WHATEVER HAPPENED TO THE ORIGINALS?

"The words of the LORD are pure words: as silver tried in a furnace of earth, purified seven times. Thou shalt keep them, O Lord, thou shalt preserve them from this generation for ever." (Psalm 12:6-7)

Take up a copy of any of Shakespeare’s plays, what certainty is there that the words we are reading were penned by the bard himself? We have no certainty at all. Textual critics will have examined first and second quartos, folios and reprints, printings ‘newly corrected, augmented, and amended’. They will have seen pirated, reported, and cut versions of the play. There will be versions perhaps printed from a prompt copy containing corrections and additions in the margin. Arguments abound among critics as to correct and incorrect quarto readings, mistakes, which then may have been repeated in folios – all critics are fearful of attributing frightful rubbish to this prince of pen pushers! Daggers are inserted for swords, spitchcock for pilcher, shog for shake, stage directions are added that at times make havoc of a scene. Few would claim more than probability for an authentic and authoritative Shakespearean text. It may be intensely irritating to Shakespeare aficionados not to have a certifiably authentic text, but in the end what does it matter? The plays have bored the senses out of generations of schoolchildren and still provide amusement for those with time to go to the theatre, and so they have served their useful purpose.

No one’s life is going to be radically changed by reading a corrupted version of Shakespeare, but relying on a corrupted version of God’s Word has eternal consequences. When the meaning of a verse hangs on a single word or even a single letter, we cannot afford to have an unsure and approximate text.

The probability ascribed to a Shakespearean text is simply not good enough when it comes to the Bible.

The Bible is not a text penned in the heat of literary and human inspiration, but it was given in words carried into the minds of its human authors on the breath of God, and then written by that same breathing onto holy pages. Why should we think that God would take such great care by a divine act of inspiration to secure the perfect recording of His every word, if at the last all is lost? The Word that God gave, He also keeps. Those who treat the text of God’s Word like a Shakespeare folio will end up with a text like Shakespeare, a probable text with no certainty at all. It must be obvious that all those, professed friend or patent foe, who treat the Bible as though it were a human text will be unable to give us any more certainty for the Bible than they can for any human book. This is completely inadequate.

The textual integrity of the Word of God can only be guaranteed by a work of God in its preservation equal to that displayed in its original inspiration.

Nothing less will do. The choice is clear, do we follow the pathway of textual criticism that can only give us a probable text, or do we take the texts preserved among God’s people and still with us as the fulfilment of His promise? The first choice completely sets aside divine intervention and relies upon the rationalist methodology of critics. That which God has done is discounted, only that which is measurable by physical human senses is allowable. Once again, faith is set against autonomous human reason. The reason of faith is settled on the plain statements of Word of God. There is no point in defending a book we cannot take as being wholly trustworthy. Even a rationalist defence of textual integrity, however well intentioned, is just as inadequate. If we need to prove it true before we believe it to be true, we have already declared beforehand our lack of faith in it. If we begin, even if only by implication, with the assumption that the Bible is not true, that God has not preserved His Word intact, this is what we shall ‘prove’. There can be no other outcome. What we say about Scripture must be based upon statements it makes about itself, believing these same statements to be wholly reliable because they have been made by God Himself. Believe it or bin it!

There are two ways and two ways only of approaching the whole issue of the preservation of Scripture. Those who seek a middle road delude themselves, there is none. God does not preserve Scripture using men and methods rooted in a denial of what He has said. As the actual autographs written by the prophets and apostles are long since gone, what guarantee can we have then apart from a divine promise that the words once given have been preserved and can be perfectly recovered in the copies, or ‘apographs’? The best we can hope for otherwise is to reconstruct something as near as possible to what we imagine the originals to have been like employing methods textual critics would use on Shakespearean manuscripts and the early printed copies of his works. This approach is a total waste of time since all it can give us is a thoroughly human book. It flies in the face of all the Bible itself tells us about its own preservation. A book that tells lies about itself cannot be a book from the God who cannot lie!

Those who tell us that the only inspired Bible that ever existed is now gone for good are deceived. They would fob us off with false bibles they have cobbled together themselves – and we will not have them!

