One of the questions I’ve been asked is to explain how my understanding of the Protestant confessions on the text of the Scriptures squares with the critical work of Erasmus, Stephanus, and Beza.
First of all, the views of Erasmus, even his Bibliology, were not compatible with the Reformed confessions. Efforts to demonstrate that they were are futile and unnecessary because the acceptance of his edition of the Greek New Testament by the Protestant Orthodox had little to do with his Bibliology nor his critical methodology.
Indeed, in all of the Protestant writings of the 16th and 17th centuries defending their “common text”*, I’ve not come across one treatise defending the text based upon the methodology of Erasmus. As I’ve said in a number of places, the defense of the text was foremost upon dogmatic grounds (and with good reason).
As for Stephanus and Beza, to summarize here I will address them together. Both men were very reluctant to modify the “common text”. This is easily demonstrated by stability of the text between the various printed editions. There are less than 40 differences between the first edition of Stephanus and the final edition of Beza and the majority of those are very minor.
There was already, by the time of Stephanus, a Protestant doctrine of Scripture that would not tolerate frequent and substantial alterations to the text. It is for this reason that the critical work of Stephanus and Beza is not seen in their modifications to the “common text”, but in their annotations.
The tension therefore between the Protestant doctrine of Scripture as was later confessed in the 17th century confessions (though already well established in the 16th century) and the critical work found in the annotations of Stephanus and Beza must be seen as just that…tensions. The fact that these men did the majority of their critical work in their notes and not in the text itself demonstrates that they were aware of the tension.
This tension between the work of sacred criticism regarding the text of Scripture and the dogmatic commitments to the text had very little impact on the “common text” of Protestant Reformation which was regarded as canonical. The pendulum would not swing in the other direction until the late 19th century.
Now the serpent was more cunning than any beast of the field which the Lord God had made. And he said to the woman, “Has God indeed said, ‘You shall not eat of every tree of the garden’?”
“Has God indeed said?” The critic begins with this simple question. This question is one from unbelief and it is meant to sow seeds of unbelief. Perhaps God has not really said it. Perhaps I misheard. Doubt begins to creep in.
And the woman said to the serpent, “We may eat the fruit of the trees of the garden; but of the fruit of the tree which is in the midst of the garden, God has said, ‘You shall not eat it, nor shall you touch it, lest you die.’ ”
On the one hand, Eve’s response begins with confidence. It’s not as if God is being unreasonable or stingy. We may eat of any of the trees except this one. But then you see that nagging doubt the critic planted into her mind for she adds to God’s command that they were commanded not to even touch it. Is it in fact true that God is being unjust?
Then the serpent said to the woman, “You will not surely die. For God knows that in the day you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.”
The critic proceeds to correct God. “You will not surely die.” It’s as if to say, “you silly woman, I know you think God said you will die if you eat of this tree, but you SURELY will not. Certainty for the critic is not in God’s word, it is in his rejection of it.
The next step is to claim some good thing will come from the certainty of the critic. The critic knows better than God’s word. He provides an alternate meaning to God’s clear command. “You will be like God, knowing good and evil.”
So when the woman saw that the tree was good for food, that it was pleasant to the eyes, and a tree desirable to make one wise, she took of its fruit and ate. She also gave to her husband with her, and he ate.
Eve does not put the critic’s words to the test by comparing them to what God actually said. Rather, she trusts her senses. She “SAW that the tree was good for food” and “that it was pleasant to the eyes” and that it was “desirable to make one wise.” She believed the critic. The evidence clearly is on his side she thinks.
As for Adam, he just passively rolls with it and eats. He appears to have little interest in sorting the matter out for himself.
This is the dynamic that is going on in our churches and universities. When the only certainty we can have is in fact uncertainty, infidelity is the inevitable result.
Do you actually believe you have, in your possession, the infallible word of God? —And I don’t mean theoretically. If not, you’ve given ear to the first critic and trusted your sight (reason) over the word of God and you are left with fig leaves. It’s an old story that just keeps being retold.
If man, before sin, could fall for this, how much more the sinner?
If your Bible is to be found somewhere between the base text of the NA28 and the myriad of choices from the apparatus, you don’t have a Bible but a puzzle. The true text of sacred Scripture is an enigma for all who would seek it in such a manner.
According to this approach, no one from Biblical times had a Bible, nor the early church fathers, nor those of the Reformation and Post-Reformation era, nor anyone else up until the late 20th century. Even so, the Enigma Machine of contemporary textual criticism keeps serving up an ever changing critical text (including apparatus).
The actual Enigma Machine of World War II was the device kept aboard German submarines used to decrypt orders sent from the German High Command. The Enigma Machine of history actually worked. When the Allies captured one they were able to successfully decrypt German messages.
The Enigma Machine of contemporary textual criticism doesn’t work nearly so well. It ultimately comes down to a lot of subjective guess work and for this reason the scholars who produce critical texts never claim to have solved the puzzle. This is why they provide an extensive apparatus detailing myriads of variants. If they could actually produce a definitive text, there would be no need for such notes.
So while on the one hand, contemporary textual critics claim to be recovering the earliest form of the text, their praxis is based upon the scientific method making any findings subject to falsification. The scientific method requires this skepticism.
