A Recent Discussion: Should We Speak of Holy Scripture as Sufficiently Reliable?

Below is a recent discussion I had on Facebook regarding the meaning and use of “sufficient reliability” as applied to Holy Scripture. I have changed my interlocutors name and made some minor edits to make the conversation more readable.

James –  I think “sufficient” is absolutely necessary for any form of bibliology that recognizes that the Lord’s sheep know his voice in translations and even defective ones. Since no two extensive Greek manuscripts of the NT are identical then it also applies prior to printing to the original. And since no two editions of the printed Greek text are identical (including the multiple various editions of the Textus Receptus) it also applies after the invention and inception of the use of printing for the GNT. 

Sufficiency in the end is not decided by us, but rather by God.

Me – We clearly diverge on the use of the term, sufficient reliability. I don’t intend to change anyone’s mind on a FB post, but I think it might be good to lay out a few elementary observations which serve to make me reticent to use the term. If you could point me to a book which would address these observations, please share. 

>The phrase, ”sufficiency is absolutely necessary”, though primary to your argument, is unsubstantiated and ungrounded under the current text critical position. It is merely assumed without any meaningful exegetical, theological, philosophical, or historical grounding. If it is substantiated it is largely done so on the grounds that other ancient books [e.g., the Iliad] are considered reliable therefore the NT is reliable having more and older manuscripts. I find this argument to fail on multiple fronts as to explanatory scope, explanatory force, and normative ethical grounds. 

> The Lord’s sheep know his voice – Indeed, but it must be His voice and not the voice of a man. Sufficiently reliable texts necessarily infer the presence of man’s voice In the Greek NT. Man’s voice is being pawned off as the Shepherd’s voice which seems irresponsible at the very least. God’s people do hear God’s voice so long as it is indeed the words of God and not men.

>manuscripts of the NT are not identical – Agreed, but there is no pervading phenomena throughout the history of the Church where Christians at Time 1 doubted their present Bible. They may have doubted a prior iteration like the Bishops vs the KJV or a competing iteration like the Latin Vulgate vs. the Hebrew/Greek apographa. But you will find no robust Pre-Enlightenment statement of Christian doctrine claiming things even close to ”It’s in the text or apparatus” or “Inerrancy is merely in the doctrinae and not the verba.” In sum, “sufficient reliability” regarding Bibliology seems to me to be a novel invention indicative of modern expressive individualism.

>Sufficiency in the end is not decided by us, but rather by God – Agreed, but again the modern textual critic has no substantive grounding to show what God means by ”sufficient”. Rather, the entire use of the term is predicated almost exclusively on evidential groundings concluding in abduction, the weakest form of logical inference. From such an evidential approach, God is metaphysically extravagant which is best shown in the fact that Bart Ehrman can make an equally compelling case for the “sufficient reliability” of the NT without ever invoking God. Ultimately, the evangelical text critic’s invocation of God unnecessarily multiplies metaphysical entities [Ockham’s Razor] which goes a long way in explaining why many Christian text-critics bracket their Christian precommitments [e.g. TR priority based on the fact that Church used it for so long]. There is no need for Christian precommitments to determine the sufficient reliability of the NT. As such there is nothing distinctively Christian about “sufficient reliability.” Muslims could say the same about their text or Mormons about theirs.

Again, these are a few quite elementary observations which make “sufficient reliability” an unwarranted Christian belief for me. I’m not looking to fight. I’m only trying to offer a glimpse into why I diverge from you on the use of the term. Again, if there is a scholarly source which addresses these concerns I would be very open to giving it a read. Thanks.

James – But you do believe it and express it in your own work. It is the explanation you yourself give for how come people are converted by proclamation based on the ESV, or worse the NIV, or maybe even a lot worse again (think of those millions globally who have been brought to a saving knowledge of God through versions much like the Good News Bible…). Most of the stuff in your response above is by the by. We both agree God has spoken, he has spoken ultimately in his Son, but he spoke by the prophets and apostles, His voice is heard when his word is preached, and that is true also if translation as well as the original tongues. You and I both know this happens even with translations at which we both would turn up our noses somewhat, or even textual bases we’d query. The difference between us lies on the location of the norm to which sufficient similarity applies.

