Providential Exposure as it Relates to Preservation

The Theological Method and Preservation

The Theological Method for determining the text of Scripture heavily relies upon understanding the text that has been received by Christians, which is commonly called “exposure”. The text of Scripture is that which has been exposed to the people of God throughout the ages. John 10:27 says, “My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me” (KJV). Michael Kruger, in his book Canon Revisited, says this,

“When people’s eyes are opened, they are struck by the divine qualities of Scripture – it’s beauty and efficacy – and recognize and embrace Scripture for what it is, the word of God. They realize that the voice of Scripture is the voice of the Shepherd” (101). 

This might seem like subjectivism, but this is the historic doctrine that has been recognized throughout the ages by the theologians of the faith, most notably John Calvin and Herman Bavinck. This doctrine is not to be confused with the Mormon doctrine of “burning in the bosom”, though they sound similar. Many false doctrines are based on truth, and here the Christian must recognize that God’s Word is the means that He is speaking to His people in these last days, regardless of how that doctrine has been twisted by other systems. 

What distinguishes this doctrine from its Mormon counterpart is that this reception of the Scriptures by the people of God is not purely individualistic. The text of Scripture, as it has been handed down, exists ontologically, not just subjectively. There is a concrete shape of God’s Word that exists, and the people of God have had that Word in every generation. The text of Scripture must primarily be viewed as a covenantal document given to the covenant people of God for their use in all matters of faith and practice (LBCF 1.1). That does not mean that all those professing Christianity throughout the ages have agreed upon what belongs in Scripture, or that every Christian has had access to the whole of Scripture in every generation. In fact, there are a multitude of Christians that do not have access to God’s Word, either by circumstance, or by choice. 

It is important to take note of how the Apostolic church received the text of Holy Scripture to understand the doctrine of exposure as it relates to preservation. In the New Testament, there is never a case where Scripture is said to be a gift delivered to individual people. The Scriptures were always a corporate blessing to the covenant people of God (Acts 15:14; Titus 2:14; 1 Peter 2:9). In the testimony of Scripture itself, we can see that God delivers His Word to the people of God, not individual people of God. So the doctrine of exposure does not crumble due to certain individuals not having a copy of the Bible at all times. If this were the case, the fact that there are Christians who simply do not own a Bible would discredit this doctrine altogether. 

Despite the fact that the Canon is recognized in part by its corporate reception, this doctrine of providential exposure does not rest on ecclesiastical authority, as the papists might claim. There is no one single church which is responsible for giving authority to the text of Holy Scripture. In fact, no church could give authority to the Scriptures, they are authoritative in themselves (αυτοπιστος). Kruger explains this well, “The books received by the church inform our understanding of which books are canonical not because the church is infallible o because it created or constituted the canon, but because the church’s reception of these books is a natural and inevitable outworking of the self-authenticating nature of Scripture” (106).

It must be stated, that Kruger makes the distinction between the canon, and the text of the canon, which is the common thought amongst conservative scholarship. Upon examination of the theological method  however, there does not seem to be good reason to separate the two. If the doctrinal foundation of providential exposure demonstrates the “efficacy of the Shepherd’s voice to call”(106), then it follows that there must be a definitive voice that does the calling. The name of a canonical book is simply not efficacious to call sinners to repentance and faith. Simply listing off the canonical list is not the Gospel call. So the material that is providentially exposed to the people of God must also contain the substance which is effective unto life by the power of the Holy Spirit. God has not just preserved the book sleeves of the Bible, He has also preserved the words within those book sleeves. 

Since the Bible is self-authenticating, Christians cannot look to the totality or purity of its reception to determine which books or texts of the Bible should be received today. That is to say that because the majority of the Christian people do not accept one passage as authentic today, does not mean that it has not been properly received in the past, or that it is not ontologically a part of the canon. A passage of Scripture may not have been accepted as canonical by various groups throughout history, and this has indeed been the case, usually due to theological controversy. 

It is antithetical to the Theological method to say that the Scriptures are self-authenticating, but then also say that people must authenticate those Scriptures by a standard outside of the Scriptures themselves. Either the Scriptures are self-authenticating, or they are not. Which is why evidence are great tools to defend the Scriptures, but those evidences can never authenticate those Scriptures in themselves. It is problematic to say that God’s Word has been preserved, and kept pure in all ages, and then to immediately say that He has done so imperfectly, or has not fully exposed that Word to His people yet. 

