Providential Preservation and the Modern Critical Texts

Introduction

There are many cases that I have seen where somebody who advocates for the modern critical text uses the theological language, “Providential Preservation.” This is typically due to the person not understanding the current state of modern textual criticism. There have been many developments that have been adopted in the mainstream of textual scholarship that disallow this language from being used responsibly. This problem demonstrates a major fork in the road for those in the confessionally Reformed camp because the confession teaches that the Word of God has been “kept pure in all ages” by God’s “singular care and providence.” This is problematic because the axioms of modern textual criticism do not recognize providence, inspiration, or the Holy Spirit. In fact, the axioms of modern textual criticism assume that the manuscript evidence is no different than any other work of antiquity. Evangelical textual scholars may personally believe that the text has been preserved, but there is nothing in the axioms of their method that even come close to incorporating these truths about Scripture. That means that the modern critical texts have readings that stand against the theological reality that God has preserved His Word providentially. In other words, the modern critical texts have readings that are unique to a smattering of manuscripts, often times just one or two manuscripts, that were rejected by the church through the ages. These readings were rejected by way of fixing them as the manuscripts were copied en masse, excluded from printed editions after the printing press, or directly condemned as corruptions in theological commentary on these readings. 

This is due to the modern critical texts being derived from various textual theories that do not assume a supernatural preservation process, or consider the Holy Spirit speaking to His church in time. The readings used for hundreds of years by the people of God can be wrong, because the axioms of modern textual criticism do not consider the internal witness of the Holy Spirit, or inspiration, or infallibility, or even inerrancy for that matter. These readings are now adopted, not because of providence, but because of textual theories and mythology that overvalue certain manuscripts of suspect origin and low quality. What Christians need to understand, is that these textual theories in some cases have been utterly refuted (like Hort’s theory on Vaticanus), and others (like genealogical models and the initial text), are unproven at best and a fool’s errand at worst. The reality is, if a textual methodology is based on the assumption that the extant manuscripts formerly called the “Alexandrian Family” are standing in any sort of mainstream textual tradition of the church, that textual methodology is flawed and not based on providence. Further, any textual methodology that assumes a reconstruction of the text needs to be done is not based on providence. 

Controversy Surrounding the Continued Use of the Term “Providence”

The Reformed church cannot escape the doctrine of Scripture as set forth in the Puritan era confessions. The language used was written carefully and precisely. This makes reinterpretations of the confessions difficult, though in the case of the modern doctrine of Scripture, this has been done. Fortunately, the authors of the 17th century Puritan confessions were so precise, that this sort of reinterpretation is near impossible without adding new terms and definitions, like inerrancy. What the church needs to know is that the text-critical context of Warfield is much different than the text critical context of today. What Warfield said about Scripture in the 19th and 20th century is out of its scope now, and can no longer be responsibly applied to the current state of affairs in modern textual criticism. The conversation has clearly evolved, and in Warfield’s day, terms like “the original” meant something completely different than they do today. Even doctrinal statements like the Chicago Statement on Biblical inerrancy is outdated due to the introduction of new terms and evolution of old terms. That means that theologians, scholars, and pastors can employ terms like providence, inerrancy, and infallibility while operating on stale definitions and be none the wiser. The problem with this is that somebody can make the same statement regarding Scripture as Warfield or even R.C. Sproul, and that statement will mean something entirely different than it did in their context.

During Warfield’s time, the term “original” was clear. It meant the autographic text. This definition continued to be employed in this way until very recently within the bounds of textual scholarship. The effort of modern textual criticism was geared towards reconstructing this original, and so while the same problems still existed within modern critical methods, it was still based on clear, definite terms. Due to the introduction of the “Initial Text,” the doctrinal formulations of the 20th century are plainly outdated. The reason for this is due to the fact that the Initial Text is not the same, by definition, as the original text or autographs. If we define this conservatively, it is the earliest text within the extant manuscript tradition. If we define this less conservatively, it is a hypothetical text that represents no extant manuscripts from which all manuscripts are derived. The latter definition of the Initial Text is often equated with the “original” text by optimistic scholars, but this is clearly on overreach. The axioms which are producing the Initial Text simply cannot speak to whether it is equitous with the original or autographic text. In short, the effort to find the original text as it has been defined historically has been abandoned. The modern critical methods simply cannot reach back farther than the evidence allows. 

This article is not about the efficacy of genealogical text-critical methods, however, it is about providence. The very use of the term “Initial Text” demonstrates that the modern critical methodologies are not compatible with providence. The need for scholars to shift the goal post from “original” to “initial” demonstrates the vacuous nature of modern text-critical methods. They have not produced the original with text-critical methods because they cannot produce the original with text-critical methods. Since the only way to say that modern textual criticism can produce an original is to first introduce new terms which redefine what “original” means, it should abundantly clear that we are standing on different theological grounds than Warfield and even R.C. Sproul. If they were alive today, they may have agreed with the introduction of such terms, but the fact is, they are not around to reevaluate their doctrinal statements according to these developments. What this practically means is that the doctrinal statements developed in the 20th century are inadequate to speak to the texts that are being produced by modern critical methods as they have developed in the last 10 years. They are stale. This being the case, it is irresponsible to continue using historical protestant language which were formulated upon different definitions. In the light of new developments, these doctrinal statements simply do not mean the same thing any longer. There is a need for those in the modern critical text camp to draft new doctrinal statements, because the old simply do not apply to the developments of their discipline. Interestingly enough, the doctrinal statements that have been produced in the recent literature simply articulate that “God didn’t desire us to have the whole thing.”  

