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 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 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.  

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 Weakness of Evidence-Based Textual Criticism & The Received Text

Introduction

If I could identify the most significant disconnect between those that advocate for modern critical methods and those that advocate for the Received Text, it’s the difference in how evidence is handled. From a modern critical perspective, it is baffling that the manuscript evidence they produce for or against a reading is rejected. From a Received Text perspective, evidence should be used to support the God given text, not used to reconstruct a new text. Despite the frustration this might cause on both sides, there are good reasons that those who advocate for the preservation of the Received Text are not swayed by the evidence-based presentations of the academy and those who follow in that tradition. Instead of simply shrugging off these reasons, I believe that it is wise to consider the perspective of evidence presented by those in the Received Text camp. The concerns raised about evidence based critical methods cannot be answered by simply talking about textual variants ad nauseum. In this article, I will present four reasons why evidence should not be considered such an authoritative source for textual criticism, and then give a positive presentation on how we can know what the Scriptures say. 

Evidence Requires Interpretation

The single most impactful cause of changes in modern bibles is reinterpretation of data. That is because modern textual criticism views evidence as the source material to reconstruct a text that has been lost. One generation, the church may deem a manuscript or reading of little value, and the next, the most valuable text available. We have seen this practically implemented by the introduction of various brackets, footnotes, and omissions in modern Greek texts and translations made from them. This is inevitable with evidence based approaches, because the shape of the text is driven by whichever theory is in vogue that is used to evaluate the evidence. While the transmission of the New Testament was guarded from such significant changes by virtue of churches using these handwritten manuscripts and lack of technology for mass distribution, the modern church is not guarded by such a mechanism. The lack of church oversight in the creation of modern texts also plays into the ability for the Bible to shift year by year at such a quick rate. If a change is made in one place of Scripture today, it can be distributed in thousands of copies, essentially overnight, without consulting a single pastor. This should concern the people of God, but this has unfortunately become standard practice, and advertised as a necessary reality. 

Within the various modern printed Greek editions, the perspective of the editors define which verses are included, omitted, bracketed, and footnoted. Since evidence based methods are always driven by the perspective of the person interpreting the data, the shape of the New Testament is intimately connected with the methodologies of the scholars themselves. Yet even the scholar’s analysis is subject to interpretation. This is clearly demonstrated when an editor prints a reading in the main text of a Greek New Testament, and the user of that text selects a reading to use from the footnote over and above the reading chosen by the editor. Even within the modern critical text community, there are even disagreements over how the agreed upon source data should be interpreted, which is evidenced by the various printed editions produced by modern text critics. 

It is often said that the cause for change in modern Bibles is “new” data, yet this doesn’t seem to be the case. The texts which modern Bibles are based off were not created in the 19th century, they were published in the 19th century. And modern Bibles are mostly the same as Westcott-Hort’s text at a macro level. At one point, the people of God had that manuscript, and their interpretation of it shaped the way that Greek manuscripts were copied going forward. The difference is that modern interpreters of that data have valued that data more heavily than they have been weighted historically, and those in the Received Text camp view that as an act of God’s providential guidance of the text as it was passed along. In short, the interpretation of the new (to us) data is really a greater factor than the data itself.

Evidence Based Methods are Weak Because Manuscripts Cannot Talk  

In modern critical methods, extant manuscripts which are dated prior to AD 1000 are considered the most valuable or relevant New Testament witnesses. Though data after this time is consulted and considered, it is not given the same weight as earlier manuscripts. This becomes problematic because most of our New Testament manuscripts are from after the data window selected by scholars. Additionally, many of these early manuscripts are without a pedigree, meaning that we do not know who made them, why, and for what. For example, Frederic Kenyon proposed that the Papyri fragments were not used in churches for reading, but actually personal texts that a Christian could carry around and read privately. That means that they were more likely to be paraphrastic, contain errors, or be used outside of the mainstream of orthodoxy. Yet this is just a theory. We simply do not know why they were made, for whom, and how they were used. Such is the case for pretty much all of our early manuscripts. Why is this problematic? 

During the time period that our earliest extant manuscripts come from, some of the most heated theological debates were going on regarding the humanity and divinity of Christ. We also have testimony during that time which testify to the tampering of manuscripts. Since we do not know anything about the source of these manuscripts, it is nearly impossible to know if a manuscript was used in an orthodox church, or an Arian church, or wasn’t used in a church at all. What is more important from a data analysis perspective then, is what we do know of the context in which those manuscripts were created. Since theological context is not considered in modern critical approaches, we could very well have a reading in our Greek text that was introduced by Maricon himself and be none the wiser. And even if we do print a reading in our modern Bibles that have been historically questioned as gnostic or Arian, this is not taken into consideration by modern methodology.

That means that while early New Testament manuscript evidence serves a powerful apologetic purpose against claims that Christianity was “invented” at some point around the fourth century, it simply does not have the same kind of weight when it comes to being used for constructing accurate Greek texts. We may reproduce the exact hypothetical archetype for Codex B, for example, and still not know who used it, when that archetype was created, or where that archetype came from. One can say that the archetype of Codex B reaches back to the first century, when in reality it may have been created a month before. We simply cannot know. I will continue to argue on my blog that this is a good thing for the church, as it takes the authority of the Scriptures out of the hands of men. By God’s singular care and providence, He has kept His Word pure, and doesn’t need to be reconstructed. 

Evidence Based Methods Are the Weakest They Have Ever Been 

In the 21st century, we are the farthest away from the time the creation of the manuscripts used to make modern Bibles than any other generation. That means that we have the least amount of perspective on the data we do have, regardless of how much we have of it. The only group of people who had clear insight to Codex Vaticanus for example, were the people that created it, used it, or had access to since lost commentary on it, if that ever existed. If we ignore the insights of the scholars and theologians during the Reformation on this text, which modern scholars typically do, we essentially know nothing about it, except from what can be ascertained from its readings. And if we do not assume any text as standard base text, it is impossible to discern anything from the readings of that text at all, other than somebody used it at some point. How can we know if a reading is orthodox or not, if there is no standard to compare against? It is difficult, even impossible, to know much about a manuscript if the theological context from the time it was created  is not considered. 

That puts us at a unique time in history, different from even the Reformation. During the 16th century, manuscripts were still being used in churches and in liturgies. In every generation of the church this was the case until the printing press. Rather than assuming “we know more,” it is wiser to assume that we actually know less. Here is a metaphor that may be helpful in understanding my point. 

Let’s just say, 1,000 years from now, somebody finds a gas powered lawn mower disassembled into hundreds of pieces in a junkyard in a pile of other disassembled equipment. The person knows its a lawnmower, but doesn’t know what kind of lawnmower or what it originally looked like. If this person wanted to reconstruct that lawn mower, he would have to know which parts go to the lawnmower. He may have another lawnmower which looks kind of like the one he wants to reconstruct, but it’s not the same make and model, and it is from a different time period. Here’s the problem: The person doesn’t know which parts go to the lawnmower he wants to repair, and even if he did, he wouldn’t know exactly how to repair it without an instruction manual because nobody has used lawn mowers in 400 years. In order to repair the mower, he needs to find somebody who knows how, or a preserved model to use as a guide. He could spend his whole life trying to reconstruct the mower, and even if he got it to work, he wouldn’t know if the parts he used were from another piece of equipment that had the same parts as the mower, another mower altogether, or the original mower. The reconstructed mower might even have parts that work, but aren’t the right parts. Only a person who knew what the lawn mower originally looked like could tell him if he reconstructed it correctly with the right parts. A person trying to reconstruct the mower while other mowers of the same kind were still in production would have no problem with the same task, and achieve more accurate results. The fact is, the person will simply never know that all the parts he used even belonged to the mower to begin with, because he doesn’t have the original mower. You wouldn’t call that lawn mower preserved, in any case, even if all the parts were in the junkyard somewhere. 

The metaphor works quite nicely with manuscript evidence. During the time a manuscript was created, the people knew what that manuscript was for, who made it, and who used it. They even would know where it departs from the rest of the manuscripts circulating at the time. These are simply insights we cannot know, unless some extant commentary on the manuscript informs us on these things. And often times when we do have this kind of commentary, it is ignored and labeled fraudulent or “out of context.” The point is, the further away from the creation of a manuscript we get, the less we can know about it based on the manuscript itself. This, I argue, is yet another function of providence. We do not need to reconstruct a text, because the Bible has been kept pure in all ages. We need to receive the text as it has been passed down, not recreate a version of the New Testament that looks like a text(B) that was produced by, according to Scrivener, “more or less a Western unitarian” (Royse, Scribal Habits in Early Greek New Testament Papyri, 3). 

