Reconstructionists, The Burden of Proof is On You

Introduction

A common refrain in the text-criticism discussion is the appeal to “the burden of proof.” The burden of proof is on those who advocate for the traditional text to demonstrate that the readings within the text are original. This appeal is a simple misdirect that should not fool any sound thinking Christian. In making this argument, it draws the attention away from the failure of reconstructionist textual criticism apologists to fulfill any sort of burden of proof themselves. Typically, those in the modern critical text camp do not venture past manuscript evidence to examine the theological, epistemological, and logical implications of approaching the text in the way they do. Due to framing the discussion within the narrow frame of manuscript evidence and textual variants, it is possible to completely avoid the marrow of the discussion. If it is possible to demonstrate that a variant is supported by one manuscript, or a church father, or an ancient version, then it doesn’t matter what the theological implications are of adopting that particular reading. This methodology is appealing because it seems scientific, logical, and conclusive. In the case of evidential reconstructionist textual criticism the reality is that it merely has the form of science, but not any sort of real power. In other words, it is completely, and utterly, arbitrary. Let me explain. 

Let’s just say, for the sake of argument, that modern reconstructionist textual criticism is consistent in its methodology – which it is plainly not. At one reading, they appeal to one standard, and at another they appeal to entirely different standards. Any claim saying that the axioms of modern textual criticism are consistent is either misleading, or relying upon their audience’s ignorance of the system.  Even if these axioms were consistent, they will never be able to claim any sort of practical certainty on a given reading. Since the goal is reconstruction of the text, the starting principle of the methodology itself is that the text of Holy Scripture has been lost. Since this is the theological and epistemological starting point, all methods that proceed from this point begin the effort of textual criticism standing three feet in mid air, because the earliest manuscripts do not reach back to the time of the Apostles. No matter how you spin this reality, you will never escape the fundamental truth that all reconstructive methodologies are operating entirely from conjecture. The genealogical methods employed to reconstruct the text of the New Testament simply cannot demonstrate a reading original. It may be the case that somebody believes a reading original, but that belief does not originate from reconstructionist principles. They have to borrow that from a system which offers epistemological certainty. The method of reconstruction is arbitrary, and any claim to certainty of any kind is alien to the reconstructionist system. 

The Arbitrary Standard of Reconstructionist Textual Criticism

These methods are arbitrary because of the standard itself. Often times, proponents of reconstructionist textual criticism will appeal to the axioms of other systems to bolster the weaknesses of the system they have chosen. In other words, they borrow capital from the theology of the Protestants to put newspaper over the milk that they spilled. See, if the Bible has been lost to the point that it requires reconstruction, then it has not been preserved. There is no escaping this reality, and this is colorfully highlighted in the fact that the term Initial Text is being employed in place of Original or Autographic Text. Even when the term Original is used, it is employed in an entirely different way than it has been historically in Protestant Theology. No matter how hard one tries to put a Theological spin on this concept, a duck dressed up as a swan is still a duck. Simply calling the theological concept of the Initial Text equitous with the Original text does not make it true, and the methodology used to construct such an Initial Text cannot make any such claim responsibly. The fact remains that our earliest manuscripts are not the earliest manuscripts, patristic quotations are not inspired and often are paraphrastic, and ancient versional evidence faces the same problem as ancient manuscript evidence. The plain truth is that our earliest manuscripts have no pedigree. We don’t know who made them or who used them. The only thing these sources demonstrate is whether or not a reading existed, and has nothing to say about whether that reading was original from the pen of the Apostolic writers or a machination from an early heretic. The simple problem with genealogical reconstructions is that they can just as easily place a late reading in the spot of an early reading without being detected at all. In fact, scholars are quite vocal in admitting this. In addition to the logical flaws with these early manuscripts, the material flaws are overwhelming. There are more places where the darling early Uncials disagree than agree, and if our manuscripts of Shakespeare were of such quality, we would have something like, “The question is, to beat, or not to beat Toby?” We wouldn’t have Shakespeare at all, just an echo of Shakespeare. 

