The Theology of the Text: What Does it Mean to Have Certainty in Scripture?

This article is the ninth 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: What Does it Mean to Have Certainty in Scripture? 

The most important experiential practice for a Christian when they read their Bible is believing that what they are reading are the words of God. This requires certainty that the words on the page are the right words. In the first place, if certainty means, “I know 100% that these words are original based on evidence,” then nobody can have certainty in any word in the text of Holy Scripture, because humans are not omniscient. There is no observable, continuous stream of manuscripts dating back to the first century and the originals are gone. So if certainty is a term that is defined by what one can prove based on empirical science, certainty is impossible. 

That being said, the amount of certainty a Christian has in the words of Holy Scripture is not determined by what they can prove to be original by way of manuscript analysis. If this were the case, there is not one line of Scripture that Christians could safely be certain in. Yet the Scriptures present the reality the they are the means that God is speaking to His people today. When Christians read a translation which faithfully and accurately sets forth the immediately inspired original languages, that translation too is inspired. Not by virtue of the translators, but by virtue of the words accurately setting forth the immediately inspired text. If this were not the case, then every Christian ought to learn Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek so that they can read God’s Word. Assuming that the translation is accurate to the original languages, Christians can, and should have certainty that those words are God’s words. 

Many people today have issues with the word “certainty,” despite God saying that certainty is expected for a Christian. 

“These things I have written unto you that believe on the name of the Son of God; that ye may know that ye have eternal life, and that ye may believe on the Son of God.” 

1 John 5:13

“And we desire that every one of you do shew the same diligence to the full assurance of hope unto the end.”

Hebrews 6:11


“Wherein God, willing more abundantly to shew unto the heirs of promise the immutability of his counsel, confirmed it by an oath: That by two immutable things, in which is was impossible for God to lie, we might have a strong consolation, who have fled for refuge to lay hold upon the hope set before us. Which hope we have as an anchor of the soul, both sure and stedfast, and which entereth into that within the veil.” 

Hebrews 6:17-19

Saying that one cannot be certain about the Scriptures is the same as saying that one cannot be certain about their salvation. Certainty then, is something that Christians can have, not by virtue of their own knowledge, but because God gives that certainty and faith. Salvation is of the Lord from beginning to end, and so is the preservation and reception of His Word. So any certainty that the Christian has in Scripture, or anything pertaining to faith of the True God, is worked in the believer by the Holy Spirit. That is to say, that having certainty in the Word of God is an act of the Holy Spirit working in the believer, not empiricism. The certainty of the Scriptures is not based on the certainty of the person reading them, it is based on the fact that the Scriptures themselves are the “only sufficient, certain, and infallible rule of all saving knowledge, faith, and obedience” (LBCF 1.1). Christians can have certainty because the Scriptures themselves are certain. 

When a Christian approaches the text of Holy Scripture with the mindset that they cannot be certain that a verse is or isn’t the Word of God, he is really saying that the Word of God itself is not certain. If it is the case that the Word of God is only certain to the extent that it can be proved to be the Word of God by empiricism, then the Word of God is uncertain, and the church has no rule of faith. Theologically and practically this must be the case. That being said, it may be helpful to describe the kind of certainty that Christians have towards the words of Scripture. The kind of certainty that a believer has in the Scriptures can be divided into two categories, functional and experiential. The first is derived from observation, and the second is worked in the believer by the Holy Spirit. Both proceed forth from faith, and should not be separated from one another.

These categories are necessary due to the fact that some have taken issue with the terminology “absolute certainty” because it seems to imply that one must be omniscient or perhaps they believe that one particular edition of Scripture has been reinspired. Since neither of these are true, “absolute certainty” in this sense is not based on a person being omniscient or believing in reinspiration. In order to bring clarity to the conversation, terms such as “functional certainty” or “maximal certainty” have been employed in the place of “absolute certainty” to explain that while a Christian cannot “prove” the certainty of the Scriptures, he has no reason to doubt every line. 

