Textual Criticism and Modern Versions: What Could Possibly Go Wrong?

In 2018 the inimitable Jordan Peterson was asked by an attendee, “If you had five minutes with Prime Minister Trudeau what would you say to him to help him understand the error of his ways.” After a long pause Peterson offered an answer that I believe is exceedingly relevant to the current discussion/debate surrounding the version controversy.

First, Peterson cautions his listeners against ideological possession. That is, some are so possessed by an idea or a paradigm that it is the idea or paradigm which is speaking and not the person. This takes the form of parroting political party talking points or the bare repetition of what you hear on the news sans critical assessment as if the news is on its face only true. One way to guard against ideological possession says Peterson is to consider the possibility of your idea or paradigm going “spectacularly sideways.” What is the worst possible outcome that your idea could engender? Such a calculation is indicative of epistemic humility and wisdom.

If such a calculation was made by the like of Wescott and Hort or Warfield or Wallace or Gurry it is by no means plain. Even to this day there seems to be little clear apprehension on the part of modern evangelical text critics as they continue to work on and meddle with the Greek New Testament. Is there any prominent place in the modern text critical literature which speaks to the feasible detriment the multiplication of versions would have on the English-speaking believing community? Peterson warns Trudeau of tribalism while we in the church are divided among this Greek text or that text critical method or textual family and that English version or even those other versions to the exclusion of yet others.

The point is, for the last 150 years modern evangelical textual criticism has been so ideologically possessed that they haven’t taken the time to even consider let alone observe what would happen if their idea/paradigm were to go spectacularly sideways. I say “observe” because the Christian’s doubt in the Scripture is observable. In fact is it so the case that William Mounce thought it necessary to write a book entitled, Why I Trust the Bible. And both he and the publisher thought the topic so relevant that the book was published in 2021. Not only have the modern evangelical textual critics not considered the worst possible scenario, they can’t see the worst possible scenario even as it bites them in the face.

Second, Peterson goes on to use the Founding Father’s establishment of government as an example of epistemic humility. They did not assume a utopian society in which wise men would lead and represent courageous and temperate people. They understood that things could go spectacularly sideways, thus they instituted the balance of powers among the three branches of government. Modern evangelical textual criticism shows itself to again be ideologically possessed in that there are no checks and balances enumerated for the text critic. They haven’t the humility to say, “We are men capable of horrible things. As we must be governed by an authority greater than the academy and popular opinion. We must be governed by the Spirit of God through the word of God in the work of textual criticism.” Nope, you get nothing of the sort. In fact, Daniel Wallace rejects this kind of arrangement.

“A theological a priori has no place in textual criticism.”

Daniel B. Wallace, “Challenges in New Testament Textual Criticism for the Twenty-First Century” in Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society Vol. 52, Iss. 1 (March 2009): 79-100. 51.

In the same article Wallace writes,

“I would question whether it is an epistemologically sound principle to allow one’s presuppositions to dictate his text-critical methodology.”

Daniel B. Wallace, “Challenges in New Testament Textual Criticism for the Twenty-First Century” in Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society Vol. 52, Iss. 1 (March 2009): 79-100. 93.

While at the same time we here at StandardSacredText.com have made the case repeatedly that the authority to determine what is or is not the New Testament, what is or is not the word of God rests with the Spirit of God through the word of God to the people of God by faith. If there is any sure way to avoid ideological possession it is to be filled with and led by the Holy Spirit who is the Good, the True, and the Beautiful.

Third, Peterson goes on to explain how, what he dubs, wise social scientists go about helping their clients and building structures to improve society. Paramount to a wise social scientist’s perceptual set is the notion that the probability of their plan equaling the expected “positive outcome” to the exclusion of all others is about 0. In fact, the data show that the highest probability is that the proposed plan will kick back and make the situation worse. Consider a situation where a given apparatus is 85% efficient and you want to implement a plan to raise efficiency to 90%, a meager increase of 5%. The probabilities that you make things worse with your plan are far greater than the probabilities of you making things better. As Peterson points out, any fool can decrease the efficiency of a company by 50%, but to increase the efficiency of an already efficient company by 5% is very difficult.

The burning question is, “Has the modern evangelical textual critic increased the ‘efficiency’ of the Bible?” Where there was once a standard sacred text, now there is not. Where there was once a Bible to hand down generation after generation, now there is not. Where once there was once a common ecclesiastical language derived from the Bible, now there is not. In fact, modern evangelical text-critics have so utterly failed in their quest to find the original text of the New Testament in Greek that many text-critics have moved the goalposts to a more modest goal of finding the text which lies immediately behind the manuscripts we currently have. The feasibility of finding the autographs is no longer on the table.

