Textual Criticism: Then and Now

Interestingly enough, we here at StandardSacredText.com agree with our interlocutors that some form of textual criticism is and should be employed by capable scholars. We believe it was done at the time of the formulation of the TR and before that and we believe something of textual criticism ought to practiced today for the benefit of the Church.

But as you can imagine we disagree with our interlocutors in certain key areas and more specifically with regard to the nature of the practice and the method as it is carried out.

Regarding the nature of the practice, we believe that the work of New Testament textual criticism ought to be done in a distinctively Christian environment by professing Christians who set their Christian exegetically based precommitments at the ground and foundation of their text-critical practices and conclusions. We will address what I mean by Christian environment in just a minute, but our focus begins with Christians doing distinctively Christian textual criticism.

So what exactly does Christians doing distinctively Christian textual criticism look like? First, all work done on the New Testament must be understood as and treated as an act of submission to the Scripture itself. All who do textual criticism must be in submission to Scripture if they are to do textual criticism right. Which is to say, that at a minimum they ought to do their work guided by faith for whatsoever is not of faith is sin.

Furthermore, as part of their submission to Scripture all textual critics must see themselves as slaves or bondservants to the Spirit-led bride of Christ. One particular manifestation of that submission is to place the authority of the believing community above whatever scholastic conclusions are drawn by the academy regarding the Scriptures. As such, NT textual scholars have miserably failed on this point in that they along with Wescott and Hort have abandoned the TR as the Greek standard sacred text of believing community. The reception of the TR by the believing community is of greater import and of greater worth to the Church than all the readings accepted by all the scholars in all the world. To jettison the TR in favor of the “neutral text” of Sinaiticus and Vaticanus was simply an act of rebellion toward rather than submission to the Spirit-led bride of Christ. A rebellion that has yet to be repented of and is instead loudly persisted in.

Additionally, rather then marginalizing or ignoring one’s Christian precommitments in the work of textual criticism, the text-critic ought to make his Christian precommitments front and center in his work. Every act, every thought, every conclusion must be in submission to Christ as Lord, and that submission is defined in the words of Scripture. Furthermore, there must be a regular and clear assertion and acknowledgement that every time a word is thought in need of addition or omission that such an addition or omission may very well be an addition or omission of the very words of God. Fear, holy fear, ought to regularly penetrate the heart of every NT textual scholar when they as men think to claim this or that word to be God’s word when it is not or to think God’s word is something other than God’s word.

Why? Because every time a scholar speaks dogmatically or in terms of high probabilities that Word X is the New Testament then they are speaking dogmatically or in terms of high probabilities that God gave Word X by inspiration. But did He? If God didn’t, then the scholar is dogmatically asserting that God said something He did not. Such behavior – claiming that God said something that He really did not – is the very definition of being a false prophet or shepherd made with men’s hands. Both types of people are roundly condemned in Scripture.

There is more to say on this first point but I must move on. As a point of contention on our part, we assert that the environment of textual criticism is not an academic one. It is an ecclesiastical one. Real textual criticism, that part where words are said to be or not to be the New Testament/word of God, does not come about via textual committees. Real textual criticism is done by everyday Christian folk, by stay-at-home moms, truck drivers, little league coaches, computer programmers, dentists, dairy farmers and the like. It is the body of Christ by faith that hears the voice of their Good Shepherd in the Shepherd’s words and in hearing His words recognize His voice and follow Him. In the end, ultimately this is how we know what words are the New Testament and what words are not. In a right world, Christian textual critics only offer suggestions, are careful with their dogmatism, and when they do make a suggestion they do so with great trepidation.

But the textual critic is not wholly to blame. The believing community has a part to bear in this fiasco. Just like dads have pawned off the spiritual formation of their children to the church, and the church has pawned off its responsibility for the poor to the government and the government pawns off its ineptitude in caring for the poor on society and society pawns off its responsibility to God or Naturalism, so too the church has pawned off the real work of textual criticism to the academy and the academy, like the government, is happy to fill the void with false promises of achieving the original and perpetuated credential worship or the Cult of the Experts.

So, you get two thumbs up from us here at StandarSacredText.com for the use of textual criticism, but to be done right it must be done by faithful Christians holding to and expressing their distinctive Christian precommitments in submission to Christ’s Spirit-led bride who is ready to embrace her calling to hear the voice of the Good Shepherd in His revealed words and to have the boldness to reject all other words as counterfeit. All other forms of textual criticism are at best lessers and at worst immoral and blasphemous.

2 thoughts on “Textual Criticism: Then and Now

  1. Is your argument for the practice of textual criticism, albeit performed in the fear of the LORD and under subjection to the Church, a hypothetical-historical one or a contemporary one? I can accept the argument in the hypothetical, but don’t we argue also that the work of textual criticism has an end? Isn’t the TR as produced during the Reformation era, according to the guidelines you suggest, perfect?

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    1. Yes, I agree with you comment here. Currently there seems to be little reason for modern textual criticism as a means to discern the text of Scripture. If we were to discover a Qumran level New Testament cache then perhaps it would be time to churn up the text-critical machine. But even then the whole enterprise would be subject to the leading of the Spirit through the people of God. Both the finding of the cache and the subsequent conclusions would not have authority apart from the leading of the Spirit of God through the words of God in the people of God.

      In the mean time, textual criticism would still be useful to the Christian academic enterprise, as I described it, in understanding the genealogy of manuscripts, in the study of manuscripts as artifacts/testimonies of their day, and in studying the theological implications of the day given those artifacts. The study of textual criticism is also of considerable apologetic value in that there will always be those like Bart Ehrman who will seek to undermine the text of Scripture based on the evidence. As such we need men to enter the field of textual criticism so that they can offer a defense of the Christian faith on that front.

      Still, your observation is correct. There is little reason at this point for the use of modern textual criticism to discern what is or is not the New Testament. If anything the work of a Christian textual critic at this point should be return to the TR and to advocate that their colleagues return to the TR and in so doing place themselves under the authority of the Spirit of God as He led the believing community to the TR. That in itself would take several lifetimes of work, but it would be true progress for modern evangelical textual criticism.

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