Substantial Preservation and the Sin of Certainty

Introduction

In today’s world of Biblical scholarship, a common idea is that Christians should have a good amount of confidence that the sum total of the Bible has been preserved. This means that while Christians should not have any dogmatic ideas of perfect preservation of words, they should have confidence that God has given to His people enough. That is to say that despite the fact that there are challenging passages in the Scriptures, none of these challenges are so great that Christians should lose confidence in their Bible as a whole. This concept of general reliability is agreeable even to some unbelieving textual scholars, which is possibly why it has become a sort of default position within Evangelical textual scholarship. The idea of absolute certainty in every word of the Bible is not considered a viable theological position due to the perspectives of modern textual scholars. According to this view, there is simply no justifiable reason to believe that every word has been kept pure, and to hold to a view like this is unnecessarily dogmatic. This article is not meant to challenge the integrity of the scholars, some of which are genuine brothers in Christ, but rather to put forth a serious problem with the general reliability theory of the New Testament. While I understand the sentiment behind this mediating position between radical skepticism and absolute certainty in the Text of the New Testament, I believe that this perspective, which may be called Substantial Preservation, is not defensible, practical, or Scriptural. 

Substantial Preservation is Not Demonstrable by Evidence

John Brown of Haddington wrote on this very topic in his systematic theology in the 18th century when defending the Scriptures against such a view that certain truths had fallen away. He argued that all Scriptures, while some are less essential than others, are “essentially necessary in their own place.” That is to say, that while many passages discuss matters not pertaining directly to salvation, that does not make those passages any less important is it pertains to the whole of what God is saying to His people. The Scriptures affirm as much in 2 Timothy 3:15-17. Despite some passages which may be considered more or less important by some, the Bible is clear, “all Scripture” is profitable and is to be used for every matter of faith and practice. Brown then comments on the fundamental challenge of dividing the Scriptures into essential and non-essential.

“All attempts to determine which are fundamental, and which not, are calculated to render us deficient and slothful in the study of religious knowledge; – To fix precisely what truths are fundamental and what not, is neither necessary, nor profitable, nor safe, nor possible” (Brown, Systematic Theology, 97). 

When the theological position is taken that says that the “sum total” or the “necessary” or the “important” parts of Scripture have been reliably transmitted, this is what is taking place. An attempt is being made to say that while some or many words have fallen away from the Scriptures, the whole sense of the thing is not lost by certain words falling away or indeterminate. Brown makes an extremely pointed observation here – how would one even come to a determination like that? There is absolutely no way to know if a doctrine is lost, unless of course that person is omniscient, or all knowing, and can determine that those words were not meant to be preserved by God. The weight of the substantial preservation argument rests on a faith claim that God never desired to preserve every word, and that Christians should have a reasonable amount of certainty that the words we can have confidence in are the ones God intended to preserve. 

Since the starting point of this claim is evidential, the conclusions and further claims made from this starting point must be evidential as well. That means that if one is to make the claim that the evidence demonstrates a substantially preserved Bible, one has to demonstrate that the words we do have represent substantially what was originally written. This of course is impossible to demonstrate from evidence. Dan Wallace admits as much, “We do not have now – in our critical Greek texts or any translations – exactly what the authors of the New Testament wrote. Even if we did, we would not know it” (Gurry & Hixson, Myths and Mistakes in New Testament Textual Criticism, xii). So in this view, we don’t know exactly what the “authors” of the New Testament wrote, and we have no way of demonstrating what they wrote, even if we did have it. This being the case, there does not seem to be a reason to responsibly make such a determination regarding the general reliability of the New Testament. The claim that the New Testament is generally reliable is not proven by lower criticism, it is simply believed despite the conclusions of textual scholars. Since our earliest extant New Testament manuscripts are dated to well after the authorial event, there is no way of determining, evidentially, how different those manuscripts are from the authorial text. This perspective may have been rejected, even fifty years ago by Evangelicals, but according to Wallace, believing textual scholars are  “far more comfortable with ambiguity and uncertainty than the previous generations” (Ibid., xii). While many scholars may be comfortable with this view, the millions of Christians around the world who believe in verbal plenary inspiration may not be. 

