A long essay on the impact of Postmodernism in the Christian church.
If you’ve been reading my blog for some time, you know that the issue of the Critical Text against the Textus Receptus is far broader than just textual variants and which text platform is superior. Critical methodology, translation philosophy, Bibliology, ecclesiology, and even Bible reading philosophy are all baked within this discussion and deeply connected. The conversation of textual criticism reaches its apex in which Bible you actually read, which is the only real part of this conversation that practically matters. That is why those in the TR camp often pragmatically say, “The best Bible is the one you read every day.” You can know endless amounts of information about textual criticism and nothing about the Bible.
What the average person may not be aware of is just how expansive the methodology of the Critical Text is and how it impacts their practical religion. The practice of “going back to the Greek” and spreading your Bible reading across multiple translations are perfect examples. Further than a shift to the way we read our Bibles today, the Critical Text methodology has impacted the way we view church history and the church itself. This is the Postmodern smoking gun hiding behind the scenes, masked by deeply intellectual conversations over textual data. If you have, like me, had your ear to the ground as the modern church has taken a Postmodern bath over the last ten years, this should greatly concern you. In this essay, I will address several ways that the Critical Text invites Postmodern thinking into the church and how the Textus Receptus is an answer to it.
Postmodernism and the Critical Text
My goal here is to convince you that the discussion of textual criticism is not only Postmodern in nature, but that its impacts are far reaching well beyond which Bible you read. Starting with the Critical Text, we have to understand that the process of reconstructing a Bible is at its core a fruit of Postmodernism. It begins with the assumption that the previous structure must be torn down and replaced with empirical methodologies. The faith based systems of the past were good for their time, but the modern men of science know better. We shouldn’t be enslaved to the chains of tradition and the narrow thinking of the men of old.
In order to step into modernity, the Christian church has felt the need to adapt to the climate of empiricism and skepticism. It is not enough to know by way of faith that we have the Scriptures, we have to prove it. Yet, in the context of Postmodernism, reality is not something to be proved, it is something to be understood through various critical perspectives. In the case of Biblical criticism for example, the Scriptures are not to be understood didactically, but rather as the experiences of various communities of faith. There is not a single passage that has direct application to the people of God today, just perspectives on how religious communities experienced and understood the various contexts of the world in which they lived. In Postmodernism, the Bible is an artifact of how long dead people articulated how they viewed the world.
Keeping this in mind, we may begin to see how this perspective has left its signature all over textual scholarship. The various manuscripts do not represent a clean transmission from an architype or original, but rather different doctrinal articulations that represent how various communities were impacted by the life of a man named Jesus in the first century. The perspective that textual criticism is definitively seeking to produce an original text or hypothetical architype is idiosyncratic when the vast majority of textual scholarship is not all that concerned with that effort.
If you peruse the most recent literature coming out of the text critical scholarly community, you will find that these academics are attempting to understand not the text itself, but the scribe who copied the text. You will find that the discussion of the Pericope Adulterae is not so much about proving its originality or authenticity, but why this story was so beloved by the early church and what it meant to them from a cultural and political perspective. You will find that any real discussion over textual variants is not overly concerned with whether or not a passage or word belongs in a modern Bible, but rather what those textual variants meant to the Christians who introduced them into the text. Modern Textual Scholarship is far more interested in understanding what a textual variant meant to the community who produced it than the meaning of the text, or even if that variant belongs in the text. To these scholars, there is not one text to which a variant belongs, there are simply different communities to be understood. For example, a scholar engaged at the highest levels of Textual Scholarship is more interested in the differences in beliefs between the two communities who included and excluded Mark 16:9-20 than whether or not the text properly belongs in our Bibles today. There is no Bible, just bibles and the communities they represent.
This is the environment that Evangelical Textual Scholars are working in, which is why the premier academics working in the field often refer to them as “fundamentalists” or other pejoratives, is overwhelmingly Postmodern. The work they are doing is completely disconnected with the reality of the scope of Modern Textual Scholarship. Reconstructing an original Bible is sort of the pet project that isn’t taken all that seriously, because no serious Textual Scholar would say that this work can even be accomplished. That is why, even in the most Evangelical of contexts, scholars are more concerned with the significance of a particular manuscript or group of manuscripts as it pertains to the transmission history of the Bible rather than whether or not that text or group of texts has any relation to the original, which we don’t have.
This is the reality for those Evangelicals who wish to publish in any relevant academic series. They must provide some analysis which aligns with the current goals of Modern Textual Scholarship. That is why most published work pertaining to the CBGM is concerned with analyzing the method, rather than using the method to produce anything tangible. Since the goal of Modern Textual Scholarship is not to produce a single text, the stated goal of the Editio Critica Maior is simply to document the history of the transmission of the text. This tool is then used to create new printed editions which, according to the editors, is a close representative of how one community experienced the Bible in a certain location at a certain time.
