Is the Textus Receptus Perfect in Every Jot and Tittle? Ambrose vs. Scrivener

by Nov 23, 2021NTScholarship, Theology6 comments

The following article is a slightly modified version of a lecture I delivered at BJU Seminary in Greenville, SC, on Nov 1, 2021.

The particular edition of the Greek New Testament used in all sectors of KJV-Onlyism is called “Scrivener’s,” because it was put together by a scholar who had that particular perfect, Dickensian name. (The word scrivener in related to the word scribe; in the past it meant notary or clerk [pronounced “clark” in British English, just so you know; that long confused me while watching BBC shows]). I bought a copy of Scrivener’s Greek New Testament some months ago; my copy was published by the UK’s Trinitarian Bible Society, one of the most important and influential and responsible KJV-Only groups in the world.

To say that Scrivener’s Greek New Testament is used in all sectors of KJV-Onlyism is perhaps not quite right. The Ruckmanite extremists don’t have much patience for Greek; they don’t need it. They believe the KJV itself is inspired; it corrects the Greek. So who needs Greek? In my experience, very few of them bother with it.

And in my experience, mainstream KJV-Onlyists often don’t know which edition of the Greek New Testament they are using. They know it’s “the Textus Receptus,” but they don’t (again, this is just in my limited experience) typically know that there are different TR editions with slightly different texts—I call them the Texti Recepti. I’ve read hundreds of doctrinal statements from KJV-Only churches and schools and mission boards; I actually collect them like baseball cards, I’m not kidding. And I believe there was precisely one—the one put out by Thomas Ross and Kent Brandenburg—that specified the TR edition in whose perfection it was confessing faith. And it pointed to Scrivener’s.

Make no mistake: KJV-Onlyism in its most responsible variety ascribes utter perfection, in every jot and tittle, to Scrivener’s TR. Not to put too fine a point on it, but even the doctrinal statement of the church pastored by recent BJU chapel speaker Johnny Pope reads this way:

The Bible is perfectly preserved in the text known as Textus Receptus, Received, from which the Authorized King James Version of the Bible is translated.

Mainstream KJV-Onlyist R.B. Ouellette—who, like Peter Ruckman and Stewart Custer and myself, is a BJU graduate—contrasts the critical text and the TR in stark terms in his book, A More Sure Word: Which Bible Can You Trust?:

All answers that come from human scholarship will be imperfect and tentative—this is why we need an Absolute Scripture!

Mainstream KJV-Onlyist Chuck Surrett, a careful man and former academic dean of Ambassador Baptist College, in his book Certainty of the Words: Biblical Principles of Textual Criticism, asks,

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?

Surrett insists that we can and must have absolute certainty regarding the text of the New Testament. Absolute, jot-and-tittle perfection.

And when you press mainstream KJV-Onlyists to tell you which TR is perfect, those who do know what you mean, like Surrett, will point to Scrivener’s edition of the TR.

I will explain later why KJV-Onlyists choose Scrivener’s edition of the TR. I want to start, however, with some extensive criticisms of that choice, criticisms made by a nineteenth century scholar whose name you will probably not recognize: Henry Ambrose. This exercise will be worth it; I think his criticisms of Scrivener’s TR are especially powerful, and they also provide a pretty sound introduction to the work of New Testament textual criticism. But I also think Ambrose is an exceptionally fair-minded and independent man who is willing to side with the readings in Scrivener’s Greek New Testament and against those in the Westcott-Hort critical text when he believes the evidence warrants it. Then, at the end of this long article, I’m going to give you a surprise twist that will no doubt shock and amaze you, that will make this piece worth every penny you paid for the electricity to read it. Don’t skip ahead, or else the surprise twist will be meaningless. And don’t give up before the end, or you will entirely miss the point—an incredibly important point in the debate over the KJV and Scrivener’s Greek New Testament, the one used in all KJV-Only educational institutions that teach Greek.

The textual-critical views of Henry Ambrose

Henry Ambrose would not have been pleased to know that Greek students in the future were being handed Scrivener’s Greek New Testament as their main text, or, indeed as a supposedly perfect text. Ambrose, a member of the committee of 50 scholars who produced the English Revised Version in the 1880s, had a generally positive view of the KJV, but when he was asked in the 1870s to teach New Testament textual criticism in a series of six lectures to people who cannot read Greek, he took issue with the readings in Scrivener’s Greek New Testament at many places.

