The Preservation of Scripture

One of the benefits that God gave Israel as his covenanted people was committing to them the oracles of God. What advantage then hath the Jew? or what profit is there of circumcision? Much every way: chiefly, because that unto them were committed the oracles of God (Rom. 3:1-2). As the Gentile Church has been made partaker in the spiritual benefits that Israel once enjoyed (cf. Eph. 2:12-13; Mat. 21:43), we rightly conclude that the oracles of God are committed to us as the Church of the living God, the pillar and ground of the truth (1 Tim. 3:15), and his covenanted people. Commenting on Romans 3:2, Calvin writes:

“By oracles he means the covenant which God revealed first to Abraham and to his posterity, and afterwards sealed and unfolded by the law and the Prophets.

Now the oracles were committed to them, for the purpose of preserving them as long as it pleased the Lord to continue his glory among them, and then of publishing them during the time of their stewardship through the whole world: they were first depositories, and secondly dispensers. But if this benefit was to be so highly esteemed when the Lord favored one nation only with the revelation of his word, we can never sufficiently reprobate our ingratitude, who receive his word with so much negligence or with so much carelessness, not to say disdain.”

John Calvin, Commentary on Romans, Ch. 3

The Westminster Confession of Faith states that God by “his singular care and providence kept

[the Scriptures] pure in all ages” and they “are therefore authentic” (WCF 1.8). The question we now seek to address is, Has God preserved His word? More specifically, has God preserved His word in such a way that His word has been kept pure in the possession of His Church in all ages, thus committing His oracles to them.  This question is of the utmost importance, for the word of God, the Holy Scripture, is the source of all saving knowledge. Without the word of the living God, we would be lost; as Peter said, “Lord, to whom shall we go? thou hast the words of eternal life” (John 6:68).

“Have the original texts of the Old and New Testaments come down to us pure and un corrupted? We affirm against the papists.

I. This question lies between us and the papists who speak against the purity of the sources for the purpose of establishing more easily the authority of their Vulgate version and leading us away to the tribunal of the church.

Il. By the original texts, we do not mean the autographs written by the hand of Moses, of the prophets and of the apostles, which certainly do not now exist. We mean their apographs which are so called because they set forth to us the word of God in the very words of those who wrote under the immediate inspiration of the Holy Spirit.

Ill. The question is not Are the sources so pure that no fault has crept into the many sacred manuscripts, either through the waste of time, the carelessness of copyists or the malice of the Jews or of heretics? For this is acknowledged on both sides and the various readings which Beza and Robert Stephanus have carefully observed in the Greek (and the Jews in the Hebrew) clearly prove it. Rather the question is have the original texts (or the Hebrew and Greek manuscripts) been so corrupted either by copyists through carelessness (or by the Jews and heretics through malice) that they can no longer be regarded as the judge of controversies and the rule to which all the versions must be applied? The papists affirm, we deny it.”

Francis Turretin, Institutes of Elenctic Theology Vol. 1, p. 106

We do not deny the necessity of textual criticism. We readily acknowledge it. We deny, however, that the the true text of Scripture has been lost with the non-extant autographs written by the hands of the Apostles and Prophets. On the contrary, we affirm, with Turretin, that the infallible, inerrant word of God exists today in the apographs which have been in the possession of the Church in every age.

“It can, then, with no colour 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 offence, 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. We add that the whole scripture entire, as given out from God, without any loss, is preserved in the Copies of the Originals yet remaining; What varieties there are among the Copies themselves shall be afterwards declared; in them all, we say, is every letter and Tittle of the Word. These Copies we say, are the Rule, standard and touch-stone of all Translations ancient or modern, by which they are in all things to be examined, tried, corrected, amended, and themselves only by themselves.”

John Owen, Of the Divine Original, Authority, Self-Evidencing Light, and Power of the Scriptures, p. 173-174

The question is not whether textual criticism is necessary; rather, it is whether, once due diligence in textual criticism has been done by the Church in any age using the extant manuscripts in her possession, we have the inspired, infallible, and inerrant word of God. We affirm.

Hence, the providence of God showed itself as no less concerned with the preservation of the writings than of the doctrine contained in them, the writing itself being the product of his own eternal counsel for the preservation of the doctrine, after a sufficient discovery of the insufficiency of all other means for that end and purpose…It is true, we have not the autographa of Moses and the prophets, of the apostles and evangelists, but the apographa, or copies, which contain every iota [every bit] that was in them.

Ibid., p.12-13

This point by Owen is essential to grasp. We believe that the entirety of the Holy Scripture is and was contained in the copies which have been in the possession of the Church throughout the ages. Hence, those copies are sufficient for whatever textual criticism needs to be done. No new discovery of manuscripts needed. We therefore reject the notion that the manuscripts which have been in the possession of the Church in every age are to be corrected by manuscripts that have been hidden under a rock (so to speak) for 1500 years. This would be to deny that God has preserved His word as pure in all ages, and that the Church was left with a corrupted text for many centuries.

From the testimony of Scripture itself it can be shown that God would providentially preserve His word in all ages. It cannot, however, be shown from Scripture that God would leave His Church with text so corrupted that it could be remedied with the extant manuscripts in the possession of the Church. We reject the idea that God would leave His Church with manuscripts with variants, errors, omissions, or additions that could not be remedied with the copies in her possession in each age, as a borderline atheistic notion.

