Textual Methodologies & Transmission Narratives


In this article, I describe the three distinct categories that exist within the context of the textual discussion. These categories are Textual Methodology, Text Platform, and Translation. A failure to properly recognize these categories as distinct will inevitably result in a worthless conversation wherein one person boldly enters a thread and declares everybody but himself a KJV Onlyist. It is high time that this sort of behavior is escorted out of the confines of Christian dialogue. It is important to recognize that every single Christian has a Textual Methodology, whether they know it or not. A person who utilizes the terminology “KJV Onlyist” for everybody who doesn’t read a modern Bible reveals a lot about the insecurity of their own position. Not a single person approaches the text with a blank slate, and when one fails to acknowledge his tradition, it is extremely likely that that person is blind to his tradition. Never before has blindness been so routinely praised than it has in the modern period. 

The first category that exists within the textual conversation is what I call Textual Methodology. Within the umbrella of this category is the doctrine of Scripture, which includes inspiration, preservation, and transmission history of the text of the New Testament. Every single person who reads, believes in, or comments on the Bible has a doctrine of Scripture. There are two common views of Textual Methodology and transmission narratives that exist today within Reformed Orthodoxy that I will discuss in this article. 

Contending Textual Methodologies and Transmission Histories

Within the context of conservative protestant orthodoxy, there are two major textual methodologies and transmission narratives worth commenting on. These are not the only positions, but the positions that represent Modern Reasoned Eclecticism (NA/UBS) and the Confessional Text (TR).  The first transmission narrative is not built upon a doctrine of inspiration and preservation, but starts from an empirical standpoint. Christians who adopt this narrative then must craft their doctrine of inspiration and preservation around the narrative of modern scholarship retroactively. The Christian articulation of inspiration and preservation within modern textual scholarship says that the original autographs of the New Testament were immediately inspired, but that as time passed, and scribes foolishly copied those autographs, the Scriptures became so corrupt that the people of God no longer had an authentic Bible in their possession. All of the important doctrines were still contained within the Bible, but the actual Bible itself had become hopelessly mutilated. All of the original readings should technically be somewhere within the manuscript tradition, but the people of God have not known what those original readings were for most of the history of the church, and still do not know. Since the goal of the Scriptures is to make men wise unto salvation, the only real doctrines that must be preserved are the “important” ones. 

This corruption most likely occurred sometime around the fourth century, and from the fifth century on, the people of God utilized a text that was heavily edited and smoothed out by scribes. The Orthodox corruption of the Scriptures resulted in the intentional embellishment of Christ’s divinity (expansion of piety), addition of a multitude of passages (Mark 16:9-20, John 7:53-8:11, John 5:4, Rom. 16:24, etc.), and corrections to the original grammar which was initially choppy and harsh (less harmonious readings). Since the church was chiefly culpable in corrupting the Scriptures, their commentary and opinions on the manuscripts should not be trusted, as they were prone to side with readings that corresponded with the orthodox dogmas which developed since the Christian church came onto the scene. As a result of this understanding of the transmission history of the New Testament manuscripts, the only manuscripts with any real value are the ones that existed prior to this orthodox corruption. Due to this great effort of orthodox tampering, the only manuscripts with any value are the ones that predate this global contamination.

Manuscripts which meet the criteria for this story of transmission are the ones that contain short, choppy, and grammatically harsh readings and do not share a pregeneaological coherence (% similarity in the variants) with the majority of manuscripts.The goal of textual scholarship then is to reconstruct the hypothetical archetype of the manuscripts which predates the orthodox corruption. Since the earliest complete manuscripts date back to the 4th century, that is the farthest back this reconstruction effort can go without too much speculation. So at best, this view will result in a bible that represents the manuscripts which reflect the above criteria and transmission history. The goal is not to find the original text, but rather find the original testimonies of the historical event of the incarnation.There are some within this camp that believe a reconstruction of the Initial Text might as well be as good as original, but the brunt of the highly influential scholars agree that this conclusion is unwarranted with the available data.  

