Is the Confessional Text Position Mythical, Anachronistic, Anti-Reformed, and Ahistoric?

Introduction

A major problem with the textual discussion as it pertains to which Greek and Hebrew text Reformed Christians accept as authentic, is that many people who have strong opinions regarding the matter have not consulted Reformed sources regarding the text. This extends beyond the textual issue with modern “Reformed” Christians who claim the title but are not confessional, do not observe the Sabbath, make a two-fold distinction of the law, adopt strange interpretations of Romans 7, consider internet forums equivalent with the pulpit, and so on. This problem stems from the understanding that Reformed Christianity simply means Calvinism. Calvinism is one component of Reformed faith, but it is only one part of it. It is more appropriate to say that the defining distinctive of Reformed Theology is Covenant Theology and confessionalism, which helps form a robust understanding of the Holy Scriptures, the Church and the means of grace, the role of ministers, experiential preaching, and eschatology. 

A modern trend that extends into every area of Theology is the practice of defining Reformed Christianity however one likes, without consulting the source literature of Reformed Theologians. I do not say this to be a “gatekeeper” of who is and isn’t Reformed, but to simply point out that Reformed faith and practice points back to the 16th and 17th centuries, and that a basic definition for the term “Reformed” is easily attainable. Modern interpretations of Reformed Christianity, which are prolific, completely neglect the importance of confessionalism and the Theology of those who framed the confessions (WCF, LBCF, Savoy, Triple Knowledge). That is why the discussion of baptism and ecclesiology is so heated, as it pertains directly to the development of the particular baptists and independents over and against the common view of the Reformed at the time. Whether or not Reformed Presbyterians wish to acknowledge the Reformed title of the independents and particular Baptists is a conversation for another time. As it relates to the textual discussion, important Reformed sources include John Owen, Francis Turretin, John Calvin, John Gill, RL Dabney, Thomas Watson, Richard Capel, and the rest of the English Puritans. In this article, I will be handling the claim that the Confessional Text position is mythical, Anachronistic, Not Reformed, and Ahistoric by interacting with Francis Turretin. 

Mythical, Anachronistic, Not Reformed, and Ahistoric? 

So when one claims that the Confessional Text position is mythical, anachronistic, not Reformed, and ahistoric, it stands to reason that these claims should be inspected. There are many claims made by those who adhere to the Modern Critical Text that simply do not comport with reality when it comes to Reformation and Post-Reformation theology. For example, the claim made by apologist James White that the Confessional Text position does not believe in variants. Yet this is a claim made by nobody within the Confessional Text camp. Francis Turretin says this regarding the difference between a “corruption” and a variant.

“A corruption differs from a variant reading. We acknowledge that many variant readings occur both in the Old and New Testaments arising from a comparison of different manuscripts, but we deny corruption (at least corruption that is universal)…It is quite a different thing to speak of their success or of entire universal corruption. This we deny, both on account of the providence of God, who would not permit them to carry out their intention, and on account of the diligence of the orthodox fathers, who having in their possession various manuscripts preserved them free from corruptions” (Turretin, Vol. I, 111,112).

So this claim, which is agreed upon by all of the Reformed during the post-Reformation, is that while “corruption” as it is defined by modern scholars existed, yet the corruptions were not so total that they could not be corrected by simple manuscript comparison (73). So when asked to “prove” that this was the perspective of the Reformed, one simply needs to point to the Reformed Theologians of the time to demonstrate that this was the common opinion held by most, if not all of those within the realm of orthodoxy. It is rather ignorant to claim that those in the Confessional Text camp do not believe in variants, when the source literature for the position readily interacts with these variants. It is not that we do not believe in variants, we simply disagree as to which readings should be considered authentic. For example, Turretin comments on the Reformed opinion of the three most discussed variants today. 

“There is no truth in the assertion that the Hebrew edition of the Old Testament and the Greek edition of the New Testament are said to be mutilated; nor can the arguments used by our opponents prove it. Not the history of the adulteress (Jn. 8:1-11), for although it is lacking in the Syriac version, it is found in all the Greek manuscripts. Not 1 Jn. 5:7, for although some formerly called it into question and heretics now do, yet all the Greek copies have it, as Sixtus Senesis acknowledges: “they have been the words of never-doubted truth, and contained in all the Greek copies from the very times of the apostles”. Not Mk. 16 which may have been wanting in several copies in the time of Jerome (as he asserts); but now it occurs in all, even in the Syriac version, and is clearly necessary to complete the history of the resurrection of Christ” (115). 