Substantial Preservation is Not Practical 

If the Bible is preserved in the “sum total” of its material, then Christians must add an additional layer to their Bible reading. Rather than simply reading the words on the page, Christians must first establish that those words are reliable. Since some words cannot be trusted outright, there is no reason to believe that all of the words can be trusted outright. That is due to the fact that the methodology which deems some verses reliable and others not is completely and utterly subjective. In some cases, the majority reading is the deciding principle, in other places, the least harmonious reading is the deciding principle, and in more places, what is considered the earliest reading is the deciding principle. In order to validate these deciding principles, Christians must become text-critics themselves. They must examine the evidence for each verse in the Bible and determine if it meets some threshold of certainty based on the current canons of text-criticism or develop their own. Most Christians are not equipped for this kind of work. 

Since the reality is that the vast majority of Christains are not equipped for this kind of work, this is done for the Christian by the editors of various translations and rogue Christians with some knowledge of the original languages. Christians are told which verses they are to have confidence in by a handful of people. The footnotes tell a Christian what to read, popular opinion tells a Christian what to read, or Christians decide for themselves what they ought to read. Yet, underneath every verse is a mountain of textual variations and a sign that says, “We do not have now, in our critical Greek texts or any translations – exactly what the authors of the New Testament wrote. Even if we did, we would not know it.” That is to say, that every Christian is held captive by the judgements of textual scholars, translation committees, and the opinions of one or two people with a platform when they read their Bible. What a Christian considers Scripture today could easily be out of vogue tomorrow. This is plainly evident in the transformation of modern Bibles in the last fifty years.  

Even if there is no critical footnote in the margin of a translation, the Christian has to know that every single verse can be questioned with the same amount of uncertainty applied to the verses which do have footnotes. This is due to the fact that the axiom itself produces “radical skepticism.” That is to say, that if a Christian cannot know for sure that the words they are reading are authentic, they must adopt some sort of theological principle which gives them certainty. The common view seems to be, “We don’t know what the original said, yet we are going to read it as though we do anyway.” Yet this view is entirely contingent upon external methods, and produces different results for each Christian. It is perfectly reasonable, for two Christians adhering to this same view of the text to have radically different opinions on each line of Scripture. Since, according to the top scholars, we can’t know who is right, both Christians are equally justified in their decision. There is nothing wrong with one person accepting Luke 23:34 and another rejecting it in this view of the text. On what grounds would one even begin to make a dogmatic statement one way or the other using text-critical methods? In an attempt to combat “absolute certainty,” the people of God are held hostage by the opinions of men. The practical task of reading a Bible has been turned into a task that only the most qualified men and women can execute. The act of reading the Bible is unmistakably transformed into an activity of scrutinizing the text and then reading that text with only a reasonable amount of certainty. The Bible has yet again been taken from the hands of the plowboy. 

Substantial Preservation is Not Scriptural

The Bible is clear that Christians are to have absolute certainty in the Scriptures (Mat. 24:35; Ps. 19:7; 2 Tim. 3:15-17; 2 Pet. 1:20-21; Heb. 1:1-2; Mat. 4:4; Mat. 5:18; Jn.10:27). Absolute certainty in God’s Word is not a bad thing, despite the strange opinions of men and women who say that it is something to be fought off and beat down out of the church. No pastor in his right mind would mount the pulpit and say that we do not know, and have no way of knowing what the original text of the New and Old Testament said. There is no gentle way to put it, this view is dangerous and the proponents of such a view would have been put outside of the camp for saying such a thing all throughout church history. Yet, in this day and age, the view of absolute certainty in the Holy Scriptures is called “dangerous” and is demonized. The visceral reality is, if Christians are not to have absolute certainty in their Bibles, they have no reason to believe it is God’s Word at all. If some of God’s Word is compromised, why should Christians believe that all of it isn’t compromised? That is to say, that if God had the ability to preserve some of the words, He had the ability to preserve them all. There is no reason to believe that God would conveniently preserve the words we, in the 21st century, think are preserved. In order to make a theological claim that God only preserved some words, you must adopt a contradictory view that God is both a) powerful to preserve the words of Scripture and b) not powerful enough to preserve them all. This position is adopted with the guise of humility. Since we “know” that there places where the Scriptures weren’t kept pure, then God must not have preserved all of them! It is actually anachronistic and prideful to think that God preserved every word! Yet, these places where God didn’t keep His Word pure conveniently have aligned with the theories and conclusions of textual scholars for over 200 years. It is rather peculiar that God would think so much like a text-critic.