This is what happens when human reconstructionist principles of textual criticism are inscripturated. The educated Christian church has been catechized to believe that these axioms are the only way to determine the text of Holy Scripture, and therefore forcing an arbitrary text onto the church. A text that can present later, unoriginal readings, into the text and pass them off as original without any knowledge of such an event. The major problem with this is that if reconstructionist text critical principles are the only way to determine what is Scripture, then Christians must place their faith in a method that is entirely arbitrary and in no way conclusive. Since the material is not perfectly preserved, the doctrine of inspiration must be refashioned around a text that is not materially pure. 

The Reconstructionists Must Defend Their Thesis 

At the outset, the method admits that the text of Scripture, at least part of it, has been lost and must be reconstructed. The principle axiom of the method looks at the text of Scripture and says, “We don’t know what it says, and we don’t have the whole thing.” The next step should have been, from that point on, figuring out if a reconstruction effort could be done with the materials. “For which of you, intending to build a tower, sitteth not down first, and counteth the cost, whether he have sufficient to finish it?” (Luke 14:28). In fact, this was done by Dr. John Burgon in the 19th century (The Revision Revised), wherein he conclusively demonstrates that the source material for this reconstructed text was utterly devoid of the quality required for such an effort. This was again demonstrated by H.C. Hoskier in the 20th century (Codex B and its Allies). In the 21st century, the answer to whether or not the extant data is sufficient is succinctly answered by Dan Wallace, “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. There are many, many places in which the text of the New Testament is uncertain” (Myths and Mistakes, xii). If the answer wasn’t apparent in the time of Westcott and Hort, it certainly is now. If the theological and epistemological case that I have laid out in this blog over the last few months is not convincing, the fruit of the reconstructionist effort should be. If the data is available, if the text of Scripture is preserved, why can’t the well meaning scholars get back to it? How long is the church going to entertain this project? 

Theologically, the church should reject any method that starts with the premise that any text of Scripture has fallen away (Mat. 5:18; Mat. 24:35). Epistemologically, the church should reject any method that says the Word of God must be authenticated by scientific principles (2 Tim. 3:16). Logically, the church should reject any method that plainly admits they have not, and cannot reconstruct the text (Luke 14:28). Yet reconstructionist textual criticism continues to be the muse of the Christian academy. With each passing year, the incomplete text continues to be propped up and celebrated by Christians all over the world. The conversation of “Which text?” is irrelevant from a reconstructionist textual model because the method itself doesn’t believe that any text is “the text.” Why would somebody entertain the arguments of somebody whose starting point rejects the concept of “the” text of Holy Scripture? That is why it is important to investigate the effort that led to conservative Christian scholars adopting such a theological position. If the effort cannot be justified, and has not borne good fruit, why should the church continue to prop it up? Why should Christians act like the modern critical text is the “better” text, when the scholars producing it and advocating for it are unwilling to call it “the” text? If the so called “new” data has given us so much more insight than our fathers of the faith, why has it produced so much uncertainty? It is one thing to make appeals to “new and better data,” and another to actually prove it. It is foolish to continue to defend such “new” data when the data has overwhelmingly failed in producing anything but uncertainty. 

Conclusion

Christians are called to “Prove all things” (1 Thess. 5:20), and the axioms and text of the reconstructionists is objectively the new thing on the scene that must be proved. It has the burden of proof, not the traditional text. The reconstructionists need to demonstrate that their method can produce a text. The traditional text is not the problem, it is not the newcomer that needs to be proved. Why unseat the text of the Protestant church for a model that has not produced a text, cannot produce a text, and will not produce a text? What reason shall we give for such an illogical departure? It is time that Christians reject the misdirection of the reconstructionists who insist that the burden of proof is on the traditional text advocates, when the method they demand for establishing that proof is insufficient to do so. Since the reconstructionist model has not proved a text, those that advocate for the ongoing effort are literally defending an immaterial text that doesn’t exist. On one hand they say “we do not have the text,” and on the other they say, “But our text is better.” These two principles cannot stand together, and until the reconstructionists demonstrate that their effort is justified, the burden of proof is on them. 

12 thoughts on “Reconstructionists, The Burden of Proof is On You

  1. It’s very good that you are thinking and pondering about Text Criticism and the NT Text in general. The more we examine a topic–the more we learn.