These qualifiers may serve to prevent pointless, circular conversations regarding the nature of certainty. The point is this – the Scriptures do not say to be “as certain as you can be,” they say “All Scripture is given by the inspiration of God.” If Christians cannot be certain about something given by God, I’m not sure what they can be certain of. In any case, distinguishing between certainty which comes from within a man’s reasoning and certainty which comes from the work of the Holy Spirit may be helpful. In this sense, observational certainty may be called functional certainty, and certainty given to the believer by God may be called experiential certainty. Both work in harmony, and are a function of each other. A Christian believes the Scriptures are the Word of God by the work of the Spirit, and can observe that God has preserved those Scriptures in time by simply looking at God’s providential work in history.

Conclusion

All Christians are to read the Bible, knowing it is the Word of God. They are to let the Scriptures examine them, try them, refine them, teach them, and build them up. The real question to answer as it pertains to certainty then is not, “Can I prove that my certainty in Word of God is warranted?” The appropriate question is, “What reason do I have to doubt that this is the Word of God?” There are many cases where it is appropriate to doubt that something is the Word of God, like Homer’s Iliad or the Shepherd of Hermas, for example. In the case of the received canon of Holy Scripture, however, Christians have no good reason to doubt the canon and text which has been received by the people of God and vindicated in time.

In the 21st century, the extant evidence does not provide enough insight to begin to do this. This is the purpose of functional certainty. The functional certainty that a Christian has in the Received Text then is not derived from the evaluation of extant data, it is a warranted certainty which is derived by simply looking at what God has done in time with that text. The most important kind of certainty that a Christian is commanded to have is certainty while reading the Scriptures. This certainty is worked in a believer by the inward illumination of the Holy Spirit. This is what is meant by experiential certainty. The Christian knows he is reading the Word of God because the Word of God is certain. The first is observational derived from the subject, the second is supernatural derived from the object, and both proceed from faith and are necessary to have certainty in the correct Scriptures. 

The Theology of The Text: Why Not the Modern Critical Text?

This article is the eighth 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: Why Not the Modern Critical Text?

Many Christians in today’s context have never been introduced to the text-criticism discussion beyond what John Piper or John MacArthur say about it. They are told adamantly by their pastors that they have the very Word of God, regardless of which translation they read. They are then told that a countless number of verses were “not originally in Scripture,” and should not be read as original. This is problematic because the scholars who determine which verses were “not originally in Scripture” do not believe that the modern text is the “very Word of God.” 

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

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

“It’s true that human beings need ‘every word that comes from the mouth of God’, but we don’t necessarily need every word all at once…but preservation doesn’t imply constant availability, just as translation doesn’t imply perfection.” 

Richard Brash, How God Preserved the Bible, 62,63

“I do not believe that God is under any obligation to preserve every detail of Scripture for us” 

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

The evangelicals who advocate for the modern critical text all say that they believe God has preserved His Word somewhere, but that the church doesn’t have all of it today. Even if it was available, they say that there would be no way to determine that what is in the printed Greek texts is original, because the originals are not extant. How is this reconciled with the doctrine of preservation? God must not desire to give His people all of His Word, so what the scholars determine the church has access to must be the very text that God desired the people of God to have today. It is a theology and a text that is conveniently shaped according to the opinions of 20th and 21st century scholars. 

The problem with this is that Christians who read these texts often do not know that this is the nature of the text produced by modern criticism. The scholars not only say that the modern Bibles have many, many uncertain places, but also that there are passages that God simply hasn’t given to the church, even though they were originally there. These uncertainties inevitably make their way into the text and footnotes of modern translations which introduces an unnecessary problem to the modern church. So the scholars that are informing the pastors which verses are “not originally Scripture,” do not believe that God has fully preserved His Word, and have no way of proving their claims about which Scriptures Christians should not read. In short, these scholars have abandoned the Scriptural doctrine of preservation based on the early manuscripts that have survived today, which we know essentially nothing about, and as result are left with a doctrine that says, “What we have is good enough.” Christians can continue teaching that they have the “very Word of God” in their modern Greek texts and translations, but none of the scholars producing these texts and commenting on these texts would affirm this in any meaningful way. They say that what is available is “greatly accurate,” but how is this even determined? Greatly accurate in what way? Which passages are greatly accurate, and which are not? Is accuracy now synonymous with “original”?

