The Theology of the Text: What is Preservation?

This article is the second in the series called “The Theology of the Text,” designed to cover the topic of the text in short, accessible articles. 

The Theology of the Text Part II: What is Preservation? 

In the modern church, there has been a concentrated effort to redefine what the word “preserved” means as it pertains to the Scriptures. According to most of the conservative evangelicals today, the Bible is preserved in such a way that the original text exists in all of the extant manuscripts, though text critics have not fully determined what that preserved text is completely. Another perspective that is growing due to the influence of evangelical textual scholars, is that the original text has not been fully preserved, and that the text available today is all that God intended to preserve. Both of these doctrinal positions are flawed because they do not take into consideration 1) the purpose of Scripture and 2) the definition of preservation. 

Neither of these definitions satisfy what is required for the Scriptures to be preserved. In the first doctrinal position, the Bible can only be said to be preserved in theory because the people of God don’t actually have that preserved text. In the second doctrinal position, the Bible can only be said to be quasi-preserved, or partially preserved, because it readily admits that some portions of Scripture have indeed fallen away. It seems that the second doctrinal position is simply the first brought to its logical conclusion.

Preservation is simply defined as an object remaining the same. This means that if the Bible is said to be preserved, it must today be in the same state as it was when it was written. The doctrines, and the words which detail those doctrines, must be intact. Scripture In order to provide a Biblical definition of preservation, both the purpose of Scripture and the definition of preservation must be considered. 

The Purpose of Holy Scripture 

“The holy scriptures, which are able to make thee wise unto salvation through faith which is in Christ Jesus.”

2 Timothy 3:15

“That the man of God may be perfect, throughly furnished unto all good works.”

2 Timothy 3:17

The Scriptures affirm that they are the means God uses for 1) justification and 2) sanctification. 

How much of this Scripture is purposed for this use?

“All Scripture is given by inspiration of God”

2 Timothy 3:16

The Definition of Preservation

With the purpose of Scripture defined, it is now appropriate to set forth the scope of this preservation. 

“But the word of the Lord endureth forever. And this is the word which by the gospel is preached unto you.”

1 Peter 1:25

In this text, the Scriptures affirm what is preserved, “the word of the Lord,” and how long it will be preserved for, “endureth forever,” and how it is used,”by which the gospel is preached unto you.” The word of the Lord, which is “all Scripture,” is the thing that will “endureth forever.” 

Conclusion

The Scriptures set forth clearly that “all Scripture” is given by God for the purpose of being used for all matters of faith and practice, and that God will not stop giving the Scriptures to His people. Rejecting this doctrine, is to reject that God spoke perfectly the first time, and is still failing to speak perfectly “in these last days” (Heb. 1:1). In the first place, if some Scripture has fallen away, then “All Scripture” as it was inspired by God was not “profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness” (2 Tim. 3:16), and therefore God spoke fallibly. In the second place, if some Scripture has fallen away, then the word of the Lord does not endure forever, and therefore God spoke fallibly. In order to affirm that the Christian church has all they need in the Holy Scriptures, Christians must affirm that “all Scripture” has been preserved, and given to the people of God by God Himself. God sets forth all that man needs, and all that man needs is “all Scripture,” not some.

If it is denied that “All Scripture” has not been preserved and delivered in every age, then the next logical step is to deny God’s providence itself. One may affirm that God works by way of means and reject the Scriptural definition of preservation, but those means are conveniently whatever men are doing with the Scriptures, regardless if those means are Biblical. Men are left then, assuming authority upon themselves to determine which is an “important” doctrine and which is not, and which passages of Holy Scripture are to be received or rejected. There is no longer a “sure word of prophecy,” (2 Peter 1:19) but a word of prophecy which is dictated and determined by the fallacious reasoning of sinful men. If preservation is denied, the mechanism by which God’s Word is given is no longer God, but man. 


“All truths of Revelation are of unspeakable importance, and even especially necessary in their own place , – and as all attempts to determine which are fundamental, and which not, are calculated to render us deficient and slothful in the study of religious knowledge; – To fix precisely what truths are fundamental and what not, is neither necessary, nor profitable, nor safe, nor possible.”

John Brown of Haddington. Systematic Theology. 97.

The Theology of the Text: What is Scripture?

This article is the first in the series called “The Theology of the Text,” designed to cover the topic of the text in short, accessible articles. 

The Theology of the Text Part I: What is Scripture?

Christian theology is built from the ground up from Scripture. Without Scripture, there is no stability to the Christian religion. If the Scriptures are rejected as the ultimate foundation for the Christain religion, subjectivism and human experience become the god of the church. What we believe about Scripture is of utmost importance, as it is the foundation for all Christian faith and practice. The reason that the Scriptures are the foundation for faith and practice, is because God declares them such, and gives them to His people for that purpose. 

All Scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness: that the man of God may be perfect, throughly furnished unto all good works.”

2 Timothy 3:16

There are two points from this passage that are important to know: 

  1. All Scripture is given by inspiration of God
  2. All Scripture is given as a sufficient rule of faith; for practice and interpretation

The first point means that every line of Scripture is delivered from God to man by way of His inspiration. That is to say, that God is the author, and the men who physically wrote the Bible were the instrument, or writers. There are two points that should be observed from this first point: 1) The Scriptures are God’s words written down, and therefore pure and perfect. 2) The use of human means to write the Scriptures does not suppose human error, as God inspired those human authors. The process of giving the Scriptures to the church was not an accidental that God simply used in a reactionary way. Scripture is something He Himself caused and delivered. The nature of inspiration is such that the very words are inspired, and also that the vocabulary and experiences of the writers were employed by God. This has been called “organic” or “verbal plenary” inspiration by some, but it is important to remember that the nature of inspiration was not so organic that the words of Scripture are simply human words and ideas that God used. All Scripture is given by God, and therefore all Scripture is God’s words, regardless of the means that He used to accomplish such inspiration. 

The second point means that the Scriptures were given as a sufficient rule of faith to the people of God for all matters of faith and practice, “instruction in righteousness.” This serves as both a rule for what the Scriptures are to be used for, and also gives the people of God the necessary “self-interpreting” hermeneutic principle. First, the Scriptures are given “for instruction in righteousness.” That means that there are other ways to learn things outside of the Scriptures. There is benefit in reading history books, maths textbooks, theological commentaries and works, and other works of literature which cover various disciplines not pertaining to faith and practice. That does not mean that the Bible does not say anything about math, or science, or history, just that the Bible itself does not say it is the only means to get knowledge in all things. The Scriptures provide the foundation for how a Christian approaches all other disciplines, but does not contain exhaustive knowledge of all other disciplines in itself. It is sufficient as it pertains to Christian faith and practice, and also sufficient in its declarations about the Christian should approach other disciplines. Second, since the Bible is sufficient for all matters of faith and practice, that means that the hermeneutic principle of “let Scripture interpret Scripture” is warranted from this text. There is no need to interpret the Scriptures through Biological science, ecclesiastical tradition, critical approaches, or using various numerological systems. Further, this also means that no further revelation is necessary “for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness.” The Scriptures are fully sufficient for understanding all of Scripture. Historical studies may help one understand context better, but Scripture should always be read with the self-interpreting principle. 

Conclusion

The Scriptures set forth in 2 Timothy 3:16, and many other passages, that the Word of God is pure (Ps. 12:6) and perfect (Ps. 19:7), and sufficient for use in all matters of faith and practice. The source of a multitude of modern errors stem from rejecting this doctrine. When a Christian reads Scripture and hears Scripture correctly and faithfully preached, they are hearing God’s words (John 10:27). The Scriptures are lacking nothing, in word count and in what they teach. There is no prophetic word, vision, or dream which is necessary, because the Scriptures are sufficient. God gave the Scriptures to His people so that He could speak surely in every age until the last day (Mat. 5:18). In an age where the Bible is viewed as a corrupt, man-made document, this doctrine is essential to affirm for the sake of assurance of faith, and unity among the people of God. 

The Academy and the Church

Introduction

One of the major appeals that those in the Received Text camp make to support the continued use of the historical Protestant text over and above the modern critical text, is that the “modern critical text” is an academic text, not an ecclesiastical text. In other words, it is a text produced without the “kind consideration of the church.” This has been challenged by some as a conflation, as there are evangelicals working in text criticism, which means “the church” is involved in the production of “the” modern critical text. It is said that there are indeed evangelicals producing editions of the modern critical text, so it cannot be said that the modern critical text is an “academic text.” 

