The Incorrect Category Distinction of Text and Canon

Disclaimer: This article is pretty long. I intended for this to be a short article and it turned into an essay.

Framing the Discussion

Creating distinct categories for the text of the New Testament and the Canon of the New Testament is a theological and logical error because the substance of the Canon is defined by the text. It may be a helpful distinction to make when defining terms, but it does not make sense to handle them separately as different theological categories. It is an error that has been propagated by some of the most highly esteemed scholars within the modern Christian church. This is likely due to the fact that defending the canonical list of books is far more simple than defending the text within those books. It is probably the least controversial theological assertion within textual scholarship, and any disputes over which books belong are outright rejected by the larger Christian church.

The reason scholars must separate the text and canon into separate categories is because if they are not separate, then the current effort and defense of textual criticism is plainly foolish. The basic argument to defend this distinction is that the canon of the Scriptures arrived at an unofficial consensus in the Patristic era of the church while the text never achieved the same consensus. Those in the TR camp assert that this consensus occurred shortly after the arrival of the printing press to Europe.

It seems shocking that those who advocate for the Critical Text advocate for an open text of Scripture, but this is indeed the case. Any endorsement of the ongoing effort of textual criticism which claims to be after “the original” is an admission that the text of the New Testament is not closed. If it was the case that the Critical Text was closed, then there would be no effort of Textual Criticism of the New Testament that was endorsed by Christians.

Interacting with the Argument

The basic argument goes that while we can be certain of the originality of a high percentage of the New Testament, we cannot be absolutely certain. Dan Wallace has framed the most popular version of this argument, which James White employed in his most recent video debate with Pastor Jeff Riddle. The argument goes that while we cannot be absolutely certain of the text of the New Testament, we have no reason to be radically skeptical of the text either. He argues that there is a place somewhere between radical skepticism and absolute certainty when it comes to our Bible. There is a huge problem with this view from logical, theological, and practical perspectives.

Logical Problems with Separating Text and Canon into Separate Categories

Logically, if we say that the canon of Scripture is separate from the text of Scripture, we have to define what exactly makes up the substance of each of these categories. Category distinctions are useless unless we actually define what is in those categories.

In the context of this discussion, these two categories are typically defined as the books of the Bible (canon) and the text of the Bible (text). According to this argument, so as long as the canon is available, the Christian church has “The Bible” in her possession. “The Bible” exists despite the text not being clearly defined. This does not follow, as the substance of the Bible is not simply defined by the names of the books, it includes the text within those books. You would not say that an empty glass which formerly contained orange juice was a glass of orange juice now, simply because at one point there was orange juice in it. You would say it’s an empty glass.

The logical conclusion of this necessarily demands that if you say that we have the Bible (canon), but only have x% of the text, then we really only have x% of the Bible. The glass has some juice in it. See, the Bible is not defined only by the canon, it is defined by the text and the canon in combination. You can’t have a glass of orange juice without the glass and the liquid. That is why this category distinction is logically wrong. You cannot say you have something when the substance which defines that thing is not available.

The person demanding this category distinction is actually making the argument that “The Bible” is something that can be had without a clear definition of the substance which makes up the Bible. Simply put, the category distinction of “text” is made without actually defining what that text is. Using symbols, the argument looks like this:

T = Full Text

C = Full Canon

t = Established places in the text

x = Places of uncertainty within the Text

The TR methodology says that C = T. The canon is made up of words, and without those words, it is not the canon. We have the canon and the text within that canon, therefore we have the Bible.

The Critical Text methodology says that C = B and that T = t + x. The canon is made up of the books, and those books make up the Bible. The Bible has words in it, but we do not need all of them to have the Bible. The Bible is not necessarily defined exactly by the words contained within it.

Since we cannot find the value of t + x empirically, Critical Text apologists make the argument that C = Bible. According to this argument, since we know the names of the books which belong in the canon, we have the Bible. We can “tinker” with the words and the outcome of that tinkering does not change the substance of the Bible, because the Bible isn’t defined by the text. This is the necessary conclusion if the text of the Bible can change while saying that we still have the same Bible we had prior to those changes.

Theological Problems with Separating the Text and Canon into Separate Categories

If the text of the Bible can be “tinkered” with or changed without the Bible changing, the Bible is not fundamentally defined by the text that is within it. This means that any theological statement which affirms that the Bible is the “very Word of God” is wrong. You would have to argue that the original Word of God as it was delivered to the prophets and apostles was the very Word of God when it was penned, and that the text that was delivered then is different from the text we have today. This is essentially what the doctrine of Inerrancy teaches. The original Bible was perfect, but the Bible we have today is not to one degree or another. This is incompatible with any doctrine which adopts any form of Sola Scriptura because according to this theological framework, we do not have the substance of the Scripture which is set forth by the doctrinal statement.

