An Evaluation of the Work of Charles Surrett on Preservation
Chuck Surrett has recently released a short white paper of sorts, arguing in some detail but in admirable brevity what I’ve also read in his two books: that the Bible teaches perfect preservation of the Hebrew and Greek texts of Scripture. It teaches, he says, “the certainty of the words” (Prov 22:20–21). I have been asked by nearby pastor Jonathan Beazley to evaluate Surrett’s arguments. I beg the reader’s indulgence in starting with a somewhat lengthy introduction; these matters are complicated, and I need a little time and space. Let’s begin.
There are two major issues involved in debates over English Bibles: 1) text and 2) translation.
The debate divides into many smaller issues, but it is at its heart—and, actually, a lot like a heart—irreducibly binary. Defenders of exclusive use of the King James Version (by English speakers) such as Charles “Chuck” Surrett, longtime Academic Dean at Ambassador Baptist College, have to “win” debates on both 1) text and 2) translation if they hope to establish their KJV-Only viewpoint.
If someone like Surrett argues successfully that 1) the KJV is based on the best Hebrew and Greek texts, he must then argue that 2) the KJV is the best translation of those texts.
With me so far?
Now, to use an evaluative word such as “best” implies a standard. How do we know which 1) texts are “best” and which 2) translations are “best”?
We have to look ultimately to Scripture, to God’s special revelation. On this I think all my readers are likely agreed. But this is where those two fundamental issues start dividing into smaller questions. Does the Bible give us direction on which 1) texts are best? Does it tell us how to 2) translate those texts? And when we get translations into our hands, does the Bible tell us how to critically compare and evaluate those translations?
Christians declare the Bible’s “sufficiency.” Scripture is profitable for teaching, for reproving, for correcting, for instruction—so that the man of God might be thoroughly equipped for good works. We don’t need any other divinely inspired language to live the godly lives God has called us to live. We have everything we need for life and godliness.
But what do we mean when we confess the Bible’s complete “sufficiency” as our standard? When brother Surrett sat down to do the many hours of homework that went into his extensive charts contrasting the King James with the New King James in his book Certainty of the Words, was the Bible his standard?
For example, he argued that in Genesis 2:18, the KJV’s “help meet for him” is a better translation of the Hebrew עֵ֖זֶר כְּנֶגְדּֽוֹ ( ‘ezer kenegdo) than the NKJV’s “helper corresponding to him.”
This may seem like an odd question, but did Surrett look up the proper meaning of kenegdo (כְּנֶגְדּֽוֹ) in the Bible?
The answer is no: he looked it up in a dictionary, a “lexicon” (the academic word for dictionaries). He says he used two Hebrew lexicons and three Greek ones as his standards:
- Brown-Driver-Briggs Hebrew and English Lexicon
- Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament
- Vine’s Expository Dictionary of New Testament Words
- Joseph Thayer’s Greek-English lexicon of the New Testament
- Bauer, Arndt, and Gingrich’s Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Early Christian Literature
Surrett compared the KJV and NKJV renderings to the standard set by these dictionaries, made by biblical scholars of previous generations.
I’m going somewhere with this; are you still following me?
Now, what if I were to say to Surrett, “I refuse to accept your non-biblical standard! Who ‘inspired’ these dictionaries? You must show me from the Bible, and the Bible alone what is the precise, proper English translation of kenegdo (כְּנֶגְדּֽוֹ)!”
I think he’d have to say, “Well… the Bible doesn’t tell us precisely how to translate its words into English (or Japanese, or Urdu).”
So I ask, “Then how can we know the right way to translate kenegdo (כְּנֶגְדּֽוֹ) in Genesis 2:18?”
(Just keep swimming, just keep swimming… You can follow this!)
Surrett has already implicitly answered this question. By appealing to the lexicons as his standard, he is saying that their method of discovering the meaning of words is right, appropriate, and reliable.
And what is their method? They do look to Scripture, but not only to Scripture. Lexicons look at all the ways Hebrew and Greek words are used, especially but not only in the Bible. We have lots of Greek inscriptions and documents from the time of the New Testament, and NT lexicons look to those. We have relatively little Hebrew from outside the Old Testament, so OT lexicons more commonly look for “cognates” in related languages such as Ugaritic. (This gets complicated.)
Lexicons frequently, and for some words mostly, cite documents other than the Bible, because the only way to know what a word means in any language is to observe the way it was used at the time the speaker spoke it or the writer wrote it.
Here’s a standard entry from the current edition of one of the lexicons Surrett cited—with all the stuff from outside the New Testament highlighted in yellow. This is the entry for malakos, a word that occurs in 1 Corinthians 6:9, a passage Surrett gave as an example when looking for places where he felt that the KJV was superior to the NKJV. I’ve made some notes showing where much of the “extrabiblical” (from outside the Bible) information the lexicographers used came from:
Now, again, I might ask brother Surrett, “Does the Bible tell us the way to translate Koine Greek’s malakos into contemporary English?”
No, it does not. This word malakos occurs in two different senses in the Greek New Testament, just as the lexicon says. The first sense, “soft” (as in soft to the touch, soft clothing) occurs three times (Matt 11:8 twice; Luke 7:25). The second sense, “effeminate,” occurs only once. How do know what the particular sense of a word truly is when it occurs only once? You have to look at how the word is used by writers outside the Bible. And this is just what the lexicon Surrett used did.
The KJV translators talk about this very problem in their excellent preface (a preface which I earnestly and ardently beg all of my KJV-Only brothers to read carefully until they understand every last line).
There be many words in the Scriptures which be never found there but once (having neither brother nor neighbour, as the Hebrews speak), so that we cannot be helped by conference of places.… Now in such a case doth not a margin[al note] do well to admonish the reader to seek further, and not to conclude or dogmatise upon this or that peremptorily? For as it is a fault of incredulity to doubt of those things that are evident: so to determine of such things as the Spirit of God hath left (even in the judgement of the judicious) questionable, can be no less than presumption. Therefore as St Augustine saith, that variety of translations is profitable for the finding out of the sense of the Scriptures: so diversity of signification and sense in the margin, where the text is not so clear, must needs do good, yea, is necessary, as we are persuaded.
