There is no modern doctrine of preservation, and I’m not sure people have realized it quite yet. What does preserved mean? It means that something has been kept safe from harm, uncorrupted, or maintaining the same form as it was when it was created. In this case, the New Testament corpus is the object that is said to be preserved. This means that in order for the New Testament to be preserved, it had to have stayed the same from the time it was penned and in the collection of faithful copies and collated editions going forward. That does not mean that every copy or collation is faithful to the text that God inspired or preserved, just that original was transmitted faithfully throughout the ages and even to the modern period. The words of the New Testament were not lost. The existence of different text forms and variants does not disqualify the Bible as being preserved. It simply indicates that certain lines of textual transmission were corrupted, and even within faithful manuscripts there were variants introduced into the text. There is no mistake that the manuscript tradition tells a complex story full of many scribal errors and corruptions.
In order for a text to be preserved in light of textual variants introduced by scribal errors and corruptions, there is one process that could have resulted in the original text being transmitted faithfully into the modern period. This process would have involved correcting scribal errors and corruptions as the manuscripts were copied throughout the ages. This can be observed in surviving manuscripts by the existence of corrections by various scribes, as well as the increased uniformity of texts going into the middle period (though not perfect uniformity). In order to believe that the text of the New Testament has been preserved, one has to say that the effort of the scribes was successful in every generation of copying. If the text has been preserved, one would expect the text to become increasingly uniform over time, as the number of copyists increased along with the number of Christians.
Due to the heavy persecution of Christians in the early church alongside the fragility of stationary, the early manuscript evidence of the New Testament is sparse. All of the extant, early manuscripts generally represent a different text form than what survived later in the textual tradition, and is generally agreed to have originated in one locality. Based on empirical methods, there simply is not enough data to draw any definitive conclusions on the authenticity of surviving manuscripts from the third and fourth century. It would be more definitive if the earliest manuscripts agreed in more places, but even the early surviving witnesses to the New Testament are massively divided. The only thing that the handful of texts surviving from that period can tell us is that there was a unique stream of manuscripts with many idiosyncrasies, generally existing in one locality, that seems to have died off. That means that, if the New Testament is actually preserved, the later manuscripts provide the best insight into what the original text looked like because they are more abundant and uniform.
While this seems straightforward, there are many who disagree with this assessment and believe that the text must be reconstructed. Scholars have doubled down on the theory that the smattering of early surviving manuscripts can be collated to find the original. Secular scholarship has overwhelmingly admitted that the effort of finding the original was a farce. When this effort failed, the more faithful set out to find the hypothetical archetype that the earliest surviving manuscripts were copied from by developing genealogies of each variant. While this is a clever idea, the result will only be a hypothetical possibility. Others have adopted a Byzantine priority or a majority text position, which weighs the vast majority of manuscripts more heavily than the thinly distributed minority which seems to have existed in a bubble for a couple hundred years. In any case, these positions on the text should be viewed in light of a doctrinal position on preservation. This leads to the main focus of this article, that the modern period has no doctrine of preservation.
Generic and Partial Preservation
Is it a fair assessment to say that there is “no modern view of preservation”? Not in a practical sense, because there are in fact many presentations of preservation offered by various people. But in the technical and formal sense, this statement holds true. This is because while many say that the Bible has been preserved, the actual articulation of the nature of that preservation violates what it means for something to be preserved. Remember the basic definition of what “preserved” means. In its application to the text of the New Testament, it means that there is one stream of text that was preserved in faithful and authentic copies and collations of copies in every generation. Which means, that if the text of the New Testament is truly preserved, the authentic text would have been the text that continued to be copied while copies were still being made up into the 16th and 17th century.
That means that during the time of the first effort to massively distribute the Bible to people in the 16th and 17th centuries, the authentic text of the New Testament was still being copied. If the early surviving manuscripts were authentic, why weren’t those too being copied? Why do the thousands of surviving manuscripts tell a different story than the early surviving ones? The reason that the first effort of unifying the text did not use texts that looked like the earliest surviving manuscripts is because those manuscripts were not considered to be authentic by the people of God leading up to and during that period. This is further demonstrated by the fact that there are less than a handful of manuscripts copied in the middle period that represent the text form of the earliest surviving manuscripts. The manuscript tradition, along with the textual decisions during the Reformation period, tells a tale that the people of God rejected the texts that are being considered “earliest and best” today.
So in one sense, yes, people do offer various understandings of the word “preservation” and how that applies to the New Testament text. But in a much more real sense, those presentations do not adequately explain the existence of two text streams, or the ongoing effort of modern scholars to find the original text. Something that is preserved does not need to be reconstructed or found. The Bible is not a mosquito preserved in amber waiting to be dug up by an archeologist. It is not a 1,000 piece puzzle in which we only have 900 pieces, or a 10,000 piece puzzle to which we have 10,100 pieces. It is a 5,624 piece puzzle to which we have all 5,624 pieces. The method of preservation that God used was not encasing the Bible in a cave, or a bucket, or the sand. He used human copyists, which eventually evolved into the printing press, and again with the introduction of digital storage. The Bible has always been available to the people of God, whether in manuscript form, or printed edition, or even a digital copy.
