A Response to the “Fatal Flaw” Argument Against the Traditional Text

In Preservationist Textual Criticismby Taylor Desoto1 Comment

Before I begin my response, I’d like to make clear how influential Dr. White has been in my walk, especially in regards to Mormon and Roman Catholic apologetics.  His ministry has time and time again been a massive blessing to me and my friends. I do not join the group of people attacking James White’s character, ministry, or salvation because of a disagreement in one area of doctrine.  

 

A Response to the “Fatal Flaw” Argument Against the Traditional Text

On the Dividing Line on 2/19/2019, James White interacted with Jeff Riddle, Colin Pearson, and Robert Truelove regarding the veracity of the Traditional text position.  

After the general thrust of his argumentation, White offers a final argument that he calls the “fatal flaw in the ecclesiastical text movement”.  The argument is based on three major premises: A hypothetical situation, a critique of the methodology used to form what is now known as the Textus Receptus, and another critique that labels the defense of the TR as circular.  The arguments are as follows:

  • If all of the versions of the New Testament were wiped out, the methods employed by modern critical text criticism would be able to reconstruct the text that we have today
  • The methods used to produce the traditional text of the New Testament are inconsistent and cannot be applied unilaterally
  • The case for the traditional text begins with the TR, and facts are used to support the text of the TR; therefore, it is circular

 

The first part of Dr. White’s argument is based on a hypothetical situation, which makes it inductive, and therefore a mere probability, even if it truly happened. The conclusion hinges on him being able to control all variables in his hypothetical world in which this “fatal flaw” argument exists.  It depends on specific data being available based on his choosing. Yet his hypothetical that creates an ideal scenario for his already presupposed position can be answered with another, less absurd hypothetical. What happens to modern textual criticism if Sinaiticus and Vaticanus were never published?  Could you produce any semblance of the modern critical text as it appears today in the NA28? Or what happens if a first century manuscript is found without Romans 9 in it? Will the modern critical text remove it? His “fatal flaw” argument crumbles when faced with other, less extreme, hypothetical arguments.    

Of course hypothetical scenarios can be a great way to reason through a potential problem, but in this case, Dr. White has forced the traditional text advocates into debating on his terms.  There is a strange assumption that is smuggled into this “fatal argument” that I’d like to point out. White is saying that if a text cannot be reproduced in the event of a massive loss of specific textual data that he chooses, then that text is not a valid text.  It assumes that if the Textus Receptus Greek Text cannot be produced using a modern methodology, then it is not a valid text. Underneath the hypothetical scenario is merely a preference for modern methodology over Reformation methodology. It seems that if a productive conversation were to happen, the supporters of the modern critical method need to understand that the TR advocates are arguing from a theological basis, not a historical-critical one.  Rather than proposing a hypothetical scenario that forces the advocates of the TR to debate on the modern critical position’s ground, a better attempt needs to be made to understand the TR position. This is challenging because of the quick dismissal of the claim that God has preserved his Word in the traditional text, and that taking a theological stance on the text of Scripture is somehow Scripturally inconsistent.

Dr. White makes two smaller assertions outside of his main arguments to support his preference for modern critical methodology, which I will address briefly.

The first is that Textual criticism prior to the papyri is irrelevant.  This assertion is rather bold, considering that the Uncials Sinaiticus and Vaticanus are the foundation for modern textual criticism.  Eldon J Epp, a bonafide text critic, calls the period of papyri (1930-1980), an “interlude” period because of how little textual criticism changed as a result of the papyri finds.  The Uncial publications are the main scene and the papyri are the interlude. If anything, the papyri show that the Byzantine text was available as early as the Alexandrian text, which further shows that Westcott-Hort’s theory that Vaticanus was the earliest and best manuscript is utterly indefensible.  I’d like to see a presentation addressing how the papyri discoveries revolutionized textual criticism, since the common opinion amongst text critics seems to disagree.