Evidence Based Methods Are Weak Because They Give False Confidence That We Have the Right Reading 

While the scholars working in the field are vocal about not having absolute confidence in the evidence, by the time a text gets to the pew, this doubt is dissipated through popular level presentations on textual criticism. A scholar can print a reading in a Greek text and have doubts about its place in the transmission history, and a Christian will use that reading as if it is the Divine Original itself. A scholar might even have great confidence that the reading printed, or not printed, in the text is original, and be wrong. Due to the nature of genealogical methods of text criticism, a reading can be erroneously placed earlier or later in the textual transmission history, and the scholar would never know it. 

The problem of basing the form of our Bibles on extant evidence is not a problem with all evidence. It is a problem of which evidence. If scholars are wrong in their theories, the church has a Bible that is based on the wrong manuscripts, and nobody is the wiser for it. In other words, scholars, like the person who set out to reconstruct the lawn mower, do not know enough about the manuscripts they have selected to use to say that their reconstruction looks anything like the original. Sure, it’s a form of the New Testament, but is it the New Testament? Just like the reconstructed lawn mower might look like the original, the person will never know what parts of the mower he used the wrong part for. Since we do not have this meta-data on our earliest extant manuscripts, the reconstructed product does not say much other than that it looks like a version of the New Testament that existed at what point in history. That text may have existed, but can we know who used it, and why we needed to reconstruct it? What text is this that has fallen away, if God’s Word has been preserved? Reconstructionist text criticism introduces far more problems than it solves – pointing again to the reality that the Bible never needed to be reconstructed based on the evidence that was published in the 19th and 20th centuries. That yet again points to the reality that God did not desire for His people to engage in this effort, but receive the text He had already given.  

Why Those In the Received Text Camp Do Not Base Their Bible Primarily on Evidence

Simply put, because it is not wise to do so, for the reasons listed above. That is why the primary function of the Received Text position is providence. According to the Scriptures, God has preserved His Word. The question for most people is, how did He do it? Those in the Received Text camp say that in every generation of copying of New Testament manuscripts, the Christians who copied and used manuscripts had the best perspective on those manuscripts. Those in the modern critical text camp typically say that we, in modernity, have the best perspective on the original languages and the extant manuscripts. Rather than assume that “we know better,” it is wise to avoid that kind of thinking, and instead, look to providence. Recognizing God’s providence is a matter of receiving the product that existed in continued use throughout the ages. Simply because a manuscript survived does not mean that it was in the category of “in continued use.” In fact, a manuscript from 1,700 years ago seemingly points in the opposite direction. I’ve worn out high quality, printed Bibles in a year. If somebody finds my Bible in tact in 1,700 years and can still read it, that would say a lot about how much I used it! Since we don’t know much about the earliest manuscripts, these are not helpful in determining such a text. If we can’t say where a manuscript came from, or how it was used, it is not wise to assume we know that information when we simply don’t. Further, the early data sample is not broad enough to know what else existed at the time that was being used. There is a reason the majority of our manuscripts do not look like those called, “Earliest and best,” and instead of assuming that the people of God got it wrong for hundreds of years, it is more reasonable to assume that the people of God had more information, and more insight on these manuscripts than we do now. 

That is why the Reformation is such a pivotal reference point for the transmission history of the New Testament text. It is a time where we, in the 21st century, have the best insight on what actually happened, and the most commentary on the manuscripts and readings that were agreed upon to be authentic by the people of God. During that time and even in the early church, the concept of an “authentic” manuscript was a driving force in identifying texts that should be used. No such function exists today in modern textual criticism. Manuscripts are weighted according to text critical principles, not evaluated by their authenticity or the way the church viewed them historically. Even with all we know of the Reformation, there is still so much we will never know about that process. If we do not even know every manuscript used in the creation of the Received Text, how much more absurd is it to try to figure out the origins of hand copied manuscripts from the fourth century and earlier? 

One of the things that needs to be recognized, is that we will never know exactly how the New Testament was transmitted, we simply know that it was. That is why textual scholars have been developing theories for the last 200 years, because there is no definitive trail through time leading back to the start that we can derive from extant data. It is important to note, that just because we do not know, does not mean that Christians throughout the ages did not know. Actually, it seems that this generation is the only generation that doesn’t seem to know. That speaks volumes to the methods of modernity. We cannot say that every New Testament in the fourth century looked like Codex B, and even from an evidenced based approach, that conclusion stands at odds with the data and reason. We can only reasonably approach the issue with what we do know: That God preserved His Word, and that by the time it was mass produced, it looked a certain way. If we want to approach the text like any other book, and say that the New Testament evolved, and was not preserved, we will spend our whole lifetime watching the text of the New Testament change form with the ebbs and flows of different theories of the academy. Often times evangelical textual scholars say, “I do not think God was obligated to give us the original. We should be grateful for what we do have.” Yet I say that that conclusion is based on theories on manuscripts that we simply do not know enough about to make such a conclusion. The conclusion first assumes that the Bible was destroyed, like the mower, and needs to be reconstructed. Yet it is clear, based on the extant evidence, that if the goal is to reproduce the original, that is an unwise errand. It seems especially off base if we are trying to maintain the doctrine of preservation in any meaningful way. 


A simple conclusion that causes people to return to the historical protestant text is often times the reality that we do not know enough about the transmission history of the New Testament up to the time of the Reformation to responsibly say that we can reconstruct it to the specifications of the original. Like the person who reconstructed the lawn mower, we will never know if we included all the parts, or even parts that came from other sources than the original. That is why the modern effort of textual criticism is more confident at saying what “isn’t” Scripture than what is Scripture. Even if those conclusions are based on evidence we really don’t know a whole lot about. What those in the Received Text camp set forth, is that it is not primarily a matter of extant evidence which gives us our New Testament, it is a matter of which evidence do we know the people of God used in time. There is no reason to assume that orthodox Christians even used our “earliest and best” manuscripts. That is assuming that modern scholars even factor in  that metric, which does not exist in the axioms of the critical methods. If our view of the transmission of the New Testament is based on the belief that God preserved His Word, it is difficult to propose that He did so by first destroying it so that it had to be reconstructed. The belief that God requires His Word to be reconstructed only came about due to the reevaluation of manuscripts which we know virtually nothing about. We do not know who created them, who used them, or even if they were used outside of a single church or area. That is not a wise foundation, from both a data perspective, and a common sense perspective. 

Conclusion

Simply because the early evidence is not uniform and has no pedigree does not mean that God did not preserve His Word. In fact, it seemingly demonstrates that God, in His providence, would make it quite difficult for Christians to responsibly place their faith in any such process that places the authority of the Scriptures in axioms of modern scholarship. When the early evidence is viewed in light of what we know about it, it’s value as a source for reconstruction fades to a dim glimmer. What it does demonstrate is that the New Testament existed as early as it says it did, and that it was transmitted all the way until today. The matter of identifying its original form was never meant to be something that men are responsible for reconstructing, but receiving. 

If we are not to reconstruct the text, but receive it as a preserved whole, then it seems providence is a much better guide than reconstruction by way of extant evidence that we have little information about. By recognizing God’s providence, we recognize that the people of God in every generation had the best insight on the manuscripts that were extant to them, used by them, and copied by them. This allows us to at least recognize the general form of the New Testament, what Theodore Letis called the “Macro Text.” In other words, the general copying process of the Text of Holy Scripture naturally corrected significant variants, either by producing another copy, or correcting that copy in the margin, according to the best manuscripts available in every age. By the time technology increased with the printing press, many manuscripts which had variants in them existed, yes. Almost every single one of the significant variants recognized today existed then. Yet, unlike this generation, the scholars and theologians of the time had better perspective on that data because it was still being used. They had more insight on the text that had been handed down as “authentic” then we ever will. 

We will never know what was contained in every manuscript that was destroyed after that time. In fact, there are hundreds of manuscripts that we know exist today that we simply do not have access to examine. Readings that we consider “minority” today could have easily been a majority reading in AD 800. There are readings considered “minority” today that could have been the majority during the time after the Reformation, and we would never know. The assumption that extant data is the best data is simply not in line with how much we know about manuscripts getting destroyed throughout time. How could it be, that for the first time in church history, that God finally allowed His church to “get it right” concerning the text of Holy Scripture? How could it be, that now, even knowing how many thousands of manuscripts that were destroyed, is the time where we have the most of them? It may be true that we have the most access to all of the manuscripts due to technological advances, but it is important to remind ourselves that we have the least amount of insight on the ones we do have. Additionally, what value is all of this data if the modern scholars are only looking at a subset of that data? The very subset that we know the least about, nonetheless!