The modern understanding of preservation is vague and indecisive. It doesn’t actually put forth a meaningful definition of preservation. In a very practical sense, it accepts that the general form of the New Testament has been preserved, with wiggle room for disagreement on certain texts that may or may not be original. The Bible has been preserved in its basic form, to the degree of “great accuracy”. The Bible is partially preserved, and that is the way God designed it to be. The effort of modern textual criticism is to increase the level of “great” in “great accuracy”. The efforts of the Reformation were good, but flawed. So to some degree or another, most people with a modern understanding of preservation accept the Reformation era text as “good enough”, it’s just not the “best”. This reveals a greater issue, which should be picking at the back of your brain.
The greater issue is that if the efforts of the Reformation era were flawed, than the idea of a preserved text, in the sense that I’ve defined it and the Reformation era theologians defined it, has not ever existed, nor can it ever be attained. The word “preserved” is a gooey, moldable, ever-shifting concept that really does not ever take a solid form. One might say that the Bible was preserved until the fourth century, but we do not know exactly what it looked like, or that the Bible is preserved today, just not precisely. In either case, the word “preservation” requires a qualifier. The Bible is either generically preserved, or it is partially preserved. In either case, the word “preserved” is simply inappropriate for what is being described. Here is a quote from Thomas Watson – a Puritan Divine – that adequately describes the historic definition of preservation:
“The Letter of Scripture hath been preserved without any Corruption in the Original Tongue, The Scriptures were not corrupted before Christ’s Time, for then Christ would never have sent the Jews to the Scriptures; but he sends them to the Scriptures, John 5.39. Search the Scriptures. Christ knew these Sacred Springs were not muddied with Human Fancies”
Thomas Watson, A Body of Practical Divinity (London: Thomas Parkhurst, 1692), 13.
Here is another description of preservation, offered by Westminster Divine Richard Capel:
“Well then, as God committed the Hebrew Text of the Old Testament to the Jewes, and did and doth move their hearts to keep it untainted to this day: So I dare lay it on the same God, that he in his providence is so with the Church of the Gentiles, that they have and do preserve the Greek Text uncorrupt, and clear: As for some scapes by Transcribers, that comes to no more, then to censure a book to be corrupt, because of some scapes in the printing, and ’tis certaine, that what mistake is in one print, is correct in another.”
Capel’s Remains pg. 79-80
The foundation of the doctrine of preservation during the time of the Reformation and post-Reformation is that in the same way that God preserved the Hebrew Scriptures, God preserved the Greek Scriptures. And by preserved, they meant “every jot and tittle” (See WCF ch.1).
The ironic truth of the modern view of preservation is that it does not even allow for proper textual criticism. If God did not preserve every word, then what is the purpose of contemporary text-critical efforts? We have what we need, and that is all that matters. If the standard is “great accuracy”, then the work is done. There is no need to pursue greater accuracy because there is no standard for what “great accuracy” even means. There is no way to determine which words matter, and which words do not matter. Is it greatly accurate compared to other ancient texts? Is it greatly accurate based on the surviving manuscripts? Because the definition of “preserved” is so vague and arbitrary, there isn’t actually a meaningful standard to aim for. Text critics will never be able to determine when the work is done, because there is no definition of what it means to be done. Will the work be done when the true ending of Mark is found? Or will it be when we discover a new cache of early manuscripts? The efforts of modern textual criticism are planted firmly three feet in mid air because the modern method doesn’t allow for a precise definition of preservation. The fact that the work is still ongoing reveals the reality that scholars are either operating from a place of generic preservation or partial preservation. In both cases, the Bible has not been preserved in any meaningful way.
There is not a modern doctrine of preservation in a very real sense. When the word is used, it either means generic preservation or partial preservation. In the case that by “preservation” it is actually meant generic preservation, then the work of textual criticism is done, because we have the Bible generically. At that point it is a matter of preference whether or not the woman caught in adultery is or is not Scripture, because the Bible contains all the correct doctrines in both instances. In the case that by “preservation” it is actually mean partial preservation, than the work of textual criticism does not matter, because the preserved Word will never be found. It is a matter of preference whether or not one accepts the ending of Mark as original because we’ll never know with 100% certainty. The former espouses the position that God did not intend to preserve every word, so that is not the goal. The latter says that God didn’t preserve His Word at all, so the goal is simply to get as close to the original as possible. Both positions betray the word preservation.
When the word “preservation” is taken at face value, it simply means that the whole thing being preserved has not been corrupted, or harmed, or destroyed in any way. It does not mean that every single manuscript, or even one manuscript has been kept without error. It means that in every generation, the original text has survived in the approved manuscripts that the people of God have relied on for all matters of faith and practice. It means that scribal errors were corrected and that manuscripts of poor quality were retired or destroyed. This process was done by hand leading up to the 16th century when the printing press revolutionized how copying was done. That is why the Reformation era textual criticism is unique and set apart from modern textual criticism. It occurred during a time where copying was still being done, and a technological innovation was introduced to that process. The manuscripts that were being used by the people of God were still in circulation, and those manuscripts looked nothing like the modern text.
A proper definition of preservation stands at odds with the opinion that the Bible is generically preserved, or partially preserved. If this seems like an impossibly strict standard, then it is best to say that you don’t believe that the Bible has been preserved. And if you do believe that the Bible has been preserved, the task is now to determine which text tells the story of a preserved Bible. The duty of the Christian is then to receive that preserved text as God has delivered it.