Many Christians have become disarmed by the claim that there are no doctrinal differences between the Reformation Era and modern era texts of the New Testament. This may sound comforting, but it does not accurately represent the reality that doctrine is affected, and will continue to be affected as changes are made in further editions of the Greek New Testament. One reason somebody can say that “doctrine is not affected” is because of the centuries of theological work that has been done. People read the modern texts through the lens of the theology of the Reformation text. Sound theology is never done in a bubble, and many fail to recognize how influenced they are by historical theology.
In fact, it is most often that those who come up with false doctrines are the same that have not studied historical theology. Most, if not all, modern heresies are just reiterations and adaptations of a false doctrine from the past. This makes it near impossible to accurately claim that modern Greek Texts and translations do not impact doctrine, because anybody who is making this sort of determination has been influenced by the theology of the past. It would take a completely blank-slate-human to even conduct such an experiment. It is possible, however, to determine if doctrine has been changed, because of the wealth of theological works that utilized the Reformation era text. There is a point of comparison. There are two major areas that modern translations and Greek texts effect doctrine, the first being the actual doctrine of inspiration, and the second being the doctrines affected by passages that have been deemed “unoriginal” and removed.
The Doctrine of Inspiration Dismantled and Reassembled
The doctrine of inspiration laid out by the theologians of the Reformation and post-Reformation is that the Bible has been kept pure in all ages. In accepting a modern text, which is a very different text from the text of the Reformation, one has to accept one of two realities. The first is that one must accept a Bible that has been kept in two text streams. This theory requires the belief that there were two Bibles used in the early church, and that one of them fell out of use. The one that fell out of use, of course, is the one the modern text represents and is said to be “earliest and best”. This poses a conundrum to the doctrine of preservation. The first option is that both forms of the text are equally authoritative and there are two Bibles. The second option is that the Alexandrian text is the Bible and the Word of God was corrupt for centuries, only to be recovered in the 19th century. The only way one could arrive to either of these conclusions is to shift the definition of inspiration and preservation.
In order to hold onto the doctrine of preservation while accepting the modern text, one has to define preservation differently. Rather than God preserving every word, He preserved most of the words. Many will claim that doctrine is not affected by this, but as I stated in the introduction of this article, it is difficult to determine this. It is much easier to demonstrate that doctrine has been affected, rather than proving that is has not. That is because everybody takes their theological system into the text, whether they want to admit it or not. What can be easily demonstrated to be different is modern interpretations of the doctrines of inspiration and preservation.
There is a difference between every word being preserved and most of the words being preserved. There is a difference between the Westminster and London Baptist Confessions of Faith and the Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy. If the Chicago Statement affirmed the same standard of preservation, they would have utilized certain language such as “pure in all ages” as opposed to the arbitrary standard of “with great accuracy”. The former affirms preservation through time, and the latter affirms that the scope of preservation must be retroactively determined, and only to the degree of “great accuracy”. Many are fine with this reinterpretation of the doctrine of preservation, claiming that the standard of “pure in all ages” is too meticulous. Rather than accepting that these are two different doctrines, many have attempted to reinterpret the confessional language, or even try to prove that the drafters of the confession had the same view as the modern interpretation of preservation. This is demonstrably false. Garnet Howard Milne’s book Has the Bible Been Kept Pure? Handles this quite well.
It may be the case that the doctrine of preservation as described in the Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy is more accurate than the Confessional doctrine of preservation, but the fact remains that these are two different standards. So in a very real sense, the rise of the modern texts resulted in a fresh interpretation of the doctrine of preservation. Doctrine has changed in order to accommodate the modern texts.
I will not make a case for how each update and revision to the text of Scripture has tarnished doctrine. There are many theologians, scholars, and laypersons who have already done as much. Instead, I will focus on how any update to a word, phrase, or an entire passage does affect doctrine by its revision, and supply two examples demonstrating this fact. The first point to note is that doctrines cannot be developed without words. A doctrine is developed from a text. So when that text changes, the doctrine is liable to change as well. A common modern thought is that a doctrine, idea, or message can be preserved without the underlying text itself being preserved. There are many ways to say the same thing, after all. This is demonstrated in the common opinion that “all the important doctrines” are preserved, when dismissing the importance of variants between the Reformation and Modern text.
The only reason this claim can be made is due to the fact that theological systems are extremely stable in the 21st century. That is not to say that the proponents of these systems are stable, but the systems themselves have been fleshed out extensively in the last four hundred (or more) years. As much as people dislike admitting it, the majority of exegesis done today is done primarily through a theological lens. Much of the time, when somebody says that doctrine is not affected, they are really saying that “My doctrine will not be affected by changes to the text”. This is the case because the changes between the texts should result in doctrinal change due to the significance in difference. So if the change in the text has not resulted in a change in theology, the reason for that is not that the text is saying the same thing, it is because the person is making the text say the same thing based on their theological commitments.
