I have been a Calvinist for about as long as I have been a Christian. At that time, I did not know about Reformed Theology, nor did I call myself Reformed. When I entered the “Reformed” space on the internet via the Reformed Pub, I was introduced to a number of Theological debates. The first two years of my time as a “Reformed” Christian was spent debating various topics that internet Reformedom deems most important. This debate culture led me to believe that being Reformed was mostly an exercise of having a fully developed Theological menu. In essence, you picked out your stance on a list of ten issues, and then debated them online.
This of course is an unfortunate meme of Reformed Theology. When I began reading the English and Dutch Puritans, I realized that the way the divines of old discussed Theology was entirely different than the way modern Reformed Christians discussed Theology. In the first place, many of the pet issues of Internet Reformedom were not even a concern for the post-Reformation and Puritan divines, such as Theonomy. As I got off the internet and onto the writings of the Reformed, I realized one important emphasis that I had completely neglected – practical Theology. In this article, I will be discussing the practical Theology of the Critical Text and Traditional Text. It is important to clarify that I am not talking about the text itself, but the Theology of each text.
The Purpose of Scripture and Theology
Theology is the study of living unto God. In 2 Timothy 3:15-16, God tells His people exactly what Scripture is to be purposed for, “to make thee wise unto salvation through faith which is in Jesus Christ” and to be “profitable for doctrine, reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness.” He finishes this thought by saying that this is so “that the man of God may be perfect, throughly furnished unto all good works.” In other words, the study of doctrine is to have direct application in every way to practical Christianity. Every line of Theology in the brain of a Christian should also have a place in the heart.
This is the greatest difference between Internet Reformedom and actual Reformed Christianity. Internet Reformedom almost never discusses practical, experiential Christianity. It never emphasizes the practical impact and use of believing various doctrines. According to Internet Reformedom, doctrine is something to be debated and that’s it. This is the case in the discussion of textual criticism as well. Christians spend hours upon hours debating variants without considering what it means to reject a variant. The reality is that the practical application of the Critical Text dogma to the common Christian is absolutely detrimental to Christian practice.
The practice of the Critical Text doctrine diminishes Christian experiential religion in every way imaginable. In private devotion, it teaches that Christians ought to question the text underneath what is written in their translation. It encourages its users to “go back to the Greek” to determine what the Bible “really says.” The English translation must be flawed, and it is up to the reader to find out what the translators “really should have said.” It teaches that somebody who does not know anything about the original languages of the Bible can actually correct those who do know the languages by simply using an online tool. In Theological study, it teaches Christians that textual criticism is the first step to understanding God’s Word. In order to exegete the text you have to decide what the text says first. Christians have to stand over God’s Word first in order to sit under it. This leads to every Christian having a different text, and those that are really learned to have no text at all. In Evangelism, it teaches that Christians must learn textual criticism to have an apologetic to the unbeliever rather than just preaching the Gospel, which is the power of God unto salvation (Romans 1:16). In Ecclesiology, it teaches that every Christian should rejoice in using a different Bible than the person next to them in the pew. Churches are to dance in the chaos that is produced by the “embarrassment of riches” that is our modern Bible situation. Practically, it misdirects and distracts Christians from every aspect of practical, experiential, religion.
The Theology of the Traditional Text is much different than that of the Critical Text. It teaches believers that they can trust what is on the page of their Bible, which is what you would expect from a book that is said to be the “very Word of God.” Learning Greek and Hebrew is not a requirement for the layperson because the languages can and have been translated accurately. It encourages its readers to sit under the Word as a student rather than over it as a critic. It is not up to the person who doesn’t know Greek and Hebrew to determine what the words “really mean” because they couldn’t do it even if they tried. It assumes that a Christian does not need to learn, or pretend to know the original languages in order to access the Scriptures. It allows for churches to share a common Theological vocabulary because they all have the same text. In matters of controversy within the church, the discussion of “which Bible is correct” isn’t relevant because the church is unified on that matter. In Evangelism, there is no call to convince the mind of man that the Bible is the Word of God, because that is not the requirement of Scripture, and is impossible for the unregenerate man in the first place. In preaching the Gospel, the Gospel is preached without any other requirement, as the Scriptures say. The Word of God is accessible, easy to use, and straight forward. The point of reading it is to be taught and refined. The point of studying is not to judge the text, but to be judged by the text. In short, it teaches Christians to trust their Bible, not question it. In every single place, the Traditional Text brings harmony to a church, whereas the Critical Text brings chaos, confusion, and division.
The difference between the practical Theology of the Critical Text and Traditional Text could not be more dramatic. The Critical Text methodology trains skeptics and puffs up the individual while the Traditional Text encourages humility and a teachable spirit. The average Christian does not know Greek and Hebrew, and finding an online lexicon does not change that or give a Christian the ability to provide a “correct” translation. In every case I have a seen a layperson “go back to the Greek,” they are horribly mistaken as to what the Greek actually says and further, incredibly ignorant as to how language works in general. They confuse the text of the Bible rather than providing clarity.
Despite the fact that Critical Text apologists are desperately trying to reframe the modern Bible embarrassment as an “embarrassment of riches,” it constantly causes division. If you’ve ever been in a small group with somebody who reads the NASB you know exactly what I’m talking about. Christians who have actually gone out and preached the Gospel on the street know that the massive number of Bible translations is a common reason people do not trust the Bible. If you’ve ever carried a KJV into a New Calvinist church you know that you will not leave that church without being told to watch the Dividing Line and to buy an ESV. Carrying a KJV into a modern “Reformed” church is as taboo as wearing a Trump hat onto a college campus. Scholars and apologists have made textual criticism a requirement for the average Christian without actually equipping them to answer the difficult questions. They leave them with the apologetic of Dan Wallace, which is to agree with Bart Ehrman and then say, “But that’s not a good reason to be skeptical!”
When a scholar or a pastor imposes the Critical Text methodology on the layperson, they are really just peddling skepticism and chaos. When a scholar or pastor argues against the Traditional text, they are arguing against unity and putting the believer on the same ground as the unbeliever. Every flaw that Critical Text apologists offer as a critique to the Traditional Text is actually a deficiency of the Critical Text. There is no practical application to Christian life and practice within the Critical Text methodology. The scholars admit that they approach the text agnostically, without the input of their Christianity. This is how they teach Christians to approach the Bible as well. Yet, we are supposed to be unabashedly Christian in how we read our Bible. I have spent many words discussing the Theological problems with the Critical Text on this blog, but it is also important to highlight the practical problems as well. Any methodology that teaches Christians to be “scientific” about how they read their Bible has unequivocally missed the mark. As with any area of Theological study, there must be practical application. The practical application of the Critical Text and Traditional Text could not be more different. One methodology teaches Christians to be critics of the Bible, and the other teaches Christians to be students.