The Most Important Issue Facing the Church?

Introduction

In my time writing this blog, I have had the blessing of personally corresponding with people in my audience. I often hear many of the same stories. Their church will have a speaker come in and teach on the preservation of Scripture and the speaker inevitably talk about what is commonly referred to as Modern Textual Criticism. Either the speaker will defend the theological notion that “major doctrines” have been preserved or present the case that the majority of variants are those related to scribal errors and that there aren’t any “major variants”. In other words, they are presenting a version of Dan Wallace or James White’s argument. In the interest of believing that these pastors are doing their best with the material they are familiar with, it seems that in most cases this is a situation where men have simply not acquainted themselves with the full breadth of material available on the topic.

I am not of the opinion that somebody needs to know Greek or Hebrew to get a grasp on what the modern scholars are saying, one simply needs to read the scholarship. I say that because when the scope of available resources produced by Modern Critical Text (MCT) scholars is considered, one does not get the impression that MCT is a sufficient mechanism to defend or support the preservation of Scripture. You do not need to know Greek or Hebrew to come to this conclusion. Many people use the premise of Dan Wallace’s argument to claim that the modern effort of Textual Criticism actually supports the doctrine of preservation. Yet Dan Wallace, in his argument, admits that we don’t have a Bible and cannot know if we did, even if we had it in our hands.

“We do not have now – in any of our critical Greek texts or in 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.”

Elijah Hixson & Peter Gurry. Myths & Mistakes in New Testament Textual Criticism. xii. Quote by Dan Wallace.

Dan Wallace is often heralded as one of the most powerful defenders of the text of Scripture, yet here he is outright denying that we can even know what Scripture is. When I talk to people in my audience who have had this experience, they often report that these guest speakers appeal to Dan Wallace, James White, and Richard Brash. Yet, White, Wallace, and Brash are not alone in their evaluation of Scripture. Here is a sampling of quotations from mainstream MCT scholars to demonstrate my point.

“I do not believe that God is under any obligation to preserve every detail of Scripture for us, even though he granted us good access to the text of the New Testament.”

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

“I do not think the method is of any value for establishing the text of the New Testament”

Bengt Alexanderson. Problems in the New Testament: Old Manuscripts and Papyri, the New Coherence-Based-Genealogical Method (CBGM) and the Editio Critica Maior (ECM). 117.

“The reason is that there is a methodological gap between the start of the textual tradition as we have it and the text of the autograph itself. Any developments between these two points are outside the remit of textual criticism proper. Where there is “no trace [of the original text] in the manuscript tradition” the text critic must, on Mink’s terms, remain silent.” 

Peter Gurry. A Critical Examination of the Coherence based Genealogical Method. 93.

“The New Testament philologist’s task is not to recover an original authorial text, not only because we cannot at present know on philological grounds what the original text might have been, nor even because there may have been several forms to the tradition, but because philology is not able to make a pronouncement as to whether or not there was such an authorial text”

DC Parker. Textual Scholarship and the Making of the New Testament. 27.

“We are trying to piece together a puzzle with only some of the pieces.”

Peter Gurry. A New Approach to Textual Criticism: An Introduction to the Coherence Based Genealogical Method. 112.

The opinion of the scholar class points to the reality that MCT does not aim to unearth or confirm “exactly what Paul said,” only to “grant access” to an early text to varying degrees of certainty. The case they are making is that while we do not have the originals, what we do have is good enough. See Richard Brash’s optimistic perspective on the evidence,

“We do indeed have ‘access’ to these words, if not with miraculous perfection, then with an extremely high level of accuracy and certainty. And God has done this. What is good enough for the Holy Spirit is good enough for me.”

Richard Brash. A Christian’s Pocket Guide to How God Preserved the Bible. 64.

In Brash’s writing, we see what appears to be a major identity crisis taking place between his theology of Scripture and his adherence to the theology of Modern Textual Criticism. As we see in the quoted material above, Brash attempts to connect his belief that we do not have the original to his doctrine of Scripture which by necessity must claim that we have the original. This results in the claim that what is available is good enough and must be good enough. Rather than arriving at Ehrman’s conclusion, which is that God did not preserve His Word, Christian scholars take the same data and scholarship and arrive at the opposite conclusion – that what we have must be what God preserved. And what we have isn’t perfect, so therefore God must not have intended to give His people perfect access. Rather than conclude that the Bible is not preserved like Ehrman, they simply say it is preserved in an incomplete state. Brash wrestles with this reality in the pages of this book.

