I am a regular listener to Dr. James White’s The Dividing Line that he normally broadcasts on Tuesday and Thursday afternoons weekly. Lately, Dr. White has been dealing with the issue of what we call Textual Criticism. Textual criticism is a crucial area of study for Christian scholars (and should be done only by Christian scholars, frankly) to help unveil better clarity on the original nature of the original books of Scripture.
I personally find the subject very fascinating as a kind of outsider to it. I am not a scholar, nor trained in the Greek or Hebrew. I am simply one who loves history, and hence the history of the manuscripts of sacred Scripture. But more than this, the study of textual criticism is not simply geeking out on the history of biblical manuscripts. It’s an extremely important area that Christians should be aware of. Although I am not in any way a trained scholar on this subject, I can at least grasp the basic, fundamental issues as a layperson and use these important facts in apologetic contexts, in a time when it’s more needed than ever. Already in several evangelistic situations I have had to get into the subject (though mostly in brief) of the transmission of Scripture to demonstrate that Jesus’s words, “Heaven and earth may pass away, but my words will by no means pass away” in Matthew 24:35 are true.
We have a great and luscious wealth of manuscript evidence for the reliability of our sacred texts today, more than we have of anything in antiquity. One of the things I love to talk about most is how remarkably well-kept Scripture is today, and how Jesus’s words of Matthew 24:35 have, in fact, been kept true.
But there is a sect of Christians which we might call the TR-Only Advocates, or the Traditional Text Advocates who seem to be making the case against textual criticism and its wonderful discoveries. “TR” stands for Textus Receptus (Latin for “Received Text”). The TR is a text created by the sixteenth century Roman Catholic scholar Desiderius Erasmus and has become a basis, if not the basis, of translations of the Bible in the Reformation (including the King James Bible). It is often considered a very “Protestant Bible” (despite having its origin in a Roman Catholic). It served as the base Greek translation for the vast majority of Protestant translations in the sixteenth century and on until the nineteenth century.
It would make sense, therefore, to see the Textus Receptus as very crucial and important to post-Protestant/Reformation translations of Scripture, such as the Geneva Bible, the Bishop’s Bible, the Tyndale Bible, and of course, the King James Bible; translations made by men of the Reformation. It is upon this basis that many of the TR advocates argue against the overall textual critical method of translation.
This of course is not all those who see the Alexandrian findings as unprofitable. There are others who are not necessarily TR-only, but still insist that the word of God has been purely kept in the Byzantine, or majority text family. And that of course, makes sense. The majority contains much that the Alexandrian (the minority) do not contain. That issue can be discussed later, what I wish to point out here, because I know that some will seek to misrepresent me, is that not all who reject the Alexandrian findings are TR-only. Not all are King James Only. For that purpose, I will distinguish in this article between them. When I use the term “TR-only” if you are not TR-only, instead of quoting me and accusing me of lumping everyone into one group, recognize that I said this of TR-onlyists, not you.
What I would like to do here is to demonstrate a very serious error in a category confusion that the TR-only movement engages in, and Dr. White has pointed out numerous times on his program, and that is the misuse of Reformed Presuppositional Apologetics to defend the TR. Presuppositionalism generally relies on what is known as the Transcendental Argument for the existence of God (TAG), which in essence argues that it is impossible to reason in any human capacity without starting with the presupposition of the triune God’s existence.
Presuppositional apologetics is almost entirely a reformed apologetic, and arguably the only consistent form of apologetics. It’s power lies in its ability to push any meaningful discussion back to foundations and epistemology. What is the necessary epistemological starting position to understand reality? On its face it sounds circular, and it actually is, but it is circular in what I would say is a positive sense of circular argumentation. It is circular in the sense that it does not need, nor does it ever look outside its own foundations for validation, due to its very nature. That is extremely important to grasp. It, in and of itself, contains all necessary principles to understand the subject in debate, including the subject of its self-existence. It is, as it were, self-sustaining.
Who else fits this description but God Himself? When an atheist asks us the question “Prove to me that God exists. Where is the evidence?” he’s already asking the wrong question. The argument implies God’s existence depends on the universe to exist, and hence, any way the Christian attempts to answer the question is to commit intellectual suicide. God does not require a universe to validate His existence, the universe requires Him. And it is starting with God’s own preexistence, His absolute, self-sustaining and life-governing ontological nature as the I AM that is necessary for anything to exist in the first place. So the bottom line is that the atheist’s question proves God’s existence because in the question assumes purpose, existence, person hood, meaning, reason and logic, none of which he or she has outside of the triune God.
The essence of presuppositionalism is that God is the standard because there is nothing over and above Him. The prophet Isaiah rhetorically asks, “Who has measured the Spirit of the LORD, or what man shows Him His counsel?” (Isaiah 40:13 ESV). In other words, who does God consult? What authority exists over Him that He should submit to in order to do as He wishes? The obvious answer is no one. He Himself is the counsel and standard. He doesn’t depend on anything to exist. In this way we demonstrate that God is the necessary, self-sufficient presupposition for all predication on anything regarding existence.
