The chasm between the axioms of lower-criticism and historic Protestant Theology grows wider every single day. Yet the two live side by side in the seminary. A student at seminary may go from a systematic theology or foundations class directly to an exegesis or New Testament class, wherein the concepts espoused are completely at odds with each other, and more likely than not, directly from Bart Ehrman. In this article, I want to examine some statements made by Dan Wallace which I believe represent the wider sentiment of many, if not all, conservative evangelical textual scholars. Prior to examining the theological statements made by Dan Wallace, I want to clarify that my analysis of his words is not an attack on the man himself, but the doctrine he is espousing is worth a look. Take for example these three statements:
“First, the doctrine of preservation was not a doctrine of the ancient church. In fact, it was not stated in any creed until the seventeenth century (in the Westminster Confession of 1646). “
“I have no theological agenda in this matter because I don’t hold to the doctrine of preservation. That doctrine, first formulated in the Westminster Confession (1646), has a poor biblical base. I do not think that the doctrine is defensible –either exegetically or empirically. As Bruce Metzger was fond of saying, it’s neither wise nor safe to hold to doctrines that are not taught in Scripture.”These quotes found here.
“We do not have now – in our critical Greek texts or any of 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)
A Symptom of a Larger Problem
The point of this article is not to slam Dan Wallace, that is not my intention. It is safe to say that these quotations represent the current and past thought in New Testament textual criticism among evangelical textual scholars, and are therefore helpful in addressing the modern doctrinal articulations on Inspiration and Preservation. The common term employed by evangelical New Testament scholars is Quasi-Preservation, which I have labeled partial preservation in previous articles found here and here and here. The fact is, that there is nothing in Scripture that would support a quasi-preservationist view of the Scriptures. This doctrinal position is a response to men like Bart Ehrman, who essentially agrees with Dan Wallace, and not an exegetically derived position. It is also a doctrine developed based on the axioms and text platform that modern textual scholars have produced. It is a doctrine adapted to the scientifically developed text, and not from the text itself. It is a meta-doctrine which is exegeted from the axioms of modern textual criticism. It is a theological position that says, “Well the text is hopelessly corrupt, so therefore God must not have preserved it.” The only way one can arrive at a view that says the Scriptures are not fully preserved is if you first believe the Scriptures are not preserved.
Wallace, like many of his colleagues, appeals to the historical councils of the church to prove that the doctrine of preservation is a 17th century invention. It is true, that the formulation of such doctrines were codified in the 17th century, because the Protestants were protesting the Papist doctrine of Scripture. Considering that the Protestant Reformation was an Ad Fontes movement, this makes sense. This is a common appeal made by the defenders of the modern text – if a doctrine isn’t codified in a council, it never happened. James White often makes this argument when trying to denigrate the Received Text. The form of the argument is bad, and we shouldn’t be caught up by it. As Protestants, we reject the authority of councils as ultimate.
Though there aren’t any councils or creeds which affirm the purity of the Scriptures, the doctrinal kernel existed in the early church. We see reference in the ancient church to the perspicuity of the Scriptures. Irenaeus, writing in his work, Against Heresies, says,
“The Scriptures are indeed perfect, since they were spoken by the Word of God and His Spirit.”(AH 2.28.2)
In any case, a quasi-doctrine of preservation is difficult to even defend historically, because one typically has to say that the Scriptures were corrupted right out of the gate. If this is the case, then any attempt of reconstruction is a well-intentioned goose chase. Yet if we are to use the standard set forth by Wallace and friends, the first time we see his view codified in a creedal statement is in the Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy, adopted in 1986.
Regardless of what we think of appeals to councils, we are to be discerning Protestants. We admit that the church and councils have erred, and that the sole rule of faith is the Scriptures. Even if the historical consensus of the church in councils is that the Bible has been perfectly preserved, we appeal to the Scriptures themselves as our final authority. Wallace and friends often talk as though they are in the mainstream of protestant thought, believing in quasi-preservation. The fact is, that they are, at this point in time, the minority within conservative theologians, pastors, and laymen. I can’t imagine many reputable pastors would get up to the pulpit and affirm the three quotes that I began this article with. Think of yourself, sitting in the pews of your church, and your pastor opens up his sermon on 2 Timothy 3:16 with the statement, “We do not have now – in our critical Greek texts or any of translations – exactly what the authors of the New Testament wrote. Even if we did, we would not know it.”
I imagine, if the seminaries continue giving these scholars a stage, that too will change, and statements like these may very well ring out from pulpits everywhere. They have already given Bart Ehrman a massive voice in our seminaries by using his approved textbook as the curriculum for textual criticism, so we should not expect this to change on its own. This is one case where the divide between the academy and the church is truly a blessing to the people of God. The real question is, should we take to heart what modern textual scholars think about the preservation of Scripture? I answer no, we shouldn’t. If we do not care what Bart Ehrman thinks about Scripture, then we should too reject the theological axiom that the Scriptures have not been preserved. Think back to the disconnect I mentioned between the lower-criticism of evangelicals and the theology of evangelicals. This disconnect is most clearly demonstrated in these two statements made by Dan Wallace:
“First, I want to affirm with all evangelical Christians that the Bible is the Word of God, inerrant, inspired, and our final authority for faith and life”
“We do not have now – in our critical Greek texts or any of translations – exactly what the authors of the New Testament wrote. Even if we did, we would not know it”
To this I ask a simple question: How can something be the final authority if we do not know what that something is?
In order to get to the task of exegesis, we must have something to exegete. I’m sure everybody would agree on that point. The place where myself, and modern scholars differ, is the nature of the text. I believe, along with many others, that there is no justification for a reconstruction effort, because I do not believe the Scriptures have fallen away. In order for something to be a rule of faith, or foundational to faith, it cannot be changing. If the something we exegete is changing, it simply cannot be a final authority, just an authority. To the credit of evangelical textual scholars, they are genuinely trying to determine the thing that we must exegete. The problem is the methodology that they have chosen, which cannot, and will not, arrive at a final product.