The meaning of some Hebrew words, especially, is obscure. The KJV translators do not specifically say how they determine the translation of these words. But quite clearly, they’re not getting their meanings from the Bible itself, even though they certainly appeal to context. They mention in their preface looking to what Jewish scholars have said, but in the end (they say) they simply have to pick something and put the other option(s) in the margin. If they had had access to Ugaritic cognates, surely they would have used them—just as they used the Greek Septuagint and Latin Vulgate as conversation partners.
The KJV translators needed books other than the Bible in order to translate the Bible.
All this does not mean the Bible is something other than sufficient for a life of godliness. It also does not mean God has left us high and dry, and that we can’t really know what he said.
It simply means that we have to be content with the level of certainty God gives us—and that scholars (some of the “pastors and teachers” Christ gave to his church) have some work to do. That’s the Christian biblical scholar’s job: to go read all the documents we have from the ancient world and observe what malakos (or selah or authentein) means in them. Surrett does apparently agree, or he would not have cited lexicons in the first place.
I’m not a scholar. That’s a title other people give you, not a title you give yourself. But I’ve worked very hard to understand the word malakos while writing a paper on the word that malakos gets paired with in 1 Cor 6:9, ἀρσενοκοίτης (arsenokoites, “men-bedders”—homosexuals). I went through that same lexicon’s entry on arsenokoites with extreme care, tracing the steps of the lexicographers’ argument.
And do you want to know what I came to? Well, you can read the paper and see. But I’ll describe it briefly: I came to a little bit of uncertainty as to the best way to translate the words malakos and arsenokoites in English. The overall gist is more than clear: unrepentant active and passive partners in homosexual acts will not inherit the kingdom of God. But does the Bible consign “effeminate” men—men with higher voices or artistic sensibilities (or whatever else might count as “effeminate” in a man)—to the same eternal punishment? Is “effeminate” the best translation of the word in that context? And where precisely is the line between “masculine” and “effeminate”? Precisely what did Paul mean by choosing this word?
These are all difficult questions that study of Homer, Josephus, Philo, Chrysostom, and other writers cited in the lexicon can help us answer. But it gets complicated. We can’t know with absolute, exhaustive, 100% certainty the answers to all the questions I just raised in the previous paragraph. We have to use the Bible and other available resources; we have to pray for spiritual illumination and do our best scholarly work.
Here’s where I’m going with this: the Bible is sufficient for a life of godliness, but the way God chose to give us the Bible requires that we study our world carefully, too. The Bible is often called by theologians, “special revelation”; the truths we know from it are “specially” revealed by God in words. The truths we all know from outside Scripture (from “The sky is blue today” to “Abraham Lincoln was the 16th president of the United Sates”) are called “general revelation.” All truth comes from God; it is all “revelation” of something that he already knows. And all truth comes to us from two and only two sources: special revelation and general revelation.
It is right and necessary, as Surrett’s own comparisons of the KJV and NKJV show, to look outside the Bible (to general revelation) for help interpreting the Bible accurately. Back to the opening words of the article: if we are to find the “best” Bible 2) translation, we must look in part to standards outside the Bible.
And I believe this is true of 1) text as well.
It sounds good initially to say, “All we need is the Bible!” In other words, all we need is special revelation. But God didn’t give us inspired Hebrew and Greek dictionaries in the back of the Bible (and even if he did, we’d have to translate those). When two English translations differ—one says “soft” and the other says “effeminate”—it feels weird, but God gave us a situation in which we have to look outside Scripture (to standards given within general revelation) to determine if either choice is better (or if they’re equally good or equally bad!).
When a possible interpretation of a given passage occurs to me, it is also okay, even necessary, for me to check the “general revelation” of my experience. If I read “She shall be saved in childbearing, if they continue in faith and charity and holiness with sobriety” (1 Timothy 2:15), and it occurs to me that maybe this is a promise that Christian women won’t die in childbirth, it is right for me to think of the sad stories when this has in fact occurred—and to conclude that I should opt for another interpretation. We have to look at the world as part of our Bible interpretation.
And when two Greek or Hebrew manuscripts from a thousand years ago differ, we have to do the same thing. We have to put on biblical spectacles and then use them to look carefully at our world. Special revelation interprets general revelation. The Bible comes logically first, before the looking—but the looking must come. Interpretation is a “spiral”: you look at the Bible and then at the world and then on and on until you bring the two together in your understanding.
Perfect preservation and ongoing accessibility
That introduction was too long. I apologize, I really do. But I have finally arrived at the impetus for this second lengthy article (here’s the first), namely arguments Chuck Surrett has recently made in a short paper that the Bible teaches perfect preservation of itself, that it teaches Certainty of the Words.
Surrett is not alone in making these arguments. But he makes them with a grace and care (both here and in his books) that makes me prefer him as a conversation partner over countless other “KJV-Only” brothers who, I regret to say, cannot seem to stop being downright mean long enough to have a discussion.
Surrett drives toward the conclusion that the original language texts underlying the KJV are perfect, and notice the way he pits special revelation against general revelation on his way to that point:
It would be foolish for me to try to debate a textual critic, if history [ed. general revelation] were the final authority that decides all issues. But if the Bible [ed. special revelation] is to be accepted as the final authority, I feel secure in the position I take regarding the Word of God.
Let’s get his conclusions firmly in mind before we head to the passages he cites. I see two major conclusions in his piece (and these are consistent with his two books, both of which I have read—I am not basing my critique on an insufficient sampling of his work). Surrett believes that the Bible’s teaches A) perfect preservation of the biblical text and B) ongoing accessibility of that text. In other words, there are perfect manuscripts of the Hebrew Bible and Greek New Testament, and they have always been accessible to God’s people, despite the “corruptions” that he acknowledges do exist.
