Debate Review: James White vs. Bart Erhman, Pt. 2: Rebuttal to Erhman’s Opening Statement

Dr. Erhman begins his opening statement with the acknowledgement that this topic, the reliability, certainty, and authority of the New Testament, is one of the most important topics which we can discuss. With that, I wholeheartedly agree. The doctrine of Scripture is the most foundational doctrine of the Christian faith. As believers, it is the second cause of our epistemology. We are capable of knowing because God has revealed knowledge. In nature, we are able to understand trees, and birds, and wind patterns because God has given us minds able to see the patterns and minutiae. We are able to know God because he has revealed himself to us, both in nature and in Scripture. But nature does not reveal the character of God, or his purposes in creating the universe, or his plan of salvation in Jesus Christ. He has given the Scripture as his revelation to us concerning “the whole counsel of God concerning all things necessary for his own glory, man’s salvation, faith and life” (LBCF 1.6). Therefore, the certainty and authority of Scripture are of the utmost importance to the Christian. In this post, I intend to summarize the argument made by Bart Erhman in his opening statement, and to offer a rebuttal to that argument.

Argument Summary:

  1. Dr. Erhman begins his argument by describing the process of the transmission of the text of Scripture up to the time of the invention of the printing press. The originals were written in the latter part of the first century. These originals were then copied; copies were then made of these copies. At some point, the original documents themselves were lost, as were the first copies of them. During this process, the assumption is made that these copies contained mistakes.
  2. The mistakes grow exponentially as one realizes that the first copies contained mistakes, and that the scribe who copied that first copy made his own mistakes all while copying the mistakes in the first copy. The more copies that are made, the more mistakes grow in an exponential fashion. Couple that with the fact that scribes then began to attempt correcting mistakes, and sometimes made incorrect “corrections,” and the matter gets even more convoluted.
  3. Then we must consider that the earliest copies that we have date only to the early/mid second century. This may seem positive at first glance, but this is a copy that is several decades removed from the original. In other words, the earliest piece of physical evidence only gets us to a copy of a copy of a copy of a copy etc.
  4. So, therefore, when it comes to the text of the New Testament, we cannot have any certainty regarding the text of the original. There is no way to know what exactly Mark wrote because we do not have the original text of Mark. Not only that, but we do not even have a first copy of Mark. The same can be said of the rest of the New Testament.

Rebuttal:

  1. First, it must be acknowledged that Bart Erhman is absolutely correct if we consider the matter from a purely materialistic mindset. If all we consider is the extant Greek manuscript evidence, then there is no possibility of having any certainty regarding the text of Scripture. Thus, Dr. Erhman reveals his underlying presuppositions. He assumes that we can extrapolate the history of the New Testament from the example of ancient works. In other words, he assumes that the New Testament and its transmission was no different than, for example, Herodotus’ The Histories and its transmission. As we will see later in the course of the debate, Bart Erhman is perfectly consistent at this point. He says that there is no certainty regarding the New Testament, and there is no certainty regarding Suetonius. And if we agree to his assumption, we are forced to agree with his conclusion. I, however, reject his assumption. I do not believe that the New Testament is simply another ancient document. It was immediately inspired by God, and kept pure in all ages by the providential hand of God. Just as God was careful to inspire the original text of Scripture, so was he careful to preserve that text for his people.
  2. So, how then do we handle the existence of variants? This is a very dangerous and treacherous question. An excellent example for this point is the Comma Johanneum, or the Three Heavenly Witnesses, which is 1 John 5.7. There is scant Greek manuscript evidence for this text; the earliest attestation of it comes in the form of a citation from Cyprian around the year 250 in his De Catholicae Ecclesiae Unitate cited here. If we were to base our opinion solely on physical manuscript evidence, we must say that we are uncertain as to the originality of this text. However, if we consider the internal evidence and the attestation and recognition of the church, there can be no doubt regarding the Comma. In other words, we analyze the data from the perspective that God preserved his Word, and that the Holy Spirit testifies of the authority and veracity of that Word to the church. See my first post in this series for a more detailed explanation, available here.
  3. The lack of the original text, that is, the fact that we no longer possess the physical original documents, is of no trouble for the Confessional Text position. The fact that we do not have manuscript evidence prior to the mid-second century does not disprove the idea of God’s providential preservation. Rather, it upholds that same doctrine. God, in his providence, did not see fit to leave us with the original documents. Perhaps this was as a grace to the church, to prevent the idolization and superstition which would undoubtedly plague men’s hearts had we been left with the autographs. Whatever the reason, the Confessional Text position maintains that the preservation of Scripture was not in the hands of men, but in the hands of God. Therefore, even if all early evidence disappeared, we would still be as equally certain about the text of the New Testament.
  4. This idea of primitive corruption, that is that the text suffered corruption prior to the extant copies, is simply a speculation. Dr. Erhman assumes that, because the manuscripts which we possess today contain variation (mistakes, as he calls them), the text of the New Testament has been so corrupted from its earliest stages of transmission that there can be no certainty regarding its text. Just as there is no way to demonstrate that any one manuscript is a perfect copy, there is equally no way to demonstrate that any one manuscript is not a perfect copy. In other words, Erhman’s entire argument is founded on a single speculation: that the text of the New Testament was not preserved by God, but rather transmitted just as some pagan document. This, however, reveals the circular reasoning behind all modern textual criticism (even of the evangelical variety). The New Testament was not preserved but transmitted like “other” ancient documents. Thus, the text of the New Testament suffered transmission errors. These errors demonstrate that the New Testament was transmitted like “other” ancient documents. It is a textbook example of circular reasoning.

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