The point of this blog is to give people confidence that the people of God in the previous era of the church had that insight, and by God’s providence, He preserved His Word. Rather than believing that we need to reconstruct the text, we should receive the text handed down to us. What we do know of the text of the Reformation is that the people of God used it, translated it, and commented on it. It was so agreed upon that people have called it the “default” text. Does that not sound providential? That the text was so agreed upon it was “default?” The reality is, we do not have the justification, based on evidence at least, to unseat this text so agreed upon. We have no reason to doubt that God has providentially preserved His Word by handing it down through the people of God that used it. We should cherish the fact that God does desire for His sheep to hear His voice, and has given us His Word to make that possible. 

The alternative, as I have seen it and demonstrated on my blog, is not such a view. It is a view which says that we don’t know exactly what God spoke by the prophets and apostles – that we need to reconstruct a lost text which has evolved over time. It is a view which says that God didn’t desire to give us all of His Word, just enough of it to get by. It is a view which says that even if God did preserve His Word, we would have no way to know that we have it. It is an honest evaluation of what the Bible is, if we assume that the early, choice evidence preferred by the academy is the only way we have to determine what God’s Word is. Yet this makes perfect sense that such scholars would come to these conclusions, if we consider the limitations of evidence based critical methods. This article hopefully demonstrates that. If anything, God’s providential work in time has shown us that it is folly to try and reconstruct a text that never fell away. It seems, that the real text that has fallen away, is the one the scholars are trying to reconstruct. 

For more on the Providentially Preserved Text: https://youngtextlessreformed.com/2019/11/06/a-summary-of-the-confessional-text-position/

1 John 5:7 and Modern Criticism

Introduction

The Comma Johanneum (1 John 5:7) is a sticking point for many people when it comes to believing the claims of those who advocate for the Received Text of the Reformation, who say that the TR is the providentially preserved and vindicated text of Holy Scripture. More importantly, this variant, above all others, demonstrates the inconsistency of those who advocate against it. In the first place, there is manuscript evidence for it, three of these which match how it is printed in the Stephanus 1500 and the TBS Scrivener. That means that it has as much manuscript evidence support as let’s just say, the Gospel of Mark without 16:9-20. So it is clear that the axioms of modern textual criticism are not particularly concerned with counting noses when it comes to manuscripts, while the critics constantly appeal to this standard when attacking the authenticity of this passage, and many others. 

Typically, those who attack the authenticity of this reading appeal to the assumption that it was introduced from a Latin manuscript. This may seem compelling to some, but the Greek New Testament was translated into Latin and used in that vulgar language in the Western church leading up to the Reformation. So the great sin of a reading being found in the Latin tradition isn’t a world ending argument, since that Latin was translated from Greek. In fact, many modern versions appeal to the Latin often in the Old Testament. Since the reading is also found in Greek, it is just as reasonable to say that the reading was originally there, translated into Latin, and preserved in both Greek and Latin manuscripts. There is no doubt that variants were introduced early into 1 John, and not just chapter five, so if we consider the transmission history of 1 John as a whole, many of the arguments against 1 John 5:7 do not seem as potent. Like with any evidence based model in any discipline, the presuppositions with which evidence is approached is often more important than the evidence itself. This is the case with the passage at hand. The questions we have to ask ourselves as we approach this issue are: Which theory will we adopt to examine this variant? Will we take into account God’s providence in preserving His text, and acknowledge that the 16th century is a part of that? Or will we choose the teaching of the academy, that God did not preserve His Word because orthodox faith communities corrupted it?

An Age Old, Claim Reproduced in Modernity by Evangelicals

Now the claim of the Papists during the Reformation, and the modern scholars today, is that the Reformers/Humanists were quite fond of the Vulgate, and often “back-translated” from it into Greek. The reality is, and this should be evident to all who know their Reformation history, is that Erasmus and the humanist Reformers had no affinity for the Vulgate as it had developed in its own line of transmission. It is also helpful to note the distinction that is made between the Old Vulgate and the Vulgate as it existed during the time of the Renaissance. These men consulted the Latin tradition, but it is a strange disconnect to say that these men were fond of “back-translating” from the Latin. It is also peculiar that the claim is often made when the text of the Reformation disagrees with the preferred manuscripts of the academy.

An important piece of history is that Erasmus, along with the great orthodox divines said that the Vatican Codex (B) was influenced by Latin readings.


“Let them also be removed from the pretence, which carry their own convictions along with them that they are spurious, either,[…] Arise out of copies apparently corrupted, like that of Beza in Luke, and that in the Vatican boasted of by Huntley the Jesuit, which Lucas Brugensis affirms to have been changed by the Vulgar Latin, and which was written and corrected, as Erasmus says, about the [time of the] council of Florence, when an agreement was patched up between the Greeks and Latins; or, (10.) Are notoriously corrupted by the old heretics, as 1 John 5:7.”

(John Owen, The Works of John Owen, ed. William H. Goold, vol. 16 (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, n.d.), 366–367.)

This quote also demonstrates that the orthodox were also able to distinguish that different books of Scripture within a single manuscript had different transmission history, “Like that of Beza in Luke.” Considering that the academy takes Codex B (Vaticanus) as one of its flagship “earliest and best” manuscripts, it does not appear that manuscripts influenced by Latin readings disqualifies a reading upon that criteria alone. Common sense also tells us that a translation from the Greek had Greek support at one point. Pair this with the fact that modern scholars accept that late manuscripts can preserve older readings, and the inconsistency becomes apparent. Claims that Received Text advocates are “blind to evidence” simply means that Received Text advocates reject the analysis of the evidence by the academy. Again, evidence requires interpretation, and interpretation requires presuppositions.

That being said, can 1 John 5:7 be said to have been definitively introduced from the Latin, as though it were never found in a Greek manuscript? Can somebody produce the manuscript where this took place? Or is that simply a theory catered to the axioms of modern critical theory? Remember, the problem is not with Greek readings having Latin witnesses, the problem is if the reading was never in a Greek manuscript in the first place. I have yet to see a scholar actually produce a manuscript, or historical source from antiquity which demonstrates that this verse was added from the Latin. In fact, the sources from antiquity comment on the verse being corrupted, the academics simply write off that evidence as inauthentic. Notice that when scholars make this argument, they pad it heavily with “likely,” “supposedly,” etc. That is not exactly the most solid ground to be standing on, given that we are talking about God’s Word. This being the case, it would be rather foolish to say that this reading was absolutely introduced from the Latin, based on the evidence available. One might suppose that this was the case, but suppositions always have presuppositions.

Examining This Variant Theologically and Faithfully

It is honorable that evangelical textual scholars have managed to maintain their faith while choosing to live in the lion’s den. Unfortunately, sometimes living in the lion’s den requires you to start acting like a lion, if you don’t want to be eaten. The orthodox perspective of Scripture leaving the high orthodox period was that it had been “kept pure in all ages,” and while I believe the profession of the few textual scholars who claim to be evangelicals, their doctrinal statements often end up sounding a lot like those they claim to disagree with.

“If God preserved the original text intact, where is it? Why don’t we have it? – Bart Ehrman

Bart Ehrman

“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.” – Dan Wallace

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

The questions we should be asking to the scholars is, “Why are you debating, and agreeing with Bart Ehrman? Why are we putting the Scriptures on trial?” It seems reasonable to ask, that if we are unwilling to put God on trial, why we would put His Word on trial in front of the world. That being said, the argument against 1 John 5:7 is often presented as “factual.” In this case, factual simply means, “factual according to our analysis of the evidence.” Prior to even examining evidence, however, one first has to adopt the mindset that the Scriptures need to be criticized and questioned first. Remember, that the orthodox believed the Scriptures to be “pure in all ages,” not in need of reconstruction. The shift from preserved to reconstructed is a shift in the doctrine of the church. In order to arrive at a place where one would even question the authenticity of a given passage in Scripture, there are several important assumptions that must be made: 

  1. The narrative of preservation must be deconstructed and thrown out for the narrative that orthodox faith communities tampered with the text to reinforce orthodox doctrines
  2. The authorship of this verse in John must be questioned and reimagined, because there is no way John wrote that. A different source introduced this text.
  3. An attempt must be made to understand the community who introduced this text to better understand its place in the transmission history of the New Testament 

If we are looking for evidence, there are Greek manuscripts and versional evidence to support it, many ancient fathers use the exact wording of the phrase despite not quoting the whole thing together, and the first protestant orthodox divines used printed editions which included the passage. The problem people have with this passage is not properly evidence, it’s that people do not accept the evidence there is for its authenticity. Even more concerning, is that the grounds upon which people who discredit this passage are lock step with Bart Ehrman. Received Texts advocates are often critiqued for agreeing with Bart Ehrman on his conclusions on the text of the academy, but is it not worse to agree with him in his text critical methods that got him to those conclusions? If one agrees with Erhman in his text critical axioms, but disagrees with him in his conclusions, does it not stand to reason that my argument holds – that evidence requires interpretation? I choose to disagree with Erhman here in his methods.