A) Surrett on perfect preservation
By “perfect” Surrett does mean “perfect.” Absolutely free from error. No jot or tittle missing. No jot or tittle added. No jot or tittle out of place. Exactly, down to the least stroke of a pen, what the Holy Spirit inspired.
Prov 22:20-21…indicates that we can have certainty about the written words of truth. The Hebrew words used lead us to the conclusion we can be doubly certain of the written words.
He says that preservation without certainty—in other words, the doctrine of preservation taught by the vast majority of evangelicals—is not preservation at all. Most Christians today believe that God has preserved his words in the totality of manuscript copies we possess. If there are 144,000 jots and tittles that God inspired, we have maybe 150,000 (so say the great majority of Christian people who write our commentaries and reference works), and it is the job of textual critics to weed out the ones that don’t belong, the ones that got added for various reasons over the centuries.
Surrett replies to this viewpoint:
I wonder how man would benefit from preservation without certainty? To know that the right words exist somewhere, but to be unclear about how to find them would make it very difficult to live by “every word that proceedeth out of the mouth of God (Matt 4:4).” How and why do you do exegesis, if you are unsure?
And he asks penetrating questions (though I could do without the sarcastic scare quotes on the word “scholars”—that was, frankly, unbecoming of brother Surrett and unlike his general character; scholars have done much good for me, refreshing my soul, strengthening my faith, and instructing me more perfectly in the way):
Do you consider every variant to be viable, or do you trust the “scholars” to make those decisions for you? In actual practice, how often in preaching do you indicate to your listeners that you are uncertain? When you use a Greek New Testament that documents all the variants, how do you determine which reading to preach? I think these questions would haunt me, if I were preaching from your perspective.
Surrett insists that we can have perfect and complete certainty about every word of Scripture. We can know which ones belong and which ones (found in some “corrupt” manuscripts) do not.
Is there anything in God’s Word that teaches man would ever have to face the Bible with uncertainty, due to textual variants? What is the Biblical justification for allowing our limited knowledge of history to alter your view of preservation?
Now what would Surrett say to my argument above, that we have to look at both the Bible and the world and fit them together? In other words—as my neighbors-I-still-haven’t-met, Surrett’s former students Jonathan Beazley and Stephen Boyce, have pointed out (Surrett’s statement is a response to their piece)—it is abundantly empirically evident that no two Greek New Testament manuscripts of any significant size are exactly the same. Just as Paul appealed to visible evidence of Christ’s resurrection (dead Jews that arose) in 1 Corinthians 15, and just as John appealed to the tangibility of the incarnation (“That which…we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked upon, and our hands have handled”), so any biblical scholar can show you Greek manuscripts that aren’t precisely the same in every detail. (I have put together a project, KJVParallelBible.org, showing every last translatable difference between the Greek New Testament Surrett prefers and the one I tend to use most often. These differences are not secrets.) The natural question arises: how can we possibly know which manuscripts are perfect if they all disagree?
Later I will question his premises, but Surrett’s reply is logically sound:
The statement that there is no perfect manuscript is unproveable, without having the autographa [the original Greek and Hebrew manuscripts penned by the prophets and apostles] to compare. The fact that A and B are different from each other does not necessarily prove both of them wrong. It does prove that one of them is wrong, but not necessarily both, nor does it tell which of them is right.
Note, then, that Surrett is insisting on absolutely perfect preservation. Every other manuscript out there in Hebrew and Greek is “wrong,” but the right one, the perfect one, does exist. I have consistent trouble getting TR defenders to tell me which edition of the TR is perfect, but Surrett, I believe, does clearly name Scrivener’s 1881/1894 text as perfect (although he named Beza’s 1598 text on page 4 of Which Greek Text? and for this I have no explanation: the KJV differs from Beza, according to Scrivener, around 50 times).
Surrett’s other reply, which we’ll spend more time on later, shows why I wrote such a lengthy introduction arguing for the necessity of looking at general revelation. This is a telling point, his strongest—if the Bible indeed teaches perfect preservation:
It was that exact same mindset that caused some Bible-believers to think they had to alter their view of creation in order to accommodate the “scientific facts” of evolutionism.
Now in large part I agree: I cannot read Genesis 1–11 with a good conscience and allow any room for theistic evolution (much less deistic or materialistic evolution). I look at what the Bible says, and I look at the world as the evolutionists describe it, and I cannot fit the two together. I stick with Scripture. I can’t explain how starlight from millions of lightyears away got here or how supernovas that, by our best lights, happened five million years ago (the light is only now reaching earth) are consistent with Scripture. I just trust God and keep working to harmonize the special and general revelation he has given.
So why is this matter of textual criticism different? Why don’t I trust in the perfect preservation of every last inspired jot and tittle of Scripture—no more, no less, all in the proper order?
Hang on. We’ll get there. For now, it’s important only to understand that this is what Surrett believes, and has taught thousands (?) of students over decades of teaching: the Hebrew and Greek words inspired by God thousands of years ago have all been perfectly preserved.
B) Surrett on ongoing accessibility
And, he says, they are accessible.
Isaiah 59:21…clearly states that every generation of man will have access to God’s Words, with the plural used to indicate not just a general Gospel message, but the specific words used to communicate that message.
I’m a little unclear on precisely what “accessible” means. How many Christian people in the centuries before air travel had access to perfect copies of God’s words? If I’m understanding Surrett correctly, I think he’d say that even if the available evidence shows manuscript variation, that doesn’t mean people throughout history were unable to access the perfect copy or copies.
Surrett doesn’t say nearly as much about accessibility as he does about perfect preservation (and my recollection of his books would yield the same observation), so I’ll stop my summary of his views here.
