What We Believe About Holy Scripture

Recently, I wrote an article entitled, “Yes, The Bible Teaches Preservation,” to address the reality that modern evangelical scholars have abandoned the historical protestant doctrine that says that we have the Bible today in its original form. This doctrine is enabled by the Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy, which only speaks to inerrancy in the original autographs of the Scriptures. In this blog, I have set forth that the most faithful position on the Holy Scriptures is that of providential preservation, not inerrancy. The modern doctrine of inerrancy only affirms that the Scriptures we have today can be ascertained with “great accuracy” according to what the modern text-critical scholars determine. An article from Ligonier puts it this way:

“In sum, the Bible is entirely truthful and has no errors at all in the original manuscripts that the prophets and Apostles actually wrote. We do not today possess these manuscripts, but through the process of textual criticism, we can recover the original wording of the manuscripts with a high degree of certainty.”

So then, the inerrancy of the Bibles we have today in our possession are entirely determinant on the text-criticism of modern scholars, who uniformly say, 

“We do not have now – in our critical Greek texts or any of our 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

The important part of that statement is the last sentence, “Even if we did, we would not know it.” This is an honest admission, and it is completely accurate, if the method of authentication is the text critical principles employed to make modern critical Greek texts. Since the doctrine of inerrancy sets forth that the Bible’s accuracy is determined by textual criticism, it is really saying that “greatly accurate” means, “we’re not actually sure how accurate it is.” I reject this model of authentication, as it is not Scriptural. The methods of text-criticism are entirely bound to the extant manuscript data, which does not date back to the time of the Apostles. It assumes that the only evidence that matters is what has survived, even though the stationary the Biblical writers used, in most cases, had a maximum shelf life of 500 years. It further assumes that the previous generations were not given the “best” data to receive the Scriptures from the generation before it, which puts the modern church in a terrible predicament.

Even though we do have 2nd and 3rd century manuscripts, none of these are complete enough to make an entire Greek New Testament. The most complete New Testament manuscripts come from the fourth century and later, and so there is no way to determine, according to text-critical principles, what the text looked like prior to that point. There is no way to tell which verses were added, removed, and changed in the two or three hundred year gap between the Apostles and the earliest complete copies. In fact, nearly all of the evangelical scholars say that the text evolved due to Christian tampering. 

Further, the earliest copies look quite different than later copies, so any chance of knowing what the Bible originally said is impossible, according to modern critical principles. Text-critics could reconstruct a Bible that is completely original, and have no idea that they’ve done so, because there is nothing to compare their work against. Critics could just as easily determine an original reading a “later interpolation” as they could a later copyist insertion an “original reading.” Even though the scholars readily admit that,

“It is therefore inadvisable to assume without qualification that earlier is always better, more accurate, or less likely to contain “corruptions” when one of the earliest manuscripts of 1-2 Peter and Jude looks as thought it was written by a copyist who changed the text in places to make a stronger case that Jesus is God”

(Gurry & Hixson, Myths and Mistakes in New Testament Textual Criticism, 92).

In short, the mechanism that gives inerrancy its value to the modern reader of the Bible says nothing meaningful, because it cannot responsibly say that it has delivered the reconstructed Scriptures to the world with “great accuracy.” All it can say is that it has delivered a later version of the Scriptures with great accuracy. Whether or not that version represents the original, nobody can say, if the methods of authentication are the critical principles of men. Scholars may assert that they know some of the places where well meaning Christians “corrupted” the Bible to make it more Christian, but they’ll never know all of the places. The Bible they have reconstructed could just as easily be a gnostic or unitarian version of the Scriptures that was produced during the time when, “The whole world groaned, and was astonished to find itself Arian” (Jerome). When somebody says, “We have what we need,” they are really saying, “I feel that I have all that I need, and you should too.” 