If Christians are to take a mediating position between radical skepticism and absolute certainty, the process of reading a Bible becomes a burdensome act that few Christians are even capable of doing. 99% of Christians do not know the original languages, and even those who do are not up to date on all of the changes in textual scholarship. That means nearly every Christian is held captive by their preferred scholar or pastor on what their Bible really says. They either have to simply put their head in the sand and go with the flow of every changing edition of their Bible, or get lost in the radical skepticism that is espoused by textual scholars. Do not be mistaken, the idea that we cannot know what the prophets and apostles wrote is absolutely a form of radical skepticism. It may not be the case in intention or heart of these scholars, but in practice I see no way around it. If the Bible is only generally reliable, than each Christian has the responsibility of figuring out the places of general reliability. This view leads to opinions like the one I received on my YouTube channel, where a man said, “The textual apparatus is the lifeblood of the pastor.” This view is so disconnected from any sort of pastoral reality I wanted to scream. No sir, every word that proceedeth forth out of the mouth of God is the lifeblood of the pastor, not the places where God’s Word has been called into question. The act of reading the Bible is not to be an activity of constantly saying, “Yea, hath God said?”

Conclusion

The doctrine of Scripture which says that the words are generally reliable is one that is not defensible, practical, or Scriptural. It is one that is so far disconnected from the people of God that I hope it never succeeds in being forced upon people who actually read their Bible daily. Not only is there no way of determining which passages of Scripture are “important” enough, there is no way to even prove that a passage is reliable if we have no way of validating those passages. This view, as it is articulated now, leaves every single Christian hanging three feet in mid air in the clutches of people who are “qualified” to make judgements on the text of Holy Scripture. The bottom line of this view is that each Christian needs to either a) trust a scholar to tell them what God’s Word says, b) develop their own canons of validating God’s Word by learning Greek and Hebrew and the history of text-criticism, or c) put their head in the sand and ignore the sign post under each verse that says, “this may or may not be God’s Word.” It seems that in an attempt to appease the mockers of God’s Word, scholars have simply given up God’s Word altogether. Yes, this is an all or nothing sort of situation. You cannot say in one breath that the Word of God is reliable, and then in the next say we don’t know what God’s Word originally said. There is no middle ground here. Either we know or we don’t. I think if Evangelical scholars took Bart Ehrman more seriously they may recognize that his fundamental problem is the fundamental problem with modern textual scholarship. It is the problem that the historical protestants defended by standing on the self-authenticating principle of Scripture. 

The false dichotomy of “radical skepticism” and “absolute certainty” misses the point of this discussion entirely. All Christians are commanded to have absolute certainty in the Holy Scriptures. If one rejects absolute certainty, then there is no middle ground between that and radical skepticism. This perhaps would require some scholar producing a work which catalogues all of the verses that are generally reliable and those that are not. Even if that work were produced, it would have an asterisk next to every determination that would read, “I have no way of proving this.” The fruit of such an opinion is evident in the real world. Since the axioms and implementation of modern text-criticism has only produced a data set, and not a text, every single Christian with a bit of knowledge on the topic is encouraged to produce their own text.This is made clear in the fact that this is exactly what Christians are doing. 

The modern printed texts are simply a guide as to what one should read as Scripture. Protestantism was founded on the self-authenticating principle of Scripture, Sola Scriptura. This was the foundational doctrine which caused the Reformation to succeed. Christians did not need a magisterium for Scripture to be authenticated, the Scriptures themselves provided the authority. Yet, in the modern period, this has been abandoned. Every Protestant has their own Bible, their own authority, which may or may not be God’s Word. Christians leap into battle with this Bible and try to combat the Muslim or the Roman Catholic, and they do so thinking that they are winning. The fact is, when Christians adopt an uncertain view of the text, they rush into battle with a Nerf sword thinking they have a hardened Claymore, and the opponents of the faith know it. Why do you think these apologists are so eager to broadcast these debates worldwide? 

