Inspiration and Preservation

The Westminster Confession of Faith (I.8) states, "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..."

Virtually all Protestant traditions have historically held to both the divine inspiration and preservation of Scripture, but that view has changed drastically in the past two hundred years. Modernistic and liberal scholars have raised doubts concerning the authenticity of the majority of Greek manuscripts of the New Testament, and the text of Scripture is now treated just like any other ancient book without any consideration of God's providential preservation.

This modernistic view is taught in virtually all seminaries, and this has been my view since I attended seminary. However, I have recently been convinced that the traditional view expressed by the Westminster Confession is far superior. This is a very brief and oversimplified explanation of the traditional view of New Testament textual criticism.

I.  God Inspired His Word

The writings that make up the Bible are the inspired word of God, which means that each book of the Bible has a human author and a divine author. The Holy Spirit, working through the natural intellect and faculties of the human authors, inspired men of old to record the very word of God without error. The original documents of Scripture are referred to as "autographs", and every serious Christian must affirm the Bible's own teaching that these original documents are infallible (completely trustworthy) and inerrant (without error).

1 Thess. 2:13 -- "For this reason we also thank God without ceasing, because when you received the word of God which you heard from us, you welcomed it not as the word of men, but as it is in truth, the word of God, which also effectively works in you who believe."

2 Tim. 3:16 -- "All Scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness..."

2 Pet. 1:20-21 -- " prophecy of Scripture is of any private interpretation, 21 for prophecy never came by the will of man, but holy men of God spoke as they were moved by the Holy Spirit."

2 Pet. 3:15-16 -- "our beloved brother Paul, according to the wisdom given to him, has written to you, 16 as also in all his epistles, speaking in them of these things, in which are some things hard to understand, which untaught and unstable people twist to their own destruction, as they do also the rest of the Scriptures."

God has revealed Himself in history, and God ordained that men should record His self-revelation as an enduring witness to what He has said and done in the past. Without a reliable record of God's self-revelation, future generations would not share the full of knowledge of God.

II.  God Has Preserved His Word in the Church

But we have a major problem: we don't have the original autographs of the Bible. They were probably worn out from constant use within 100-200 years of the Apostles. So, is it possible for us to have the inspired word of God? We know that many copies of the original autographs were made, but can we have confidence that the copies of those original manuscripts are reliable?

Here's one way to think about the question: What good would it do for God to inspire the original authors to write infallible and inerrant documents and then let His word be corrupted through copying errors and intentional changes by heretics? Scripture clearly teaches that God has preserved His word and will continue to do so throughout history.

Isaiah 40:8 -- "The grass withers, the flower fades, but the word of our God stands forever."

Matthew 5:18 -- "For assuredly, I say to you, till heaven and earth pass away, one jot or one tittle will by no means pass from the law till all is fulfilled."

Revelation 22:18-19 -- "For I testify to everyone who hears the words of the prophecy of this book: If anyone adds to these things, God will add to him the plagues that are written in this book; 19 and if anyone takes away from the words of the book of this prophecy, God shall take away his part from the Book of Life, from the holy city, and from the things which are written in this book."

If God gave us His perfect word by which we are saved and by which we must live, then it must be necessary that God has preserved His word down through the ages. But where and how?

There is a group ("family") of manuscripts from the area where the early church was most active. This so-called Byzantine family of manuscripts is the largest manuscript family by far, and there are an unbelievably small number of discrepancies in this collection. In fact, many liberal manuscript scholars are so astonished by the lack of discrepancies in the Byzantine manuscript family that they have concluded that these manuscripts have been doctored and artificially edited and, therefore, must be inauthentic.

From the perspective of a Christian, however, it makes much more sense to conclude that God has preserved the original, inspired text of Scripture in the vast majority of manuscripts that have been read and copied by the church for thousands of years. It makes much more sense that faithful theologians, scribes, monks, and clerks have labored diligently to avoid coping errors and protect the true text of Scripture against being corrupted by heretics.

