The topic of textual criticism which I call “The Textual Discussion” is often difficult to navigate. I know I say that all the time, but it’s true. I’m sure my reader has been involved in their fair share of confusing conversations on the subject. Most of the time, if you’re interacting with a proponent of the Modern Critical Text, you’re really just responding to various articulations of an argument made by an apologist or scholar. Most of these arguments have nothing to do with the discussion at all. For example, when people attack Erasmus and his work, they genuinely believe they are making an argument against the traditional position on Scripture, when in fact, they are not. Almost every popular level argument made by proponents of the Modern Critical Text only serves to demonstrate that they do not understand the position they are arguing against, or even their own position. An example of this is that Modern Critical Text advocates do not consider their own theology of inerrancy while attacking the Masoretic Hebrew and Received Greek.
If their argument is considered effective against the Traditional Text, then it also must be effective against the Modern Critical Text, according to the doctrine of inerrancy. The enemies of the faith know this, which is why you see Islam apologists reposting clips from debates without any commentary. This is due to the fact that the doctrine of inerrancy applies, practically speaking, to the manuscript tradition, which includes the TR. That is why you will see men like James White, Mark Ward, and Dan Wallace making the claim that there are “No major doctrines effected” between manuscripts or printed texts. The modern doctrine of Scripture advocates for preservation of ideas, not words, and since the Modern Critical Text position does not claim to have the original words, they must defend the notion of preserved ideas or doctrines. If they were to argue that the doctrines are different, they would have to do so by appealing to words, which would require “borrowing capital” from the traditional position and subverting the fundamentals of their own argument, resulting in an admission that the people of God have no Bible today.
It is for this reason that arguing against the Modern Critical Text position is simple. We start by asking the question, “How are doctrines derived from Scripture?” If we believe in Sola Scriptura, we would answer, “We derive doctrines from the words in Scripture.” And since the Modern Critical Text position does not argue for exact original words, they cannot argue for exact original doctrines. And so any description of the precision of words necessarily applies to doctrines. Those in the Traditional Text camp understand this, which is why we argue that originality of words = originality of doctrines. The doctrines are original because the words are original. Now if we were to argue that the words we have in our texts today are not original, just “good enough,” then we must argue the same for the doctrines. In order to defend the claim that “no doctrines are affected,” you would have to do so by examining the words, which the Modern Critical Text paradigm does not support. So either it is a NULL/unsupported claim, or the premise of this argument does not assume Sola Scriptura. It must appeal to tradition, councils, or other authority to prove that doctrine has not changed. This can be described as the Word-Doctrine Conundrum, and is the easiest way to demonstrate that the Modern Critical Text paradigm is incompatible with what might be considered orthodox Christian Bibliology.
The Word-Doctrine Conundrum
It is easy to get involved in discussions about textual variants, Erasmus, and manuscripts while neglecting the principia of the matter. This is why I frequently argue that you do not need to know Greek or have inspected a manuscript to participate in this discussion. Interestingly enough, these are major arguments made by proponents of the Modern Critical Text. You will often hear these types of arguments made on The Dividing Line internet program to dismiss dissenting claims. Somebody might make a valid critique of the Modern Critical Text, and it will be written off because “I bet this guy hasn’t even inspected a Greek manuscript!” What most people realize is that you don’t actually need to be a Textual Scholar to inspect a manuscript. The point is that all of these arguments distract from the Word-Doctrine Conundrum and are irrelevant because the Modern Critical Text has a fatal flaw that has not been answered. The reason it is a fatal flaw is because until it is answered, proponents of the Modern Critical Text have no basis for any claim regarding the quality of their text. In fact, what they do say about the quality of their text is enough to reject it outright. Be on the lookout for a follow up article on that later.
The Word-Doctrine Conundrum is the ultimate defeater of the Modern Critical Text position as an orthodox belief. If we accept the premise that words matter, and we can agree with James White that “I want what Paul wrote,” then the entire Modern Critical Text position is unfounded as a Christian position. I am not saying that people are not Christians by virtue of using the Modern Critical Text, just that the position itself is not in line with Scripture. This is due to what is called the “Methodological Gap.” In short, there is a period of time between the penning of the original text and the earliest surviving complete manuscript of about 200-300 years. There is no scientific or scholarly process that can cover that gap and fill in what happened during that period of time. This results in a Methodological Gap, which disallows any data based conclusion from being made on the shape and substance of the Bible for at least the first two centuries of transmission. That is why you will hear statements such as “earliest and best” rather than “original.” This modern methodology cannot reconstruct the original because of the 200 + year gap. This explains why advocates of the Modern Critical Text have adapted their doctrine of Scripture to describe preservation of doctrines, not words.
This is where the Word-Doctrine Conundrum finds its place as the fatal flaw of the Critical Text. If it is the case that modern methodology cannot prove their text original, then they cannot say that the doctrines are original by necessity. The practical impact of this is two-fold. In the first place, they cannot argue any one doctrine as being originally orthodox. Secondly, they cannot make any claims about the originality of a particular word or reading. They can only describe how early it appears in the manuscript tradition without relationship to the original. They can say that a reading appeared early in the manuscript tradition, but they cannot say that reading is original. So when a Critical Text advocate argues for a reading, they are really arguing that the reading appeared in the surviving manuscript tradition earlier than another reading. And I mentioned earlier that complete manuscripts don’t enter the surviving manuscript tradition for centuries after the original was penned. In other words, the Modern Critical Text methodology cannot make any claims about “what Paul wrote.” They can only make claims about “what scribes wrote 200 years later.”
This is why I believe so many Critical Text arguments are related to Erasmus or whether or not somebody knows Greek. They do not have any basis for speaking about the Divine Original, so they attempt to demonstrate that their text is “earliest and best.” The problem with this is that they cannot make any consistent arguments about “earliest” or “best” without appealing to the concept of the original. Without the original as an anchor point, “earliest” is simply in reference to the oldest surviving manuscripts. Without the original as an anchor point, “best” is simply an arbitrary reference to the scholars’ opinions of the surviving manuscripts. “Earliest” cannot actually mean “earliest” because we know there were earlier manuscripts, we just don’t have them. “Best” cannot actually mean “best” because we do not have the “best” manuscripts. If we had the “best” manuscripts, the scholars would be calling them “original” because the “best” manuscripts are the ones that represent “what Paul wrote.” This is the Methodological Gap. And because of the Methodological Gap, the Modern Critical Text has to face the Word-Doctrine Conundrum, wherein they arbitrarily say that the doctrines are preserved while the words are not. Yet, common sense tells us that doctrines are derived from words, and without the words, we cannot say the doctrines are preserved. In order to communicate a doctrine, we have to use words, and in order to derive a doctrine from a text, we need that text.
This is the simple argument against the Modern Critical Text. The Word-Doctrine Conundrum is a fatal flaw of the position. You cannot argue preservation of doctrines without preservation of the words that make up the doctrines. This brings us to an important question, “What is the Bible?” According to the Modern Critical Text position, it is a collection of surviving manuscripts. Which means that in reality, “The Bible” is a multitude of bibles. There is not one Bible, only later versions of the Bible. This is not a defensible Christian position. It undermines any absolute claims or appeals to the authority of Scripture. It is a critical flaw that leaves Christians without a defense.