Me – C’mon, you‘ve read enough of my stuff. People don’t need Bibles to be converted. A lost soul only needs a small mutilate fragment of Scripture to come to saving knowledge. To say someone can be converted out of a text is simply not an argument showing, proving, inferring that that text is a Bible or the Bible. 

Of course my arguments are considered “by and by” from your perspective; we’re in disagreement.

After finishing Carl Trueman’s The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self it is hard not to see profound similarities with the rise and triumph of modern textual criticism. They seem to be cut from the same cloth in so many crucial ways.

Though you and I experience a consensus on major theological issues I believe the differences between us on how we reached that consensus as a believing community and how we ought to reach that consensus lies more precisely in differences in position on authority, epistemology, and methodology.

Again, if there is some scholarly article/book out there that offers robust epistemological, exegetical, and theological grounding for sufficient reliability as the standard for what counts as God’s word, then I’d be more ready to acquiesce. I certainly don’t enjoy holding to a minority academic position, but enjoyment is an insufficient grounds to cease the pursuit of truth. Such a course belongs to cowards and those with weakness of will. 

I’m told over and over that I am one of the few Ph.D.’s that hold to pre-critical Bibliology and that there are so many Ph.D.‘s in opposition to my position. I would think then that there would be myriads of scholarly pages explaining from a distinctly Christian perspective that the Reformation Protestants had it wrong on Bibliology. Like, where did they screw up in their exegesis when debating Catholic Apologists like Bellarmine and Stapleton? Where’s that gaff in logic committed by Turretin in defense of the apographs as the originals? No such treatment is even attempted. Two weeks ago I watched James White read Turretin on the DL about 1 John 5:7 and then launch exclusively de facto objections to Turretin’s observations akin to “We now know that 1 John 5:7 isn’t original therefore Turretin’s wrong.” And as someone who opposes White’s position am I supposed to respond with something like, “Brilliant! That James White, pulling out another insightful and penetrating observation!”? /sigh Where are the de jure arguments from the cadre of Ph.D. scholars who oppose pre-critical Bibliology? I digress…

Thanks for giving me a portion of your day. I leave the last word to you.

James – You know full well that there’s an asymmetry here that I’m more than ready to own. You’ve invested far more time, energy and even cold hard cash in thinking through and articulating your position (via your PhD) than I have. However, when I point out that your own argument (which came out once more in the response above: NB “A lost soul only needs a small mutilate fragement of Scripture to come to saving knowledge”) undermines your attempt to isolate the TR, but underwrites virtually all forms of the text known to us as being the word of God – individual mms, the pre-TR, the TR, the Colines, the Complentusian, the Tregelles, the W-H, the NA, SBL, THGNT etc etc… (let alone the versions) your response is tho throw the kitchen sink at the response (now including Trueman’s “Rise”) but not really get back to the issue. If people hear God’s voice in these multitudinous texts then which one (if any) is “the text”. Your answer is that there is enough (i.e. sufficiency) similarity to the TR even in mutulated texts. My answer is there is sufficient similarity to the autograph – that I don’t have to know. It’s the Lord’s choice to use whatever text. Not only does he “know his own” people but I would suggest his own text. Another way of articulating this is the image from Van Til highlighted by Brash (who is now Bash-ed) of the submerged bridge.

N.B. – I very much appreciated this interaction with James, but it seems at this point that his primary standard for determining whether a Bible is God’s word is whether or not someone can be saved out of it. But the word of God is written to Christians and is spiritual discerned. Paul tells us to leave off the rudimentary principles of the Gospel and move on to perfection/completeness [Hebrews 6:1]. The vast majority of Scripture exists to lead the Christian onto perfection. To limit the criteria for what counts as Scripture to whether someone can receive Christ through its words is to by implication throw the door open to the omission of the entire Bible with the exception of the Romans Road.

I appreciate James’ focus on evangelism and the text of Scripture but it seems he has yet to move beyond the rudimentary principles of the Gospel and onto perfection. But why should he think he could move on to perfection or completeness if he hasn’t a perfect or complete text of Scripture? The product can only be as perfect as the source. Indeed, it does seem that Christians have little desire to move on to perfection or completeness. Rather they desire to move onto sufficiently reliable Christianity in accordance with their sufficiently reliable Scriptures.

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