Prooftexts for perfect preservation and ongoing accessibility
And now I will begin an examination of the passages that, Surrett says, teach A) perfect preservation and B) ongoing accessibility.
I’m just going to take the passages he cites in the order in which he cites them. The question we bring to these passages is, “Does the Bible teach perfect preservation and ongoing accessibility?”
Brother Surrett, Hast thou appealed unto the Bible? Unto the Bible shall we go.
Assorted passages allegedly teaching perfect preservation
I will deal below with all the passages Surrett cites, though because this article is rather long already I will deal with some only very briefly. I’ll focus on only the verses that appear to me to be the strongest possible supports for Surrett’s A) and B) viewpoints.
The first passage Surrett cites is the one from which he got the title for his book, Certainty of the Words. It is Proverbs 22:20–21. In it, Solomon writes to his son.
Have not I written to thee excellent things in counsels and knowledge,
That I might make thee know the certainty of the words of truth;
that thou mightest answer the words of truth to them that send unto thee?
While some may assert that this [certainty] only applies to words that Solomon wrote to his son, rather than to the words that God inspired Solomon (and others) to write, that would lead us to the ludicrous application that Solomon’s words were certain, but God’s were not! I find that hard to believe.
Could any of Solomon’s original readers have ever thought that by referring to “the certainty of the words” Solomon was implicitly promising perfect preservation of Hebrew (and later, Greek) manuscripts of the Bible?
Maybe, but I don’t think so. I think that the overall emphasis in this passage, as in others we’ll look at, is on the truth of God’s words rather than on our perfect possession of all those true words. I acknowledge that it’s hard to be certain that words are true when you aren’t certain you have them all and none others!
But I have three reasons for saying “maybe-but-I-don’t-think-so,” and these themes will come up again:
First, the Bible regularly uses language that purposely avoids exhaustive precision. Some of this language we call “phenomenological.” the Bible says that the sun “rises” and “sets”: obviously it is speaking from the perspective of a person standing on the planet, not from that of a person standing in heaven. The sun doesn’t “really” rise. Jesus said that the mustard seed was the “smallest” of all the garden plants. It isn’t; there are smaller seeds. But that’s okay: he wasn’t lying or mistaken. He simply wasn’t speaking with exhaustive and pedantic precision. He was speaking hyperbolically. We all do this all the time.
As one theologian who has helped me understand my Bible better, John Frame, has said,
It is absurd to imagine that Jesus, in the parable of Matthew 13:31–32, was giving his hearers the conclusion of an exhaustive botanical taxonomy, and it is irresponsible to demand that we read the text in such a way. (DWG 188)
Frame says that “Scripture generally speaks the way ordinary people speak.” He says that critics of the Bible often misinterpret it by “assum[ing] that Scripture is making a universal statement when in fact it [is] address[ing] only a narrow context” (Ibid.).
That, I think, is precisely what Proverbs 22:20–21 is doing. This is a narrow context focused on the reliability of Solomon’s counsel. It isn’t meant to be universalized and applied pedantically to a totally separate question about copies of biblical manuscripts.
My respected, godly, older acquaintance Vern Poythress, who helped translate the ESV Bible and who has memorized more Scripture than anyone I know, talks about the kind of precision and certainty the Bible provides.
In the Bible God uses ordinary human language rather than a technically precise jargon. He does not include all the technical, pedantic details that would interest a scholar. By doing so, he speaks clearly to ordinary people, not merely to scholars with advanced technical knowledge. What God says is not exhaustive, but it is sufficient to save us and to provide a sure guide for our life.
Hence, the ordinary, humble readers of the Bible do all right. Paradoxically, scholars and would-be scholars can easily get into trouble by overestimating the degree of technical or pedantic precision in the Bible. They will then fall into mistakes that an ordinary reader of the Bible would not make.Symphonic Theology
Sadly, I believe this is what brother Surrett, despite his stated disdain for scholars, has himself done. He has committed an important error in exegesis, one that he will commit over and over in the list below: he reads his questions into a passage that isn’t addressing them. He is expecting the Bible to be pedantically precise. He is thereby making the Bible say more than its Author intended it to say. Liberals’ temptation is to make God say less than he meant; conservatives’ temptation is to make him say more.
Second, in the days before computers, which can copy the entire Encyclopedia Galactica perfectly in less than a second, would it have occurred to anyone to interpret Proverbs 22:20–21 as promising something they’d never seen, and had no way to verify if they did—a perfect copy of a long document? Maybe, but I think not, given the other things I’ve just observed.
And third, I’ve got general revelation. I’ll wrap up this huge article much later by going back to that topic, but all of the Hebrew manuscripts the KJV translators had access to indicate many minor areas of textual doubtfulness. The Masoretes, who made the “Masoretic Text” that Surrett confesses to be perfect, listed many dozens of kethib and qere readings—many of which are textual variants. If they had a perfect text, why would they do this? The scribes who copied New Testament manuscripts also encountered variants—and produced more of them. This is true of every manuscript of any size that we have (tiny scraps may be so small that they do perfectly match other manuscripts). If I’m wondering whether I should interpret God’s words (special revelation) as promising perfect preservation, it is right and necessary for me to look at the world he actually gave me (general revelation) and see if that’s what I have. It’s not.
2 Peter 1:19
We have also a more sure word of prophecy; whereunto ye do well that ye take heed.
Another generally gracious KJV-Only brother drew the title of his book out of this passage. Does it teach perfect preservation?
This passage says that the words of Scripture, given to us by the apostles, are more sure than the words of God on the mount of transfiguration: “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased.”
Could Peter mean we have greater confidence in the accurate copying—that is, in our possession of—the words of the Bible than we do in our possession of the words the Father spoke to the Son at the transfiguration?
No. As multiple contemporary translations (translating precisely the same Greek words) show, Peter’s point is about the reliability or the efficacy of the words, not our possession of them.
