This is the fourth article in the series, “Faith Seeking Understanding”.
A common discussion point within the textual discussion is the issue of certainty. How much certainty is allowable when it comes to our Bible? When we say, “I believe I am reading the very Word of God when I open my Bible”, what exactly does that mean? The average Christian understands that doctrine to mean that what is on the page is a translation of what God had written down. The critical text platform does not affirm this without disqualifying nuance. The TR platform affirms this wholeheartedly, without reservation.
One major critique of the critical text methodology is that it demands, to one degree or another, a level of analysis prior to reading the Bible. Those that educate the Christian church practically encourage this by advising readers to inspect the critical footnotes in their Bible to understand the textual data provided on the page. The average Christian does not know what to do with this information, and those that do often do not realize that the sparse critical footnotes never tell the entire story of the text-critical discussion as it pertains to one passage or another. This is an exhausting practice for the average Christian because this reading methodology requires the reader to add an additional, non-Biblical step in order to access God’s Word. More importantly, it requires that the Christian approaches their bible with a certain level of scrutiny.
How Do We Read Our Bible?
From a critical perspective, the Christian is advised to read multiple translations in order to understand the Bible. This is particularly complicated, because each Bible may use different texts to translate from, and even render words inaccurately or imprecisely. This forces the reader to use some sort of lexicon dictionary just to read their bible(s). Since most Christians do not understand translation methodology or have the training to use a lexicon responsibly, this method leads people into wild word studies which often obfuscate the text. Further, it teaches Christians to be decoders, not receivers.
Now, the larger issue here is the reason why many Christians are flocking to Rome, Greek Orthodox, Neo-Orthodoxy, and Word of Faith movements. Since the foundation of critical methodology is empirical, and that empirical standard doesn’t claim to have produced the original text at any given place, the question of certainty is at the forefront of this discussion. It isn’t just the fundies who recognize that the foundation offered by the various critical methodologies is three feet off the ground. Now, if the espoused method of the critical texts doesn’t claim to offer certainty, yet all Christians are required to use it just to read their bible, the effect is that many people flock to a system that offers what the critical texts do not.
Take Their Word for It
Modern scholars recognize this issue of certainty and foundation and have presented a view that Christians are not to have absolute certainty that what they are reading is God’s Word, but they also should not have radical skepticism over each passage. This is essentially Dan Wallace’s response to the issue of an ever-changing, never settled text. We have to ask ourselves, “Is this an adequate theological framework that explains how we should read our Bible?” Most Christians become so enamored with the humility, niceness, and scholarliness of the critical text presentation that they don’t stop and think what exactly is being said.
What is actually being said here, is that there is no reason to believe that we have the original in our modern texts, and despite this, it should not concern us. It is reasonable to be skeptical, and it is reasonable to be relatively certain in reference to that skepticism, but it is not reasonable to be absolutely certain or absolutely skeptical. Practically, this tells men like Bart Ehrman that he is wrong for being so skeptical, and it tells Christians that they are wrong for being so certain. Christians, according to modern scholars, are to compromise somewhere in the middle and be grateful that we have as much as we do.
It doesn’t take a genius to recognize that this view is problematic. It isn’t just the fundamental emotionalists who take issue with this framework. That is because there is a logical reason to challenge this balance between skepticism and certainty. See, if we do not have exactly the original today, and even if we did we wouldn’t really know that we did, there is no reason to have any level of certainty at all in the available bibles. The modern evangelical scholars scoff at this, but without cause. The argument that men like Dan Wallace sets forth is easily defeated by men like DC Parker and other scholars. The Living Text view is quite compatible with this spectrum between radical skepticism and absolute certainty.
