Different Theological Perspectives on the Text of Holy Scripture

Introduction

In the modern church, there is an abundance of theological views on the text of Holy Scripture. These include higher critical perspectives, neo-orthodoxy, continued revelation, providential preservation, and modern criticism. All of these views understand the essence and purpose of Scripture in different ways. In order to examine these theologically, I will assume a popular definition of inerrancy – that the original manuscripts were without error, and that the text as it is available today is without error in all that it teaches. In this article, I will examine each of these views against the doctrine of inerrancy and the effort of modern text criticism. In examining these perspectives, it should be apparent the similarities and differences between them. 

Higher Critical Perspectives 

There are a wide range of higher critical perspectives of the Scriptures, and typically those that adopt this view reject inerrancy outright, because it involves understanding the Bible as a human product – though many modern views adopt higher critical principles without calling it higher criticism. From this perspective, the study of New Testament scholarship is not concerned with what God has said, but rather, how different faith communities experienced their historical context and expressed that experience in writing. Modern text criticism is friendly to this perspective because the effort of modern text criticism is to detail the history of the manuscript tradition. Higher critical perspectives make a distinction between actual history and how faith communities experienced history. Thus, the Bible is a record of how Christians experienced history, which is said to be different than what actually happened in history.   

Neo-Orthodox Perspectives

There are also a wide range of neo-orthodox perspectives on the text of Holy Scripture, and those that adopt this view typically reject inerrancy, as the Bible is said to contain historical errors from this perspective. In some more extreme views in this camp, the definition of “Scripture” is not set in stone, as anything can become Scripture when the Holy Spirit works in it (Brunner). More common within this view is something closer to Karl Barth, which attempts to remove any human attempt to make God less sovereign or infallible by saying that the Scriptures, as they exist in the Bible, become the Word of God when the Holy Spirit bears witness in the believer’s heart as he reads. In this way, even if the Scriptures are not inerrant, God still speaks infallibly in the Word. The Bible is not the Word of God, Jesus is the Word of God, and the Bible is the artifact of revelation, which testifies to the Word of God, Jesus Christ. This artifact becomes the Word of God when the Holy Spirit works in the believer’s heart. This view is compatible with the modern critical text, because God speaking is not tied to an ontological text, but rather is tied to an ontological God. 

Continued Revelation Perspectives 

This group may affirm inerrancy, but rejects the sufficiency of the Scriptures by affirming that God is still speaking through prophetic words, visions, dreams, and tongues. In other words, God did not speak sufficiently in His Word, because His Word does not contain everything necessary for Christian faith and practice. So while the Scriptures may be without error in everything they teach, the Scriptures do not contain everything needed for faith and practice. In this way, inerrancy is not necessary to affirm, as God is still communicating through other means. This is compatible with modern text criticism because God speaking is not tied to an ontological text, but the experience of a person through various other mediums. People in this camp say that all ongoing revelation must align with Scripture, but that standard rests upon exegesis, not an ontological text. Changes to the text of Scripture are not problematic in this view, because God is still speaking new revelation. That does not mean that everybody who affirms ongoing revelation is fine with a changing text, but the theological foundation does not demand that the text be stable. 

Providential Preservation Perspectives 

This group believes that an ontological text exists, and that the people of God know what it is today (John 10:17). Due to God speaking sufficiently in His Word (2 Tim. 3:16), that word necessarily needs to be available completely. If God immediately inspired His Word, and His Word is not completely available, then God is not speaking infallibly today. This group may affirm inerrancy in theory, but rejects the necessity of an ongoing text-critical effort to reconstruct a lost text. The Bible has been kept pure, and never fell away, and therefore doesn’t need to be reconstructed. Since the means God uses to save and teach men is the Holy Scriptures (2 Tim. 3:15-17; Heb. 1:1), if men are to be saved and taught, those Scriptures must be available today to the degree of “all.” If all Scriptures are not available today, then the church does not have all they need for “instruction in righteousness.” This perspective rejects the view that because men are fallible, the Scriptures must therefore be fallible as well. Those that adhere to providential preservation also reject critical perspectives of the Scriptures. The text was inspired by the Holy Spirit, and thus could not have originally been grammatically harsh, choppy, or abrupt (2 Peter 1:19-21). This camp believes that Christians would have been able to identify changes to the text, and rejected those changes as inauthentic. Text criticism from this perspective excludes any higher critical principles, and thus the first major effort of collating and editing manuscripts is seen as a part of God’s providential process to preserve His Word. Those in this camp believe the text is to be received, not reconstructed. 