“God preserves Scripture for us, by his ordinary providence. A miracle would be so much ‘neater,’ but what we find is more like a muddle than a miracle.”

Ibid. 43.

So is the Bible preserved with “Miraculous perfection” or is it “More like a muddle?” It seems that the MCT scholar types believe both simultaneously. They believe that the Bible is a muddle of manuscripts and that the muddle is necessarily “perfect” in its own special kind of way. Yet in order to arrive at this conclusion, we have to suspend our definition of “miracle,” “perfect,” and “preservation.” The difference between these scholars and Bart Ehrman is that they have adjusted what it means for the Bible to be “preserved.” To an outsider who doesn’t agree with the scholar class on this issue, Brash’s commentary appears to be conflicted and inconclusive. It is unfinished, like the Modern Critical Text.

So How Important is This?

After all of the conversations I have had with my audience, a common response they get is that this is a “secondary issue.” I disagree with this notion, though I can appreciate why conservative Christians have this opinion. The church is plagued with different brands of Critical Theory, Postmodernism, Liberalism, Intersectional Feminism, Secular Gender Ideology, Side-B Theology, Legalism, Antinomianism, and New Age Word of Faith movements (to name just a few). What I do not want to do is minimize the danger of these ideas in the church or the importance of battling them. What I do want to do is make the case that these issues will continue to multiply until the church can unite around the topic of Bibliology. How can Christians respond authoritatively if they have no definitive, unchanging, source of authority? Christians need to be unified in where the authority of their arguments come from.

I have watched debates surrounding all of the above issues, and the major through line in all of them is that opponents of Christian orthodoxy have no respect for the authority of Scripture. I think the conservative proponents of both sides of the Bibliology debate can agree there. Conservative Christians often point this out, but often stop before they ask the question, “why?” Could it be the case that all of these people use Scripture to support their arguments? The reality is, they usually do use Scripture. Everybody in my audience can likely agree to the fact that these people are twisting Scripture, but how can we make that case with Modern Critical Text theology? If what constitutes Scripture is ever shifting, and it can be changed by any new discovery or scholarly opinion, what is wrong with playing outside the lines? Let me point you to another passage in Richard Brash’s pamphlet to demonstrate my point.

“I must admit that there are some difficult, unresolved questions about certain verses in the New Testament, like the end of Mark’s Gospel, or the story of the woman caught in adultery (John 7:53-8:11). These verses are often printed in a different font in modern Bible translations, or included in brackets, because it’s doubtful whether they were part of the original book. It’s hard to give a definitive answer to these questions now, but that doesn’t mean that further scholarship or manuscript discoveries won’t reveal an answer to us in the future.

Ibid. 59. Emphasis mine.

This argument gives free license to anybody who wants to twist Scripture for their own devices. Those that have built entire heterodox ideologies on Scripture do so with the knowledge that most modern conservatives do not have a stable text, and worse, that they are further from having a stable text than they have ever been. Yes, I do believe that the enemies of the faith are well aware of Christianity’s Bible problem and they are happy to take advantage. But the MCT theology does not stop at the uncertainty of the text.

Advocates of the MCT like Richard Brash and Mark Ward go on to say that there are no perfect translations and openly advocate that people with zero knowledge of the original languages decode the Bible with lexicons. While I don’t think that somebody needs to know Greek to understand the MCT position, it does seem reasonable to know Greek if you are attempting to read and translate Greek words. If you’ve ever used a lexicon, you know that you can do whatever you want to the meaning of the text by removing a word, playing with its definition as it appears in different contexts, and inserting it back into the text. This results in a total change of meaning of the passage. People do this to change doctrine to support every single heterodoxy facing the church I listed above. The Passion Translation is essentially an entire translation made using this methodology. Ironically, D.A. Carson, who would not agree with me on my Bibliology, details the danger of Word Studies in his book, Exegetical Fallacies. One point I have tried to communicate over the years is that the MTC methodology extends far beyond the actual methods of textual criticism. The scholar class of the Modern Critical Text presents a theology of translation, Bible reading strategy, and exegesis. It forms a complete pipeline from creating the text in its original languages to how the layperson actually reads and experiences the Bible.

