Memoirs of an ESV-Onlyist: Reflecting on the Text and Canon Conference

Introduction

On Reformation weekend, a small conference was held in Atlanta, Georgia called The Text and Canon Conference which focused on offering a clear definition of what it means when people advocate for the Masoretic Hebrew and Received Greek text. For those that are not up to date with all of the jargon, the Masoretic Hebrew text is the only full Hebrew Old Testament text available, and the Greek Received Text is the Greek New Testament which was used during the Protestant Reformation and Post-Reformation period. At the time of the Reformation, the Bibles used the Masoretic Text and Received Text for all translational efforts. Bibles produced in the modern era use the Masoretic Text as a foundation for the Old Testament, but frequently use Greek, Latin, and other translations of the Hebrew over the Masoretic text. Modern Bibles also utilize a different Greek text for the New Testament which is commonly called the Modern Critical Text. As a result of these differences, the Bibles produced from the text of the Reformation are different in many ways from the Bibles produced during the recent years.  

One of the major focuses of the conference was to demonstrate that it is still a good idea, and even necessary, to use a Reformation era Bible, or Bibles that utilize the same Hebrew and Greek texts as the Reformation era Bibles. The key speakers, Dr. Jeff Riddle and Pastor Robert Truelove, delivered a series of lectures which demonstrated the historical perspective on the transmission history of the Old and New Testaments and presented a wealth of reasons why the Reformation era Hebrew and Greek texts are still reliable, even today. I will be writing a series of articles which cover some of the key highlights of the conference. In this article, I want to explain why I think this conference was necessary, and also to detail the series of events which led me to attending this conference. 

Why Was the Text and Canon Conference Necessary?  

There are two major reasons that I believe the Text and Canon conference was necessary. The first is that many Christians do not believe that there is any justifiable reason to retain the historical text of the Protestant church. The second is that many Christians are not fully informed on the state of current text critical efforts. Due to this reality, lectures delivered at the Text and Canon conference provided theological and historical reasons which supported the continued use of the Reformation era Hebrew and Greek texts, as well as offered information on the current effort of textual scholarship. An important reality in the textual discussion is that the majority of Christians do not have the time and in many cases, the ability to keep up to date with all of the textual variants and text-critical methodologies that go into making modern Bibles. There is a great need in the church today for clear articulations of the history of the Bible, as well as accessible presentations on how modern Bibles are produced. The Text and Canon conference, in part, met this need, as well as offered many opportunities for fellowship and like-minded conversation. Prior to launching into a series of commentary on the conference, I thought it would be helpful to share my journey from being a modern critical text advocate to a Traditional Text advocate. 

From the 2016 ESV to the Text and Canon Conference

Prior to switching to a Reformation era Bible, I began to discover certain realities about the modern efforts of textual criticism which caused me to have serious doubts as to whether or not the Bible was preserved. I had a hard time reconciling my doctrine of inspiration and preservation with the fact that there is an ongoing effort to reconstruct the Bible that has been in progress for over 200 years. These doubts increased when I discovered that not only had the methods of text-criticism changed since I was converted to Christianity over ten years ago, but that the modern critical text would be changing more in the next ten years. I began to read anything I could get my hands on to see if I could figure out more information on the methods that were responsible for creating the Bible I was reading at the time. When I began this process of investigation, I had just finished my cover-to-cover reading plan of the new 2016 ESV. At first, I was attempting to simply understand the methodology of the modern critical text with the assumption that a better understanding of it would help me defend the Scriptures against the opponents of the faith. The process quickly became a search for another position on the text of Scripture. This is due to some of the more alarming things I learned in my investigation of modern critical methods. There are six significant discoveries I made when investigating the current effort of textual criticism that I would like to share here. These six discoveries led me from being a committed ESV reader to a committed KJV reader.  

The first discovery that sent me down a different path than the modern critical text was when I investigated the manuscript data supporting the removal of Mark 16:9-20 in my 2016 ESV. The other pastor of Agros Church, Dane Johannsson, had called me to tell me about some information he learned about the Longer Ending of Mark after listening to an episode of Word Magazine, produced by Dr. Jeff Riddle. Up to this point, I had heard many pastors that I trusted say that the manuscript data was heavily in favor of this passage not being original. My Bible even said that “Some of the earliest manuscripts do not include this passage”. I was seriously confused when I found out that only three of the thousands of manuscripts excluded the passage, and only two of them are dated before the fifth century. This made me wonder, if all it took was two early manuscripts to discredit the validity of a passage in Scripture, what would happen if more manuscripts were found that did not have other passages that I had prayed over, studied, and heard preached? If a passage that had thousands of manuscripts supporting it could be delegated to brackets, footnotes, or removed based on the testimony of two manuscripts, I realized that this same logic could be easily applied to quite literally any place in my Bible. All that it would take for other passages to be removed would be another manuscript discovery, or even a reevaluation of the evidence already in hand.  

