In the Beginning
God’s Word has been contested since the very beginning in the Garden when Satan said, “Yea, hath God said, Ye shall not eat of every tree of the garden?” Eve then changes what God said, and Satan reinterprets it. “God hath said, Ye shall not eat of it, neither shall ye touch it, lest ye die. And the serpent said unto the woman, Ye shall not surely die” (Genesis 3:1-4). Yes, from the very beginning of time, the battle for the authority of God’s Word has been fought. God has delivered His Word in every generation, and even delivers it anew to His people when it was thought to have been lost (2 Kings 22-23). The struggle for the authority of the Scriptures continued on through the Old Covenant, as the unfaithful kings of Israel continued to build and rebuild the high places. During Jesus’ time, the Pharisees had so distorted the meaning of God’s Word that Jesus issued a lengthy rebuke to them in the form of His exegesis of the law in Matthew 5.
Even past the time of Christ’s earthly ministry, with Marcion and others, the authority of the Scriptures continued to be questioned, and the actual words and passages themselves were contested and removed in some unfaithful manuscripts. Augustine of Hippo comments on the phenomenon, “Some men of slight faith, or, rather, some hostile to the true faith, fearing, as I believe, that liberty to sin with impunity is granted to their wives, remove from their Scriptural texts the account of our Lord’s pardon of the adulteress” (De adulterinis coniugiis 2.7.6). In the New Testament age, the method of attacking the authority of God’s Word has not changed.
Little is known about the transmission of the New Testament until the middle ages, other than the fact that a lot of Bibles were destroyed by persecution, war, fires, and other natural causes. The history of the New Testament, as it were, is largely clouded to a modern audience until the explosion of manuscripts in the 9th century. Despite this fact, there are quotations from theologians throughout the ages which testify to the existence of ancient and accurate copies that survived through the age of tampering. Deuteronomy 4:2 became an integral text to Augustine and other theologians during this time. “Augustine and his contemporaries were well aware that editing of this sort could potentially take place, and they invented various strategies to deal with the problem: curses were added to the end of certain treatises, sternly warning those who would dare to alter texts that they would be punished for their misdeeds” (Wasserman, Knust, To Cast the First Stone, 100).
The manuscripts from the period just before and during Augustine’s time demonstrate that this period of time could be considered a tampering period of the text of the New Testament. Despite this tampering period, and the fact that Christianity almost lost to Arianism at the same time, the orthodox faith, along with the original Scriptures, continued on in time. This is the most reasonable explanation for the explosion of uniform manuscripts suddenly appearing in history during the middle ages. It was not long after this time that the next major attack on the authority of Scripture occurred. As the end of the middle scholastic period came to an end, theologians began to discover corruptions in the Latin Vulgate.
The text of the Western church had in some places conformed to the teachings of Rome, which had been heading in a dark direction for quite some time. The Western church had, due to a number of reasons, developed into more of a political player than a religious one. Popes began to sell their papacy to the highest bidder, and one point, three popes occupied the office. Indulgences were introduced to encourage knights to fight for the Holy Roman Empire, and this led to the grossly abusive practice of the church which drained the pockets of the laity. Some churches had failed to give communion to the people in years, and in many cases, the only people taking communion were the priests themselves, with the laity observing. Despite this corruption, the seed of the Reformation lived in the marrow of the church with men like Wycliffe and Hus. In the same way that Athenasius was raised up during the Arian controversy in the early church, faithful men of God were called out of the wilderness and began crying out in protest against the abuses that had developed in the Western church. God began orchestrating the Reformation well before that fateful October day in Wittenberg in 1517.