Rather than trying to debate which issue is most important, I will simply say they are all important. Intersectionality and various Critical Theories aren’t any less dangerous because the debate over Bibliology exists. That also does not mean that the issue of Textual Criticism isn’t important. All of the errors I listed above violate the truth that is set forth in God’s Word, and any assault on God’s truth in Scripture is a battle worth fighting. The reason I disagree with the notion that any one of these is “more important” than the issue of Modern Textual Criticism or that MCT is a “secondary issue” is because Scripture is the foundation for our answer to every errant doctrine. And if we do not know what Scripture says, we have no response to those wishing to attack the Christian faith. It is my perspective that the people of God have to be unified on this issue in order to give a unified response.

Conclusion

Rather than arguing that Bibliology is the most important issue facing the church, I want to make the case that all of the extremely important issues will continue multiplying until the people of God are united on this point. It is clear that the enemies of orthodoxy are not just disagreeing with the authority of Scripture, they are using the authority of Scripture and twisting it. It is true that enemies of the faith would do this anyway because they always have, but with Modern Textual Criticism and its accompanying theology, they have been given powerful tools to do their work. They use whichever translation or word study favors their ideology. They use the methods presented by the scholar class to bolster their arguments against orthodoxy. The Modern Critical Text and its underlying methodology is the anti-apologetic for the Christian faith. We saw a visual demonstration of this during James White and Jeff Durbin’s debate with an atheist, where the atheist mockingly held up a number of different texts and threw them in the trash, indicating that Christians have no idea what their own text says. White and Durbin seemed to miss the point completely, but it was powerful to those that saw what he was doing. And that is the reality, that proponents of the Modern Critical Text have a difficult time recognizing that their methodology is an anti-apologetic. In fact, they frequently claim that it is the only apologetic while the enemies of the faith state that their Bible uncertainty problem invalidates all of their claims.

One major idea that I wish to communicate in this article is that the current theology of Modern Textual Criticism is not an apologetic for the authority or preservation of Scripture. I presented a variety of material from well respected scholars in the field to demonstrate that the scholar class does not believe that the original Bible exists today. What we have is “good access” though what we have access to may change with the scholarship. The reality is that it has changed with the scholarship, and continues to change, and not in a more confident direction. According to Dr. Peter Gurry, the current direction of scholarship has caused more uncertainty in the text of Scripture.

“In all, there were in the Catholic Letters thirty-two uses of brackets compared to forty-three uses of the diamond and in Acts seventy-eight cases of brackets compared to 155 diamonds. This means that there has been an increase in both the number of places marked as uncertain and an increase in the level of uncertainty being marked. Overall, then, this reflects a slightly greater uncertainty about the earliest text on the part of the editors.”   

Peter Gurry & Tommy Wasserman. A New Approach to Textual Criticism: An Introduction to the Coherence Based Genealogical Method. 7.

As we see from the above quote, the scholars are clearly articulating that the definition of Scripture is unclear and becoming more so with every new articulation of the Modern Critical Text. That is to say that this problem will not resolve itself, and will not be resolved by the current effort of MTC. Dan Wallace and James White do not have an answer for Bart Ehrman. And so I propose that this is one of the most pressing issues facing the Christian church, because the Christian church only has doctrinal authority insofar as the Bible has doctrinal authority. And if the Bible is changing, it is not authoritative. Any claim, argument, response, or apologetic that the Christian gives is void of authority under the MCT paradigm. I have a hard time believing that anybody could consider the quoted material in this article and arrive at any other conclusion. Christians need to have an unchanging Bible that is defined and available, or our claims are void of authority. That is why I argue that this issue is far more than a “secondary issue.” That is why I continue to write on my blog, because I believe with more information, Christians will change their mind in their support for the Critical Text and return to the historical Protestant position on the definition, purpose, and use of the Holy Scriptures. Perhaps I am too optimistic, but history tells us a return to the Word of God results in great revival.

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