In order to understand this appeal against the modern critical text, it is important to note what is meant by “the” modern critical text as it pertains to this argument. I have written before why I do not typically address niche textual positions and texts, and this is why. In order for a text to be a “church” text, so to speak, it has to actually be created by and used by the people of God. So the Greek texts which may have some evangelical origins may be considered a text produced “within the church,” but if they are not translated into the vulgar tongue for the people of God to use, what good are they to the people of God? These texts are used perhaps by Greek students and academics, but not by churches in the ministry of the Word, which makes them academic texts. Further, and more importantly, the main text platforms that are used for translation into every vulgar tongue, are produced within the scholarly ecosystem, not the church. Many men and women who contribute to the scholarship and editorial work of the Greek texts used for translation are often times not properly evangelicals at all. So while it is great that evangelicals are contributing to the work of textual scholarship, the texts used for translation are those of an academic kind. What is meant then, by “the” modern critical text, is any modern critical edition that is used as a base Greek text for translations used by the church. That being said, I thought it would be helpful to offer some analysis and definitions of an academic text and an ecclesiastical text. 

What Makes a Text an Ecclesiastical Text? 

There are three necessary criteria which should be used to identify a text as ecclesiastical or academic text – faith, methodology, and use. 

Firstly, an ecclesiastical text must be produced by men who affirm the orthodox fundamentals of the Christian religion. They must hear the voice of their Shepherd (John 10:27). This includes affirming the Trinity, verbal plenary inspiration, salvation by grace through faith alone, a literal eternal hell, and so forth. In other words, they must be believers in the “message that ye heard from the beginning” (1 John 3:11). Those that produce a text within the church must be chiefly concerned with God’s glory, and must be orthodox believers themselves. There is no reason that mormons, jesuits, and other non-orthodox scholars should be involved in producing a text made for use in the Christian church. There is no room for an “eccumenical” text to share with religious groups who do not affirm the fundamentals of the Christian faith. The Scriptures were given by inspiration of God for the people of God for instruction in righteousness (2 Tim. 3:16). 

Secondly, the methodology of an ecclesiastical text must incorporate Scriptural principles in its axioms, the most important being verbal plenary inspiration. A text made by the church must be bound by what the Scriptures say about themselves. 

Thirdly, an ecclesiastical text must be produced for the purpose of being translated so that the people of God can actually use it. A text that is created with no plans for translation is by necessity an academic text, as only students and scholars of the Greek language can make use of it. That is to say, an ecclesiastical text is made for use by the people of God in public and private reading and preaching (1 Thess. 5:27; 2 Tim. 4:2-4). It must benefit the people of God by way of translation in the tongue they speak. 

What Makes a Text an Academic Text? 

An academic text is one that is produced within the realm of the scholarly community, and typically isn’t primarily motivated by the three principles I laid out above. Those involved in such an effort may not affirm the essentials of the Christian faith, or even consider themselves evangelicals in any sense of the word (1 Tim. 6:3-6). Such texts are produced eccumenically, or perhaps by men and women who do not affirm Christianity at all. Jesuits, Mormons, Unitarians, and theological liberals are often consulted or even included on the teams which produce such texts or whose scholarship influences the textual decisions of these teams. The methods used to produce these texts do not consider inspiration or the Holy Spirit as a necessary axiom. They are produced by academic axioms, driven by the scholarly consensus on what the text of Scripture is or isn’t. Academic texts are not exclusively or necessarily produced due to need by the church in normal use for faith and practice. Many of these academic texts stay in the original Biblical languages, for use by students and scholars for research or language learning purposes. An academic text may be used in the church, but that does not make it a text produced by the church. 

Conclusion

In the modern church, academic texts are purposed for translation, but I argue they should not be. Christians should not use a Bible that is not produced by scholars who cannot affirm the fundamentals of the Christian faith. Christians should not use a Bible that is not produced according to methods which agree with Scriptural principles. Further, Christians should not support the production of texts that are not needed, or will not be translated for use by the people of God in the ordinary ministry of the Word. 

A true text produced by the church is one that is produced by orthodox believers, using principles which align with what the Scriptures say about themselves, purposed for settling controversy in the original languages and translated into vulgar tongues for ordinary use by the people of God. A text produced by the academy is one that is not exclusively made by believers and which uses principles that are driven by academic and not Scriptural standards. Christians may make use of such texts, but academic texts do not become a church text simply because Christians decide to translate them and use them. 

I am not saying that God cannot use unbelievers as means to accomplish His divine decree, He certainly has in history. What I am saying is that Christians should be wise to discern an academic text from an ecclesiastical text, especially considering the church doesn’t need and shouldn’t endorse unbelievers handling a text which they cannot understand by the Spirit. The question is not, “Can unbelievers be used by God to create Bibles?” It is, “Should Christians endorse and support academic texts?” Such a question is quite important for the people of God to answer in our modern context.  

The Difference Between Appeals to Authority and Appeals to Providence

Introduction

Recently, the claim was made that appeals to God’s providence are the same as appeals to authority regarding the Received Text. The argument goes, that TR advocates simply appeal to the authority of those that used the TR in history to justify retaining the historical text of the Protestants. This argument presents the case that the defense of the TR is simply a dull-minded and lazy appeal to theologians of the past, and for those that have not investigated the argument, it likely is convincing. While it is important to be clear as to why we appeal to a particular authority, it is false that an appeal to God’s providential use of means is categorically the same as a fallacious appeal to authority.

The Westminster Confession of Faith says, 

“God the great Creator of all things doth uphold, direct, dispose, and govern all creatures, actions, and things, from the greatest even to the elast, by His most wise and holy providence, according to His infallible foreknowledge, and the free and immutable counsel of His own will, to the praise of the glory of His wisdom, power, justice, goodness, and mercy”

(WCF 5.1)

An appeal to God’s providence is an appeal to God working in all things, not an appeal to the authority of those means. God uses the means of men preaching the Gospel to bring people to a saving knowledge of God, that does not mean that somebody is saved by the person who delivered the message. The authority is God’s, not the means He uses. Now, that is not to say that Received Text advocates do not make appeals to authority, they do. The same can be said for those in the modern critical text camp.

When a modern evangelical appeals to DA Carson, or John MacArthur, or John Piper, that is exactly what they are doing. In fact, in John Piper’s “sermon” on why the Pericope Adulterae is not Scripture, one of his points is that most scholars do not believe it to be Scripture. It is important to note that not all appeals to authority are necessarily bad. There is a reason people become authorities in various disciplines, and appealing to the scholarship of somebody who has invested their life studying something isn’t immediately fallacious, if that scholarship is well founded. In academic, scholarly, and even casual blog writing, quoting a well reputed scholar is helpful to give external witness to the idea that you are setting forth. Appeals to authority should be done with care, and should not be the entire foundation of an argument, but sometimes an appeal to authority can be helpful, and is often necessary to give an argument more credibility. Regardless of whether or not appeals to authority are good or bad, the real question that I want to answer in this article is, “Are appeals to God’s providence mere appeals to human authority?” 

No They Aren’t

When an appeal is made to God’s providence, the appeal is first to what God has done in time by use of means. At a time where the printing press was introduced to Europe, and the church was going through the most significant revival in the history of Christianity, the first effort of editing handwritten manuscripts into printed editions started taking place. The appeal to providence here is that God worked in this technological improvement to distribute His preserved Word during the time where people could actually use it. This is vindicated by the fact that the Reformation simply doesn’t happen without the distribution of Holy Scripture to the people outside of the Roman church polity. Further, the language capabilities of those men exceeded many of those working in New Testament and Old Testament studies today. Men like Erasmus and Melanchton were champions of teaching the classical languages to proficiency, and as a result, many men knew the languages much better than the average scholar today. Not to be disparaging, but many of the men who teach Greek in seminary demonstrably couldn’t watch an episode of Spongebob in Greek and understand it, count to 20, or even order a sandwich in Greek. Despite this, the modern perspective says, “I have a bigger lexicon, therefore I know Greek better.”

