“The letter of Scripture has been preserved, without any corruption, in the original tongue. The Scriptures were not corrupted before Christ’s time, for then Christ would not have sent the Jews to them. He said, ‘Search the Scriptures’. He knew these sacred springs were not muddied with human fancies.” – Thomas Watson (from A Body of Divinity)
The Bible is without error! Modern evangelical Christians today would all say, “Yes and Amen!” to this claim. When I came to saving faith in Christ in high school this naturally became the foundation for my epistemology (at least so I thought). It makes logical sense! As a Christian, if God has done a work in you to believe in Christ by faith for the forgiveness of your sins, where does one go to know Christ and the glories of His gospel? You go to the Word of God. If God in His essential nature is holy then His Word must be holy, pure, and clean (Psalm 12:6, Proverbs 30:5).
From the end of highschool to the beginning of college, I began to add biblical terminology to my vocabulary. The term always used to describe the character of Scripture was (and still is) “inerrancy”. I learned early on that the difference between a church being liberal or conservative was its view on the Bible. Receiving my undergraduate degree in Biblical studies was a blessed time. Myself along with other students learned that terminology such as “inerrant” language of inerrant was necessary to defend the Bible. I thought this was the best language to employ when defending Scripture, until I started encountering major issues that challenged my belief on Scripture. One of the major issues that always came about in my studies was that of textual variances, as well as missing verses in modern Bible translations. I scratched my head, wondering why this was, and the only answer I received in the footnotes were “The earliest manuscripts do not contain the verses” or “Later manuscripts add this story”. This caused me to pause and revisit the doctrine of inerrancy which I held to.
The historic definition of “inerrancy” has been articulated as the error-less (inerrant) nature of the Bible in the original autographs, penned by the inspired authors. Inerrancy, however does not extend to the copies of the autographs, which over time have suffered scribal corruptions and errors. When I started asking my peers about these footnotes, I heard the same rehearsed answers that parroted the footnotes of my Bible. It seemed that nobody else shared my concern. This truly bothered me because if I was going to believe in the inerrancy of Scripture, I had to ask myself, “why are there so many passages called into questions?” I realized that this textual conflict I was going through was more nuanced than the of the evidence I had been given, it was something much more foundational, more epistemological and theological in nature. I never had an answer to this when this was brought up by unbelievers in evangelism or even in Bible studies among believers. The answers which I was provided never seemed to be consistent. But, I thought, that if trusted scholars are saying it, and are telling us that this is the text of Scripture we must hold to, then it must be true whether I found the answers satisfactory or not, right?
We know that God directly inspired the canon. “Theopneustos” (God-breathed) includes every pen stroke. The Bible has a twofold authority: 1. Authority of the very words. 2. The authority of the substance of what was written, which can be expressed in different languages, using different words. Through deeper study, and truly desiring to have an epistemology consistent with Holy Scripture, I came to the conclusion of the Confessional view of the text of Scripture: The text of Scripture has been kept pure in all ages by God’s providential preservation.
This position can be expressed like this: only Scripture can define what is Scripture. The confessional view of Scripture is consistent with the theological articulations of the Reformers, the Westminster Divines, and the particular Baptists. Most importantly it is consistent with what Scripture says about itself . This epistemology makes much of the glory of Christ when compared to a man-made scientific method that even unbelievers are a part of. I realized that with the confessional view, I could consistently believe that the Word of God had been kept pure in all ages without any corruption or errors within the text of Scripture. We can be confident that we have a complete, inspired, infallible Bible in our hands today.
The opening of chapter 1 of the 2LBCF says, “The Holy Scripture is the only sufficient, certain, and infallible rule of all saving knowledge, faith, and obedience.” Infallibility and inerrancy mean two different things. Inerrancy applies solely to the autographs and simply means “without error”. Any human statement can be “without error”, for example, “Jesus Christ is the only way to salvation”. This is an inerrant statement. If we want to talk about the divine nature of Scripture, the word “inerrancy”, in reality, actually communicates nothing about it. “Infallibility is the unfailing trustworthiness of Scripture; it cannot fail” (Cavett, Living to God).
The Confessional Position: A Basic Introduction
The WCF/2LBCF: Section 1:8
“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. But, because these original tongues are not known to all the people of God, who have right unto, and interest in the Scriptures, and are commanded, in the fear of God, to read and search them, therefore they are to be translated in to the vulgar language of every nation unto which they come,that, the Word of God dwelling plentifully in all, they may worship Him in an acceptable manner;and, through patience and comfort of the Scriptures, may have hope.”
The Reformers’ view of Holy Scripture as received was never determined by a scientific method developed apart from the Scriptures themselves. The basis of their faith in God’s preservation rested upon the foundation of what God has said about His own Word. For the Reformers, and their descendents, original autographs and their apographs hold the same authority. “Apographs are the copies or transcripts of a manuscript.” They looked at the history of manuscript transmission to see what God had done, not to see what man had yet to do.
