Revisiting the Fatal Flaw Argument Against the Traditional Text

Introduction

One of the primary purposes of this blog is to give people confidence that the Bible they read is God’s inspired Word. Attacks on the Bible of the Protestant Reformation often send people into a spiral of doubt and can damage one’s faith in approaching, reading, praying over, and meditating upon the Holy Scriptures. An argument frequently leveled at the Bible of the Protestant Reformation is what may be called The Fatal Flaw Argument. I initially addressed this argument on the Agros Blog a while back, but since that time I have seen it pop up all over my Facebook feed, so I thought it would be helpful to write a more pointed response than the one I initially crafted. The argument is constructed like this:

  1. The Bible must be able to be reconstructed from extant manuscripts in the event that all printed editions of the Scriptures are wiped off the face of the planet in order to be used, read, preached from, etc. 
  2. If a Bible cannot be reproduced exactly by reconstructive methodologies, than it should not be used, read, preached from, etc. 
  3. The Traditional Text, as it exists in the Textus Receptus cannot be reproduced exactly if a reconstruction effort using a “consistent” methodology was employed in the event of a printed edition extinction event, therefore it should not be used, read, preached from, etc. 

This argument may seem appealing, but it actually undermines the validity of essentially every Bible on the market today, including the ESV, NASB, and NIV. The fatal flaw in this so called Fatal Flaw Argument is that there is not a single Bible available today that could be reconstructed exactly if this hypothetical extinction event occurred. The primary assumption of this argument is that there are a set of canons that could be consistently applied to manuscripts which would, in theory, produce the current form of the Greek New Testament. The obvious issue with this is that the Modern Critical Text, as it exists in the Editio Critica Maior, has yet to even produce a text in the first place. It will be finished in ten years or so down the road, and even when finished, it is more of a dataset of texts than a text itself. The onus of the person making this argument is to first demonstrate that they have a text in the first place.

Prior to beginning my analysis of this argument, it is interesting to point out that it assumes the Received Text and the Modern Critical Text are inherently different, which some do not readily admit. This is true in two ways. The first is that it grants in its premise that the methodologies employed by the textual scholars during the Reformation era were fundamentally different than the methodologies employed today. This is apparent in the reality that modern text-critical methods could not produce the text of the Protestant Reformation with its current canons. The second is that grants that the actual text form is inherently different, as the claim is that the Received Text could not be reproduced, while the Modern Critical Text allegedly could. In any case, in order to make this argument, one has to be willing to apply the argument to all texts, not just the Textus Receptus. In the event that this hypothetical extinction event occurs, a new form of the Bible would emerge, even if the same methods are consistently applied. D.C. Parker, the textual scholar leading the ECM team for the Gospel of John currently, says this: 

“The text is changing. Every time that I make an edition of the Greek New Testament, or anybody does, we change the wording. We are maybe trying to get back to the oldest possible form but, paradoxically, we are creating a new one. Every translation is different, every reading is different, and although there’s been a tradition in parts of Protestant Christianity to say there is a definitive single form of the text, the fact is you can never find it. There is never ever a final form of the text.” 

I do not employ this quote to disparage Dr. Parker, but rather to demonstrate the reality that even in today’s current text-critical climate, without an absurd hypothetical extinction event of printed editions, the editors of Greek New Testaments would seem to refute the premise of the argument itself by their own words. This further demonstrates that this argument does not only attack the Textus Receptus, but all Bibles. That being said, I do not think this argument is wise to use, no matter which Bible you read. It is an open invitation to attack the validity and authority of every single Bible on the market for the sake of winning a debate against Christians who read a traditional Bible. This is a good reminder that we should be careful not to attack the authority of the Scriptures in our attempts to defend the current Bible we think is best. That being said, there are three reasons I believe this argument should be abandoned. 

The Fatal Flaw Argument Against the Traditional Text Rejects God’s Providence 

The first reason this argument should be abandoned is that it rejects God’s providence in the transmission, preservation, and inspiration of the Holy Scriptures. The assumption on all sides of this discussion is that when somebody reads a Bible in their native tongue, they are reading God’s inspired Word. This is true for Christians who read the ESV as well as the KJV. If a Christian does not believe that their Bible is inspired, I’m not sure why they are even reading it, as it is simply like any other document produced by humans in history. It may be a valuable book of moral tales, but if the Bible is not inspired, it is not more special than the Iliad or Cicero. 