Further, this verse is also included in the Patriarchal text of the Eastern Orthodox church, who has no affinity for the Latin or Western church. In addition to there being external evidence for this passage, there are solid internal grounds for this passage being authentic. If the reading truly was a Latin invention, we would expect the Greek to flow more easily from verse 6 to 8 without verse 7, and verse 7 to feel forced upon the text in its Greek translated form. Yet the opposite is true. R.L. Dabney and John Calvin recognize that the passage simply does not flow without verse 7 due to the requirements of the Greek grammar rules. Matthew Henry even notes that,

“That the edition depended upon some Greek authority, and not merely, as some would have us believe, upon the authority of the vulgar Latin or of Thomas Aquinas.”

(Matthew Henry’s Commentary on the Whole Bible. 1 John 5:7).

John Calvin notes that,

“The whole of this verse has been by some omitted. Jerome thinks that this happened through design rather than through mistake…Since however, the passage flows better when this clause is added, and I see that it is found in the best and approved copies, I am inclined to believe it as the true reading”

(John Calvin. Commentaries on the Catholic Epistles. 1 John 5:7).

What is the response to Calvin? “He was mistaken about the quality of the texts he had access to.” RL Dabney comments, 

“In 1 John 5:7,8 the Received Text presents us with two sorts or triads of witnesses, one in heaven, the other on earth, and asserts the unity of the first triad in one. In the revised Greek text underlying the modern versions all this is omitted, and all reference to a trinity is obliterated. The significant fact to which we would draw attention is that many of the variations proposed by modern scholars which have any doctrinal importance appear to undermine the doctrine of the Trinity, and particularly the doctrine of Christ’s deity. The various readings in the manuscripts and versions may be counted by hundred thousands, but the vast majority are insignificant. Among the few important various readings there are several that bear on this one doctrine–a doctrine which was keenly debated between orthodox believers and heretics just before the three most ancient existing copies were made.

The Sabellian and Arian controversies raged in the 3rd and 4th centuries and the copies now held in such high repute among scholars were written in the 4th and 5th centuries. The hostility of these documents to the Trinitarian doctrine impels the mind to the conclusion that their omissions and alterations are not merely the chance errors of transcribers, but the work of a deliberate hand. When we remember the date of the great Trinitarian contest in the Church, and compare it with the supposed date of these documents, our suspicion becomes much more pronounced. Did the party of Athanasius introduce spurious testimonies into the text to advance their Trinitarian doctrine, or did the party of Arius expunge authentic testimonies from copies of the sacred text in order to obscure the doctrine?

The so-called oldest codices agree with each other in omitting a number of striking testimonies to the divinity of Christ, and they also agree in other omissions relating to Gospel faith and practice. Was this because these ancient documents represent the views of copyists who regarded the Athanasian Trinitarians as corrupters, or can it be established that the omissions were deliberately made by the Arians to expunge the Scriptural evidence against their case?

All the critics vote against the authenticity of 1 John 5:7 but let us see whether the case is quite as clear as they would have it. The arguments in favour of its claim to genuineness carry a good degree of probability and this text is a good instance of the value of that internal evidence which recent critics profess to discard.” 

Dabney then carries on to demonstrate the grammatical necessity of the passage. 

1. The masculine article, numeral and participle HOI TREIS MARTUROUNTES, are made to agree directly with three neuters, an insuperable and very bald grammatical difficulty. If the disputed words are allowed to remain, they agree with two masculines and one neuter noun HO PATER, HO LOGOS, KAI TO HAGION PNEUMA and, according to the rule of syntax, the masculines among the group control the gender over a neuter connected with them. Then the occurrence of the masculines TREIS MARTUROUNTES in verse 8 agreeing with the neuters PNEUMA, HUDOR and HAIMA may be accounted for by the power of attraction, well known in Greek syntax.

2. If the disputed words are omitted, the 8th verse coming next to the 6th gives a very bald and awkward, and apparently meaningless repetition of the Spirit’s witness twice in immediate succession.

3. If the words are omitted, the concluding words at the end of verse 8 contain an unintelligible reference. The Greek words KAI HOI TREIS EIS TO HEN EISIN mean precisely–”and these three agree to that (aforesaid) One.” This rendering preserves the force of the definite article in this verse. Then what is “that One” to which “these three” are said to agree? If the 7th verse is omitted “that One” does not appear, and “that One” in verse 8, which designates One to whom the reader has already been introduced, has not antecedent presence in the passage. Let verse 7 stand, and all is clear, and the three earthly witnesses testify to that aforementioned unity which the Father, Word and Spirit constitute.

4. John has asserted in the previous 6 verses that faith is the bond of our spiritual life and victory over the world. This faith must have a solid warrant, and the truth of which faith must be assured is the Sonship and Divinity of Christ. See verses 5,11, 12, 20. The only faith that quickens the soul and overcomes the world is (verse 5) the belief that Jesus is God’s Son, that God has appointed Him our Life, and that this Life is true God. God’s warrant for this faith comes: FIRST in verse 6, in the words of the Holy Ghost speaking by inspired men; SECOND in verse 7, in the words of the Father, the Word and the Spirit, asserting and confirming by miracles the Sonship and unity of Christ with the Father.; THIRD in verse 8, in the work of the Holy Ghost applying the blood and water from Christ’s pierced side for our cleansing. FOURTH in verse 10, in the spiritual consciousness of the believer himself, certifying to him that he feels within a divine change.

 How harmonious is all this if we accept the 7th verse as genuine, but if we omit it the very keystone of the arch is wanting, and the crowning proof that the warrant of our faith is divine (verse 9) is struck out.

We must also consider the time and circumstances in which the passage was written. John tells his spiritual children that his object is to warn them against seducers (2.26), whose heresy was a denial of the proper Sonship and incarnation (4.2) of Jesus Christ. We know that these heretics were Corinthians and Nicolaitanes. Irenaeus and other early writers tell us that they all vitiated the doctrine of the Trinity. Cerinthus taught that Jesus was not miraculously born of a virgin, and that the Word, Christ, was not truly and eternally divine, but a sort of angelic “Aion” associated with the natural man Jesus up to his crucifixion. The Nicolaitanes denied that the “Aion” Christ had a real body, and ascribed to him only a phantasmal body and blood. It is against these errors that John is fortifying his “children” and this is the very point of the disputed 7th verse. If it stands, then the whole passage is framed to exclude both heresies. In verse 7 he refutes the Corinthian by declaring the unity of Father, Word and Spirit, and with the strictest accuracy employing the neuter HEN EISIN to fix the point which Cerinthus denied–the unity of the Three Persons in One common substance. He then refutes the Nicolaitanes by declaring the proper humanity of Jesus, and the actual shedding, and application by the Spirit, of that water and blood of which he testifies as on eyewitness in the Gospel–19.34,35.

We must also consider the time and circumstances in which the passage was written. John tells his spiritual “children” against “seducers” who taught error regarding the true divine Sonship of the Lord Jesus Christ and regarding His incarnation and true humanity, and when we further see John precisely expose these errors in verses 7 and 8 of Chapter 5, we are constrained to acknowledge that there is a coherency in the whole passage which presents strong internal evidence for the genuineness of the ‘Received Text’.” 

The only people I have seen stand against this grammatical argument are people who self-admittedly are rusty in Greek, or those that cannot count to twenty or order a sandwich in the language. Such “authorities” should be counted as those who speak without knowledge. You wouldn’t trust somebody who couldn’t watch and understand an episode of Spongebob in English to parse Shakespeare. It is an odd phenomenon, that modern Christians trust the exegesis and theological formulations of the great divines, and yet question their ability to understand the basics of Greek.

Conclusion

The point is this – those that attack the authenticity of this passage do so first by following the footsteps of those deemed “heretics” by the Reformed, and do so again by adopting the critical principles of the academy. The passage fits grammatically, theologically, and has manuscript evidence and even patristic sources that allude to the exact wording of it. Jerome and Nazianzus comment on it, and the critiques of these comments are as you’d expect from a critic – questioning the authenticity of the source. The theological giants of the past, who knew Greek well enough to carry on a discourse in the language agree that the passage flows better with it included. 

The plain reality is that you have to be trying to find a problem with the Protestant Scriptures to even begin having this conversation. There are evidential cases on both sides that can be made, but ultimately the method of approach is what actually matters. Further, the standard of scrutiny leveled against this passage is carefully ignored when applied to other manuscripts and readings of the academy. What reason would a person have to attack the authenticity of a passage that occurs in Greek manuscripts, fits the theological context, flow, and grammar of the passage, and affirms one of the most central orthodox doctrines in Scripture? Christians have been taught to believe that it is their job to scrutinize Scripture, and that it is even honorable to do so.