Surrett will ask, How can the words be reliable or efficacious if we don’t have perfect certainty that we have them all? This is a reasonable question.
But I urge my readers to just go look at all the variants between Surrett’s preferred Greek New Testament and mine. I’ve translated them all into English and highlighted them for you—with a little help from Surrett himself and a team of other volunteers representing KJVO and non-KJVO institutions—at KJVParallelBible.org.
Here’s a screenshot from the very first chapter of the New Testament. These two texts clearly differ. But does that affect the reliability of the message being communicated? You be the judge:
Here are some other differences, chosen at random, between Scrivener’s Textus Receptus and the Nestle-Aland 28 critical text. These two Greek New Testament editions are not perfectly the same here. Do the differences affect the reliability of the message of Romans?
I understand: it’s scary at first to find out that God has not given us perfect and exhaustive certainty about which words belong in the Old and New Testaments. It feels wrong. I don’t enjoy pointing it out. But when you actually look at the variants, a lot of that fear goes away. The vast majority of them are excessively minor. Many don’t even show up in translation. The Bible’s message can still be sure even if a few little words on many pages are not.
Surrett says that if you change the words you change the message.
Surrett argues that if you change the words you change the message.
Surrett thinks that if you change the words you change the message.
Surrett thinks that if you alter the words you alter the message.
Surrett thinks that if you alter any words you alter the message.
Surrett thinks that if any words are different, the message is different.
We could do this all millennium. Do you get my point? You can give the same message in slightly different words. If you don’t believe me that that’s what the TR and the critical text are doing, go see for yourself.
I esteem all thy precepts concerning all things to be right; and I hate every false way.
I confess I simply don’t see how this verse can be interpreted to promise perfect preservation—unless you assume that inspiration demands perfect preservation, which is the very point at issue. This passage doesn’t prove Surrett’s point; it only corroborates that point if he is right.
Verily I say unto you, Till heaven and earth pass, one jot or one tittle shall in no wise pass from the law, till all be fulfilled.
This passage is absolutely key. Anyone who cites it as proof of perfect preservation is pulling a very specific promise from Jesus’ lips: not one jot or tittle can pass away from the law.
One might quibble: he didn’t say none will be added. He also didn’t say that the jots and tittles would all remain in the same order in a supposed perfect copy. He just said they’d all be there.
But I won’t quibble. I think it is possible to conclude that Jesus is promising perfect preservation here. This, in my mind, is the strongest passages Surrett and other KJV/TR defenders have in their arsenal of prooftexts.
So why don’t I interpret it the way they do?
In large part for the same three reasons I mentioned above: I still think 1) that Surrett’s interpretation is pedantically making Jesus specify something he wasn’t concerned to say; 2) that none of Jesus’ original hearers would have concluded “Oh, there must be a perfect manuscript copy of the Old Testament accessible to believers in every age!”; and 3) that when I look out at the world God gave me, I have no reliable way of knowing where an allegedly perfect text is.
A little word on this third point before I get back to Matthew 5:18. Surrett has set up an absolute standard of perfection. All it takes to break a perfect chain like this is one imperfect link. I ask: “Ok, so there’s a perfect text out there: which one is it?” Surrett, as best I can understand him, argues (along with all other KJV/TR defenders) that God’s use of the KJV constitutes his approval of its textual basis. Surrett makes a big point in his talk (which I explored in my last big article) of the many ways God has used the KJV—and therefore the TR upon which it is based.
But God used other translations in other nations that used slightly different textual bases, and he’s using translations now in English at my own church and countless others that have more significantly different textual bases. The equivalent of the KJV in the Netherlands, a translation made in 1637 is De Statenvertaling. It is the one major, historic translation that achieved the most widespread use for the longest time among Dutch-speaking Christians. Its NT is based on the TR. And in Matthew 2:11, the Statenvertaling follows a different edition of the Greek New Testament than the one followed by the KJV translators. There the wise men “found” (vonden, translating εὺρίσκω) the child Jesus (the TR-based Portuguese Bible does the same); the KJV, following a different TR, says they “saw” (ὸράω) him.
The perfect chain is broken. Which text is perfect, and which is corrupt? If God used different Greek texts for centuries before the release of the critical text (indeed, both of these readings come from slightly different editions of the Textus Receptus), how are we to know which one is absolutely perfect in every jot and tittle?
I take no delight in talking this way. I am not arguing for total uncertainty; I am arguing against what a friend has called “textual absolutism.” I am arguing for sufficient certainty, for the amount of certainty God actually has given us—which is a lot! Even E.F. Hills, in his book The King James Version Defended, acknowledges that preservation has not been miraculous, only providential. And as my own most important exegetical mentor has said so wisely,
My own weaknesses as a reader expose me to far more significant misunderstanding than the manuscript differences do, so by far the greatest problems that God must overcome in order to talk to me are within me, not within the transmission process.
There were plenty of denominations in existence, all with different understandings of various Bible passages, long before the critical text was released. And today, as my mentor also points out, there is no correlation between what theological viewpoint someone holds (Calvinist, Arminian, credobaptist, paedobaptist) and what Greek New Testament they use. They simply aren’t that different—even given the “big three” (Mark 16:9–20; John 7:53–8:11; 1 John 5:7). All Greek New Testament editions teach the same faith. The differences are so minor: “Christ Jesus” vs. “Jesus Christ” is one common difference (see for yourself), and yet my KJV/TR brothers are demanding no differences!
And does a contextually careful exegesis of Matthew 5:18 lead us to the conclusion that Jesus was indeed promising perfect preservation?
Look at what Jesus cites in the next verse as the opposite of “every jot and tittle” remaining in the law:
Whosoever therefore shall break one of these least commandments, and shall teach men so, he shall be called the least in the kingdom of heaven: but whosoever shall do and teach them, the same shall be called great in the kingdom of heaven.
