Arguing Textual Criticism on Facebook. What Have I Become?

by Nov 14, 2018KJV, NTScholarship2 comments

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.

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  1. Andy Efting


    Those who believe in perfect preservation have latched on to the “kept pure in all ages” phrase in the WCF as support that their doctrine is not new but the historical position of the church. I have been looking for discussions on that phrase from their time period to see what they actually meant, but have not found a lot. So far, the best I have found is from William Whitaker’s, “A Disputation on Holy Scripture”, dated 1588. Whitaker is said to have been influential to much of what was written in the WCF regarding the scriptures.

    Whitaker definitely sees a need for doing textual criticism from among the existing Greek manuscripts because of the presence of copyist mistakes:

    “Now then, if the originals of sacred scripture [NOTE: by ‘originals’ he means original language MSS, not the autographs] have not been so disgracefully corrupted by any malice of Jews or adversaries, as some person have ignorantly suspected; and if no mistakes have crept into the originals, but such as may casually be introduced into any book, (which our opponents expressly allow); why, I pray, did not the Tridentine fathers [i.e., Catholic officials who participated in the Council of Trent] rather command that the originals should be purified with the greatest care and diligence than that the muddy stream of the Latin edition should be preferred to the fountain, and become authentic?” [161]

    Later in the same paragraph, he writes,

    “But if they say that the originals are only corrupted by some accident, we too may affirm the same, and with much more justice, of their own Latin version: for such accidental causes extend no less to the Latin than to the Hebrew and Greek books.” [162]

    Thus, Whitaker says copying mistakes should be expected, just like you would have with copying “any book.” Such mistakes have occurred in both the original language manuscripts as well as copies of the Latin Vulgate. Instead of preferring the Latin Vulgate, the Catholic church should have been more concerned with purifying the small errors in the Greek MSS tradition than the muddy errors of the Latin.

    The important thing to note here is that he says the original language MSS “should be purified.” So, whatever the WCF means by “kept pure in all age” it certainly doesn’t mean that they thought no uncertainly had crept in from the various readings in the extant manuscript evidence.

    I like your term, “excellent preservation.” I normally use the phrase, “essential purity.” It comes from John Skilton’s chapter in the book, “The Infallible Word.” —

    “But we must maintain that the God who gave the Scriptures, who works all things after the counsel of his will, has exercised a remarkable care over his Word, has preserved it in all ages in a state of essential purity, and has enabled it to accomplish the purpose for which he gave it.” [143]


    • Mark Ward

      Excellent work, Andy. I’ve had the same question: what did the Westminster divines mean? I’ve been thinking about asking Chad VanDixhoorn.