Even more confusing is that the same people who are certain that this passage is not authentic cannot and will not even affirm any one manuscript, version, or printed text as being exact to the original. If the task of the church today is to reconstruct the lost text of Holy Scripture, joining the enemies of the faith in attacking passages received by the people of God for centuries is a strange way to approach the issue. Even more interesting is how often the standard for each verse is carefully shifted around according to the vogue critical theory of today. It is important to remember that the Comma Johanneum was seated at 1 John 5:7 until evangelical textual critics began deconstructing the Scriptures based on theories that haven’t succeeded in giving the people of God a stable text. It is also important to mention that the theory of Hort, which dominated the 20th century, has been utterly refuted, and the current method is under great scrutiny by the academy. The academy is divided among itself, and the leading voices such as DC Parker, Eldon Epp, and Bart Ehrman have their hand in just about everything that goes on in the text critical world. If you want somebody to blame for Bart Ehrman and others like him having such an influence on evangelical text criticism, look at the evangelicals who let them in the door.

So, the real question is: Can it be proved that the passage came in from the Latin? Can somebody pinpoint an exact date or manuscript? If not, what is the purpose for questioning the source of the verse? Can it be proved that the original autograph went from verse 6 to 8? Did an angel come down to one of these scholars and command them to strike verse 7 from the record? Does it contradict the rest of the teaching of Scripture? Does it teach something unorthodox? Did heretics defend the passage historically? Does it interrupt the thought of the apostle as he was carried along by the Spirit? Do we gain anything by removing this passage?

Or does the passage being removed align with the critical theory of the academy? That the New Testament has been lost and needs to be reconstructed; That orthodox scribes of the Christian faith communities added words, pericopes, and phrases to bolster their doctrine; That the people of God are eagerly waiting for the text-critical heroes to restore God’s Word for Him; That we will never actually know exactly what the prophets and apostles wrote; That God never intended to preserve His Word for His people? I know, it sounds absurd when you lay it out on the table like that, but these are the theories that drive the textual decisions of scholars. But I do not appeal to them, I appeal to the church, who read their Bible to hear their Shepherd’s voice. Take a step back and consider carefully the theories you have to adopt to begin removing verses from the established Protestant canon. Do you know for certain that a passage should be removed? Does the text of Holy Scripture not get the same luxury granted to a murderer in the court of law, or is it the case that the Scriptures are corrupt until proven pure?

At some point, we have to look past the well mannered academics and hit the brakes on this train. That train, dear church, is headed fast down a road that we do not want to be on. Stand fast on the text passed down from the previous era, the text that the great divines stood upon and defended, whose shoulders we stand upon. This is the Holy Scriptures we are talking about here, and we are to approach them with faith, not skepticism.

See Dr. Riddle’s response to the same topic here: Podcast || Article

The Consequences of Rejecting Material Preservation

Introduction

Since the late 20th century, the doctrine of Scripture has been reformulated to say several things, most explicitly in the Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy. The Chicago Statement articulates several things about the doctrine and nature of Scripture : 

  1. The original manuscripts (autographs) of the New Testament were without error
  2. The Scriptures as we have them now can be discerned to be original with great accuracy, but not without error
  3. The Scriptures as we have them now are without error in what they teach (sense), but not without error in the words (matter)

Within this modern formulation, there are also rules which anticipate certain critiques: 

  1. The Bible is not a witness to divine revelation
  2. The Bible does not derive its authority from church, tradition, or human source
  3. Inerrancy is not affected by lack of autographic texts

While this statement affirms many important things, it has a major flaw, which has resulted in many modern errors today. This is due to the fact that the Chicago Statement denies that the material of the New Testament has been preserved in the copies (apographs). This is a new development from the historical Protestant doctrine of Scripture, which affirms that God had providentially kept the material “pure in all ages.” The original texts in the possession of our great fathers in the faith were considered as the autographs.

“By the original texts, we do not mean the autographs written by the hand of Moses, of the prophets and of the apostles, which certainly do not now exist. We mean their apographs which are so called because they set forth to us the word of God in the very words of those who wrote under the immediate inspiration of the Holy Spirit”

(Francis Turretin, Institutes of Elenctic Theology, Vol. I, 106). 

This modern update is an attempt to resolve the issues of higher criticism and neo-orthodoxy which were introduced after the time of the Reformers and High Orthodox. While the statement itself affirms against these errors, it does not explain how a text can retain its infallibility and inerrancy while the material has not been preserved. Perhaps at the time, the assumption that the material was preserved to the degree of “great accuracy” was enough to give the people of God great confidence in the Word of God. The error of this formulation is that the mechanism which determines such accuracy is completely authoritative in determining which of the extant material is “accurate” to the original. This seemingly contradicts the doctrinal formulation within the Chicago Statement itself, though I imagine that the reach of textual scholars into the church was not then what it is now.

Infallibility, Inerrancy, and Greatly Accurate Texts

The contradiction of the Chicago Statement is that it affirms against human mechanisms of bestowing the Scripture authority, while itself being founded entirely upon these human mechanisms. In the modern formulation of the doctrine of Scripture, it assumes that the extant material is “greatly accurate” as it relates to the lost original. This level of accuracy, according to this formulation, is enough to know that the material is without error in what it teaches. The problem with this is in how we determine that level of accuracy. Since “great accuracy” is a vague metric, it allows for the amount of material that is considered “accurate” to fluctuate with the methods that determine that level of accuracy. It assumes that any change made by this mechanism cannot possibly change what that material teaches. That means that no matter the material shape of the text, it should be considered inerrant, because changes to the material shape “do not effect doctrine.”

Yet the very mechanism entrusted with this task has no ability to determine that the material it has produced represents what the original said, so the evaluation of “great accuracy” is not only vague, it is arbitrary. There is no meaningful standard to measure the material against to even determine how accurate it is, so any descriptions produced of that level of accuracy is based purely on the assumption that the texts produced by the chosen mechanism are as accurate as advertised. That is to say that the mechanism itself has the sole power of determining accuracy and yes, the authority of such a text. When this mechanism deems a passage, or verse, as not being accurate to the original, pastors simply do not preach that text any longer, and laypeople no longer read it. There are countless examples of the people of God appealing to this mechanism as the mechanism which gives the Scriptures authority. 

This is evident whenever a textual dispute arises in the text. All it takes is one manuscript to introduce such a dispute. What happens when such a dispute occurs? Christians appeal to the authority of the mechanism. In its very axioms, the Chicago Statement forces the people of God to submit to an external authority to validate the canonicity of a passage. Since it rejects magisterial, historical critical, and neo-orthodox models (rightly so), the only model acceptable to “authorize” a text by the modern doctrine of Scripture is lower criticism (not rightly so). Now, if lower criticism is defined simply as a process of comparing manuscripts to determine the original, this is not necessarily a problem. Many manuscripts were created by comparing multiple sources. So in that sense, lower-criticism has been practiced by the Christian church since the first time a copy of the Scriptures was made using multiple exemplar manuscripts. 

The problem occurs when that lower-critical function extends beyond the simple definition. The lower-critical mechanism elected by the modern doctrine of Scripture has reached far beyond such a definition. Rather than being a function which receives the original by comparison, it is a function which assumes that it is responsible for reconstructing a lost text. Further, that same mechanism not only assumes it is responsible for reconstructing, it is responsible for determining how the material was corrupted by reconstructing the history of the text. In other words, asserting its authority over the transmission of the text itself.

According to this mechanism, the Scripture did not come down to us safely, it actually developed away from its original form. The narrative of preservation from the Reformed and High Orthodox needed to be deconstructed so that another narrative could be developed. The sources of this material needed to be re-examined because there is no way that Mark, or John, or Paul wrote what the church thought they did. The text did not come down pure, it came down both textually and from tradition, and some of those pericopes made it into the Biblical text.  Textual variants, most commonly arose from scribal errors, but sometimes speak to the story of the religious communities who were trying to defend the orthodox structure of the Christian faith as it had developed in the traditions of the church. All of these are functions of the text-critical system that determines the “great accuracy” set forth by modern doctrinal statements. It is hard to responsibly say that this is a “lower” critical function. 

Practical Implications to Doctrine

The obvious issue here is that the foundation mechanism of the modern doctrinal statements are not restrained by the doctrinal statement itself. The most clear example of this is that the methods used to determine the “great accuracy” of the extant material as it relates to the original, do not even need to assume that an original ever existed in any meaningful way. This is plainly evidenced by the textual scholar DC Parker, who is the team lead for the Gospel of John in the ECM.   