More importantly, does God, the author of the Scriptures, set forth that this is how the Scriptures are to be authenticated? Is the modern articulation of quasi-preservation Biblical? Are we to believe that the Scriptures were corrupted over time by people trying to make them seem more Christian? In the first place, providence declares this not to be the case. The modern critical methods have been employed for almost 200 years now, and the only fruit to show for it is hundreds of new Bibles, none of which are said to be original, and more uncertainty in the text than the orthodox Christian church has ever seen in its 2,000 year history. The theological battle over Scripture is really not all that different than the 16th century, only instead of the church saying it gives the Scriptures weight, conservative Christians are now saying that text criticism gives the Scriptures weight. The only difference is that the textual scholars are not saying they can give the Scriptures the necessary weight, whereas the Roman magisterium did. John Calvin’s words ring especially true today, 

“As if the eternal and inviolable truth of God depended upon the decision of men! For they mock the Holy Spirit when they ask: Who can convince us that these writings came from God? Who can assure us that Scripture has come down whole and intact even to our very day?

Yet, if this is so, what will happen to miserable consciences seeking firm assurance of eternal life if all promises of it consist in and depend solely upon the judgment of men? Will they cease to vacillate and tremble when they receive such an answer? Again, to what mockeries of the impious is our faith subjected, into what suspicion has it fallen among all men, if we believe that it has a precarious authority dependent solely upon the good pleasure of men!”

John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion & 2, ed. John T. McNeill, trans. Ford Lewis Battles, vol. 1, The Library of Christian Classics (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2011), 75.

More important than what textual scholars say about Holy Scripture, is what God says about Holy Scripture. Here is list of truths from Scripture, about Scripture:

  1. God is the author of His Word, which was written by men (1 Peter 1:19-21; 2 Tim. 3:16)
  2. It is the way He speaks to His people now (Heb. 1:1; Isa. 54:13; John 6:45)
  3. It is the means by which men are saved and sanctified (John 5:39;2 Tim. 3:15-17; Rom. 10:17)
  4. It is to be received by men as truth, over and above the witness of men (1 Thess 2:13; 1 John 5:9)
  5. It is what the church is built upon (Eph. 2:20; Acts 15:15)
  6. God’s Word is pure and perfect (Ps. 12:6; 19:7)
  7. God’s Word will not fall away so as long as He is fulfilling His purpose for this world (Matt. 5:18, 24:35; Rom. 3:2)
  8. Man’s inability to understand more difficult teachings of Scripture does not make it less pure (2 Peter 3:16)
  9. God’s people hear God’s voice through the Scriptures by the power of the Holy Spirit (John 10:27; 1 Cor. 2:10-12)

Nowhere in Scripture do we find a warrant to believe that God’s words are only “greatly accurate,” or that they would fall away and need to be reconstructed. Nowhere do we find that God would only speak in the original texts perfectly, and let His Word be played with by His people to amplify what He said. God’s Word is intimately connected with His covenant purpose to save a people unto Himself, and what we say about His Word is what we say about His purpose, work, and character. What we say about the preservation of the Scriptures is what we say about His continued work in history, because the Scriptures are how He accomplishes that work. What we say about the Scriptures, we say about God Himself, because the Scriptures are how He has spoken. Many Christians have adopted these perspectives without considering the implications. The fact is, if you’re an average Christian, unfamiliar to this conversation, you likely are not comfortable acknowledging what the scholars accept as cold, hard truth. You read your Bible as you should, with certainty that God is speaking to you in His preserved Word.

If we say that God has only preserved “some of His Word,” well, then perhaps He’s only preserved some of His people. It’s completely reasonable to believe, if we take the methods of the modern scholars as true, that the whole idea of Jesus returning on the Last Day is a later invention. If God did not continuously preserve His Word, even the scribes our earliest manuscripts could have added these details. There is nothing that Christians can possibly say to this, if our hope is placed on the evaluation of manuscripts by textual scholars. The fact is, modern evangelical scholars, pastors, and theologians fundamentally agree with Bart Ehrman on the text of Holy Scripture. The only difference is their conclusion, that, “It really doesn’t matter that the Scriptures are corrupt.” In other words, Christians would rather have faith that the Scriptures are still powerful to “get the job done,” despite being corrupted, rather than believe that they have been kept pure in all ages.