I want to canvas Ambrose’s views of textual criticism, including his critiques of the readings in Scrivener’s Greek New Testament—and his implicit critiques of KJV-Onlyism, which of course didn’t yet exist in his day (though it did in spirit, though not in letter, in Dean John Burgon). Then I will offer that surprise twist. Ambrose is an interesting figure, because he adopts Westcott and Hort’s basic views, but he uses their views to come, at times, to different conclusions than they did.

Henry Ambrose opens his lectures on New Testament textual criticism by saying that textual criticism is a good thing. Ambrose thinks, however, that even laypeople can learn this kind of criticism.

The criticism of the New Testament is a field which the humblest student of Holy Writ may cultivate with profit to himself and others.

Contrast this with what I hear from Reformed and IFB varieties of KJV-Onlyism. Dell Johnson opened his famous Leaven of Fundamentalism lectures in 1998, whose major target was none other than the institution from which I graduated thrice, with a blunt statement that textual criticism itself is evil. Johnson’s lecture title said it all: “Textual Criticism: The Leaven of Fundamentalism.” But, of course, he said more. Here’s a brief excerpt—and I’m trying to let him speak for himself here by giving you a representative portion of his lecture.

Textual criticism…is an approach to Bible study, and it will result in the corruption of God's word, and we will handle God's word deceitfully. This leavening method of textual criticism was accepted and used by theological liberals, and it is even to this day applied in two ways: It is applied first of all toward the text, the text of the Bible. The text of the Bible as it was written in the Hebrew and in the Greek. And as you accept this method, you have a choice, in approaching the text of the Bible. You can approach it one of two ways. You can either accept the text—you can believe it and obey it; or you can doubt it and you can criticize it. Now, if you doubt it and criticize it, then you will develop a critical text.

Likewise, today’s Reformed KJV-Onlyists are generally negative toward textual criticism. They commonly call the view Henry Ambrose defends “reconstructionist” textual criticism; in their view, Ambrose believes that we don’t have God’s words, that instead we have to “reconstruct” them.

Ambrose, however, clearly thinks there’s profit in textual criticism, and he goes on to teach laypeople all about it in his lectures.

Ambrose in his opener points out, quite simply, that it is humanly impossible to make a perfect transcript of a lengthy document.

No transcript of any considerable length can well be found which does not differ from its prototype in some small points, and that in spite of all the care and skill which may have been engaged in producing it. Some of the original words or letters will have been mistaken by the copyist, or his eye may have wandered from one line to another, or he may have omitted or repeated whole sentences…. Human imperfection will be sure to…leave its mark on the most elaborate efforts after accuracy.

Ambrose does not believe, as KJV-Only institutions who use Scrivener’s Greek New Testament commonly do, that God providentially kept a certain line of biblical manuscripts pure and free from these copyist errors. He specifically denies that there is such a thing as a pure text:

These natural blemishes and imperfections which prevail in all extant copies of all other works of antiquity, do they extend their baneful influence to manuscripts of Holy Scripture also? We must, of course, confess that, respect being had to the vast importance of preserving a pure text of the sacred writers, the answer might well be looked for in the negative, if we closed our senses to existing facts.

Ambrose doubles down against what would later come to be the KJV-Only viewpoint:

God might, beyond a doubt, have so guided the hand or fixed the devout attention of successive races of copyists, that no jot or tittle should have been changed in the Bible of all that was first written therein. But this result could have been brought about only in one way, so far as we can perceive,—by nothing short of a continuous, unceasing miracle: by making fallible men, nay, many such in every generation, for one purpose absolutely infallible.

So Ambrose is content with the presence of copyist errors in the manuscript tradition of the Greek New Testament. He takes the common evangelical line, however, arguing that these copyist errors don’t actually matter much.

The great mass of these various readings are in themselves quite insignificant, and scarcely affect the sense at all.

Ambrose explains that the goal of New Testament textual criticism is to find

how best to clear all existing copies of Scripture, whether in manuscript or printed, from the errors and corruptions of later times, and to restore it if possible to the condition in which it first left the hands of the original authors.