As with all Critical Theories, the goal is not to produce a single truth, but to understand the importance of a piece of data to the story of the people who experienced that data. What is perceived as “truth” can always change depending on the perspective used to approach the data. The story can always change, because they way we understand those communities can expand and evolve as we spend more time with the artifacts. This is the Postmodern reality of the Bible in 2020, and why not a single scholar or apologist for the Critical Text will proclaim that any one verse in their text is definitively original.
Practical Postmodernism and the Bible
Now, you may acknowledge that everything I have laid out is true and still defend the notion that this has zero impact on the church. I would like to convince you now that this has reached to every corner of your practical Christianity. It is important to note, that even if there are a group of stalwart defenders of the Bible within the scholarly community, none of them are in agreement on what the Bible contains, and this is easily demonstrated not only by the ongoing effort of Textual Criticism, but also in the fact that there is not one single Critical Text. The NASB, ESV, NIV, and so on are all different texts translated differently. This reality demonstrates that there is no agreement on what the Critical Text is, or how it should be translated. If you survey your current church, it is likely that the Bible your pastor preaches from is different from the Bible(s) you read and the Bible(s) your fellow members read. The fact that a church can have seven different texts, and all of those texts can be called “The Bible” is proof that Postmodernism has impacted you directly.
When seven different texts, with different underlying textual platforms and different translational methodologies can all be called “The Bible,” we have to recognize that the label “The Bible” is not accurate. If a number of different texts can be categorized as one single thing, then the thing is not a singular object. It is a number of objects generally categorized under one heading. It is similar to how a Honda Civic and a Toyota Camry are both cars. They are not the same car, but they are both cars nonetheless. So if our definition of the Bible requires uniformity, then we are already at odds with this definition of “The Bible.” And if our definition of the Bible does not require uniformity, then we have adopted to some degree or another the Postmodern perspective of the Bible.
This perspective flows into every aspect of practical religion. When you read the Bible with this lens, the words on the page are not so much important as what the author was trying to communicate. And what the author was trying to communicate is not set in stone because what the author was trying to communicate can be interpreted differently. This of course demands that we “go back to the Greek” to discern the “actual” meaning. It demands that we consult a number of translations, which may communicate different meanings, to get a general idea of what the text is saying and not the “true” meaning of what the text is saying. It is not so much important to understand what God has communicated, but rather what we think God has communicated or perhaps how the scribe experienced what God communicated. There is no single meaning of the text, just different interpretations of how we experience the text.
This flows down into ecclesiology, Bibliology, translation philosophy, and how we approach our Bibles in private devotions and study. At an ecclesiological level, we can understand the word εκκλεσια differently, and therefore manage our churches differently. We can understand the word deacon and pastor differently. We can understand the word immerse differently. In fact, we can understand any word differently, so as long the definition that we are looking for is listed in our favorite online concordance. It doesn’t matter what God actually communicated, because what God communicated must be interpreted by the perspective of the communities who wrote them down. If our understanding of those communities change, which they often do, so does the meaning of the text. New translations will adopt this new understanding and actually translate accordingly, providing a different meaning then older translations.
Most importantly, adopting this framework impacts the way we read our Bibles personally. In order to understand the Bible, we are asked to understand “the context” and the “original Greek and Hebrew.” We are told that understanding these languages is as simple as applying a lexicon. We are told that the translators of our Bible “got it wrong” and the “word actually means this.” In this example, “context” does not mean a real, historical context, it means our understanding of the communities at the time. This being the case, “the context” is ever shifting, along with the meaning of “The Bible” and our understanding of it.
What this practically boils down to is that we should not trust our translation, Greek and Hebrew must be looked at to understand the text, and the meaning of the Bible is changing as fast as our understanding of the communities that produced it. At its core, it is the Postmodern perspective that we know better. Even though you can’t read Greek, you know it better because you have a lexicon and concordance. You can actually correct your translation despite not being able to order a glass of water in Greek. The words on the page don’t actually matter, because the words underneath the words have the “actual meaning.” And the way we determine the “actual meaning” is by looking at a language we don’t know through the lens of a lexicon that we don’t know how to use.
This is how you take the Bible away from an entire generation. You teach them that the text isn’t “the” text, that the words on the page aren’t “the” words on the page, and that “the” Bible is really just a number of bibles. This produces a context that requires an earthly authority, a “pope.” Somebody must direct the church to answer these questions. Somebody must say, “This is the text and this is what it means.” For many people this is the actual Pope, or in Calvinist circles, James White. Otherwise, you must admit that all we have today is a number of texts, with an infinite number of meanings. This is in fact perfectly acceptable by most modern Christians. Anybody who does not accept this Postmodern reality is just a traditionalist, a fundamentalist, or perhaps stupid.
