The Theology of The Text: Why Not the Modern Critical Text?

This article is the eighth 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: Why Not the Modern Critical Text?

Many Christians in today’s context have never been introduced to the text-criticism discussion beyond what John Piper or John MacArthur say about it. They are told adamantly by their pastors that they have the very Word of God, regardless of which translation they read. They are then told that a countless number of verses were “not originally in Scripture,” and should not be read as original. This is problematic because the scholars who determine which verses were “not originally in Scripture” do not believe that the modern text is the “very Word of God.” 

“We do not have now – in our critical Greek texts or any translations – exactly what the authors of the New Testament wrote. Even if we did, we would not know  it. There are many, many places in which the text of the New Testament is uncertain.”

Gurry & Hixson, Myths and Mistakes in New Testament Textual Criticism, xii. 

“It’s true that human beings need ‘every word that comes from the mouth of God’, but we don’t necessarily need every word all at once…but preservation doesn’t imply constant availability, just as translation doesn’t imply perfection.” 

Richard Brash, How God Preserved the Bible, 62,63

“I do not believe that God is under any obligation to preserve every detail of Scripture for us” 

Dirk Jongkind, An Introduction to the Greek New Testament, 90. 

The evangelicals who advocate for the modern critical text all say that they believe God has preserved His Word somewhere, but that the church doesn’t have all of it today. Even if it was available, they say that there would be no way to determine that what is in the printed Greek texts is original, because the originals are not extant. How is this reconciled with the doctrine of preservation? God must not desire to give His people all of His Word, so what the scholars determine the church has access to must be the very text that God desired the people of God to have today. It is a theology and a text that is conveniently shaped according to the opinions of 20th and 21st century scholars. 

The problem with this is that Christians who read these texts often do not know that this is the nature of the text produced by modern criticism. The scholars not only say that the modern Bibles have many, many uncertain places, but also that there are passages that God simply hasn’t given to the church, even though they were originally there. These uncertainties inevitably make their way into the text and footnotes of modern translations which introduces an unnecessary problem to the modern church. So the scholars that are informing the pastors which verses are “not originally Scripture,” do not believe that God has fully preserved His Word, and have no way of proving their claims about which Scriptures Christians should not read. In short, these scholars have abandoned the Scriptural doctrine of preservation based on the early manuscripts that have survived today, which we know essentially nothing about, and as result are left with a doctrine that says, “What we have is good enough.” Christians can continue teaching that they have the “very Word of God” in their modern Greek texts and translations, but none of the scholars producing these texts and commenting on these texts would affirm this in any meaningful way. They say that what is available is “greatly accurate,” but how is this even determined? Greatly accurate in what way? Which passages are greatly accurate, and which are not? Is accuracy now synonymous with “original”?

In addition to rejecting the Scriptural doctrine of preservation, the scholars which produce these texts utilize axioms which also contradict what Scripture says about itself. Critical opinions cause the scholars to place readings which do not comport with inspiration in the main text of modern Bibles. The shorter, grammatically hard reading is to be preferred. Certain passages which harmonize with the rest of Scripture should be considered as additions to the text. Longer readings which affirm the Deity of Christ are to be viewed as scribal tampering. The most concerning of all, is that the handful of manuscripts which serve as a base text which these Bibles are based on disagree heavily with each other, and even more so with the thousands of manuscripts that have survived.  Finally, it needs to be noted that this modern critical text is changing with new methods such as the CBGM. It is not a stable text.

“Clearly, these changes will affect not only modern Bible translations and commentaries but possibly even theology and preaching”

Peter Gurry, A New Approach to Textual Criticism, 6.

Conclusion

Christians should not use the modern critical text because it does not align with what Scripture says about itself. Further, none of the scholars credentialed in the discipline believe it to be the original text which the prophets and apostles wrote by inspiration. The axioms used to produce such Bibles do not consider inspiration, providence, or the Holy Spirit, and are actually formulated in such a way that assumes the earliest extant text must have been choppy, abrupt, and grammatically difficult. Even if the Bible needed to be reconstructed, which it doesn’t, this is not how it should be done. The methods are designed to produce a text which does not assume that the original was perfect, and therefore the final product of such methods will inevitably represent the quality of the text that is trying to be produced.

God can use such translations, because not every line is incorrect, but it should be apparent that the Scriptures do not teach that the Bible is just “good enough.” Christians should not desire a “good enough” Bible, because God doesn’t say His word is “just okay.” The Bible says that “All Scripture” is profitable, not “some of Scripture” is profitable. It is great that such scholars affirm that God has preserved His Word, but preservation is the most useless doctrine in all of Christianity if Christians do not have access to that preserved Word.  An important question to ask, if it is the case that none of the critical Greek texts and translations have exactly what the prophets and apostles wrote, what exactly are Christians reading when they open their Bible? This theological position, and the texts that it produces, literally takes the Word of God away from Christians, transforming it into some ethereal concept that will never actualize into anything the people of God can actually put their hands on.

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