The Initial Text is a Unique Defeater for Modern Evangelical Text-Criticism

For the modern evangelical text-critic, is there any word in the Greek that we are certain beyond a shadow of doubt is indeed the original word of Scripture written at the hand of Paul or Peter? If yes, what word or words and based on what manuscript evidence and method are those words deemed certainly the words of the autograph? If no, then every word of Scripture should be doubted at least a little and in the present time given the tenets of modern evangelical textual criticism. Enter the initial text.

What is the initial text? Consider the following quotes and research from Michael W. Holmes paper, From the “Original Text” to the “Initial Text”: The Traditional Goal of New Testament Textual Criticism in Contemporary Discussion. Holmes is the former Chair of the Department of Biblical and Theological Studies at Bethel University in St. Paul, Minnesota. In this paper he writes concerning the “initial text”,

“‘[t]he initial text is the form of a text that stands at the beginning of a textual tradition.'”

Holmes, Initial Text, 652.

Note that the “beginning” here is not the original or autograph, but a hypothetical text which serves as the source from which the Alexandrian text tradition came from, or the Byzantine text tradition came from. Holmes goes on to quote Gerd Mink,

“‘The initial text is not identical with the original, the text of the author. Between the autograph and the initial text considerable changes may have taken place which may not have left a single trace in the surviving textual tradition.'”

Holmes, Initial Text, 652 quoting from Gerd Mink, “Problems of a Highly Contaminated Tradition, the New Testament: Stemmata of Variants as a Source of a Genealogy for Witnesses,” in Studies in Stemmatology, vol. 2 [ed. Pieter van Reenen, August den Hollander, and Margot van Mulken; Amsterdam: John Benjamins, 2004], 25.

And from Wachtel and Parker,

“‘We are…insisting that the initial Text is different from both the authorial text and the archetype, that we cannot reconstruct the former and that what we can reconstruct is more than the latter.'”

Holmes, Initial Text, 652 quoting from Joint IGNTP/INTF Editio Critica Maior, 10.

In sum, the initial text is an inferred text, a hypothetical text that is behind all the manuscripts of a given tradition. The initial text is not the archetypal text or the real and actual text which underlies a given textual tradition. The initial text is not the original text, or the one written at the hand of Paul or Peter. So, the shift from the “original text” to the “initial text” is a shift from a real text to a hypothetical text and from the first text to some later hypothetical copy.

For our purposes, the point is, given the immediately above quote, the original cannot be reconstructed, and the archetypal text is something other than the initial text. Thus, modern evangelical textual criticism, at least in this vein, has left off the quest for the original because it cannot be reconstructed. If this “initial text” vein of textual criticism is true, then Warfield’s version of text criticism is misguided or wrong or has at least failed. In short, the case for the “initial text” serves as a series of defeater to the claim that textual criticism will recover the original words of the autograph.

What is a defeater? A defeater is a strong objection to some claim X where a defeater for said defeater must be provided by the claimant. If the claimant does not provide such a defeater and continues to hold to their claim X, they can only hold to their claim X at the cost of being irrational. There are generally two kinds of defeaters: rebutting and undercutting. The former defeats evidence used to support some claim X while the latter defeats some claim X by making positive evidential claims to the contrary. A classic example is of a widget making factory.

Regarding rebutting defeaters, say one day you go to the local widget making factory and believe they make red widgets because you see that the widgets are red. But your trusted friend tells you that they are not red, but instead are blue. In this case you have reliable testimony that what you are seeing is not in fact what you are seeing. Regarding the undercutting defeaters, say you are at the same factory, and you come to the same conclusion, but the foreman says that they are not red. They only appear red because each widget is irradiated in order to find microscopic cracks in the widget. Ergo, the widgets appear red but for different reasons than you think. Rebutting defeaters weaken the believer’s case by eliminating his/her reason to believe the widget is red while undercutting defeaters provide reasons to believe the widget is not red at all.

So which kind of defeater does the assertion that the initial text is the best we can do given the evidence, and the original is out of the question? It seems to me that rebutting defeaters are in play. Rebutting defeaters are in play because of the unreliability of patristic witnesses, the considerable variation between our oldest witnesses, the potential for considerable variation between the authorial text and initial text, and the lack of an exemplar all serve to weaken the claim that we can identify and reconstruct the original. These defeaters so weaken the modern evangelical text-critic’s case that many prominent and capable scholars in that camp are led to conclude that the authorial text “cannot be reconstructed.” But there is also an undercutting defeater present in that given the limits the evidence our capacity to reach beyond the initial text to the original/authorial text is understood to be impossible. That is, there are positive reasons to believe that the reconstruction of the original is impossible at this point.

Why are the above defeaters a unique problem for the modern evangelical text-critic?
For the secularist like Bart Ehrman or for the more theologically liberal like D.C. Parker the initial text is not a defeater because they have no theological skin in the game to reconstruct the original. For the Confessional/Traditional/Ecclesiastical/Standard Sacred Text folks we believe and argue that we have the original, so the initial text is an interesting postulate of academia like Q and Ur-Marcus but is has little to no bearing on our arguments or rational and warranted beliefs. For the folks who want to remain theologically conservative by modern standards while at the same time do not want to hold to a standard sacred text [i.e., the modern evangelical text critic], the claims of the initial text serve as a series of defeaters to the potency and efficacy of the counter claim that the original can be recovered and reconstructed.

It is more than a mere problem for the evangelical text-critic. The claim that the initial text stands at the outer limit of our reconstructing endeavors undercuts the claim that we can reach beyond that and eventually arrive at the original. It is a defeater for the claim that the manuscript tradition can get us back to the original with a sufficiently high degree of probability. If these defeaters are true and they remain unaddressed, then the Warfieldian redefinition of “kept pure in all ages” coupled with Warfield’s confidence in modern NT textual criticism crumbles and is only maintained at the expense of rationality. Warfield was sure that the work of the Wescott and Horts, Tischendorfs, and Tregelleses would yield the original text yet the data and experts in the field seem to indicate that such a goal is out of reach.

What is more, this is an in-house problem. If the Version Debate is an in-house problem of the church, the initial text problem is an in-house text-critical problem born from textual criticism. And it does not appear the leading thinkers in this field are looking for the original text. I suppose we’ll see what happens to the modern evangelical text-critical enterprise over the next 50 years. As journalist and poets, Ambrose Bierce, once said, “We know what happens to people who stand in the middle of the road. They get run over.”

If the original is out of reach, Warfield were in the end irrational, and those who hold to his definition of preservation and reconstruction of the text are also irrational because the initial text is as far back as we can go. The Bart Ehermans of the world and we here at do not hold to Warfield’s view of preservation and reconstruction but the modern evangelical text-critical machine does. The potential veracity of these initial text defeaters challenge and potentially make irrational the veracity of the modern evangelical text-critical claim that we can construct the original via modern text critical apparati. If the veracity of the initial text defeaters is deemed true and no interesting defeaters arise to defeat the initial text defeaters, then to hold to the modern evangelical text-critical endeavor of a Warfieldian sort is to be irrational when it so dearly longs and clamors to be rational.

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