The Reformers were adamant when talking about the authority and preservation of Scripture that every last word had been kept pure and should be used for doctrine, preaching, and practice.
“The marvelous preservation of the Scriptures; though none in time be so ancient, nor none so much oppugned, yet God hath still by his providence preserved them, and every part of them” (James Ussher, A Body of Divinity).
This of course has introduced a serious point of conflict for some, because this quotation by the Westminster Divine James Ussher was written in a context where textual variants existed. The same can be said for all of the Reformers and Post-Reformation Divines who spoke in accord with the statement above. The conclusion that should be drawn from this reality is not that the Reformed in the 16th and 17th centuries would have agreed with modern expressions of inspiration and preservation. There is a careful nuance to be observed. Due to the modern articulation of the doctrine of inspiration, which was introduced at Princeton with A.A. Hodge and B.B. Warfield, a modern understanding is often imposed upon the Reformed in the 16th and 17th centuries. William T. Shedd, professor at Union Theological Seminary in the 19th century and premier systematician articulated the view of Hodge and Warfield well regarding the confessional statement, “Kept pure in all ages”.
“This latter process is not supernatural and preclusive of all error, but providential and natural and allowing of some error. But this substantial reproduction, this relative ‘purity’ of the original text as copied, is sufficient for the Divine purposes in carrying forward the work of redemption in the world” (William G. T. Shedd, Calvinism: Pure and Mixed. A Defence of the Westminster Standards, 142).
While this is close enough to the Reformed in the 16th and 17th centuries, it still is a slight departure. Francis Turretin articulates a similar thought in a different way.
“By the original texts, we do not mean the autographs written by the hand of Moses, of the prophets and of the apostles, which certainly do not now exist. We mean their apographs which are so called because they set forth to us the word of God in the very words of those who wrote under the immediate inspiration of the Holy Spirit” (Francis Turretin, Institutes of Elenctic Theology, Vol. I, 106).
It is plainly evident that the two articulations of the same concept are not exactly the same. That is to say, that Turretin’s expression of the doctrine was slightly more conservative than Shedd. The difference being that the apographs, as Turretin understood them, were materially as perfect as the Divine Original. Yet, it is evident that Turretin dealt at length with textual corruptions, as did his peers and those that followed after him, such as Puritan Divine John Owen. I will caution my reader to avoid hastily jumping to the conclusion that this must mean the same thing is being expressed. In order to do so, one must anachronistically impose a Warfieldian interpretation of the Westminster Confession onto those that framed it. It is evident that the Westminster Divines held the same reality of variants in tension as Warfield and Hodge, and that they still affirmed a doctrine which said every jot and tittle had been preserved. In short, Turretin and Warfield faced the same dilemma, yet Warfield secluded inspiration to only the autographs.
A Careful Nuance
In order to examine the scope of the whole picture, it’s important to zoom out and see how Warfield’s doctrine developed into the 21st century. The Doctrine of Inspiration, as it is articulated today, only extends to the autographic writings of the New Testament. See David Naselli’s explanation from his textbook, How to Understand and Apply the New Testament.
“The Bible’s inerrancy does not mean that copies of the original writings or translations of those copies are inerrant. Copies and translations are innerant only to the extent that they accurately represent the original writings” (43).
This statement could be effectively the same as Turretin’s above, but there is a different concept of the “original writings” in New Testament scholarship. Since the effort of reconstructing the Initial Text is still ongoing, this doctrinal statement made by Naselli does not articulate a meaningful doctrine of inspiration or preservation. In order for this doctrine to have a significant meaning, a text that “represents the original writings” would need to be produced. That is why the Reformed in the 16th and 17th centuries were so adamant about their confidence in having the original in hand. Doctrinally speaking, the articulation of the doctrine of Scripture demonstrated by Turretin and his contemporaries is necessary. If the modern critical text claimed to be a definitive text, like the Reformed claimed to have, the modern articulation of the doctrine of Scripture might be substantially the same. It is clear that the doctrine of Scripture, and the form of the Scriptures, cannot be separated or the meaning of that doctrine is lost. In order for doctrine to be built on a text, the text must be static.
This means that the Reformed doctrine of Scripture is intimately tied to the text they considered to be authentic, inspired, and representative of the Divine Original. Since the modern church has by and large adopted the kaleidoscopic modern critical text, the logical conclusion is the doctrine of inspiration and preservation must match the nature of the text it is describing – “only to the extent that they accurately represent the original writings”. Further problems are introduced by the shift in the effort of textual scholarship from trying to find the original text to the initial text. Due to this shift, any articulation of Scripture which looks to the modern critical text is based on a concept that does not necessarily exist in modern textual scholarship. Since the concept of the “original” has moved from the sight of the editorial teams of Greek New Testaments, I think it necessary to conclude that such doctrinal statements which rely on outdated goals to find the “original” must also be redefined.