Ambrose approvingly quotes the textual critical scholar Richard Bentley, who said that “the real text of the sacred writers does not now (since the originals have been so long lost) lie in any manuscript or edition, but is dispersed in them all.”

Ambrose’s views are immediately recognizable as standing in what is now the scholarly mainstream, both among evangelical Christians and even among unbelievers. These were Westcott and Hort’s views, and these are the views of nearly all the translators of today’s major modern evangelical English Bible translations.

Ambrose does differ a bit from what is now the mainstream, because he doesn’t see as much value in the world-famous Sinaiticus as Westcott and Hort did, and as today’s textual-critical scholars do. But Ambrose was glad Tischendorf found Sinaiticus, and in his lectures he defended its authenticity at length against the—to Ambrose—crazy con-artist Constantine Simonides, who claimed to have counterfeited them (a claim repeated by today’s KJV-Onlyists such as David W. Daniels in his book Is the World's Oldest Bible a Fake?).

And Ambrose is prepared, like the mainstream today, to let the testimony of Sinaiticus and Vaticanus weigh a great deal:

However jealous we may be of admitting any variation into the text on the solitary evidence of Vaticanus, we shall meet with not a few cases wherein, seconded by the Sinai copy and by that copy almost alone, the intrinsic goodness of the reading it exhibits will hardly lead us to hesitate to receive it as true.

In other words, Ambrose does not accept the argument that God would not have let any readings of the New Testament lie moldering in a Vatican library for centuries.

And Ambrose goes the other way, too: he points to Sinaiticus as a reason not to accept the KJV’s inclusion of the Comma Johanneum, 1 John 5:7.

There is no vestige in Codex Sinaiticus, nor indeed in any other manuscript worth naming, of the famous interpolation of what are called the Three Heavenly Witnesses in vers. 7, 8, which yet deforms our Authorised translation.

Ambrose’s canons of New Testament textual criticism

Ambrose has a sophisticated and complex view of New Testament textual criticism; he puts forward the same basic set of rules for it—the same “canons”—as those used by Westcott and Hort. Ambrose gives five canons to the latter’s nine, but his is recognizably the same approach to the issue.

For example, Ambrose says as Westcott and Hort do that “the harder reading is preferable to the easier.” In other words, “It would seem more likely that a copyist should try to explain an obscure expression, or to relieve a harsh construction, than that he should make that perplexed which before was easy.” This is Westcott and Hort’s canon 8.

Ambrose’s second canon is that “The shorter reading is more probable than the longer, it being the tendency of most scribes (though certainly not of all) rather to enlarge than to abridge.” This is essentially identical to Westcott and Hort’s canon 3.

Ambrose’s third canon is to look for the reading that best conforms to the style of the biblical author. This is Westcott and Hort’s canon 5.

Ambrose’s fourth canon is to weigh the overall quality of the manuscript in which a given reading appears. This is Westcott and Hort’s canon 9.

Ambrose’s fifth and final canon matches Westcott and Hort’s canon 6: “That reading out of several is to be chosen, from which all the rest may have been derived, although it could not be derived from any of them.” In other words, the reading that best explains all the others is probably original.

Henry Ambrose’s perspective on New Testament textual criticism will be recognizable to anyone who has studied the topic. When we come to see how negative he is about some the readings in Scrivener’s Greek New Testament, this will be no surprise, because Ambrose approaches the text of the New Testament using basically the same views as Westcott and Hort. This does not mean he always agrees with those scholars’ conclusions; he states clearly that he does not.

But Ambrose gives us a good opportunity to see how often he agrees or disagrees with these men, because he devotes two of his six lay-level lectures on textual criticism to discussing individual places of variation in the New Testament manuscript tradition.

I will work very, very briefly through five of his chosen examples, then I’ll explain what he does with the “big three”—the longer ending of Mark, the story of the woman caught in adultery, and the “three heavenly witnesses” of 1 John 5:7.