Why is it the case that Christians believe God is big enough to preserve the orbit of the planets but not His Word? Rather than assuming on behalf of God that He is not under any obligation to preserve the Scriptures (Jongkind, An Introduction to the Greek New Testament. 90), Christians should believe that He has lovingly and graciously given His people an infallible rule of faith! If you say that God simply didn’t want to preserve the Scriptures, the means that God uses to make men wise unto salvation (2 Tim. 3:15), you should be just as comfortable saying that God simply didn’t want to save man. Christians act like rejecting the preservation of the Holy Scriptures is some benign theological opinion. I have heard, on countless occasions, that this is simply not a fight worth fighting because there are other “more important issues.” What could possibly be more important than fighting for the truth that God has given His church an infallible rule to be saved by? What despair do we subject the people of God to for the sake of having a few star pupils in the lion’s den? Universities and churches invite men like Bart Ehrman into the sanctuary to evangelize this dangerous doctrine, and act like it is honorable to do so.

If the Scriptures have fallen away, what exactly are we doing here, Christian? What does it matter that we fight tooth and nail against liberal Christianity if the standard we use to rule doctrines “liberal” is just a fourth century iteration of Christianity that cannot be shown to represent the Apostolic iteration of Christianity? If the text of Holy Scripture fell away, even in part, who is to say that what we consider the “fundamentals” of Christianity weren’t the machinations of some early Christians trying to “emphasize the deity of Jesus” (Myths and Mistakes in New Testament Textual Criticism, 91). What right do we have to sanctimoniously stand on “God’s inerrant word” if we believe that it was only inerrant in the originals, which we do not have and cannot know? The answer is none. We have no reason to responsibly judge any other version of Christianity, because we’ve simply selected the version that we like the best. If it is our job to “reconstruct” the New Testament, then there is nothing wrong with others reconstructing Christianity. 

Conclusion

Modern Christians suffer from serious amnesia when it comes to the Reformation. They forget what the Roman Catholic church was saying, and the Protestant response. If Christians are to have any claim to an absolute standard of truth, that standard must be self-authenticating. The Scriptures were not developed according to the fancies of Christian faith communities over 2,000 years, as the “lower critics” assert. They were faithfully transmitted by the people of God by the sure hand of God’s providence. The historic Christian belief is that they were “kept pure in all ages.” Rejecting the purity of the Scriptures is one of the most grave theological errors in the modern period because it upsets the whole of the Gospel. How can one say that “This is the message that ye heard from the beginning” if we do not know what that beginning message said? It is completely useless to say that the message from the beginning was perfect if we do not have that message now. I’m afraid that our need to be apologetically relevant to the atheists, higher critics, and muslims has caused Christians to reject that only sound standard of truth that can stand against the gates of hell. 

Calvinists love to appeal to the doctrines of the Reformation, especially Sola Scriptura, while inconsistently affirming the theological axioms of the modern critical text. The two are at odds with each other. The rise of historical criticism and neo-orthodoxy sent the world spinning, and instead of fighting the same fight as the Reformers, theologians of the 19th and 20th centuries reinterpreted the Westminster Confession and retreated back to the doctrine of inerrancy – a doctrine which stands and falls on the determinations of textual scholars. And the methods of textual scholars include “lower” critical theories such as “expansion of piety” and that the text evolved according to Christian faith communities. The culture of celebrity pastors and theologians has made it such that the average Christian cannot even have an opinion on the matter. “My favorite pastor believes this, are you saying you have better insight than them? Are you saying you have perfect discernment?” Apparently you have to be omniscient to know that this is not Scriptural. While Christians sit around exalting their favorite theologians, the people of God are “destroyed for lack of knowledge.” 