Practical Problems with Separating Text and Canon into Separate Categories

If it is the case that the original manuscripts of the New Testament were perfect, but we no longer have everything those original manuscripts set forth, then practically speaking, we have zero foundation for upholding any sort of Sola Scriptura doctrine as a foundation for all matters of faith and practice. Instead, we would have to adapt this doctrine to state that the Scriptures are sufficient to things pertaining to justification. It is often said, “All Bibles contain what is necessary for somebody to be saved.” This is fundamentally different from all things pertaining to faith and practice. Practically speaking, according to this doctrine, the Christian church today has everything necessary for salvation, and some or most of what they need for practice.

The Amount of Uncertainties Has Not and Cannot Be Defined

It is especially important to press on the fact that whatever percentage of certainty we have in the text of Scripture is necessarily arbitrary if we adopt the Critical Text method. At the time of writing this article, there have been zero attempts to define which words are safely in the text and which are not. So when a proponent of the critical text throws out a number, like 99.9%, it is not backed by any empirical analysis and is by definition arbitrary. If one wanted to actually make a claim like this, he would have to actually set forth a base text in which all of the included words are certain(t), and then present the words that are uncertain(x). If t + x = 1, he would have to define t and x and further make the bold claim that the collection of extant material = 1, or the original. Most modern formulations do not even set t + x = 1, because there is no way of establishing that 1 exists within our extant materials according to the critical text methodology. In actuality, the modern scholars say that .9 < t + x < 1. The problem is this boundary cannot be drawn and cannot be defined by the modern critical methodology, so the argument for any amount of certainty is purely founded on what we might call an “educated guess.”

The reality is, once the distinction between canon and text is made, one must necessarily argue for the preservation of each category on different grounds. The canon is said to be providentially preserved, but the text is not. Since “The Bible” is being defined primarily as the canon, proponents of this argument can claim that “The Bible” has been preserved, despite the substance that makes up the Bible having “many many places” where it is uncertain or unclear. This category distinction is made simply to affirm the doctrine of preservation at face value while really denying the substance of it. At best, this doctrine states that what we have is a partially preserved text, or a quasi-preserved text.

If you have made it this far, I will conclude by summarizing my argument in the simplest possible form. The distinction between text and canon is illogical because the substance of the canon is a necessary part of the definition of the canon itself. Just like an empty glass that formerly had orange juice in it isn’t a glass of orange juice, the books of Scripture that formerly had a completed text in it is not a Bible. The apologists for the critical text say that the glass of orange juice is 99.9% full, but also say that they have no way of telling how full the glass is. In other words, the glass is painted black and an unknown portion of the top of the glass has been sawed off. They have no way of telling how tall the original glass was or how much liquid the glass originally had, just that it has some amount of liquid in it now. They make the assumption that the liquid currently in the glass is at least 90% of the liquid that was originally there, but have no way of actually testing or supporting that hypothesis. They can say that we have a Bible because they can see the glass, but they cannot say what that Bible is because they cannot measure the liquid or even know how much liquid the glass originally held.

In opposition to this view, the traditional view of Scripture is that the canon contains the text, and God has preserved and delivered both to His church, even today.

4 thoughts on “The Incorrect Category Distinction of Text and Canon

  1. Separating canon and text is a distinction constructed to win the argument by defining it in an artificial way. So the Table of Contents in our Bibles is sure and fixed, but the words used in the Bible under those book labels are completely up for grabs? This is silly. The Gospel of Mark with the long (traditional) ending is not the same book as the one that omits the resurrection appearances—one is canonical, the other is not. And according to James White, his method of textual criticism allows for the possibility that a completely new text of Mark might be found in the future, conceivably displacing the current Gospel of Mark (i.e., we know the Gospel of Mark is canonical, we’re just not sure what it originally said). This does not make sense and is not worthy to be called “scholarship”.

    At the end of the day, defining the canon of the Word of God as the titles of the books is just as helpful as defining inerrancy to be limited to the autographs only. Both are academic sophistry that in the real world (i.e., the one in which Bible-believing Christians live) have no practical value.

    Liked by 2 people

  2. Septuagint’s book of Daniel has 3 apocryphal chapters that are not found in the Hebrew/Aramaic text. If you only look at the list of 66 books, nothing’s changed to the ‘canon’ by adding them. Who’s to say they don’t belong there considering chapters were added in the 13th century AD?

    Why not replace the gospel of Luke with Marcion’s gospel altogether? Still the same canon. *holds sheet in the air*

    Liked by 2 people

  3. Thx so much Taylor. I had not “joined the dots” like this before to realise exactly what is at stake. Important essay!

    Like

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