  1. Ambrose sides with Scrivener’s text (and therefore the KJV) against Westcott and Hort in retaining the final two words in the phrase in Matthew 5:22, “Whoever is angry with his brother without cause.”
  2. Ambrose goes against Scrivener’s text and the KJV, however, by insisting that “thine is the kingdom, and the power, and the glory, for ever,” the famous ending of the Lord’s Prayer, “can hardly be upheld any longer as a portion of the sacred text.”
  3. He sides with Scrivener’s text in believing that “children” is preferable to “works” in Matt 11:19: “Wisdom is justified by her children.”
  4. In Matt 16:2–3 he is harsh against Scrivener’s text. He says, “The exclamation ‘O ye hypocrites’ of the common text, is undoubtedly spurious.”
  5. In the famous passage 1 Timothy 3:16, which says in the critical text, “he was manifest in the flesh,” but in the KJV, “God was manifest in the flesh,” Ambrose sides with Westcott and Hort against Scrivener’s text and the KJV. He argues that Christ’s deity is clear in other places. “Slowly and deliberately, yet in full confidence that God in other passages of His written word has sufficiently assured us of the Proper Divinity of His Incarnate Son, we have yielded up this clause as no longer tenable against the accumulated force of external evidence which has been brought against it.”

Now to those big three passages.

  1. At the all-important passage in NT textual criticism, Mark 16:9–20, he sides with the KJV and Scrivener’s text and believes the verses belong in the New Testament. He cannot accept that the story ended with such a dispiriting cliffhanger as Mark 16:8.
  2. But regarding the woman caught in adultery in John 7:53–8:11, Ambrose articulates what is today’s majority view, I think, among evangelical biblical scholars.

It is evident that the passage was known early, widely diffused, and extensively received: but it is well-nigh impossible, in the face of hostile evidence so ancient and varied, to regard it as a genuine portion of S. John’s Gospel.

  1. Ambrose is nothing short of acid about 1 John 5:7. This is the famous disputed passage that, in the KJV, reads,

There are three that bear record in heaven, the Father, the Word, and the Holy Ghost: and these three are one.

Ambrose said,

We are here treading over the ashes of many a fiery debate, but the flame which once raged so fiercely is well-nigh extinct. It may be doubted whether a single person now living, who is capable of forming an intelligent judgment on critical subjects, believes or professes to believe in the genuineness of that interpolated gloss, familiarly known as the “Text of the Three Heavenly Witnesses”…. That it has no right to hold a place in the body of Scripture we regard as certain.

In the end, Ambrose decides against the readings in Scrivener, after careful evaluation of the evidence, 28 times out of around 50 examples, examples he himself chose. He decides for readings in Scrivener’s GNT 16 times (in the remaining six examples he fails to take a side). What’s interesting, again, is that he shows at an early date that someone can use Westcott and Hort’s basic principles but weigh the evidence differently. He leans a bit more toward the Texti Recepti—at least in the examples he himself chose—than did Westcott and Hort. He is an independent thinker. But he’s also independent from tradition: he’s absolutely willing to decide against Scrivener’s TR and the KJV. At one place he even takes time out of his discussion to correct the KJV’s translation of a given text, and at another to explain the archaic wording of the KJV.

As I finish out my description of Ambrose’s views, I simply note that those who defend Scrivener’s TR and the KJV will recognize in Ambrose another view that they frequently have occasion to critique, namely the idea that the variations in the manuscript tradition of the Greek New Testament have no effect on Christian doctrine:

Be the various readings in the New Testament what they may, they do not in any way alter the complexion of the whole book, or lead us to modify a single inference which theologians have gathered from the common text, as it is now extant in our Authorized version. “Even put them into the hands of a knave or fool”—I employ the pointed language of Bentley, in the sequel of a passage I have cited before (p. 13)—“and yet with the most sinistrous and absurd choice, he shall not extinguish the light of any one chapter, nor so disguise Christianity, but that every feature of it will still be the same.”

The “worst that can happen,” Ambrose says, is that “certain passages, it may be, will no longer be available to establish doctrines whose proof rests secure upon a hundred besides.”

Ambrose was a believing Christian. He didn’t conclude from his studies that the New Testament was hopelessly corrupted. He believed that “the main result of all investigations will be a thankful conviction that God’s Providence has kept from harm the treasure of His written word, so far as is needful for the quiet assurance of His Church and people.”

But anyone who has followed the debate over KJV-Onlyism will know that at point after point, Henry Ambrose is distinctly out of step with the views of modern defenders of the KJV, and modern champions of Scrivener’s Greek New Testament that underlies it. I think his arguments devastate that position. If Jesus’ words in Matthew 5:18 truly do promise perfect manuscript copies of the Hebrew Bible and Greek New Testament, simple acquaintance with the manuscripts we possess will demonstrate immediately that we have no way of knowing, not with certainty, which copies are perfect.