Modern evangelical textual criticism thought itself able to better the text of Scripture which has served the church for over 400 years and thereby better the believing community. In their hubris we lost our language, we lost our tradition, we lost our home, and the proposed replacements are only better relative to the fickle affections of a consumer Christianity. That is consumers of academia, consumers of academic celebrity, and the idolatry of credential. None of the modern evangelical text-critics argue that the reason we need a new Bible is because the Spirit of God is moving through the word of God in the people of God by faith to that end. As such, and until some future time, the accusation of fickle affective Christian consumerism stands.

Finally, Peterson, as a clinical psychologist, invokes the Hippocratic Oath – First, do no harm. The TR/KJV tradition and scholarship associated therewith was exceedingly efficient. So efficient that most critical proponents admit the KJV to be an excellent formal translation. Furthermore, much of their translation accords with the KJV in word and word order. With an exceedingly efficient Original and translation in the balance, the modern evangelical text critic thought himself competent enough to increase said efficiency by a meager amount and they have yet to prove they have accomplished such a feat. If a doctor’s first aim is to do no harm to the body, it seems only obvious that the modern evangelical text-critic should refrain in the same way seeing his subject is the received words of God, being received by Christ’s bride for over four centuries.

Yet, the modern evangelical text-critic’s first response was not, to do no harm. Instead, it was to throw out the TR and start fresh. Not only with a new text but also with a new method. Essential to that method is the wholesale repudiation of orthodox theological a prioris in the work of textual criticism. Then came the insertion of the dogma that the oldest, shortest, and hardest reading was best. Now we have the CBGM. No harm done, right? Except the believing community seems to disagree otherwise why would we constantly need to be reassured that all is well.

Berkhof writes,

“…no one doctrine of religion is changed, not one precept is taken away, not one important fact altered, by the whole of the various readings collectively taken.”

Louis Berkhof, Systematic Theology, 159.

Then Timothy Paul Jones,

“What’s more, it’s almost always possible – through the discipline of known as textual criticism – to compare manuscripts and to discover where and when the changes were made…Most important, none of the differences affect any central elements of the Christian faith.”

Jones, Misquoting Truth, 43-44.

Then Daniel Wallace,

“I would argue that no cardinal doctrine is jeopardized by any viable variant.”

Wallace, Inerrancy and the Text, 2.

And Geisler and Roach,

“While there are changes in the text of Scripture, not all changes are equal in significance. Most of them were trivial, not changing the meaning of the text.”

Geisler and Roach, Inerrancy, 80.

But wait there’s more. Again, Geisler and Roach,

“These kinds of errors are known, but they do not discredit any theological doctrine. Hence, these kinds of scribal changes to not affect the reliability of the New Testament manuscripts in conveying the original message.”

Geisler and Roach, Inerrancy, 80.

And finally for today’s montage Anderson and Widder,

“When we consider that the Bible was transmitted by hand in a harsh climate for thousands of years, we can only marvel that, even though there is variation in the text, most of these variants are insignificant copying errors, and nearly all variants involve no significant doctrinal issue.”

Anderson and Widder, Textual Criticism, 184.

They keep saying it because the believing community does not trust their Bible, and its hard to say if they trust the above scholars either. Modern evangelical text-critics have done harm and they continue to do so. They have not taken the time to assess the feasibility of the plan going spectacularly sideways. They assume that they can better the Bible, but they have not by any objective measure. Nor have they bettered the church by any objective measure. In fact, the church is objectively worse because of the shortsightedness of modern evangelical textual criticism. For that matter the world is objectively worse off and for the same reasons. Indeed, and in this case, “the children of this world are in their generation wiser than the children of light” [Luke 16:8]. If only the modern evangelical textual critic had the circumspection of a deist stoic clinical psychologist from Canada with the last name of Peterson.

But of course, it can’t end there. How does the modern evangelical textual critic amend his ways? Recall C.S. Lewis’ discussion on the most progressive man. He asks, Is the most progressive man the one who continues on an erring road or is the most progressive man the one who recognizes he is on an erring road, turns around, and reclaim the true path. Of course, it is the latter that is the most progressive. How is that done practically?

1.) Recognize the whole modern textual critical enterprise has not delivered on its promises. Said method has not objectively made the Bible or the church better. In fact, the modern textual critical enterprise has made things objectively worse for the Bible and for the church.
2.) Temporarily cease and desist the work of textual criticism. Stop kicking up more and more textual dust. All you are doing is trumping up validation for the existence of your job and most interested parties know it.
3.) Realize the only way to do textual criticism properly is with your orthodox theological precommitments firmly intact.
4.) Realize that the driving force behind moving from one text to another [e.g., from the Geneva to the KJV] is ultimately an act of the Holy Spirit working in His people through the word of God. Textual criticism and the textual critic are merely the maidservants of the church.
5.) Then and only then you may again take up text critical work as bondslave to Christ and His bride – the church – waiting for the moving of the Spirit as He listeth.

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