While it is plainly obvious that Turretin accepted these readings as authentic (which “proves” that this was the common opinion), a more interesting fact noted by Turretin is that these readings were present in “all the Greek manuscripts”. Now we know that there were certainly manuscripts that did not have these readings, so what did Turretin mean by this? When the Reformed referred to the manuscripts and editions, they were discussing the authentic copies, which is a distinction that has been lost in modern textual scholarship. Turretin comments on this distinction,

“…the autographs and also the accurate and faithful copies may be the standard of all other copies of the same writing and of its translations. If anything is found in them different from the authentic writings… it is unworthy of the name authentic and should be discarded as spurious and adulterated, the discordance itself being a sufficient reason for its rejection” (113).

This commentary demonstrates that the Reformed view rejected manuscripts bearing the qualities of that of Codex Vaticanus, for example. Turretin also reveals something that is often overlooked by those in the modern critical text camp – that the authentic copies were those that contained the pericope adulterae (John 7:53-8:11), the comma johanneum (1 John 5:7), and the longer ending of Mark (Mark 16:9-20). A brief glance at Calvin’s commentary will show that he too adopted these readings. In fact, if one were to examine the writings and commentary of John Gill, RL Dabney, Matthew Henry, and any of the Reformed for that matter, one would find that they too all adopted these readings! So when the claim is made that the Greek Text of the Reformation was not accepted by anybody, one has to ask, “Can you give an example of somebody within the Reformed tradition who didn’t accept these readings by the end of the 16th century?”    

The claim that the Reformation Text was received is not made because the 1633 Elzevir edition says, “This is the text received by all” . It is made because it was the text received by all, in the general sense of the word. The claim is overwhelmingly shown to be true by the wealth of commentaries, theological works, and of course the Bibles produced during that era that all accept the form of the text as it exists in the Traditional Text. The statement in the introduction to the Scrivener TR and 1633 Elzevir TR is simply is commenting on the reality that there was little dispute as to what the authentic Scriptures were heading out of the Reformation period by the Orthodox. 

Mythical, Anachronistic, Not Reformed, and Ahistoric

After interacting with the Theologians of the Reformation and post-Reformation period such as James Usher, Thomas Watson, John Calvin, Matthew Henry, RL Dabney, John Gill, Francis Turretin, and literally anybody else, it is astounding that such claims can be made that this perspective of Scripture is somehow not Reformed, or mythical, or anachronistic, or ahistoric. This claim is often made by severing the opinions of Stephanus and Beza from the rest of the Reformers, as though they were the “church”. Turretin clears away this confusion when he says, 

“The question is not Are the sources so pure that no fault has crept into the many sacred manuscripts, either through the waste of time, the carelessness of copyists or the malice of the Jews or of heretics? For this is acknowledged on both sides and the various readings which Beza and Robert Stephanus have carefully observed in the Greek ( and the Jews in the Hebrew) clearly prove it. Rather the question is have the original texts (or the Hebrew and Greek manuscripts) been so corrupted either by copyists through carelessness (or by the Jews and heretics through malice) that they can no longer be regarded as the judge of controversies and the rule to which all the versions must be applied? The papists affirm, we deny it” (106).  

The fact that those who attack the Reformation Text by way of Erasmus is quite curious indeed, considering this quotation by Turretin, who does not even mention him. Yet the opinion of the Reformed was that the work of Stephanus and Beza was successful, and the theology built upon their work all throughout the post-Reformation clearly demonstrates that even if Erasmus was an anti-trinitarian, humanist-papist, the Reformed did not consider his blunders or work the final authority or problematic. In other words, Erasmus, Stephanus, and Beza do not comprise the “church” that is so commonly referred to by the Confessional Text camp – the commentators, theologians, pastors, and translations which everybody read do. When it is said that the “church” received the text of the Reformation, it is not meant that a council was held, or the pope declared, but rather that the text was overwhelmingly adopted by all, as evidenced in quite literally all of the Reformed theological works and commentaries produced in the post-Reformation, not to mention the obvious reality that this was the text used and defended by the framers of the 17th century confessions. Hence the name, Confessional Text. 

So it does not hold that this view is mythical, anachronistic, not Reformed, or ahistoric. In fact, an interaction with the Theological works of the Reformation and Post-Reformation demonstrate this to be exactly the opposite of that. The claim that the Reformers would adopt the modern critical perspective is curious, considering they heavily critiqued the opponents who rejected the variants still in question today, and the manuscripts that contain them. Despite the common misconception that this is a view that requires putting one’s head in the sand to variants, they did deal with the evidence. The claim made by those in the Confessional Text camp is not to defend the TR blindly, as is often claimed. We do not start with the TR, we start with the reality that God has spoken (Deus dixit). We stand on the historical understanding of the Holy Scriptures, that it was received and not created or reconstructed. There is not a methodology to “reproduce” the TR because God did not fail in preserving His Bible. The assumption in the demand for the Confessional Text advocates to “produce a methodology” assumes the total corruption of the Scriptures in its premise. Let me explain. 