There is no point in proving a book to be from God, if we start out by denying clear statements in its pages about its own preservation. The critical and rationalist route can never lead us to a Bible with word for word accuracy and thus makes the defence of verbal inspiration a pretty pointless undertaking. To profess verbal inspiration and at the same time to subject the Scripture texts to rationalistic critical methodology is to live in a crazed schizoid world, denying on the one hand what is confessed on the other. An inspired Bible that only lasted a couple of centuries or so is of little use to us today and makes a mockery of any claim that the written Word of God is given to all generations of men. We need certainty and not guesswork, this only God can give us. God’s work with Scripture continues beyond inspiration, it is alive today in keeping that Word, applying it to human hearts and saving us. No human book can do that! All is one work of God’s infinite grace.

God has kept His promise

Those who begin the New Year with a resolution ought to know that if true to form they are hardly likely to carry it beyond a few weeks. Since none "by taking thought can add one cubit unto his stature" (Matthew 6:27), when resolving or promising anything our words ought to be tempered by an awareness of our own finite weakness. We ought to guard our words before making a commitment to God or man. The truth is that we fail so abysmally in these areas largely because we do not have complete control over all the circumstances of life. The reason God can be relied upon is that He is omnipotent, sovereign, and true, and so He will neither deceive nor fail us. We must be ever mindful that in looking into the question of manuscripts and translations, what we are really asking is whether God has made a promise and is able to keep it! The preservation of the Scriptures can only be maintained on the basis that God "works all things after the counsel of his own will" (Ephesians 1:11).

If God cannot keep a promise to preserve His Word, how can we be sure He can keep His promises concerning salvation through repentance and faith in His Son?

Throughout the twentieth century, a view of inspiration gained ascendancy among evangelicals and many fundamentalists that marked a departure from that which was previously confessed by believers since New Testament days. (This does not include many, if not most neo-evangelicals, who now frequently hold a neo-orthodox view of inspiration based on the philosophical musings of Barth and Brunner.) Recent scholarship has shown that men like Princeton professor, Benjamin Warfield (1851-1921), were not as committed to the biblical doctrine of verbal inspiration as we are sometimes led to believe. Thinking to answer rationalist theologians on their own ground and legitimise textual studies, these men began to suggest that only the autographs (originals) were inspired, apographs (copies) were not. For this reason many of the Statements of Faith issued by various bodies now speak of the Scriptures being inspired ‘as originally given’ whereas before this time the conviction was that inspired Scripture was preserved in the copies. All this took place almost unnoticed, but we are being asked to swallow a real whopper! What this means is that as the originals have long since turned to dust, no inspired text exists today. All we have available to us are non-inspired copies. Those who speak of reading an inspired Bible must therefore be mistaken.

Now the door stands open for all those of a mind to do so to engage in critical studies. This discipline will generally proceed on the assumption that God has not preserved His Word, but that it is now left to men to put together something as best they can. This cannot be thought of as inspired because God has not preserved an inspired Word beyond the original writings of the prophets and apostles. Having only non-inspired copies with which to work, it would seem, were this in fact so, that all we can do is apply human means to a reconstruction of what we think the originals may have said. The conclusion from this must be that however accurate such a reconstruction may or may not be is not really the point, what matters is that this man-made literary patchwork will lack the absolute certainty and therefore the authority of an inspired text. A non-inspired text cannot suddenly turn into an inspired one the moment our back is turned! To lose inspiration at any point is to lose an authentic and wholly reliable Bible altogether. We can then never be sure whether the Bible is full of errors or has none. Warfield’s book on biblical inspiration is still hailed as a ‘classic’, but his viewpoint has done more to undermine confidence in Scripture than almost any other in the last 150 years or so.

Without a work of God, there is no way we can be sure whether the manuscripts we possess today are precisely as the originals. Alternatively, the Bible will be exposed to the ravages of the years as any human book. We are being asked to believe that God has allowed His authentic Word to disappear into the mists of time, in direct contradiction of what the Bible itself says. This view provides an excuse for rationalistically orientated ‘scholars’ to set their grubby little fingers to work on the sacred page. It gives opportunity for strangers ‘to grace and to God’ to rewrite the Word of God in their own image.