That is not to disrespect the men who hold teaching posts at seminaries, or men who have learned Greek at seminaries, it is just a gentle reminder that owning a bigger dictionary than Shakespeare doesn’t make one better at English than Shakespeare. The goal of seminary Greek is exegesis and use of tools, not fluency. This approach serves its purpose when used appropriately and with a bit of humility. The problem is that this approach is often used inappropriately, and without much humility. Simply knowing grammar doesn’t make one qualified to translate a text. You wouldn’t hire somebody who knew the grammar of Spanish to be a Spanish translator unless they also knew the nuances and idioms of Spanish. This requires fluency.

Appealing to the language skills and theology of the men of the 16th century is not an appeal to authority, it’s an appeal to the fact that they were simply more adept at languages and theology than most modern scholars, and thus more capable of examining evidence and translating than these scholars. If you’ve ever watched a modern pastor “Go back to the Greek” in a sermon, and know anything about languages, you know this is true. Today, the Biblical languages are viewed as mystical symbols which surpass the normal value of words in any other language, to the point where it’s actually damaging to modern exegesis. 

So are “appeals to authority” used by those in the Received Text camp? Yes, if appeals to authority means appeals to the skills of those men. Yet those appeals are not the foundation of the Received Text argument, they simply point out the weakness of modern thinking. It is important to distinguish between the means God uses by His providential care, and the authority of those means apart from God’s providential oversight. The crux of the Received Text argument is that in time, and by God’s providence, the manuscripts which were providentially kept pure were received, examined, edited, and printed. These printed editions were tried, tested, edited, and reached a point of maturity in Beza’s text where the Protestant church accepted it as the main text from which translations should be made.

Hyper focusing on the early editions of that process misses the point of the argument completely. The fountainhead of the textual effort in the 16th century does not represent the full breadth of that effort. The orthodox did not believe that the text was a “reconstruction,” they believed it had been “kept pure in all ages.” The text was received, not lost. The appeal to providence is not an appeal to the authority of those that received that text, it is first an appeal that the Scriptures had not fallen away prior to the 16th century effort , and secondly to the fact that the text was received almost universally by the late 16th century and into the high orthodox period. It is an appeal to God doing an extraordinary work through ordinary means, not an appeal to the authority of those means. There certainly is a powerful argument to be made by comparing the skill set of the 16th century scholars to many modern scholars, but that is a secondary appeal, not the foundation.

Conclusion

At this point in the discussion, the real issue is not about which Greek text is “better.” It is about “Which Greek text” is the text that should be used. By God’s providence, the fruit of modern text criticism is doubt, unbelief, and skepticism towards the Word of God. It has resulted in the belief that a proper translation cannot possibly be made that accurately reflects the original Biblical languages. It has produced the mindset that if Christians really want to know what God said, they have to go back to the Greek and study text criticism. It has revealed that if Christians cannot claim intellectual authority over the Scriptures, they are unwilling to believe that the Scriptures have been preserved. If men and women honestly believe that the modern effort of text criticism is “the same” as what has been done historically, there is nothing really more to say. Ironically, the strong trust in authorities has led to this kind of thinking. Since all of the authorities are saying, “We know Greek better” and “We have better data,” modern evangelicals have bought into the idea that our modern Greek scholars are standing on the pinnacle of knowledge in church history. There are certainly cases where the great scholars of the past were wrong, and very much so. However, these errors should not used to assume they were wrong in every case. Further, the amount of data that the 16th century scholars had is irrelevant to the conversation of God’s providence, because by God’s providence, they had the right data at the right time. It may be the case that having access to more data makes one a better scholar, but perhaps it is more wise and humble, in our modern context, to view the scholarship of the past with slightly more respect than it is currently given.

While appeals to authority are not the foundation of the Received Text argument, it is warranted to discern the actual skill set of the authorities we trust. If a pastor is not aware the wealth of new ideas in text criticism over the last decade, perhaps they should avoid making comments on the discussion that assume axioms that have evolved or have been abandoned. If a Greek scholar cannot translate an episode of Spongebob from Greek to English, should they be making determinations on the text of Holy Scripture? That also applies to the average person who thinks they know Greek because they can use Biblehub or some other lexicon. People wouldn’t do that with any other language, and yet with the Biblical languages it is allowed for some strange reason. The men at the time of the Reformation could debate in the original Biblical languages. They wrote treaties from scratch in Latin and Greek. They didn’t need a Greek lexicon because they actually knew Greek. Yet we still say, “We know better.” Perhaps it’s time, in our modern context, to become students of the great theologians of the past again, rather than asserting our intellectual superiority over them. In a time where the church is fighting downgrades in every category of theology, it seems a return to the old paths would be greatly beneficial to all. In any case, it should be clear, that an appeal to providence is not a fallacious appeal to authority. They are two different categories, and should be treated as such. The theologians and scholars could have been equally yoked with the modern scholars in their language skills, and by God’s providence, had the right theological framework and the right manuscripts, to be the means God used to continue delivering His pure Word to the church.

Examining Epistemological Foundations

Introduction

The most significant element to the discussion of text-criticism and Bible translations is that of epistemology. Christians recognize two forms of revelation, natural and special. In the first place, men and women know things because they are made in the image of God, and can use their reasoning to come to conclusions. This natural reasoning and sense observation is not sufficient to bring anybody to a saving knowledge of Jesus Christ. Secondly, in special revelation, God speaks so that men may know His revealed will. The question we have to ask ourselves as it pertains to the textual discussion is, “Is my epistemological starting point in line with what God has revealed in Scripture?” 

One of the purposes of this blog is to demonstrate that “modern text criticism” begins epistemologically in a different place than the Scriptures. That does not mean that self-identifying Evangelicals who engage in text-criticism necessarily have anti-Scriptural epistemological starting points, just that the various methods, as defined, assume a certain epistemological starting point that is incompatible with Scripture. In other words, one can employ modern text criticism from a Christian epistemological perspective, and still be starting from the wrong place by adopting some or all of the axioms of a method that assumes no such foundation. 

For example, in mainstream textual criticism, the most popular and accepted position is that the Scriptures went through a recension, or editing process, which resulted in what is commonly called the Byzantine text platform. Some say this happened all at once (Lucian), and others say that this happened gradually (Wachtel). The concept of a Scriptural recension is not a historical fact, or a neutral fact, it is an interpretation of data which has an epistemological starting point. That starting point is that the Scriptures were not kept pure in continuous transmission. In order to arrive at this conclusion, one must assert that the Scriptures changed dramatically in their transmission to explain why the majority of the later manuscripts look very different from the early minority of manuscripts. The reason that this is an epistemological problem is because the extant evidence in the 21st century cannot demonstrate, without a shadow of a doubt, either of these perspectives. 

Evidence or Epistemology? 

There is no way to prove by way of extant data that the original text of Holy Scripture looked like Vaticanus, or P75, or any of the commonly called Alexandrian manuscripts. In the same way, there is no way to prove that family 35, or the TR, or the Tyndale House Greek New Testament exists in exactly the same form as the originals. The same goes for individual readings within the manuscript tradition. Even if we had 1,000 copies of Mark from the fourth century that looked exactly the same, evidence driven models cannot validate that those copies are accurate to the original because we don’t have the original. That does not mean that we cannot know what the original New Testament said, just that the modern text criticism in the 21st century is not a justifiable means to determine the text. So then, in the absence of sufficient building materials for a reconstruction effort, epistemology is without question, the most important component to this discussion. 

If the Scriptures teach that the Word of God will not fall away, and that in every generation, God’s people had access to that pure Word, then such ideas as a recension cannot even be entertained without violating that epistemological principle. On the same premise, any idea that supposes that a small sample of early extant manuscripts represents the scope of the whole of the manuscript tradition, or at least does so in part, also is a violation. In order to adopt an Evangelical epistemology and a modern critical epistemology, one must interpret the conclusions of modern criticism, which violate Christian epistemology, by Christian epistemological foundations. This is perfectly exemplified in the discussion of creation. If Darwin’s premise (or something similar) is adopted as the epistemological starting point, then Christians must make sense of Genesis 1-12 in light of that starting point. Rather than rejecting Darwin and friends, evolutionary theory is adopted as a hermeneutic principle rather than the Scriptures themselves. The result is the rejection of a literal creation, a literal Adam, a literal flood, and so forth. This is yet another issue that is said to be doctrinally “neutral,” I’ll remind you. 