In fact, there were several providential events that are often forgotten leading up to the Reformation. In the mid 15th century, two things occur that contribute to the Protestant movement. The first is the construction of the printing press in Guttenberg in 1436, and the second is the fall of Constantinople shortly after that. Up to that point in the west, the Bible that was used was Latin, and the means of reproducing that Bible was hand-copying. When Constantinople fell, the Greek speaking people of God came flooding into the West, bringing with them their language and their Bibles. Bibles continued to be hand-copied for some time after this event, but it wasn’t long until the printing press was purposed for printing the Bible in all sorts of languages. During this pre-Reformation period, men like Wycliffe had already started producing Bibles in English, and in response, the Roman church said that the Bible was only authoritative insofar as it was approved by the church, and the only Bible approved by the church was the Latin Vulgate as it had come to exist during that time. The Roman church was not mighty enough to stop the events that had been started at the fall of Constantinople and the invention of the printing press, however. In 1514, the Complutensian Polyglot New Testament had been printed, and two years later in 1516, Erasmus’ first edition of the Novum Testamentum was hot on the press. There was nothing that Rome could do to stop what would happen next.
On October 31, 1517, a German Roman Catholic Monk named Martin Luther posted 95 theses which detailed the places the Western church need to change. This moment marks the date that most people consider the Protestant Reformation to have officially started. During this time, the battle for the Bible centered around one question: In what way are the Scriptures authoritative. On one hand, the Roman church said that the Scriptures were authoritative by virtue of the church. On the other hand, the Protestants said that the Bible was authoritative in itself, it was self-authenticating (αυτοπιστος). The doctrine of the self-authenticating nature of the Scriptures was in fact the fundamental principle that drove the doctrine of Sola Scriptura and thus drove the entire Reformation. The only refutation for the doctrine of Rome was to return to the Scriptural reality that God Himself gave authority to the Bible. This doctrine of Scripture ultimately becomes a staple in Protestant doctrine and is codified in all of the major confessions of the 17th century.
If history has taught us anything, the battle for the authority of Scripture did not end with the high orthodox theologians following the Reformation. The next major battle that the church would face came from Germany, the birthplace of the Reformation. Starting with a German theologian named Friedrich Schleiermacher, the way that theology was done forever changed. The Bible no longer was the Word of God, the Bible was the documentation of the experience of communities of faith. In the German schools, the idea that the Bible was infallible came under fire and the way the Bible was described and understood changed rapidly. Due to the rise of the sciences and the development of the philosophy of religion, much of the historical information found in the Scriptures was determined to be factually incorrect. As a result, German theologians made sense of this by splitting the interpretation of history into at least two categories.
The first was history as it actually happened, and the second was history as it was experienced by various communities in time. The miracles in the Bible were not true history, they were the interpretation of history by human communities who were trying to make sense of their religious experience. The birth of historical criticism, or higher criticism, would be the next giant the church had to slay. German theologian Karl Barth, who came onto the scene like a stampeding elephant trumpeting through a Sunday school class, made an attempt at responding to higher criticism with what is now known as Neo-Orthodoxy. The Bible didn’t have to be factually correct or materially correct to be the Word of God according to Barth. The Bible was the authoritative witness to the incarnation of Jesus Christ, the Word of God. The Word of God was Jesus Christ, and the Bible became the Word of God when the Holy Spirit worked in the believer. The Bible was not the Word of God, it was a witness to the Word of God, Jesus Christ, and it became the Word of God on occasion.
The theology of Barth sent the church reeling, scrambling to give a response. Theologians like Cornelius Van Til spent nearly 30 years offering a response to idealism and neo-orthodoxy by developing his transcendentalism. Prior to the rise of Neo-Orthodoxy, B.B. Warfield and A.A. Hodge attempted to address higher criticism by reinterpreting the Westminster Confession. The Bible did not have to be materially preserved to be inerrant, they said, it just had to preserve the sense of the thing. The Bible was really only inspired and perfect in the autographs, and that is what the high orthodox meant. Unfortunately, that is not what the high orthodox meant, and the church thought that the high-orthodox doctrine of Scripture could not stand its ground to higher criticism like it had against Rome in the 16th century. What Warfield’s doctrine meant was that the Bible could be proved to be original by way of evidence, that by an effort of lower criticism, the original could most certainly be reconstructed. This articulation of Scripture was entirely dependent on the abilities of textual scholars to demonstrate that an original could be produced from the surviving manuscripts. In other words, the Scriptures are the Word of God insofar as they could be demonstrated to be the Word of God. At the time of Warfield, theologians were nearly unanimous in believing that this could be done with lower criticism. In fact, Warfield believed that the efforts of text-critics in his day were the providential workings of God to restore the original text of the Scriptures to the church.
