The Difference Between Appeals to Authority and Appeals to Providence

Introduction

Recently, the claim was made that appeals to God’s providence are the same as appeals to authority regarding the Received Text. The argument goes, that TR advocates simply appeal to the authority of those that used the TR in history to justify retaining the historical text of the Protestants. This argument presents the case that the defense of the TR is simply a dull-minded and lazy appeal to theologians of the past, and for those that have not investigated the argument, it likely is convincing. While it is important to be clear as to why we appeal to a particular authority, it is false that an appeal to God’s providential use of means is categorically the same as a fallacious appeal to authority.

The Westminster Confession of Faith says, 

“God the great Creator of all things doth uphold, direct, dispose, and govern all creatures, actions, and things, from the greatest even to the elast, by His most wise and holy providence, according to His infallible foreknowledge, and the free and immutable counsel of His own will, to the praise of the glory of His wisdom, power, justice, goodness, and mercy”

(WCF 5.1)

An appeal to God’s providence is an appeal to God working in all things, not an appeal to the authority of those means. God uses the means of men preaching the Gospel to bring people to a saving knowledge of God, that does not mean that somebody is saved by the person who delivered the message. The authority is God’s, not the means He uses. Now, that is not to say that Received Text advocates do not make appeals to authority, they do. The same can be said for those in the modern critical text camp.

When a modern evangelical appeals to DA Carson, or John MacArthur, or John Piper, that is exactly what they are doing. In fact, in John Piper’s “sermon” on why the Pericope Adulterae is not Scripture, one of his points is that most scholars do not believe it to be Scripture. It is important to note that not all appeals to authority are necessarily bad. There is a reason people become authorities in various disciplines, and appealing to the scholarship of somebody who has invested their life studying something isn’t immediately fallacious, if that scholarship is well founded. In academic, scholarly, and even casual blog writing, quoting a well reputed scholar is helpful to give external witness to the idea that you are setting forth. Appeals to authority should be done with care, and should not be the entire foundation of an argument, but sometimes an appeal to authority can be helpful, and is often necessary to give an argument more credibility. Regardless of whether or not appeals to authority are good or bad, the real question that I want to answer in this article is, “Are appeals to God’s providence mere appeals to human authority?” 

No They Aren’t

When an appeal is made to God’s providence, the appeal is first to what God has done in time by use of means. At a time where the printing press was introduced to Europe, and the church was going through the most significant revival in the history of Christianity, the first effort of editing handwritten manuscripts into printed editions started taking place. The appeal to providence here is that God worked in this technological improvement to distribute His preserved Word during the time where people could actually use it. This is vindicated by the fact that the Reformation simply doesn’t happen without the distribution of Holy Scripture to the people outside of the Roman church polity. Further, the language capabilities of those men exceeded many of those working in New Testament and Old Testament studies today. Men like Erasmus and Melanchton were champions of teaching the classical languages to proficiency, and as a result, many men knew the languages much better than the average scholar today. Not to be disparaging, but many of the men who teach Greek in seminary demonstrably couldn’t watch an episode of Spongebob in Greek and understand it, count to 20, or even order a sandwich in Greek. Despite this, the modern perspective says, “I have a bigger lexicon, therefore I know Greek better.”

That is not to disrespect the men who hold teaching posts at seminaries, or men who have learned Greek at seminaries, it is just a gentle reminder that owning a bigger dictionary than Shakespeare doesn’t make one better at English than Shakespeare. The goal of seminary Greek is exegesis and use of tools, not fluency. This approach serves its purpose when used appropriately and with a bit of humility. The problem is that this approach is often used inappropriately, and without much humility. Simply knowing grammar doesn’t make one qualified to translate a text. You wouldn’t hire somebody who knew the grammar of Spanish to be a Spanish translator unless they also knew the nuances and idioms of Spanish. This requires fluency.

Appealing to the language skills and theology of the men of the 16th century is not an appeal to authority, it’s an appeal to the fact that they were simply more adept at languages and theology than most modern scholars, and thus more capable of examining evidence and translating than these scholars. If you’ve ever watched a modern pastor “Go back to the Greek” in a sermon, and know anything about languages, you know this is true. Today, the Biblical languages are viewed as mystical symbols which surpass the normal value of words in any other language, to the point where it’s actually damaging to modern exegesis. 