It would be irresponsible to say that adopting any form of theistic evolution is purely based on examination of evidence and making the best determination possible from that evidence. Rather, one must say that from a certain epistemological starting point, the data must be interpreted in this way or that. In the same way, extant manuscript data is not examined neutrally. One is not simply making the “obvious conclusion based on the data” when they reject 1 John 5:7, they are making an “obvious conclusion based on the data” from one particular epistemological starting point. If one wants to make the claim that a lack of evidence for 1 John 5:7 in many manuscripts demonstrates that all manuscripts before those didn’t have it, he is doing so from his epistemology or interpretive lens.

A manuscript says nothing absolute regarding the manuscript it was copied from, unless one makes certain assumptions. If the manuscript is truly the only guide, then the only thing that can be determined is that this manuscript, at this point in time, looked this specific way. The scribe of that manuscript could have easily removed a reading from his exemplar, which was then copied forward. One can make observations of scribal habits of one particular manuscript, but the scribal habits of one manuscript says nothing about the exemplar from which the scribe copied. If there is an extant archetype of that manuscript, more can be said, but in the case of the Scriptures, there is not a continuous line of transmission that can be observed, so any difference form one text to another must be interpreted from an epistemological starting point. Did scribes copy carefully, or did they not? Are the “original” readings longer, or shorter? Do earlier manuscripts contain more errors, or less? Since there is no extant pure line of manuscripts that goes back to the apostles, the amount of “neutral” observations that can be made about a manuscript is extremely limited. Thus, a Christian should be chiefly concerned with whether or not the lens he is examining evidence with is that which comes from the Scriptures. Anything else is a critical perspective of the Christian Scriptures as interpreted by a Christian. 

Epistemology Has Consequences to the Text of Scripture

The reason that those in the Received Text camp perceive modern critical text positions as so “dangerous” is because of the epistemological starting points of modern critical methods, not necessarily the Christians who adopt these methods. These methods, regardless of who uses them, do not assume basic Christian epistemological realities. An example is how evangelicals affirm that the Scriptures were “without error in the original” and also adopt the modern critical perspective that grammatically difficult readings are to be preferred as earlier than grammatically smooth readings. A system which does not comport with Scripture is not something that needs to be “redeemed,” but rejected. 

“Text criticism” itself is not the problem, it is the type of text criticism that is the problem. It was recently said that the Reformation era printed texts, and possibly all copied texts, were simply all “reconstructed texts” from the past. The Received Text position then is no different than modern text criticism other than the selected “reconstructed text” is different. That is to impose an epistemological concept upon the men of the past that simply did not exist prior to the age of reason in any meaningful way within the bounds of orthodoxy. One of the greatest errors of modernity is believing that “we know better” or to impose our modern epistemology upon men of the past. This is especially demonstrated when modern interpreters of historical theologians read their perspective into men of the past. 

It is often the case that the most “powerful” arguments against the Received Text are simply unfounded assertions that can in no way be substantiated in the kind of way that the argument requires. For example, it was recently said that the burden of proof is equally upon somebody to prove a reading original as it is to prove it unoriginal. This assumes that without reconstruction of every line of the text, there simply wouldn’t be a Bible, and that Scripture is guilty until proven innocent. If the belief is that the people of God had the pure Scriptures in every generation, then the burden of proof is demonstrably upon this generation to prove a Scripture not original from the previous generation. When the extant evidence is examined, it does not seem that engaging in such a practice is warranted, or profitable in any way. Can extant evidence demonstrate a reading to be original or unoriginal? Absolutely not. Therefore it is far more important to examine the epistemology from which a claim flows in the textual discussion. Is it the job of Christians today to determine the text of Scripture from evidence, or receive the text of Scripture from the previous generation? These are epistemological questions, not text critical ones. 

The Epistemological Foundations of Both Sides

In order to cut directly to the heart of the issue, the most fundamental epistemological starting point of modern text criticism is that there was no continuous line of transmission of the text, that the text was incorrectly identified at the advent of the printing press, and as a result, modern Christans and non-Christians must work together to reconstruct the text as it existed prior to a major recension, or perhaps various gradual recensions. This task is of such a tall order that after nearly 150 years, no method and no scholar has ever achieved success in reconstructing the original, and those still working are increasingly skeptical that that can actually be done. Despite this, the primary purpose of the extant data is still seen as adequate building materials. 

On the other hand, those in the Received Text camp begin by stating that the immediately inspired Word of God has been “kept pure in all ages.” The extant data is not to be used as building materials today, because nothing needs to be built. The purpose of the extant data then serves the people of God in a different way than is assumed by modern critical methods. The task of the church today is not to reconstruct the New Testament, but to receive and defend the text handed down from the previous generation. This is the major disconnect between those in the Received Text camp and modern critical camp. In the modern critical perspective, since the text is assumed to have fallen away such that it needs to be rebuilt, the extant evidence is purposed to demonstrate that the Received Text is not pure, and thus to justify reconstruction. Since the text from the previous generation is deemed impure, extant evidence resembling the text of the TR must also be counted as such, discrediting nearly all of the extant New Testament data. If it could be agreed upon that the responsibility of the church is reception, not reconstruction, then the question of determining “which TR?” would not be one that serves a mere polemic purpose. The church should be rallying around receiving a text, not dividing over which modern reconstruction is the most accurate, and why the Received Text is wrong. 

While it is easy to think that the first assumption of the modern critical perspective is that the TR is in error, it is that God did not continuously preserve the Word in every generation. In other words, it is not a data driven assumption, it is an epistemologically driven assumption. It is an assumption that rests almost entirely on the claim that what is extant today represents what the church had historically. In order to conclude that the TR is in error in the first place, one must assume that the extant data available today is also better than the data available in Europe at the time of the advent of the printing press, and even further that the data available in every generation before that could not have looked like the TR. One has to discount the reality that countless thousands of manuscripts have been destroyed since the 1st century. It is a terribly rash conclusion to make, considering how dangerous the outcome of that conclusion is. 

There is simply no way to responsibly say that the extant data today is “better” than the extant data available during the times when that extant data was being used and copied. So when somebody makes the claim that “the church didn’t read this in the text for the first 1,000 years,” they are doing so from an entirely assumptive and arbitrary place. They are interpreting extant data through an epistemological lens which says, “I know for sure that we know more,” even though that is a lofty claim to make based on the history of the text as it exists in extant manuscripts. Is it not a fair assumption to make that there were more than three manuscripts of Revelation circulating in the third century, and that the people of God knew what was in those manuscripts? And yet the modern critical method says, “Yes, we know more with our three manuscripts about Revelation as it existed in the third century than those who used manuscripts of Revelation in the third century.” Such a perspective is clearly driven by epistemological assumptions. 

Conclusion

In this discussion, I have found that epistemology is rarely addressed. It is easier to focus on extant data rather than discussing the lens by which men are viewing that data. Yet, if the lens that the data is viewed is flawed, then the conclusions made about that data can also be flawed. And if that lens is in opposition to Scripture, it is necessarily flawed. The common justification for approaching the Bible from a reconstructionist perspective is that, “God didn’t keep His Word pure, so we shouldn’t impose that perspective on the text.” Yet, there are a fair number of verses that teach that God’s Word will not pass away. Matthew 5:18 affirms down to the jot and tittle. Jesus connects the fulfillment of His ministry with His words (Matthew 24:25). The Psalms constantly speak of the Law being perfect, pure, and refined. The Scriptures say that “all Scripture” is necessary for matters of faith and practice, not just “some.” 

If we can agree that God did promise to continue speaking in the Scriptures, and that those Scriptures would be preserved until the Last Day, then a meaningful dialogue can take place on how we define the precision of that preservation. This conversation cannot take place currently, however, because those on both sides stand on different epistemological foundations. There is no common ground to be had between a person who says the Word of God is preserved and a person that says that the Word of God is not preserved. If the goal is to give confidence to the people of God in their Bible, it does not follow that we do so by starting with the premise that we have not yet successfully found God’s Word. And if our goal is to approach matters of text criticism faithfully, it does not follow that in our text critical axioms we assume that the earliest texts we have were not grammatically harmonious. The problem is not with “text criticism,” it is with epistemology, and the type of “text criticism” we advocate for and support. 

