Sunday, December 18, 2011

The True Church and the True Bible

I had an interesting conversation recently with a brother who had been reading my blog and had gone out of his way to make telephone contact with me. Knowing that I am an inerrantist, as he is, he wanted to discuss our common convictions and to lead me to consider his opinion that the Textus Receptus is the One True Bible. One implication of this point of view would be to suggest that the King James Version and its derivatives (like the NKJV) are the acceptable translations of the Bible into English.

His line of reasoning was easy to follow: God's Word cannot pass away, so it cannot have needed restoration. The Bible speaks as clearly about the preservation of scripture as it does the inspiration of scripture. Isaiah 40:8 reads "The grass withers, the flower fades, but the Word of our God stands forever" (perhaps a bit ironic that I'm doing this out of the NASB). Peter does not hesitate at all to apply this promise to the New Testament as well as the Old (1 Peter 1:22-25).

Recent translations of the Bible mostly take advantage of textual criticism (the "lower criticism" in juxtaposition against "higher criticism" that was all the vogue in nineteenth-century continental Europe). Prior to the advent of textual criticism, not many translations of the Bible had been attempted subsequent to Jerome, but the brief history of modern translations used the "Received Text" (in Latin, Textus Receptus, which I'll abbreviate as TR), a Greek text assembled by Desiderius Erasmus relying principally upon the favored manuscripts of the Byzantine church.

The controversy over the TR is at least 304 years old. In 1707 John Mill published a Greek New Testament that documented the many other Greek manuscripts that read differently from the wording of the TR. Daniel Whitby replied by claiming that the TR is identical to the wording of the autographs (the original piece of paper on which, for example, Paul's Letter to the Romans was penned). The central question of the debate hasn't changed much since Mill-Whitby: Is the Textus Receptus, or is it not, a 100% perfect clone of the original manuscripts of the New Testament?

Now, back to the brother with whom I was conversing. His position is that the promise of the endurance (or preservation) of the Word of God necessarily requires that the Textus Receptus be the perfect representation of the original manuscripts of the Greek New Testament. Here is his line of thinking: The Textus Receptus is older than the critical editions produced by Mill or by Hort & Westcott. If Mill's work or Westcott & Hort's work are the perfect preservation of the Word of God, then they represent a restoration of something lost, for we know that they represent new beginnings in eclectic texts. The Byzantine text type (which he equates with the TR), having a mysteriously long history prior to Erasmus's use of it, and having been used mightily by God during the Reformation years, can be the perfect, sequentially unbroken preservation of the Word of God in a way that these other texts cannot possibly be. Therefore, since such a thing as a 100% perfectly preserved text is promised by the Bible, and since only the TR can possibly be what the Bible has promised, the "Received Text" must be the One True Bible. This summary does not encapsulate all of his rationale, but I believe that it responsibly represents at least one of the primary planks of his rationale.

So, what are we to make of this? A number of ideas.

  1. The King-James-Only position does not have a monopoly on belief in the preservation of the Bible. The manuscript problem of the New Testament does not suggest a failure of preservation, but an undesirable multiplication of it. God's word has been preserved. Unfortunately, a number of corruptions of God's word have also been preserved. These preservations—all of them—have alike been made by Christians in churches, of a sort.

    Certainly, those who advocate the TR as the True Word of God will universally be people who believe in the preservation of the scriptures. Certainly, those who deny the preservation of the scriptures will be people open to textual criticism. And yet, these two positions, to speak in terms of logical fallacies, do not rightfully exclude the middle. There are people (including the author of this blog) who believe that the Word of God has been preserved but do not identify the Textus Receptus as being that preserved Word of God.

    Some of the literature advocating for the KJV on the basis of the doctrine of the preservation of scripture does not accurately and adequately acknowledge this middle position. Belief in the preservation of scripture neither proves nor requires the acceptance of the TR as the perfectly preserved New Testament.

  2. The biblical promises about the preservation of scripture do not require that the Bible be preserved in English, or in any other secondary language. A great many languages do not yet, even today, have ANY translation of the Bible. God has not obligated Himself to provide that any English translation of the Bible should be the perfectly preserved transmission of the scriptures.

  3. Preservation is not necessarily popularity. So many of the defenses of the Textus Receptus depend basically upon the popularity of this textual family within the Eastern Church prior to the life of Erasmus. Conceding that the Byzantine texts were the most popular Greek manuscripts throughout the Middle Ages, one wonders how much weight this evidence deserves? What if the perfectly preserved autographs of the New Testament are lying buried in the sands of the Egyptian desert somewhere? What if, like the Qumran scrolls, the perfect autographs of the New Testament have eluded detection for centuries and are not in our collections at all today. Is that possible? Would the preservation of the scriptures allow for such a thing?

