A Sea of Doubt
A component of critical thinking that has unfortunately been lost in the modern period is the ability to analyze the cost of making an argument. Few stop to consider what else must be true if the claim they are making is true. An argument does not exist in a vacuum, it is the product of a system. Claims regarding the Holy Scriptures are often made in this fashion, as though one can adopt a postmodern view of the Scriptures without any impact to the historical doctrines of inspiration and preservation. When one wades into the shallows of an ocean at low tide, he might find that all is right – the water is cool, the current easy, and he feels safe with his feet planted in the soft sand. But every tide has an ebb and flow, and no ocean at low tide ever stays shallow for long. Lying beyond the safety of the shore is an undertow and the deep murky depths, and while one can see his feet in the shallows, with each ebb and flow the water darkens until he feels his feet leave that soft sand.
Making an argument without counting the cost and considering the ends is the same as venturing into the ocean at low tide and believing that it will stay safe and traversable. Underneath every shallow argument is a tide of consequences that will eventually rip the feet out from under those who make them. Such is the case when it comes to the textual discussion. Many arguments seem to work until the tide shifts and carries with it the children playing in the shallows. Nobody truly knows how deep the ocean is until they are separated from the shore. Under every argument is an ocean, and ignoring the tide for the sake of winning an argument only puts those carelessly playing in the sand in danger. And when the tide rises, it should surprise no one when yellow boats inscribed with the names “SS Barth” and “SS Bultmann” come to rescue the floundering children.
Counting the Cost of Playing in the Low Tide
There are some important, practical realities to consider before saying “I want to know what Paul wrote!” The first question that one must ask is, “What method am I using to determine what Paul wrote?” One must take careful inventory of the state of the ground underfoot. Countless Christians have firmly planted their feet on the ground of modern textual scholarship without performing this analysis. They have not counted the cost. So when somebody standing on such ground rejects, let’s say, Mark 16:9-20, they do so without understanding why they are doing it, or where that rejection leads.
So let’s examine the ground upon which this argument stands. The argument begins with manuscript evidence. Particularly, three manuscripts. Two of these manuscripts are said to have been created in the fourth century, and the other in the middle period. It then goes on to explain why these manuscripts are more valuable than the more than 1,000 manuscripts available that have the ending in it. It argues that these manuscripts are the best because they are the oldest surviving manuscripts. In the shallows of the low tide, this argument seems good enough, but what lies beneath the surface?
First, like every argument for the modern critical text, it starts from an evidentiary standpoint. Even if the person making the argument has faith, the substance of the argument itself is one that is agnostic to the belief system of the one making it. That of course is the appeal. Yet, underneath this argument lies a deeper, more foundational starting point. In order to make this kind of argument, one first has to start with the assumption that an element outside of the Bible has the authority to authenticate this reading or that. The authority of the Bible rests on external validation. That is to say that the Bible has no authority in and of itself. It only becomes authoritative when an external element determines it to be so. Further down, this argument makes another assumption, that an empirical standard has the ability to make such a determination. This is not the case, however. Even the earliest manuscripts are still hundreds of years after the authorial event of the New Testament. And since the originals are lost, there is no way to actually prove that Mark 16:9-20 was or wasn’t there in the original manuscript according the modern critical standard. There is nothing to test the hypothesis against.
So the standard that is being used is not capable of determining originality one way or another. At the deepest level of this argument lies the most fundamental starting point. If the longer ending of Mark is not original, then the people of God had the wrong Bible for over a thousand years, as almost every single manuscript containing Mark 16 has the passage, and the commentaries and quotations of the passage span from the Ancient fathers through the post Reformation period. That is to say, that the Bible was not preserved, and the people of God picked the wrong Bible, copied the wrong Bible, and used the wrong Bible. Thus, from this perspective, God may have inspired the original manuscripts, but the people of God never knew what exactly He inspired. One can assert originality from this perspective, but the argument from evidence is completely agnostic to religious views of inspiration and preservation.
At its very core, modern textual criticism is completely agnostic, even hostile to opinions of faith. So when one makes a completely evidential claim to the authority of a given passage of Scripture, he is doing so from an agnostic starting point. The modern critical method does not care about religious feelings. When somebody adopts this starting point, they hand over the ability to make any sort of claim of divine authorship, because the Author has no authority within this system. This is what lies beyond the shallow tidewaters in the murky depths. All modern text-critical arguments begin with assuming that the Bible requires external validation and then adopts a method that cannot validate that argument in any meaningful way. Don’t believe me? Find a modern critical scholar who has “found the original”. As to whether or not the shifting modern text is speaking divinely to somebody, that remains in the mind of the subject, the person reading that text. The Bible is not divine because it is the Word of God, it becomes the Word of God by way of external examination or internal subjective experience. In and of itself, the Bible is simply a man made product that might be close to the original.
The Shallows at High Tide
Isn’t there another option? Is it possible that God chose to preserve His Word imperfectly? Isn’t it possible that God never desired to give His Word to His people completely, or with absolute certainty? This is the argument made by people who are standing on the shore, watching the scholars play in the water. They are only comfortable making the arguments from evidence because they haven’t felt the crushing weight of the ocean bend them in half. They haven’t seen the tops of their feet disappear as the tide rolled in, or felt the darkness of the water reach up to them from the ocean floor. They haven’t considered the breadth of the deep. Or maybe they have, and haven’t realized they are drowning yet. They only know the shape of the ocean from afar, and that is why they are comfortable trusting the opinions of those in the water who say, “The ocean is deep, but not that deep. I wouldn’t go in if I were you. Just take my word for it.” The Christians on the warm sand see the crowd of heads nodding in agreement, and carry on as usual. Yet everybody bobbing in that water knows that there is a 300 foot gap between their science and the ocean floor, and the honest ones will say that they haven’t seen the bottom and never will. They look over to the yellow life boats called “SS Barth” and “SS Bultmann” and “SS Vatican” and are grateful that those boats will save any Christian who decides to wander in as deep as they have.
Count the Cost, Christian
The modern critical methodology cannot offer certainty, and it does not claim to offer certainty. It ends where it starts and starts where it ends. It can only do as much as its principles allow, and its principles cannot be applied to manuscripts it does not have. So does the modern critical text proponent have any right to claim whether or not the longer ending of Mark is original or an orthodox corruption? No, they don’t. That would require stretching the data farther than it is able to go on its own, which many do, betraying the ground they stand on.
Count the cost, Christian. Does the Bible need to be authenticated externally, or is the Bible self-authenticating? If the Bible is not authentic in and of itself, are you willing to pay the price that comes with it? There is a reason the Reformers rallied around Sola Scriptura. They had paid the price of for too long. They had seen the logical end of a Bible imbued with papal authority. If you’re so committed to a Bible that requires external authentication, tell me, who would you have authenticate it? Are you willing to go down the road to Rome in the name of “Reformation”?
There is another path that avoids the water altogether. Ignore those who say that believing in God’s perfectly preserved Word is “Pious and sanctimonious”. That is not the voice of your shepherd. There is a better path, one that is well traveled, far away from the ocean of uncertainty. It does not start with evidence, but the fact that God has spoken. It does not rely on popular opinion and the machinations of scholars. The Word of God is an authority in itself. Hurry to the shore, out of the water, and onto the beaten path. The Word of God has not been lost. It does not need to be reconstructed. We know what Paul said because God preserved it. Receive the text that the fathers of your faith received and declare, “Thy word is truth”.