In addition to rejecting the Scriptural doctrine of preservation, the scholars which produce these texts utilize axioms which also contradict what Scripture says about itself. Critical opinions cause the scholars to place readings which do not comport with inspiration in the main text of modern Bibles. The shorter, grammatically hard reading is to be preferred. Certain passages which harmonize with the rest of Scripture should be considered as additions to the text. Longer readings which affirm the Deity of Christ are to be viewed as scribal tampering. The most concerning of all, is that the handful of manuscripts which serve as a base text which these Bibles are based on disagree heavily with each other, and even more so with the thousands of manuscripts that have survived.  Finally, it needs to be noted that this modern critical text is changing with new methods such as the CBGM. It is not a stable text.

“Clearly, these changes will affect not only modern Bible translations and commentaries but possibly even theology and preaching”

Peter Gurry, A New Approach to Textual Criticism, 6.

Conclusion

Christians should not use the modern critical text because it does not align with what Scripture says about itself. Further, none of the scholars credentialed in the discipline believe it to be the original text which the prophets and apostles wrote by inspiration. The axioms used to produce such Bibles do not consider inspiration, providence, or the Holy Spirit, and are actually formulated in such a way that assumes the earliest extant text must have been choppy, abrupt, and grammatically difficult. Even if the Bible needed to be reconstructed, which it doesn’t, this is not how it should be done. The methods are designed to produce a text which does not assume that the original was perfect, and therefore the final product of such methods will inevitably represent the quality of the text that is trying to be produced.

God can use such translations, because not every line is incorrect, but it should be apparent that the Scriptures do not teach that the Bible is just “good enough.” Christians should not desire a “good enough” Bible, because God doesn’t say His word is “just okay.” The Bible says that “All Scripture” is profitable, not “some of Scripture” is profitable. It is great that such scholars affirm that God has preserved His Word, but preservation is the most useless doctrine in all of Christianity if Christians do not have access to that preserved Word.  An important question to ask, if it is the case that none of the critical Greek texts and translations have exactly what the prophets and apostles wrote, what exactly are Christians reading when they open their Bible? This theological position, and the texts that it produces, literally takes the Word of God away from Christians, transforming it into some ethereal concept that will never actualize into anything the people of God can actually put their hands on.

The Theology of the Text: Why the Received Text?

This article is the seventh 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: Why the Received Text?

A problem introduced to the people of God in the modern church is the endless number bibles available. This is the fruit of the reconstruction effort. Theologically, practically, realistically, and experientially, there is no warrant for a Christian to adopt such an effort. This being the case, which text should the people of God receive? The foundational principle to answering such a question is that God has not let His Word fall away. This makes the introduction of the printing press monumental to seeing God’s special providence in history. Up until this point, the Scriptures were transmitted locally by hand for the use of faith and practice. The extant manuscript data is a fraction of what has existed in time, so the process of creating the first printed editions is critical to knowing the text that had been passed down in the church through the ages. Since many of the manuscripts that were used in this effort have since been destroyed, the best “evidence” of the text as it existed during the time of the first printed effort are the printed texts themselves. After the creation of these printed editions, manuscripts fell out of use, and many were destroyed. 

It is easily established that the extant manuscript data available in the 21st century is not sufficient for accurately determining what the Scriptures looked like in the first century, therefore the church must trust God’s special providence. If the Scriptures had been kept pure in all ages by God, then the manuscripts used during the 16th century would have contained that pure Word. It is important to note several things regarding this time period. 

  1. Constantinople had just fallen to the Ottoman Empire in 1453, bringing uprooted Eastern bishops to Europe – along with their language and Bibles
  2. The printing press had been introduced to Europe in the mid 15th century, changing the way the Scriptures were transmitted from handwritten ink to printed ink
  3. The humanist renaissance had sparked a revival in the study of Greek, Hebrew, and Latin, and the Scriptures in their original languages (Ad Fontes)
  4. The Protestant Reformation had sparked a revival in Christianity, making way for such original language texts to be printed, published, distributed, and read

These four events are significant to the transmission story of the Scriptures. In Europe, the Bible had been transmitted largely in the form of Latin translations. In the East, however, the Bible had been transmitted in Greek from the beginning. The fall of Constantinople brought these Greek Bibles into Europe around the same time the printing press was introduced. That means that the theologians tasked with printing these Bibles had access not only to the Scriptural tradition as it had been transmitted in the West, but also had access to how the tradition had been transmitted in the East. This was also a time where these Latin and Greek manuscripts were being used by the people of God. This is significant, because that generation would be the last generation to know how the extant manuscripts and the readings they contained were understood and used by the people of God. The printed editions would not have been received, had they looked significantly different from the manuscripts the people of God had been using. 