“The New Testament is a collection of books which has come into being as a result of technological developments and the new ideas which both prompted and were inspired by them”

(Parker, Textual Scholarship and the Making of the New Testament, 3) 

 “We can all applaud when Bowers says that ‘we have no means of knowing what ideal form of a play took in Shakespeare’s mind before he wrote it down’, simply substituting gospel or epistle for play and St John or St Paul for Shakespeare”

(Ibid. 8)

 “The New Testament is – and always has been – the result of a fusion of technology of whatever kind is in vogue and its accompanying theory. The theological concept of a canon of authoritative texts comes after”

(Ibid. 12)

Even if evangelical scholars, pastors, and professors do not agree with DC Parker here in his words, they submit to his theology in practice. The texts which modern Bibles are built on are created according to various critical principles, and then the church theologizes them and calls them authoritative after the fact. Christians work with what they have, and what they have is susceptible to change based on models that do not recognize inspiration, preservation, or the Holy Spirit. Many scholars, pastors, professors, apologists, and even lay people then take that product and make individual determinations on that produced text as to its accuracy to the original. That means that the process of determining the text that is “greatly accurate” has gone through a three-form authentication before even being read. First, it is authenticated by the textual scholars and then printed using their preferred methods. Then it is authenticated by a translation committee, who makes determinations upon those determinations based on their preferred methods which may differ from the determinations of the previous committee. Then it is authenticated by the user of that text, who makes determinations based on their preferred methods, which may be different from the both of the previous two committees! 

This of course is necessary in a model which rejects material preservation and exposure of that material in its axioms. Some other mechanism must be introduced to give the text authority. This being the case, it is rather interesting that the modern articulation of the doctrine of Scripture rejects other mechanisms that bestow the text authority. What is wrong with a magisterium – that it is a function of the church? What is wrong with neo-orthodoxy? A similar process is taking place in the “lower-criticism” of the textual scholars, the simple difference is that it is approved by the people of God who use the product of that mechanism!  

Conclusion

The necessary practical conclusion of the modern articulation of the doctrine of Scripture is that Christians must place their trust in some other mechanism to give the Scriptures authority. These doctrinal statements rely upon the “great accuracy” of the text, so they necessarily rely upon the mechanisms that deem various texts “greatly accurate.” Since this modern doctrine says that God has not materially preserved His Word, a void is created that needs to be filled. There needs to be some mechanism that can determine the level of accuracy of the text that we do have left. The modern church has largely chosen “lower-criticism” as it is employed by those that create Greek texts and translations. Some have chosen neo-orthodoxy. Others have flocked to the Roman or Eastern magisterium.

The fruit of this doctrinal articulation is evident. Verses that were once considered “greatly accurate” to the original are now being called into question daily by Christians everywhere. Passages that have always enjoyed a comfy place in the English canon are ejected by whatever textual theory is in vogue. What is considered “greatly accurate” today may just as easily be considered a scribal interpolation tomorrow. Passages in John that have never been called into question may be discovered to contain “non-Johannine” vocabulary tomorrow based on the opinion of an up and coming scholar. A manuscript may be discovered that alters the form of the text in a number of places. All it takes is one early manuscript to unsettle the whole of Scripture, as we have seen with Codex B. 

Think of it this way. If you read a passage as authoritative five years ago, and no longer consider that passage as “greatly accurate” to the original, what changed? Can you point to a newly discovered manuscript that changed your mind? Was it your doctrine? Was it the opinion of a scholar or pastor or apologist you listen to? These are important questions to answer. When I went through my own textual crisis, I realized that I was the final judge over the text of Scripture. If an early manuscript emerged without John 3:16 in it, I would have thrown it out, especially if that was the opinion of my favorite scholar. I was pricked in my conscience that I had adopted such a frivolous approach to the Holy Scriptures, and it did not take long for me to seek out other doctrinal positions on the text. 

The mechanism that is most consistent, and approved by the Scriptures themselves, is God Himself. I asked myself, “what did God actually do in time to preserve His Word?” If the text did not fall away, certainly I could look around and see that to be the case. I found that there was indeed a textual position which affirmed this reality, and a text that had been vindicated in time. A text that the people of God used during the greatest Christian revival in history. The same text that was used to develop all of the doctrines I hold to. The same text which survived successfully against the Papist arguments that are not much different to the ones used today. So why would I abandon that text, and the theology of the men who used it? Adopting the critical text is not a matter of adherence to a “greatly accurate” text, it is a matter of departure from the historical text. The question of “which text should I use?” is quite simple, actually. The answer is: The text that God used in history and vindicated by His providence in time. The text that united the church, not divided it. The text that the majority of Bible readers still use today. I praise God for the Received Text, and the all of the faithful translations made from it. 

Before you ask, “What makes those readings vindicated?” Think to yourself which methods you are going to use to evaluate those readings. Do they involve deconstructing the narrative that God kept His Word pure in all ages? Do they include the belief that faith communities corrupted the text over time and introduced beloved pericopes from tradition? Do they rest upon the theory that Codex B represents the “earliest and best” text? If so, I would appeal to the Chicago Statement, which says, “We deny the legitimacy of any treatment of the text or quest for sources lying behind it that leads to relativizing, dehistoricizing, or discounting its teaching, or rejecting its claims to authorship”

Is the Reconstructionist Effort Justified?

Introduction 

It has been about 140 years since the reconstruction efforts began on the text of the New Testament, if we use 1881, the year Westcott and Hort’s new Greek text was published as a starting point. The Traditional Text of Scripture had been well under attack before that point, but this was the first successful effort to unseat it. Since then, scholars have tried their hand testing many theories, all of which have proved completely unproductive. At some point, Christians need to seriously stop and question if this effort is justified now, or was ever justified. See, going into the 19the century, the church had a text. It was the text that sparked the Reformation. It was the text that was used during the high orthodox period. It was the text of the Great Awakening. All of the Reformed confessional standards from the 17th century appeal to this text as the pure and preserved text. 

For just a minute, let’s step into the world of business and apply a lower standard to the text of Holy Scripture than what the church gives lip service to. If you were a financier, and were in charge of funding a construction project, what sort of progress would you expect? At what point would you pull funding? How many years would you give the effort? How many failed attempts would you allow? What level of accountability would you hold the construction manager to? If every five years the construction manager came to you and said, “We made a mistake laying the foundation, we have to start again,” would that make you question the construction team’s methods? This is the case for the textual reconstruction effort, except Christians, instead of holding the scholars to basic standards, they have adopted the incomplete work of the reconstructionist scholars, and have even become apologists for it. They have even convinced themselves that this building is the only way buildings should be built, and that anybody living in a completed structure that hasn’t wavered for 400 years is actually foolish. Let’s stop pretending  for a minute, that Christians hold textual scholars to any sort of meaningful standard. If these scholars were held to a basic secular standard, they’d be out of jobs. 

Further, how would you feel if the people responsible for the construction project did not believe they had all of the materials to erect the structure, did not believe they could even erect the structure, and had not yet succeeded in erecting the structure? Who in their right might would continue hoping, defending, and financing this construction team? Even from a secular standard, that is absurd. Why is it the case that after 140 years, with all of this alleged “new and better” data, scholars still cannot seem to give the church a final product?

Assessing the Materials 

The earliest and best manuscripts are often appealed to in text-criticism discussions. Yet this tagline really deserves a second look. First, these manuscripts are not the earliest, just the earliest that we have today. The earliest complete New Testament manuscript is from the fourth century. The Bible was written in the first century. Therefore, the statement “Earliest and best” is already misleading. Second, these manuscripts are not the best by any reasonable standard. They disagree more than they agree, some are even paraphrastic like Codex D and P45, and they frequently disagree with the vast majority of our extant Greek manuscripts. The manuscripts labeled “earliest and best” are more appropriately titled “earliest extant.” Further, these manuscripts have no pedigree. We do not know who penned them in most cases, and the places where they do depart from the mainstream textual tradition are often conveniently in places which directly target major Christological doctrines. If we are going to call something “best,” we should at least be willing to develop and apply a consistent qualitative standard to them. Scholars like Dr. John Burgon did this extensively in the 19th century. Even when the genealogical method, which is preferred by modern scholars, is applied to these manuscripts, they differ to such a degree that they are not considered a textual family. They stand in no continuous text tradition handed down by the church. These manuscripts should have never even been considered as an option as a textual foundation, and yet almost every modern Bible uses them as such. It would be like laying the foundation of a building with different types and sizes of wood and expecting that building to withstand a storm. These manuscripts should have never been more than the muse of the secular academy, and yet the church has wholeheartedly bought into them. 

So what do we say to these manuscripts, that are of no particular quality worth mentioning, which we do not know where they came from or who used them, and which disagree with the mainstream text in a multitude of places? We reject them. When Codex B is collated against the Traditional Text, at least 2,877 words have been removed from just the Gospels alone. 3,455 words removed from Sinaiticus, and 3,704 from what we have of Codex D (The Revision Revised, 75). It is high time that the church sets aside the well intentioned words of scholars which say that, “They are essentially the same text.” How can two texts be “essentially the same” when they differ in thousands of places? How exactly is the word “essentially” being defined here?  With Burgon we must say, “Will the English church suffer herself to be in this way defrauded of her priceless inheritance, – through the irreverent bungling of well-intentioned, but misguided men?” Will we stand around as, “these eminent Divines undertake to decide which shall be deemed the genuine utterances of the Holy Ghost? – which not?”