That being said, this argument assumes that what God has done in time does not matter as it pertains to the transmission of the text and reception of the Bible by the people of God. The only effort that matters is the one that is happening now, which is currently ongoing. In any view of inspiration, whether it be Warfield or Westminster, God’s providence is recognized as the instrument working in the production of Bibles. Warfield believed that the efforts of textual scholars in his day were an act of God’s special providence in giving the Bible back to the people of God. The Westminster Divines affirmed overwhelmingly that by God’s special care and providence, the Scriptures had been kept pure in all ages. 

That means that the Bibles that have been produced matter, because the printed texts are the texts that Christians use for reading, preaching, and evangelism. Even if one believes that a particular Bible is of lesser quality, Christians should find unity in the fact that God uses translations to speak in so far as they represent the original texts. If printed editions and translations do not matter, then all Christians need to quickly learn Hebrew and Aramaic and Greek, as well as gain access to the compendium of extant manuscripts, so they can read a Bible. That means that regardless of the Bible one reads, all Christians believe together that God Himself has delivered it. The Textual Discussion comes down to determining which text God preserved. In proposing this hypothetical, one is simply saying, “It doesn’t matter what God did in time, the only thing that matters is what is going on now.” I don’t know many Christians, let alone any Calvinists, who would ever say that what God did providentially in time does not matter. 

The Fatal Flaw Argument Against the Traditional Text Assumes That All Current Bibles Are Not God’s Word

The fundamental problem with this argument and the second reason it should be abandoned is that it takes away every single Bible from every single believer. If a consistent methodology must be employed to create a single text from the manuscripts, then it seems that nobody has a Bible, or ever will have a Bible. The fact is that different methodologies have been employed since the first effort of creating printed texts in the 16th century. Erasmus employed different methods than Beza, and Beza employed different methods that Hort, and Hort employed different methods than D.C. Parker and the editors of the ECM. Not only that, there are a wealth of different opinions among textual scholars in between, such as Karl Lachmann, Maurice Robinson, H.C. Hoskier, Edward F. Hills, and even among the editors of the ECM there are differences in opinion on the manuscript data. This argument assumes that all of the editors of Greek New Testaments today are unified in their opinions on the text. The reality is, that they are not. 

Further, if a consistent methodology is required, which methodology should be considered the “most consistent”? Which methodology is going to be used in this reconstruction effort after this hypothetical extinction? The CBGM hasn’t been fully implemented and thus hasn’t been fully analyzed. The existence of the CBGM itself demonstrates that Hort and Metzger didn’t have it all right. That is not even taking into consideration the evolution of opinions on scribal habits, “Text Families”, and weighing manuscripts. Did scribes generally copy faithfully or did they tend to smooth out readings and add orthodox doctrines into the text? If all the printed editions were wiped out, I imagine that includes the ECM. Since the ECM is already going to take ten more years to complete, that means that the people of God would simply be without a Bible for at least ten more years. The argument is so incredibly asinine it is hard to believe that people are using it at all. 

The fact is, that all Christians have to look back at history to have confidence in the Bible they read. The current methodology, the CBGM, isn’t fully implemented yet, and won’t be for another ten years. That means that every single Christian is trusting that the text-critical work done already is the method God used in delivering His Word to His people to some degree or another. The difference is in how Christians believe that God accomplished this task. Some believe the Bible was preserved up to the Protestant Reformation, and thus look to the printed texts of that era which have that text form. Some believe that the Bible was preserved in caves, monasteries, and barrels until the 19th century, and look to the printed texts produced in that era. Some even believe differently than either of these two positions. No matter which view of the text one holds, every single Christian looks into history to see God’s providence in their view of the text. Either that or they believe that all the Bibles up to this point aren’t complete or correct Bibles, and are patiently awaiting 2030 when the ECM is finished. In every case, the argument fundamentally assumes that the work done in history does not matter and should not be considered as a valid “methodology”.  

