The Modern Critical Text(s) and Inerrancy

Introduction

In the new year, I have written a handful of articles demonstrating why the modern critical text should not be used. 

  1. It was conceived in 1881 by rule-breaking (Link)
  2. The reconstruction effort is not  justified (Link)
  3. It is a new text that does not stand in the “classic mainstream” of Tyndale, and therefore the burden of proof is on its advocates to justify its continued use (Link)
  4. The Bible teaches preservation, and the modern critical text shows itself to be a corrupt text (Link)

In this article, I want to comment on how the “new and better” data actually condemns the continued use of the modern critical text(s) by showing how it does not comport with the modern, downgraded doctrine of inerrancy. Again, I’ll remind the reader that the modern critical text is not “a” text, but a collection of texts. It is also important to note that what is “new” to us is not new to the church throughout history. At one point, a manuscript that we are calling “new” had some amount of exposure to people. So when we hear the claim that we have “new data,” we need to remember that it is properly “new to us.” At one point, that data was available to some degree or another, and for whatever reason, it ended up buried, thrown out, or destroyed. 

“New and Better”

A common refrain among those that advocate for the modern critical text is that, “if the Reformed had the data we do now, they would adopt the modern critical text.” The claim itself is something that needs to be examined, because I’ve never actually seen somebody explain what about the new data would convince the historically Reformed to adopt the modern critical text. I want to take a critical look at this argument and attempt first define what is being said when this claim is made. Let’s start by stating that it is true, that if by “new data” we mean “new manuscript discoveries,” we certainly do have new data that the Reformed did not have. That being said, new manuscripts do not necessarily mean new readings. In the case that a manuscript discovery yields new readings, then that is truly “new” data. In the case that a manuscript discovery yields the same readings as other New Testament witnesses, then it is less significant as it serves as a supporting data point. In other words, the manuscript may be new to us, but that doesn’t mean that the new manuscript has provided any new readings. So if somebody truly wants to make this argument, it is more important to discuss whether our “new data” introduces a new reading that the Reformed did not have, and then to make a case for the quality of that reading. I have yet to see any sort of analysis of this kind. 

The real question to ask, is what is so compelling about these “new” data points that would cause the Reformed to adopt a different text platform? Do the standards set forth by the modern critical methods measure up to the standards of the Reformed? 

There are certain quality control measures that are unfortunately set aside when a “new” witness is found and catalogued. Due to the axioms of modern textual criticism, all new pieces of evidence are considered as valuable as the next, because it is not a method that considers orthodox doctrine, faith, providence, or the church. So it does not matter to the modern critical text machine if a witness was found in a trash heap or non-orthodox monastery, contains readings that present heterodox doctrines or remove orthodox doctrines, or contain a multitude of idiosyncratic readings and grammar errors. If a manuscript is found that can be dated in the first 1,000 years of the New Testament church, it is considered more valuable than the manuscripts used after 1,000 AD, regardless of the quality. It is actually built into the axioms of modern textual criticism to prefer readings that are short, abrupt, grammatically difficult or less harmonious. 

Herein lies the greatest problem with evangelicals claiming that this “new” data is better than the vast majority of manuscripts and that the Reformed would adopt this “new” data as authentic if they had access to it. Those making these claims never consider the theology and methods of the Reformed against the theology and methods that produce the modern critical text. Further, those making these claims do not usually consider the theology of modern conservative evangelicalism against the theology and methods that produce the modern critical text. The standard which would make that data “better” is completely ignored, especially if one holds to the doctrine that God has preserved the meaning of the Bible, but not the words. Though the doctrine of inerrancy says nothing in terms of the material text of New Testament witnesses, it still assumes that doctrine hasn’t changed over time. This is necessary if one wants to say the Bible is without error in all that it teaches. If something is without error, then it must not change. Change indicates that something has gotten better or worse, and therefore a changing Bible is one that is either becoming inerrant or was inerrant and no longer is. The nature of preservation from an innerancy perspective is that the change of words hasn’t introduced any doctrinal changes. If this is the case, why is that not factored into the evaluation of “new” data? Yet modern textual scholars openly admit that the “new data” produced by the CBGM could change doctrine, theology, preaching, and so forth. The evaluation of the new data produced by the CBGM actually discredits the doctrine of inerrancy because it admits that the Bible is moving towards an improved form. In fact, any text critical method that has at its foundation a changing, uncertain text necessarily denies an inerrant text. 