So are “appeals to authority” used by those in the Received Text camp? Yes, if appeals to authority means appeals to the skills of those men. Yet those appeals are not the foundation of the Received Text argument, they simply point out the weakness of modern thinking. It is important to distinguish between the means God uses by His providential care, and the authority of those means apart from God’s providential oversight. The crux of the Received Text argument is that in time, and by God’s providence, the manuscripts which were providentially kept pure were received, examined, edited, and printed. These printed editions were tried, tested, edited, and reached a point of maturity in Beza’s text where the Protestant church accepted it as the main text from which translations should be made.

Hyper focusing on the early editions of that process misses the point of the argument completely. The fountainhead of the textual effort in the 16th century does not represent the full breadth of that effort. The orthodox did not believe that the text was a “reconstruction,” they believed it had been “kept pure in all ages.” The text was received, not lost. The appeal to providence is not an appeal to the authority of those that received that text, it is first an appeal that the Scriptures had not fallen away prior to the 16th century effort , and secondly to the fact that the text was received almost universally by the late 16th century and into the high orthodox period. It is an appeal to God doing an extraordinary work through ordinary means, not an appeal to the authority of those means. There certainly is a powerful argument to be made by comparing the skill set of the 16th century scholars to many modern scholars, but that is a secondary appeal, not the foundation.

Conclusion

At this point in the discussion, the real issue is not about which Greek text is “better.” It is about “Which Greek text” is the text that should be used. By God’s providence, the fruit of modern text criticism is doubt, unbelief, and skepticism towards the Word of God. It has resulted in the belief that a proper translation cannot possibly be made that accurately reflects the original Biblical languages. It has produced the mindset that if Christians really want to know what God said, they have to go back to the Greek and study text criticism. It has revealed that if Christians cannot claim intellectual authority over the Scriptures, they are unwilling to believe that the Scriptures have been preserved. If men and women honestly believe that the modern effort of text criticism is “the same” as what has been done historically, there is nothing really more to say. Ironically, the strong trust in authorities has led to this kind of thinking. Since all of the authorities are saying, “We know Greek better” and “We have better data,” modern evangelicals have bought into the idea that our modern Greek scholars are standing on the pinnacle of knowledge in church history. There are certainly cases where the great scholars of the past were wrong, and very much so. However, these errors should not used to assume they were wrong in every case. Further, the amount of data that the 16th century scholars had is irrelevant to the conversation of God’s providence, because by God’s providence, they had the right data at the right time. It may be the case that having access to more data makes one a better scholar, but perhaps it is more wise and humble, in our modern context, to view the scholarship of the past with slightly more respect than it is currently given.

While appeals to authority are not the foundation of the Received Text argument, it is warranted to discern the actual skill set of the authorities we trust. If a pastor is not aware the wealth of new ideas in text criticism over the last decade, perhaps they should avoid making comments on the discussion that assume axioms that have evolved or have been abandoned. If a Greek scholar cannot translate an episode of Spongebob from Greek to English, should they be making determinations on the text of Holy Scripture? That also applies to the average person who thinks they know Greek because they can use Biblehub or some other lexicon. People wouldn’t do that with any other language, and yet with the Biblical languages it is allowed for some strange reason. The men at the time of the Reformation could debate in the original Biblical languages. They wrote treaties from scratch in Latin and Greek. They didn’t need a Greek lexicon because they actually knew Greek. Yet we still say, “We know better.” Perhaps it’s time, in our modern context, to become students of the great theologians of the past again, rather than asserting our intellectual superiority over them. In a time where the church is fighting downgrades in every category of theology, it seems a return to the old paths would be greatly beneficial to all. In any case, it should be clear, that an appeal to providence is not a fallacious appeal to authority. They are two different categories, and should be treated as such. The theologians and scholars could have been equally yoked with the modern scholars in their language skills, and by God’s providence, had the right theological framework and the right manuscripts, to be the means God used to continue delivering His pure Word to the church.

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