Do the twist

And here comes my surprise twist. You’ve probably never heard of nineteenth century scholar Henry Ambrose, right? You may have wondered why I picked such an obscure figure, and why I chose him to be the sparring partner with the text in Scrivener’s edition of the Textus Receptus. It wasn’t because Ambrose’s arguments are so responsible and interesting, although I certainly believe that they are. It’s because Henry Ambrose and F.H.A. Scrivener are one and the same person.

F.H.A. stands for Frederick Henry Ambrose. The same scholar who put together what we know as Scrivener’s Greek New Testament, the printed edition used by KJV-Onlyists at Hyles Anderson College, Crown College, Pensacola Christian College, West Coast Baptist College, Ambassador Baptist College, and elsewhere, argued quite confidently against the text that bears his name in numerous places. Scrivener did not believe that Scrivener’s Greek New Testament text was accurate, much less perfect.

What in the world is going on? Why would someone make a text that he didn’t believe to be accurate?

Why Scrivener made Scrivener’s GNT

There’s a simple and clear answer, and if the Trinitarian Bible Society included Frederick Henry Ambrose Scrivener’s original preface and appendix, my KJV-Only brothers could see this answer for themselves. The prose is a bit abstruse, the picture a little obscure. But I’ll help you understand.

The special design of this volume is to place clearly before the reader the variations from the Greek text represented by the Authorised Version of the New Testament which have been embodied in the Revised Version.

Every word here is important. The purpose of Scrivener’s edition of the Greek New Testament was not to produce the perfect Greek text. It was to demonstrate where the English Revised Version made textual critical decisions different from those made by the KJV translators.

One of the Rules laid down for the guidance of the Revisers by a Committee appointed by the Convocation of Canterbury was to the effect “that, when the Text adoped differs from that from which the Authorised Version was made, the alteration be indicated in the margin.”

This makes excellent sense, right? By Scrivener’s time the KJV had enjoyed around two centuries of dominance among English-speaking Christians. Readers would want to know where the translators of this official KJV revision presumed a different underlying Greek text.

As it was found that a literal observance of this direction would often crowd and obscure the margin of the Revised Version, the Revisers judged that its purpose might be better carried out in another manner. They therefore communicated to the Oxford and Cambridge University Presses a full and carefully corrected list of the readings adopted which are at variance with the readings “presumed to underlie the Authorised Version,” in order that they might be published independently in some shape or other. The University Presses have accordingly undertaken to print them in connexion with complete Greek texts of the New Testament.

Few KJV-Onlyists know that Scrivener also edited an edition of the KJV, and in the appendix to that Cambridge Paragraph Bible, as he called it, Scrivener went into scrivenerian detail about differences between the TR editions that were used by the KJV translators. He said in Appendix E of his own edition of the KJV, published in 1884, that the KJV translators appeared to use mainly Beza’s 1598 TR and Stephanus’ 1550 TR. These two TRs do not fully agree. Scrivener carefully noted

  • 111 passages in which the KJV translators chose to follow Beza against Stephanus,
  • 59 in which they did the opposite, and
  • 67 in which they differed from both texts and went with some other reading.

There are also a few places in Scrivener’s Greek New Testament where Scrivener refused to follow choices made by the KJV translators, because those choices could not be found in any Greek manuscripts.

Let me say this again clearly: Scrivener produced the text I hold here as a sort of good-faith academic exercise to demonstrate where the English Revised Version made textual-critical decisions different from those of the KJV translators. His text was never meant to be the ONE TEXT TO RULE THEM ALL. It was a study aid for those interested in Greek New Testament textual criticism. It was an attempt at public honesty by the ERV committee.

You can say, and KJV-Onlyists do say this, that the KJV translators and Scrivener after them acted by God’s providential hand to produce perfect texts. But I’ve always felt it was rather awkward for that viewpoint that both Scrivener and the KJV translators—in their amazing preface—explicitly deny in multiple places that they were producing perfect work.