If we are to read a word for word reliable Bible, any view of the preservation of Scripture must extend the life of the inspired text beyond that of the autographs. Only an inspired text can give us an inerrant Bible. Without the precise words, we do not possess the precise thoughts of God. The promise of God is to preserve His words "from this generation for ever" – this presumes the perpetuation of an inspired text. Are we to believe that the Lord Jesus Himself was mistaken or that He was ready to mislead us? Never!

      "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)

      "Heaven and earth shall pass away, but my words shall not pass away." (Matthew 24:35, cf. Luke 21:33 & Mark 13:31)

      "And it is easier for heaven and earth to pass, than one tittle of the law to fail. "(Luke 16:17)

We include ALL Scripture in this promise, for the Word of God is to be thought of only as an organic whole.

      "My spirit that is upon thee, and my words which I have put in thy mouth, shall not depart out of thy mouth, nor out of the mouth of thy seed, nor out of the mouth of thy seed's seed, saith the Lord, from henceforth and for ever." (Isaiah 59:21)

      "But the word of the Lord endureth for ever." (1 Peter 1:25)

After the exile, the law was once more taught in Jerusalem.

      "This Ezra went up from Babylon; and he was a ready scribe in the law of Moses, which the LORD God of Israel had given: and the king granted him all his request, according to the hand of the LORD his God upon him. … For Ezra had prepared his heart to seek the law of the LORD, and to do it, and to teach in Israel statutes and judgments." (Ezra 7:6 & 10)

It was Ezra, doubtless assisted by others, who gathered all the books of the Old Testament together. They were preserved like this through to when the Lord Himself appeared. It is interesting to note that although the Jews were accused of many things, the corruption of the Old Testament was never once suggested by either the Lord or the apostles. After this time, the traditional Old Testament text was faithfully transcribed by Jewish scribes. They took exceptional care about accuracy, ensuring all copies were made without error, developing a complicated system of checks and counterchecks involving the counting of every letter. Each letter had its correct place in the overall text. Any copy under the slightest suspicion was discarded despite all the hours of work that may have gone into its preparation. In 1488, the whole Hebrew Old Testament in the Masoretic text was printed complete, a second edition appeared in 1491, a third in 1494. It was this last edition that was used by Luther and also later by the translators of our own Authorised Version.

Paul’s writings are referred to by Peter as being Scripture; this was the nature of these writings.

      "And account that the longsuffering of our Lord is salvation; even as our beloved brother Paul also according to the wisdom given unto him hath written unto you; As also in all his epistles, speaking in them of these things; in which are some things hard to be understood, which they that are unlearned and unstable wrest, as they do also the other scriptures, unto their own destruction." (2 Peter 3:15-16)

Gradually, all that was recognised as Scripture was gathered together by the believers of the time into what we now recognise as the New Testament. By the fourth century, there was no dispute among believers as to what belonged in the New Testament. All were agreed that it was to be placed alongside the Old Testament to make up the whole Word of God. There were many false writings, false Gospels and epistles. There were other writings too, although perhaps helpful, they were not inspired Scripture. All these were excluded. Not only false writings but also false readings of the authentic Scriptures were recognised and rejected in the same way. To summarise: trustworthy copies of the original writings were produced by conscientious scribes; their copies were re-copied down the centuries by believers; unreliable copies, which would have been easily recognised by those who knew their Bible, were laid aside.

