The Confessional Text Position is Not “Anachronistic” – It’s Reformed

Introduction

In light of the recent discussion on various text platforms and textual scholarship, a great effort has been made to conflate the modern view of Scripture with the historic, protestant view of the Holy Scriptures. One of the great benefits of dividing the conversation into the three categories of Textual Methodology, Text Platform, and Translation is that the distinction between the historic view and the modern view becomes abundantly clear when compared. In order to properly assess the claim that the historic view of Scripture is the same as the modern view or that the Reformed would adopt the modern view, one must first be willing to understand the doctrine of Scripture from the 16th and 17th centuries. It is often asserted that the Reformers, framers of the confessions, and Post-Reformation Divines would have adhered to the modern critical text, had they lived to see the publication of all of the “new data” introduced in the modern period. That is what is called an assertion, and it needs to be supported and demonstrated. 

The Textual Methodology of Beza and the Reformed

In an attempt to demonstrate the validity of this claim, some have used Jan Krans’ work, Beyond What Is Written (In a series edited by Bart Ehrman), wherein Krans examines the text-critical methodologies of Erasmus and Beza and provides commentary on how he believes their methodologies to be similar to the modern methods, or perhaps even a precursor which contained the seeds of Hort and Metzger. It is certainly true that Erasmus, Beza, Stephanus, and many more were collating and editing manuscripts into printed editions during the 16th century, but it is clear that they employed distinct methodologies that stand against the modern methodologies.

Though I disagree with many of Krans’ conclusions, the work itself is thorough and helpful. Krans even highlights many ways in which the text-critical methodology of Erasmus and Beza were far more advanced than many give them credit. Yet it does not stand that the textual efforts of the 16th century can be said to equal the work being done today simply because some have made this assertion. In Krans’ work, he certainly makes some of these conclusions himself, especially regarding Erasmus, but the theology of Erasmus does not necessarily represent the Reformed doctrine of Scripture, whereas Beza’s does. As many are wont to point out, Erasmus was a “Dutch Roman Catholic Priest and humanist”, after all. While this is an important consideration, and the theology of Erasmus certainly can explain the differences between his editions, those that make such arguments are using a text which was edited in parts by literal Jesuits, so I’m not sure what sort of conflict they have with Erasmus. In any case, it is apparent to those that have read Krans’ work, that Krans draws a line between Erasmus and Beza and highlights some important differences that may be helpful for those who have heard various claims being made regarding the text-critical work of the Reformation.

“Beza’s editions of the New Testament represent a world which differs in many respects from the one encountered in Erasmus’ Novum Testamentum and Annotations…Beza’s Latin translation was the result of an effort to provide a translation better than those of Erasmus and Sebastian Castellio, one that reflects the ‘correct’ understanding of the text and that follows ‘correct’ rules of translation…Beza aimed to provide the definitive translation and interpretation of the New Testament for the Protestant (Calvinist) world, and largely succeeded in doing so…Beza’s critical and editorial activity received very different appreciations, both in his own days and in subsequent centuries. His editions were rejected en bloque by his Catholic critics, not only for his decision to reject the Vulgate in favour of a Greek text that they considered to be corrupt, but also because of the onesided interpretation which permeates his Latin Translation…Beza acquired a very high status in Protestant and especially Calvinist circles during his lifetime and in the first generations after him. His Greek text was not contested but faithfully reprinted; through the Elzevir editions it was elevated to the status of ‘received text’, textus receptus. ”(196, 197). 

Krans goes on to comment on the subsequent development of Beza’s text, and even comments that when it comes to understanding the text-critical work of Beza, “modern New Testament scholarship suffers from amnesia in this matter” (201). It appears that not only have modern scholars suffered from such amnesia, so have many modern Christians. Krans continues to highlight some considerable differences in the methodology of Beza from the modern critical methods.

“In Beza’s view of the text, the Holy Spirit speaks through the biblical authors. He even regards the same Spirit’s speaking through the mouth of the prophets and the evangelist as a guarantee of the agreement between both…If the Spirit speaks in and through the Bible, the translator and critic works within the Church. Beza clearly places all his text critical and translational work in an ecclesiastical setting. When he proposes the conjecture “(‘wild pears’) for (‘locusts’) in Matt. 3:4, he invokes “the kind permission of the Church” (328, 329). 