Textual decisions cannot ever be final. Those who actually produce the critical texts never make the claim that the base text of any particular edition is the restored, autographic text. Not only that, but these same scholars have rejected the idea that the autographic text can ever be fully restored.
This is not to say that all before us had the precise text of the Textus Receptus. One need not make such a claim to demonstrate the approach to the text as seen in contemporary textual criticism is uniquely modern. It is a novel approach to the text of the Scriptures and it looks little like anything that has come before it.
It is difficult for many supporters of the modern, Critical Text to see this because their understanding of the subject is at the popular level. They actually think the base text of the NA28 is THE text in a very similar way a Received Text advocate sees the TR.
What is driving the resurgence of the Received Text in our day?
I think a chief cause is the Holy Spirit is opening people’s eyes to the fact that the base text of the NA28 has not been presented as THE text by its own compilers. While this is a matter of sacred scholarship, it is first and foremost a matter of divine revelation. It requires a work of the Holy Spirit. Where do we hear the shepherd’s voice?
People are looking for a Bible they can trust. They are looking for a canonical text and there is only one such text that has been received by the church from the hands of God’s singular care and providence.
Some people hold out the question “Which TR?” to Received Text advocates as if a definitive answer is needed or it is a deal breaker for the position. It is important to understand that the differences between its major editions are infinitesimal.
Here are some interesting quotes from “The Reformed Root of the English Bible: The Influence of Theodore Beza on the English New Testament” by Irena Backus (from the Princeton Monograph Series)…
Regarding Beza’s first edition she writes…
“Beza differed from Stephanus  in about 25 places”
Regarding Beza’s subsequent editions she writes…
“Bezas 1582 version differed in about 40 places…” with subsequent editions differing little from it. (p. 2)
She also writes…
“Moreover, he [Beza] states openly that he was very unwilling to amend the basic text and was interested largely in readings which confirm it.” (pp. 6-7)
“Throughout Beza is more concerned with accurate interpretation of particular passages than with establishing a correct reading and thus shows considerable unwillingness to tamper with the Greek text of Robert Stephanus.” (p. 7)
This is in accordance with what Dr. Hills wrote in ‘Text and Time: A Reformed Approach to New Testament Textual Criticism”…
“The diffident manner in which Beza revealed these doubts [over certain textual variants] shows that he was conscious of running counter to the views of his fellow believers. As with Erasmus and Calvin, so also with Beza there was evidently a conflict going on within his mind between his humanistic tendency to treat the New Testament like any other book and the common faith in the current New Testament text. But in the providence of God all was well. God used this common faith providentially to restrain Beza’s humanism and lead him to publish far and wide the true New Testament text.”
Dr. Hills also provided the following list of 8 of what he thought were the most important variants among the different editions of the Received Text…
Luke 2:22 their purification, Erasmus, Stephanus, majority of the Greek manuscripts. Her purification, Beza, King James Elzevir, Complutensian, 76 and a few other Greek minuscule manuscripts, Latin Vulgate (?).
Luke 17:36 Two men shall be in the field: the one shall be taken and the other left. Erasmus, Stephanus 1 2 3 omit this verse with the majority of the Greek manuscripts. Stephanus 4, Beza, King James, Elzevir have it with D, Latin Vulgate, Peshitta, Old Syriac.
John 1:28 Bethabara beyond Jordan, Erasmus, Stephanus 3 4 Beza, King James, Elzevir, Pi 1 13, Old Syriac, Sahidic. Bethany beyond Jordan, Stephanus 1 2, majority of Greek manuscripts including Pap 66 & 75 Aleph A B. Latin Vulgate.
John 16:33 shall have tribulation, Beza, King James, Elzevir, D 69 many other Greek manuscripts, Old Latin, Latin Vulgate. have tribulation, Erasmus, Stephanus, majority of Greek manuscripts. Rom. 8:11 by His Spirit that dwelleth in you. Beza, King James, Elzevir, Aleph A C, Coptic. because of His Spirit that dwelleth in you. Erasmus, Stephanus, majority of Greek manuscripts including B D, Peshitta, Latin Vulgate.
Rom. 12:11 serving the Lord, Erasmus 1, Beza, King James, Elzevir, majority of Greek manuscripts including Pap 46 Aleph A B. Peshitta, Latin Vulgate. serving the time, Erasmus 2345, Stephanus, D G.
1 Tim. 1:4 godly edifying, Erasmus, Beza, King James, Elzevir, D, Peshitta, Latin Vulgate. dispensation of God, Stephanus, majority of Greek manuscripts including Aleph A G.
Heb. 9:1 Here, Stephanus reads first tabernacle, with the majority of the Greek manuscripts. Erasmus, Beza, Luther, Calvin omit tabernacle with Pap 46 Aleph B D, Peshitta, Latin Vulgate. The King James Version omits tabernacle and regards covenant as implied.
James 2:13 without thy works, Calvin, Beza (last 3 editions), King James Aleph A B, Latin Vulgate. by thy works, Erasmus, Stephanus, Beza 1565, majority of Greek manuscripts.
In light of the above information, I’ll leave it to the reader to decide how relevant the “Which TR?” question is to the position for the Received Text. I’ll simply say that there are various ways this question can be answered but regardless of the answer, you’re going to have essentially the same text.