Sunday, January 25, 2015

A Case Study in the Practical Consequences of Evangelical Bibliology

The story I'm going to tell is quite ordinary.  Many in the world think they are experts now at textual criticism, because the word is out -- the Bible has errors in it.  Not everything in it can be counted upon.  Maybe you're thinking, "It does not have errors in it."  But that is what evangelicals and many fundamentalists say.

I was out evangelizing last Wednesday before our Bible study and prayer.  I talked to a youngish single mother at her door.  Of course, I was preaching the gospel.  I asked her if she knew she was saved, sure she had eternal life.  She said, "Yes."  I asked how she knew, and she paraded her accomplishments.   In the midst of the give and take, I communicated to her that as I listened, I based my judgment of what she said on the Bible.   Scripture taught something different about salvation than what she said.  At that juncture, she said that she didn't trust everything the Bible said because parts of it had been changed.  So I then asked her how she knew that, that the Bible had errors in it. She just did.

"She just did" isn't a good answer for me, but it was where she was.  She didn't have total confidence in the Word of God.  She believed parts of it were true, but that she couldn't rely on all of it.

As I listened to her, I recognized this as a new norm in the psyche of those who might care enough even to listen and then answer a question about the Bible.  She had a very subjective type of faith that's fine with a feeling she trusts more than the Bible.  I explained to her that the Bible doesn't have errors, because God inspired it.  You see, a lot of people don't have trouble with the idea that God gave His Word, but they're not convinced He's kept it intact.  I told that God also promised to preserve it and that we can count on God for its preservation.

Anyway, I spent some time pumping up the Bible with all sorts of scriptural arguments in addition to giving her a brief gospel presentation.  But most professing Christians have relinquished the idea that we have a perfectly preserved edition of the Word of God.  She's got plenty on which to lean on that front.

It was easy for me to think about evangelical arguments for trusting the Bible, despite its errors.  It's a supernatural book, the Bible, and part of that is that God expects us to believe the doctrine of it despite no hope that we are reading exactly what He inspired.  And we can overcome our doubt by thinking about textual evidence.  Sure, corruption has occurred, but not enough to destroy doctrines. No doctrine has been changed, and then if we compare all the copies, there is a lot, a lot of agreement.  We basically know what it is, good enough that we can trust all of its teachings.  No teachings have been lost.  We can't count on the Words, but that's the beauty of it.  God has chosen to use a slightly broken thing to do something wonderful.

I didn't give her the contents of that last paragraph, because I don't believe it.  I told her what God's people believed before the 19th century, that is, God promises perfect preservation, and we can count on that promise.  But evangelicals and fundamentalists have provided reasons to doubt.

I also imagine evangelicals reading this post.  God has worked in amazing ways to give us what we have.  We should be thankful for the overwhelming wealth of manuscripts.   All the Words are most surely in there -- not actually surely (wink, wink) -- in the preponderance of the hand written copies (do you have a manuscript with the original of 1 Samuel 13:1?  No, but we're still not lying.).

What I'm writing about here is directly related to reassessing and redefining inerrancy.  Evangelicals adapt to save the faith of some, to protect from creating more Bart Ehrmans after they've dug a little deeper.  And if you're going to fudge there, then it's also permissible to accept some latitude on the meaning of faith and more.  So it's no wonder, if someone is looking for faith, he can skip the scriptural type and embrace something more subjective, based upon a personal experience with the Holy Spirit.


Michael Alford said...

I've been told by older ministers that, a generation or so back, when you knocked on a door in America, the person on the other side of the door probably believed the Bible to be the word of God. They might not have acted upon it, and they might not have red it, but at least they had the foundation of believing that what you were going to tell them was true as long as it came out of the Bible. I have been knocking doors for almost 20 years ago and the battle appears to be even in the Deep South, Bible Belt, blah-blah-blah) exactly as you have portrayed it. They no longer have any confidence in what you are saying, and that puts you several steps back on the evangelism path. I hope all those smarty-pants bible correctors are happy.

James Bronsveld said...

This is certainly a sobering example of what happens when the prevailing view of the Scriptures is one where the text is unsettled and hopefully, some day, one day, there will be a generation that will finally be able to have the text (mostly, maybe) settled. In line with your experience here, I find it interesting as I'm reading through Owen's Communion with the Triune God, that the arguments in favour of Unitarianism/Socinianism from his day have mostly been abandoned in favour of the "The text is corrupted there" arguments of the 20th century. The Socinian arguments in his day - where there was assurance and certainty about the text - were frequently forced to confront and to attempt to explain away the English words. With the "blessing" of textual criticism in the 19th and 20th century, that is no longer necessary. The "changed Bible" argument is so much simpler than having to actually deal with the words on the page.