    Of course it can happen. The Bible says so.

    Although the Word of God will not pass away, we know that the Word of God can certainly pass out of favor and can even pass out of use…entirely. We know that this is true, because in 2 Kings 22, a portion of the Bible was found in the temple after having been lost entirely. God's preservation of the Bible did not fail at that time. People wandered about without the preserved Book of the Law, but the book itself remained preserved, and then God used Hilkiah to bring it back before the people.

    There is nothing in the Bible to deny that this could happen again. I do not necessarily believe that it has, but the fact that this is possible at all demonstrates the problem with the presumption that the preserved Word of God must not only be preserved but must also be in use—must be the manuscripts most popular for use over the longest period of time.

    Maybe, just as God preserved dissenting churches as a minority remnant down through the ages, God also preserved the Bible in dissenting readings as a minority textual family down through the ages. It would not be contrary to the character of God as revealed in the Bible and in church history for Him to have done this.

  4. God has used flawed people to preserve His inerrant Bible. Both sides must acknowledge that this is true. If the TR is the perfectly preserved New Testament, then it was preserved perfectly by people who venerated and worshipped the statues of saints. The KJV-only theory depends heavily upon Eastern Christianity as the conservators of the Bible.

    Those of us who engage in textual criticism, on the other hand, are indebted to liberal continental scholars who did not share my view of the inerrant nature of the Bible. We depend heavily upon Westcott & Hort.

    Neither side is likely to be entirely comfortable with the arrangement. And yet, neither side can escape it. Both sides stand in the position of having received the Bible at least to some degree from the hands of people who could have benefitted from reading it a bit more carefully and submissively.

And so, as I do with my Landmark brethren regarding ecclesiology, with my KJV-only brothers on the subject of the Bible I find myself agreeing that God has preserved something throughout the corridors of time, and yet disagreeing with them as to HOW God has accomplished that preservation and as to what are the implications of that preservation for identifying God's hand at work today. In doing so, I see our close kinship and I welcome our fellowship in the gospel with one another, hoping that they will see the same.

The New Testament, in its every good translation, teaches us that we ought to do so.


Bill said...

Bart: Do you think that when God speaks of His "Word", it always means recorded scripture?

Bart Barber said...


No. To the contrary, I know of times when "Word" refers to God the Son.

And yet, I do not believe that Isaiah 40:8 is one of those occasions. Jesus' statements in Matthew 5:18 cannot be understood as referring to anything other than the actual written words of the Old Testament. Peter's appropriation of Isaiah 40:8 refers to the content of New Testament apostolic preaching.

Bill said...

Let me rephrase: Apart from the metaphorical use of the word "Word", do you think that every time God has spoken (by whatever means) it has been recorded in scripture?

Bart Barber said...


The only instances that I can point to for the purpose of analyzing God's use of this terminology are those places where He has employed it in scripture. All of those occasions, being themselves recorded in scripture, must necessarily be referring to statements and events recorded in scripture.

To find an instance of God's "Word" not occurring as a part of recorded scripture, wouldn't we need to find a source other than recorded scripture in which we could find data about God's "Word"?

In which case, I don't have one.

Or maybe I'm misunderstanding you. Maybe you ought to run out a little further with the point you'd like to make, so that perhaps rhetorical context can help me to follow a little better?

Bill said...

Well, I'll admit my question is a bit speculative. I'm just wondering if you think there is a distinction between God's spoken word and His written word.

I've been told that since the canon of scripture is closed, that the only way God can speak now is through it, since any new speaking (verbal, vision, angelic, etc) would require re-opening the canon. I can't get my head around why anyone would think that.

I don't mean to hijack this post. It just made me think of this.

Tim Rogers said...

Brother Bart,

Interesting article and very well put together. Help me understand a position that you have stated as I believe I am at the same place you are concerning the doctrine of preservation.

Take your argument that the preserved word of God is buried in the desert of Egypt. What if archeologist dig up one of the missing letters of Paul to the Corinthian church? Would that be Scripture? Also, if we follow the closed canon doctrine then how can we acknowledge that we do not have the preserved Word of God in the Textus Receptus?


Bart Barber said...


Speculative questions are fine. I think that what makes the Word of God everlasting has to do not with the nature of the writing, but with the nature of God and of God's intent.

My understanding of such passages as the opening paragraphs of the Book of Hebrews leads me to the conviction that God has, in Jesus, spoken completely such that He has nothing else that He needs to convey.