You can say, and KJV-Onlyists do say this, that the critical text can’t possibly be the right text because it never existed in the history of the world until 1881. But as we’ve just seen, precisely the same thing can be said of the Greek New Testament edition they use. That precise set of jots and tittles, of letters and spaces and punctuation, never existed anywhere on the planet until Scrivener created it in 1881.

You can say, and leading KJV-Onlyist R.B. Ouellette does say this in his book A More Sure Word, that Scrivener “did not share the views” of Westcott and Hort. You can say, as Ouellette did, “After serving on the Revision Committee with Westcott and Hort, Scrivener distanced himself from that project by editing his own edition of the Received Text in 1881.” But this is simply and clearly not true. Scrivener did not distance himself from the committee producing a revised English version and a revised Greek text. He produced an edition of the TR precisely as part of his work on that overall team. And I can find no evidence that Scrivener had some kind of change of heart, a deathbed conversion to KJV-Onlyism.

The basic shape of the information I’ve presented in this lecture was present in the original front and back matter in Scrivener’s Greek New Testament, back when it was first printed in the late 19th century. I don’t know for sure why the KJV-Only organization called the Trinitarian Bible Society left that material out when it began reprinting Scrivener’s Greek New Testament in (as best I can tell) 1970. I asked one of their representatives, and he did not know. But I think this information would help their constituency know what it is they’re holding in their hands.

Just as the KJV translators would be mortified to discover that there are people today who regard every one of their translation decisions to be perfect, Frederick Henry Ambrose Scrivener would be mortified—and, I think, righteously incensed—to discover that a large number of English-speaking Christians regarded his academic exercise, an edition containing readings he considered obviously spurious, to be the every-jot-and-tittle, perfectly preserved Word of God.

Conclusion

I raised a question in the title to this article: “Is the Textus Receptus Perfect in Every Jot and Tittle?” That title alludes, of course, to Matthew 5:18 in the King James Version. And I think that Matthew 5:18 is the most plausible prooftext for TR-Onlyism.

For 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. (Matthew 5:18)

Defenders of “the TR” commonly quote this passage (and Psalm 12:6–7) to promote the view that “the TR” was “kept pure in all ages.” This is the name of a conference put on by Reformed KJV-Onlyists who have promoted what they call “Confessional Bibliology,” because that wording, “kept pure in all ages,” comes from the Westminster Confession’s statement on bibliology.

Listen to promoters of the TR for any length of time, and you’ll hear them use words to describe the TR such as “pure,” “settled,” “sure,” “certain,” “preserved,” and, of course, “perfect.” I have heard this kind of language countless times.

But perfect is perfect. If Jesus promised that every jot and tittle would be preserved, none missing or added, and all in the right order (what else could “perfect” mean?), why did it take till 1881 for us to see this promise fulfilled? How can we know that it was fulfilled then, that it won’t be fulfilled in 2081? If we can’t say we have God’s Word unless we have a perfect copy of it, which is perhaps the staple argument of the KJV-Onlyists, where was God’s Word before 1881? Isn’t it better to say, as orthodox Christians always have, that Jesus wasn’t talking about perfect manuscript copies at all but about the efficacy of the Old Testament, that we ought to be content with the textual situation God has given us, namely a 100-piece puzzle with 103 pieces? That’s what the manuscript history of both testaments is. This, again, is the prevailing and orthodox view.

KJV-Onlyists very commonly revile the Nestle-Aland text that the great majority of Christians who can read Greek use—and “revile” is not too strong a word—precisely because it is in its 28th edition. “When are you finally going to have the Word of God?,” they say.

But by my count, Scrivener’s TR was actually the 29th major TR. What confidence should I have that it is the perfect one?

The KJV translators did textual criticism. They effectively created a new TR—one that wasn’t reconstructed until 1881.

That means that none of the major European translations that came out before 1881 could possibly have used the same jots and tittles used by the KJV translators. And sure enough, if you look into the details, you see differences among early modern European Bibles. The translators of the 1636 Dutch Statenvertaaling, Holland’s equivalent to the KJV, used a slightly different TR which results in some minor but definite differences between their New Testament and the KJV. So did the Portuguese translators. And so if you read the KJV and the historic French Bible at Matthew 2:11, you’ll see that the wise men “saw the child and Mary his mother.” But if you read the Dutch and Portuguese and German Bibles, you’ll see that the wise men “found the child and Mary his mother.” They differ because their underlying texts differ. Perfect is perfect. Which TR is the perfect one? And how can I know which it is without extra revelation from God beyond Scripture?

