Providential Preservation and the Modern Critical Texts

Introduction

There are many cases that I have seen where somebody who advocates for the modern critical text uses the theological language, “Providential Preservation.” This is typically due to the person not understanding the current state of modern textual criticism. There have been many developments that have been adopted in the mainstream of textual scholarship that disallow this language from being used responsibly. This problem demonstrates a major fork in the road for those in the confessionally Reformed camp because the confession teaches that the Word of God has been “kept pure in all ages” by God’s “singular care and providence.” This is problematic because the axioms of modern textual criticism do not recognize providence, inspiration, or the Holy Spirit. In fact, the axioms of modern textual criticism assume that the manuscript evidence is no different than any other work of antiquity. Evangelical textual scholars may personally believe that the text has been preserved, but there is nothing in the axioms of their method that even come close to incorporating these truths about Scripture. That means that the modern critical texts have readings that stand against the theological reality that God has preserved His Word providentially. In other words, the modern critical texts have readings that are unique to a smattering of manuscripts, often times just one or two manuscripts, that were rejected by the church through the ages. These readings were rejected by way of fixing them as the manuscripts were copied en masse, excluded from printed editions after the printing press, or directly condemned as corruptions in theological commentary on these readings. 

This is due to the modern critical texts being derived from various textual theories that do not assume a supernatural preservation process, or consider the Holy Spirit speaking to His church in time. The readings used for hundreds of years by the people of God can be wrong, because the axioms of modern textual criticism do not consider the internal witness of the Holy Spirit, or inspiration, or infallibility, or even inerrancy for that matter. These readings are now adopted, not because of providence, but because of textual theories and mythology that overvalue certain manuscripts of suspect origin and low quality. What Christians need to understand, is that these textual theories in some cases have been utterly refuted (like Hort’s theory on Vaticanus), and others (like genealogical models and the initial text), are unproven at best and a fool’s errand at worst. The reality is, if a textual methodology is based on the assumption that the extant manuscripts formerly called the “Alexandrian Family” are standing in any sort of mainstream textual tradition of the church, that textual methodology is flawed and not based on providence. Further, any textual methodology that assumes a reconstruction of the text needs to be done is not based on providence. 

Controversy Surrounding the Continued Use of the Term “Providence”

The Reformed church cannot escape the doctrine of Scripture as set forth in the Puritan era confessions. The language used was written carefully and precisely. This makes reinterpretations of the confessions difficult, though in the case of the modern doctrine of Scripture, this has been done. Fortunately, the authors of the 17th century Puritan confessions were so precise, that this sort of reinterpretation is near impossible without adding new terms and definitions, like inerrancy. What the church needs to know is that the text-critical context of Warfield is much different than the text critical context of today. What Warfield said about Scripture in the 19th and 20th century is out of its scope now, and can no longer be responsibly applied to the current state of affairs in modern textual criticism. The conversation has clearly evolved, and in Warfield’s day, terms like “the original” meant something completely different than they do today. Even doctrinal statements like the Chicago Statement on Biblical inerrancy is outdated due to the introduction of new terms and evolution of old terms. That means that theologians, scholars, and pastors can employ terms like providence, inerrancy, and infallibility while operating on stale definitions and be none the wiser. The problem with this is that somebody can make the same statement regarding Scripture as Warfield or even R.C. Sproul, and that statement will mean something entirely different than it did in their context.

During Warfield’s time, the term “original” was clear. It meant the autographic text. This definition continued to be employed in this way until very recently within the bounds of textual scholarship. The effort of modern textual criticism was geared towards reconstructing this original, and so while the same problems still existed within modern critical methods, it was still based on clear, definite terms. Due to the introduction of the “Initial Text,” the doctrinal formulations of the 20th century are plainly outdated. The reason for this is due to the fact that the Initial Text is not the same, by definition, as the original text or autographs. If we define this conservatively, it is the earliest text within the extant manuscript tradition. If we define this less conservatively, it is a hypothetical text that represents no extant manuscripts from which all manuscripts are derived. The latter definition of the Initial Text is often equated with the “original” text by optimistic scholars, but this is clearly on overreach. The axioms which are producing the Initial Text simply cannot speak to whether it is equitous with the original or autographic text. In short, the effort to find the original text as it has been defined historically has been abandoned. The modern critical methods simply cannot reach back farther than the evidence allows. 

