The Theology of the Text: Is "Text Criticism" Necessary?

This article is the fourth in the series called “The Theology of the Text,” designed to cover the topic of the text in short, accessible articles. 

The Theology of the Text Part IV: Is “Text Criticism” Necessary??

Due to the nature of transmission, or how the Bible was copied and used, comparing and correcting manuscripts has been a practice done by Christians since the beginning of the church. When copies were made, scribes made various types of natural errors which resulted in different spellings, omission of words, skipped lines, duplicated lines, and so forth. Some men of little faith, or perhaps hostile to the Christian faith, also edited the Scriptures according to their own doctrinal errors. This is especially the case during times where the church was fighting for orthodoxy during the time of Christological controversies leading up to and during the Nicene period. Starting with the Scriptural truth that God has preserved His Word for the purpose of saving and sanctifying men, Christians can rightly believe that text delivered to the church by God through inspiration has been kept pure today, despite the existence of errors and intentional corruptions in extant manuscripts. 

The question that many people have is, “How was this accomplished? Don’t we need text-criticism? Hasn’t the church always practiced text-criticism?” Despite the gainsayers, who say that the Bible was corrupted irreconcilably early in the transmission of the Scriptures, Christians affirm against this notion. By God’s providential oversight, scribes, which created manuscripts for the church, made faithful copies to be read and preached from, and did not willingly add or subtract to the text without the people of God noticing (Heb. 1:3; Isa. 46:10,11; Mat. 10:29-31). Any error made would be recognized, either by another scribe who noticed a natural error, or by those that used the manuscript, who were familiar with other manuscripts available in every age. Some call this process “text-criticism,” though the term isn’t accurate if the modern definition is used. These transmitters of the Scriptures were not re-inspired, but guided by God’s providence. Manuscripts of completely poor quality would have been recognized in the generation they were created, and either stored or discarded. Many manuscripts bearing such poor qualities have been preserved by their storage or disposal in old monasteries or trash heaps. Christians, like the men of faith of old before them, were deeply concerned with the fidelity of their copies of Holy Scripture. 

In every generation, there have been men who affirm against this truth, even today within mainstream, conservative evangelicalism. The notion that the Scriptures came down to modernity pure has even been called “textual mythology” by popular conservative voices. The first three articles in this series demonstrate the folly of such a belief. Christians should not be dismayed or swayed by such unfaithfulness.

Now to the topic at hand, text criticism. It is important to note that not all text-criticism is alike, and many practices called text criticism are erroneously called such. There is a common myth propagated in the seminaries and at a popular level that higher criticism and lower criticism are completely divorced from one another. This may be somewhat accurate by definition, but is demonstrably false is it pertains to the actual “text criticism” practiced today. It should also be noted that historical practices of transmission which were not critical in nature have been erroneously deemed “text criticism” by modern scholars, typically to justify many of the methods being employed today. Many modern scholars deem themselves text-critical heroes responsible for restoring God’s Word to the church, which they believe has fallen away. It is important to recognize that anybody who declares that Scripture has fallen away is not a “hero,” but is in error. Rather than confuse the conversation by employing ambiguous terms like “text criticism” to describe scribal practices, it is more accurate to simply say that the people of God faithfully transmitted the Scriptures by comparing and copying manuscripts in every age.

The errors in the extant manuscripts do not “prove” that the Scriptures are totally corrupt to such a degree that they must be reconstructed, nor does the testimony of unfaithful men who have stepped beyond the simple process of receiving, comparing, and propagating the original text “prove” that the Scriptures were not kept pure in all ages. The existence of manuscripts of particularly poor quality simply demonstrates that these manuscripts existed at one point. Christians should recognize that manuscripts of such suspect origin and poor quality should not be used as the foundation for any doctrine. Many choose to believe that scribes and the people of God in history would have been too dumb, or perhaps too flippant or ignorant, to take appropriate care of the transmission of manuscripts. This points to the reality that text-criticism as it exists today, steps far beyond the practice of receiving, comparing, reproducing approved manuscripts for use in the church. 

Conclusion

Biblical “text-criticism” is simply the process of collecting, comparing, and producing manuscripts or editions with the readings passed down through the history of the church. This process was accomplished in every age of the church, by the people who used those manuscripts in churches. The first time this practice was implemented in print was during the 16th century, shortly after the printing press was introduced into Europe. The doctrinal position that the Scriptures needed to be “reconstructed” from manuscripts no longer in use did not become the objective of orthodox Christian textual scholars until the modern period. In later articles in this series, I will examine the different kinds of text criticism, and the use of the extant manuscript data today. Theologically, Christians affirm that the methods employed in comparing and reproducing manuscripts in history did not cause additions to, or subtractions from, the Biblical text as a whole as it was transmitted. 

“Although we give to the Scriptures absolute integrity, we do not therefore think that the copyists and printers were inspired, but only that the providence of God watched over the copying of the sacred books, so that although many errors might have crept in, it has not so happened (or they have not so crept into the manuscripts) but that they can be easily corrected by a collation of others (or with the Scriptures themselves)”

Francis Turretin. Institutes of Elenctic Theology. Vol. 1. 73.

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