TR-Onlyism as Presuppositionalism?
It is upon this basis, and the basis of God’s sovereignty over time and space (the reformed doctrine of predestination) that the TR-only movement attempts to stand to demonstrate the validity of their position. As I said, presuppositional apologetics is essentially a reformed apologetic, and most of the TR people are reformed, being heavily influenced by the Reformers themselves, which is natural if they advocate the Textus Receptus (again, despite it being of a Roman Catholic priest). Reformed apologetics also has at its core the presupposition that the Spirit is who convicts men of sin, carries His saints, and it is the word of God, the inerrant sufficiency of God-breathed Scripture that brings God’s elect unto salvation. Therefore, the Scriptures are a divine revelation.
All of this I agree with, but the issue lies in utilizing this presupposition in defense of the TR, or even the majority text. The TR-only advocates believe that the Textus Receptus is the standard for all translations of the Bible in the same way that God Himself is the standard for all existence. A conflation seems to be involved here in arguing that since God is ontologically over and above His creation, His breathed-out word is as well, and hence is not tainted with the mist of time and the errors of man.
There really is a kind of new revelation concept coming from this movement, whether they will admit that or not. The idea is that at least 1500 years after the apostles and their writings and the Septuagint translation, etc., God gave us something new in the Textus Receptus that makes it over and above these older, therefore incredibly valuable manuscript findings. The TR seals the deal, as it were, and shuts the inquiry up forever. It’s almost as if canon has closed… again. For real this time.
The argument is, let’s toss aside these new findings and just stick with the TR as our standard text. The reasons for doing so may vary, but the premise is the same: the Textus Receptus is our ultimate text and why? Because the Reformers used it. It is a Protestant principle. Because the confessions and creeds of the Reformation utilize translations based on the TR, that makes it the inspired text, and to be reformed, and hence, to hold to reformed apologetics, you have to hold this position.
The problem is that saying that God is the presupposition for any predication of knowledge and truth is very different than saying that one particular received text, which was made through textual criticism that these people mostly reject, are the same concept. The former is a valid form of circular argumentation, and why? Because as we have shown, He is Himself the standard, He is self-sustaining, self-attested and by Him and through Him all things exist. That cannot be said of the ladder. The ladder came into existence at one point, and its existence depends upon prior manuscripts to exist. It does not derive its existence from itself.
I anticipate an objection at this point, and that is, “Doesn’t that then mean that divine revelation depends on Paul to exist?” After all, if I am going to say that the Textus Receptus exists based upon prior, external forces, doesn’t that mean God’s breathed-out Scripture does as well? Doesn’t that subject God to His creation? Well, the problem here again is an issue with categories, and arguing from a presupposition that the Textus Receptus is itself divine revelation. It is not, and this claim demonstrates a very subtle, yet serious confusion between divine revelation and a translation of divine revelation.
What Paul wrote is theopneustos (God-breathed). What scribes and translators centuries down the road copied of what Paul wrote through the ages is not theopneustos, and that I think is the real problem. This is a real confusion between divine revelation and transmission of that revelation into different languages and into mass quantity.
Ecclesiastical Authority Over Scripture
My concern here is the abuse of presuppositionalism, and perhaps a misunderstanding of what it actually is. Not long ago, in a post in the Reformed Presuppositional Apologetics group, someone had asked the group what our response would be to the accusation of corruption making the Bible unreliable. I read through some of the responses and though there were some truths, a good majority of the arguments demonstrated that within the reformed community are people who want to assert presuppositional apologetics who are having trouble understanding what it is.
The majority of answers were to respond by asking the accusers “What’s your standard?” There is an important time and place for that question, but the fact is that the question was directed to you, not them. Can you answer the question? Among many Christians claiming to hold presuppositional apologetics, there seems to be the idea that this justifies irrational responses, dismissing of objections and just throwing out, “What’s your standard?” everywhere, and that evidence serves virtually no purpose in any apologetic context. Listening to some of the TR-onlyists Dr. White was in dialogue with, some of them made the claim that because God is sovereign over time, He therefore can preserve the TR, and use heretics like Erasmus to do it. The problem is that not only is that really a simplistic answer, but I can use that just as well to defend textual criticism. If God can preserve His word in the TR, despite sinful men and through sinful men, why can He not preserve His word in the history of textual criticism, despite and through sinful men?
The fact of the matter is that presuppositional apologetics is not the outright refusal to engage objections through evidence. No one suggests of course that evidence is how we know God exists. Evidence is what supports God’s existence, and Christians should therefore not be afraid of it. This again is how we find the balance so that we don’t go overboard on either side of the boat.
