of God’s Word that exists, and the people of God have had that Word in every generation. The text of Scripture must primarily be viewed as a covenantal document given to the covenant people of God for their use in all matters of faith and practice (LBCF 1.1). That does not mean that all those professing Christianity throughout the ages have agreed upon what belongs in Scripture, or that every Christian has had access to the whole of Scripture in every generation. In fact, there are a multitude of Christians that do not have access to God’s Word, either by circumstance, or by choice.
It is important to take note of how the Apostolic church received the text of Holy Scripture to understand the doctrine of exposure as it relates to preservation. In the New Testament, there is never a case where Scripture is said to be a gift delivered to individual people. The Scriptures were always a corporate blessing to the covenant people of God (Acts 15:14; Titus 2:14; 1 Peter 2:9). In the testimony of Scripture itself, we can see that God delivers His Word to the people of God, not individual people of God. So the doctrine of exposure does not crumble due to certain individuals not having a copy of the Bible at all times. If this were the case, the fact that there are Christians who simply do not own a Bible would discredit this doctrine altogether.
Despite the fact that the Canon is recognized in part by its corporate reception, this doctrine of providential exposure does not rest on ecclesiastical authority, as the papists might claim. There is no one single church which is responsible for giving authority to the text of Holy Scripture. In fact, no church could give authority to the Scriptures, they are authoritative in themselves (αυτοπιστος). Kruger explains this well, “The books received by the church inform our understanding of which books are canonical not because the church is infallible o because it created or constituted the canon, but because the church’s reception of these books is a natural and inevitable outworking of the self-authenticating nature of Scripture” (106).
It must be stated, that Kruger makes the distinction between the canon, and the text of the canon, which is the common thought amongst conservative scholarship. Upon examination of the theological method however, there does not seem to be good reason to separate the two. If the doctrinal foundation of providential exposure demonstrates the “efficacy of the Shepherd’s voice to call”(106), then it follows that there must be a definitive voice that does the calling. The name of a canonical book is simply not efficacious to call sinners to repentance and faith. Simply listing off the canonical list is not the Gospel call. So the material that is providentially exposed to the people of God must also contain the substance which is effective unto life by the power of the Holy Spirit. God has not just preserved the book sleeves of the Bible, He has also preserved the words within those book sleeves.
Since the Bible is self-authenticating, Christians cannot look to the totality or purity of its reception to determine which books or texts of the Bible should be received today. That is to say that because the majority of the Christian people do not accept one passage as authentic today, does not mean that it has not been properly received in the past, or that it is not ontologically a part of the canon. A passage of Scripture may not have been accepted as canonical by various groups throughout history, and this has indeed been the case, usually due to theological controversy.
It is antithetical to the Theological method to say that the Scriptures are self-authenticating, but then also say that people must authenticate those Scriptures by a standard outside of the Scriptures themselves. Either the Scriptures are self-authenticating, or they are not. Which is why evidence are great tools to defend the Scriptures, but those evidences can never authenticate those Scriptures in themselves. It is problematic to say that God’s Word has been preserved, and kept pure in all ages, and then to immediately say that He has done so imperfectly, or has not fully exposed that Word to His people yet.
The Theological method provides a framework that actually gives more weight to historical thought as opposed to modern thought. It disallows for a perspective that believes that the people of God had lost or added passages of Scripture, and that these texts need to be recovered or removed. It prevents certain theories that the text evolved, or that Christ’s divinity was developed over time. It especially rejects the idea that the original text of the New Testament was choppy, crude, and in places incoherent, and that scribes smoothed out the readings to make the text readable. In fact, it exposes those manuscripts that are choppy and missing parts to be of poor quality by assuming that the Holy Scriptures were inspired by the Holy Spirit rather than invented by ostensibly literate first century Jews.
There may have been localities that corrupted the text (usually intentionally), but this does not represent the providential preservation that was taking place universally. The vast majority of textual variants are due to Scribal errors, but the significant variants were certainly an effort of revision. A Scribe simply wouldn’t have removed or added 12 verses by accident. A great example is the idiosyncratic Egyptian manuscripts uncovered in the 19th and 20th centuries, which tend to disagree with the general manuscript tradition in important variant units. These manuscripts have been given tremendous weight in the modern period due to shifting views of inspiration and preservation.
If the Scriptures truly were inspired and preserved, then one should expect that the text did not evolve, or that the closest representative of those originals would be riddled with short, abrupt readings. One would expect that in every stage of copying, Scribal errors would be purged out, and that the true readings would persevere. In fact, this phenomenon can be observed in the vast majority of the extant New Testament manuscripts, which has unfortunately been described as Scribal interference, or smoothing out the text. When the transmission of the New Testament manuscripts are viewed Theologically, an entirely different story is told by the manuscripts which largely disagrees with the modern narrative which favors those choppy manuscripts which existed in one locality of the Christian world.
The preservation of God’s Word can be demonstrated evidentially, but not without the proper Theological lens. Evidential arguments can be a powerful tool in all disciplines, but they often are not effective in themselves to change anybody’s mind. That is why the Theology of scholars will ultimately determine the manuscripts they deem to be earliest and best. Simply counting manuscripts, or weighing manuscripts, is simply not consistent with the conservative doctrine of preservation. In both cases, these methods attempt to take an external authority, such as manuscript count, or the age of the manuscript, and use that to authenticate the Word of God. Yet both of these are at odds with the doctrinal standard that is laid forth in Scriptures themselves, that the Word of God is self-authenticating. That is why the language of “the text that has been received” is warranted in this conversation, because it recognizes God’s providential preservation and exposure of the ontological canon to the people of God in every age.
The doctrine of exposure is often misunderstood as being too similar to the Mormon doctrine of “burning of the bosom” or the papal doctrine which states that Rome has the authority to authenticate the Bible. Despite these abuses of Scripture, the fact remains that the Scriptures are self-authenticating. It is easy to fall back onto empirical approaches, because they seem to be the most logical. Yet these empirical approaches do not do what they claim they can do, and this is becoming increasingly evident with each passing year. The number of Bibles has only increased, and exponentially at that. Modern methodology has not narrowed the text of the New Testament to fewer legitimate readings, but has expanded greatly the number of readings that “could be” original or early.
The efforts of modern textual scholarship has only increased the uncertainty of the text of the New Testament. This has culminated in the abandonment of the search for the original text of the Bible for the Ausgangstext, or the earliest text scholars can get back to (which is 3rd or 4th century). Practically speaking, this pursuit will simply result in arriving at some hypothetical form of the text that may have existed in Egypt in the third century. Since this seems to be the direction of most current New Testament text-critical scholarship, it seems that it is time to return to the old paths. The Theological method has been expressed by countless Theologians of the Christian faith, and it should not be abandoned for the sake of adopting the modern critical scientific method. The Scriptures should always be handled as self-authenticating, and a shift to this way of thinking would result in a massive change in the direction of modern New Testament scholarship.