A perfect example of this is John 1:18. In the modern text, it says that Jesus is “the unique God” or the “only begotten God” or the “only God”. If the modern reading is taken, one must rely on their existing understanding of the trinity to properly ascertain a trinitarian doctrine from this text. The text itself declares the uniqueness of the Son, which is to say that the Son is unique in essence from the Father. This must result in tritheism or social trinitarianism or unitarianism, if a plain reading of the text is allowed. Many speculate that this is the reason for the original corruption of the text from “Only begotten Son” to “only begotten God” by Valentinus during the second century. At best the modern reading obfuscates the clear trinitarian nature of God, and at worst it clearly articulates anti-trinitarian doctrine. Many theologians, scholars, pastors, and laypersons abuse the hermeneutical principle of letting scripture interpret scripture to justify this corruption, but that principle is only properly applied when a passage is not abundantly clear. In this case, the modern reading is as clear as it gets. In fact, it should be the interpretive lens that all other claims regarding the Son are made in the Bible if the modern reading is correct. It distinctly teaches that the Son of God is unique, not begotten of the Father. By affecting this one place, the rest of the trinitarian passages of Scripture are compromised, which was probably the intention of the person who originally corrupted the text.
The claim that “doctrine is not affected” might be true if the difference in variations between the Reformation era text and Modern text were just spelling errors, word order, and other scribal errors. This is not the case. There are countless places where the text is demonstrably different between the two texts in message, vocabulary, and substance (See Hoskier’s work for details). The reason so many Christians are willing to accept these corruptions is because they tend to look at variants from a modern perspective. Today, the Bible is accessible to anybody with the internet. Modern Christians in the west do not know what it is like to not have a complete Bible. So it is anachronistic to look at a variant, as if every Christian throughout the ages had access to the 75 translations and countless books and articles explaining each variant. It is easy to write off the significance of a variant when one has access to 2,000 years of textual scholarship.
A great example of this is how readily modern Christians pass over the ending of Mark. They take for granted the fact that they have the ending of the Gospel account in Matthew, Luke, and John. If one accepts that Matthew is the first Gospel (which is the historic perspective), the early church also would not have been doctrinally rocked by the ending of Mark being lost as well. Yet, much of modern scholarship has adopted the theory that Mark is the earliest Gospel, and that Matthew and Luke expanded on Mark’s account, embellishing the story and adding in important phrases that clearly demonstrate the divinity of Christ. This culminated in the Gospel of John, which is the most clear expression of the development of Christianity and the divinity of Christ. The story of the Gospels is more aptly a story of how Jesus became God than a true narrative of Jesus’ ministry.
If this modern theory is the case, and the Alexandrian version of Mark is the “earliest and best”, then the earliest gospel did not have an appearance account. It simply ends with two scared women and the word γαρ in Greek, which occurs nowhere else in Greek literature. If Mark ends at verse 8, than the earliest Christians did not believe in a literal resurrected Christ. The other alternative is that the ending was lost to time or Mark was a poor writer that didn’t know Greek very well (which some assert). The only fact conveyed is that the tomb was empty, and that the women were scared.
This is the kind of variant that allows Bart Ehrman to have a wildly successful career. Because Christians are willing to throw out the ending of Mark, they give license to men like Walter Bauer and Richard Price who have spun wild tales of the invention of Christianity. Further, if the ending of Mark does not contain an appearance account, then the apostle Paul did not consider Mark to be a gospel (1 Cor. 15:1-11). And if Mark is not a proper gospel, what is it doing in our Bibles? Did the Holy Spirit make a mistake? The only reason Christians need to defend against Bart Erhman is because they opened the door and let him sit at the table. The theory of Alexandrian Priority, the underpinning of “earliest and best”, has given a robe and a ring to agnostic scholars who wish to critique God’s Word.
It may be the case that I have not convinced anybody that the two texts I cited affect doctrine. It may hold true that John 1:18 and Mark 16:9-20 truly do not affect doctrine. Yet this determination can only be made while standing on the shoulders of the men of old while receiving beatings by Bart Ehrman and co. Christians are standing in the middle of a field being shelled by artillery, plugging their ears and shouting “No doctrine is affected!” Christians have been pacified for too long by these empty assertions while men like Bart Ehrman have built their entire career on the very fact that variants affect the authenticity and doctrines of the Bible.
Even if a handful of variants do not affect the corpus of the New Testament text and the doctrines contained within, they impact the doctrines of inspiration and preservation by standing in opposition to the text that the people of God have received throughout the ages. In proposing a genuine corruption of the Biblical text (not just a scribal error, but a total corruption), one has to shift the definition of preservation. Preservation cannot be talking about words, but ideas and doctrines (Or words to the degree of “great accuracy”). So as long as the sum total of doctrines are preserved, the Bible can be considered preserved. While this may be practically true due to the wealth of theological works available, it is not true as it pertains to the actual text of the New Testament. The text of the New Testament is a relatively small corpus of literature, and when a small collection is altered, there are grave consequences to the whole ecosystem of the text.
A single variant can indeed change the message of the Trinity that the Bible puts forth. Another can “prove” that there was no resurrected Christ. The only reason most Christians do not consider the gravity of just two variants is because they assume the system developed from theological works of the past which rely on the texts they reject. If anything, the Christian needs to realize that it does not follow to say that a doctrine can be unaffected if the words the doctrines are built on are affected. Changed words mean changed doctrines. One might be fine with this reality, but it does not bode well with a conservative doctrine of preservation. It is impossible to overstate the importance of the text of the New Testament being preserved in the words, and not just the “original message”. Without the original words, there is no original message. So when discussing variants, the conversation should not be framed in the question, “Well, does it affect doctrine?” The obvious truth is that yes, it does. The real question one should ask is, “Does this affect doctrine enough for me to say something about it?” The obvious truth is that yes, it does.