Unfortunately, the burden of proof for these kinds of claims has been set at the low-bar of, “I have said it, therefore it is true”. In order to support such a claim, one must demonstrate that the textual methodology (Doctrine of inspiration, preservation, text-critical methodology, and transmission narrative) of the Reformed in the 16th and 17th centuries is the same as or coherent with the modern critical methodology, as well as demonstrate that the new data introduced in the modern period is so significant and compelling that the Reformed would have changed their view (though I would say it’s impossible to convince dead men to change their minds). In order to prove the latter claim, one would have to list the significant variants introduced by the newly published manuscripts and compare them to the commentary on variants provided by the Reformed during the 16th and 17th centuries. 

A brief survey of the variants introduced in the modern period compared against the variants commented on during the 16th and 17th centuries reveals that the significant variants in question today were also the variants in question historically  (though the number of insignificant variants seriously considered has increased exponentially). A survey of the commentaries of Calvin, Gill, and others clearly demonstrates this to anybody who can do an internet search. This being the case, the claim that the Reformed would have been compelled to adopt the conclusions of modern textual scholarship is already resting on a thin chord. The material clearly demonstrates significant differences in methodology and conclusions. When a claim is made that these men would have been compelled to adopt the “new data”, those that make such claims are  implicitly recognizing that the view of the Reformed was different then their own.  

If one truly wanted to support the claim that the Reformed would have adopted the modern critical text, one would have to demonstrate the Textual Methodology of the Reformers and framers of the confessions to be coherent with the Textual Methodology of the Modern Critical Methods. Simply calling the perspectives of the Confessional Text position “anachronistic” and “mythical” does not meet any sort of scholarly, or even popular level burden of proof. It should also be stated that one’s wielding of a particular volume (librum usque tenere)  is not an actual argument. If a book proves, or supports a claim that one is making, that person must demonstrate how a particular volume proves or supports that claim.   

As demonstrated above, Beza’s work was rejected by the Papists, and accepted by the Calvinists. He believed that text-critical work should be done within the context of the believing church, and that the reception of a reading by the church a valid component of text-critical methodology. He also believed in a definitive text, one that could be considered authoritative for use by the people of God, even applying this certainty to the very translations the church used. That means that Beza, along with the Reformed, held different views on Textual Methodology, Text Platform, and Translation than in the modern view.

The amount of data is overwhelming that the historic view of the Holy Scriptures is completely at odds with the modern view. It is fine if one wishes to disagree with that view, but it simply does not hold that the Modern Critical Text is coherent with the views of the Reformed in the 16th and 17th centuries. During that time, Erasmus even details two classes of manuscripts, those resembling the Vatican Codex, and those not resembling that of the Vatican Codex. It is interesting how modern scholarship essentially makes the same distinctions. In this regard, Erasmus and Beza were in agreement as to which manuscripts were better. Not only did Beza have certain criteria in his textual methodology that are not present in modern textual scholarship, he rejected the form of the text that is adopted today as “Earliest and Best”.  It does not matter if categories of “Byzantine” and “Alexandrian” did not exist back then, the readings and manuscripts did exist, and it is clear which manuscripts the Reformed favored.

Conclusion

It is apparent that at bare minimum, there is a stark contrast between the historic protestant view of the Holy Scriptures and the Modern Critical view of the Biblical texts. There are certain criteria which must be met in order to support the assertion that the Reformed either 1) adhered to the same view that has been presented in modernity or 2) would adopt the view presented in modernity. None of these criteria have been met by those who make the claim, and I imagine it would be tremendously difficult, even impossible to support such claims, considering the voluminous nature of the writings of the framers of the confessions and their contemporaries on the topic. It is more consistent to simply say that the Reformed were in error and to reject the Reformed view, rather than continuing to make meaningless and empty assertions that the modern critical understanding of the Scriptures is somehow “reformed” or “historic”. 

Yet, these claims will continue to be made, and Christians will continue to repeat these claims that the Reformed view of the Scriptures is somehow anachronistic and mythical. One might assert that the actual Reformed view is mythical, but it does not follow that an accurate understanding of the Reformed doctrine of Scripture is mythical. If one wants to actually be consistent, the logical conclusion is to simply say that the modern critical perspective is not Reformed, because the Reformed were wrong. Never has there been a time in history where Christians were more outspoken on the doctrine of Scripture then during and after the Reformation, when the Scriptures were under attack by the Papacy. There is so much material to interact with, all of it harmonious with the historic Reformed view. It is clear that in order for one to make such claims that the Confessional Text position is “ahistoric” or “anachronistic” or “mythical”, one has to intentionally obfuscate or reinterpret the information presented by the Reformers, Post-Reformation Divines, and framers of the Reformed confessions. There is no shame in disagreeing with a component of historical protestant theology, but the material is too abundant here to deny that the historic view is different than the modern view. If one wants to support such claims, I have conveniently provided the methodology to do so within this article.

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