The initial effort of receiving the Scriptures as they had been handed down in the East and West did not produce a final text right away. The first printed text, famously created by Erasmus, was not perfect, and it received a lot of criticism. As more printed editions were created in the 16th century, the uniformity of the text increased, and the reception of that text became universal by the orthodox Christians. Up until that point, there were a handful of editions that the people of God used, such as Coline’s text. While these editions are more similar to each other than the modern critical text, there were still differences between the editions. At the same time that this effort of creating printed texts was going on, there were also discussions about which books actually belonged in the text of Holy Scripture. It was common, and the beginning of the Reformation, to reject books like Revelation, James, and Jude, for example. At the same time the church was debating over which books were to be received, they were also discussing which texts should be received in those books. While the canon was closed by the end of the first century, it wasn’t until the end of the 16th century that both the text and the canon were uniformly received by the orthodox Protestant church. 

Texts such as John 7:53-8:11, Mark 16:9-20, 1 John 5:7, Luke 23:34, the doxology of the Lord’s prayer, Acts 8:37, John 5:4, and many other passages had been and received as original, despite some manuscripts not including them. Commentators on the Scriptures during and after the Reformation recognize that these passages were disputed, and despite these disputations, agreed that they should be received as Scripture and preached from. The text received by the people of God at the end of the 16th century is evident in the translations, textual commentaries, theological works, and confessions and catechisms made during and after that time. This text later was coined “The Received Text,” as a description of how universally it was received by the people of God. 

The fruit of this text was the greatest Christian revival in the history of the world. Translations made from this text still remain the most widely read translations by a large margin. In other words, it has the stamp of God’s providence on it. At no other time in history have all the necessary factors for aligned for such an effort to take place. It wasn’t until 1881 when the first major effort to unseat this text happened, which I will discuss in a later article in this series. 

Conclusion

The transmission of the Scriptures Leading up to the 16th century  is covered by a shadow to the 21st century church. Today, there is a fragmentary amount of evidence available. Due to manuscripts being destroyed, and the lack of a historical filing system of manuscripts, it is impossible to tell just how many manuscripts were used during the 16th century, and how many were destroyed. Further, of the manuscripts available today, we have the least amount of insight on how those manuscripts were treated, used, and received by Christians in time. The last time the Christian church had this kind of insight was during the 16th century, when handwritten manuscripts were still being used. 

It is common to believe, in the modern context, that Christians and modern scholars “know better” than the Christians of the past. Many modern Christians and scholars speak as though they can “know” which texts do and don’t belong in Scripture based on the extant data, when the reality is, they simply can’t. This too is providential. It forces Christians, if they want a Bible that is settled and vindicated by time, to receive the Bible that was created when scholars and theologians actually had access to manuscripts which were being used by the people of God. This is a challenging proposition to present to the modern church, but it is the only viable one theologically, practically, really, and experientially. 

“Beza acquired a very high status in Protestant and especially Calvinist circles during his lifetime and in the first generations after him. His Greek text was not contested but faithfully reprinted; through the Elzevir editions it was elevation to the status of ‘received text’, textus receptus

Jan Krans, Beyond What Is Written, 197. 

The Theology of the Text: How Do We Make Determinations?

This article is the sixth 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: How Do We Make Determinations?

One of the most common impacts of modern criticism is that Christians have been taught for the last several decades that it is their job to make determinations on which verses of Scripture they are to read as authentic. It is even common to believe that all Christians make a decision on whether or not each verse is authentic as they read it. While this view is practically crippling to the effort of actual Bible reading, it also assumes that Christians should view the text in this way. It also demands that every Christian have a functional knowledge of the original Biblical languages and access to a textual apparatus.  Is it Scriptural to treat the text of Holy Scripture as though every verse is corrupt until proven pure? The answer is obviously no. Is it necessary to burden the average Bible reader with the responsibility of navigating and using a critical apparatus in Greek? Again, the answer is clearly no. 

