The Atheism of Modern Textual Criticism

John Owen, in his short treatise “Of the Integrity of the Hebrew and Greek Text of the Scripture,” wrote:

“It can then with no colour of probability be asserted (which yet I find some learned men too free in granting), namely, that there hath the same fate attended the Scripture in its transcription, as hath done other books. Let me say without offence, this imagination asserted on deliberation, seems to me to border on atheism. Surely the promise of God for the preservation of his word, with his love and care of his church, of whose faith and obedience that word of his is the only rule, require other thoughts at our hands.”

The trend of our day regarding the text of Scripture is not far from that which John Owen was arguing against in his day. In fact, during the time of the Reformation, the Papists often attempted to cast doubt upon the very formal principal of the Reformation by making those same claims. Sola Scriptura, they argued, cannot be a valid foundation because the Bible was transmitted by human beings, and necessarily underwent corruptions. Therefore, the traditions and magisterium of the Roman See are utterly essential to understanding and formulating right doctrine. Many mainstream evangelicals make the exact same arguments, but replace the Pope with the Academy. The ordinary Christian, the layman attempting to lead his family, is unable to wrestle with and comprehend the complex matters of the transmission of the Word of God. It is work best left to the scholars in their Ivory Tower University; therefore, the layman is left under the authority of the traditions of modern, oftentimes unbelieving, scholarship.

Pastor Taylor DeSoto, in his review of a book by Mark Ward, quotes the following statement from that author: “At the very least, Christians who cannot read Greek should humbly acknowledge that their opinions about textual criticism are formed second- or even fifth-hand—that they are based ultimately on authority.” In other words, only those who belong to the Academy are allowed to have a stance on the issue of the text of Scripture, and all others must remain quiet and submit to authority and traditions of the magisterium of Munster, Germany. The purpose of this short article is to demonstrate the atheism of the modern textual critical position.

The underlying assumption behind the modern textual critical position is that the Scripture should be handled as though it is a man-made, ancient document, no different than Plato’s Republic or Homer’s Illiad. Evangelical critics attempt to mask this assumption by claiming that this was simply the method of God’s preservation of Scripture. But if we analyze that claim fairly, we must come to the realization that here the evangelical engages in double-speak, wherein he takes a word and gives a meaning that is in opposition to its actual meaning. When the mainstream evangelical speaks of preservation, he typically says something like this: “God preserved his word through the process of academic textual criticism, wherein scholars utilize extant manuscripts and attempt to reconstruct what the Bible originally read.” This is the camp in which I grew up, and were it not for God directing my path in a different route than I had intended, I would be one of those academics. “A man’s heart deviseth his way: but the LORD directeth his steps” (Pr. 16.9).

Let us look carefully at that definition of “preservation.” The evangelical claims in that definition that God preserved his word by allowing it to become corrupted over time. Why else would it need to be reconstructed, unless it had first been corrupted? And there are many, many issues with this type of thinking, not the least of which is that it is self-contradicting. For the Christian, however, a more theologically significant problem arises from that definition. If the Scripture has become corrupted over time, what are we make of those promises from God that his Word will endure forever? Here, the evangelical has to jump through eisegetical hoops and further engage in double-speak. The Word, he says, has endured forever because we have it now, and it will not pass out of existence. But he suffers a misstep here, for he has already admitted that it once was corrupted, meaning that at some point in time, the Word of the Lord did not endure, but was corrupted and must have been restored. In other words, if at any point in time the Word of God was not kept pure, then the promise of God was left unfulfilled. This is why Owen said that the principal of treating the Scripture simply as an ancient document borders on atheism.

The historic, orthodox Christian understanding of the transmission of Scripture is that God actively and supernaturally preserved the Scriptures down through the ages, so that in every generation, the Word of God endured. This is not to say that individual manuscripts, and even manuscript families were corrupted. Heretics, especially Gnostics, were known for altering the text of Scripture to suit their theological persuasions. We have an example of this in our modern day. The modern Arian cult called the Jehovah’s Witnesses alter the text of John 1:1 to support their heretical views of Christ. Does this mean that the New World Translation (the translation of the JWs) should be counted as a valid variant reading of John 1:1? Of course not: it is a corruption produced by heretics. Yet despite that corruption, the Word of God has endured. (As an aside, I understand that the NWT is a translation, not a Greek manuscript. But translations serve as witnesses, just look at the apparatus of the critical text.)

We must always be careful to remember what the Bible is. It is nothing less than the self-revelation of God to man. The words of Scripture are immediately and directly inspired by God, breathed out by his Holy Spirit. They contain the whole counsel of God regarding his own glory, man’s salvation, faith, and life. The Scripture is not a man-made document. The human authorship of Scripture does not negate the direct and supernatural influence of the Holy Spirit. “The grass withereth, the flower fadeth: but the word of our God shall stand for ever” (Is. 40:8). Do you actually believe that statement in Isaiah, or have you bought into the atheistic principles of modern textual criticism?

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