The traditional text of the New Testament was handed down through generations of genuine believers who rejected the false and kept the true. This traditional text is known to have been in use in the Greek Church during what is called the Byzantine period (452-1453) so that it is often referred to as the Byzantine text. It was seen into print by Erasmus of Rotterdam (1466-1536) in 1516. The printed text is referred to today as the textus receptus. The first edition of Erasmus was printed in some haste so that it is known that some minor oversights crept in. Although such blemishes persisted in some later printings, they were gradually spotted and removed. When speaking of blemishes, we need to remember that they were wholly inconsequential and relatively obvious. They would generally approximate in English the spelling of ‘judgement’ with or without an ‘e’, or ‘honour’ with or without a ‘u’. Apart from this, it would have been in all respects as the traditional text. Theodore Beza produced five editions between 1559 and 1598, such was the desire to get things right. It was printed later by Stephanus in 1550, and by Elzevir in 1633. This Greek text, along with the Masoretic Hebrew text, that was used by the translators of the Authorised Version of 1611. We use this Bible because it is a faithful translation of the originals as preserved by God for us in the traditional texts. Reliable authors have written extensively and helpfully on the history and preservation of the Scripture texts and they should be consulted for a more exhaustive account.

It continues to be the task of all who love the Word of God to reject all that is false and preserve that which is true.

Would so-called believing scholars confine their energies to the task of sifting the wheat from the chaff, the true from the false, rather than co-operating with godless men in the destruction of the Word of God as preserved by Him in the traditional text, we could have more confidence in them. Until they do so, we shall continue to reject their inane ramblings out of hand!

Such men as this have nothing to say to us and we nothing to them other than that they should change their ways and submit to God’s Word. Sorting the true from the false is doubtless perceived by them as a far more limited role, and is one that satisfies their academic aspirations less than the one they have assigned to themselves. For now then, we cannot assume they are our friends.

Either we will accept without reservation and in faith what the Bible says about itself, or we will subject what the Bible says about itself to some other authority. Many say that they accept the Bible’s own statements about itself, but then question it. A Bible worth receiving is a Bible worth believing. Do we or do we not have God’s inspired Word in our hands today? This is the question. Many say we do not. We have His Word because God said He would preserve it and it needs no endorsement from us. Against all others, we say with Luther, "Arguments based upon reason determine nothing, but because the Holy Ghost says it, it is true". To move off the ground of faith, is to move off redemption ground, it is to be found "walking in the counsel of the ungodly, standing in the way of sinners, sitting in the seat of the scornful" (Psalm 1:1). As His children, we are by faith bound to believe the Word of God, in similar manner as rationalists are by reason bound to believe the judgements of men. Scripture says that Word carries within it the assurance of its own authenticity. Of the Scriptures John Owen says: "we are obliged, upon the penalty of eternal damnation… to receive them, with that subjection of soul which is due to the word of God." (Works XVI, p. 307, 1968 reprint). The Word of God itself must be sufficient authority for us.

There can only be one Word

We acknowledge the final authority of the Word of God, a revelation of the mind of God, of His unbreakable purpose. If we refuse the authority of sola scriptura, we must replace it with another, whether this be the ultimacy of ‘make up your own mind’ rationalism, of Pope, church, human tradition or visionary hallucination. The rationalist, Romanist, and religious mystic have always sought to undermine the absolute authority of Scripture by introducing another word in its place or alongside it. They have all recognised too that if the Scripture can be shown to speak with more than one voice, clearly an adjudicator is required to bring clarity in the place of uncertainty. We shall find many volunteering to fill this place.

      "For if the trumpet give an uncertain sound, who shall prepare himself to the battle?" (1 Corinthians 14:8)

Sola scriptura is rightly perceived as a threat both to the claims of Rome and to rationalism. In a book of 1689 called Critical History of the Text of the New Testament, and sounding for all the world like a modern textual critic, a Roman priest by the name of Richard Simon wrote,

      "A true Christian who professes to follow the Catholic faith must no more call himself a disciple of St. Augustine than of St. Jerome or of any other Church Father, for his faith is founded on the word of Jesus Christ, contained in the writings of the apostles as well as in the firm tradition of the Catholic Church. …The great changes that have taken place in the manuscripts of the Bible—as we have shown in the first book of this work—since the first originals were lost, completely destroy the principle of the Protestants and the Socinians, who only consult these same manuscripts of the Bible in the form they are today. If the truth of religion had not lived on in the church, it would not be safe to look for it now in books that have been subjected to so many changes and that in so many matters were dependent on the will of the copyists. It is certain that the Jews who copied these books took the liberty of adding certain letters here, and cutting out certain letters there, according as they judged it suitable; and yet the meaning of the text is often dependent on these letters. If traditior is not joined to scripture, there is hardly anything in religion that one can confidently affirm." (ed. italics ours)