Different Theological Perspectives on the Text of Holy Scripture

Introduction

In the modern church, there is an abundance of theological views on the text of Holy Scripture. These include higher critical perspectives, neo-orthodoxy, continued revelation, providential preservation, and modern criticism. All of these views understand the essence and purpose of Scripture in different ways. In order to examine these theologically, I will assume a popular definition of inerrancy – that the original manuscripts were without error, and that the text as it is available today is without error in all that it teaches. In this article, I will examine each of these views against the doctrine of inerrancy and the effort of modern text criticism. In examining these perspectives, it should be apparent the similarities and differences between them. 

Higher Critical Perspectives 

There are a wide range of higher critical perspectives of the Scriptures, and typically those that adopt this view reject inerrancy outright, because it involves understanding the Bible as a human product – though many modern views adopt higher critical principles without calling it higher criticism. From this perspective, the study of New Testament scholarship is not concerned with what God has said, but rather, how different faith communities experienced their historical context and expressed that experience in writing. Modern text criticism is friendly to this perspective because the effort of modern text criticism is to detail the history of the manuscript tradition. Higher critical perspectives make a distinction between actual history and how faith communities experienced history. Thus, the Bible is a record of how Christians experienced history, which is said to be different than what actually happened in history.   

Neo-Orthodox Perspectives

There are also a wide range of neo-orthodox perspectives on the text of Holy Scripture, and those that adopt this view typically reject inerrancy, as the Bible is said to contain historical errors from this perspective. In some more extreme views in this camp, the definition of “Scripture” is not set in stone, as anything can become Scripture when the Holy Spirit works in it (Brunner). More common within this view is something closer to Karl Barth, which attempts to remove any human attempt to make God less sovereign or infallible by saying that the Scriptures, as they exist in the Bible, become the Word of God when the Holy Spirit bears witness in the believer’s heart as he reads. In this way, even if the Scriptures are not inerrant, God still speaks infallibly in the Word. The Bible is not the Word of God, Jesus is the Word of God, and the Bible is the artifact of revelation, which testifies to the Word of God, Jesus Christ. This artifact becomes the Word of God when the Holy Spirit works in the believer’s heart. This view is compatible with the modern critical text, because God speaking is not tied to an ontological text, but rather is tied to an ontological God. 

Continued Revelation Perspectives 

This group may affirm inerrancy, but rejects the sufficiency of the Scriptures by affirming that God is still speaking through prophetic words, visions, dreams, and tongues. In other words, God did not speak sufficiently in His Word, because His Word does not contain everything necessary for Christian faith and practice. So while the Scriptures may be without error in everything they teach, the Scriptures do not contain everything needed for faith and practice. In this way, inerrancy is not necessary to affirm, as God is still communicating through other means. This is compatible with modern text criticism because God speaking is not tied to an ontological text, but the experience of a person through various other mediums. People in this camp say that all ongoing revelation must align with Scripture, but that standard rests upon exegesis, not an ontological text. Changes to the text of Scripture are not problematic in this view, because God is still speaking new revelation. That does not mean that everybody who affirms ongoing revelation is fine with a changing text, but the theological foundation does not demand that the text be stable. 

Providential Preservation Perspectives 

This group believes that an ontological text exists, and that the people of God know what it is today (John 10:17). Due to God speaking sufficiently in His Word (2 Tim. 3:16), that word necessarily needs to be available completely. If God immediately inspired His Word, and His Word is not completely available, then God is not speaking infallibly today. This group may affirm inerrancy in theory, but rejects the necessity of an ongoing text-critical effort to reconstruct a lost text. The Bible has been kept pure, and never fell away, and therefore doesn’t need to be reconstructed. Since the means God uses to save and teach men is the Holy Scriptures (2 Tim. 3:15-17; Heb. 1:1), if men are to be saved and taught, those Scriptures must be available today to the degree of “all.” If all Scriptures are not available today, then the church does not have all they need for “instruction in righteousness.” This perspective rejects the view that because men are fallible, the Scriptures must therefore be fallible as well. Those that adhere to providential preservation also reject critical perspectives of the Scriptures. The text was inspired by the Holy Spirit, and thus could not have originally been grammatically harsh, choppy, or abrupt (2 Peter 1:19-21). This camp believes that Christians would have been able to identify changes to the text, and rejected those changes as inauthentic. Text criticism from this perspective excludes any higher critical principles, and thus the first major effort of collating and editing manuscripts is seen as a part of God’s providential process to preserve His Word. Those in this camp believe the text is to be received, not reconstructed. 

Modern Critical Perspectives 

Most people in this group believe that the Scriptures were inerrant in the original manuscripts. Others say that it is impossible to determine if the originals were inerrant, as the apostolic writers could have made a mistake (DC Parker). There is nothing in this method that necessitates Christianity as a foundation. Some in this camp believe that the Scriptures are without error in all they teach today, and others believe that they are without error in what they teach, insofar as we have access to them. Evangelical modern critical perspectives do not perceive that any changes to the text can affect doctrine, though this is often contested by scholars working in the discipline and others who do not adhere to this view.

In this camp, “all Scripture” is not required to be available for Christians to “have what they need.” This perspective believes that orthodox faith communities either engaged in a major recension (Lucian), or a gradual recension over hundreds of years (Wachtel) to conform the Scriptures to Christian orthodoxy and create a stable text platform (Byzantine). This perspective necessitates that by the 2nd, 3rd, and 4th centuries, the text of Scripture was grammatically crude as it was produced originally by a community who was largely uneducated and illiterate. Various Christian faith communities inserted pericopes, updated the text to amplify Christ’s divinity, smoothed out grammar, and added verses to solidify the orthodox perspective on controversial doctrines. In this way it is a close friend to higher critical perspectives of Scripture.

Modern critical perspectives also assert that God did not promise to preserve His Word, so Christians should be grateful that they have what they have, all things considered. Inerrancy is a doctrine that was developed to affirm the historical protestant view of Scripture in light of this perspective, which developed in the 19th century and has been overwhelmingly adopted by the conservative evangelical church today. Exegetical models have also been formed around this perspective, which assert that in order to properly understand Scripture, one must first understand the perspective of the faith communities that produced it. This has resulted in various reinterpretations of Pauline theology and different translational choices in modern Old Testaments, which prefer readings that are more compatible with modern interpretations of Hebrew faith communities. 

Conclusion

The greatest challenge facing the Christian church today is the shifting perspectives on the text of Holy Scripture. The modern critical perspective has actually made room for various heterodox views which attempt to make theological sense of how Christians are to view the Bible as it is defined by critical perspectives. If the Bible is not preserved, or we do not have access to that preserved Bible, how are Christians supposed to hear the voice of their Shepherd? Neo-orthodoxy is actually a great theological response to this, ironically enough. The issue in this discussion is that Christians are unwilling to admit that what is called “modern text criticism” is actually a function of higher critical principles. The text criticism done today is not simply a process of comparing manuscripts and selecting the original readings, the selection of readings is driven largely by critical theories. 

Many people assume that those in the Received Text camp have an issue with “text-criticism.” This is false. Text-criticism does not always mean reconstruction. Scribes who created copies from multiple exemplars were “text-critics” of sorts. The theologians and scholars of the 16th century were “text-critics” because they created editions of the New Testament from various manuscripts. The problem is not “text-criticism,” the problem is with modern text-criticism. In its first premise, it assumes that God has let His Word fall away, and that we do not have it today. In its second premise, it assumes that in order to have God’s Word at all, scholars need to reconstruct the text using critical principles, which do not take into consideration inspiration, preservation, or the Holy Spirit. In its third premise, it asserts that the text of the Reformation is errant, and must be rejected. There is nothing inherently Christian at all about the axioms of modern text-criticism.  

The assumption of the proponents of modern text criticism is that the 16th century effort of text criticism was one in kind with the modern effort, and therefore justified. The plain reality is that it is not. The “lower criticism” of the modern critical text is heavily driven by higher critical principles, which are demonstrated in its axioms. Until Christians admit this, the modern critical perspective of the Scriptures will continue to dominate the academy and the church. The theological dilemma introduced by modern text criticism necessitates external methods of authentication. Ironically, the method chosen as the foundation for the “great accuracy” of the modern critical text, opens the door for ongoing revelation, neo-orthodoxy, and other heterodox views of Holy Scripture.