I can already see people trying to make this conversation about textual variants, because that is all they can do. Yet, I want people to remember, when an Evangelical shouts about variants from a modern critical text position, they are standing on grounds that cannot support any of their claims with any amount of certainty. Absolute certainty is bad, if you recall. Remember this quote the next time somebody tries to say they know what the author originally wrote at Ephesians 3:9 or 1 John 5:7: “We do not have now – in our critical Greek texts or any translations – exactly what the authors of the New Testament wrote. Even if we did, we would not know it.” Any argument for absolute certainty on a text from a modern critical perspective is built on a foundation that does not claim to know what the original reading said absolutely. There is no consistent methodology that can produce a printed text that represents exactly what the prophets and the apostles wrote, and the honest scholars admit as much. So when somebody says, “I want what Paul wrote!” and then argues for a modern critical methodology, just remember that they have not adopted a methodology that can produce what Paul wrote. 

Even if it could, they would not know it. At the end of the day, they are cold and naked, trusting with blind faith that their autonomous reasoning and critical methodologies have given them at least a middle ground between skepticism and certainty. That is why the war which is waged against those with absolute certainty doesn’t make a whole lot of sense to me. The real argument that is made when somebody asks, “Which TR?” or makes a demonstration from evidence against or for a reading is, “Why are you so certain that this reading is original?” The only thing that is inherently problematic, from a modern critical perspective, is absolute certainty, not the readings themselves. Anybody who says that the readings themselves are wrong is simply being inconsistent, because they have adopted a system that does not pretend to have produced original readings (or at least know they have produced original readings). It is impossible to have any legitimate problems with a particular printed text because these critics aren’t claiming to know what it says themselves! The only appropriate answer from a modern critical perspective to somebody who believes 1 John 5:7 is Scripture is simply, “I don’t have confidence that that is original, but I can’t prove it either way.”

I imagine that many will take issue with this article. They will say that I have misrepresented the perspectives and opinions of those who adopt a form of substantial preservation. To these critics I say, can you produce a list of verses that the people of God should be certain about? Would you be willing to take those verses to Bart Ehrman and DC Parker  and Eldon J. Epp and say that those readings are original? Can you detail the methodology you used to determine which doctrines are important and which are not? Can you prove to me that the verses you deemed unoriginal weren’t in the original text of the prophets and apostles? Did you use a methodology that is consistent and repeatable? The fact is, there is not a single responsible scholar alive who would be willing to produce answers for these questions. Instead, they will instruct Christians to believe that a) we don’t know absolutely what the prophets and apostles said and b) that Christians should believe that the words placed in the printed Greek texts and translations are the words of the prophets and apostles anyway, with a medium amount of certainty. Either that, or they will continue to shout about a particular variant they have researched and ignore the underlying reality that I have presented in this article. 

This is not the ticket, church. The only outcome of this view, ironically, is radical skepticism. Fortunately, God is not tossed to and fro by the opinions of 21st century scholars. He has indeed given His Scriptures to the church, and the church has received them in time. I don’t believe that God is “generally reliable,” I believe He is absolutely reliable. Which means I believe His Word is absolutely reliable, and should be absolutely trusted. If the only grounds we have for believing in Scripture is the conclusions of modern textual scholars, I don’t see any good reasons for any Christian to believe in the Scriptures at all. Yet, the Scriptures are clear. The grounds for believing in Scripture is the fact that God has spoken, and has spoken in His Word. If God has truly spoken in His Word, the Holy Scriptures, then Christians have every reason to believe that they can be absolutely certain about God’s Word.    

3 thoughts on “Substantial Preservation and the Sin of Certainty

  1. Absolute certainty = Miraculous preservation
    Maximum certainty = Providential preservation

    “God’s preservation of the New Testament text was not miraculous but providential. The scribes and printers who produced the copies of the New Testament Scriptures and the true believers who read and cherished them were not inspired but God-guided. Hence there are some New Testament passages in which the true reading cannot be determined with absolute certainty.”

    E. F. Hills, The King James Version Defended (p.224)

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    1. What I mean is that when you read your Bible you have certainty that you’re reading the Word of God. Not Letis and Hill’s Macro-Micro distinction. That may be worth another article.

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