The second is that the Reformers didn’t have 1/100-1/1000 of the data we have now. This assertion is based on the assumption that the papyri truly are as significant as Dr. White is saying.  Again, modern textual critics do not seem to agree with him here. Further, you can open up Calvin’s commentary, or Matthew Henry’s commentary, to find extended dialogue on the same textual variants being discussed today.  Finally, this assertion assumes that the Reformation and Puritan era Christians were unaware of any manuscripts that are not extant today, or of variants that were made available with the discovery of the great Uncials. This assertion is completely unfounded, especially considering that manuscripts have been lost or destroyed since being catalogued less than 200 years ago, and they did indeed deal with variants.  We have no way of gauging which manuscripts were extant in that period, especially since the labeling system was not introduced until the 19th century. It is not unreasonable to respond with a contrary hypothesis, that there were more extant manuscripts available in the 16th and 17th centuries, especially since we have seen evidence of manuscripts disappearing as time passes, and ample evidence that manuscripts we do not have today were available back then.  

 

The second part of Dr. White’s argument is that the modern reasoned eclecticism has produced a better text because it can be applied consistently across every single textual variant.  According to White, the Reformation period methodology is insufficient because it applies different standards to different texts. In theory, the modern critical methodology will always produce the same text when given the same textual data, whereas the Reformation era methodology will not.  This, of course, would be a strong argument if that were actually the case. Yet, there are many places where the modern critical text cannot produce one definitive reading, and other cases where Dr. White rejects the reading that the methodology produces, like 2 Peter 3:10. Therefore, even without the hypothetical scenario where massive amounts of textual data is lost, the modern methods of textual criticism cannot do what Dr. White is claiming it can do, in reality, today.  If the modern methodology was as effective as Dr. White is claiming, what reason does he have to reject any of the readings, or to disagree with other scholars on which reading is best? Shouldn’t a methodology that can be applied consistently produce a unanimously agreed upon text?

This raises a massive critique of the modern critical methodology – it is subjective.  A great example is one of the rules of the modern text critical method, as noted by scholars like Metzger and Black, namely, the preference for the more difficult reading. Except for when it’s too difficult. But who decides what “too difficult” is?  The rules of the modern critical method are not as objective as Dr. White claims, and the rules have not produced a unified text. This has resulted in a “canon-within-the-canon” model of Scripture in Dr. White’s case, where each individual gets to pick and choose which reading they want to have in their main text.  This being the case, he should have no problem with TR advocates accepting the longer ending of Mark, as it is only excluded in two manuscripts. According to his standard, if he can reject the reading of 2 Peter 3:10, he should have no problems with others accepting Mark 16:9-20. If his standard that he applies here is applied consistently across the board, then he should have no qualms with people deciding that every reading of the TR is better than every reading of the critical text.  By his standard, it is merely a matter of preference.

The third and final part of Dr. White’s argument is that defending the traditional text is circular, because it starts with the foundation that the TR is the Word of God, and evidence is used to prove that to be the case.  This is an interesting argument, because it is the same appeal he is making for the preservation of God’s Word in the critical text. Dr. James White and the TR advocate actually share the same a priori assumption here, but the definition of how that preservation occured is different.  Dr. White believes that the artifact of God’s preservation must be determined by modern critical methodology, and the TR advocate believes that the artifact of God’s preservation must be determined by what has happened in history due to God’s providential working in time. The a priori assumption is not different, the a posteriori is.  

This means that the different views on preservation comes down to methodology. The TR advocate believes the textual criticism done in the 16th and 17th centuries is the means God has used to preserve his Word, and the Christian modern critical text advocate believes the text criticism done in the 19th, 20th, and 21st centuries is the means God has used to preserve his Word.  There isn’t a real substantial argument in calling foul for circular reasoning, because the basic assumption that God has preserved his Word is technically circular. Apparently it is fine to argue in this manner when dealing with canon, but not for text. To demonstrate the strangeness of this disconnect, imagine you are in the market for a set of Calvin’s Commentaries. You contact a seller, who claims he has all 22 volumes, and you schedule a time to inspect the books for quality.  You arrive, and begin flipping through each volume, only to discover that there are pages missing from each volume. You would most likely not purchase those volumes, because the set is incomplete. That is not a preserved set of Calvin’s Commentaries. Just because all of the book sleeves are there, does not mean that all the books are there. In the same way, utilizing a theological method for determining the books of the canon but not the text of the canon would be like saying that the above mentioned set of Calvin was complete because all of the book sleeves are there, despite the content being incomplete.  This is a claim that really needs to be challenged by those engaging with the critical text advocates.