Though perfect is perfect, and jots are jots and tittles are tittles, I admit that that is a minor difference among TRs. I do not know all of the differences among them; a close evangelical friend of mine who grew up influenced by KJV-Onlyism and now works in the field of New Testament textual criticism has begun work on a critical edition of the TR, one that records all the differences among the over 100 different TR editions he has cataloged (many of which are probably the same texts). But I do kmow that there is actually a formal contradiction at James 2:18 between the TR underlying the historic Dutch version and the TR underlying the KJV. There’s a preposition change which makes the clause say the opposite of what it says in the other TR. English-speaking believers over the centuries have read, “Show me your faith without your works.” That translates the Greek word χωρις, meaning “apart from.” Dutch-speaking believers have read over the centuries, “Show me your faith by your works.” That translates the word εκ, meaning “by” or “through.” As it happens, Tyndale used this reading, too. Perhaps God did not intend for his providential use of any given early-modern European translations to be the means by which textual criticism is accomplished, for these texts do not speak with one perfect voice.

In 2020 I published an article in the Detroit Baptist Seminary Journal showing that precisely the same kinds of differences exist between TR editions as exist between the standard critical text and “the TR.” I collated only two TRs (Stephanus and Scrivener), and I came up with dozens of differences in ten different categories: spelling, word order, number, person, tense, mood, etc. I showed that there were most definitely differences between the two TRs that changed the meaning of the text. I pushed hard on the question, “Which TR is the perfect one?” After a year and a half I’ve gotten opposite responses from the two accredited TR defenders who have responded to the question posed by the paper. Dr. Jeff Riddle, a top leader in the Confessional Bibliology world, said that we just have to do textual criticism of TR editions, but only TR editions. He declined to pick a perfect one. (Note: Dr. Riddle was not responding to my paper but to similar ideas I and others [such as Peter Gurry] had expressed before the paper was released.) Dr. Peter Van Kleeck, Jr, however, said that Scrivener’s TR is the perfect one because it is the culmination of God’s work of preservation. Van Kleeck wrote in an unpublished response to my article,

At the time of Beza’s TR that iteration of the TR was the word of God. At the time of Stephanus’ TR that iteration of the TR was the word of God. And now in the 21st century, the Scrivener iteration is the TR.

He compared God’s work of preservation through time to the ongoing, progressive work of sanctification in the believer’s life. And yet—I don’t know about you—I would be unhappy to discover that my sanctification ceased in 1881; by Van Kleeck’s reasoning, I should think that the Nestle-Aland 28th edition might just be the word of God for us today, as the 29th will be when it is released.

So is the TR perfect in every jot and tittle? How could it be, when even its major defenders don’t agree on which TR is the perfect one, or how to know? How could it be, when their whole case is built in God’s use of the KJV—but ignores completely God’s use of the French, Dutch, Portuguese, German, Russian, and other Bible translations? And indeed, their case ignores God’s extensive use of critical text Bibles throughout the world. When does God’s use of contemporary translations constitute his imprimatur, his sign that we have reached some additional stage of textual purification?

TR-Onlyism is better than Ruckmanism, the widespread belief that the KJV itself is inspired and corrects the Greek. But TR-Onlyism still boils back down to KJV-Onlyism—because the TR TR defenders defend is the KJV. That is, it’s the record of textual critical decisions made by the KJV translators, as reconstructed by Frederick Henry Ambrose Scrivener.