This article is not about the efficacy of genealogical text-critical methods, however, it is about providence. The very use of the term “Initial Text” demonstrates that the modern critical methodologies are not compatible with providence. The need for scholars to shift the goal post from “original” to “initial” demonstrates the vacuous nature of modern text-critical methods. They have not produced the original with text-critical methods because they cannot produce the original with text-critical methods. Since the only way to say that modern textual criticism can produce an original is to first introduce new terms which redefine what “original” means, it should abundantly clear that we are standing on different theological grounds than Warfield and even R.C. Sproul. If they were alive today, they may have agreed with the introduction of such terms, but the fact is, they are not around to reevaluate their doctrinal statements according to these developments. What this practically means is that the doctrinal statements developed in the 20th century are inadequate to speak to the texts that are being produced by modern critical methods as they have developed in the last 10 years. They are stale. This being the case, it is irresponsible to continue using historical protestant language which were formulated upon different definitions. In the light of new developments, these doctrinal statements simply do not mean the same thing any longer. There is a need for those in the modern critical text camp to draft new doctrinal statements, because the old simply do not apply to the developments of their discipline. Interestingly enough, the doctrinal statements that have been produced in the recent literature simply articulate that “God didn’t desire us to have the whole thing.”  

The Modern Critical Text is Not a Providential Text and is Not Justified for Use by the Church

The WCF and LBCF both appeal to God’s providence and apply it to the original texts of Holy Scripture in Greek and Hebrew, stating that they have been “kept pure in all ages.” If a text has been kept pure, it has been kept in such a state that it does not need to be reconstructed. This was the belief of the majority of the Protestant church until the end of the 19th century and even into the 20th century by many. So in order to appeal to providence while talking about the Holy Scriptures, one has to believe that the text has been “kept pure” by providence. That does not mean that one manuscript came down pure through the line of textual transmission. It means that the original text of Holy Scripture came down and was used in faithful churches “in all ages.” In order to recognize providence in this process, one must recognize that this preservation took place in time, by people who used these manuscripts.  

In order to recognize providence as a function of preservation, one has to first believe that despite corruptions entering into manuscripts early on in transmission, the original text maintained its purity through the whole of the textual transmission process. That means that no local corruption could contaminate the transmission process as a whole “in all ages.” We should not be so ignorant to believe that there were no corrupt manuscripts created during this process. The quotations of Augustine and Jerome and other theologians of the church prove as much. If God truly preserved His Word, then all transmission narratives must be within the walls of God’s providential hand guiding the process, and the corruptions of “unfaithful men” should be recognized as corruptions, not adopted into the history of textual transmission.

Secondly, in order to recognize God’s providence in transmission, one has to believe that historical events are a function of that providence. Just like God did not use evolution to create man, he did not use an evolutionary process to create His Word. The text did not develop, it was “kept.” Just like mutations arise in creatures over time, mutations arose in the Biblical manuscripts. Just because mutations occur in humans, that does not mean that those mutations arise in all humans. That means that by the time the printing press was introduced into Europe, the textual tradition was still being “kept pure” by God’s providence, and by God’s providence, that technological innovation allowed the church to collect, compare, and print texts which by God’s providence, had been “kept pure.” A survey of commentary on this Reformation effort reveals a lively discussion about the various printed texts during this time, and the readings they did and did not contain. It was not an effort of one man in a closet, despite what some would have you believe. 

That does not mean that the first editions printed represented that text which had been “kept pure.” It was a process, and by God’s providence, it was a process that occurred in a place where the height of language learning was taking also happening. The humanist renaissance sparked a revival of language learning and a return to studying the original Biblical texts and ancient fathers of the church. Many of the Reformers were humanists, such as Luther, Melanchton, Zwingli, and Calvin. Erasmus, “the smartest man alive,” though not theologically in line with the Reformers, was one of the chief satirists and polemicists against the papacy and one of the most brilliant language scholars alive. There has never been, even to this day, a time where so many scholars, with such an in depth knowledge of Biblical  languages, were in the same place at the same time. Never was there a time in history where the church was so united in pursuing the same cause. Never was there a time in history where the effort of creating an edited Greek text was so pure and theologically united. Never will there be another time in history where the church had the perspective on the manuscripts available, because those manuscripts were still being used in churches. If that is not providential, I dare say that nothing is providential. 