The second major understanding of the transmission history of the New Testament is less popular, but is represented by the views set forth within the 17th century Confessional standards. Many people anachronistically say that the Reformation and Post-Reformation Divines adopted, or would have adopted, the first narrative (Such as TurretinFan and those like him), but I have yet to see that demonstrated in any way whatsoever. The doctrine of the framers of the confessions say that the original autographs of the New Testament were immediately inspired, and that the inspired readings were passed along within the manuscript tradition and kept pure in all ages. Due to the covenantal purpose of the Scriptures, namely that they are the means God has ordained to make men wise unto salvation, the preservation of God’s Word is intimately tied to God’s purpose of having a people unto Himself. The Scriptures are self-authenticating (αυτοπιστος), which means that within the Scriptures themselves there are markers which allow men to receive the readings which are authentic in every single age. Not only are all of the important doctrines preserved, but the very words themselves are preserved and recognizable by the internal criteria set forth in Scripture. There was never a point at any time in history where the Scriptures were so hopelessly corrupted that the global church did not know which copies were authentic, or of high quality. There certainly were manuscripts which were created by unfaithful men and heretics, but those manuscripts were never copied or used much by the vast majority of churches in the Christian world. 

That is not to say that one manuscript came down through the manuscript tradition perfect. There were thousands of scribal errors which affected every manuscript in one way or another. Yet, due to the covenantal nature of the Scriptures and God’s singular care and providence in keeping them pure, there was never a time where these scribal errors and corruptions were so prevalent that the people of God did not know which reading was true or false. Any major or minor corruption could be easily identified by comparing one manuscript to a manuscript of great quality, as defined by the theologians and reception of the manuscript by the people of God. In every generation, there were manuscripts, codices, and translations of these original texts which were esteemed highly by the people of God and used for all matters of faith and practice. That does not mean that literally every believer in history had access to these authentic copies personally, but that these authentic copies were transmitted through faithful churches and were generally available to the people of God that attended these faithful churches. It is important not to impose modern standards of availability of literature onto a culture that was limited by hand copying written texts. 

In the 16th century, new technology (printing press) was implemented in this transmission process which allowed for a wider distribution of Biblical texts. This changed everything. For the first time, Bibles were made available to a wider audience, and the people of God had a greater amount of access to the Biblical texts than ever before in history. The people of God utilized this technology to create printed editions of the approved copies that had been passed down through the manuscript tradition in every age. With the advent of this new technology, hand written copies of the New Testament were retired to libraries and museums, and the printed text of the Word of God became the new standard for the church. This, alongside of the protestant Reformation, allowed translations to be made from these printed editions and distributed to the people of God in their mother tongue without harassment or persecution from the Roman Catholic church. In the Post-Reformation period, all commentaries, theological works, and translations were made from these printed texts.  


The two narratives detailed above represent the different narratives presented by Modern Reasoned Eclecticism and the Confessional Text position, respectively. In adopting the Modern Critical Methodology, one must also adopt the transmission narrative that goes with it. This conversation is far more complex than a debate over whether the ESV is better than the KJV. Everybody that has formed an opinion on the text of the New Testament has a doctrine of inspiration and preservation, and a transmission narrative to go with it. The unfortunate reality is that Christians have been instructed to unthinkingly avoid these foundational conversations. What is worse, is that there is a great effort to convince people that the modern critical axioms are historically Reformed. 

It should be apparent, that the pressing conversation in the textual discussion is not whether or not the KJV is bad, it is whether or not one can defend a Scriptural doctrine of inspiration and preservation with various articulations of the modern transmission narrative. The chief concern should be whether or not one’s doctrine of inspiration and preservation comports with Scripture. The secondary concern should be whether or not one’s transmission narrative comports with the reality that God has preserved His Word. The rest of the conversation flows from these realities. To the Christian who insists on continuing to make this conversation about the KJV and KJV Onlyism, I challenge you to inspect your Textual Methodology first before deciding to berate other Christians for reading a Bible you don’t like. It may be possible that many Christians have not counted the cost of adopting the modern theories, methodologies, and texts prior to throwing their weight around in the conversation. 

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