Today’s church has been flooded with new ideas that depart from the old paths of the Protestant Reformation. This is especially true when it comes to the doctrine of Scripture. It is common place to adhere to the doctrine of inerrancy in today’s conservative circles and beyond. While it is good that many Christians take some sort of stand on Scripture, it is important to investigate whether or not the doctrine of inerrancy is a Protestant doctrine. The Reformers were adamant when talking about the inspiration, authority, and preservation of Scripture that every last word had been kept pure and should be used for doctrine, preaching, and practice. James Ussher says clearly the common sentiment of the Reformed.
“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)
Most Christians would happily affirm this doctrinal statement. Those that are more familiar with the discussion of textual criticism may not, however. It is common to dismiss men like James Ussher along with other Westminster Divines on the grounds that they were not aware of all of the textual data and therefore were speaking from ignorance. Much to the discomfort of these Christians, textual variants did exist during this time, many of which were the same we battle over today. 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 simply because we have “more data”. There is a careful nuance to be observed, and that nuance is in their actual doctrinal articulations of Scripture. This is necessarily the case, considering they were far more aware of textual variants than many would like to admit. Rather than attempting to understand the tension between the Reformed doctrine of Scripture and the existence of textual variants, it is commonplace to reinterpret the past through the lens of A.A. Hodge and B.B. Warfield, who reinterpreted the Westminster Confession of Faith 1.6 to make room for new trends in textual scholarship. William T. Shedd, a professor at Union Theological Seminary in the 19th century and premier systematic theologian articulated the view of Hodge and Warfield well regarding the confessional statement, “Kept pure in all ages”. He writes,
“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 Defense of the Westminster Standards, 142.
While this is close to the Reformed in the 16th and 17th centuries at face value, it still is a departure that ends up being quite significant, especially in light of the direction modern textual criticism has taken in the last ten years. For comparison, Francis Turretin articulates a similar thought in a different way.
Francis Turretin, Institutes of Elenctic Theology, Vol. I, 106.
“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”.
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. Turretin dealt at length with textual corruptions, as did his peers and those that followed after him, such as Puritan Divine John Owen, and still affirmed that the “very words” were available to the church. In order to fit a modern view into the Reformation and Post Reformation theologians, one must anachronistically impose a Warfieldian interpretation of the Westminster Confession onto those that framed it. There is no doubt that the Westminster Divines lived in the same reality of textual variants as Warfield and Hodge, and that they still affirmed a doctrine which said every jot and tittle had been preserved. Turretin and Warfield faced the same dilemma, yet Warfield secluded inspiration to only the autographs, whereas the Reformed included the apographs as well. Rather than attempting to reinterpret the theologians of the past, the goal should be to understand their doctrine as it existed during the 16th and 17th centuries, where the conversation of textual variants was just as alive as it is today.
A Careful Nuance
In order to examine the difference between the doctrine of Scripture from the Reformation to today, 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. I will appeal to David Naselli’s explanation from his textbook, How to Understand and Apply the New Testament, which has received high praise from nearly every major seminary.
“The Bible’s inerrancy does not mean that copies of the original writings or translations of those copies are inerrant. Copies and translations are inerrant only to the extent that they accurately represent the original writings.”David Naseli. How to Understand and Apply the New Testament. 43.
This statement is generally agreeable, if we assume that there is a stable Bible in hand, and a stable set of manuscripts or a printed edition which is viewed as “original.” Unfortunately, neither of these exist in the world of the modern critical text. Not only do we not have the original manuscripts, there is no finished product that could be compared to the original. Since the effort of reconstructing the Initial Text is still ongoing, and since we do not have the original manuscripts, this doctrinal statement made by Naselli does not articulate a meaningful doctrine of inspiration or preservation. In stating what appears to be a solid doctrinal statement, he has said nothing at all. In order for this doctrine to have 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. In order for any doctrine of Scripture to make sense, the Scriptures could not have fallen away after the originals were destroyed or lost. Doctrinally speaking, the articulation of the doctrine of Scripture demonstrated by Turretin and his contemporaries is necessary because it affirms that God providentially preserved the Scriptures in time and that they had access to those very Scriptures. 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 sound, but there is no modern critical text that exists as a solid ands table object. 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. If we are to say that the Bible is inerrant in so far as it represents the original, there must be a 1) a stable text and 2) an original to compare that text against. Due to neither 1 or 2 being true, Naselli, along with everybody that agrees with him, have effectively set forth a meaningless doctrinal standard as it pertains to Scripture.