 

Conclusion

After reviewing the “Fatal Flaw” argument presented by Dr. James White, I don’t find any of the arguments particularly compelling because they cannot hold the weight of their own critique.  The hypothetical scenario can just as easily be countered with another hypothetical. The methodology that allegedly can reproduce an exact text from scratch has yet to produce an agreed upon text as of yet.  The claim that defending the TR is circular is really just a hidden critique that the methodology is inadequate compared to the modern critical methodology. This argument is not “fatal” by any means when examined closely. The argument seems powerful when combined with accusations of “traditionalism” and “fundamentalism” backed by the credibility of a time-tested apologist, but I have yet to see Robert Truelove or Jeff Riddle claim any sort of fundamentalism, and last time I checked, appealing to yourself as an authority is still an appeal to authority.  Ultimately, it is a strawman that is accepted because of Dr. White’s popularity and credentials. Having a deep respect for Dr. White, I would be extremely saddened to see that popularity and credibility destroyed by his constant appeals to authority and ad hominem attacks, which I learned not to do from Dr. White himself!

Ultimately what it comes down to is whether or not you trust the modern critical methodology over the product of the textual criticism done in the Reformation period. There is plenty to debate about regarding the differences in text, but ignoring evidences that support the TR readings based on a preference of modern methodology and use of ad hominem attacks and appeals to authority doesn’t necessarily seem to be the most productive way to carry out the conversation. The vast majority of the attacks against the TR are based on appeals to modern textual critic authorities (Bruce Metzger, Dan Wallace, and David Black, etc.) and attempts to discredit Erasmus, Stephanus, Beza, and the Elzevir brothers.  The remaining critique is simply a preference for the methodology of Westcott-Hort and the German Bible Society. It seems that if a productive conversation is to be had, the genetic fallacies need to stop. Anybody reading this who has any introduction to this discussion, needs to be hyper aware when they see this kind of argumentation, and demand a higher standard for proof than the current climate is offering.

To those that support the confessional text position, now it is more important than ever to strengthen your arguments.  There may come a time soon enough where our arguments are actually taken seriously. The reality is that the strongest arguments against the TR are similar to those founded in Erasmian anecdotes that we all know are uncited and cannot be supported (See the footnotes in the KJVO controversy for evidence). In fact, on this episode of the Dividing Line, Dr. White didn’t call us KJV onlyists for the first time I have seen.  This may have just been simple forgetfulness, but it might actually be the case that our position has gained enough traction that people actual recognize that we are not KJVO.

The Reformation happened in part over text, and it is not extreme to believe that another Reformation could happen over text.  Now it is more important than ever to be ready to defend the text of Scripture. Almost every single major seminary is completely bought into the modern critical methodology, and openly bash the KJV and NKJV.  I recently read a textbook called, “How to Understand and Apply the New Testament” by Naselli, which endorses the Message over the KJV and NKJV! The standard of argumentation is riddled with fallacies and jesting and we need to ensure we do not participate in the same.  It is important to know that the confessional text position is very defensible, and faithfully so. The KJV and other TR translations can in fact be used in preaching, devotions, and yes, apologetics. The attacks on the TR are not new, and began well before the papyri were found. I hope this article has been helpful to the TR advocates reading, and enlightening to the critical text advocates that are reading.  And to everybody that has made it this far, Dr. James White clearly has a heart to defend the tenacity of the text, so please do not resort to calling him “apostate” and a “tool of the enemy.” Instead, engage with the argumentation, in all meekness and humility, as we are called to do, and as our heroes of the faith have done before us.

Taylor DeSoto

Associate Pastor

Agros Reformed Baptist Church

Agroschurch.com

 

 

 

 

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