Debate Review: James White vs. Bart Erhman, Pt. 1: The Confessional Text Position

Introduction

Over the course of the next few weeks, I plan on reviewing and responding to the various arguments used in the debate between James White and Dr. Bart Erhman; for those familiar with this site, you will know that I adamantly disagree with both of their positions when it comes to the text of Scripture. This initial post will serve as an opening statement, of sorts. Here, I will seek to put forth an explanation of the Confessional Text position.

Negative Explanations

Before introducing what the Confessional Text position is, I think it will be helpful to point out what the Confessional Text position is not. This type of explanation (negative explanation) is useful in helping prevent misrepresentations, as well as defining parameters. We use this type of explanation frequently when considering the attributes of God. For instance, the term immutable is a negation: it means not able to change.

1. The Confessional Text position is not King James Version Onlyism (KJVO). Those who are in fact KJVO believe that the King James Version was directly inspired, that it is authoritative over the Greek and Hebrew texts, and that translations of the Bible into other languages should be translated from the King James, not the original languages. This is also known as Ruckmanism, after Peter Ruckman. This is not the stance of the Confessional Text position. While many advocates of the traditional text use the KJV (myself included), there is a great number who do not. Some prefer the NKJV, others the Geneva Bible, and then there are those who use the various traditional vulgar translations based on the traditional text in their native tongue. For example, Spanish-speaking Confessional Text advocates often use the Reina Valera. In other words, the Confessional Text position is not a defense of a particular translation, but a particular text platform.

2. The Confessional Text position does not claim that textual variants do not exist. Obviously, there are variant readings in the manuscript tradition. Confessional Text advocates do not pretend that these variants do not exist, neither do we ignore them. The difference between the Critical Text Position and the Confessional Text position lies in the analysis and interpretation of the data.

3. The Confessional Text position does not claim that one single manuscript is the providentially preserved Word of God. In other words, I do not look to a particular papyrus or codex and claim that it alone is the text which was providentially preserved.

4. Finally, the Confessional Text position is not based on a single printed edition of the text. Granted, there are some who hold to this view, but it is not the historical position. It is not within the scope of this series to debate this particular topic. Further explanation of this will come below.

Positive Explanation

Next, then, let us move to what the Confessional Text position is. In summary, the Confessional Text position holds that the Word of God was (and is) providentially preserved by God’s special care and providence to the extent that the Scripture was kept pure in all ages. This has been the historic position of Reformed Orthodoxy against the heretical views of the Papists, and is presented in confessional form by the Westminster Confession of Faith, the Savoy Declaration, and the London Baptist Confession of Faith of 1689; hence the name of the position: Confessional Text.

1. The Confessional Text position holds that the autographs (the originally composed texts) were immediately (i.e., without mediation) inspired by God. “For the prophecy came not in old time by the will of man: but holy men of God spake as they were moved by the Holy Ghost” (2 Pet. 1.11). “All scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness” (2 Tim. 3.16).

2. The Confessional Text position holds that those same autographs were faithfully transmitted down through the ages. Up to the time of the printing press, these copies (the apographs) were made by hand. During the time of the Reformation (which, in God’s providence, coincided with the invention of the printing press), learned and godly men collected and compiled the various manuscripts into printed editions. Since that time, the editions of the Reformation have been faithfully preserved and printed down to our present era, and they continue to be preserved through the work of institutions such as the Trinitarian Bible Society of London.

3. The Confessional Text position begins at a theological starting point, not a materialistic starting point. God, in His Scripture, promised to preserve His Word pure until all things be fulfilled (Matt. 5.18; Is. 40.8; etc.). The Scripture is preserved for us in the Hebrew Masoretic Text of the Old Testament and the Greek Textus Receptus (Received Text) tradition of the New Testament. Over the course of this debate review, my purpose is to demonstrate the truth of that assertion, as well as responding to the arguments of James White and Bart Erhman.

4. The Confessional Text position differs from the Modern (and Post-modern) Textual Critical position in several areas, but the foundational difference lies in this: on the one hand, the Confessional advocate believes that the text of Scripture needs to be preserved, not reconstructed; on the other, the Critical advocate believes that the text needs to be reconstructed, not preserved. This is crucially important. It is, in my opinion, of secondary importance to debate over particular contested texts when the presuppositions which govern interpretation of data are so radically different.