The opposite of their remaining in the law is not their being lost or discarded or textually corrupted; it is their being broken. This is an important but subtle point. It supports my contention that Jesus is not primarily concerned with preservation here but with authority and efficacy.
Sanctify them through thy truth: thy word is truth.
I do not see in this verse an affirmation of perfect preservation unless you assume before coming to the text that divine inspiration demands perfect preservation.
2 Samuel 7:28
O Lord God, thou art that God, and thy words be true.
I do not see in this verse an affirmation of perfect preservation unless you assume before coming to the text that divine inspiration demands perfect preservation.
Every word of God is pure: he is a shield unto them that put their trust in him.
I do not see in this verse an affirmation of perfect preservation unless you assume before coming to the text that divine inspiration demands perfect preservation.
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.
Surrett didn’t actually cite verse 7, and it is my impression that I read him acknowledge somewhere that Psalm 12:6-7 is not talking about preservation of the words of Scripture. The “them” that God will preserve is, in context, the poor and not the words.
But he does cite 12:6, and perhaps my memory fails me, so I will deal with this passage here (as I have done at greater length elsewhere).
There are two reasons why I don’t believe that this passage is not talking about preservation at all, and, interestingly, Surrett mentions both in his book Certainty of the Words (see Kindle loc. 589).
- A contextually sensitive reading of this passage will show that it would be a terribly awkward lurch for David to move from talking about the cry of the needy to talking about perfect preservation of biblical manuscripts. Try to read the “them” in verse 7 as referring to the poor; see if it works. It does. It’s the only interpretation that works. Those who take Psalm 12:7 to be referring to preservation are making “them” point to the wrong antecedent.
- The Hebrew word for “them” is masculine (Hebrew words, like Spanish and Italian ones, have grammatical gender); but the Hebrew word for “words” in 6 is feminine. Surrett is aware of this problem and in his book cites a paper by Thomas Strouse explaining why the KJV-Only interpretation is possible, but given point 1 (and see what else I’ve argued elsewhere), I simply can’t grant that this verse is talking about biblical manuscript preservation at all.
Because of this controversial grammatical issue, Psalm 12:6-7 may not be the best passage to use when debating with those who deny that the preservation of Scripture is taught in the Bible.
And I agree.
Now to Abraham and his seed were the promises made. He saith not, And to seeds, as of many; but as of one, And to thy seed, which is Christ.
Surrett’s argument here is that if Paul is able to make a point based on the plural versus the singular form of a noun (“seed”), then perfect preservation must extend not only to words but to forms of words—singular vs. plural nouns, Qal vs. Hiphil Hebrew verbs, past vs. present Greek participles (etc.).
But I don’t think this follows. As multiple careful students of Galatians have pointed out, Paul knows that “seed” (or “offspring,” Hebrew זֶרַע) in Genesis 22:18, the passage he is apparently quoting, is a collective noun that is grammatically singular but can be either singular or plural in meaning, depending on context. He cites the “seed” promise in Romans 4:18 and sees its fulfillment in the (decidedly plural) “many nations” that came from Abraham. The actual plural form of the word occurs only once in the Old Testament, and that’s in the literal sense of “seeds” (1 Sam 8:15). Paul’s point did not turn on an accurate form of the word being perfectly preserved (although I believe that in this case it surely was); it turned on a neat quirk of many languages, namely the fact that the word “seed” is a collective noun.
Now, the preservation of the Hebrew Old Testament and the Greek New Testament are truly amazing: you need only look at Jeremiah in the Septuagint to see that it is possible for holy books to be preserved poorly and for rival versions to persist together. We don’t have that with the Bible. What we have is page after page (see for yourself at KJVParallelBible.org, folks!) of verses that are identical, sprinkled with mostly minor differences in wording that make no difference in sense—and certainly in doctrine.
The Bible is more than sufficiently well preserved to permit argumentation like Paul’s. It need not be perfectly preserved for the Bible to hold together. As I wrote somewhere (I forget, and it’s late), God’s voice is powerful enough to speak over the mild static sometimes generated by textual variants in Hebrew and Greek.
Let God be true, but every man a liar; as it is written, That thou mightest be justified in thy sayings, and mightest overcome when thou art judged.
I do not see in this verse an affirmation of perfect preservation unless you assume before coming to the text that divine inspiration demands perfect preservation. God can speak truly without giving us miraculously perfect preservation of his word.
For ever, O LORD, Thy word is settled in heaven.
I’ve long thought that this is an odd verse to use to support perfect preservation. Heaven is far away. This verse actually might seem to indicate the inaccessibility of the biblical text.
That was a segue.
Assorted passages allegedly teaching ongoing accessibility
Now we turn to the passages Surrett uses to establish ongoing accessibility. Again, I have a little trouble understanding who gets that access and when and where. Does every believer have a guarantee that if he wants the perfectly pure text of Scripture, he can get it?
But then what does that mean, given that 99.9999⅑% of Christians the world over cannot read Greek or Hebrew? Does it mean they can always access the pure text of Scripture in translation?
But then, that would seem to mean that God promises a perfect translation to every group of believers—and he simply hasn’t done that. He hasn’t promised it, and he hasn’t done it. There are churches around the world who don’t have the Bible in their language. I have many friends who are helping them get one. And Surrett himself has clarified that he doesn’t believe the KJV is perfect or inspired.
God did not promise to extend inspiration to the then-future translations, there can be no Biblical proof for the inspiration of translations. All that the Bible addresses as being inspired (“God breathed”) are the original autographs. Inspiration and new revelation ceased with the completion of the Book of Revelation in 96 AD.Which Greek Text, 103.
Surrett regards the KJV as the “best translation of the best texts,” but at the back of Certainty of the Words, he acknowledges that sometimes the New King James is more accurate than the King James (according to criteria I don’t grant, but that’s a longer discussion in a previous article).