Due to the doctrine of Scripture being intimately tied to the nature of the text it is describing, the various passages of the New Testament which have been considered inspired have changed throughout time, and are going to continue changing as the conclusions of scholars vary from year to year. So in a very real sense, according to the modern articulation of inspiration, the inspired text of the New Testament is not a stable rule of faith. It is only stable in so far as crowd consensus, or some other standard, deems it stable. A countless multitude of people who adhere to this doctrine of inspiration make individual rulings on Scripture, which effectively means that the Bible is given its authority by virtue of the subject. Thus, the number of Bibles which may be considered “original” is as numerous as the amount of people reading Bibles. It is due to this reality that the modern doctrine of Scripture has departed from the Reformation era doctrine in two ways. The first is that by “original”, the post-Warfield doctrine means the autographs which no longer exist. The second is that the Bible is only authoritative insofar as it has been judged authoritative by some standard or another. This is clearly the case in both practice and reality. It is because of these differences that it can be safely said that while the doctrinal articulations are similar, they are not the same.
The Reformed doctrine of Scripture in the 16th and 17th centuries is founded upon two principles that are in essence different than that in the post-Warfield era. The first principle of the Reformed is that the Scriptures are self-authenticating, and the second is that they considered the original to also be represented and preserved in the text they had in hand. I have demonstrated that in practice and reality, neither of these foundations are present in the modern articulation of the doctrine of Scripture. Therefore it seems necessary to understand the Reformation and Post-Reformation Divines through a different lens than the modern perspective. A greater effort should be made to understand what exactly the Reformed meant by “Every word and letter” without jumping to the conclusions of modern textual scholarship.
The goal of this conversation should be to instill confidence in people that the Bible they are reading is indeed God’s inspired Word. The foundation of the Christian religion is that God has spoken, and in these last days, has done so in the Holy Scriptures. It is of benefit to nobody for Christians to continue to fight over textual variants in the way that they do. It is stated by some that receiving the Reformation Era Bible is “dangerous”, yet I think what is more dangerous is to convince somebody that they should not trust this Bible. These attacks are especially harmful when the Bible that is attacked is the one that the Protestant religion was founded upon. Christians need to consider very carefully the claims that are made about the Reformation era text which say it is not God’s Word, and that it is even dangerous to use. I cannot emphasize enough the harm this argument has done to the Christian religion as a whole. The constant effort to “disprove” the Reformation era text is a strange effort indeed. Especially considering the nature of the alternative, which has been a work in progress since before 1881, and is still a work in progress today. In making the case that the Received text and Bibles made from it should not be used, critics have taken one Bible away and replaced it with a Bible that has spent its years in use changing drastically. Further, the shifting nature of this new Bible is guaranteed to change more in the upcoming years.
The claim made by advocates of the Received text is simple, and certainly not dangerous. The manuscripts that the Reformed had in the 16th century were as they claimed – of great antiquity and highest quality. The work done in that time resulted in a finished product, which continued to be used for hundreds of years after. That Bible in its various translations quite literally changed the world. If the Bible of the 16-18th centuries is so bad, I cannot understand why people who believe it to be a gross corruption of God’s Word still continue to read the theological works of those who used it. After spending 10 years reading modern Bibles, I simply do not see the validity to the claim that the Reformation era text is “dangerous” in any way. Christians do not need to “beware” of the text used by the beloved theologians of the past. At the end of the day, I think it is profitable for Christians to know that traditional Bibles are not scary, and have been used for centuries to produce the fullest expression of Christian doctrine in the history of the world. When this is considered, I simply do not see the appeal to the axioms of Westcott and Hort and the CBGM. I do not see the value in constantly stripping down Scripture and pulling each line from its established place in the canon for examination and in many places, removal. I have not once talked to anybody who has been given more confidence in the Word of God by this practice. In fact, the opposite is true in every real life encounter I’ve had. I have said this before and I will say this again, this is not initially about the TR or the KJV, it is about the methods that are being used to approach the text.
It is said that the Received Text position is “pious” and “sanctimonious”, but I just don’t see how a changing Bible, with changing doctrines, is even compatible with Warfieldian views of inspiration. It is time that Christians put aside the pejoratives and debate tactics, and really consider what is being discussed here.