The entire discussion boils down to this question: Did God preserve His Word, or does He need our help recovering it through the science of textual criticism? Who is to say which passage is to be taken out? How many inspired words can we remove before we notice or care? Modern textual criticism treats the Bible like any other ancient book. The reality is, both Christians and non-Christians are putting together the Bibles which are coming out today (under the CT manuscript family). To me, this is a scary thought.
Those who advocate for the modern critical text commonly claim that their goal is to eventually find the autographic text. Finding the original text of the New Testament unfortunately has never been the ultimate goal for a number of years now:
“The text is changing. Every time that I make an edition of the Greek New Testament, or anybody does, we change the wording. We are maybe trying to get back to the oldest possible form but, paradoxically, we are creating a new one. Every translation is different, every reading is different, and although there’s been a tradition in parts of Protestant Christianity to say there is a definitive single form of the text, the fact is you can never find it. There is never ever a final form of the text.” (Dr. D.C. Parker, Textual Scholarship and the Making of the New Testament, Oxford University Press, 2012).
They are no longer looking for the autographs, but for the “initial text”, which only represents an ostensibly early form of the text, from approximately the 2nd century. Many textual scholars today do not believe this “initial text” looks anything like whatever came before it. Moving forward, here are two examples of how the Word of God is treated in modern textual criticism. The woman caught in adultery is 222 words (ESV) which, according to many scholars, should not be included in John (7:53-8:11). The longer ending of Mark is 263 words. We do not have a word count firmly fixed in our minds in textual criticism. 3 John has 302 words and we would call people heretics if they decided to deny this letter being inspired. Why listen to the secular scholars on the woman caught in adultery but not listen to them about their doubt on the authorship of a few letters in the New Testament?
Christians need to recognize that it all boils down to two approaches. The first approach believes that through scientific means and text critical work, one is able to determine the original text of Scripture. This is faith in man. The other approach is confidence that God has preserved His infallible Word throughout history. This is faith in God. The modern critical text approach logically concludes that we currently do not have an infallible Bible in our hands and may never have one until the return of Christ . We will have a perfect Bible when we will not need a perfect Bible anymore. Pastor Douglas Wilson recognizes this, when he writes, “We see that the text of Scripture is now established by the neutral Academy, and is afterwards packaged, copyrighted, marketed and sold by hustling and enterprising entrepreneurs. The Church today has no authoritative role in the process whatever. When it comes to the Word of God, the modern Christian Church fancies herself as a shopper only – a consumer.”
The God who inspired the Word is the same God who governs the world. The church recognized the canon of the Word of God, recognized the table of contents, but today the church struggles to recognize the content of the books within the table of contents. There is much work that needs to be done in this area. The attacks from the unbelieving world on Christ’s Bride and His Word have never been greater. Christians need to be confident, not only be able to give an answer, but to be able to boldly trust in the book which has the infallible truth of God and His glorious Gospel. Let us have confidence in the God who governs the world, is sovereign over all things, and who is the same God who providentially preserved the very words He inspired for His covenant people that they might know Him.
“Scripture is not merely inerrant in its autographs, it is also infallible in those Hebrew and Greek faithful copies that the universal Church has passed down to us today. Otherwise, the Scriptures would not be “profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness: That the man of God may be perfect, thoroughly furnished unto all good works” (2 Tim. 3:16-17) nor would they be able to function as the final court of appeal for the Church (WCF 1:8).”
“For ever; O Lord, thy word is settled in heaven.” – Psalm 119:89
“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
“If a skillful Jeweler will not grind out a small spot, or cloud out of a rich stone, though it somewhat dimme the bright lustre thereof, because the substance is so precious; shall we lose, or sprightly pass by an Iota, or tittle of the Book of God, which shall outlast the large volumes of the heavens? For heaven & earth shall pass away, but not one Iota, or tittle of the Word of God shall passe. The Jewish Rabines say, that great mountains hang upon the smallest kids of the Bible. And St. Chrystostome will not endure a devout Christian to let goe any syllable in the Scripture, no not pricke, or point without observation. Surely if God so carefully preserve the smallest parcels of Scripture, he would have us religiously observe them. – Daniel Featley (Westminster Divine)
For further study:
- Has the Bible Been Kept Pure? The Westminster Confession of Faith and the Providential Preservation of Scripture by Garnet Milne
- Text and Time: A Reformed Approach to New Testament Textual Criticism by Edward Hills
- Post-Reformation Reformed Dogmatics, Vol. 2: Holy Scripture: The Cognitive Foundation of Theology by Richard Muller
- The Inspiration of Scripture by Robert Preus
- The Ecclesiastical Text by Theadore Letis