  1. There is no final form of the modern critical text, it is an ongoing, incomplete process 
  2. There is wide disagreement within the modern critical text as to which variants be accepted or rejected, which further demonstrates the instability of such a text
  3. This being the case, the current effort of reconstructing the initial text has not been completed yet (even if some believe it can be completed)
  4. Considering the reality that the effort of constructing the modern critical text is ongoing, the plain reality is that they admit we live in a time where the final text has not been reconstructed as of the time of writing this article
  5. Thus, in demanding a methodology to reproduce the TR, it assumes that there is no final form of the text, and are thus demanding that we step onto the epistemological starting point assumed by modern textual scholarship to “prove” that our text can be reconstructed

So the demand in itself misunderstands the Confessional Text position in its premise. In adopting the assumption of the question, we would have to adopt the view that there is no final form of the text, which is why it is a strange challenge that no one need answer, as we believe that God has already delivered His Word in every age, which is, as I’ve demonstrated, the view of the Reformed in history. The modern critical text comports with the modern views of general and partial preservation, but it does not comport with the confessional language of “pure in all ages” (WCF 1.8). The effort of the textual scholarship done during the Reformation does not stand against this position, as it is the position of those writing during the time of that textual effort. It is in fact anachronistic to claim that the Reformers believed in a text that needed to be reconstructed, as that was a view held by none of the Reformed at the time that the Reformation era text was being collated and edited. If it is the case that any of the Reformed held to the modern view of the text, I have yet to see it demonstrated by anybody outside of Jan Krans’ strange attempt to say that Erasmus was operating from the modern perspective similar to Metzger. 

Conclusion

The beautiful reality of adhering to the Confessional Text position is that it is not new in the slightest. While the name is new, as some have needlessly pointed out, the underlying position is not. The need for the new name arose only because it is the most descriptive of the position over and against the modern perspective. It is entirely appropriate for Reformed men and women to adhere to this understanding of the text of the Holy Scriptures, as it aligns with the theology of the Reformers and post-Reformation divines. It specifically aligns with the Westminster Confession of Faith, as demonstrated by the various theological writings of those who were present at the Westminster Assembly, who penned chapter one and paragraph eight of the confession. For an in depth analysis of the interpretation of this passage, see Garnet Howard Milne’s work, “Has the Bible Been Kept Pure?”. For overwhelming support that this position is not anachronistic, mythical, ahistoric, and not Reformed, literally pick up any of the Reformation and post-Reformation writings on the topic. I recommend James Usher, Thomas Watson, Francis Turretin, John Calvin, John Gill, and RL Dabney. It is strange and unusual that one would claim that this view is not Reformed, as it is the literal theology and text of the Reformers and post-Reformers, whose tradition we look back to for our understanding of Reformed Theology. 

An honest handling of the topic would include a recognition that the confession was reinterpreted by A.A. Hodge and B.B. Warfield, which led to the development of the Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy. It is completely fine if a believer does not subscribe to a confession, or the confessional view of the Scriptures because being Reformed does not determine one’s salvation, however the distinction between the views is necessary. One might even disagree with the Reformers on their perspective, which again, is fine. It is completely bizarre however, when the claim is made that this was not the view of the Reformers, or that this view is not Reformed. If one wants to say that this is an area that the Reformed needed to grow out of, that is fine, but it is necessary to accept that it is in fact a position that modern Reformed Christians have grown out of. In order to fairly represent the discussion, it is important to admit that the modern doctrine of the Holy Scriptures has evolved from the time of the Post-Reformation, and that there are Reformed believers who do not think this evolution was necessary, myself being one of them. Those like me, who do not wish to adopt the modern view, adhere to the view of the framers of the Confession and their contemporaries, which is why the name “Confessional Text” is entirely appropriate and accurately describes the position. 

4 thoughts on “Is the Confessional Text Position Mythical, Anachronistic, Anti-Reformed, and Ahistoric?

    1. Sure. It is a two fold methodology that starts with a algorithmic analysis of manuscripts. This is called “Pregenealogical Coherence” which just takes the same variant in every manuscript and compares them against each other. Something like this: http://intf.uni-muenster.de/TT_PP/Cluster4.php (Vaticanus)

      Then the next step is Genealogical coherence, where the textual scholars create relationships between the variants based on the pregenealocial coherence and try to determine which variant was born from the other. The reading that is determined as most likely to be earliest is the reading that gets first priority in the main text of a printed critical edition like the NA28. This effort is being compiled into what’s called the Editio Critica Maior, which is being worked on now. It will likely be done by 2032.

      The goal of the CBGM is to find a hypothetical Archetype (A), that all of the manuscripts were born from.

      Like

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