It is easy to look at the textual discussion from afar and fail to see the relevance. If this is just about a few textual variants and the difference between “thee” and “you”, what is even the point? I want to zoom out for a second, away from all of the text-critical jargon, and make application to the heart of the issue. At its very foundation, the Protestant faith is founded upon the belief that God has spoken and acted in time. There are two realities that testify to this fact – that people believe that a man named Jesus Christ lived, died, and rose again two thousand years after the fact, and the Holy Scriptures. While the reality of a Christian church is an important reality to note, without the Holy Scriptures, Christianity was just a cultural phenomenon that got way out of hand.The Scriptures provide the foundation, the purpose, and the reality that the Triune God has spoken and acted in the specific way He did. When the Scriptures are undermined, popular mythology and false narratives run wild, as we have seen in the modern period with Walter Bauer, Bart Erhman, and Robert Price, and Richard Carrier.
Even more pertinent to this discussion than the opinions of apostate men and atheists is how the undermining of God’s Word has affected the believing church. It is important to recognize that a low view of the Scriptures has given permission for the unbeliever to stand over God’s Word in judgement, and it is even more important to recognize how this has impacted the people that the Bible was given to – God’s covenant people. The Bible expresses very clearly that “all Scripture is given by inspiration of God” and is given to the people of God for the purpose of making men wise unto salvation and “that the man of God may be perfect, throughly furnished unto all good works” (2 Tim. 3:15-16). When the people of God do not trust that “all Scripture” is powerful to do this, the church deteriorates and adds its own standards into the traditions and practices of the Christian religion. Personal words of knowledge are given more credence than the Scriptures, new perspectives on Paul’s theology are taught in seminaries, and the critical theory of James Cone is paraded through the seminary and academy. While it is disheartening to see the antagonistic efforts of secular scholars as they tinker with the Bible, it should be even more disheartening that the majority of the Christian church simply does not trust every word of God. This kind of distrust in God’s Word is prolific, and is made apparent in the fact that even seminaries are training men not to build doctrinal statements upon contested passages or verses that contain unique vocabulary.
The Inconsistency of the Modern Hermeneutic
The modern interpretation of 2 Timothy 3:16 is that all Scripture is profitable, unless it contains a variant, or it contains unique vocabulary. This is fundamentally a skeptical perspective on the Word of God, and it has had great consequences in the church. Christians are commanded to approach the Bible with faith (John 10:27), not apprehension. Further, this kind of perspective is completely in opposition to historic orthodox protestant belief, who built entire doctrines on contested passages and unique vocabulary. They felt confident and even obligated to do so because they truly believed in God’s Word as sufficient and authoritative. To demonstrate this fact, the Reformed doctrine of Scripture, inspiration, is founded on a word that Paul probably made up, and only occurs once in the Bible – θεόπνευστος (Inspired, God breathed). A brief survey of the Reformed confessions reveals a multitude of verses that are actually removed from modern Bibles, or delegated to brackets and footnotes. This speaks to a more foundational problem within the Christian church today.
The people of God believe, in opposition to the historic view of the Scriptures, that the authority of God’s Word rests in the subject, not the object. In other words, God’s Word is only authoritative in so far as a person declares it to be authoritative. When a Christian declares that doctrine should not be built upon a contested passage, they are implicitly accepting that they get to determine what is authoritative in Scripture. In adopting this hermeneutic principle, the Christian has lost all right to contest the various heterodox interpretations of Scripture that have inundated the church. The Christian has no contest with Richard Carrier, Bart Ehrman, or Robert Price, because they are simply employing the same interpretive principle as the Christian who only wants to build doctrine on non-contested passages. The only difference is the scope and origin of passages which are considered contested. Underneath the differences is the same exact principle. Since the authority of the Bible has been shifted from the object to the subject, and the subject is not omniscient, it is impossible to make a meaningful claim about the object that doesn’t amount to a personal opinion.
The Bible explicitly condemns this kind of hermeneutic in 2 Peter 1:20-21, “Knowing this first, that no prophecy of the scripture is of any private interpretation. For the prophecy came not in old time by the will of man: but holy men of God spake as they were moved by the Holy Ghost.” This passage vests the authority of the Scriptures in the movements of the Holy Ghost, in the Scriptures themselves. Those same Scriptures declare that “all Scripture” has been inspired by God, and should be used in all matters of faith and practice. If a Christian wishes to contest, let’s just say, the claim that David raped Bathsheba, they must first assume that there is indeed a correct interpretation, and the proper meaning of that passage is not dependent upon the subject. Any and all refutations of this strange understanding of David and Bathsheba are presupposing the objective authority of the Word of God. So while one can say that since that passage is lacking any meaningful variants and thus true interpretation can be done, the foundational hermeneutic principle assumes the authority of a different hermeneutic principle.
The Greatest Inconsistency of the Modern Church
Herein lies the greatest inconsistency in the modern church, and the reason that heterodoxy has become orthodoxy in the modern period. The modern doctrine of Scripture does not recognize the self-authenticating, objective authority of the Word of God. Certain people may give lip service to an authoritative standard in the Scriptures, but the actual theology underneath it cannot provide the kind of authority that is being claimed. In the modern view of Scripture, the Word of God is only considered authoritative in so far as the subject can determine that it is authoritative. In doing this, the Christian church has actually given allowance to not only the unbeliever, but also the believer to impose their subjective authority upon the text. If you have ever heard somebody say, “Well I just interpret that differently”, you have experienced the fruit of this modern perspective. The Word of God is demonstrably not the final authority, the principia, of the people of God in the vast majority of churches today.