The Role of Text Criticism in Apologetics

Introduction

As this world has become more and more postmodern, apologetics have become a major focus of Christian interaction with the world and even each other. This has resulted in a hyper-focus on giving a defense of the Christian religion to anybody with a critique and debates between Christians regarding the best method of doing so. Often times, Christians provoke “apologetic” scenarios by antagonizing others or inviting them to challenge God. Christians spend hours upon hours learning different apologetic strategies, and even more time squabbling over which one is “best.” This culture of apologetics has gotten out of hand especially in Calvinistic circles. Not only are there countless forums dedicated to debate between Christians and non-Christians, there are countless more dedicated to debate within the Christian camp. There are even YouTube channels dedicated to hosting live stream debates, often times broadcasting interactions between men that are novices in the faith. The whole “debate culture” that has developed within Christianity is a major victory for the devil, as it often distracts men and women of God from doing what they are commissioned to do – .”preach the gospel to every creature.” 

Apologetics Gone Wrong

In order to address the role of text criticism in apologetics, it is first helpful to discuss the role of apologetics in general. There is one key verse that Christians use as didactic license for such a practice, 1 Peter 3:15-16. 

“But sanctify the Lord God in your hearts: and be ready always to give an answer to every man that asketh you a reason of the hope that is in you with meekness and fear. Having a good conscience; that whereas they speak evil of you, as of evildoers, that may be ashamed that falsely accuse your good conversation in Christ.” 

There are three points from this text that are important to examine ourselves by: 

  1. The situation in which we are licensed to give a defense is when we are asked why we believe in Jesus Christ, our hope
    1. Do we engage in “apologetics” for the reason given in this text, or are we being combative? Do we invite attack by asking for it?
  2. The content of that questioning is that which questions the genuineness of our conversion and confession
    1. Do we give apologetic responses when we should be preaching the Gospel?
  3. The purpose for answering is to demonstrate that we are not ashamed of our conversion, and thus of the God that converted us
    1. Do we proclaim Christ in our apologetics, or engage in the folly of the fool? 

Calvin comments:


It would have been, therefore, the highest perfidy against God, if, when asked, they had neglected to give a testimony in favour of their religion. And this, as I think, is the meaning of the word apology, which Peter uses, that is, that the Christians were to make it evident to the world that they were far off from every impiety, and did not corrupt true religion, on which account they were suspected by the ignorant.

John Calvin and John Owen, Commentaries on the Catholic Epistles (Bellingham, WA: Logos Bible Software, 2010), 109.

The purpose of apologetics is not to make faith more reasonable to the unbeliever, but rather to defend the genuineness of the conversion wrought in a believer by Jesus Christ. The context is persecution. This passage does not give license to go out of our way to be persecuted so that we can give a defense of our faith, and the defense that we give should be the gospel, not a defense of facts or philosophy. The preaching of the cross is to them that perish foolishness (1 Cor. 1:18), and nothing we say can make it any less so unless it be by the power of God. When Christians take a shield and wield it as a sword, they abandon the ordained means that God has promised to work in for salvation. What is commonly ignored about the principle apologetic passage in 1 Peter is that the answer as to how we respond is given further down in the text. 

“For Christ also hath once suffered for sins, the just for the unjust, that he might bring us to God, being put to death in the flesh, but quickened by the Spirit”  

(1 Peter 3:18).

The reason we have hope, dear Christian, is not because of extant manuscript evidence, or proof of a global flood, or that evolution can be debunked mathematically. While those things are helpful to us, they are not the reason for our hope. The work of Christian apologists has helped many Christians, but any hope given by various interpretations of data is not real hope. The reason that we have hope is because “Christ hath suffered for us in the flesh” (1 Peter 4:1) and “that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners” (1 Timothy 1:15) and “not that we loved God, but that he loves us, and sent his Son to be the propitiation for our sins (1 John 4:10). The goal of providing a defense is not to make the fool look foolish or ourselves smart, but rather to make Christ look great in our unashamed profession of His salvation. 

The Use of Text-Criticism in Apologetics 

Our method of apologetics says more about our hearts than anything else. Christians must ask themselves if they are truly giving a “reason for the hope” or simply trying to defend a Christian interpretation of data. The Scriptures do not say, “For I am not ashamed of 5,600 extant manuscripts which give me confidence the Bible is inspired,” the Scriptures say, “For I am not ashamed of the gospel of Christ” (Romans 1:16). The plain reality is, there is no way to convince an unregenerate person that a text is God’s Word, preserved to this day, by way of the extant data. If it were the case that the manuscript evidence was in any way compelling, Bart Ehrman would be a champion of the Christian faith. Claiming that these manuscripts are the preserved Word of God is just as absurd to an unbeliever as the second person in the trinity taking on flesh, being born of a virgin, living a sinless life, dying, and then resurrecting three days later. It is just as foolish to them as a six day creation, or a literal global flood. In the same way that unbelievers attack the validity of these claims, they attack the validity of the claims made about the Holy Scriptures. Unless the Holy Spirit has worked in the Word in the heart of a man, he simply will not believe. 

As a believer, I find nothing foolish about a six day creation, a risen Christ, or a preserved Bible. The reason a believer finds nothing foolish about these claims is because their mind has been renewed.


“but be ye transformed by the renewing of your mind, that ye may prove what is that good, and acceptable, and perfect, will of God” (Romans 12:2). 

When we give a defense for the hope that is within us by defending something other than the miraculous work of Christ in us by the Holy Spirit, we do not give honor to God for our conversion, we give honor to our interpretation of facts and the strength of our rhetoric. We point to something other than the “reason for the hope that is within” us. No man has been saved by a presentation of facts, but only by hearing the preaching of the Gospel of Jesus Christ (Romans 10:17). This is the greatest weakness of a debate – the best rhetorician will win, regardless of what is true. Christians often point to Paul in Acts 17:16-30 as a justification for going and debating unbelievers and being combative. This passage is often used as a proof text for various apologetic methods. It is not a proof text for apologetics, even though Paul does use rhetoric. In the first place, he is compelled to engage because “ he saw the city wholly given to idolatry.” He is not defensive, he is offensive, and he leaves when mocked. 

“Some mocked; and others said, “We will hear thee again of this matter”. So Paul departed from among them. Howbeit certain men clave unto him, and believed” 

Note that Paul does not engage in defense here – he is being offensive, “convinc[ing] the gainsayers” (Titus 1:9). In fact, how does he respond when people mock? “Paul departed from among them” (Acts 17:33), and takes with him those that received the Gospel. He is not trying to have a “meaningful dialogue” or “engage in the marketplace of ideas” or give the philosophers of Athens a stage in his church. He points them to their idolatry, preaches the resurrection, and then leaves. Paul uses rhetoric in his presentation of the Gospel, not the Gospel as an add-in to his rhetorical presentation. We must have the discernment to recognize the difference between convincing and defending, and know when the time is appropriate for each. If apologetics are used in a Gospel presentation, they should be used to quickly get back to the actual Gospel. The very fact that the point of most of these debates is not the Gospel should say enough. 

Conclusion 

Think about the last debate you watched on the topic of text criticism. In any of these debates have you heard an evangelical scholar identify the idolatry of his opponent? Have you heard the gospel being preached as a response to their idolatry? No. What you see is an hour of God’s Word being mocked, and perhaps, if the evangelical wants to save face, a five minute gospel presentation at the end which is completely detached from the presentation. The main takeaway of these debates is how many errors the Bible has, how we will never know what the Bible originally said, and that this is completely acceptable for a Christian to believe. The opponent may even present stronger rhetoric and shake the faith of those watching. The evangelical apologist may give an inadequate defense. The “apologist” may even present gifts to the antagonist, thanking him for his refutation of God’s Word. 

If you’re reading this, you, like me, may have benefited from watching a debate. I am not saying that there is no place for debates or that debates are always bad. What I am saying is that Christians have become enraptured by them, and are often entirely inconsistent in how they debate certain topics, like text criticism. The ordained means of teaching in Christianity is the preached word, not a “meaningful exchange in the marketplace of ideas”. Teaching is a function of the pastorate, not rogue apologists. It is necessary that Christians stop being so pragmatic when it comes to these events. We are not called to give enemies of the faith platforms in our congregations and seminaries to attack God’s Word. In every debate I have seen on the topic of New Testament text-criticism, the evangelical has lost, because the apologist is simply giving a defense of his interpretation of data. 1 Peter 3:15 in no way gives license for this. The opponent will give his interpretation of data, and is more likely to injure Christians who are swept up by his arguments against Holy Scripture. These debates create a mess that pastors then have to clean up. Unless we want to redefine apologetics as giving a defense for something other than the hope that is within us, it seems that Christians should forego supporting such events which put God and His Word on trial. 