“Proof is derived: (l) from the testimony of Christ—“it is easier for heaven and earth to pass, than one tittle of the law to fail” (Lk. 16:17; cf. Mt. 5:18). But if not even one tittle (or the smallest letter) could fail, how could several canonical books perish? Although Christ speaks directly of the doctrine of the law and not of its books, yet it can be applied analogically to them, so as to imply their preservation and so much the more”

Ibid., p. 96

Turretin here argues against the idea that any canonical book has perished, and since the books of the canon include the text of those books, and not simply their titles, his understanding of Luke 16:17 & Matt. 5:18 militates against the idea that the text which God providentially delivered to His church was so collectively corrupted with errors, additions, and omissions that it could not be remedied with the manuscripts in the possession of the church. If indeed God has by “his singular care and providence kept [the Scriptures] pure in all ages” and they “are therefore authentic” (WCF 1.8), which He verily has, then we must reject the idea that He has suffered His church to have a corrupted text for centuries upon centuries. If we deny that God has providentially preserved His word as pure in all ages, then we must grant that we do not have the infallible, inerrant word of God in our possession today, for any given passage in the text might not actually be Scripture. We would be in constant pursuit of a theoretical text to which the extant text must be restored. If “older” manuscripts were newly discovered and they did not have John 3:16, Romans 9, or some other beloved passage, we would have no objective reason not to conclude that those passages are not Scripture. However, when we affirm God’s providential preservation of Scripture, we know that such corruptions to the text of Scripture in the possession of the Church in all ages would not be allowed in God’s providence.

“The providence of God proves that the sources have not been corrupted. 

V. The following arguments prove that the sources have not been corrupted. (1) The providence of God which could not permit books which it willed to be written by inspiration (theopneustois) for the salvation of men (and to continue unto the end of the world that they might draw from them waters of salvation) to become so corrupted as to render them unfit for this purpose. And since new revelations are not to be expected (after God has recorded in the Scriptures his entire will concerning the doctrine of salvation), what can be more derogatory to God (who has promised his constant presence with the church) than to assert that he has permitted the books containing this doctrine to become so corrupt that they cannot serve as a canon of faith? (2) The fidelity of the Christian church and unceasing labor in preserving the manuscripts; for since Christians have always labored with great zeal to keep this sacred deposit uncorrupted, it is not credible that they would either corrupt it themselves or suffer it to be corrupted by others. (3) The religion of the Jews who have bestowed upon the sacred manuscripts great care and labor amounting even to superstition. Hence Josephus says that after the lapse of ages no one has dared either to add to or take away from or alter the peculiar books of the Jews in any respect and that they think it an honor to die for the Scriptures (Against Apion 1*.42 [Loeb, 1:180-81]). Philo, in his book on the departure of the Israelites from Egypt (cited by Eusebius, Preparation for the Gospel 8.6.357c [ed. Gifford, 1903], 1:387) goes further, asserting that “even up to his time, through a space of more than two thousand years, not so much as a word had been changed in the law of the Hebrews and that any Jew would rather die a hundred times, than suffer the law to be altered in the least.” They carry their ridiculous superstition concerning the sacred manuscript to such a length that if a corrected book of the law fell on the ground, they proclaimed a fast and expressed their fears that the whole universe would return to its original chaos, so far were they from corrupting the manuscripts. (4) The carefulness of the Masoretes not only about verses and words, but also about single letters (which, together with all the variations of punctuation and writing, they not only counted, but also wrote down, so that no ground or even suspicion of corruption could arise). Arias Montanus employs this argument in the “Praefatio” to his Biblia sacra Hebraicey Chaldaice, Graece et Latine (1572), vol. I. (5) The multitude of copies; for as the manuscripts were scattered far and wide, how could they all be corrupted either by the carelessness Of librarians or the wickedness of enemies? Augustine says, “No prudent man can believe that the Jews however perverse and wicked could do it, in copies so numerous and so far and widely diffused” (CG 15.13* [FC 14:440; PL 41.452]). Vives said this ought to be the reply to those “who argue that the Hebrew manuscripts Of the Old Testament and the Greek of the New have been so falsified and corrupted as to make it impossible to draw the truth from these sources” (Saint Augustine, of the Citie of God with. . .comments of. . .Vives [1620], p. 519).”

Ibid., p. 107

Richard Muller notes that modern theologians, following Hodge and Warfield, have altered the doctrine of preservation so that inerrancy would only refer to the non-extant original manuscripts and not also the faithful copies we possess today:

“A rather sharp contrast must be drawn, therefore, between the Protestant orthodox arguments concerning the autographa and the views of Archibald Alexander Hodge and Benjamin Breckinridge Warfield. This issue must be raised because of the tendency in many recent essays to confuse the two views. Like virtually all exegetes and theologians before and after them, they recognized that the text of Scripture as we now have it contains contradictory and historically problematic statements. They also recognized the futility of harmonizations of the text—but they insisted that all such difficult or erroneous passages ought to be understood as the result of scribal errors. Those who claim an errant text, against the orthodox consensus to the contrary, must prove their case. To claim errors in the scribal copies, the apographa, is hardly a proof: the claim must be proven true of the autographa. The point made by Hodge and Warfield is a logical trap, a rhetorical flourish, a conundrum designed to confound the critics—who can only prove their case for genuine errancy by recourse to a text they do not (and surely cannot) have.”

Richard A. Muller, Post Reformation Reformed Dogmatics, vol. 2, pg. 414, n. 192.

For more on this see Letis, Theodore P., The Protestant Dogmaticians and the Late Princeton School on the Status of the Sacred Apographa.

By | 2016-11-03T19:41:41+00:00 March 8th, 2016|Categories: Uncategorized|0 Comments

About the Author:

Seni is a Reformed Presbyterian (RPCNA) who subscribes to the original Westminster Standards (1647) and lives in Phoenix, AZ.

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