The conversation of textual criticism, which is properly called textual scholarship, has made its way to popular forums, Facebook threads, and even churches. Perhaps this has been the case for some time, but it seems that there has been a major uptick in people who have expressed interest in the topic. Oftentimes terminology muddles the conversation, so the goal of this article is to provide proper category distinctions that will hopefully bring more clarity at a popular level. Due to popular level podcasts, articles, and books, the average onlooker of the conversation has been taught to conflate the various categories within the conversation. A great example of this is the constant confusion between translation methodology and text-critical methodology. Despite common thought, the focus of this conversation is not primarily concerned with which Bible translation one uses. That is simply the practical implementation of one’s viewpoint on the topic. At a basic level, this conversation can be simplified into the three categories which are 1) textual methodology, 2) text platform, and 3) translation.
Textual Methodology, Text Platforms, and Translations
The methodology one chooses is directly related to the doctrine of Scripture, namely inspiration and preservation. At its foundational level, a person’s understanding of the nature of Scripture drives all other opinions regarding the matter. The two competing thoughts right now are whether Scripture has been generally or partially preserved, or particularly preserved. This methodology flows into which underlying texts one believes to be the “best” or “original”. It can be helpful to discuss the differences between text platforms, but ultimately the conversation comes down to how one answers the question, “Has the Bible been preserved or not?” The final category is simply the practical implementation of the first two categories, and results in which Bible one reads. The major methodologies are modern reasoned eclecticism, equitable eclecticism, majority text or Byzantine priority, and the Confessional Text position (Traditional Text, Ecclesiastical Text, etc.). Each of these methodologies have their own canons and systems which are distinct from each other. The final category, translation, is not technically a text-critical category, but at a popular level, it inevitably comes up.
Translation methodology in itself is partially related to the first two categories, because all translations must make employ of a base text, sometimes called a “text platform”. That base text is chosen based on theological and methodological reasons. At its foundations, however, translation is simply taking a text from one language to another. That means that a translation can use an extremely accurate original text, and still be of poor quality, depending on the translation committee’s methodology and knowledge of both the original text and target language. That is why many who believe that the Modern Critical Text is the best can still reject the NLT or NIV as a sound translation in place for the ESV or NASB.
Many popular level discussions simplify the conversation to “KJV Onlyists” vs. the rest of the world, but that simply does not work if one wants to engage charitably in the conversation. There is a depth of nuance that contributes to the discussion, and many people read the KJV for reasons completely independent of their understanding of textual scholarship. The same can be said for people who read the ESV, NASB, NIV, or any other translation for that matter. If I were to ask somebody which translation they read, and they responded, “I only read the ESV. It’s the translation that scholars trust, and it’s easy for me to understand”, would it be fair for me to call them an “ESV Onlyist”? Even if somebody had an informed opinion on textual methodology and decided to only read the ESV as a result of that, would it be fair for me to call that person an “ESV Onlyist”? No, it wouldn’t. Is it fair for somebody in one of the other methodological camps to call somebody who defends the modern critical text a “Modern Critical Text Onlyist”? Again, no it wouldn’t. Titles like these only serve to add unnecessary hostility, division, and confusion into the conversation.
It is especially important to understand these category distinctions, considering a great effort has been made to intentionally conflate them for one reason or another. Unfortunately, it seems to be the case that due to popular level presentations on the topic, the vast majority of Christians have actually been instructed to make these conflations. This is evidenced in the fact that most people, including some scholars, do not know the difference between a majority text position and a confessional text position, or that the KJV and ESV are translated from different text platforms. Popular level literature has actually instructed Christians to define anybody who doesn’t read a modern Bible as a “KJV Onlyist”, even those who don’t read the KJV. At a popular level, Christians do not understand the difference between textual methodology and translation methodology, or even understand the methodologies being employed to produce the Nestle-Aland/UBS printed texts that modern Bibles are translated from. For most Christians, the conversation has been framed as “KJV Onlyism” vs. the “correct view”.
The kind of argumentation employed to defend the texts produced by modern reasoned eclecticism often introduces a terrible amount of confusion into the conversation that disallows for any sort of meaningful discussion. My goal in writing this article is to provide clarity by offering some important category distinctions. The first category is textual methodology, which is based upon an individual’s doctrines of inspiration and preservation. The second category is text platform, which is selected based on an individual’s textual methodology. The final category is translation methodology, which is the practical implementation of the first two categories. By allowing for these category distinctions, a productive conversation should be possible.