The Theological method provides a framework that actually gives more weight to historical thought as opposed to modern thought. It disallows for a perspective that believes that the people of God had lost or added passages of Scripture, and that these texts need to be recovered or removed. It prevents certain theories that the text evolved, or that Christ’s divinity was developed over time. It especially rejects the idea that the original text of the New Testament was choppy, crude, and in places incoherent, and that scribes smoothed out the readings to make the text readable. In fact, it exposes those manuscripts that are choppy and missing parts to be of poor quality by assuming that the Holy Scriptures were inspired by the Holy Spirit rather than invented by ostensibly literate first century Jews. 

There may have been localities that corrupted the text (usually intentionally), but this does not represent the providential preservation that was taking place universally. The vast majority of textual variants are due to Scribal errors, but the significant variants were certainly an effort of revision. A Scribe simply wouldn’t have removed or added 12 verses by accident. A great example is the idiosyncratic Egyptian manuscripts uncovered in the 19th and 20th centuries, which tend to disagree with the general manuscript tradition in important variant units. These manuscripts have been given tremendous weight in the modern period due to shifting views of inspiration and preservation. 

If the Scriptures truly were inspired and preserved, then one should expect that the text did not evolve, or that the closest representative of those originals would be riddled with short, abrupt readings. One would expect that in every stage of copying, Scribal errors would be purged out, and that the true readings would persevere. In fact, this phenomenon can be observed in the vast majority of the extant New Testament manuscripts, which has unfortunately been described as Scribal interference, or smoothing out the text. When the transmission of the New Testament manuscripts are viewed Theologically, an entirely different story is told by the manuscripts which largely disagrees with the modern narrative which favors those choppy manuscripts which existed in one locality of the Christian world. 

The preservation of God’s Word can be demonstrated evidentially, but not without the proper Theological lens. Evidential arguments can be a powerful tool in all disciplines, but they often are not effective in themselves to change anybody’s mind. That is why the Theology of scholars will ultimately determine the manuscripts they deem to be earliest and best. Simply counting manuscripts, or weighing manuscripts, is simply not consistent with the conservative doctrine of preservation. In both cases, these methods attempt to take an external authority, such as manuscript count, or the age of the manuscript, and use that to authenticate the Word of God. Yet both of these are at odds with the doctrinal standard that is laid forth in Scriptures themselves, that the Word of God is self-authenticating. That is why the language of “the text that has been received” is warranted in this conversation, because it recognizes God’s providential preservation and exposure of the ontological canon to the people of God in every age. 

Conclusion 

The doctrine of exposure is often misunderstood as being too similar to the Mormon doctrine of “burning of the bosom” or the papal doctrine which states that Rome has the authority to authenticate the Bible. Despite these abuses of Scripture, the fact remains that the Scriptures are self-authenticating. It is easy to fall back onto empirical approaches, because they seem to be the most logical. Yet these empirical approaches do not do what they claim they can do, and this is becoming increasingly evident with each passing year. The number of Bibles has only increased, and exponentially at that. Modern methodology has not narrowed the text of the New Testament to fewer legitimate readings, but has expanded greatly the number of readings that “could be” original or early. 

The efforts of modern textual scholarship has only increased the uncertainty of the text of the New Testament. This has culminated in the abandonment of the search for the original text of the Bible for the Ausgangstext, or the earliest text scholars can get back to (which is 3rd or 4th century). Practically speaking, this pursuit will simply result in arriving at some hypothetical form of the text that may have existed in Egypt in the third century. Since this seems to be the direction of most current New Testament text-critical scholarship, it seems that it is time to return to the old paths. The Theological method has been expressed by countless Theologians of the Christian faith, and it should not be abandoned for the sake of adopting the modern critical scientific method. The Scriptures should always be handled as self-authenticating, and a shift to this way of thinking would result in a massive change in the direction of modern New Testament scholarship. 

Partial Preservation & The Confessional Text

Introduction

To tell the history of the pericope adulterae is to tell the history of the Gospels, and vice versa. (To Cast the First Stone, Wasserman & Knust, 9).

The story of the woman caught in adultery is beloved by many Christians, non-canonical to others, and a fascinating story of transmission of the New Testament Text to scholars. There are even some who consider the story to belong in the Gospel of John despite believing that John did not write the story himself. The current scholarship on the Pericope Adulterae reveals a bigger picture on New Testament text critical studies than twelve verses that make up the story of the woman caught in adultery. This scholarship has in some cases, uncovered the ghost of Schleiermacher, and in other cases exposed the evolutionary perspective that scholars have of the New Testament text. In either case, the perspectives of these positions are by no means historical or orthodox, despite the best intentions of those engaging in the work. 