The Modern Critical Text is Not a Providential Text and is Not Justified for Use by the Church

The WCF and LBCF both appeal to God’s providence and apply it to the original texts of Holy Scripture in Greek and Hebrew, stating that they have been “kept pure in all ages.” If a text has been kept pure, it has been kept in such a state that it does not need to be reconstructed. This was the belief of the majority of the Protestant church until the end of the 19th century and even into the 20th century by many. So in order to appeal to providence while talking about the Holy Scriptures, one has to believe that the text has been “kept pure” by providence. That does not mean that one manuscript came down pure through the line of textual transmission. It means that the original text of Holy Scripture came down and was used in faithful churches “in all ages.” In order to recognize providence in this process, one must recognize that this preservation took place in time, by people who used these manuscripts.  

In order to recognize providence as a function of preservation, one has to first believe that despite corruptions entering into manuscripts early on in transmission, the original text maintained its purity through the whole of the textual transmission process. That means that no local corruption could contaminate the transmission process as a whole “in all ages.” We should not be so ignorant to believe that there were no corrupt manuscripts created during this process. The quotations of Augustine and Jerome and other theologians of the church prove as much. If God truly preserved His Word, then all transmission narratives must be within the walls of God’s providential hand guiding the process, and the corruptions of “unfaithful men” should be recognized as corruptions, not adopted into the history of textual transmission.

Secondly, in order to recognize God’s providence in transmission, one has to believe that historical events are a function of that providence. Just like God did not use evolution to create man, he did not use an evolutionary process to create His Word. The text did not develop, it was “kept.” Just like mutations arise in creatures over time, mutations arose in the Biblical manuscripts. Just because mutations occur in humans, that does not mean that those mutations arise in all humans. That means that by the time the printing press was introduced into Europe, the textual tradition was still being “kept pure” by God’s providence, and by God’s providence, that technological innovation allowed the church to collect, compare, and print texts which by God’s providence, had been “kept pure.” A survey of commentary on this Reformation effort reveals a lively discussion about the various printed texts during this time, and the readings they did and did not contain. It was not an effort of one man in a closet, despite what some would have you believe. 

That does not mean that the first editions printed represented that text which had been “kept pure.” It was a process, and by God’s providence, it was a process that occurred in a place where the height of language learning was taking also happening. The humanist renaissance sparked a revival of language learning and a return to studying the original Biblical texts and ancient fathers of the church. Many of the Reformers were humanists, such as Luther, Melanchton, Zwingli, and Calvin. Erasmus, “the smartest man alive,” though not theologically in line with the Reformers, was one of the chief satirists and polemicists against the papacy and one of the most brilliant language scholars alive. There has never been, even to this day, a time where so many scholars, with such an in depth knowledge of Biblical  languages, were in the same place at the same time. Never was there a time in history where the church was so united in pursuing the same cause. Never was there a time in history where the effort of creating an edited Greek text was so pure and theologically united. Never will there be another time in history where the church had the perspective on the manuscripts available, because those manuscripts were still being used in churches. If that is not providential, I dare say that nothing is providential. 

Conclusion

The point is this – if one wants to argue that a text is providential, they must argue for the text that was produced providentially, and completed and used in time. The modern critical text is produced with axioms that scorn God’s providence. These axioms say that the only thing God has providentially done in time is let the Scriptures evolve from their original form, and then let the people of God believe that those evolved Scriptures were the true Biblical text. These axioms are the same that say with confidence that the Reformation text is wrong, but also cannot produce the original text, even with all of the “new and better” data. In fact, these axioms are so ineffective that a new term had to be derived, the “Initial Text,” because these axioms say that the original is so far from being providentially preserved that we simply will never have it. According to the axioms of modern textual criticism, “we simply do not have now what the prophets and apostles wrote, and even if we did, we would not know it.” The question for those that still wish to maintain the doctrine of providential preservation is this: Why are we trusting scholars when they say the Reformation text is not original, when they can’t even determine if their own text is original? Would you trust a mechanic who had never fixed a car? Would you trust a surgeon who had never successfully done surgery? Why are we trusting scholars who say that we cannot know what the New Testament originally said to produce Bibles for the church? 

It is time that Christians stop giving lip service to providential preservation, and actually consider what those words mean together. Providential preservation does not mean that “the Bible has been preserved, it’s just been lost.” The text of the church was not preserved in a barrel or a questionable monastery or the Vatican or the sand – it was preserved by churches that actually used that text “in all ages.” It does not mean that God has ordained a wild goose chase for the last 150 years to recover a lost text. The continued effort of reconstructing the Bible is simply not warranted, if we want to continue using the words “providential” and “preservation” together. Those two words, when put together, mean that God actually preserved the text in time. It is attainable, and we have it. Modern critical textual methods do not consider what God has done in time, because they reject the text that was actually used by the people of God in time. In fact, the axioms of modern textual criticism say the opposite, that the text used in time by the people of God is in error. In other words, they reject providence altogether because they say that all providence has produced is an evolved text. We have to go back and find the original Bible because it has been providentially corrupted. The modern critical text is not justified for use among the people of God for this reason. It is a text foreign to the church in time, and it is produced by axioms that say that “we do not have, and never will have, the text.” 

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