The modern critical text machine produces bibles, not the Bible. Just as we should be careful not to allow our differences to result in character defamation, we should be more careful not to let the friendliness of these scholars get in the way of our good judgement. Many modern scholars seem to be a genuine Christians, though that does not make their doctrinal positions correct, or immune from critique. Given the multitude of articles all over the internet calling people like me fundamentalists, traditionalists, cultists, and so on, it does not seem that the other side has a problem with issuing critique. We have to remember that niceness is not a fruit of the spirit. In any case, let’s look at one inconsistency in the appeal to church councils for proof that the doctrine of preservation is a new invention of the 17th century. Wallace appeals to councils and creeds when supporting his position that the Scriptures do not claim to be preserved. He appeals to an external standard to defend his position on the text he says is the final authority.
The appeal to church councils is really just a misdirect that Protestants should brush off, if we are still calling ourselves Protestants. The appeal to councils is not an argument that Jan Huss, or we, modern day Protestants, should find particularly compelling. It is clear that historically the church has believed God had given them His Word. That really shouldn’t be in question. The question that we ought to be asking is, “do the modern texts really not affect doctrine?” The question itself assumes a stable, doctrinal rule to compare against. When somebody says, “No doctrine is affected,” they are really saying, “Our new text doesn’t change doctrine from the historical text.” Even in making such a statement, they are assuming an unchanging rule of faith as a comparison point to their changing rule of faith. More importantly though, if the modern text does not change doctrine, why is it that the doctrine of preservation is changing? What changed from the time of the 17th century until now that has caused such a doctrinal shift? The text. The text has changed, and is changing. Therefore it does not stand to continue believing that the modern text does not change doctrine, because it plainly has. A simple comparison of the WCF to the Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy demonstrates, that doctrine has changed. It has even changed in the creeds of the church, ironically.
The church went from believing that the transmission of the Scriptures was guided by providence and preserved in the apographs (copies), to believing that the Scriptures were only perfect in the autographs (originals). It went to believing that the matter (words) and sense (meaning) of the Scriptures are preserved to believing that only the sense is preserved. If it is true that a changing, unstable text is the best we have in the 21st century, it is clear that neither is true. How can something be preserved in meaning if the words that the meaning is derived from are not preserved? Meaning comes from words, and when words change, meaning changes. The claim that “no doctrine is affected” is empty, and this is evidenced in the reality that even the creedal statements of the church have changed with the changing text. If you want proof that doctrine has changed, there it is.
Christians shouldn’t be as concerned with Wallace and other evangelical textual scholars as they should with the doctrines that they are espousing. The Scriptures tell us to “prove all things” (1 Thess. 5:21), not to “hold fast to that which is unproved.” The modern text is fundamentally unproved, because it is unfinished. The church had a stable text heading into the post-Reformation period. It was the text that caused the greatest Christian revival in the history of the world. It is the text that all of Protestant theology was built upon. All of our theological grammar comes from this text. It still remains the most widely used text by Christians around the world to this day. So when a new text comes onto the scene, one that demonstrates the Bible has not been preserved, that is the thing that must be proved.
Christians forget that the adoption of the modern text is a new thing. Until very recently in English speaking church history, there was one major English translation and one Greek text used as a base text. Today’s church is genuinely experiencing a new thing, and that new thing is the modern text. Rhetoric, polemics, and our desire for “science” has clouded the conversation greatly. Put aside the rhetoric, the name calling, the pejoratives, and test what you, as a Christian, can test – the doctrine. You may know nothing of textual criticism, but you as a Christian are commanded to “try the spirits,” and God has given you the tools to do so. I especially appeal to the consistency of those in the presuppositional camp – if you don’t think you have to learn about geo-rock layers to give a defense for the faith, why do you think you have to learn about genealogical text-critical methods to defend the faith? Demanding that you must learn a scientific discipline to defend the faith is antithetical to presuppositionalism. Those that make such appeals are really just saying that they are evidentialists. Instead of appealing to apologetics, councils, and your favorite scholar, try answering this basic question: Do the Scriptures teach that they will fall away, even partially?
Consider this basic exegesis of Matthew 5:18:
The text expressly sets forth that Jesus came to establish exactly what was said about Him from the Old Testament Scriptures, and the perpetuity of that establishment until all is fulfilled on the Last Day. From good and necessary consequence, we can also establish that the means that He will continue fulfilling that law will also continue in perpetuity until all is fulfilled. In the latter days, the means God uses to “make men wise unto salvation” are His Holy Scriptures (2 Tim. 3:15-16; Heb. 1:1). So while there is no text that says literally, “The Old and New Testament will be preserved perfectly,” the Old and New Testament are the means God uses to fulfill His purpose, and therefore “shall in no wise pass.” If the means of the fulfillment pass away, so too does the fulfillment of Christ’s ministry. Therefore, this is a legitimate inference from the text of Holy Scripture that is both good and necessary. This being the Scriptural standard, we then can look at passages like Psalm 12:6 -7 and see the nature of preservation:
“The words of the LORD are pure words: As silver tried in a furnace of earth, purified seven times. Thou shalt keep them, O LORD, Thou shalt preserve them from this generation for ever”
This is again affirmed in Matthew 24:35:
“Heaven and earth shall pass away, but my words shall not pass away.”
Finally, ask yourself this question: Is the Holy Scripture God’s words?
“All Scripture is given by inspiration of God” (2 Tim. 3:16).
It is clear that the Scriptures do teach this doctrine, the problem is that many Christians simply do not believe it.