So do KJV readers not have God’s pure word in those places where the NKJV is more accurate?
What does “ongoing accessibility” mean? I looked again at Certainty of the Words, and I could not find a place where he answers that question.
Maybe looking at his prooftext will tell me.
As for me, this is my covenant with them, saith the Lord; My spirit that is upon thee, and my words which I have put in thy mouth, shall not depart out of thy mouth, nor out of the mouth of thy seed, nor out of the mouth of thy seed’s seed, saith the Lord, from henceforth and for ever.
What does this mean? Surrett is frequently dismissive of “scholars,” but I had to go to them for help on this obscure metaphor—and they helped me for the thousandth time. Surrett appears to be taking “my words” as a technical term for “the Bible.” But that is the same kind of pedantic, universalizing impulse that he used in passages allegedly teaching perfect preservation.
I have books by many careful students of Isaiah, all of whom can read Hebrew, and none of whom saw “my words” as referring to the Bible. The reference, they say, is to God’s words more generally—just as your own pastor and mine “preach God’s word” even when they’re saying words they wrote (based on Scripture study) and not reading the text of the Bible out loud.
John Oswalt, an excellent commentator on Isaiah, says,
This is surely the covenant of the prophet, in which the Spirit of God comes on the people as a whole (cf. Num. 11:29) to empower them to speak his Word.… The people’s unclean lips will be cleansed so that they may speak the Word of God to the world. It is hardly coincidental that the first result of the coming of the Holy Spirit on the church was that people from all the nations heard the gospel message. That is a clear analogue to what the prophet says here. (531)
And that makes perfect sense in the context of Isaiah 59 (as Oswalt shows). The people at Pentecost were not speaking Scripture, but they were speaking the Word of God to the world.
Surrett is taking a very narrow contemporary question—will God’s people always have access to God’s perfect word—and trying to make this passage answer it when it does not.
The secret things belong unto the Lord our God: but those things which are revealed belong unto us and to our children for ever, that we may do all the words of this law.
The things God has revealed belong to us, that is true. But it doesn’t follow that all believers will have ongoing access to perfect copies of the Hebrew and Greek manuscripts of Scripture.
God’s revelation belongs to me: I have it on my shelf and in my hand and on my computer. I feel perfectly comfortable saying that—while still believing that I have less than 100% certainty over whether the wise men “saw” baby Jesus or “found” him in Matthew 2:11 (these, again, are variants among the TR editions the KJV translators used).
Deuteronomy 30:11-14 (cf. Num 23:12; Rom 10:8)
For this commandment which I command thee this day, it is not hidden from thee, neither is it far off. It is not in heaven, that thou shouldest say, Who shall go up for us to heaven, and bring it unto us, that we may hear it, and do it? Neither is it beyond the sea, that thou shouldest say, Who shall go over the sea for us, and bring it unto us, that we may hear it, and do it? But the word is very nigh unto thee, in thy mouth, and in thy heart, that thou mayest do it.
If “the word” here is the entire Bible, what does it mean that the word is “in thy mouth, and in thy heart”? Surrett is universalizing a contextually narrowed promise and giving a too-literal interpretation of a metaphor. What God is saying is, (to borrow from a fellow graduate of my alma mater, that God’s words “can be understood by the human mind despite its limitations” (391), not that people will always have all of God’s words in physical proximity.
Assorted other passages
Surrett listed multiple other passages that aren’t even plausibly promising that God’s people will have ongoing access to perfect copies of the Bible. Surrett seems to think that the metaphor of God placing his words in people’s mouths indicates ongoing accessibility. I’m having trouble understanding the leap. You can use Logos Reftagger to read these verses if you wish. I can’t interact with them because I’m not sure what the claim is that Surrett is making via these passages.
- Numbers 23:12
- Deuteronomy 18:18
- Joshua 1:8
- Psalm 40:3
- Isaiah 51:16
- Jeremiah 1:9
- Malachi 2:6
- Deuteronomy 6:6
- Deuteronomy 11:18
- Psalm 37:31
- Psalm 119:11
- Luke 2:51
- John 5:39
Hebrews 8:10 (cf. 10:16)
This is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, saith the Lord; I will put my laws into their mind, and write them in their hearts: and I will be to them a God, and they shall be to me a people.
Remember what this has to mean to work as a prooftext for ongoing accessibility: it has to mean that “I will put my laws into their mind” means that God’s people will all have all of God’s words, in the right order, with none added or missing, in their minds. Right? I don’t know any other way to try to make this text say what Surrett says it’s saying.
Abraham saith unto [the rich man], They have Moses and the prophets; let them hear them.
To say that this means ongoing accessibility to perfectly preserved copies of the Hebrew Old Testament is to push language, once again, to be pedantically and exhaustively and technically precise. It is to universalize a statement that isn’t addressing ongoing accessibility at all.
I can “have” Moses and the Prophets—I can hear God speaking through them—even if there are a few kethib-qere readings indicating textual doubtfulness in the Masoretic Text, and even if I’m reading them in a translation I don’t fully understand.
To enlist this passage in support of ongoing accessibility is like me texting my wife, “Did you get the yard of mulch?” She says, “Yes; I brought it home in the trailer.” And I say, “No you didn’t get the mulch! Some of it surely dropped out of the trailer in transit!” Abraham is simply not talking about perfect copies. In fact, all the evidence we have suggests that no one has ever had perfect copies—and yet Abraham in heaven is still willing to say that the rich man’s brothers “have” Moses and the Prophets.
Pulling the threads together
In this piece I have tried to demonstrate that we are obligated to believe and obey both special and general revelation. Only special revelation is verbal revelation from God. It therefore brings a clarity and fullness that general revelation usually does not. But that doesn’t mean we are free to ignore God’s revealed truths in nature and history.