Bart Barber said...


We have copies of all of the books of the New Testament. Indeed, we have copies even of other, non-canonical, books beyond these. I am not talking about additional books.

Rather, I'm talking about the original copies of the books that we now, already, have. The canon is closed because we have all of the books of the New Testament. Nevertheless, we know that, of the many copies of the New Testament books that we have, there are many differences among the various manuscripts. They cannot all be the correct reading. They cannot all be the perfectly preserved Word of God, for some of them must contain errors.

One perspective says that the Byzantine manuscripts that led to the Textus Receptus are the perfect copies that have no errors in them, and that all of the other manuscripts are in error where they differ from the TR. Why are the TR manuscripts the right ones and the other manuscripts are the wrong ones?

This question really has nothing whatsoever to do with the closing of the canon, as far as I can tell. If I'm missing something there, spell it out a little better for me.

Other manuscripts are older than the Byzantine manuscripts. They, just like the Byzantine manuscripts, were preserved by Christians and churches and revered as the Word of God. They represent canonical books just like the TR manuscripts do.

The "lost in the desert" idea was simply to indicate that, even if ALL of the manuscripts that we are now considering (of the canonical books) were bad copies with errors—that there's some New Testament verse out there for which NONE of the alternate readings are the correct reading—then that would not mean that God had failed to preserve His word, so long as some manuscript somewhere lost in the desert and unbeknownst to us were the manuscript with the correct reading. If God has kept a correct reading of the verse lost in the desert, then God has still preserved His Word.

Now, having dealt more fully with my hypothetical, I think that we DO have the correct reading represented in the manuscripts that we now have. It may not always be a simple matter to identify which reading is that correct reading, but I believe that the correct reading for every verse is represented in the wealth of manuscripts that we have.

Bill said...

Bart: Just so I'm following you. Are you saying that God would not tell someone to do something, like switch jobs or become a missionary, or (fill in the blank). I'm not talking about new doctrine, but simply an instruction or direction.

Now I think such things are mostly left to the discretion and wisdom of the person, but I can't discount the idea that God can still give someone explicit instructions.

Tim Rogers said...

Brother Bart,

Thanks for your response. I am not trying to get you to a point in your argument, I am just asking. Your last paragraph helped set your argument in perspective for me. I too believe we have the preserved word of God in our vast number of copies of the originals we have today.

As for the closing of the canon question, your misunderstanding may be due to ignorance. (My ignorance, that is) I am re-studying the concept of the closed canon so I will just let it rest there.

Thanks for the insight.


Ray said...

Bart, recently I have had several people visit my Church and later ask me why I don't use the KJV. Subsequently, they usually do not come back.

One thing I find perplexing is the argument that we cannot trust the Alexandrian text because the Alexandrian Christians, namely Clement and Origin, were not orthodox in some of their beliefs. But they seem to ignore that Erasmus, the Catholic Church, and even many on the KJV translation committee would not be considered orthodox by many KJV-only advocates.

CB Scott said...

Tim Rogers says,

"I am re-studying the concept of the closed canon."

That will be interesting. A loose cannon studying a closed canon.

The conclusion this study will undoubtedly be a "moderately" closed canon.

Merry Christmas Tim and Bart.

Anonymous said...

I wonder why God would bother making the universe as large as it is unless He wanted to keep us apart from other beings. If He truly did create other beings, I wonder what He has revealed to them (presumably something we are not intended to know). Did they also fall. Do they have souls?

Anonymous said...

Good article mate.. I like both NASB (ESV) and NKJV.. I am happy to leve the question of which text till heaven.
I once asked a prominent scholar from Dallas Theological seminary which Greek NT he perached from..he said "Good question. After 40 years of thorough research to this question, and 40 years of lecturing on the issues, I have come to the assured conclusion that I do not know!"
I am happy to adhere to inerrancy.. and affirm the preservation of the text.. and affirm that good textual criticism is helpful a wonderful use of the heart and head.
Christmas Blessings Bart,
Steve G in Oz

R. L. Vaughn said...

Brother Bart, good thought provoking post. I am someone who only uses the King James Bible, but I do not usually define my position as "King James Only". There is danger of being associated with really bad theology such as the "Ruckmanites" who believe God re-inspired the Bible when the KJV was translated.

I agree with all four of your main points, yet end up in a different place in the final analysis. Those of us who believe in inspiration, inerrancy and preservation need to work together sincerely to determine where our true differences and agreements lie.

(Off topic: Remember the Sacred Harp singing will be held at Cowden Hall of SWBTS on the last Saturday in January. Please come if you can.)