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. The text they had in hand was what is now called the Received Text. Whether it was simply a “default” text does not change the reality that it was the text these men of God had in their hands. It is abundantly clear that the doctrine of Scripture during the time of the Reformation and Post-Reformation was built on the TR, just like the modern doctrine of Scripture is built on the modern critical text and the assumptions used to create it. Further problems arise with the modern doctrine of Scripture when the effort of textual scholarship shifted 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. The concept of the “original” has moved from the sight of the editorial teams of Greek New Testaments, therefore it is necessary to conclude that such doctrinal statements which rely on outdated goals to find the “original” must also be redefined. What this means practically is that there are not any doctrinal statements that exist in the modern church which align with the doctrines used to produce modern Bibles.
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. If we take Naselli’s articulation of the doctrine of Scripture as true, this means that there is not one inerrant text of Holy Scripture, there are as many as there are Christians that read their Bible. 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 relative to crowd consensus, or perhaps at the individual level. 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 person making those decisions. 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 at least two ways. The first is that by “original”, the post-Warfield doctrine means the autographs which no longer exist and excludes the apographs. The second is that the Bible is only authoritative insofar as it has been judged authoritative by some standard or another. This combination contradicts any doctrine that would have the Scriptures be a stable rule for faith and practice. It is because of these differences that it can be safely said that while the doctrinal articulations may sound similar, they are not remotely the same.
The Reformed doctrine of Scripture in the 16th and 17th centuries is founded upon two principles that are 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. Therefore it seems necessary to understand the Reformation and Post-Reformation Divines through a different lens than the modern perspective, because the two camps are saying entirely different things. A greater effort should be made to understand what exactly the Reformed meant by “Every word and letter” in relationship to the text they had in hand, rather than impose the modern doctrine upon the Reformation and Post-Reformation divines.
The goal of this conversation should be to instill confidence in people that the Bible they are reading is indeed God’s inspired Word. Often times it is more about winning debates and being right than actually given confidence to Christians that what they have in their hands can be trusted. It is counter productive for Christians to continue to fight over textual variants in the way that they do, especially considering the paper thin modern articulations of the doctrine of Scripture. 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, which is exactly what happens when somebody takes the time to actually explain the nuances of modern textual criticism. These attacks are especially harmful when the Bible that is attacked is the one that the Protestant religion was founded upon, and the only text that carries with it a meaningful doctrine of Scripture. Christians need to consider very carefully the claims that are made about the Reformation era text which say it is not God’s Word, or 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 if “no doctrines are effected”. The alternative, which has been a work in progress since before 1881, and is still a work in progress today, offers no assurance that Christians are actually reading the Bible. In making the case that the Received text and translations made from it should not be used, critics have taken one Bible away and replaced it with nothing but uncertainty.
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. Further, it is difficult to comprehend how a Bible that is said to accomplish the same purpose as modern bibles would be so viscously attacked by those that oppose it. If all solid translations accomplish the same redemptive purpose, according to the modern critical doctrine, why would it make any sense to attack 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 the two doctrinal positions are compared, there is not a strong appeal to the axioms of Westcott and Hort, or Metzger, or even the CBGM. They are all founded on the vacuous doctrine of Scripture which requires that the current text be validated against the original, which cannot be done. There is no theological or practical value in constantly changing the words printed in our Bibles, and this practice is in fact detrimental to any meaningful articulation of what Scripture is. 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.
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 something that a conservative Christian would seriously consider. If Christians desire a meaningful doctrine of Scripture, the modern critical text and its axioms are incapable of producing it.