Debate Review: James White vs. Bart Erhman, Pt. 3: Rebuttal to James White’s Opening Statement

Introduction

James White begins his opening statement with the interesting assertion that he is presenting a “faithful” response to the idea that the New Testament is an unreliable source because of its transmission and subsequent “corruption.” A fair question to ask is, “To what is White’s response faithful?” We must assume that he is referring to historic orthodox Christianity as he is opposing Dr. Erhman, who defends the agnostic perspective. Therefore, when analyzing James White’s opening statement, we must analyze it in the parameter of faithfulness. Is White’s argument consistent with the historical orthodox doctrine of Scripture? The answer, simply, is no. As Dr. Erhman will point out in his rebuttal, James White agrees with Bart Erhman on 8.5 out of 9 points; the only point of difference is whether the variations matter. In this post, I will attempt to demonstrate how White’s arguments are not consistent with the historic, Reformed doctrine of Scripture; I will also show how his arguments, which are representative of the evangelical who holds to modern textual criticism, are founded on arbitrary assertions.

Argument Summary

1. The first point that James White brings to the table is that the New Testament has more extant data than “other” ancient documents. There are thousands of Greek manuscripts, some of which date to the second and third centuries. No pagan work of antiquity can make such a claim. The New Testament has better, and hence more reliable, attestation than documents from a similar period in history.

2. While the manuscripts contain an estimated 400,000 variations, the number of “meaningful” and “viable” variations make up a very small portion of that number. The majority of these “meaningful and viable” variants are scribal errors which do not alter the meaning of the text.

3. Multiple lines of transmission demonstrate that the transmission of the New Testament was not controlled by a central authority. Each separate line presents the same text. Here, White makes a distinction between the “text” and the words of the text. So while these multiple lines are different from one another, they present the “same” New Testament. Therefore, primitive corruption was prevented.

4. White concludes by remaking that the issue of textual variants does not mean that we need to worry about not having the original reading. The original reading is somewhere in the manuscript tradition. In other words, if we think of the New Testament as a 1000-piece jigsaw puzzle, White claims that we have 1010 pieces; the job of the textual scholar is to weed out the extra. The example White gives is the following. Say we have variants A, B, and C. According to White, we do not have to worry about D: All of the Above.

5. In the final minutes of his argument, White downplays the significance of these variations on the meaning of the text. He asserts that no variation alters the meaning of an entire book, and that no variation alters the “text” of the New Testament.

Rebuttal

1. At the outset, James White reveals that he treats the transmission of the New Testament no differently than he treats pagan, uninspired works of antiquity. On the surface, the argument that the New Testament has greater extant evidence than any ancient document may seem like a great score for Christian apologetics. But consider the claim that Christianity makes concerning the New Testament. We say that it is in fact the inspired Word of God, the authoritative rule for all faith, life, and worship. The amount of evidence, and even the quality of evidence, is not an impenetrable fortress to the atheist (or agnostic) who doubts the reliability of the New Testament. The issue is whether or not we know with certainty what the original New Testament read. If that point is lost, all the evidence in the world is insufficient.

2. White never defines “meaningful and viable” when discussing the variant readings. To be fair, he provides dictionary definitions, but he never tells us who decides which variants are “meaningful and viable.” For example, later in the debate White remarks that no serious person considers 1 John 5.7-8 (the Comma Johanneum, the Johannine Comma) to be a “viable” reading. Yet, throughout the history of the church that reading has in fact been recognized as Scripture. We are left to assume that variants are classified as “meaningful and viable” by the Academy, the ivory-towered textual scholars. In other words, Scripture is defined by the academic elite. This runs contrary to the very heart of the Reformation and historic orthodoxy. Consider these words from the 1689 London Baptist Confession of Faith: “The authority of the Holy Scripture, for which it ought to be believed, dependeth not upon the testimony of any man or church, but wholly upon God (who is truth itself), the author thereof; therefore it is to be received because it is the Word of God.” During the Reformation and post-Reformation eras, the papists argued that since there were variant readings in the manuscript tradition, the authority of the pope and Roman magisterium was required to determine Scripture. In other words, the church defined Scripture. The Reformers and their descendants of the faith argued that the Scripture defines the church, and that no human authority was to be placed on par or above the authority of the Bible. Yet James White seems to argue that it is the job of textual scholars to classify which variants are “meaningful and viable” and then to decide which reading is correct. This inevitably places Scripture underneath the authority of human reasoning and “scientific study.”