The Scriptures set forth the truth that God immediately inspired the Scriptures and promised to preserve those Scriptures, and in time the people of God can see that He actually has done it. That means that it is not the Christians job to put every line of Scripture to the test (Luke 4:12). The assertion that simply reading a passage in Scripture as authentic is “making a decision” on the text is a thought that flows from a modern critical perspective of the Scriptures. Christians are to receive the text of Holy Scripture and be tried by them experientially. It is not their job to try them and determine which texts they ought to be tried by. Such a practice invites textual chaos into the church. 

Even if it were the task for Christians to “make decisions” on the text of Holy Scripture, there is not an objective standard by which to do this. In the first place, complete extant manuscript data is missing for the first 300 years of the church, so any determination made by such data is hanging three feet in mid air. It’s completely arbitrary. Further, there is no way to determine that the reading a Christian decides upon wasn’t a reading introduced by somebody like Marcion or Valentinius. Even if it can be demonstrated that a reading has been introduced or removed or changed by a heterodox source, Christians may decide that they like that reading better and decide to add it to the text! Since the early manuscripts that are used to make such determinations have no provenance, or determinable origin, there is no way to tell that the reading is even orthodox, let alone original, based on that extant data. 

In short, Christians in the 21st century must resolve to receive the Scriptures as they have been delivered, not decide which verses they will receive. It is dangerous and haughty to even assume that the early extant manuscripts can provide the adequate data to make such a choice. The fruit of such decision making is evident when it can be plainly observed that the most trained textual scholars cannot even agree among themselves which readings are “best.”  If the most trained scholars cannot come to a consensus on the text, why should the average Christian be told that they are responsible for making such decisions? Not only is this theologically erroneous, it is practically burdensome and likely impossible for most people who read the Bible. 

Conclusion

The mindset that Christians are responsible for “deciding” upon every line of Scripture is one that flows from the belief that the Scriptures are currently in the process of being reconstructed, in contradiction to the Biblical testimony. I present this contradiction in the first five articles in this series. Even assuming that the Scriptures do teach that they would fall away, Christians in the 21st century do not have the adequate materials to responsibly make such decisions and know that they’ve made the correct choice. It is an approach to the text that inevitably results in Christians believing that the text is lost to some degree or another and will never be completely found. It is an approach that teaches Christians that they are the judge over Holy Scripture. 

Fortunately, this approach is not necessary, because the Scriptures have not fallen away and do not need to be “decided upon.” It is not the task of the Christian to be the hero of the modern church and restore the text that God has allegedly let fall away. Now that I have established several important theological principles in this series of articles, I will move on to presenting the text of Scripture that I believe should be received, translated, read, and preached by the modern Christian church.  

The Theology of the Text: How Should Evidence Be Used?

This article is the fifth 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: How Should Evidence Be Used?

There are approximately 5100 to 5600 extant Biblical manuscripts today, depending on how they are counted. Some scholars estimate that there are 525 manuscripts still awaiting discovery (Gurry & Hixson. Myths and Mistakes. 62), and a multitude of manuscripts that were once catalogued have been lost or destroyed. Approximately 83% of these manuscripts are dated after AD 1000, and around 60 of the extant manuscripts are complete New Testaments (Parker, New Testament Manuscripts and Their Texts, 70). The first complete extant New Testament is dated to the fourth century. That means that of the 5,100 or so manuscripts available today, many of these are only a portion of Scripture, especially the earliest witnesses. Further, some of these extant manuscripts are preserved only in microfilm images, which means the physical copy no longer exists or has been lost. That is to say that the extant manuscript evidence is not an entirely stable dataset. 

In the modern church, the popular belief is that these manuscripts should be used for reconstructing the lost text of Holy Scripture. The first four articles in this series lay out the theological errors associated with this perspective. While it is a theological error to affirm this position, the ongoing nature of the effort itself demonstrates that the evidence cannot be used for such a task. Viewing the extant evidence as adequate material for reconstruction is both theologically and realistically problematic. Since the 19th century, scholars adopting the view that the Scriptures need to be restored or reconstructed have tried their hand at producing an original text from the extant data to no avail. There has not been a single text produced by critical methodologies in the modern period which has been received as original or final. At the time of writing this article, the effort to find the original as it has been historically defined has been abandoned for the “initial text,” or the earliest reconstructable text that can be produced by the extant manuscripts. Some scholars suppose that this hypothetical initial text can be said to represent the original, though there is no warrant for this based on the extant data, which is largely incomplete until at least the fourth century. Further, even if one single reconstructed initial text was produced, the methods of reconstructionist text criticism have no mechanism which can actually verify that the final product resembles the original, because the original manuscripts do not exist. 