Does God exist? The answer is yes.
Is the New Testament reliable? The answer is yes.
Did Christ resurrect? The answer is yes.

Rhetoric and presentations of data cannot convince a man of that. Calling men to repent of their rebellious heart and to believe upon the Lord Jesus Christ to be saved should be our response. Winning debates is not our goal Christian. Glorifying God, enjoying Him forever, and winning souls is.

“He that winneth souls is wise”

Proverbs 11:30

If the Text-Critics Went to Lunch and Didn't Come Back

Introduction

An important practice in the business world is determining the viability and impact of a project before investing resources into that project. It seems this is a wise analysis to consider for evangelical text-criticism.

 For which of you, intending to build a tower, sitteth not down first, and counteth the cost, whether he have sufficient to finish it? Lest haply, after he hath laid the foundation, and is not able to finish it, all that behold it begin to mock him, Saying, This man began to build, and was not able to finish.

The Holy Bible: King James Version, Electronic Edition of the 1900 Authorized Version. (Bellingham, WA: Logos Research Systems, Inc., 2009), Lk 14:28–30.

Christians should now act like wise investors. The church has been patient, but it is time to analyze the project afresh. The evangelical text-critics have determined that while we will never have the original text God inspired, what we have is close enough. A valuable analytical process is to determine the impact of ending an ongoing project. According to the careful analysis and hard work of the evangelical textual scholars, the church has all it needs from the manuscripts to get by. No doctrine has been affected in nearly 200 years of textual criticism, the church has what it needs. So what is the impact on the church, if all of the text-critics went out for lunch and never went back to work?

Seven Benefits to Ending the Effort of Modern Evangelical Text-Criticism

First, Greek Bibles would stop changing. No new additions or subtractions would be made to God’s Word. The only changes to God’s Word would have to be made by translation committees. 

Second, the text of the modern Bibles would be stable. Christians could buy a translation and keep it their whole lives without it expiring. 

Third, the work of men like Bart Ehrman would be irrelevant to the church, because Evangelical scholars wouldn’t be working with him and for him and under him any longer.  

Fourth, Christian textual scholars could spend more time doing exegesis for the church and pastoring, rather than scraping through manuscripts and counting words. Many of these men have a Masters of Divinity from well reputed seminaries, they could apply their education to shepherding the flock. 

Fifth, seminaries could remove Bruce Metzger and Bart Ehrman’s textbook from the standard curriculum. We have what we need in our Greek texts, there is no need to continue giving Erhman a platform. 

Sixth, the heroic apologists of the Christian faith could spend more time defending the teachings of the Word of God, rather than trying to discover what it says. 

Seventh, resources spent on text-criticism could go to planting churches, supporting struggling churches, and training pastors. 

Conclusion

 If the best and the brightest text critics say that they haven’t found the original text in a time where we have “the best data,” and have determined that “we have what we need,” there is no point in carrying on. “No doctrine has been affected,” so it seems the church is equipped to press on. The church does not need to support a project that has already made the necessary conclusions. Instead, it should support those evangelical textual scholars in putting their MDivs to use pastoring churches and feeding God’s people. Let the secular academy continue their quest for the “historical Jesus” and free up the men of God to do work for the Kingdom! 

A good question to answer to determine the impact of ending such a project is, “What would happen if evangelicals stopped making Greek New Testaments?” The answer is nothing. Nothing would happen. The church would carry on without a hiccup. Pastors would preach, seminaries would train, and the Gospel would still go forth to all the nations. The average Christian would be none the wiser. The Bible has been preserved after all, no need to keep working on a finished product. 

What We Believe About Holy Scripture

Recently, I wrote an article entitled, “Yes, The Bible Teaches Preservation,” to address the reality that modern evangelical scholars have abandoned the historical protestant doctrine that says that we have the Bible today in its original form. This doctrine is enabled by the Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy, which only speaks to inerrancy in the original autographs of the Scriptures. In this blog, I have set forth that the most faithful position on the Holy Scriptures is that of providential preservation, not inerrancy. The modern doctrine of inerrancy only affirms that the Scriptures we have today can be ascertained with “great accuracy” according to what the modern text-critical scholars determine. An article from Ligonier puts it this way:

“In sum, the Bible is entirely truthful and has no errors at all in the original manuscripts that the prophets and Apostles actually wrote. We do not today possess these manuscripts, but through the process of textual criticism, we can recover the original wording of the manuscripts with a high degree of certainty.”

So then, the inerrancy of the Bibles we have today in our possession are entirely determinant on the text-criticism of modern scholars, who uniformly say, 

“We do not have now – in our critical Greek texts or any of our translations, exactly what the authors of the New Testament wrote. Even if we did, we would not know it” 

Gurry & Hixson, Myths and Mistakes in New Testament Textual Criticism. xii

The important part of that statement is the last sentence, “Even if we did, we would not know it.” This is an honest admission, and it is completely accurate, if the method of authentication is the text critical principles employed to make modern critical Greek texts. Since the doctrine of inerrancy sets forth that the Bible’s accuracy is determined by textual criticism, it is really saying that “greatly accurate” means, “we’re not actually sure how accurate it is.” I reject this model of authentication, as it is not Scriptural. The methods of text-criticism are entirely bound to the extant manuscript data, which does not date back to the time of the Apostles. It assumes that the only evidence that matters is what has survived, even though the stationary the Biblical writers used, in most cases, had a maximum shelf life of 500 years. It further assumes that the previous generations were not given the “best” data to receive the Scriptures from the generation before it, which puts the modern church in a terrible predicament.

Even though we do have 2nd and 3rd century manuscripts, none of these are complete enough to make an entire Greek New Testament. The most complete New Testament manuscripts come from the fourth century and later, and so there is no way to determine, according to text-critical principles, what the text looked like prior to that point. There is no way to tell which verses were added, removed, and changed in the two or three hundred year gap between the Apostles and the earliest complete copies. In fact, nearly all of the evangelical scholars say that the text evolved due to Christian tampering. 

Further, the earliest copies look quite different than later copies, so any chance of knowing what the Bible originally said is impossible, according to modern critical principles. Text-critics could reconstruct a Bible that is completely original, and have no idea that they’ve done so, because there is nothing to compare their work against. Critics could just as easily determine an original reading a “later interpolation” as they could a later copyist insertion an “original reading.” Even though the scholars readily admit that,

“It is therefore inadvisable to assume without qualification that earlier is always better, more accurate, or less likely to contain “corruptions” when one of the earliest manuscripts of 1-2 Peter and Jude looks as thought it was written by a copyist who changed the text in places to make a stronger case that Jesus is God”

(Gurry & Hixson, Myths and Mistakes in New Testament Textual Criticism, 92).

In short, the mechanism that gives inerrancy its value to the modern reader of the Bible says nothing meaningful, because it cannot responsibly say that it has delivered the reconstructed Scriptures to the world with “great accuracy.” All it can say is that it has delivered a later version of the Scriptures with great accuracy. Whether or not that version represents the original, nobody can say, if the methods of authentication are the critical principles of men. Scholars may assert that they know some of the places where well meaning Christians “corrupted” the Bible to make it more Christian, but they’ll never know all of the places. The Bible they have reconstructed could just as easily be a gnostic or unitarian version of the Scriptures that was produced during the time when, “The whole world groaned, and was astonished to find itself Arian” (Jerome). When somebody says, “We have what we need,” they are really saying, “I feel that I have all that I need, and you should too.” 

More importantly, does God, the author of the Scriptures, set forth that this is how the Scriptures are to be authenticated? Is the modern articulation of quasi-preservation Biblical? Are we to believe that the Scriptures were corrupted over time by people trying to make them seem more Christian? In the first place, providence declares this not to be the case. The modern critical methods have been employed for almost 200 years now, and the only fruit to show for it is hundreds of new Bibles, none of which are said to be original, and more uncertainty in the text than the orthodox Christian church has ever seen in its 2,000 year history. The theological battle over Scripture is really not all that different than the 16th century, only instead of the church saying it gives the Scriptures weight, conservative Christians are now saying that text criticism gives the Scriptures weight. The only difference is that the textual scholars are not saying they can give the Scriptures the necessary weight, whereas the Roman magisterium did. John Calvin’s words ring especially true today, 

“As if the eternal and inviolable truth of God depended upon the decision of men! For they mock the Holy Spirit when they ask: Who can convince us that these writings came from God? Who can assure us that Scripture has come down whole and intact even to our very day?

