Recently James White has been on the attack again against those of us who advocate the Received Text. He has accused us of “abusing” our Protestant forbears and the historic Reformed confessions, while pretending them allies of his own position. Spoiler alert!…they aren’t.
Our position is said to be “dangerous” but it is the good doctor who is in Cloudland. If one can make the Reformation and Post-Reformation Protestant dogmaticians advocates for contemporary textual criticism, then one can as easily claim that Christopher Columbus discovered the Northwest Passage.
Some initial thoughts…
God has promised in his word and achieved by His singular care and providence the preservation of the Scriptures. The Scriptures are thereby guaranteed to be sufficient in fulfilling their purpose and function (teleology).
How we approach the subject of textual variation among the manuscripts is important. The position prevalent in our day is that the manuscripts are to be approached without any theological presuppositions. This has lead to viewing the manuscript history as not a story of providential preservation, but of the proliferation of textual corruption.
To put this another way, it is to say that the longer the period of time over which Biblical manuscripts are copied, the more corrupt the text becomes. This is the antithesis of the Biblical doctrine of providential preservation.
It is for this reason that I believe the praxis of contemporary textual criticism is worse than the actual product (the text it produces). This is often overlooked in the textual debate.
To approach the text of the Scriptures as a merely human artifact of history divorced from the Biblical doctrine of providential preservation is to say something of the Scriptures that undermines them at a fundamental level. It is an approach to the sacred text that is worldly and it should come as no surprise that the world loves it.
Opposed to this we have the approach of the 16th and 17th century Protestant dogmaticians…
“By the space of so many thousand years the word of God passed by so many dangers of tyrants, of Pharisees, of heretics, of fire, and of sword, and yet continueth and standeth until this day, without altering or changing one letter. This was a wonderful work of God, that, having so many, so great enemies, and passing through so many, so great dangers, it yet continueth still, without adding or altering of any one sentence, or word, or letter.”
—John Jewel (1522 – 1571), Treatise Of The Holy Scriptures
“Firstly, we thinke it not amiss to set downe the generall doctrine, that no one oracle or sentence of God can fall away. Whereby it will bee evident that the holy Scriptures both in the old and new Testament written in their original tongues, cannot either by addition, detraćtion, or exchange be corrupted. Whereunto the consideration of the authour of them, ministreth a substantiall proofe. For seeing they are of God, all whose workes remaine for euer; it followed that all the holy scriptures, being not only his handyworke, but as it were the chieſe, and masterworke of all other, must have a continuall endurance. And if there be not the least and vilest creature in the world which either hath not heretofore, or shall not hereafter, (by the mighty hand of God upholding all things) be continued: how much less is it to be esteemed, that any sentence of God, wherein a greater glory commeth to him, and greater fruit to his people then of many of those creatures, which (for these two ends) he doth so carefully continue, should perish and fall away.”
—Thomas Cartwright (1533 – 1603), Confutation Of The Rhemist Translation
“The marvelous preservation of the Scriptures; though none in time be so ancient, nor none so much oppugned, yet God hath still by his providence preserved them, and every part of them.”
–James Ussher (4 January 1581 – 21 March 1656), A Body Of Divinity
“…the general consent of all Hebricians and Grecians in the Christian world, consenting that our Originals are by the good hand of God preserved uncorrupt, and pure, is a sufficient persuasion, to breed a moral certainty answerable to natural evidence, excluding all reasonable dubitation to the contrary.”
Richard Capel (1586 – 1656), Capel’s Remains
“I cannot but confesse that it sometimes makes my heart ake, when I seriously consider what is said, That we cannot assure our selves that the Hebrew in the Old Testament, and the Greek in the New, are the right Hebrew and Greek, any further then our Masters and Tutors, and the General consent of all the Learned in the world do so say, not one dissenting. But yet say these, since the Apostles, there are no men in the world but are subject to deceive, and to be deceived. All infallibility in matters of this nature having long since left the world. Again, too like unto this is that of Master Wotton, who can tell (saith he) what the signification of the Hebrew and Greek words is even in the Bible, but by the report of men? And to the like purpose is that observation, That the two Tables written immediately by Moses and the Prophets, and the Greek Copies immediately penned by the Apostles, and Apostolical men are all lost, or not to be made use of, except by a very few. And that we have none in Hebrew or Greek, but what are transcribed. Now transcribers are ordinary men, subject to mistake, may faile, having no unerring spirit to hold their hands in writing
These be terrible blasts, and do little else when they meet with a weak head and heart, but open the doore to Atheisme, and quite to fling off the bridle, which onely can hold them and us in the wayes of truth and piety: this is to fill the conceits of men with evil thoughts against the Purity of the Originals: And if the Fountains run not clear, the Translation cannot be clean.”