III.  The Majority Reading is Original

Scholars today teach that the oldest manuscripts must be the most accurate, but this assumes that the Bible should be treated just the same as any other ancient book. Wherever there are textual discrepancies, modern translations of the Bible almost exclusively follow two of the oldest manuscripts (called "Codex Sinaiticus" and "Codex Vaticanus"). Scholars are so committed to these "oldest and best" manuscripts that they prefer them above all other evidence.[1]

One problem with this approach is that these two manuscripts don't even agree with each other in thousands of verses. Furthermore, these two manuscripts were only discovered in the 1800s. If these two manuscripts contain the original reading of the New Testament text and the Byzantine text family is wrong, then God has allowed His inspired word to be hidden from His church for almost two thousand years and has allowed the vast majority of Christians throughout history to use a corrupted Bible.

It seems, then, that the best way for Christians to sort through all the manuscript evidence is to follow the general rule that the majority reading is the original reading. Wherever there is a discrepancy between manuscripts, Christians should ordinarily follow the reading that is found in the greatest number of manuscripts representing broadest usage in the church.

IV.  What About the King James Version and the Textus Receptus?

The Textus Receptus (Latin for "received text") was the first printed edition of the Greek New Testament, which was published by Erasmus in 1516. Erasmus gathered the best Greek manuscripts available to him (he had six), and compiled them into what he believed to be the original text of the New Testament. Erasmus revised his critical edition several times, and then other printers continued to edit and revise it to remove typographical errors and to incorporate new manuscript evidence.

The Protestant Reformers all relied upon different editions of the Textus Receptus for their various Bible translations. Martin Luther used the second edition of Erasmus's text for his German translation of the Bible. The Geneva Bible was translated into English from the Textus Receptus by John Knox's congregation in Geneva, and the King James Version was also based on a later form of the Textus Receptus. The Textus Receptus very closely follows the Majority Text except for a number of minor variations (mostly in the Book of Revelation). In many ways, the NKJV is even better than the KJV on textual matters, because the NKJV has marginal notes indicating where the Textus Receptus differs from the Majority reading.

V.  So Which Bible Translation Should I Use?

We have thousands of manuscripts of the New Testament, and those textual differences are not unimportant. It is necessary that we do the best we can to eliminate errors and pursue the most faithful translation of God's word that we can. It's important that Christians not be filled with doubt about the reliability of God's word.[2] It's also important that our textual methodology is faithful and not based on the unbelieving principles of humanistic scholars.

At the same time, it's important to keep things in perspective. This is not something that Christians should spend time fighting over. This is not something that should be a hindrance to unity and fellowship. The differences in manuscripts of the New Testament only amount to 2% of disagreement,[3] and many of those discrepancies are so minor that they don't even show up in English translations. In other words, the difference between the KJV/NKJV and a modern literal translation (NASB, ESV, etc.) is not going to keep you out of heaven or even lead you into doctrinal error. There's a great deal of wisdom in the saying that the best translation of the Bible is the one you'll actually read.


[1] For example, most modern translations of the Bible put Mark 16:9-20 in brackets with a note like this: "Some of the earliest manuscripts do not include 16:9-20." In reality Codex Sinaiticus and Codex Vaticanus are the only two early manuscripts that omit vv. 9-20. The manuscript evidence for the ending of Mark does pose some challenges, but the overwhelming majority of texts (more than 1600 manuscripts) indicates that Mark 16:9-20 is the inspired, original ending. This is confirmed by the fact that numerous church fathers (Irenaeus around 184, Tatian's famous Diatessaron, etc.) quoted from Mark 16:9-20 before Codex Sinaiticus and Vaticanus were produced in the fourth century AD.

[2] This is why I think it's terribly unhelpful for some modern Bible translations to put passages of Scripture in brackets with a note saying that portion of the text is probably not authentic.

[3] The Majority Text agrees with the Textus Receptus 99% of the time. The Majority Text agrees with the modern critical text (Nestle-Aland or United Bible Society) 98% of the time.

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