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.
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.
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.
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.
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.