Issues Relating to the Text of the Bible

A Disputatio From the Past

This discussion keeps coming up, so, I am thankful I was given permission to post a brief written “disputatio” between myself and Douglas Wilson on the topic of the “Ecclesiastical Text.” Though we were limited to very brief statements (115 words) I think even this little discussion illustrated the problems with the Ecclesiastical Text theory. It sounds great, but there is one big problem: it cannot answer specifics about texts (sort of necessary for knowing the text of the NT!) and it just doesn’t ground itself in history. In any case, I think this took place somewhere around 1996 or so (just going off the top of my head). Here’s the full text:

Volume 10, Issue 1: Disputatio
Discerning the Manuscript Traditions

Douglas Wilson and James White

“I am of NIV,” some say. Others say, “I am of NASB.” Still others say, “I am of KJV.” Is it simply enough to respond to these various armies that they may water, but God gives the increase—so quit squabbling? If the translation one uses does matter, which should it be? And which of the ancient manuscripts should be used as a base for translation? In what follows, Douglas Wilson, editor of Credenda/Agenda, and James White discuss whether one manuscript is superior to another and how we might know that one is superior.

James White is the author of the book, The King James Only Controversy: Can You Trust the Modern Translations?, and the book, Letters to a Mormon Elder. He is the Director of Ministries for Alpha and Omega Ministries.

DW: The historic Protestant position on the manuscript tradition of Scripture is that God had divinely inspired the writing of the autographs and had providentially preserved the tradition of the apographs down to the present time. But with the advent of modernity, this simple faith was not scientific enough and independent textual critics began to work with the Scriptures as though they were just another collection of ancient books, subject to the same treatment. Conservatives like B.B. Warfield were concerned about these unbelieving encroachments, and so resolved simply to defend the autographs alone, a well-meaning but disastrous strategy. While rejecting the know-nothing approach of fundamentalism, historic Protestants need to return to the reformational doctrine of sola Scriptura.

JW: The central issue for any believing Christian when it comes to the text of the Bible is this: what did the original authors write? We must remember that the ultimate goal is to know what John or Paul wrote, not what a scribe, or group of scribes, or even a group of theologians, think they wrote. We must never forget that at times in the history of the Church certain texts have become enshrined by tradition rather than by force of historical verity. To be truly Reformed is to always test one’s traditions, and this is no less true when we examine the issue of text types and manuscript traditions.

DW: Agreed. But if we are able to know what the original autographs contained, and we do not have the autographs themselves, then we must have a reliable tradition or bridge of some sort which connects us to the original autographs. Since we agree that such a traditional bridge is necessary, then the debate concerns which manuscript tradition, and not whether we will have a manuscript tradition. It concerns which scribes are reliable, not whether intervening scribes are necessary. This means the “force of historical verity” is simply another way of referring to accurate tradition. And it appears to me that when we use this “force” as the standard, the textus receptus measures up quite well.

JW: Some have counted as many as one hundred different editions of the TR, so which one is being referred to is a major question. The most popular TR differs from the Majority Text in over 1,800 places, and contains obvious errors (such as those at Luke 2:22 or 2 Timothy 2:19). The early editions of the TR (the editions of Erasmus) were created on the same basis as modern texts, as Erasmus’ own comments make clear. The TR is an “artificial” text, just as all modern texts, in that there is not a single manuscript in the tradition that reads word-for-word as the TR.

DW: If a problem with the TR is variant readings, then how does it help to expand the field so that we have thousands more variant readings? The “errors” you cite are a wonderful example of the power of paradigms. How is “Christ” instead of “Lord” a mistake? Or Mary’s purification? The issue is not whether careful scholarship goes into the formation of the text, but rather who is qualified to do that scholarship, and who is responsible for authoritatively receiving it. The Church has been entrusted with the oracles of God, not autonomous scientists. We have agreed that a traditional manuscript bridge is necessary. Who stands guard at the bridge—the Church or autonomous science?

JW: It is a myth that the TR is the “received text.” The Church has never convened and compared one tradition against another and made that determination. Yet, there are many parallels between the arguments once used by Rome in favor of the Vulgate and the arguments used by some to support the TR. As to the errors cited, the issue is simple: just as I don’t accept the Vulgate’s renderings due to their “common use” for centuries, so I ask of the TR the same question: is that what Luke or Paul originally wrote? In both places, the TR gives a reading that stands against even the Majority Text.
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