Should this cause Christians alarm or dismay? Certainly not. Since the Bible hasn’t fallen away in the modern period, the evidence does not need to be used to reconstruct it. God preserved the text, and the church has it today. The frustrated efforts of textual scholars should also serve as a reminder that God works in all things, “from the greatest even to the least” (LBCF 5.1). If God is not using the reconstruction effort to actually deliver His Word, it may be wise to observe what He is doing by frustrating the efforts of textual scholars – more on that in later articles. It should be apparent that in the 21st century, the extant data has not proven useful to reconstruct the original New Testament. So what is evidence to be used for in this modern context? 

The extant manuscript data serves the same use as any other evidence for a Christian. Since churches haven’t actually used manuscripts in reading and preaching in at least 300 years, it is safe to say that they are not the means that God is speaking to His church today. It is not that God is not speaking, it is simply the case that the advent of the printing press in Europe caused a format shift from handwritten manuscripts to printed editions. This plain observation is important. If the extant handwritten manuscripts are no longer being used “to make men wise unto salvation” and “for instruction in righteousness,” their use to the church has shifted. That is not to say that these manuscripts are useless, simply that Christians should have a perspective of this evidence that recognizes what God has done in time to continue speaking to His people. 

If these manuscripts are not to be used for reconstruction, what is their purpose? First, they may serve some role in evidential apologetics. Some people claim that Christianity was “invented” in the fourth century, and early manuscript evidence is powerful to respond to these claims at a lay level. It is important to note, however, that ancient evidence isn’t particularly compelling to those who have actually studied these early manuscripts. Second, they may serve as evidence of God’s providence. Despite the New Testament being similarly attested to other books of antiquity in its ancient witnesses, it is still the most attested to book of antiquity if all of the extant data is considered. Third, they may serve as source material for historical studies of Christianity. 

Conclusion

Scripturally, there is no warrant for believing that the Scriptures have fallen away in such a manner that they need to be reconstructed. Practically, modern scholars have tried and failed to do this for nearly 150 years now. Realistically, even if these scholars did produce such a final product using the extant manuscripts, they would have no way of knowing that they actually had done it. Experientially, Christians no longer use these manuscripts in faith and practice. It should be apparent then, that the Christian perspective on these handwritten manuscripts should align with what God has actually done in time to deliver His Word to His people. All of these observations should point to the reality that men’s opinions on today’s extant evidence was never meant to be the authentication method of the text of Holy Scripture. 

In a world post-printing press, Christians access the Scriptures in printed editions. The handwritten manuscripts are an artifact of a pre-printing press world. The extant manuscript data may be used in apologetics and historical studies, but since this evidence cannot be used to establish a reading as original, it should not be used as such. As far as apologetics is concerned, no man has ever been brought to a saving knowledge of Jesus Christ by a convincing argument about the number or quality of extant New Testament manuscripts. God has given the Scriptures to His people, even today, and men are brought to faith by hearing the Gospel preached, and believing that Gospel for salvation. Christians do not believe that the Bible is the Word of God because there are a lot of manuscripts. The only Scriptural response to men who doubt that God has delivered His Scriptures pure in all ages, is to appeal to the Scriptures that God has preserved, and trust that the Holy Spirit works in the hearts and minds of men by the Scriptures. 

“Although when the divinity of the Scriptures is proved, its infallibility necessarily follows, yet the enemies of the true religion of Scripture in every age flatter themselves that they have found not a few contradictions in it and boast of their discoveries in order to overthrow its authenticity” 

Francis Turretin, Institutes of Elenctic Theology, Vol. 1. 71. 

The Theology of the Text: Is “Text Criticism” Necessary?

This article is the fourth 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 IV: Is “Text Criticism” Necessary??

Due to the nature of transmission, or how the Bible was copied and used, comparing and correcting manuscripts has been a practice done by Christians since the beginning of the church. When copies were made, scribes made various types of natural errors which resulted in different spellings, omission of words, skipped lines, duplicated lines, and so forth. Some men of little faith, or perhaps hostile to the Christian faith, also edited the Scriptures according to their own doctrinal errors. This is especially the case during times where the church was fighting for orthodoxy during the time of Christological controversies leading up to and during the Nicene period. Starting with the Scriptural truth that God has preserved His Word for the purpose of saving and sanctifying men, Christians can rightly believe that text delivered to the church by God through inspiration has been kept pure today, despite the existence of errors and intentional corruptions in extant manuscripts. 