What this means is that evangelicals should not be excited about “new” data, even by our low theological standards. If innerancy says that the Bible is without error in all that it teaches, what is the doctrinal support for adopting “new” readings without considering the doctrinal impact? If the doctrines are not without error, and doctrines will likely change, that means that the doctrine of inerrancy must be qualified further than it is now or redefined. It needs to be redefined as “The Bible is without error in much of what it teaches.”  Does inerrancy only apply to certain verses and not others? Further, the doctrine of inerrancy is not properly a doctrine that is identified with the material text itself, just the sense or doctrines. In other words, inerrancy is really just a doctrine of Biblical interpretation. The doctrine of inerrancy is not touched by a changing text because innerancy doesn’t have anything to do with the text – it has to do with how we interpret the text. If the text changes, but our interpretation of the text does not, then a passage can be considered inerrant. 


That is to say, that “new and better” data actually doesn’t even matter in terms of inerrancy or the Bible. It is of no concern that the modern critical text is changing because according to this doctrine of Scripture, the text itself is not the material foundation of doctrine. The continued effort of textual criticism is a complete waste of time, if the Bible is inerrant. If it is inerrant now, give it a rest, we’re done here. This actually must be the case, if we are to say that the material text can change but the doctrines cannot. Since the doctrines can exist in a stable form apart from a changing text, then the appeal is either to innate theological truth from nature, some other form of revelation, or historical theology (tradition). In order to prove that doctrine hasn’t changed as the material has changed, a regression test would need to be done for every iterative change to the text. It is clear that inerrancy is not a function of the text itself, it is a function of interpretation. So either the material text is changing and the Bible is not inerrant, or the material text is not the primary source of doctrine. The only case in which inerrant doctrine is founded upon a changing material text is if those material changes were matters of words meaning the same things – synonyms, word order, spelling, etc. Since the changes in the modern critical text extend beyond this category, then the plain reality is that the material text is not the thing that is inerrant. According to this view of the text, the Bible is inerrant by virtue of our interpretation, not by virtue of the text itself. 

Conclusion

In order for somebody to hold to both inerrancy and a changing material text, they have to admit that Scripture itself is not the material foundation for doctrine. So when somebody appeals to “new and better” data, they are really making a doctrinal statement about the inerrancy of the Scripture. If it is the case that a previous iteration of Scripture was not inerrant, and that the “new and better” data corrects these errors, then they are saying that the Bible can move from being errant and inerrant, or it is becoming inerrant.  If it is the case that the Bible is inerrant no matter which iteration of Scripture you look at, then it does not matter which Bible one uses, as inerrancy is a function of interpretation, not the text itself. 

The argument that the “Reformers would adopt the modern critical text if they had our new and better data” sounds good on paper. It is easy to imagine, because most of the prominent names in conservative evangelicalism have adopted the modern doctrines of Scripture and the text that goes with it. In fact, that is often the next step in the flow of the argument. “If this text is wrong, why do all the top scholars advocate for it?” Set aside the argument from authority for a second and consider the merits of the text itself. Consider the doctrine of inerrancy, if you hold to it, and try to understand how that works with a changing text. What surprises me the most, is that people who hold to both inerrancy and a changing text have any issues with people who advocate for the traditional text. Since inerrancy doesn’t speak to the material text, just the doctrines, what does it matter that their text is different? It doesn’t appear that they actually have any right to be upset, because inerrancy allegedly affirms that the Bible has not changed in doctrine across all iterations.

Yet, they do have a problem with the traditional text, because it is a materially different text than the modern critical text(s). Not only that, it has doctrinal differences. There is no escaping the reality that the modern critical text and its axioms have not been justified. The greatest defense for this text is the fact that a lot of popular preachers use it. I would bet, however, that a lot of these popular preachers are completely unaware of what is going on in the world of textual scholarship. It is easy to say that the “Reformers would adopt the modern critical text” without actually proving it. It is simple to appeal to a favorite authority in textual scholarship and say, “well if they believe this then I’m sure it’s justified.” It is easier yet to simply defame and mischaracterise your opponents to invalidate their position to those that do not with to think critically. It is much more difficult to make an argument for the critical text(s) that actually works with what the Bible says about itself. It is for this reason that the use of modern critical text(s) is not justified. Not only does it violate the principles set forth in Scripture, it doesn’t even work with the downgraded doctrine of inerrancy. 

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