The Fatal Flaw Argument Against the Traditional Text Misleads the People of God 

The final flaw in the Fatal Flaw argument against the Traditional Text and the third reason it should be abandoned is that it is horribly misleading. It makes Christians think that the canons of modern textual criticism are settled and unified. The fact is that scholars are still discussing the proper application of what the CBGM is creating, and how it should be understood. This argument leads people to believe that if all of the ESV Bibles and the printed texts it was translated from were raptured suddenly, that the methods of textual criticism could give them the same exact Bible. Unless somebody has the all of the underlying readings of the ESV memorized, this simply could not be done. Even if somebody were to have all the readings memorized, they wouldn’t be applying any methodology, they would be copying down what they memorized. The reality is that even without a hypothetical extinction of all printed texts, the methods being implemented are not producing the same text time and time again. With each new iteration of the modern methods, new Bibles are being produced. In some cases, these new Bibles have significant changes. That is not my opinion, that is simply what is happening. There is a reason that Crossway removed the title “Permanent Edition” from the prefatory material of the 2016 ESV. 

That is why, in my blog, I focus so heavily on the doctrine of Scripture. The current efforts of textual criticism are not capable of producing a stable text. In fact, a stable or final text is not even the goal. The goal of modern textual criticism as it exists in the effort of the ECM is to construct the history of the surviving texts of the New Testament, not a final authorial text for all time. The only way the modern critical methods could produce a stable text would be to strip out all of the verses that are contested by variation. Even then, new manuscript finds and reevaluation of the data could just as easily cause that text to change. The fact is that every single Christian looks back to history when determining which Bible is best. The one method that every Christian uses to decide which Bible they read is the one method that modern critical methods do not use – the reception of readings by the people of God. Christians will never be able to escape their history, as hard as they may try. In an effort to defend the ongoing effort of modern textual criticism of the New Testament, many Christians have blatantly undermined the authority of the Scriptures as a whole. If the goal is to give Christians a defense for their Bible, this argument is absolutely not it. In fact, this so called Fatal Flaw Argument hands the Bible directly to the critics of the faith.  

Conclusion

At the end of the day, the goal of this conversation is give confidence to Christians that when they read their Bible, they are reading the Word of God. This kind of argument undermines everybody reading a Bible, no matter which version they read. In fact, it is almost identical to the argument that Bart Erhman makes against Christians who adhere to the modern critical text. When we begin taking our cues from Bart Ehrman, perhaps it’s time to take a step back and reevaluate. In any case, there is a consistent methodology that Christians can employ to receive the Bible they read, and it does not involve trusting the ongoing reconstruction effort of the history of the New Testament text. 

The fact is that God has spoken (Deus dixit). God speaking is the means that God has always used to condescend to man, from the time of Adam in the garden. His speaking is the covenant means of communication to His covenant people. God will not fail in His covenant purpose, which means that God will not fail to communicate to His people (Mat. 5:18). Since God has ordained the Scriptures as the means of covenant communication in these last days (Heb. 1:1), then the preservation of His Word is intimately tied with His covenant purpose. Since God has not failed, and cannot fail, then He has not failed in speaking, or preserving the Word He spoke. In every generation, from the time of Adam, God has spoken to His people clearly and without error. The introduction of textual variants in manuscripts did not thwart this effort. In every generation, in faithful copies of manuscripts, God preserved His Word. This preservation did not somehow stop in the fourth century, or even in the 16th century. Which means, that if the Bible is indeed preserved, it was still preserved at the time of the Protestant Reformation. If this is the case, then the manuscripts which were used during the time of the Protestant Reformation were indeed preserved. Which means the text-critical work done during this time was done using preserved copies of the New Testament. The manuscripts did not suddenly become preserved during the 16th century, they were the ones handed down in faithful churches from the time of the Apostles. The alternative seems to be that God stored His word away in barrels, caves, and monasteries lined with skulls.

This Fatal Flaw argument, fundamentally, is simply saying, “We don’t have a Bible, so you can’t either”. This is not the way you defend the text of the New Testament, it is how you destroy the validity of the text of the New Testament. It does not matter which Bible you read, attacking the validity of all Bibles in order to win an argument is not appropriate, or necessary. At the end of the Textual Discussion, Christians still need to have a Bible they feel they can read and use. All Christians employ the same methodology when selecting a Bible at the end of the day. They look back in time, and receive a text based on their understanding of inspiration and preservation. Some receive a text they believe was preserved until the fourth century which has been reconstructed to some degree or another, and others receive a text they believe was preserved up to the Reformation and beyond. Others do not receive any one text, but all of the differing texts. The vast majority of Christians are not textual scholars, do not know the original languages, and thus are at the mercy of various scholarly opinions. The average Christian wants to know, “Can I trust my Bible?” If our efforts are not concentrated in that direction, we have already failed.  

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