Simon uses tradition, another ‘word’, to undermine the one Word of Scripture. He continues his attack on the authority of the Bible by pointing to the loss of the originals and whilst acknowledging the authority accorded to the traditional or received text by ‘Protestants’, he denied its acceptability. He then speaks of a variation in readings, the intentional corruption of manuscripts, and an alleged unreliability of copyists, just as do his modern counterparts. Rationalist theologians must show the same thing, for any absolute biblical authority snatches all self-assumed autonomous reason from its throne.

If they would do away with the authority of Scripture, the critics must first demonstrate that there is no single Word of God but many. What they must then show us is that as the original writings have turned to dust many centuries ago and although they alone were written under inspiration, we now have no inspired Bible but only one in which the words are uncertain. They will then proceed to tell us that most manuscripts are unreliable and that many were corrupted by the Jews with respect to the Hebrew or by the early Christians with respect to the Greek. Copyists are not to be relied upon as most wanted to show their case in the best light and so made embellishments as they went along.

The Bible is then not the only voice. Another voice needed, a ‘priestly class’ of scholars to unscramble the jumble of manuscripts for the layman, to reconstruct for us what the original Scriptures must have been like. The Holy Spirit illuminating one inspired and divinely preserved sacred text to the heart of the individual believer as it is read or proclaimed is not enough. Strange, just when we think God will speak to us in Scripture, someone else always seems to appear on the horizon. We can never be trusted to be alone with our God and His one Word!

An easy way to show that no two texts or versions are the same is to quote or print them side-by-side. The modern preacher quotes from this version or that at a whim, just where his fancy leads him. In the end, it is completely unclear as to where the authentic Word is to be found. The very fact that many different translations are deemed equally worthy of our attention deflects the authority of the Word of God. It allows the sinner and the trifler to unhook himself from the barbs. He can always turn to another version that seems to support him, the apostate to one, the worldling and the sodomite to another.

Where there is no one Word, there is no one authority.

Rome tried to discredit the authentic Scriptures by publishing polyglot bibles. Most well known of these is the Complutensian Polyglot (1513-17). Its purpose was to establish the defective Romish Latin Vulgate of Jerome as the standard of correctness rather than to allow the traditional text. The Vulgate was printed with the Greek Septuagint Old Testament on the one side and the Hebrew on the other. Christ at the centre, two thieves on either side, so they boasted! The other two versions were deemed corrupt where they differed from the Vulgate at the centre. This was intended to demonstrate how ‘unbelieving Jews’ had corrupted the Hebrew and ‘schismatic Greeks’ the Greek of the Old Testament.

There were other polyglot bibles, even one published by an Anglican, Brian Walton, in 1657. The Puritan and non-conformist turned to the authentic Word of God in matters of church practice. This undermined the Anglican stance and threw into doubt the ‘apostolic succession’ of the bishop and thus the authority of the clergy. Walton was suggesting the Puritan recourse to Scripture alone was untenable because of the great variety of readings. By gaining the assistance of leading Orientalists at the universities of Oxford and Cambridge, anyone raising a voice in opposition to his work could be labelled ignorant and foolish. Nothing changes, does it? The enemies of God’s Word still attempt to belittle the learning of any opposing their viewpoint. A rat will run when it is chased – clobber it with a shovel, if you can – but when cornered, it will strike back. Such abuse only suggests to us a weak argument.

Since Bible days and through the Reformation to the present day, godly students of the Word believed that they were in possession of an inspired text, preserved, and kept pure by God. Even the enemies of God were prepared on occasions to concede that believers treated Scriptures as though they were perfect. Canon I of the Formula Consensus Helvetica (1675) holds that the textus receptus and the Hebrew Massoretic text along with the vowel points are the Word from which not a jot or tittle shall fail.