Conclusion

The point is this – if one wants to argue that a text is providential, they must argue for the text that was produced providentially, and completed and used in time. The modern critical text is produced with axioms that scorn God’s providence. These axioms say that the only thing God has providentially done in time is let the Scriptures evolve from their original form, and then let the people of God believe that those evolved Scriptures were the true Biblical text. These axioms are the same that say with confidence that the Reformation text is wrong, but also cannot produce the original text, even with all of the “new and better” data. In fact, these axioms are so ineffective that a new term had to be derived, the “Initial Text,” because these axioms say that the original is so far from being providentially preserved that we simply will never have it. According to the axioms of modern textual criticism, “we simply do not have now what the prophets and apostles wrote, and even if we did, we would not know it.” The question for those that still wish to maintain the doctrine of providential preservation is this: Why are we trusting scholars when they say the Reformation text is not original, when they can’t even determine if their own text is original? Would you trust a mechanic who had never fixed a car? Would you trust a surgeon who had never successfully done surgery? Why are we trusting scholars who say that we cannot know what the New Testament originally said to produce Bibles for the church? 

It is time that Christians stop giving lip service to providential preservation, and actually consider what those words mean together. Providential preservation does not mean that “the Bible has been preserved, it’s just been lost.” The text of the church was not preserved in a barrel or a questionable monastery or the Vatican or the sand – it was preserved by churches that actually used that text “in all ages.” It does not mean that God has ordained a wild goose chase for the last 150 years to recover a lost text. The continued effort of reconstructing the Bible is simply not warranted, if we want to continue using the words “providential” and “preservation” together. Those two words, when put together, mean that God actually preserved the text in time. It is attainable, and we have it. Modern critical textual methods do not consider what God has done in time, because they reject the text that was actually used by the people of God in time. In fact, the axioms of modern textual criticism say the opposite, that the text used in time by the people of God is in error. In other words, they reject providence altogether because they say that all providence has produced is an evolved text. We have to go back and find the original Bible because it has been providentially corrupted. The modern critical text is not justified for use among the people of God for this reason. It is a text foreign to the church in time, and it is produced by axioms that say that “we do not have, and never will have, the text.” 

Putting the Conversation in Perspective

Introduction

It may be difficult for many people to see the relevance of the textual discussion. This is often because it is rare that a positive case is made for the modern critical text.The majority of exposure people get to this conversation from a modern critical text position are simply polemics and a healthy dose of pejoratives. The problem with this is that these methods fail to offer a reason to believe that the modern critical text is the best. Simply saying the TR is awful and shouldn’t be used actually introduces far more problems than it solves. From a practical standpoint, if the Masoretic Hebrew text and the Received Greek text is not viable for use in the church, then not only was the Protestant religion sparked and built on a bad Bible, but there is an unfinished Bible for today’s church. It is important to clarify that I am not saying that people who adopt the modern critical perspective cannot be saved or cannot benefit from modern translations. I myself read through the Bible for the first time using an NIV. What I am saying is that a “mere Christianity” approach should not be adopted for the Bible we use. As Christians, we should be concerned with every jot and tittle, not the bare minimum it takes for somebody to be saved. That being said, I want to explain why somebody who found great comfort in the NIV in the early years of his Christian walk now reads a traditional Bible. If the last book you read on text-criticism was The Text of the New Testament in seminary, things have changed…a lot. Let’s take a step into the mindset of a modern critical text advocate for a moment here. The justification for adopting the modern critical text requires three main assumptions.