Despite all this, we can expect the new evangelicals and progressive fundamentalists to march out their tired parade of arguments and questions, such as "no major doctrine is affected..." and others. Remember, the text isn't settled, but your faith in textual criticism should be!

Lance Ketchum said...

I have told those who do not believe in God's preservation of His inspired Words that their belief in verbal, plenary inspiration is then irrelevant in any practical application.

d4v34x said...

Bro. B., roughly speaking, what percentage of the extant manuscripts are corrupted with material errors (ie, not minor and obvious mispellings and etc.)?

Kent Brandenburg said...

I liked all the comments. Thanks. They were all different and good.


When you say "roughly" I suspect that reflects the point that you can't know when you can't know. If we agree that we can't know, it's a guess, because we don't have the original with which to compare. When you compare Sinaiticus and Vaticanus, you get this statement from Burgon: "It is in fact easier to find two consecutive verses in which these two MSS differ the one from the other, than two consecutive verses in which they entirely agree." He counted 8972 differences between those two.

But is that what we should believe? I believe all my sins are removed, all of them, sort of like all the flies in Egypt after Moses waved his staff. Why should I believe that?

Kent Brandenburg said...


What do you think of this quote?

I'm not saying it, so maybe it's right.

d4v34x said...

Bro. B, my question more straightforward than you took it to be. I'm not offended in the least because I'm not above trying to be sneaky in my wording. But you believe that the Greek underlying the KJV matches the original mss exactly, so you could theoretically come up with an exact percentage. I was just asking approximately. So you didn't have to an ms by ms comparison. :)

d4v34x said...

Bro. B.,

Apparently I disagree with Doug Wilson on more than one thing.

David Brainerd said...

I'm having a hard time figuring out what d4v34x is arguing for here in the comments.

In any case, here's my two cents. I don't need the Pauline epistles to be inerrant. Inerrant gospels are quite enough. Paul can get in the ballpark while offering a bad argument or two. He's just a missionary after all, not Christ. So long as the gospels are inerrant, we're good. And the gospels in turn confirm at least the moral law of the Old Testament as also inerrant, for Christ upholds that while setting aside the ceremonial law. So good morality can be questioned by none, nor can the necessity of faith in Christ, nor repentance, nor baptism be questioned. As for stuff that Paul alone gets into, like in Romans 9, if he's completely wrong, what is that to me? Christ is Lord still. In fact, had Paul never seen the vision on the road to Damascus, Christ would still be lord. So I'm not going to see it as my job to defend the Paulina, just the gospels. Yet, when an uber liberal tries to argue "Jesus never condemned homosexuality" I'm not left without defense, for Jesus accepted the morality of the Torah's moral law. In fact, that is a greater defense of morality than running to Paul, because there you have to deal with the off-the-cuff and highly misinterpretable statements about faith and not by works, which the liberals can twist to their advantage. So inerrant gospels is all we need. Let the anti-inerrantists have their theory, so long as they apply it only to the Paulina. But if they touch the gospels, show them who's boss.

David Brainerd said...

In any case, I don't buy the unsettled text arguments at all. The text is settled. Here's my KJV right here. That's the text. Its been settled for at least 400 years, if not 2000. So let the textual critics just get over themselves.

David Brainerd said...

d4v34x, I pretty sure that all manuscripts of the Byzantine text agrees with themselves 85% of the remaining 15% there, 10-15% of that is just spelling variations or use of synonyms. That leaves maybe 5% of actual differences. As for the Alexandrian manuscripts, who cares? Alexandria was ground zero for the stupid war between the Athanasians and Arians. Its no wonder the manuscripts from there are corrupt; those idiots were altering their manuscripts in an attempt to win a Christological war. In any case, let the manuscripts differ as much as they like in Romans or Galatians, so long as they agree in Matthew. The gospels are the gospel; Paul is just commentary.

Jon Gleason said...

I'm sure someone has answered that question somewhere, but I don't know where.

The answer, almost certainly, is that a sizable majority of the MSS have at least one substantive error. This is not surprising when you think about someone copying, by hand, large sections of the New Testament, especially when you remember that they may well have been copying a manuscript that also had an error.

I think this is something we should emphasise more -- most of the MSS have errors.

Yet, there arose an amazingly strong consensus as to what was the actual text, despite copyists making errors. How could that be?

A consensus wouldn't arrive by human efforts. Trying to get people to agree on a text when they have their own treasured manuscript that disagrees with it would be like herding cats. Especially when the consensus crossed language and geographical and cultural barriers.

Yet, there has always been a consensus.

Almost as if there were a Hidden Hand at work....

The existence of a consensus text, despite most manuscripts having errors in them, is strong evidence of the work of the Almighty in preserving His Word despite human error.