Arguing Textual Criticism on Facebook. What Have I Become?
I won’t argue textual criticism with those who insist on the exclusive use of the King James Version. But that doesn’t mean I won’t argue textual criticism. Here’s the tack I’m taking nowadays, something I’ve been working on for a while. It coincides with a paper I’m writing up for next year’s Bible Faculty Summit on differences between TR editions. I recently ran into a stranger on Facebook who quoted all the standard passages that are supposed to teach perfect preservation (“Thou wilt keep them”; “[not] one jot or one tittle”; “my words shall not pass away”). He also—and this is somewhat new to me—quoted WCF 1.8 (“by his singular care and providence kept pure in all ages”). He also charged a conservative evangelical textual critical scholar with making “an attack on the very word of God.” This is what I wrote…
When a mainstream evangelical textual scholar denies perfect preservation, the defenders of the TR will generally claim that he is denying preservation tout court. He is not: he believes the text of the Old and New Testaments has been carefully and faithfully—but not perfectly—preserved. Or, perhaps, he believes that God’s word has been fully preserved in the totality of available manuscripts, but that we don’t have a God-given method for determining which reading is correct in each and every case.
But this is what defenders of the TR believe, too. You disagree only in degree, not kind, with the mainstream view.
There are about two dozen printed “TR” editions with varying levels of difference among them. Which one preserves the perfect text? Purchasers of which of these editions had the every jot and tittle promise fulfilled for them? It can be only one—if indeed you believe in perfect preservation. But you don’t, or at least I don’t think you do! The texts the Westminster divines were speaking of when they used that phrase “kept pure in all ages” were themselves not all identical, and they knew this. Owen knew it. In his piece on textual issues that Reformed Received Text proponents like to quote, he was complaining not about the existence of differences but about the number being reported in full. “That there are in some copies of the New Testament, and those some of them of some good antiquity, diverse readings, in things or words of less importance, is acknowledged.” (16:363)
If you can back off of perfect preservation and see excellent preservation as sufficient, then you can have and even prefer all your TRs and give a little grace to someone who, quite clearly, is not making “an attack on the very word of God.” That language is overblown in the extreme.
But if you’re going to insist on absolute perfection, you’re not going to find a Bible verse or a sufficiently clear act of providence to give you what you demand—or tell you where to find it. The TRs themselves are divided in places. Scrivener, who put together his 1894 TR based on the textual-critical decisions of the KJV translators, counted ~30 places where they differed from both of the GNTs they had (Stephanus and Beza), ~100 places where they agreed with Beza against Stephanus, and ~20 where they agree with Stephanus against Beza. Their textual-critical decisions do not match any one printed TR or any known manuscripts. The KJV translators performed textual criticism. In God’s providence, the English-speaking world has been reading the results of an eclectic text for over four centuries. Sure, the differences between TR editions aren’t as great as those between 1) the TRs and 2) the major critical texts. But the difference is in degree, not kind. Please tone down the rhetoric. And let us know which TR has every jot and tittle, no more and no less.