  1. The Received Greek Text does not represent the earliest manuscripts, and therefore represents a New Testament that was corrupted by well-meaning Christians over time
  2. The Masoretic Hebrew Text does not represent the original manuscripts as it has been corrupted by Jews seeking to diminish the deity of Christ
  3. The modern critical methods, and thus the modern critical text, are better than the previous text and should be used over and above the traditional text of the protestant church due to this orthodox and Jewish corruption of the Scriptures

An unfortunate side effect of advocating against the historical text of the Protestants is that the validity of the Bible is undermined as a whole. If the Masoretic Text has not been kept pure, which Hebrew text should be translated from? Typically the Septuagint is offered. There are two main problems with this. 1) There isn’t one “Septuagint” and 2) the confessions affirm against using translations as the ultimate rule of faith. Further, if the Received Text is not the New Testament, then the people of God have been woefully deceived. There are two ways to look at this deception. In the first place, if the Received Text was a strange, historical phenomenon where the people of God chose manuscripts that nobody had ever used in history, then the church was deceived for hundreds of years. This is in essence what is being claimed when somebody says, “This reads in a fashion unknown to the Christian tradition for a full 1,500 years.” If it is the case that the manuscripts used in the Reformation era printed texts represented the “most ancient copies”, as they claimed, then the church was deceived since the early church. In advocating for the modern critical text, there is a significant theological problem introduced that cannot be resolved without arguing for a total corruption of the text. 

More Questions Than Answers

If the theories of textual scholars are correct, the actual Bible is preserved partially in a small minority of manuscripts from the third and fourth centuries. The vast majority of manuscripts, according to modern scholarship, are the product of a well-meaning corruption by Christians to solidify doctrine, add beloved pericopes, and correct grammar mistakes. No matter how somebody spins it, God not only let his church and the Jews corrupt the Scriptures, but then allowed them to believe that those corruptions were inspired. In simple terms, there is no continuity in the preservation of God’s Word from a modern critical text perspective. The BIble was lost for a time, and now needs to be recovered. The text existed in the early church, became corrupted by the believing people of God and the Jews for a large chunk of church history, and resurfaced in the modern period for use by all in a small amount of neglected manuscripts and some versions of the Septuagint where doubt is cast on the Hebrew. 

The basic argument that is presented by the Confessional Text position is that the Bible was preserved going into the medieval and Reformation period, and that the text-critical work done in that period used those preserved manuscripts. If the assumption is that God preserved His Word, it would make sense that the general form of manuscripts used by the church would be most abundant, as they were used the most. Manuscripts that were later found in libraries, caves, and barrels sat collecting dust for a reason. Therefore the text-critical effort of the Reformation period was one of printing versions of the manuscripts which were considered best during that time. The problem that many have with this perspective is that the Reformation era text is often compared against the modern critical text with the assumption that the MCT is representative of the authorial, or original text. 

Yet a significant problem with this perspective is that it cannot be proven, or demonstrated with any level of confidence from an evidentiary standpoint. This is made evident in the fact that the theory of using text families to get back to the original text has been mostly abandoned. Instead, the effort of modern textual scholarship has shifted from finding the true authorial text to the hypothetical initial text. This is the major shift that occurred from the time of the Hort-Metzger era. Since the text that the people of God used during the Reformation period has been written off as a corruption, the only thing left to do is try and reconstruct the text that existed before that happened. This is more or less the current effort of the Editio critica maior. Instead of using text families, the current method is examining individual variant units and trying to determine which variant gave birth to the rest of the readings found in later manuscripts. No matter how thorough this analysis is, there will never be a way to determine if the earliest reading represents the original reading, or if that reading is even the earliest. This is the biggest limitation of the CBGM. There will never be a method that can span the historical gap between the authorial text and the initial text. In reality, this initial text will simply represent something similar to one version of the Bible from the third or fourth century that the people of God didn’t use universally. This is clearly shown in that the extant third and fourth century manuscripts do not represent the majority text or the Reformation era text. 

To put this in perspective, there are eight (P45, P46, P47, P66, P72, P75, Aleph, B, EDIT: Manuscript Clusters Tool is not linking properly. Type in Manuscript Name to use) significant manuscripts from before the fifth century that represent the text form which is called “earliest and best” in textbooks and modern bibles. Only two of these are complete bibles. The most complete of these manuscripts do not agree enough with each other to be related directly, which means that they did not descend from one uniform manuscript tradition. That means that the origin of these manuscripts will forever be a gray area to some extent. 