The question that many people have is, “How was this accomplished? Don’t we need text-criticism? Hasn’t the church always practiced text-criticism?” Despite the gainsayers, who say that the Bible was corrupted irreconcilably early in the transmission of the Scriptures, Christians affirm against this notion. By God’s providential oversight, scribes, which created manuscripts for the church, made faithful copies to be read and preached from, and did not willingly add or subtract to the text without the people of God noticing (Heb. 1:3; Isa. 46:10,11; Mat. 10:29-31). Any error made would be recognized, either by another scribe who noticed a natural error, or by those that used the manuscript, who were familiar with other manuscripts available in every age. Some call this process “text-criticism,” though the term isn’t accurate if the modern definition is used. These transmitters of the Scriptures were not re-inspired, but guided by God’s providence. Manuscripts of completely poor quality would have been recognized in the generation they were created, and either stored or discarded. Many manuscripts bearing such poor qualities have been preserved by their storage or disposal in old monasteries or trash heaps. Christians, like the men of faith of old before them, were deeply concerned with the fidelity of their copies of Holy Scripture. 

In every generation, there have been men who affirm against this truth, even today within mainstream, conservative evangelicalism. The notion that the Scriptures came down to modernity pure has even been called “textual mythology” by popular conservative voices. The first three articles in this series demonstrate the folly of such a belief. Christians should not be dismayed or swayed by such unfaithfulness.

Now to the topic at hand, text criticism. It is important to note that not all text-criticism is alike, and many practices called text criticism are erroneously called such. There is a common myth propagated in the seminaries and at a popular level that higher criticism and lower criticism are completely divorced from one another. This may be somewhat accurate by definition, but is demonstrably false is it pertains to the actual “text criticism” practiced today. It should also be noted that historical practices of transmission which were not critical in nature have been erroneously deemed “text criticism” by modern scholars, typically to justify many of the methods being employed today. Many modern scholars deem themselves text-critical heroes responsible for restoring God’s Word to the church, which they believe has fallen away. It is important to recognize that anybody who declares that Scripture has fallen away is not a “hero,” but is in error. Rather than confuse the conversation by employing ambiguous terms like “text criticism” to describe scribal practices, it is more accurate to simply say that the people of God faithfully transmitted the Scriptures by comparing and copying manuscripts in every age.

The errors in the extant manuscripts do not “prove” that the Scriptures are totally corrupt to such a degree that they must be reconstructed, nor does the testimony of unfaithful men who have stepped beyond the simple process of receiving, comparing, and propagating the original text “prove” that the Scriptures were not kept pure in all ages. The existence of manuscripts of particularly poor quality simply demonstrates that these manuscripts existed at one point. Christians should recognize that manuscripts of such suspect origin and poor quality should not be used as the foundation for any doctrine. Many choose to believe that scribes and the people of God in history would have been too dumb, or perhaps too flippant or ignorant, to take appropriate care of the transmission of manuscripts. This points to the reality that text-criticism as it exists today, steps far beyond the practice of receiving, comparing, reproducing approved manuscripts for use in the church. 

Conclusion

Biblical “text-criticism” is simply the process of collecting, comparing, and producing manuscripts or editions with the readings passed down through the history of the church. This process was accomplished in every age of the church, by the people who used those manuscripts in churches. The first time this practice was implemented in print was during the 16th century, shortly after the printing press was introduced into Europe. The doctrinal position that the Scriptures needed to be “reconstructed” from manuscripts no longer in use did not become the objective of orthodox Christian textual scholars until the modern period. In later articles in this series, I will examine the different kinds of text criticism, and the use of the extant manuscript data today. Theologically, Christians affirm that the methods employed in comparing and reproducing manuscripts in history did not cause additions to, or subtractions from, the Biblical text as a whole as it was transmitted. 

“Although we give to the Scriptures absolute integrity, we do not therefore think that the copyists and printers were inspired, but only that the providence of God watched over the copying of the sacred books, so that although many errors might have crept in, it has not so happened (or they have not so crept into the manuscripts) but that they can be easily corrected by a collation of others (or with the Scriptures themselves)”

Francis Turretin. Institutes of Elenctic Theology. Vol. 1. 73.