Why the Textus Receptus (TR)?

Let me begin by stating that I am not a textual scholar. I have no formal education or professional experience in the field of textual criticism. However, the Confessional position is, at heart, theological. It is not founded on material “evidence” but theological necessity. This is not to say that the position cannot be defended from the material evidence available; I believe that it can. But the material evidence is by nature limited and requires interpretation. All scientific study is the interpretation of data. The shape and form that data takes inevitably varies depending upon through which lens we observe it. In other words, view data is similar to looking outside on a bright, sunny day with sunglasses. The shade of the world varies depending on what shade of lens you wear. This is not relativism, but a reflection of the fallen state into which man has fallen. Our reasoning and our ability to interpret data can only lead us so far. In other words, human reasoning must be placed in a subordinated position in relation to Scriptural revelation. With that said, let me briefly offer a defense of the propriety, authenticity, and authority of the Greek Textus Receptus. I do not know Hebrew, and will thus leave the defense of the Masoretic text to men much better than myself (such as John Owen).

1. The Textus Receptus is not a single printed edition. The TR is, rather, a family of printed editions which were compiled and composed during the time of the Reformation. These texts are remarkably uniform. While there are some variations, the vast majority of these are spelling differences, accent and breathing mark placement, or word order that does not affect the sense. Every edition includes the Traditional Ending of Mark, the Pericope Adulterae, and the Johannine Comma (with the exception of Erasmus’ first two editions, which he later corrected).

2. The Textus Receptus family is based on the Byzantine text-type. In other words, in a great majority of its readings, it matches the overwhelming majority of Greek manuscripts available in our own day. This is important because it demonstrates that the readings of the Textus Receptus are the readings which, over the course of time, the church recognized as authoritative. Here, we must be careful. I am not arguing that the text derives its authority from the church. Rather, the argument is that the church recognizes the Word of God (cf. John 10.4), and this confirms the authority of the readings of the TR.

3. The Word of God is made known to us by the inward work of the Holy Spirit. “Howbeit when he, the Spirit of truth, is come, he will guide you into all truth: for he shall not speak of himself; but whatsoever he shall hear, that shall he speak: and he will shew you things to come. He shall glorify me: for he shall receive of mine, and shall shew it unto you” (Jn. 16.13-14). In other words, the testimony of the Holy Spirit is necessary to know what Scripture is and is necessary to understand what Scripture teaches. Note carefully: this is not a argument for relativism. The Spirit’s testimony has (already) worked itself out in the church to reveal and confirm the authenticity and authority of Scripture. In other words, Christians recognize the Word of God because of the Holy Spirit within them. We can see this in contemporary conservative translations of Scripture. While they are based on the Critical Text (which omits passages such as the Traditional Ending of Mark and the Pericope Adulterae), they often retain these texts and simply make notes about them. It strikes me as odd for translators to include such passages that they reject as Scripture. Could it be that, by the testimony of the Spirit, they refuse to remove it by some inward conviction that it truly does belong in the text? These readings are included in the TR because they are in fact the Word of God, and have been recognized as such for millennia.

Conclusion

This has been an incredibly brief explanation of the Confessional Text position, and no doubt there are further questions to be answered. The key points are as follows. The Confessional position begins with the belief that God has kept his Word pure in all ages because He immediately inspired it. It is God’s self-revelation to us, and therefore he has taken special care in his providence to preserve it purely for us. The Hebrew Masoretic text and the Greek Received Text (TR) are the faithfully preserved apographs (copies) of the autographs (originals) which are printed editions of the text handed down through the generations of believers. Our assurance of the certainty of the text of Scripture comes not from materialistic scientific study, but from the inward testimony of the Holy Spirit. The Spirit of God has worked in the church to confirm the authenticity and authority of the Traditional text of Scripture.

The unbeliever will never be able to comprehend this position. It will appear to him foolish and unscientific. It will seem out-of-date and indefensible. And yet, our doctrine of Scripture must not be formed by our apologetic desires. We must not sacrifice the theology of Scripture for the sake of appealing to skeptics. In fact, the very gospel itself is foolish to those in darkness. We cannot go back through the annals of history and observe for ourself in what manner God preserved his word purely in all ages. Therefore, we must rely on God’s testimony that “The grass withereth, the flower fadeth: but the word of our God shall stand for ever” (Is. 40.8).

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