Yet, if this is so, what will happen to miserable consciences seeking firm assurance of eternal life if all promises of it consist in and depend solely upon the judgment of men? Will they cease to vacillate and tremble when they receive such an answer? Again, to what mockeries of the impious is our faith subjected, into what suspicion has it fallen among all men, if we believe that it has a precarious authority dependent solely upon the good pleasure of men!”

John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion & 2, ed. John T. McNeill, trans. Ford Lewis Battles, vol. 1, The Library of Christian Classics (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2011), 75.

More important than what textual scholars say about Holy Scripture, is what God says about Holy Scripture. Here is list of truths from Scripture, about Scripture:

  1. God is the author of His Word, which was written by men (1 Peter 1:19-21; 2 Tim. 3:16)
  2. It is the way He speaks to His people now (Heb. 1:1; Isa. 54:13; John 6:45)
  3. It is the means by which men are saved and sanctified (John 5:39;2 Tim. 3:15-17; Rom. 10:17)
  4. It is to be received by men as truth, over and above the witness of men (1 Thess 2:13; 1 John 5:9)
  5. It is what the church is built upon (Eph. 2:20; Acts 15:15)
  6. God’s Word is pure and perfect (Ps. 12:6; 19:7)
  7. God’s Word will not fall away so as long as He is fulfilling His purpose for this world (Matt. 5:18, 24:35; Rom. 3:2)
  8. Man’s inability to understand more difficult teachings of Scripture does not make it less pure (2 Peter 3:16)
  9. God’s people hear God’s voice through the Scriptures by the power of the Holy Spirit (John 10:27; 1 Cor. 2:10-12)

Nowhere in Scripture do we find a warrant to believe that God’s words are only “greatly accurate,” or that they would fall away and need to be reconstructed. Nowhere do we find that God would only speak in the original texts perfectly, and let His Word be played with by His people to amplify what He said. God’s Word is intimately connected with His covenant purpose to save a people unto Himself, and what we say about His Word is what we say about His purpose, work, and character. What we say about the preservation of the Scriptures is what we say about His continued work in history, because the Scriptures are how He accomplishes that work. What we say about the Scriptures, we say about God Himself, because the Scriptures are how He has spoken. Many Christians have adopted these perspectives without considering the implications. The fact is, if you’re an average Christian, unfamiliar to this conversation, you likely are not comfortable acknowledging what the scholars accept as cold, hard truth. You read your Bible as you should, with certainty that God is speaking to you in His preserved Word.

If we say that God has only preserved “some of His Word,” well, then perhaps He’s only preserved some of His people. It’s completely reasonable to believe, if we take the methods of the modern scholars as true, that the whole idea of Jesus returning on the Last Day is a later invention. If God did not continuously preserve His Word, even the scribes our earliest manuscripts could have added these details. There is nothing that Christians can possibly say to this, if our hope is placed on the evaluation of manuscripts by textual scholars. The fact is, modern evangelical scholars, pastors, and theologians fundamentally agree with Bart Ehrman on the text of Holy Scripture. The only difference is their conclusion, that, “It really doesn’t matter that the Scriptures are corrupt.” In other words, Christians would rather have faith that the Scriptures are still powerful to “get the job done,” despite being corrupted, rather than believe that they have been kept pure in all ages.

Why is it the case that Christians believe God is big enough to preserve the orbit of the planets but not His Word? Rather than assuming on behalf of God that He is not under any obligation to preserve the Scriptures (Jongkind, An Introduction to the Greek New Testament. 90), Christians should believe that He has lovingly and graciously given His people an infallible rule of faith! If you say that God simply didn’t want to preserve the Scriptures, the means that God uses to make men wise unto salvation (2 Tim. 3:15), you should be just as comfortable saying that God simply didn’t want to save man. Christians act like rejecting the preservation of the Holy Scriptures is some benign theological opinion. I have heard, on countless occasions, that this is simply not a fight worth fighting because there are other “more important issues.” What could possibly be more important than fighting for the truth that God has given His church an infallible rule to be saved by? What despair do we subject the people of God to for the sake of having a few star pupils in the lion’s den? Universities and churches invite men like Bart Ehrman into the sanctuary to evangelize this dangerous doctrine, and act like it is honorable to do so.

If the Scriptures have fallen away, what exactly are we doing here, Christian? What does it matter that we fight tooth and nail against liberal Christianity if the standard we use to rule doctrines “liberal” is just a fourth century iteration of Christianity that cannot be shown to represent the Apostolic iteration of Christianity? If the text of Holy Scripture fell away, even in part, who is to say that what we consider the “fundamentals” of Christianity weren’t the machinations of some early Christians trying to “emphasize the deity of Jesus” (Myths and Mistakes in New Testament Textual Criticism, 91). What right do we have to sanctimoniously stand on “God’s inerrant word” if we believe that it was only inerrant in the originals, which we do not have and cannot know? The answer is none. We have no reason to responsibly judge any other version of Christianity, because we’ve simply selected the version that we like the best. If it is our job to “reconstruct” the New Testament, then there is nothing wrong with others reconstructing Christianity. 

Conclusion

Modern Christians suffer from serious amnesia when it comes to the Reformation. They forget what the Roman Catholic church was saying, and the Protestant response. If Christians are to have any claim to an absolute standard of truth, that standard must be self-authenticating. The Scriptures were not developed according to the fancies of Christian faith communities over 2,000 years, as the “lower critics” assert. They were faithfully transmitted by the people of God by the sure hand of God’s providence. The historic Christian belief is that they were “kept pure in all ages.” Rejecting the purity of the Scriptures is one of the most grave theological errors in the modern period because it upsets the whole of the Gospel. How can one say that “This is the message that ye heard from the beginning” if we do not know what that beginning message said? It is completely useless to say that the message from the beginning was perfect if we do not have that message now. I’m afraid that our need to be apologetically relevant to the atheists, higher critics, and muslims has caused Christians to reject that only sound standard of truth that can stand against the gates of hell. 

Calvinists love to appeal to the doctrines of the Reformation, especially Sola Scriptura, while inconsistently affirming the theological axioms of the modern critical text. The two are at odds with each other. The rise of historical criticism and neo-orthodoxy sent the world spinning, and instead of fighting the same fight as the Reformers, theologians of the 19th and 20th centuries reinterpreted the Westminster Confession and retreated back to the doctrine of inerrancy – a doctrine which stands and falls on the determinations of textual scholars. And the methods of textual scholars include “lower” critical theories such as “expansion of piety” and that the text evolved according to Christian faith communities. The culture of celebrity pastors and theologians has made it such that the average Christian cannot even have an opinion on the matter. “My favorite pastor believes this, are you saying you have better insight than them? Are you saying you have perfect discernment?” Apparently you have to be omniscient to know that this is not Scriptural. While Christians sit around exalting their favorite theologians, the people of God are “destroyed for lack of knowledge.” 

In all of my conversations on this topic with the average Christian, 99% of them do not know what the scholars are saying. When I quote them directly, they point me to a James White video, wherein he sets forth the same principles as the scholars, with more mention of bike riding, travel destinations, and debates. Ultimately it comes down to two major theological positions:

  1. The Old Testament in Hebrew, and the New Testament in Greek, being immediately inspired by God, and by His singular care and providence kept pure in all ages, and therefore authentic
  2. The Bible was entirely truthful and had no errors in the original manuscripts, but we do not today possess those manuscripts, and we cannot determine what they originally said. Even if we could, we would not know it. 

The conversation of “Which text did God keep pure?” is completely irrelevant until Christians actually believe that He has kept them pure and do not need reconstruction. Discussions regarding textual variants are meaningless if the method that authenticates a variant has nothing to say about the originality of it. The Bible version you read is irrelevant if you do not believe that any of them are the inspired Word of God handed down through the ages. The common belief in the modern Christian church is that “no Bible is perfect.” If this is the case, what exactly must we do to access God’s inerrant Word? What exactly are we reading when we open our Bibles? Christians must first believe that God has inspired His Word, preserved it, and delivered it. Only then can a meaningful conversation take place over “text type” and translation.