The Well Intentioned Theology of Partial Preservation

Good works are only such as God hath commanded in His Holy Word, and not such as without the warrant thereof are devised by men out of blind zeal, or upon any pretense of good intentions (LBCF 16.1).

The best of intentions are utterly devoid of any value if the actions of those intentions are not submissive to the Word of God. It does not matter if those engaging in New Testament textual scholarship are nice or even dear brothers in the Lord, if the underlying perspective and work done is antithetical to Scriptural truths. The doctrinal statements of protestant Christianity have, until the modern period, been in agreement on the nature of the Holy Scriptures. They are self-authenticating, and God has preserved them in every age. Any theological position that allows for a total corruption of the text, such that the text of the Bible must be recovered or reconstructed, stands in opposition to the standards laid down by the great heroes of the protestant faith throughout the ages. 

There is a difference between collating the texts that have been received by the people of God in every generation and believing that the text has been lost to time and needs to be reconstructed. The textual scholars of the Reformation did not believe they were trying to find the potentially earliest form of the New Testament (which had become corrupted totally), they were collating the best manuscripts which were in use at the time. This is why it is inexcusable to say that Reformation era textual criticism is the same thing as modern textual criticism. Imagine John Calvin saying something like this:

“Books and the texts they preserve are human products, bound in innumerable ways to the circumstances and communities that produce them. This is also true of the New Testament…Even if the text of the Gospels could be fixed – and, when viewed at the level of object and material artifact, this goal has never been achieved” (15)

This perspective does not just represent the most liberal views of the New Testament text, it is abundantly present amongst conservative camps as well. This is often justified by loose understandings of Organic Inspiration. This is the Theological reality that underpins  scientific approaches to New Testament textual criticism. Now juxtapose the above statement with this quote from John Owen’s The Divine Original. 

“That the laws they made known, the doctrines they delivered, the instructions they gave, the stories they recorded, the promises of Christ, the prophecies of gospel times they gave out and revealed, were not their own, not conceived in their minds, not formed by their reasonings, not retained in their memories from what they heard, not by any means beforehand comprehended by them, (1 Pet. 1:10, 11,) but were all of them immediately from God—there being only a passive concurrence of their rational faculties in their reception, without any such active obedience as by any law they might be obliged unto”

Despite well-intentioned Christian scholars and apologists, there is not a single empirical refutation that can stand against the reality that the original text cannot be found by using scientific methods. One might be bold enough to take a stand on every variant unit in the corpus of the modern critical text, but they will be met by an overwhelming amount of scholars who reject the readings they have chosen by utilizing the same exact methodology. In fact, this is the reason many have rejected the Tyndale House Greek New Testament. Ultimately, even the most conservative Christians in the reasoned eclectic camp must pad their conclusions with “probably”, “might be”, and “could be”. 

To demonstrate this point, see these quotations from Dirk Jongkind’s An Introduction to the Greek New Testament

“I have no problems with the notion that God has preserved his Word. On the contrary, I believe he did. But 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” (90).

“To say that God inspired the words of the New Testament does not mean that God is therefore under an obligation to preserve for us each detail” (23).

Notice that in one breath, Jongkind affirms preservation, and in the next rejects that it has been preserved totally. Scripture has been preserved, just not in every place. It would be more transparent for those who hold to this position to say that “God has preserved most of His Word”. When this theology is applied to the actual text of Scripture, it just aligns with the same exact perspective as those that believe the Word of God is a human product that cannot and has not ever been preserved in its original form. This is because the places where God has not totally preserved His Word just so happen to be the same places that the secular scholarship agrees cannot be determined with absolute certainty. Despite the well meaning efforts of believing textual scholars to hold onto an orthodox view of preservation, they have had to change the meaning of preservation entirely in order to have an empirical argument. Jongkind admits as much that that is what he, and like minded Christians, are doing when they engage in textual criticism.

Therefore, Textus Receptus proponents avoid the historical question, “Is this the text backed up by the best historical evidence? By answering the following theological question in the affirmative: Is this the text given to us by God? (89)

Well-intentioned Christians have to denigrate and attack another Christian position that actually believes in a finished product of God’s Word in order to justify their theological position that the Word of God has only been preserved in parts. If they can demonstrate that there is not a single form of God’s Word that has been preserved, they can justify the work that is being done today. The modern critical position is only appealing when the other positions are mocked, shamed, or otherwise discredited. 