The Textus Receptus as a Salve to the Wound of Postmodernism
Similar to the Modern Critical Text, the Textus Receptus has a methodology and a theology that underlies it. The Bible is a single thing that we have today, it has a specific meaning that can be discerned, and it is what God said, not an interpretation of what God said. This standard stands in stark opposition to the modern view of the Bible. It not only understands that the words we have are the words God delivered, but that those words can be translated. So as long as those words are translated correctly, there is no need to “go back to the Greek.” There is not hidden meaning under every word, just the meaning of the word.
This standard is undaunting and unfailing. It cannot be moved, because there is no way to move it. No scholar can “prove” that this is not the case in the same way the seven-day creation narrative cannot be disproved. Any opposing dissertation to this view is simply a matter of opinion, a matter of interpretation. That is the fatal flaw of Postmodernism. Since there is not a single truth to be discovered in anything, there is not a single truth to be proven in anything. The methodologies are not designed for this cause, and are poorly utilized in trying to do so.
Practically speaking, the TR methodology teaches that when you read your Bible, you are reading the Very Word of God. It allows for your whole congregation to be reading that very same Word. It dispels disputes over “the true meaning of the text” because words have value in themselves, not in the communities who used them. It recognizes that Greek is a language like any other, and not some mystical secret language that can shift meaning from person to person. Most importantly, it does not require that every Christian study Critical methodologies in order to read their Bible. They simply read it and benefit. God’s Word is recognized as powerful in itself without some external interpretive principle. It is the ultimate defense against Postmodernism because it rejects the notion that meaning is derived by lived experience. The meaning of the Bible, and the Bible itself, exists ontologically and does not change based on our understanding of historical communities of faith.
This is how God continues to speak clearly in the 21st century. Despite changes and adaptations of history, God’s Word does not change. It does not falter and it does not fail. If we accept the idea that God’s Word and meaning can change, we must admit that the Scriptures themselves have failed in their purpose. If God’s Word has changed in meaning, it has failed in its purpose. If God has failed in communicating His purpose or meaning, then He is like us and is not God.
The popular response to this point is that “all Bibles are effective at communicating the requirements for salvation to all men.” I agree that this is often the case, but it is not the standard God has communicated in Scripture. God is not only concerned with the salvation of men, He is concerned with His glory and our living unto Him. If we admit that God has failed in one aspect of His communication, we neglect His concern for His glory. If we admit that God has only communicated what is necessary for salvation and not what is required to live unto Him, we admit that God has communicated imperfectly. Both pose serious problems if we are to maintain that God Himself is perfect, providential, and powerful.
The conversation over Textual Criticism often reaches too shallowly into the bag of Textual Scholarship. It is not just about textual variants and deciding which is correct. It is about the methodologies that lead us to thinking that we need to act as an arbiter over the Words God has given to His people. What this thinking truly says is that Christians believe the Lord has ordained a “pope” to deliver His Word effectively to the people of God. In most cases, Christians believe that this pope is themselves. In other cases it’s the literal Roman Pope or perhaps James White or Dan Wallace. If God hasn’t communicated clearly, such that seven different bibles can be “the Bible,” then He must ordain a chief arbiter to make clear what is mysterious or His Word itself will be mysterious. Since God has not ordained such an office, men are quick to step into this role of their own authority.
Ultimately, the Postmodernism evident in Modern Textual Scholarship has translated into a Postmodern view of God that has been adopted as widely as Arianism was in the early church. Even though most Christians would reject the Postmodern view of the academy, the effects of this scholarship is evident everywhere in practice. Accepting seven different texts as one single text is an example. Needing to “go back to the Greek” is an example. Believing that there are “no perfectly accurate translations” is yet another example.
We find ourselves at the brink of yet another crisis in the Christian church. It is one that has infiltrated all of our seminaries at the deepest levels. It has infected our pulpits and our churches, and it leaves the average Christian utterly unequipped for the challenges facing the church. How are we to fight the onslaught of liberal dogma if we ourselves have adopted the very same principles? How can we possibly provide a defense of the faith if we have accepted the axioms which say that there is not “one” faith? I may not have convinced you that the Textus Receptus is the answer to these issues, but hopefully I have made you aware of the significant problems facing the church in the context of Modern Textual Scholarship and the ways these problems practically impact you on a daily basis. The point is that this is a problem, the TR and its theological axioms offer a solution, and Christians ought to take the time to investigate whether or not their Bibliology lines up with the Critical Methodologies pushed on them in seminary, small groups, and churches.