It is upon this misunderstanding of what presuppositional apolgetics is that I think people tend to flock towards using ecclesiastical means to further defend this perspective. People seem to have confused presuppositionalism with sola ecclesia, the idea that the church being the institution of God, is a divine revelation in and of itself. In some sense, perhaps that is true, but things get dangerous when we treat the church as a heavenly institution, and being led by the Spirit hence makes infallible claims of authority over, in this case, translations of sacred Scripture.
I don’t think such persons do this intentionally, and I want to emphasize that. I’m not going to stoop to the childish ad hominem tactics of accusing the other side of being a quasi-Romanist bunch. But what I am saying is that despite our wanting to say one thing, we might actually be pushing something else when we confuse different things together, such as the difference between God’s self-attesting, necessity of being for any and all existence, and transmissions by other humans of God’s revelation to mankind. That becomes very dangerous. This is the kind of thinking that has begun to elevate the confessions and creeds of the Reformation to the standard of Scripture.
The Danger of Tradition
Many reformed Christians seem to have a greater instinct to fall back on the confessions rather than Scripture. I myself have read the creeds and confessions as a reformed Christian. I think they are great, wonderful tools of clarity. But I would not consider myself strictly confessional. Although I think they’re great, I’m not all that fascinated with them. Reading the works of the great Reformers is also a wonderful, important element of learning. I love reading Calvin’s Institutes regularly. But my friends, we must be careful not to treat these men as modern-day apostles. I think we are more prone to this than we like to admit.
I had a friend who just recently converted from a reformed baptist to Roman Catholic and it shocked me. He is a smart young man, who I thought was solid in the reformed faith. I found myself one day contemplating how such a smart young man, a great thinker and defender of the faith of the apostles could end up crossing the Tiber River (converting to Roman Catholicism). I think the answer lies in becoming too immersed in the writings of the church fathers over and above the Scriptures that establish them.
Don’t misunderstand me, I am not saying that church history is not important. It’s my love of church history that makes me write this article, and to defend textual criticism over this kind of textual ecclesiasticism. What I am saying is that I think many if not most of the converts to Roman Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy happen because men put far too much faith in the church than they do the Scriptures. They confuse the words of church fathers with sacred Scripture itself.
We cannot afford to do that, and we also cannot afford to think that because we are reformed, because we carry the gospel in its most crystallized essence from the Apostles, we are immune to falling for traditions over and above Scripture. It troubles me when I hear reformed Christians speak of Calvinism as being “the gospel”. It’s not an utterly untrue statement, but it can be taken as one. I’m uncomfortable with it, and avoid it myself.
I think of John the Baptist when he rebuked the Pharisees and Sadducees. He told them to repent, for the kingdom of God was at hand, and before they even opened their mouth in response, what did he tell them? Do not presume that because you are sons of Abraham that you are safe. The promise doesn’t come by privilege (Matthew 3:7-10). In the same way, we cannot presume to think that because we stand on reformed confessions, creeds, and synods that we are safe. That is the heart and sole of sola ecclesia, not Sola Scriptura. The two are not the same thing by any stretch of the imagination, and to confuse them is costly.
As I said in my opening, I am not a professional in this area. In fact, I have run this article by a friend of mine who is much more knowledgeable of this subject than I am so that I don’t get anything wrong. But while I can certainly, as an untrained layperson in this subject, get certain facts wrong, this doesn’t mean that I cannot grasp the basic issue of this subject.
Listening to the TR-only arguments against Dr. White as he goes through them on The Dividing Line are stunning. Much of my criticisms in this article are based on those responses that I could not believe I was hearing. The issue here is not complicated at all. Most of Dr. White’s criticisms go completely ignored, such as, if the TR is the basis of all proper translations (which again, exists based upon prior manuscripts that exist in the history of textual criticism), what in the world were the church fathers using in the forth and fifth century in Nicaea and Chalcedon?
But the response, so far as I can tell, has been nothing, because as Dr. White has said, tradition is being defended, not truth. Tradition is presumptuous, tradition is a pseudo-truth. It pretends to be a standard when it’s really just an empty shell that profits no one. The essence of the Reformation was to challenge the traditions of the Roman Catholic Church. But my friends, brothers and sisters, we cannot afford to presume on the Reformation itself. Like all good literature, Reformation writings and teachings point you to Christ, they don’t claim to be the door or gate themselves.
This of course doesn’t go for all the TR advocates. I wanted to be very careful to differentiate between TR-onlyists, and TR-preference. If you prefer the Textus Receptus, that’s fine. If you think it’s more reliable, that is fine too. But this becomes dangerous when it becomes a fundamental, it becomes a kind of dogma, because it has no basis in foundational truth, and when you are standing upon something that is not self-attested, founded and rooted in truth, the only thing left is traditionalism, and the only thing that can defend that is ecclesiasticism, which is what the Reformation was fighting.