The Theology of the Text: Who Gives Authority to Scripture?

This article is the third 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 III: Scripture as Self-Authenticating

The doctrine of the self-authenticating (αυτοπιστος) Scriptures has been largely neglected in the modern Reformed-ish church. This is the principle that the Reformers stood upon against Rome, and the foundation for Sola Scriptura. More importantly, it is the only meaningful, orthodox  understanding of Scripture which affirms God as the authority of the Scriptures. It is necessary for the first principle of any final authority to be self-authoritative, or it is not a final authority. 

The Scriptures are from God, and therefore are divine and authoritative by their origin, which is said in Scripture to be θεοπνευστος (2 Tim. 3:16), God inspired or God breathed. Though men claim otherwise, the false claims of men regarding the Scriptures do not weaken or detract from any truth set forth by the Scriptures. The truth of Scripture is not contingent upon worldly opinions. This truth is confirmed in the believer when the Holy Spirit works by the Word in the mind and heart of the believer. Those that reject the truths of Scripture do so by their carnal mind and heart. 

“And the Father himself, which hath sent me, hath borne witness of me. Ye have neither heard his voice at any time, nor seen his shape. And ye have not his word abiding in you: for whom he hath sent, him ye believe not. Search the scriptures; for in them ye think ye have eternal life: and they are they which testify of me.”

John 5:37-39

“Howbeit when he, the Spirit of truth is come, he will guide you into all truth: for he shall not speak of himself; but whatsoever he shall hear, that shall he speak: and he will shew you things to come. He shall glorify me: for he shall receive of mine, and shall shew it unto you. All things that the father hath are mine: therefore said I, that he shall take of mine, and shall shew it unto you”

John 16:13-16

“But God hath revealed them unto us by his Spirit: for the Spirit searcheth all things, yea, the deep things of God. For what man knoweth the things of man, save the spirit of man which is in him? Even so the things of God knoweth no man, but the Spirit of God. Now we have received, not the spirit of the world, but the spirit which is of God; that we might know the things that are freely given to us of God. Which things also we speak, not in the words which man’s wisdom teacheth, but which the Holy Ghost teacheth” 

1 Corinthians 2:10-13

Conclusion

The doctrine of the Scriptures being self-authenticating affirms that the inspiration, preservation, and power of the Scriptures is all of God. Even the affirmation of this doctrine is all of God, as it cannot be affirmed in any other way than the Holy Spirit working by the Word in the heart and mind of a believer. No man can usurp the authority of the Scriptures because it is God Himself who gives the Scriptures authority. Even when man attempts to act as judge over the Sacred Writ, the people of God will not be deceived because of the work of the Holy Spirit working in them. “Sanctify them through they truth: thy word is truth” (John 17:17). The Scriptures do not give any license or warrant for external authentication, because the authority of the Scriptures is all of God. 

In today’s context of false-intellectualism and self-imposed authority over the text, this doctrine stands as strong as it did in the time of the apostolic fathers. This doctrine is most practically applied when considering the various approaches that men take towards the Scriptures. Any doctrinal, hermeneutical, or text-critical method which denies the self-authenticating nature of the Scriptures should be discarded as unfaithful and antithetical to what the Scriptures say about themselves. It is by this doctrinal truth that Christians can firmly and lovingly call those who reject it to repentance, that they may be blessed by the power of God in the Scriptures.

“Though the above or like arguments be sufficient to silence gainsayers, and produce a rational conviction, that the Scriptures of the Old and New Testament are indeed the word of God, – yet it is only the Holy Ghost’s effectual application of them to our mind, conscience, and heart, in their self-evidencing life, light, and power, which can produce a cordial and saving persuasion of it. – The word of God thus applied, brings along with, and in itself, such light, such authority, and such convincing, quickening, sanctifying, and comforting power, that there is no possibility of shutting our eyes or hardening our heart against it, of continuing blind or unconcerned about it; but all the faculties of our soul are necessarily affected with it; as impressed with evidences of its divinity, attended by almighty influence.”

John Brown of Haddington. Systematic Theology. 81. cf. 1 Thess. 1:5, 2:13; John 6:63; Jer. 23:29

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.