“…My counsel is, that when he is come to be certain without actual doubting by reasons, arguments, consent of times, & of the Church, that our Bible is the Word of God, that he would in all humility and sincerity apply himselfe to read it, to hear it read, to heare it preached; and he may promise to himself that by the use of the word the Spirit of God will infuse & inspire divine & saving faith into his soul, and free him not only from all actual, but possible doubting, that the Bible translated is the word of God. “And if the translation, then the Originals: For what ever is the instrument to convert the soul; must needs be the pure word of God.”
–Richard Capel (1586 – 1656), Capel’s Remains
“Preservation of the books of the Scripture: the fury of many wicked Tyrants which sought to suppress and extinguish them, Many of the Bibles were taken from Christians and burnt in those cruel persecutions under Dioclesian and Maxminianus his Collegue, but could not, as God caused it to be written for the good of his people, so by divine providence he hath preserved the same whole and entire.”
Edward Leigh (1602 – 1671), A Member of the Westminster Assembly, from A Treatise Of Divinity,
“But still the Scriptures are wonderfully preserved, as the three Children in the Furnace, not an Hair was singed; not a jot or tittle of the Truth is perished or corrupted. If it were corrupted, it must be before Christ’s Time, or after it: not before, then Christ would have noted it; not after, for then the Parts would not agree; but we find no such thing but an exact Harmony: Nor is there any lost, for here is a sufficient Instruction and Guide to Happiness. Christ hath promised not a tittle shall fall to the ground. The Word hath been in danger of being lost, but the Miracle of Preservation is therefore the greater. In Joshua’s Time there was but one Copy of the Law. In Dioclesian’s Time, there was an Edict to burn their Bibles, and Copies were scarce and chargeable, and yet still it hath been kept.”
Thomas Manton (1620 – 1677), A Second Volume Of Sermons
“It can, then, with no color of probability be asserted (which yet I find some learned men too free in granting), namely, that there hath the same fate attended the Scripture in its transcription as hath done other books.
Let me say without offense, this imagination, asserted on deliberation, seems to me to border on atheism. Surely the promise of God for the preservation of his word, with his love and care of his church, of whose faith and obedience that word of his is the only rule, requires other thoughts at our hands…”
“…Let it be remembered that the vulgar copy [the Received Text] we use was the public possession of many generations, — that upon the invention of printing it was in actual authority throughout the world with them that used and understood that language, as far as any thing appears to the contrary; let that, then, pass for the standard, which is confessedly its right and due, and we shall, God assisting, quickly see how little reason there is to pretend such varieties of readings as we are now surprised withal”
—John Owen, Of The Integrity And Purity Of The Hebrew & Greek Texts Of Scripture
In light of these and many other such citations, Richard Muller rightly observed…
“All too much discussion of the Reformers’ methods has attempted to turn them into precursors of the modern critical method, when in fact, the developments of exegesis and hermeneutics in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries both precede and, frequently conflict with (as well as occasionally adumbrate) the methods of the modern era.”
—Richard Muller, Post Reformation Reformed Dogmatics, Vol 2, The Holy Scriptures
To recast the meaning of the Westminster Confession of Faith and the Bibliology of our Protestant fathers in order to make them a support for contemporary textual criticism (reasoned eclecticism, CBGM, etc) is the real abuse and we could also rightly call it dangerous. This trip into historical fantasy only works if words have no meaning.
“The Old Testament in Hebrew, (which was the native language of the people of God of old), and the New Testament in Greek, (which, at the time of the writing of it, was most generally known to the nations), being immediately inspired by God, and, by his singular care and providence, kept pure in all ages, are therefore authentical; so as, in all controversies of religion, the Church is finally to appeal unto them.”
—Westminster Confession, Chapter 1, Paragraph 8a