      "God, the supreme judge, not only took care to have His Word … committed to writing … but has also watched and cherished it with paternal care ever since it was written up to the present time, so that it could not be corrupted by craft of Satan or fraud of man. Therefore the church justly ascribes it to His singular grace and goodness that she has, and will have to the end of the world, a ‘sure word of prophecy’ and ‘holy scriptures’ (2 Tim. 3:15), from which, though heaven and earth perish, ‘one jot or one tittle shall in no wise pass’ (Matt. 5:18)."

The miraculous preservation of the original manuscripts themselves – Old or New Testament – is unnecessary as God has preserved faithful copies, as much the Word of God as the originals, because He "has also watched and cherished it with paternal care ever since it was written up to the present time". The meaning is abundantly clear. No one at the time thought to draw the distinction made later by Warfield that sets the copies at odds with the originals.

Whilst we do not share all his theological insights, John Owen (1616-1683), ranks among the finest and most spiritually minded of theologians that God ever gave to the British people. Certainly, his defence of the Scripture texts has stood the test of time and is a position we find to be in almost all respects in conformity to what the Bible teaches about itself. He began where we all must begin. He believed most firmly that God has kept His promise to preserve the Word He inspired entire and without corruption.

      "But yet we affirm, that the whole Word of God, in every letter and tittle, as given from him by inspiration, is preserved without corruption." (Works, XVI, p.301)

      "Surely the promise of God for the preservation of his word, with his love and care of his church, of whose faith and obedience that word of his is the only rule, requires other thoughts at our hands. … We add, that the whole Scripture, entire as given out from God, without any loss, is preserved in the copies of the originals yet remaining; what varieties there are among the copies themselves shall be afterward declared. In them all, we say, is every letter and tittle of the word. These copies, we say, are the rule, standard, and touchstone of all translations, ancient or modern, by which they are in all things to be examined, tried, corrected, amended; and themselves only by themselves." (Works XVI, p.357, ed. italics ours)

We have the Word of God because God has preserved it in its entirety.

      "…the purity of the present original copies of the Scripture, or rather copies in the original languages, which the church of God doth now and hath for many ages enjoyed as her chiefest treasure" (Works XVI, p.353)

The Genevan theologian, Francis Turretin (1623-87) makes this same point.

      "By the original texts, we do not mean the autographs written by the hand of Moses, of the prophets and of the apostles, which certainly do not now exist. We mean their apographs which are so called because they set forth to us the word of God in the very words of those who wrote under the immediate inspiration of the Holy Spirit." (Institute of Elenctic Theology, I, 2, p.106)

He attributes authenticity to the copies and to the original writings.

      "However, a writing can be authentic in two ways: either primarily and originally or secondarily and derivatively. That writing is primarily authentic which is autopiston (‘of self-inspiring confidence’) and to which credit is and ought to be given on its own account. In this manner, the originals of royal edicts, magistrates’ decrees, wills, contracts and the autographs of authors are authentic. The secondarily authentic writings are all the copies accurately and faithfully taken from the originals by suitable men; such as the scriveners appointed for that purpose by public authority (for the edicts of kings and other public documents) and any honest and careful scribes and copiers (for books and other writings). The autographs of Moses, the prophets and apostles are alone authentic in the first sense. In the latter sense, the faithful and accurate copies of them are also authentic. … But the latter consists in this, that the autographs and also the accurate and faithful copies may be the standard of all other copies of the same writing and of its translations. If anything is found in them different from the authentic writings, either autographs or apographs, it is unworthy of the name authentic and should be discarded as spurious and adulterated, the discordance itself being a sufficient reason for its rejection. … The various readings which occur do not destroy the authenticity of the Scriptures because they may be easily distinguished and determined, partly by the connection of the passage and partly by a collation with better manuscripts." (op cit p.113-114)

A number of points deserve our attention here. Underlying what Turretin writes is the assumption that accurate and faithful copies exist and are to be taken as the standard for all other copies and translations. Furthermore, if copies appear that do not match the authentic standard copies they are to be discarded as spurious and adulterated. It must not be overlooked that copyists are to be "suitable men … honest and careful". All too often, those have set themselves to work with Scripture, who knew no call of God to such a work and for this reason alone, if no other, exclude themselves as unsuitable. Finally, various readings are not a denial of the authenticity of the Scriptures as such deviations are easily identified.