Let us conclude with Burgon, “Now, in the present instance, the ‘five old uncials’ cannot be the depositories of a tradition, whether Western or Eastern, – because they render inconsistent testimony in every verse. It must be further admitted (for this is not really a question of opinion, but a plain matter of fact,) that it is unreasonable to place confidence in such documents. What would be thought of in a court of law of five witnesses, called up 47 times for examination, who should be observed to bear contradictory testimony every time?” (31). If we wouldn’t trust building materials of such quality, and we wouldn’t trust the testimony of such witnesses in court, why do we continue to trust such manuscripts as the basis for the Holy Scriptures? No amount of extant Papyri can resolve the inconsistencies within these uncial manuscripts the church has placed her trust in. 

Returning to a Reasonable Position 

It is not traditionalism, or fundamentalism, to reject manuscripts of such low quality. It is not “sacrificing truth for comfort” to look at the last 140 years of Reconstructionist text-criticism and reject it. At this point in history, it is actually illogical to continue hoping in an effort that has not succeeded. If we are to consider God’s providence at all, a plain story can be told about the fruit of each text. One text, the Traditional Text, was defended against the Papists and other heretical movements, and led to the largest Christian revival in the whole of human history. The other text, the Critical Text, based on mostly just two manuscripts of low quality, is adopted and even created by the Papists and cults, and has led to conservative scholars rejecting preservation and adopting and applying the evolutionary theories of the academy. It has led to hundreds of translations, none of which are considered complete or correct. It is anti-Berean to look at the fruit of such an effort, the text of such an effort, and the Theological statements of the men conducting the work, and to say, “Everything is fine.”

I exhort you, Christian, to stop defending a building that cannot stand, that has proven itself unstable. If you’re looking for evidence, look at the fact that the modern text is changing, and will continue to change. That alone is enough to cast doubt on the reconstructionist model. If the manuscripts are of such quality that they should unseat the Traditional Text, why can they not be used to create a stable text? Why don’t the scholars themselves have confidence in them? I encourage you to investigate the theories and theological standards which have produced the modern Greek texts. Are you comfortable aligning with the theological position that says we do not have now, and probably never will have, the text of the Apostles? Investigate the claims of “fundamentalism” and “traditionalism” and see that they are simply smokescreens to distract from the reality that the modern methodology has not produced a text. 

Look at the character attacks and storytelling on Erasmus and see them for what they are, a distraction. Look at the pedantic presentations of critical text apologists that are aimed almost exclusively at the character, credentials, and even age of those who defend the Traditional Text. Study the polemics of the Papists against Beza and see that their arguments are often the same exact arguments employed against the Traditional Text by Reconstructionist text-criticism apologists. If you are hoping that the direction of the modern text is going to slow down, it is not. There will never be a final product, and your modern Bible will continue changing. Compare that with your theology of Scripture and “prove all things.” The reconstruction of the New Testament was never justified, and never necessary, because the Word of God was never lost. It never needed reconstructing, and the fruit of such a reconstruction has shown the folly of ever thinking that that was the case.  

If you want proof of the low quality of the earliest extant texts, look at the doctrinal statements made by those who know them best. Start with the Chicago Statement and see that the only thing that modern theology will defend is the inerrancy of the non-existent autographs. If the earliest manuscripts are our only shot at having a New Testament, then by their own words, we will never know exactly what the New Testament said. By their own testimony, the Bible doesn’t teach that the Scripture would be preserved perfectly. By their own admission, God never desired to preserve His Word perfectly. Is that the stand that the 21st century church wants to take? That the Bible has not been kept pure in all ages? At least they are being consistent. These doctrinal positions are the logical conclusion, if the quality of the earliest texts are considered “best.” 

Conclusion

The reconstructionist effort began with deception. The Revisionists in the 19th century created a new text when they were only authorized to make a small amount of revisions to the AV. They made changes they were not authorized to make, created a Greek text that they were not authorized to create, and justified it by a theory that has been so thoroughly debunked the whole effort should be questioned. If the earliest extant manuscripts aren’t the best, then the reconstruction effort should have never been considered. The only reason it took place initially was due to breaking the rules set for the revision. Further, the foundational theological premise of the continued use of such a “revised” text is that God has not kept His Word pure in all ages. It requires the belief that certain parts of God’s Word have fallen away. It requires the use of theoretical genealogical models which are demonstrably arbitrary to produce a text. It requires that the church adjust their view of Inspiration and Preservation to changing theories that are constantly falling in and out of vogue. If the modern critical text doesn’t affect doctrine, why does doctrine change as the modern text changes? 

The reconstructionist effort should be rejected. Not because the scholars are mean, or malicious, or have poor intentions, but because the effort itself is not justified. The materials being used are not of proper quality or quantity. The methods used are theoretical and devoid of spiritual quality. The product of the effort speaks for itself. The fruit has grown and fallen off the tree. Christians must rally around a stable text if it wants a stable church. Dear Christian, receive your inheritance that the great fathers of our faith fought for. Doubt not that God has preserved His Word, and stop defending theological frameworks that insist that He hasn’t. Have confidence in the Word of God, and God Himself in His ability to prevent His Word from falling away. 

 “The words of the Lord are pure words: As silver tried in a furnace of earth, purified seven times. Thou shalt keep them O LORD, Thou shalt preserve them from this generation for ever.” (Ps. 12:6-7)

Inspiration: Now and Then

Introduction

Today’s church has been flooded with new ideas that depart from the old paths of the Protestant Reformation. This is especially true when it comes to the doctrine of Scripture. It is common place to adhere to the doctrine of inerrancy in today’s conservative circles and beyond. While it is good that many Christians take some sort of stand on Scripture, it is important to investigate whether or not the doctrine of inerrancy is a Protestant doctrine. The Reformers were adamant when talking about the inspiration, authority, and preservation of Scripture that every last word had been kept pure and should be used for doctrine, preaching, and practice. James Ussher says clearly the common sentiment of the Reformed.

“The marvelous preservation of the Scriptures; though none in time be so ancient, nor none so much oppugned, yet God hath still by his providence preserved them, and every part of them.”

(James Ussher, A Body of Divinity)

Most Christians would happily affirm this doctrinal statement. Those that are more familiar with the discussion of textual criticism may not, however. It is common to dismiss men like James Ussher along with other Westminster Divines on the grounds that they were not aware of all of the textual data and therefore were speaking from ignorance. Much to the discomfort of these Christians, textual variants did exist during this time, many of which were the same we battle over today. The conclusion that should be drawn from this reality is not that the Reformed in the 16th and 17th centuries would have agreed with modern expressions of inspiration and preservation simply because we have “more data”. There is a careful nuance to be observed, and that nuance is in their actual doctrinal articulations of Scripture. This is necessarily the case, considering they were far more aware of textual variants than many would like to admit. Rather than attempting to understand the tension between the Reformed doctrine of Scripture and the existence of textual variants, it is commonplace to reinterpret the past through the lens of A.A. Hodge and B.B. Warfield, who reinterpreted the Westminster Confession of Faith 1.6 to make room for new trends in textual scholarship. William T. Shedd, a professor at Union Theological Seminary in  the 19th century and premier systematic theologian articulated the view of Hodge and Warfield well regarding the confessional statement, “Kept pure in all ages”.  He writes,

“This latter process is not supernatural and preclusive of all error, but providential and natural and allowing of some error. But this substantial reproduction, this relative ‘purity’ of the original text as copied, is sufficient for the Divine purposes in carrying forward the work of redemption in the world” . 

William G. T. Shedd, Calvinism: Pure and Mixed. A Defense of the Westminster Standards, 142.

While this is close to the Reformed in the 16th and 17th centuries at face value, it still is a departure that ends up being quite significant, especially in light of the direction modern textual criticism has taken in the last ten years. For comparison, Francis Turretin articulates a similar thought in a different way.



“By the original texts, we do not mean the autographs written by the hand of Moses, of the prophets and of the apostles, which certainly do not now exist. We mean their apographs which are so called because they set forth to us the word of God in the very words of those who wrote under the immediate inspiration of the Holy Spirit”. 

Francis Turretin, Institutes of Elenctic Theology, Vol. I, 106.