    I don’t want to nitpick your post, but I would encourage clarity by way of defining terminology and/or giving simple boundaries to uncommon terms or “in-house” labels. That way your readers can follow your line of thought better.

    Question: Do you consider Burgon or Maurice Robinson as a “reconstructionist”?

    Do you consider Beza or the KJV translators as “reconstructionist”?

    …And why? Or better yet what are the boundaries of the term reconstruction in regards to the TC of the NT?

    Thanks. -MMR

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    1. I consider Burgon a revisionist, in that his methodology started with the Traditional Text as a base text, and allowed for revision based on the testimony of mss, ancient fathers, and versional evidence.

      I don’t know enough about Robinson to comment on his methodology.

      I do not consider Beza a reconstructionist because he did not believe the text had fallen away.

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  2. Ok, thank you for that.

    Concerning Burgon: the TR was technically his base Text–and getting back to the Traditional Text was the ultimate goal of his individual revisions. He did not consider the Traditional Text and the TR identical, although he believed that the TR was a close approximation of what he considered the “Traditional Text” to be. This distinction is often lost…for one reason or another.

    Could you possibly shed more light on the gray area between what you consider as a revisionist–as opposed to a reconstructionist?

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    1. I think the basic difference is the a revisionist desires to revise the handful of places that they believe to be incorrect in the printed editions of the TR, hence, getting back to the Traditional Text by using the TR as a starting point. A revisionist believes this can be done, and easily at that.

      A reconstructionist believes that the text, at least in part,has fallen away. Some parts of the text are uncertain, and will remain that way. The goal is to reconstruct an early form of the NT, which is different than the later form as generally represented by the TR.

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  3. Interesting, is there a ballpark figure of the number of changes, or a way to quantify the amount of change that would lead you to make such a distinction?

    What I mean is this: how many changes from the TR tradition is acceptable for one to *still* be considered a revisionist? 10-20-50-100-500-1000 etc. ??

    Obviously larger and highly important passages like Mark 16:9-20, John 7:53-8:11, etc. could be looked upon as earmarks of the “Traditional Text” and therefore must needs be present within an individual critics edition or body of work for them to be considered a “revisionist”–as opposed to a “reconstructionist” (according to the guidelines you’ve laid out). Even so, Burgon for one, would have confidently revised the TR in many hundreds of places.

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    1. I’m comfortable using the same categories that Burgon used, though I wouldn’t consider myself a revisionist. I know people that fall into that camp that have 1 or 2 changes they think they’d make to the TR.

      I think that those that advocate for a revisionist position would set the boundaries still within the TR tradition as a whole, and reject the early uncials and papyri as proper mss.

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  4. Thank you for the reply.

    I’m not sure if I’m following your last comment though.

    How could one who “think[s] they’d make” 1 or 2 changes to the TR be considered from the same camp as Burgon, who intended to make approx. 1000?

    Is there a specific Theological reason, or other reasons behind why you personally wouldn’t engage in what you consider revisionism?

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    1. What is your source for the 1,000’s of proposed changes by Burgon? I’ve never once heard that.

      The Theological reason is that there is no process to control revisions, and there is really no consistent standard of making revisions evidentially. Ultimately all appeals to evidence are subject to conjecture and arbitrariness.

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  5. Is there not an amount of “conjecture and arbitrariness” involved in deciding which edition of the TR to follow when they disagree?

    Burgon had noted within the margin of a personal copy of the TR (1550 Stephanus I believe) his proposed changes. E. Miller gives the total of approx. 150 in St. Matthew alone (if memory serves me). If one extrapolates from this, the approx. amount of changes throughout the NT would reach over 1000. Although, a fraction of the changes to Stephanus, could/would still be found within the other TR editions, therefore lowering the total number of changes from the TR tradition as a whole slightly.

    When the system and principles of Burgon are kept in mind (along side of the many examples of his praxis left in his works). This is all but certain.

    It must be kept in mind that a fair amount of the changes would not be translatable. It should also be noted that the external evidence would be heavily in favor of the change (generally speaking).

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