In all of my conversations on this topic with the average Christian, 99% of them do not know what the scholars are saying. When I quote them directly, they point me to a James White video, wherein he sets forth the same principles as the scholars, with more mention of bike riding, travel destinations, and debates. Ultimately it comes down to two major theological positions:

  1. The Old Testament in Hebrew, and the New Testament in Greek, being immediately inspired by God, and by His singular care and providence kept pure in all ages, and therefore authentic
  2. The Bible was entirely truthful and had no errors in the original manuscripts, but we do not today possess those manuscripts, and we cannot determine what they originally said. Even if we could, we would not know it. 

The conversation of “Which text did God keep pure?” is completely irrelevant until Christians actually believe that He has kept them pure and do not need reconstruction. Discussions regarding textual variants are meaningless if the method that authenticates a variant has nothing to say about the originality of it. The Bible version you read is irrelevant if you do not believe that any of them are the inspired Word of God handed down through the ages. The common belief in the modern Christian church is that “no Bible is perfect.” If this is the case, what exactly must we do to access God’s inerrant Word? What exactly are we reading when we open our Bibles? Christians must first believe that God has inspired His Word, preserved it, and delivered it. Only then can a meaningful conversation take place over “text type” and translation.

5 thoughts on “What We Believe About Holy Scripture

  1. I 100% agree with your ultimate points here, and I greatly appreciate the article. Clearly, though, there was some manner of making decisions about the text that was done by human men at the time of the publication of the TR, and I think that’s where the sticking point is for a lot of people. Can it be shown that their “brand” of ‘textual criticism’ (if I may use that term) was qualitatively different that what we see today? I certainly believe that it can be, but the question remains: could we recapture those methods today, or have their methods been rendered impossible in the modern era due to the fact that the text has been mass-produced for the last 400-500 years? In other words, does the historical fact of the printing and continued use of the TR for centuries essentially fix the text into a certain form because it was providentially used of God throughout those centuries? And if so, how can we hold forth that what got printed in the TR was actually the text that was preserved for the most Christian people during the centuries prior given that some of the readings in the TR are actually different that the majority text?

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      1. Fabulous! Thank you! I had read that before (and incorporated a lot of that into my thinking), but reading it again today was certainly helpful.

        Would it be a valid criticism to say that the text produced by Beza and Stephanus was not completely representative of what the majority of the church had preserved for them in the 1500 years prior? Or are we saying that the majority of the church actually used words along the lines of what Beza put together, even though they knew that some of their manuscripts were off in a few places?

        I guess it’s the disconnect between the first century and the sixteenth that is the final hurdle to a slam dunk case. I am on board with the confessional text position, but not all of the puzzle pieces have been connected in that particular area just yet in my own mind. I believe there is a connection, but I don’t know enough about it to articulate it. Do you have an article on that?

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      2. Hi Corey! Thanks again for the comment. I’ll try to answer your questions here as best as I can, but I think you’re right – an article would certainly be helpful on the topic.

        1. Would it be a valid criticism to say that the text produced by Beza and Stephanus was not completely MT?

        Yes, that is fair to say, though we simply do not know what the manuscript evidence looked like during their time. We know Stephanus’ son destroyed his library, and according to Beza, Stephanus’ text was made with 15+ mss. Many scholars will push back at this fact, but the reality is they simply cannot make a negative determination. Modern scholars are often quite overconfident that what we have today is the best the mss have ever been. This is the major weakness I see with the majority text position as a whole – what is majority can change as mss are destroyed/found. Further, I never found it quite compelling that the majority reading = original. The New Testament had corruptions introduced early on, which means some majority readings could be early corruptions that were copied a lot. I like to think of it this way: The 16th century process was taking place when churches were still using manuscripts, and thus they had the best insight on the value of manuscripts churches actually used. It is that kind of insight that we will never have, or be able to reproduce. So they could have chosen a minority reading, which to us, today, seems absurd, but in their time, it is completely possible that the reading was a slam dunk, and we only see it as absurd because we’ve lost so many mss. We also have essentially zero perspective on the mss. If you read the commentary on the mss they used at the time, they all seem to have a knowledge of “ancient and approved copies.” Scholars like to downplay this as they were “misinformed,” but I’m afraid our modern scholars view their knowledge too highly.

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