Many Christians have had trouble understanding what is meant by the Westminster Confession of Faith and the 1689 London Baptist Confession of Faith when they say that the Old Testament in Hebrew, and the New Testament in Greek have been “kept pure in all ages” (1.8). It does not mean that the framers of the confessions did not know about textual variants, or that those in the Confessional Text camp believe that the Word of God was transmitted perfectly by one manuscript. What this means is that the doctrine of inspiration and preservation disallows for a total corruption of any one reading in the Holy Scriptures. Certain verses or words have not been “lost to time”.
Doctrinal standards that do not affirm purity in the transmission history of the New Testament are a direct result of modern definitions of inspiration and preservation. This is a standard that is based on the opinions that scholars have of manuscripts rather than theological suppositions from the Holy Scriptures. Due to the heavy weight assigned to certain manuscripts localized to Egypt in the 3rd and 4th century, and the massive difference between those and the rest of the manuscript tradition, scholars have determined that the text has been corrupted and needs to be repaired. The Reformation era work was inaccurate because those scholars did not understand how valuable the Egyptian manuscripts are. As a result, the doctrine of preservation had to be revisited. Had the modern scholars simply consented to the opinions of Erasmus, John Owen, and Francis Turretin regarding the strange Egyptian manuscripts such as Codex Vaticanus, this shift may have never happened.
Inspiration and Preservation
As a result of the reevaluation of Egyptian manuscripts as “earliest and best”, Christians had to separate the doctrine of inspiration from the doctrine of preservation. This is done implicitly by those who adhere to the Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy when they say that the text has been passed down with “great accuracy” as opposed to “pure in all ages”. Because the idiosyncratic text stream had been deemed as good as “original”, the text of the Reformation was declared unfit for duty. This is the difference between the Reformation view and the postmodern view on the doctrine of inspiration as it pertains to the transmission of the New Testament text. In the confessional view, the text of the New Testament was kept pure in every generation of copying, which is to say that the text was never fully corrupt across all of the authentic copies. There was never “two independent streams of text”. There is no doubt that people used the Egyptian manuscripts, but the use of those manuscripts seemed to be localized to one region for a brief period of time. Despite manuscripts having a multitude of copyist errors, and intentional corruption, the original text was always available and transmitted accurately by God’s “singular care and providence”. The postmodern view gave credence to the idea that the scholars of the Reformation simply got it wrong, and the Word of God fell out of use for nearly 1500 years.
You might ask, “But what does this have to do with inspiration?” The disconnect between inspiration and preservation is a direct result in the reinterpretation of the Westminster Confession by A.A. Hodge and B.B. Warfield. Sure, the originals were inspired, but that does not mean that these originals were perfectly preserved, in the sense that every word is still intact. The Scriptures were transmitted with “great accuracy”, after all. Which is to say that to some arbitrary degree, the Scriptures have been mostly kept pure. Despite this attempt at redefinition, the Scriptural doctrine of inspiration disallows for this separation due to the covenant nature of the New Testament and its purpose.
“All scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness: That the man of God may be perfect, throughly furnished unto all good works” (2 Tim. 3:16-17 KJV).
In order to maintain a Scriptural understanding of inspiration, one must accept that all Scripture was inspired, and all Scripture is profitable for all matters of faith and practice. This means that there is no such thing as an inspired Scripture that is not profitable for this covenant purpose. This being the case, this disallows for the distinction between “important doctrines” and “not important doctrines” when it comes to inspiration. This is what is being said when people say that “all the important doctrines are preserved”. If all of the important doctrines have been preserved, then the Scriptures that God inspired are again placed under the microscope of men to be deemed fit for profitability to the people of God. So as long as the editors, contributors, and proponents of the approved modern text(s) determine that doctrine is not affected, the Warfieldian standard allows for continued tinkering. The text may be inspired in its originals, but it has not been kept pure in all ages, because the original form of the New Testament has never been attained. This is not the Scriptural standard.
I am not saying that every doctrine is as important as the next. There are certain doctrines that Christians divide over, and others that they do not divide over. These distinctions are fine to make, unless we are talking about “important doctrines” within the bounds of inspiration. The framing of inspiration in terms of “all the important doctrines” has cleverly shifted the standard of authority for the Holy Scriptures. Rather than the inspired text being the authority, the authority now rests on men and women to determine which are the important doctrines. The Scriptures are no longer self-authenticating. They are self-authenticating insofar as they represent the important doctrines, or some other arbitrary standard of accuracy.
The modern view of inspiration has allowed Christians to essentially believe that the only people who ever had God’s Word in the original, were the people who had access to the unaltered originals. By the time the first copy was made, the first corruption took place, and the people of God would never have anything more than a Bible that is “close enough” to the original. The people of God will never have the exact wording, but they will have the doctrines. Yet this is not the doctrine put forth in the Scriptures. In 2 Timothy 3:16-17, the text clearly says that all Scripture is given by inspiration, and that all Scripture is profitable. The Bible does not set the bar at verses that pertain to salvation, or some other arbitrary standard. The Scriptures do not put forth the postmodern views of inspiration, where all Scripture means “All the important doctrines”.
The text of Holy Scripture does not say that inspiration applies to doctrines, it applies to the actual text. If the text is inspired, it has a use for God’s covenant people, even if not equally weighed. The weight of a doctrine does not disqualify it from being preserved. Thus, in order for 2 Timothy 3:16-17 to be true, the text that God inspired must also be kept pure, “That the man of God may be perfect, throughly furnished unto all good works”. If a Scripture has been inspired, it must be preserved as well, and not just in the ideas.
This raises further questions regarding what exactly it means to have a “greatly accurate” Bible. Who gets to say what “great accuracy” means? What percentage of the Bible do we have? It could mean that the people of God have a 95% original Bible, or a 70% original Bible, or even worse. Using the modern text-critical standards, it is impossible to determine to what degree of accuracy a text represents the original. In order to do that, one would need to have the original as a point of comparison. As it stands, the standard of comparison is a cluster of 3rd and 4th century Egyptian manuscripts. So even stating that the Bible has been preserved to a great degree of accuracy is completely arbitrary and unverifiable using modern standards and methods.
A common misunderstanding of the confessional language of “pure in all ages” is that it means that literally every manuscript has been preserved completely. This has never been the case, and was not the perspective of the framers of the confessions. They did not see the printed editions of the Greek New Testament as a mere representation of the manuscript tradition, they viewed it as the completed effort of collating the authentic copies. Which is why the framers of the confessions, and the theologians of the time, all accepted the Received Text of the Reformation period.
It also does not mean that handwriting, text size, and document formatting has been preserved perfectly. The preservationist view set forth in the confessions is that the words have been kept pure across the authentic manuscripts. Every manuscript contains scribal errors, this does not affect the doctrinal statements of the Reformation and post-Reformation period because these errors are not so great that the original has not been available in every generation. These great men of old were not ignorant of variants, or even the readings that modernity has deemed “earliest and best”.
Regardless of the position you take on the Text of Scripture, it should be one that comports with the testimony of Scripture itself. Do the Scriptures present a view that only the important doctrines have been preserved? Or do they say that all Scripture has been preserved? A Scripture is a Scripture, no matter how small. Rather than being swayed by the compelling evidential arguments of men, take the time to see if those arguments can withstand the weight of its own critiques. See if the methodology aligns with Scripture. Start theologically, and then examine the evidence. View the evidence in light of God’s Word, not the other way around.