Coda

A short coda before I close: Perhaps ironically, I don’t think you should repeat any of this stuff to the next KJV-Only brother the Lord brings across your path. I think you should avoid the topic of textual criticism entirely—until he is willing to acknowledge the dead words and false friends in the KJV. That means acknowledging that there are in the KJV words we know we don’t know, like besom, chambering, and beeves; it also means acknowledging that there are in the KJV words we don’t know we don’t know, what I call “false friends.” These are words like halt in “How long halt ye between two opinions?” And commend in “But God commendeth his love toward us.” And remove in “Remove not the ancient landmark.” These words did not mean in 1611 in those contexts what they mean today. And they cannot be looked up so easily, because people don’t realize they’re misunderstanding. They won’t know to look them up. 1 Corinthians 14 teaches that edification requires intelligibility. Until I hear honest acknowledgments from TR defenders that archaic Elizabethan English now stands in tension with the principle taught in that passage (and I do very occasionally hear this), I refuse to argue textual criticism with them. That’s because we don’t have to agree on textual criticism, a topic the Bible does not directly address, for them to obey 1 Corinthians 14. There are other contemporary translations of the TR, such as the NKJV and MEV, that use contemporary, fully intelligible English and are widely available. It was my professor Randy Leedy who said in class once, offhandedly, “You prefer the TR? Fine. Make a contemporary English translation of it.” Amen to that. I don’t think the TR is perfect, but if the text is truly the issue for our TR-Only brothers, I would be happy to see TR-based contemporary translations replace the KJV in institutional contexts like churches, schools, camps, and curricula. That is my aim—not that the KJV be thrown in the trash but that it not be the required or default translation in those many institutional contexts in which people who don’t understand Elizabethan English well are likely to show up.

If a KJV-Only brother listens to the biblical argument from 1 Corinthians 14, then you can be ready, if you really feel it’s necessary, to talk about Scrivener and textual criticism. And indeed I’d point you to my own argument in this long article, because that will mean building a bridge on some common ground. “Scrivener” is a name that a number of KJV-Onlyists do respect and trust.

I am a theological conservative; I love the Bible; I have staked my life on its inerrancy. It’s really tempting to ascribe to the Bible a little extra perfection—what could be the harm? I hope I have fortified you against this appeal, and made you ready to help those who sincerely find it appealing.

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6 Comments
  1. M. M. R.

    Mark Ward, you write:

    “…KJV-Onlyism, which of course didn’t yet exist in his day (though it did in spirit, though not in letter, in Dean John Burgon).”

    Could you please expand upon this when/if time permits? Namely, how (pray tell) was Burgon a KJVO “in spirit?”

    Thank you.

    Reply
    • Mark Ward

      Editor Edward Miller, in his intro to Burgon’s (posthumous) The Traditional Text of the Holy Gospels, said,

      First, be it understood, that we do not advocate perfection in the Textus Receptus. We allow that here and there it requires revision. In the Text left behind by Dean Burgon, about 150 corrections have been suggested by him in St. Matthew’s Gospel alone. What we maintain is the Traditional Text. And we trace it back to the earliest ages of which there is any record. We trust to the fullest testimony and the most enlightened view of all the evidence.

      So Burgon didn’t uphold the letter of any of the predominant forms of KJV-Onlyism of which I’m aware. He didn’t regard the TR as perfect, as do all the IFB KJV-Onlyists I’m aware of and most of the proponents of Confessional Bibliology.

      But I detect the spirit of KJV-Onlyism in Burgon’s tone and style of argumentation. I cannot now take time to give an example. I hope to do so in future.

      Reply
    • Mark Ward

      Cloud says that “the differences between the various editions of the Greek Received Text are extremely slight and cannot be compared to the differences found in the Alexandrian manuscripts.” I agree with the first half of the sentence pretty much, but not the latter. I wrote a journal article for the Detroit Baptist Seminary Journal trying to demonstrate that the very same *kinds* of differences that occur between “the TR” and “the critical text” occur among the TRs.

      And, again, wait a minute: perfect is perfect. How does the TR defender know which TR is the perfect one? And how can they use Matt 5:18 to defend anything other than a 100%, jot-and-tittle-perfect text?

      Reply
  2. Lucas

    I listened to this on a drive to Reno today, woke my poor wife up when you revealed the twist. I haven’t been surprised by a twist like that since a certain Bruce Willis movie from back in the 90s.
    I left your message informed, edified, engaged and encouraged, in a word: blessed. Thank you for all you do, it ministers to me. Too often this subject gets obscured with static in the form of sarcasm or vitriol, it is refreshing to hear truth and love.

    Reply
    • Mark Ward

      This is very meaningful to me, Lucas. Thank you! My live audience did not react that way, not that I could tell—so I was worried! They told me afterward, though, that they were surprised (with one exception, a guy who’d just been reading Scrivener!).

      Reply

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