Those that consider themselves Reformed might be nodding their heads and saying “amen!”, but the chances are extremely high that you, as a Reformed believer, are guilty of the same exact thing as the unbeliever and liberal mainstream evangelical. If this is your hermeneutic standard, it is more than likely that the only thing keeping you from heading the direction of the rest of the church is the tradition you hold to, which then becomes your ultimate standard. Praise God for the faithful men who came before us and established such traditions.
Before explaining this, I want to reemphasize the two opposite views on the Holy Scriptures. The first is that the Word of God is self-authenticating (αὐτόπιστος). The Word of God is authoritative in itself, because it is the product of God speaking in time (Deus dixit). God, in His singular care and providence, kept the Scriptures pure in all ages. The object which is Scripture, stands over the subject, the human, as a judge, because God has spoken. This is the foundation that one appeals to when they claim that the Scriptures are the principia for all truth claims and so on. The Scripture does not become Scripture based on the evaluation of an individual, the Scriptures are the Scriptures regardless of what the subject thinks.
The second view is that the Word of God is authoritative insofar as the subject judges it to be authoritative. God has spoken, but the subject must determine what it is that God has spoken by way of higher and lower criticism. There is no consistent standard that can be applied to authenticate God’s Word, no ultimate standard, so the Bible only really exists subjectively. Not only are translations of God’s Word different, two people reading the same version of God’s Word experience differing levels of authority depending on how much authority the subject has vested in it. Even in the most conservative circles of protestant Christianity, believers only accept the Bible as authoritative in so far as the evidence and opinions of scholars declare it to be trustworthy. In this view it is perfectly acceptable to determine that Luke 23:34 is not God’s Word, or is God’s Word, as the authority of that passage is dependent upon the judgement of the individual. The object, the Scriptures, only have authority in so far as the subject, the human, has approved of its authority. Any one passage of Scripture is not authoritative in itself, it becomes authoritative based on subjective evaluation. There may be a great number of passages that are given authority without much contest based on some external standard, but there is nothing within this methodology that prevents even the least contested passages from being called into question (See Ehrman, Price, Carrier). A passage like John 3:16 is just as safe as any other contested passage, because John 3:16 is only given authority by virtue of the subject.
The Practical Difference Between the Two Views
The obvious practical difference between the two views is that one is truly consistent in saying that the Scriptures are the principia, and the other is not. Many Christians insert a false dilemma into the conversation by asserting that any and all text-critical work invalidates the self-authenticating nature of the Scriptures, or that no text-critical efforts invalidate the self-authenticating nature of the Scriptures. This is due to a poor evaluation of different text-critical standards. All throughout time Christians have been used by God as a means of ensuring that the authoritative Word of God is preserved through copying of manuscripts, collating and editing those manuscripts into printed editions, and translating those editions into every common language. The important question to ask then, is “How did God manage to accomplish the preservation of the Scriptures without allowing for the subjective opinions of man to soil its authority?” It is not the correct understanding to say that all text-critical efforts are equal and to then reject the self-authenticating nature of the Scriptures because “text-criticism” has been done. It is in this dilemma that many are swayed to unfaithful understandings of the text of Holy Scripture. They say that since text-criticism has been done, the Bible needs to be given authority by text-critical efforts, therefore the Bible must be authoritative by virtue of those text-critical efforts.
Yet all text-critical efforts are not equal, and any text-critical methodology that assumes that the Bible is given authority by virtue of a text-critical effort is an unfaithful effort at the start. In the modern period, these efforts have been driven by the theology that God’s Word is not authoritative in itself, it becomes authoritative by virtue of some external process. As a result, the doctrine of Scripture has evolved and adapted to the theology of modern textual scholarship. The neo-orthodox say that the Word of God becomes Scripture when the believer experiences it by the power of the Holy Spirit, and those that advocate for the modern critical text say that the Word of God becomes Scripture when a scholar or individual evaluates it highly enough. That is the bedrock for the canon-within-a-canon model,introduced first by Kurt Aland, which says that the books of the Bible may be set in stone, but the readings within those books are not.
In order for Christians to be consistent in claiming that the Word of God is truly authoritative, they must reject all methods that require constant, ongoing, everchanging standards to evaluate the authenticity of various Biblical texts. It is inconsistent to say that a text could be authoritative today, but not tomorrow. This is exactly the argument that is made when one denies Luke 23:38 or Mark 16:9-20. The authenticity of a passage is liable to change based on the popular opinions of those judging the text. In order to continue supporting such a view, a serious effort to conflate the methods of text-criticism throughout time with the modern methods is required. In doing so, one must first deny the reality that historical text-critical efforts stand at odds with the modern methods, and secondly deny that God’s Word has ever been authoritative in itself. That is to say, that the Word of God has always been authoritative by virtue of something else. There is no problem in this view with rejecting the Reformation era text, as that text platform was authoritative for a time, but is no longer authoritative in the modern period. All meaningful apologetics are completely forfeited by adopting this view. All fundamental truth claims based on the Word of God are given up. In an attempt to justify the modern effort, the whole authority of the Scriptures has been surrendered.
The textual discussion is far more important than discussing which variants are correct or whether or it is allowable for a Reformed Christian to adopt the modern critical text or the TR. At the core of this conversation is a battle for the authority of God’s Word. Is the Word of God self-authenticating, as the Reformed believed, or is it only authoritative by virtue of some other process, as the modern eclectic view posits? If it is the case that the Scriptures are only authoritative by virtue of some external method, which method is best? Which standard does the church trust to give authority to the Scriptures? The popular opinion today is split between Münster, Cambridge, and various scholars and apologists. The modern view of Scripture does not allow for any one person to have a Bible. Everybody has a different Bible depending on the authority they trust. The number of bibles is infinite, and the massive amount of confusion in the Christian church today is evidence of that. In using the modern standard of subjective authentication of God’s Word, Christians are essentially guaranteeing that the Church will continue to evolve and conform to the world as time passes.