Some time later, the battle for the Bible began and led to the production of the Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy. It was a direct response to the neo-orthodox doctrine of Scripture which had turned the church upside down. The latest battle for the authority of Scripture did two things: 1) It codified the theology of Warfield and 2) determined that higher and lower criticism were two separate and unrelated disciplines. Yet the theology of Scheliermacher and Barth were planted, like twin mustard seeds, and today stand as mighty trees in the center of orthodoxy.
The next battle for the Bible is arguably happening now, and will most certainly rage on until Barth and Schleiermacher are answered totally and finally. The Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy has not aged well, and the ghost of Schleiermacher haunts the canons of modern textual scholarship. Since Warfield’s doctrine was so reliant on the success of lower-criticism and its separation from higher criticism, it is completely contingent on these two things being reality. Yet, something has happened since Warfield’s time which has given cause for a new battle. The development of lower criticism has resulted in its fusion with higher criticism, and the reality upon which Warfield’s argument rests is no longer reality. See, Warfield’s doctrine was contingent on the success of the lower critics in proving the original from the extant manuscripts. Since the stated goal of textual criticism is now the Initial Text, Warfield’s formulation has lost its power. Further, the line between higher and lower criticism has become blurred and the actual textual decisions being made by the lower-critics are informed by a combination of both textual data and higher critical principles.
This is evident in that the stated goal of the Editio Critica Maior is not to produce an original Bible, but rather to reconstruct the history of the transmission of the New Testament Text. In other words, the goal of this critical text is to produce the history of how Christians have experienced their religion in time by examining the documents they left behind. The readings which are determined earliest only speak to the written expression of Christianity in the time and place that it represents. The variants which rank later simply represent how faith communities evolved and developed throughout time. Since the goal is not a definitive text, the goal is inherently in line with documenting how Christians recorded their experience in time. The ECM is not the Bible, it may or may not contain the Bible. That means that while printed editions created from the ECM may have the objective of producing an early witness to the New Testament text, it in itself says nothing regarding the authorial text. Some may say that this Initial Text represents the authorial text, but this is simply how Kant would have responded to Schleiermacher. The very concept of the ECM is the direct implementation of higher criticism in text-critical practice.
There are two ways that Christians can respond to the reality of the ECM. The first is found in Barth or perhaps Bultmann. It is fine that the Bible contains errors and factual problems, the Word of God is contained in the Bible or perhaps the Bible is a witness to the Word of God. In fact, it would be putting limitations on God by saying that He must speak in a narrowly defined set of Scriptures. God is far beyond anything we can comprehend, and therefore the words in Scripture become of the Word of God when God speaks through them. Since the Bible cannot be proven to be original by lower criticism, and higher criticism results in demythologizing the Bible, the only answer must be Barth, or some variation. The second option, which was not tried during the Warfieldian era, is the high-orthodox view of Scripture. The Bible does not need to be reconstructed, or demonstrated to be original by way of lower-criticism, because it was never lost and does not need to be proved. God Himself authenticates the Scriptures and by His special care and providence has kept them pure in all ages. The Holy Scriptures were faithfully handed down in time by the believing people of God until a providential innovation of technology allowed for them to be printed. This text was edited according to the common faith and was universally received by the Protestants by the end of the 16th century. This is the text that won against the Papists and reigned supreme until the theories of higher critics unseated it from the favor of the academy. The reception of this text vindicates God’s providence in the matter and it is the most widely read text, even today. It has been cast down by the schoolmen, but among the people of God it has held its place.
There is a reason that the Reformed stood on the doctrine of Scripture which said that the Bible was self-authenticating. It was the only response to the Papists that would have resulted in the success of Protestantism. The doctrine of Warfield was bound to fail as it was intimately tied to the success of men in reproducing an original text. When the concept of the “original” became obsolete, so did Warfield’s doctrine. At the same time, this allowed higher critical principles an official seat back at the lower-critical table. It will be interesting to see whether Christians uphold the high-orthodox view of the Scriptures, or retreat back to Barth for empty comfort.