Surrett said to me in personal correspondence what he has said in his books (and because he said this in his books, which I have read, I feel free to share):
Unless you deal exegetically with statements in Isaiah and Proverbs and dozens of other passages in the Old and New Testaments that seem to indicate we can be certain about the words of scripture, I would not want to spend much time in historical debate. I have not seen even one Scripture passage that seems to state otherwise, so my conclusion is that our understanding of history is incomplete. If I could see any place in Scripture that would seem to counteract the many passages that teach preservation and certainty, I would be willing to look at that from an exegetical standpoint. But I believe that our knowledge of history is incomplete, and history certainly pales in comparison to the authority of Scripture on this or any other issue.… I want to cling to the clear statements of God’s Word, and follow the concept of Rom 3:4.
So my brother in Christ, Chuck Surrett, is taking his stand on Scripture. And even to write that sentence makes my heart jump. That’s what I want, too. Lord, to whom shall we go? There is no other place where words of life can be found.
And there are times—as in the debate over evolution—in which I am bound by conscience to go with what Scripture says against what people are saying who are far more knowledgeable than I am in matters of biological science.
But are the preservation and accessibility prooftexts Surrett supplies so clear in supporting the TR-Only view that he has a right to turn his eyes away from the testimony of general revelation? Does Matthew 5:18 so clearly teach perfect preservation that Surrett is justified in deflecting simple questions like, “Which TR is perfect, and how do we know?”
Surrett is willing to appeal to lexicons (remember my introduction, from about two hours ago?) which look precisely at history, the history of the use of words in and outside Scripture. I believe he ought to do the same with textual criticism. He ought to give attention to what the evidence actually says.
Matthew 5:18 is, in my mind, the only passage that could be plausibly taken to teach perfect preservation of the inspired Hebrew and Greek (and Aramaic—I have to say that somewhere in this piece just so I don’t get comments!) words of Scripture. Surrett argues that it is inappropriate to look to history (to general revelation) as part of our interpretation of that passage. I differ. The world God describes in Scripture will harmonize with the world God has given us in experience. It is legitimate to look at biblical manuscripts, take note that we do not have access to (or, at the very least, knowledge of) a perfect one, and conclude that we must interpret Matthew 5:18 to be saying something other than what KJV/TR defenders say it means.
Making connections between the Bible and the world often requires looking as hard at the world as you do at the Bible. I do not believe my KJV/TR-Only brothers have done this.
A final appeal
Now why did I bother with all this? I stayed up very late multiple nights in a row, I wrote on planes, I sent my poor wife off to bed by herself—and for what? To fill the internet with more words? To make money on ads (I have no ads)?
I wrote because I love God, I love his word, and I love my brothers and my neighbors.
I want people to understand what God said. Charles Surrett and countless other brothers in Christ have taken a very natural and completely understandable feeling that I share, that is, a loyalty to and a love for a traditional Bible translation that has done them much good, and they have turned it into a doctrine that has divided Christ’s flock and withheld many of God’s words from today’s plow boys.
Brothers and sisters who have made it this far, these things ought not so to be. The Bible does not teach perfect preservation. Even if it did, it doesn’t tell us how to locate the perfectly preserved text among all the variants out there.
What the Bible does tell us is this:
Except ye utter by the tongue words easy to be understood, how shall it be known what is spoken? for ye shall speak into the air. (1 Corinthians 14:9)
1 Corinthians 14 repeatedly teaches that edification requires intelligibility.
Now, somehow TR defense always ends up turning into KJV defense. And though I love the KJV, “the English language has undergone some changes in the past [four-hundred years]…. Since English is a living language, the modern-day connotations of words such as ‘conversation,’ ‘charity,’ and (sadly) ‘gay,’ are much different from their 1611 meanings.”
It was Chuck Surrett, I believe, who wrote that. It’s in the official position statement of Ambassador Baptist College. And it’s true.
The KJV contains “dead words,” words we all know we don’t know—like besom, chambering, and emerod. It’s not unreasonable to ask people to look up archaic words, but it is unnecessary. We could just say broom, immorality, and tumor. We would be using intelligible speech instead of unintelligible—and edification would be the result.
The KJV also contains what I call “false friends,” words we don’t know we don’t know—like halt, remove, and commendeth. It is unreasonable to ask people to look up these words, because they won’t know to look them up. They won’t know where to look them up (answer: the OED). And people who use them will be speaking into the air without knowing it.
The time has come to stop insisting on the exclusive use of the King James Version. English has changed too much. And this insistence is causing undeniable trouble in churches. Strife, rivalries, dissensions, and divisions are “works of the flesh” (Gal 5:19–20). I appeal to my KJV-Only brothers to consider that if the Bible does not teach perfect preservation, they do not have the right to divide from me over their preference for one of the 28 editions of the Textus Receptus. I want unity with them, as much as possible in this vale of tears.
But I’m not actually telling anyone who prefers the TR to give it up. There is another option: use a contemporary translation of it. Surely it cannot be right to officially ban Sunday school teachers and college sophomores and Neighborhood Bible Time kids from using the NKJV or MEV—if “the text is the issue.” They use the same texts as the KJV.
Let me speak then, finally and directly, to Ambassador Baptist College as an institution. I have spoken with Alton Beal, at his kind invitation. I have spoken to Chuck Surrett briefly over email on multiple occasions. If you prefer to use the Hebrew and Greek texts underlying the KJV, rather than the slightly different ones that I use (that teach precisely the same Christian faith), then by all means do so. But please do not divide from me over this extrabiblical preference. Because of the plow boy, because of your students, because of your children and theirs, open up liberty at your institution to make or use a translation of whatever texts you prefer into contemporary English that is intelligible by the plow boy. It is his right and your scriptural duty.
I have five personal copies left of my book, Authorized: The Use and Misuse of the King James Bible, and I will send them at my own expense to anyone who contacts me in the next week. If I run out of physical copies I will do my best to find a way to get you a digital one. Please use my contact form.