It is plainly evident that the two articulations of the same concept are not exactly the same. That is to say, that Turretin’s expression of the doctrine was slightly more conservative than Shedd. The difference being that the apographs, as Turretin understood them, were materially as perfect as the Divine Original. Turretin dealt at length with textual corruptions, as did his peers and those that followed after him, such as Puritan Divine John Owen, and still affirmed that the “very words” were available to the church. In order to fit a modern view into the Reformation and Post Reformation theologians, one must anachronistically impose a Warfieldian interpretation of the Westminster Confession onto those that framed it. There is no doubt that the Westminster Divines lived in the same reality of textual variants as Warfield and Hodge, and that they still affirmed a doctrine which said every jot and tittle had been preserved. Turretin and Warfield faced the same dilemma, yet Warfield secluded inspiration to only the autographs, whereas the Reformed included the apographs as well. Rather than attempting to reinterpret the theologians of the past, the goal should be to understand their doctrine as it existed during the 16th and 17th centuries, where the conversation of textual variants was just as alive as it is today.

A Careful Nuance

In order to examine the difference between the doctrine of Scripture from the Reformation to today, it’s important to zoom out and see how Warfield’s doctrine developed into the 21st century. The Doctrine of Inspiration, as it is articulated today, only extends to the autographic writings of the New Testament. I will appeal to David Naselli’s explanation from his textbook, How to Understand and Apply the New Testament, which has received high praise from nearly every major seminary. 

“The Bible’s inerrancy does not mean that copies of the original writings or translations of those copies are inerrant. Copies and translations are inerrant only to the extent that they accurately represent the original writings.” 

David Naseli. How to Understand and Apply the New Testament. 43.

This statement is generally agreeable, if we assume that there is a stable Bible in hand, and a stable set of manuscripts or a printed edition which is viewed as “original.” Unfortunately, neither of these exist in the world of the modern critical text. Not only do we not have the original manuscripts, there is no finished product that could be compared to the original. Since the effort of reconstructing the Initial Text is still ongoing, and since we do not have the original manuscripts, this doctrinal statement made by Naselli does not articulate a meaningful doctrine of inspiration or preservation. In stating what appears to be a solid doctrinal statement, he has said nothing at all. In order for this doctrine to have significant meaning, a text that “represents the original writings” would need to be produced. That is why the Reformed in the 16th and 17th centuries were so adamant about their confidence in having the original in hand. In order for any doctrine of Scripture to make sense, the Scriptures could not have fallen away after the originals were destroyed or lost. Doctrinally speaking, the articulation of the doctrine of Scripture demonstrated by Turretin and his contemporaries is necessary because it affirms that God providentially preserved the Scriptures in time and that they had access to those very Scriptures. If the modern critical text claimed to be a definitive text, like the Reformed claimed to have, the modern articulation of the doctrine of Scripture might be sound, but there is no modern critical text that exists as a solid ands table object. It is clear that the doctrine of Scripture, and the form of the Scriptures, cannot be separated or the meaning of that doctrine is lost. In order for doctrine to be built on a text, the text must be static. If we are to say that the Bible is inerrant in so far as it represents the original, there must be a 1) a stable text and 2) an original to compare that text against. Due to neither 1 or 2 being true, Naselli, along with everybody that agrees with him, have effectively set forth a meaningless doctrinal standard as it pertains to Scripture.  

This means that the Reformed doctrine of Scripture is intimately tied to the text they considered to be authentic, inspired, and representative of the Divine Original. The text they had in hand was what is now called the Received Text. Whether it was simply a “default” text does not change the reality that it was the text these men of God had in their hands. It is abundantly clear that the doctrine of Scripture during the time of the Reformation and Post-Reformation was built on the TR, just like the modern doctrine of Scripture is built on the modern critical text and the assumptions used to create it. Further problems arise with the modern doctrine of Scripture when the effort of textual scholarship shifted from trying to find the original text to the initial text. Due to this shift, any articulation of Scripture which looks to the modern critical text is based on a concept that does not necessarily exist in modern textual scholarship. The concept of the “original” has moved from the sight of the editorial teams of Greek New Testaments, therefore it is necessary to conclude that such doctrinal statements which rely on outdated goals to find the “original” must also be redefined. What this means practically is that there are not any doctrinal statements that exist in the modern church which align with the doctrines used to produce modern Bibles.

Due to the doctrine of Scripture being intimately tied to the nature of the text it is describing, the various passages of the New Testament which have been considered inspired have changed throughout time, and are going to continue changing as the conclusions of scholars vary from year to year. If we take Naselli’s articulation of the doctrine of Scripture as true, this means that there is not one inerrant text of Holy Scripture, there are as many as there are Christians that read their Bible. So in a very real sense, according to the modern articulation of inspiration, the inspired text of the New Testament is not a stable rule of faith. It is only stable relative to crowd consensus, or perhaps at the individual level. A countless multitude of people who adhere to this doctrine of inspiration make individual rulings on Scripture, which effectively means that the Bible is given its authority by virtue of the person making those decisions. Thus, the number of Bibles which may be considered “original” is as numerous as the amount of people reading Bibles. It is due to this reality that the modern doctrine of Scripture has departed from the Reformation era doctrine in at least two ways. The first is that by “original”, the post-Warfield doctrine means the autographs which no longer exist and excludes the apographs. The second is that the Bible is only authoritative insofar as it has been judged authoritative by some standard or another. This combination contradicts any doctrine that would have the Scriptures be a stable rule for faith and practice. It is because of these differences that it can be safely said that while the doctrinal articulations may sound similar, they are not remotely the same.  

The Reformed doctrine of Scripture in the 16th and 17th centuries is founded upon two principles that are different than that in the post-Warfield era. The first principle of the Reformed is that the Scriptures are self-authenticating, and the second is that they considered the original to also be represented and preserved in the text they had in hand. Therefore it seems necessary to understand the Reformation and Post-Reformation Divines through a different lens than the modern perspective, because the two camps are saying entirely different things. A greater effort should be made to understand what exactly the Reformed meant by “Every word and letter” in relationship to the text they had in hand, rather than impose the modern doctrine upon the Reformation and Post-Reformation divines.   

Conclusion

The goal of this conversation should be to instill confidence in people that the Bible they are reading is indeed God’s inspired Word. Often times it is more about winning debates and being right than actually given confidence to Christians that what they have in their hands can be trusted. It is counter productive for Christians to continue to fight over textual variants in the way that they do, especially considering the paper thin modern articulations of the doctrine of Scripture. It is stated by some that receiving the Reformation Era Bible is “dangerous”, yet I think what is more dangerous is to convince somebody that they should not trust this Bible, which is exactly what happens when somebody takes the time to actually explain the nuances of modern textual criticism. These attacks are especially harmful when the Bible that is attacked is the one that the Protestant religion was founded upon, and the only text that carries with it a meaningful doctrine of Scripture. Christians need to consider very carefully the claims that are made about the Reformation era text which say it is not God’s Word, or that it is even dangerous to use. I cannot emphasize enough the harm this argument has done  to the Christian religion as a whole. The constant effort to “disprove” the Reformation era text is a strange effort indeed, especially if “no doctrines are effected”. The alternative, which has been a work in progress since before 1881, and is still a work in progress today, offers no assurance that Christians are actually reading the Bible. In making the case that the Received text and translations made from it should not be used, critics have taken one Bible away and replaced it with nothing but uncertainty.  

The claim made by advocates of the Received text is simple, and certainly not dangerous. The manuscripts that the Reformed had in the 16th century were as they claimed – of great antiquity and highest quality. The work done in that time resulted in a finished product, which continued to be used for hundreds of years after. That Bible in its various translations quite literally changed the world. If the Bible of the 16-18th centuries is so bad, I cannot understand why people who believe it to be a gross corruption of God’s Word still continue to read the theological works of those who used it. Further, it is difficult to comprehend how a Bible that is said to accomplish the same purpose as modern bibles would be so viscously attacked by those that oppose it. If all solid translations accomplish the same redemptive purpose, according to the modern critical doctrine, why would it make any sense to attack it? After spending 10 years reading modern Bibles, I simply do not see the validity to the claim that the Reformation era text is “dangerous” in any way. Christians do not need to “beware” of the text used by the beloved theologians of the past. At the end of the day, I think it is profitable for Christians to know that traditional Bibles are not scary, and have been used for centuries to produce the fullest expression of Christian doctrine in the history of the world. When the two doctrinal positions are compared, there is not a strong appeal to the axioms of Westcott and Hort, or Metzger, or even the CBGM. They are all founded on the vacuous doctrine of Scripture which requires that the current text be validated against the original, which cannot be done. There is no theological or practical value in constantly changing the words printed in our Bibles, and this practice is in fact detrimental to any meaningful articulation of what Scripture is. I have not once talked to anybody who has been given more confidence in the Word of God by this practice. In fact, the opposite is true in every real life encounter I’ve had.

It is said that the Received Text position is “pious” and “sanctimonious”, but I just don’t see how a changing Bible, with changing doctrines, is even something that a conservative Christian would seriously consider. If Christians desire a meaningful doctrine of Scripture, the modern critical text and its axioms are incapable of producing it.