3. To be completely honest, White’s argument concerning multiple lines of transmission somehow preventing primitive corruption seemed very weak. In fact, I would argue that it is in fact a non-sequitur. The bare fact that multiple lines of transmission came into existence does not necessarily negate the presence of primitive corruption. Each line began with a particular copy, and, if we are to assume Erhman’s presuppositions, those copies were bound to have errors. There is, however, a greater problem with this argument. James White asserts that each of these multiple lines presents the same text. Here he makes an underlying (and underhanded) distinction between the “text” of the New Testament and the “words” of the New Testament. While the lines of transmission have different words, they somehow manage to present the same text. Yes, it is true that the multiple lines contain the same gospel accounts, the same Pauline letters, the same catholic epistles, and Revelation. But is this distinction between the “text” and the “words” consistent with Reformed orthodoxy? Far from it. The first chapter of the 1689 London Baptist Confession of Faith makes no such distinction (and that chapter reads the same as the Westminster). Rather, the very words of the New Testament (and Old) are presented as the inspired, infallible, and authoritative Word of God. This is especially evident in paragraph ten of chapter one, which teaches that the Scripture is the supreme judge by which all controversies of religion are to be determined. How can we determine a religious controversy unless we appeal to the words of Scripture? In other words, this idea of a nebulous, vague “text” that is somehow distinct from the words of that text is completely foreign to the orthodox faith.

4. White’s assertion that we have 101% percent of the text struck me as odd for a few reasons. First, how can you demonstrate such a claim? The only way to prove that we have more than what was originally written would be to compare what we have with what was originally written. Second, I find it odd that anyone would bring such a claim against Bart Erhman. He did not even waste his time refuting it because there is nothing to refute: it is simply a claim. Third, this claim shows White’s hand. White presupposes that the original text is somewhere in the manuscript tradition, and we simply have to find it. But who is to say that we do not actually have to worry about D: All of the Above? In other words, just as James White makes an arbitrary assertion that the original is in the tradition, the secularist can make the claim that it is absent from the tradition. Contemporary text critics no longer believe that the original text of Scripture can be restored; they have moved away from the outdated presuppositions of Westcott and Hort, as well as Bruce Metzger. And what is James White’s response to this? A bald assertion that is simply impossible to prove.

5. The closing statements of White’s opening were the most treacherous. His downplay of the significance of these textual variants was an attempt to reassure his supporters that the issue isn’t really that big of a deal. He repeatedly stated that variants do not change the meaning of entire books of the New Testament, and they do not change the meaning of the New Testament. Unfortunately, this is simply a straw-man argument designed to provide false assurance to believing Christians. The simple fact of the matter is that if a single word of the New Testament is in doubt, then the entire reliability of the New Testament is in doubt. Consider one of the chief examples used in the debate: Mark 1.41, where one reading is that Jesus had compassion on the leper and another is that Jesus became angry with the leper. While the difference does not alter the meaning of the gospel of Mark, or the gospel message of salvation, it does in fact change the meaning of the text. There is a significant difference between anger and compassion. Even more, the significance of the issue is whether or not we know with certainty what the actual original wording was. If that is left in doubt, if there is even the smallest percentage of uncertainty, then we cannot know what the Scripture says and we cannot know if it is reliable. This may sound harsh, but James White’s attempt to downplay the significance of textual variants was nothing short of dishonest. Christian, allow me to be frank. I fully agree with Bart Erhman’s later statement that anyone who believes that the New Testament was inspired has to think that the words of the New Testament matter. It matters whether Jesus grew angry or had compassion. And it matters whether or not which know with certainty which reading is correct. This tactic that James White used was dishonest, deceitful, and unworthy of Christian apologetics.

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