In admitting that there is no valid means of verification of a given passage, evangelical scholars have quite literally given up the case for an inspired, preserved bible. As much as they argue that the text we have is “good enough”, this isn’t based on any definitive empirical analysis. If it were, Bart Ehrman would likely still be sitting in a pew on Sundays. It’s a faith claim. It is a claim that says, “Yes, we know we don’t have the Bible, but I believe in God, so therefore we have something”. It is a claim that says, “Bart Ehrman is right in his analysis, and wrong in his conclusion”.
The support for this argument is simply to make the case that the amount of evidence is proof of some level of accuracy. That may be true, but there is a significant lapse in the manuscript tradition from the 1st century to the first complete manuscripts, and there is no way of proving that what we have from the 3rd and 4th century represents what existed in the 1st century. Therefore, any claim that proposes such a view extends beyond textual criticism and into the realm of faith.
Again, the discussion of certainty is another topic where those in the TR camp listen to the scholars far more closely than those in the critical text camp. All of the scholars, both evangelical and secular, agree that we do not have the original Bible (yet). Most of them will admit that we will never have the original pending some miraculous discovery. That is to say, that empiricism cannot produce certainty, and never can produce certainty. If you are among the group of Bible believing Christians that say the Bible is the “very Word of God”, the scholars are telling you that you have no reason to actually believe that based on text-critical scholarship. In other words, you must suspend your trust in textual scholarship and take on a “fideist” view of the Scriptures. You have to do the very thing that the critical text camp accuses the TR camp of doing. The only difference is that the critical text camp must do so in spite of their Bibliology, whereas the TR camp does it as a fundamental component of their Bibliology.
Because those in the TR camp listen to the scholars, they recognize that textual data cannot produce the certainty the Bible requires. That is why the TR position isn’t an empirical framework, it is a theological one. It isn’t just blind fundamentalism, it actually takes very seriously the claims of textual scholars. TR advocates recognize that empirical proofs can bolster a theological position, but they cannot “prove” that what we have is original. It is the exact same case for creationism vs. naturalistic origin stories. Because the thing being examined cannot be replicated, scientific methods are an inadequate tool. So why is it the case that people who listen to the scholars, recognize the self-proclaimed flaws in the methodology, and reject the conclusions are portrayed as wide eyed fundamentalists bound to tradition? There is no good reason.
The reason the apologists in the critical text camp must paint people in the TR camp as fundies driven by emotion is because it distracts and diminishes what those in the TR camp are saying. It is the same kind of rhetoric that is used by propaganda media outlets. If you can’t answer the intellectual question, discredit the opposition. When Christians start seeing that this is happening, the TR position becomes attractive simply because propagandist arguments typically indicate that the position itself cannot be defended from a theological or intellectual standpoint.
“When the debate is lost, slander becomes the tool of the loser”Socrates
If you want to understand why people adopt the TR over the critical text, take a look at the core arguments. While it is true that both sides engage in ad hominem, the core methodology of the critical text is often founded on ad hominem. The Reformation scholars didn’t know Greek. They actually loved the Vulgate. They didn’t know they were wrong. Erasmus was a papist. TR folks are fundamentalists, traditionalists, and emotionalists. Those in the TR camp are dangerous, divisive, and combative. All of those things may be true, but none of them defend the critical text or discredit the TR. When Christians start to see this, they begin investigating the TR position more carefully, and often times see that the theological merits of the TR are far more sturdy than that of the critical texts.
3 thoughts on “The Issue of Certainty”
Great article. In Romans 4:16-21, Paul defines “faith” in its most comprehensive sense as believing what God has said. It modern text scholars are correct, that we do not and cannot know exactly what God has said, faith is impossible. They are wrong. But as Christians, we must recognize what they are doing; they are attempting, either wittingly or unwittingly, to undermine our faith. May God have mercy on their souls.
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“Since most Christians do not understand translation methodology or have the training to use a lexicon responsibly, this method leads people into wild word studies which often obfuscate the text.”
I have seen this many times in small group Bible Studies. It can lead to a lot of error being aired.
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I can’t tell you how many times I’ve seen small groups derailed by insane word studies.
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