The second discovery was the one that fully convinced me to put away my 2016 ESV and initially, pick up an NKJV. At the time of this exploration process I was utilizing my Nestle-Aland 28th edition and the United Bible Society 5th edition in my Greek studies. I was still learning to use my apparatus when I learned what the diamond meant. In the prefatory material of the NA28, it states that the diamond indicates a place where the editors of the Editio Critica Maior (ECM) were split in determining which textual variant was earliest. That meant that it was up to me, or possibly somebody else,  to determine which reading belonged in the main text. This is a reality that I would have never known by simply reading my ESV. I discovered that there were places where the ESV translators had actually gone with a different decision than the ECM editors, like 2 Peter 3:10, where the critical text reads the exact opposite of the ESV. This of course was concerning, but I wasn’t exactly sure why at the time. I figured there had to be a good reason for this, there were thousands of manuscripts, after all. I began investigating the methodology that was used to produce these diamond readings, and learned that it was called the Coherence Based Genealogical Method (CBGM). I quickly found out that there was not a whole lot of literature on the topic. The two books that I initially found were priced at $34 and $127, which was a bit staggering for me at the time. It was important for me to understand these methods, so I ended up at first purchasing the $34 book. It was what I discovered in this book that heavily concerned me. Due to the literature on the CBGM being relatively new, and possibly too expensive for the average person to purchase, I had a hard time finding anybody to discuss the book with me. It was actually the literature on the CBGM that motivated me to start podcasting and writing on the issue. If I couldn’t find anybody to discuss this with, it meant that nobody really knew about it.   

The third discovery was the one that convinced me that I should start writing more about, and even advocating against, this new methodology. This was the methodology that was being employed in creating the Bible translations that all of my friends were reading, and that I was reading up until switching to the NKJV. It’s not that I “had it out” for modern Bibles, I figured that if these discoveries had caused so much turmoil in my faith, they would cause others to have similar struggles. Most of my friends knew nothing about the CBGM, just that they had heard it was a computer program that was going to produce a very accurate, even original, Bible. After reading the introductory work on the method, I knew that what I heard about the CBGM was perhaps too precipitated. Based on my conversations with my friends on textual criticism, I knew that my friends were just as uninformed as I was on the current effort of textual scholarship. It wasn’t that I thought I was the first person to discover these things that motivated me to start writing,  but the fact that myself and all of my friends were not aware of any of the information I was reading. Up to that point in my research, I was under the assumption that the goal of textual criticism was to reconstruct the original text that the prophets and apostles had penned. I even thought that scholars believed they had produced that original text which I was reading in English in my ESV. I found out that this was not the case for the current effort of textual scholarship. I learned that the goal of textual criticism had, at some point in the last ten years, shifted from the pursuit of the original to what is called the Initial Text. In my studies, I realized that there were differing opinions on how the Initial Text should be defined, and even if there was one Initial Text. In all cases, however, the goal was different than what I thought. It did not take me long to realize the theological implications of this shift in effort. At the time, I fully adhered to both the London Baptist Confession of Faith 1.8, as well as the Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy. It was in examining the Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy against the stated goals of the newest effort of textual criticism that made me realize there were severe theological implications to what I was reading and studying.  

The fourth discovery was the one that made me realize that the conversation of textual criticism was not only about Greek texts and translations, it was about the doctrine of Scripture itself. At the time I believed that the Bible was inspired insofar as it represented the original, and the original, as I found out, was no longer being pursued. The original was no longer being pursued, I learned, because the majority, if not all of the scholars, believed it could not be found, and that it was lost as soon as the first copy of the New Testament had been made. There are various ways of articulating this reality, but I could not find a single New Testament scholar who was actually doing work in the field of textual scholarship who still held onto the idea that the original, in the sense that I was defining it, could be attained. Even Holger Strutwolf, a conservative editor of the Modern Critical Text, seems to define the original as being as “far back to the roots as possible” (Original Text and Textual History, 41). This being the case, if the current effort of textual criticism was not claiming to have determined the original readings of the Bible, than my doctrine of Scripture was seemingly vacuous. If the Bible was inspired insofar as it represented the original, and there was nobody able to determine which texts were original, my view of the Bible was that it wasn’t inspired at all. At the bare minimum, it was only inspired where there weren’t serious variants. In either case, this reality was impossible for me to reconcile. I then sought out to discover how the Christians who were informed on all the happenings of textual criticism explained the doctrine of Scripture in light of this reality. I figured I wasn’t the first person to discover this about the modern text-critical effort, so somebody had to have a good doctrinal explanation. 