 Let me paint a picture that may help you understand what this means. Imagine you find a stack of nearly six thousand bibles. A handful of those bibles are extremely old, but not used very much so they are still able to be handled and examined. These older bibles have abrupt readings, omitted verses, more variants between the synoptic passages in the gospels, and have a great number of difficult grammatical constructions which take some effort to understand. They look different from the rest of the bibles, which have better grammar, less omitted passages, and more harmony in the readings. These handful of bibles are older, however, so you determine that they are the best. Since the majority of the bibles have a number of readings in the New and Old Testament that disagree with these older bibles, you determine that the majority of the bibles are wrong. You devise a theory that the original bible looked like the minority of older bibles. You make it your life’s mission to ensure that the majority of bibles are not used anymore, and 120 years later, the majority of churches are using the bible you’ve determined to be earliest and best. A small minority of churches still use the rejected bible, but are mocked and ridiculed for reading it. Those who read the newly declared oldest bibles ensure that these people are called “traditionalists” so that everybody knows they are wrong for not adopting the new bible. You devise pejorative terms like “New Bible Onlyists” to further scorn people for not adapting to the times. The majority of bibles are said to have been proven to be corrupt, so the division between the two camps becomes wider. There is only one problem – in the 120 years that the church adopted this new bible, nobody has been able to prove that the original claim was correct. In fact, there is an increasing amount of evidence which demonstrates that that claim was not correct at all. Instead of rejecting these old bibles, a new method is devised to prove the original theory. The church, mostly unaware of this, continues to read these newly adopted bibles and viciously attack those that have not adopted the new standard.

Conclusion

The period of time from the authorial event of the New Testament to the Reformation period is the most significant when it comes to the textual discussion. There are two narratives of the transmission history during this time. The first is that the Bible was kept pure in the manuscript tradition until the Reformation period, where the text-critical efforts of that time took those preserved manuscripts, edited them into printed editions, and made Bibles from them. The second is that by the third and fourth century, the manuscript tradition began to evolve as believing Christians smoothed out the grammar, added beloved pericopes, and expanded verses to make the Christology of the Bible more clear. In the second narrative, the Jews were also hard at work corrupting the Hebrew Scriptures so that by the time the modern period came around, there was not a single Hebrew text which represented the authorial text. 

This conversation is not about the TR or the modern critical text, it is about the narrative of preservation. If God preserved the Bible into the Reformation period, than the work done during that time was the final effort needed. The only reason to believe that an ongoing text-critical effort is required is if the first effort used a corrupted version of God’s Word in the Hebrew and Greek. Since the source material of the Reformation period needs to be considered corrupted to justify the modern effort, additional methods must be employed which extend beyond the capabilities of the extant data. These methods include constructing hypothetical archetypes of the earliest texts and correcting the Hebrew with Greek versional readings. Despite the best efforts of modern textual scholarship, the results of these methods cannot “prove” anything regarding the original text. The strongest testimony to the authorial text will always be the witness of the people who used those texts in time. Christians can indeed have confidence in their Bible, but I argue that the modern critical methodology cannot provide that confidence. If the Bible was preserved, it was preserved up to the time of the first text-critical effort. That effort produced the Bibles that sparked the Protestant Reformation and the largest Christian revival in the history of the World. The theological works which the modern church stands on were developed from this text, and Christians still stand on that theology, especially the confessionally Reformed. At the very foundation of this conversation is two different narratives, and two different methodologies. Neither of these narratives can be proved purely by extant manuscript data if the manuscript data is viewed agnostically. The real question that must be answered by Christians is, “Did God preserve His Word into the middle period and Reformation period, or not?” If manuscripts that represent the minority of the extant data are rejected, than the perspectives of the Reformed are clear as day. They believed the Bible had been preserved in both the Hebrew and the Greek, and I argue that the modern church should join them in that belief. If it is the case that an argument can be made for a preserved Bible from a modern critical perspective, I have yet to see it demonstrated. Unless that happens, I will continue to stand on, and advocate for, the Bible of the Protestant Reformation.  

More Resources:

Jeff Riddle Word Magazine

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

Dr. Joel Beeke on Retaining the KJV

Refutation of Dan Wallace on the Byzantine Text