What godly men such as Turretin and Owen tried to do, rather than cobble together a noxious pot-pouri (French for ‘rotten pot’) using every manuscript to hand, was to separate out the bogus and forged to reveal the genuine!

The suggestion of some that Erasmus had access only to a few rather inferior manuscripts and that Stephanus and Beza largely followed him will not stand the test of honest historical scrutiny. Rome had a long history of forging all kinds of documents right, left and centre. There were the ‘Pseudo-Isodorian Decretals’ and the forged ‘Donation of Constantine’. Men like Erasmus and Luther would have watched like hawks for the slightest indication of corruption in any texts. Furthermore, present research has shown that these men and their successors were invariably correct, as for example in the eventual rejection of Codex Cantabrigiensis (D). In imitation of the Reformers’ resort to ancient Greek documents, Rome had used this manuscript to support their infamous doctrine of celibacy at the Council of Trent.

The greater number of manuscripts available today can only support the work of Erasmus and Stephanus, because they measured everything they looked at against the traditional text. They would work today as they did then, were they still with us. They had some alternative readings from which to choose, but after comparison with the traditional text, they either kept them as such in textual notes or laid them completely aside, but nothing was added or removed from the traditional text. The question here is not one of manuscript availability, but of methodology.

All new manuscripts were measured by these men against that which was already recognised by believers as being the Word of God.

That there are variant readings in the Greek text is not in dispute and Owen offers a number of suggestions as to how they got there. What he vehemently objects to is the practice continued to this day of imposing them upon us as an alternative and thereby equally authoritative readings.

      "Hence it is come to pass … that whatever varying word, syllable, or tittle, could be by any observed, wherein any book, though of yesterday, varieth from the common received copy, though manifestly a mistake, superfluous or deficient, inconsistent with the sense of the place, yea, barbarous, is presently imposed on us as a various lection." (Works XVI, p.363)

Owen, like Turretin, insists that there is a God-preserved original to hand by which all else is to be measured.

Variants, whatever their source, are to be treated as deviations from the true text. Owen is someone who recognizes the true purpose behind the appearance of the ‘spurious brood’ of manuscripts.

      "…I presume I may take liberty without offence to say, I should more esteem of theirs who would endeavour to search and trace out these pretenders to their several originals, and, rejecting the spurious brood that hath now spawned itself over the face of so much paper, that ought by no means to be brought into competition with the common reading, would reduce them to such a necessary number, whose consideration might be of some other use than merely to create a temptation to the reader that nothing is left sound and entire in the word of God." (Works XVI, p.364)

The effect of granting authenticity to these various readings will always be to undermine the conviction that God has preserved His Word.

Owen laments that as knowledge of the original languages of Scripture increased, the ground of legitimate textual study having already been occupied by eminent scholars, others wanting to make a name for themselves abused their position so that boldness in criticising the Scriptures increased. At first variant readings were simply compared one with the other, but this soon degenerated into a pernicious principle that "sundry corruptions crept into the originals, which, by their critical faculty, with the use of sundry engines, those especially of the old translations, are to be discovered and removed" (Works, XVI, p.290). The suggestion was that the copies of Scripture in the original languages then to hand had been corrupted – this has a peculiarly modern ring to it – they were to be corrected by textual criticism. In particular, comparisons were made with early translations as it was claimed they would have been made from texts that were more reliable. If there were indeed corruptions in the immediate copies of the original, it would be impossible to correct them having no standard by which to judge them. Incidental errors by scribes do not call for a revision of the text, but only for a recognition of what they are. There could be no place for mistakes in the Word of God. They were according to Owen little more than the "conjectures of men conceited of their own abilities to correct the Word of God" and we agree with him still. God is as much concerned in the preservation of the book itself as the teachings contained in it. Only because of the reliability of the text can the doctrines be established and so attacks of Satan will be directed as much against the book itself as against the teaching it contains.

David W. Norris

Taken from David’s book THE BIG PICTURE: the authority & integrity of the authentic Word of God. See publications page.