The problem with statements like these, which seem scientific and logical, is that they do not carry the weight that they seem to carry. In the question, “Is the text backed up by the best historical evidence?” there is a monumental assumption that the modern text is backed up by historical evidence. Yet even the evidence that is produced for the various forms of the modern text, the very same scholars who belittle the Textus Receptus admit that their science is not certain or verifiable. This is not a controversial opinion, there is even a symbol in the NA28 apparatus which literally designates when a verse cannot be determined to be original by empirical methods. And in every case where an empirical stand is taken on a textual variant, there is never absolute agreement. At the end of this pursuit, the only thing that has been produced is not a Bible, but bibles. Modern New Testament text critical scholars have not succeeded at the goal of producing a text. 

Preservation

The historical, orthodox understanding of the doctrine of preservation does not allow for partial preservation, or multiple forms of the New Testament text. The word preservation itself means that something remains in its original state, or has been kept safe from harm or corruption. This word has not shifted in meaning over the years – it means the same thing now as it did when it came into English from the latin. If one is to employ the word “preservation” in discussing the Scriptures, than it means to believe that the Scriptures have been retained in their original form since penned in the first century. That is not to say that every manuscript has, or that one manuscript has, just that upon collation of manuscripts, the original form has been retained. In order to say that the Bible has not been preserved in every detail, than the term “partial preservation” or “substantial preservation” should be employed. It is not transparent to claim to espouse a preservationist doctrine of Scripture while also affirming that the Bible has not been preserved. 

The simple doctrine of preservation is that God preserved His Word, and has kept it pure in all ages. This requires affirming that a final product has been available to the people of God in all ages (though there were times where not every Christian had access to a Bible, this is still the case in many countries). If this is the case, the goal of the Christian should be to see which text has been given to the people of God. At this juncture, there are a handful of options – the modern critical texts, the majority texts, and the Received Text. Within the modern critical texts, there are hundreds of Bibles to choose from. Within the majority texts, there are but a few. And within the Received Text camp, there are a dozen or so, most notably the KJV. In any case, the Christian, especially in America, has the luxury to choose which Bible they read in any format imaginable. Choose a translation that is based off of the most faithful methodology, not one that is the most empirically “consistent”. Remember the words of the famous empiricist text critic, D.C. Parker:

“The text is changing. Every time I make an edition of the Greek New Testament, or anybody does, we change the wording. We are maybe trying to get back to the oldest possible form, but paradoxically we are creating a new one…There is never a final form of the text.”

The views of D.C. Parker are not aberrant from the rest of modern textual criticism. He represents the majority view, either explicitly or implicitly. The theology of partial preservation and a changing text has become the orthodoxy of New Testament text-critical scholarship. This theological foundation is being taught as the only methodology in seminaries and from pulpits. My only hope is that Christians will take the time to consider the implications this has on the doctrines of inspiration and preservation. If the goal is to give Christians confidence that they are reading God’s Word, this modern methodology cannot do that. 

The Young, Textless, and Reformed

“The Young, Textless, and Reformed” is a clever title crafted by Dr. Jeff Riddle, pastor of Christ Reformed Baptist Church in Louisa, Virginia. The title describes a young generation of Calvinists that were brought up in the environment of modern textual criticism, myself included. This generation is one of the first who did not grow up believing the woman caught in adultery is Scripture, and only know the dogmas of the modern critical text position. They are one of the first generations with a heavily changing text of the Bible.

This era of new Calvinists found their way to Reformed Theology by way of John MacArthur, John Piper, Mark Dever, RC Sproul and many more. These are teachers that have sparked a younger generation to travel down the old paths, back to the Puritans and confessional Christianity. Many of these young Calvinists have become disenchanted with the uncertainty of modern translations. Many of them have realized, and are realizing that a changing text is no text at all. 

 

Despite the fluid nature of modern textual criticism, Christians are told that they can have confidence in their Bible, knowing that the scientists and scholars working on it will change it every five years. The best text that scholars have to offer is a text that is undecided and bipolar. This is allegedly the most faithful and defensible position on the text of Scripture. 

Many Christians have already asked important questions that need to be answered regarding the modern critical text. If the Bible is liable to change, what does that mean for the doctrine of preservation? If Christians knew that the scholars crafting the New Testament didn’t believe they could find the original, would that change their mind on what they think of modern textual criticism? With this kind of information, the discerning Christian might come to the conclusion that an amorphous Bible is no Bible at all.  

In this blog, I will examine the modern standards for textual criticism that are responsible for the footnotes, brackets, and new Bibles every five years, in contrast to the method that has been used since the Reformation by faithful theologians and scholars to receive what God has preserved as His Word.  The posts will be polemic with the aim of showing people that the modern methodologies are not the answer.