The fifth discovery was the one that made me realize that I did not have a claim to an inspired text, if I trusted in the efforts of modern textual criticism. In my search for faithful explanations of inspiration in light of the current effort of textual criticism, I did not find anything meaningful. In nearly every case, the answer was simply one of Kantian faith. Despite the split readings in the ECM and the abandoned pursuit of the original, I was told I had to believe it was preserved. Even if nearly every textual scholar was saying that the idea of the “original” was a novel idea from the past, or simply the earliest surviving text, I had to reconcile that reality with my theology. One of the answers I received was that the original text was preserved somewhere in all of the surviving manuscripts, and that there really was not any doctrine lost, no matter which textual variants were translated. This is based, in part, on an outdated theory which says that variants are “tenacious” – that once a variant enters the manuscript tradition it doesn’t fall out. This of course cannot be proven, and even can be shown to be false. Another answer I found was that all of the surviving manuscripts essentially taught the same exact thing. This would have been comforting, had I not spent time using my NA28 apparatus and reading different translations. I knew for a fact that there were many places where variants changed doctrine, sometimes in significant ways. Would the earth be burnt up on the last day, or would it not be burnt up? Was Jesus the unique god, or the only begotten Son? The answers I received simply did not line up with reality. I had no way of proving which of the countless variants were original. When I discovered this, I finally understood the position of Bart Ehrman. He, like myself, had come to the conclusion that the theories, methods, and conclusions which went into the construction of the modern critical text told a story of a Bible that really wasn’t all that preserved. 

The sixth and final discovery I made, which did not necessarily happen in chronological order with the rest of my discoveries, was that there were several other views of textual criticism within the Reformed and larger Evangelical tradition. Prior to beginning my research project, I had read The King James Only Controversy, which led me to believe that there were really only two views on the text – KJV Onlyists and everybody else. I discovered that this was the farthest thing from reality and a terrible misrepresentation of the people of God who held to these other positions. The modern critical text was not a monolith, and I did not need to adopt it to defend my faith, or have a Bible. In fact, I knew that there was no way I could defend my faith with the modern critical text. In my research, I even discovered countless enemies of the faith who used the modern critical text as a way to disprove the preservation of Scripture. Various debates against Bart Ehrman that I watched demonstrated this fact clearly. I learned that even within the camp of modern textual criticism, there were people who did not read Bibles translated from the modern critical text. There were even people who disagreed on which readings were earliest within the modern critical text. There were people who adopted the longer ending of Mark and the woman caught in adultery who also did not read the KJV. There were also people who believed that the Bible was preserved in the majority of manuscripts, in opposition to other positions which say that original readings can be preserved in just one or two manuscripts. I also discovered the position I hold to now, which says that the original text of the Bible was preserved up to the Reformation, and thus the translations made during that time represent that transmitted original. This ultimately was the position that made the most sense to me theologically, as well as historically. I realized that the attacks on the TR, which often said that it was only created from “half a dozen” manuscripts, was not exactly meaningful, as the modern critical text often makes textual decisions based on just two manuscripts. In any case, the conversation of textual criticism was much more nuanced and complex than I had believed it to be. 

Conclusion

I can only speak for myself as to how my discoveries affected my faith. It is clear that many Christians do not have a problem with a Greek text that is changing, and in many places, undecided. In my case, I was told to take a Kantian leap of faith to trust in this text. In my experience, most of the time people simply are unaware of the happenings of modern textual scholarship. It is not that I have any special knowledge, or secret wisdom, I simply had the time and energy and opportunity to read a lot of the current literature on the latest methods being employed in creating Bibles. One thing that has motivated me to be so vocal about this issue is the reality that most people simply are uninformed on the issue, like myself at the time of starting my research project. Due to one reason or another, the information on the current methods is difficult to access for many, and even more simply do not know that anything has changed in the last 20 years. My gut tells me that if people were simply informed more on the issue, they might at least consider embarking on a research project like I did. The fact is, that many scholars and apologists for the critical text are insistent on framing this discussion as “KJV Onlyism against the world”, and it is apparent that it has been effective. Despite this, it was not my love for tradition or an affinity for the KJV that led me to reading it. In fact, I was hesitant to read it as a result of all the negative things I had heard about it. Primarily,it was my discoveries regarding the state of modern textual criticism that led me to putting down my ESV and picking up an NKJV, and then finally a KJV. 

