One of the major appeals that those in the Received Text camp make to support the continued use of the historical Protestant text over and above the modern critical text, is that the “modern critical text” is an academic text, not an ecclesiastical text. In other words, it is a text produced without the “kind consideration of the church.” This has been challenged by some as a conflation, as there are evangelicals working in text criticism, which means “the church” is involved in the production of “the” modern critical text. It is said that there are indeed evangelicals producing editions of the modern critical text, so it cannot be said that the modern critical text is an “academic text.”
In order to understand this appeal against the modern critical text, it is important to note what is meant by “the” modern critical text as it pertains to this argument. I have written before why I do not typically address niche textual positions and texts, and this is why. In order for a text to be a “church” text, so to speak, it has to actually be created by and used by the people of God. So the Greek texts which may have some evangelical origins may be considered a text produced “within the church,” but if they are not translated into the vulgar tongue for the people of God to use, what good are they to the people of God? These texts are used perhaps by Greek students and academics, but not by churches in the ministry of the Word, which makes them academic texts. Further, and more importantly, the main text platforms that are used for translation into every vulgar tongue, are produced within the scholarly ecosystem, not the church. Many men and women who contribute to the scholarship and editorial work of the Greek texts used for translation are often times not properly evangelicals at all. So while it is great that evangelicals are contributing to the work of textual scholarship, the texts used for translation are those of an academic kind. What is meant then, by “the” modern critical text, is any modern critical edition that is used as a base Greek text for translations used by the church. That being said, I thought it would be helpful to offer some analysis and definitions of an academic text and an ecclesiastical text.
What Makes a Text an Ecclesiastical Text?
There are three necessary criteria which should be used to identify a text as ecclesiastical or academic text – faith, methodology, and use.
Firstly, an ecclesiastical text must be produced by men who affirm the orthodox fundamentals of the Christian religion. They must hear the voice of their Shepherd (John 10:27). This includes affirming the Trinity, verbal plenary inspiration, salvation by grace through faith alone, a literal eternal hell, and so forth. In other words, they must be believers in the “message that ye heard from the beginning” (1 John 3:11). Those that produce a text within the church must be chiefly concerned with God’s glory, and must be orthodox believers themselves. There is no reason that mormons, jesuits, and other non-orthodox scholars should be involved in producing a text made for use in the Christian church. There is no room for an “eccumenical” text to share with religious groups who do not affirm the fundamentals of the Christian faith. The Scriptures were given by inspiration of God for the people of God for instruction in righteousness (2 Tim. 3:16).
Secondly, the methodology of an ecclesiastical text must incorporate Scriptural principles in its axioms, the most important being verbal plenary inspiration. A text made by the church must be bound by what the Scriptures say about themselves.
Thirdly, an ecclesiastical text must be produced for the purpose of being translated so that the people of God can actually use it. A text that is created with no plans for translation is by necessity an academic text, as only students and scholars of the Greek language can make use of it. That is to say, an ecclesiastical text is made for use by the people of God in public and private reading and preaching (1 Thess. 5:27; 2 Tim. 4:2-4). It must benefit the people of God by way of translation in the tongue they speak.
What Makes a Text an Academic Text?
An academic text is one that is produced within the realm of the scholarly community, and typically isn’t primarily motivated by the three principles I laid out above. Those involved in such an effort may not affirm the essentials of the Christian faith, or even consider themselves evangelicals in any sense of the word (1 Tim. 6:3-6). Such texts are produced eccumenically, or perhaps by men and women who do not affirm Christianity at all. Jesuits, Mormons, Unitarians, and theological liberals are often consulted or even included on the teams which produce such texts or whose scholarship influences the textual decisions of these teams. The methods used to produce these texts do not consider inspiration or the Holy Spirit as a necessary axiom. They are produced by academic axioms, driven by the scholarly consensus on what the text of Scripture is or isn’t. Academic texts are not exclusively or necessarily produced due to need by the church in normal use for faith and practice. Many of these academic texts stay in the original Biblical languages, for use by students and scholars for research or language learning purposes. An academic text may be used in the church, but that does not make it a text produced by the church.
In the modern church, academic texts are purposed for translation, but I argue they should not be. Christians should not use a Bible that is not produced by scholars who cannot affirm the fundamentals of the Christian faith. Christians should not use a Bible that is not produced according to methods which agree with Scriptural principles. Further, Christians should not support the production of texts that are not needed, or will not be translated for use by the people of God in the ordinary ministry of the Word.
A true text produced by the church is one that is produced by orthodox believers, using principles which align with what the Scriptures say about themselves, purposed for settling controversy in the original languages and translated into vulgar tongues for ordinary use by the people of God. A text produced by the academy is one that is not exclusively made by believers and which uses principles that are driven by academic and not Scriptural standards. Christians may make use of such texts, but academic texts do not become a church text simply because Christians decide to translate them and use them.
I am not saying that God cannot use unbelievers as means to accomplish His divine decree, He certainly has in history. What I am saying is that Christians should be wise to discern an academic text from an ecclesiastical text, especially considering the church doesn’t need and shouldn’t endorse unbelievers handling a text which they cannot understand by the Spirit. The question is not, “Can unbelievers be used by God to create Bibles?” It is, “Should Christians endorse and support academic texts?” Such a question is quite important for the people of God to answer in our modern context.