Modern Critical Perspectives 

Most people in this group believe that the Scriptures were inerrant in the original manuscripts. Others say that it is impossible to determine if the originals were inerrant, as the apostolic writers could have made a mistake (DC Parker). There is nothing in this method that necessitates Christianity as a foundation. Some in this camp believe that the Scriptures are without error in all they teach today, and others believe that they are without error in what they teach, insofar as we have access to them. Evangelical modern critical perspectives do not perceive that any changes to the text can affect doctrine, though this is often contested by scholars working in the discipline and others who do not adhere to this view.

In this camp, “all Scripture” is not required to be available for Christians to “have what they need.” This perspective believes that orthodox faith communities either engaged in a major recension (Lucian), or a gradual recension over hundreds of years (Wachtel) to conform the Scriptures to Christian orthodoxy and create a stable text platform (Byzantine). This perspective necessitates that by the 2nd, 3rd, and 4th centuries, the text of Scripture was grammatically crude as it was produced originally by a community who was largely uneducated and illiterate. Various Christian faith communities inserted pericopes, updated the text to amplify Christ’s divinity, smoothed out grammar, and added verses to solidify the orthodox perspective on controversial doctrines. In this way it is a close friend to higher critical perspectives of Scripture.

Modern critical perspectives also assert that God did not promise to preserve His Word, so Christians should be grateful that they have what they have, all things considered. Inerrancy is a doctrine that was developed to affirm the historical protestant view of Scripture in light of this perspective, which developed in the 19th century and has been overwhelmingly adopted by the conservative evangelical church today. Exegetical models have also been formed around this perspective, which assert that in order to properly understand Scripture, one must first understand the perspective of the faith communities that produced it. This has resulted in various reinterpretations of Pauline theology and different translational choices in modern Old Testaments, which prefer readings that are more compatible with modern interpretations of Hebrew faith communities. 

Conclusion

The greatest challenge facing the Christian church today is the shifting perspectives on the text of Holy Scripture. The modern critical perspective has actually made room for various heterodox views which attempt to make theological sense of how Christians are to view the Bible as it is defined by critical perspectives. If the Bible is not preserved, or we do not have access to that preserved Bible, how are Christians supposed to hear the voice of their Shepherd? Neo-orthodoxy is actually a great theological response to this, ironically enough. The issue in this discussion is that Christians are unwilling to admit that what is called “modern text criticism” is actually a function of higher critical principles. The text criticism done today is not simply a process of comparing manuscripts and selecting the original readings, the selection of readings is driven largely by critical theories. 

Many people assume that those in the Received Text camp have an issue with “text-criticism.” This is false. Text-criticism does not always mean reconstruction. Scribes who created copies from multiple exemplars were “text-critics” of sorts. The theologians and scholars of the 16th century were “text-critics” because they created editions of the New Testament from various manuscripts. The problem is not “text-criticism,” the problem is with modern text-criticism. In its first premise, it assumes that God has let His Word fall away, and that we do not have it today. In its second premise, it assumes that in order to have God’s Word at all, scholars need to reconstruct the text using critical principles, which do not take into consideration inspiration, preservation, or the Holy Spirit. In its third premise, it asserts that the text of the Reformation is errant, and must be rejected. There is nothing inherently Christian at all about the axioms of modern text-criticism.  

The assumption of the proponents of modern text criticism is that the 16th century effort of text criticism was one in kind with the modern effort, and therefore justified. The plain reality is that it is not. The “lower criticism” of the modern critical text is heavily driven by higher critical principles, which are demonstrated in its axioms. Until Christians admit this, the modern critical perspective of the Scriptures will continue to dominate the academy and the church. The theological dilemma introduced by modern text criticism necessitates external methods of authentication. Ironically, the method chosen as the foundation for the “great accuracy” of the modern critical text, opens the door for ongoing revelation, neo-orthodoxy, and other heterodox views of Holy Scripture.

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