I thought it would be helpful to detail my discoveries which led me to the position I hold now on the text of Scripture. I will be writing more articles commenting on what I consider to be the more important points of the conference. Hopefully my commentary can serve to give you, the reader, more confidence in the Scriptures, and to share some of the important information presented at the Text and Canon conference.  

10 thoughts on “Memoirs of an ESV-Onlyist: Reflecting on the Text and Canon Conference

    1. I initially went to the NKJV because I was worried I would have trouble with the early modern English of the KJV. Once I took the time to learn how the “Thee” and “Thou” worked, it was really just a matter of learning some of the older vocab words I didn’t know. The reason I switched was because the translation methodology of the NKJV wasn’t in line with what I wanted – there are places in the Old Testament that translate various versions of the OT (Not the Hebrew), and I considered that to be a problem. There are also places in the New Testament where the translation methodology conforms to the modern methodologies which I think cause the sense of the passage to be changed from the original language. Overall, I considered it important for myself to learn how to read the KJV simply because I appreciated the translation methodology more. Getting through the vocabulary and the syntax is a process if you didn’t grow up with the KJV, but it definitely isn’t as hard as people make it sound.

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  1. 25: VI. There is no other head of the church but the Lord Jesus Christ:[n] nor can the Pope of Rome in any sense, be head thereof; but is that antichrist, that man of sin, and son of perdition, that exalteth himself in the church against Christ, and all that is called God.[o]
    [n] Col. 1:18. Eph. 1:22.
    [o] Matt. 23:8-10. 2 Thess. 2:3,4,8,9. Rev. 13:6.

    As the WCF Confession identifies the Papal Antichrist it is interesting to read the Protestant Geneva Bible notes on 2 Thess 2: 7

    2Th 2:7

    2:7 {6} For the mystery of iniquity doth already work: {7} only he who now {h} letteth [will let], until he be taken out of the way.

    (6) Even in the apostles time the first foundations of the apostolic seat were laid, but yet so that they deceived men.
    (7) He foretells that when the empire of Rome is taken away, the seat that falls away from God will succeed and hold its place, as the old writers, Tertullian, Chrysostom, and Jerome explain and interpret it.
    (h) He who is now in authority and rules all, that is, the Roman Empire.

    … yet then noting verse 7 of the same chapter in the NKJV.

    2 Thessalonians 2:7-8 New King James Version (NKJV)
    7 For the [a]mystery of lawlessness is already at work; only [b]He who now restrains will do so until He is taken out of the way.

    Though ‘he’ is in the footnotes is it true that the General Editor of the NKJV Arthur Farstad was a dispensationalist? One jot or tittle, one pen stroke, one capitalisation of one letter can alter the whole trustworthy Protestant Confessional identity of the present Antichrist! With its footnotes, is the NKJV a modern bridge to the Critical Text for those who have already been almost ‘persuaded’ by certain ‘authorities’ that modern versions are more readable and accurate? Is it really a Protestant translation that follows the integrity of the Geneva and Authorised Version? I have always wondered and been troubled about the rendering ‘He’ and wonder if I am justified.

    The TBS seeks to promote only bibles that are ‘accurate and trustworthy’, ‘Protestant or uncorrupted’, ‘upholding the doctrines of Reformed Christianity’ as their own notes below. Do you think the NKJV is a trustworthy PROTESTANT modern translation? Look forward to your valued opinion thank you.

    • To publish and distribute the Holy Scriptures throughout the world in many languages.
    • To promote Bible translations which are accurate and trustworthy, conforming to the Hebrew Masoretic Text of the Old Testament, and the Greek Textus Receptus of the New Testament, upon which texts the English Authorised Version is based.
    • To be instrumental in bringing light and life, through the Gospel of Christ, to those who are lost in sin and in the darkness of false religion and unbelief.
    • To uphold the doctrines of reformed Christianity, bearing witness to the equal and eternal deity of God the Father, God the Son and God the Holy Spirit, One God in three Persons.
    • To uphold the Bible as the inspired, inerrant Word of God.
    • For the Glory of God and the Increase of His Kingdom through the circulation of Protestant or uncorrupted versions of the Word of God

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    1. I personally use the KJV for the translational issues that the NKJV has – I have seen many people use the NKJV as a mediating Bible while they work towards the KJV. I think the KJV, as you have noted, is the best available Protestant Bible for English speaking people. I used the NKJV for a while until I discovered some areas which I was not happy with. I also try not to disparage people who read the NKJV, but I do encourage people to try and read the KJV. Usually people find that it is not as difficult as they thought it was going be. Thank you for your comment!

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  2. Is there a resource you would recommend that outlines some of the issues you speak of in the NKJV. Just wondering.

    Thanks Taylor
    Joe Ryan

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