During the past month, Dr. White gave an instructive primer on Textual Criticism, explaining the history of the transmission of the text, textual methods, and its practice in concrete Biblical examples. It should be self-evident that this apologetic field is essential for defending the faith and providing confidence that our source for the knowledge of God is true.
Because the very phrase “Textual Criticism” conjures up for many some abstract, non-practical academic exercise, many folks tune out when the subject is invoked. In reality, textual criticism is anything but an ivory tower activity; rather it is found every Sunday in church, in reading scripture, and witnessing to Atheists, Muslims, JW’s etc.
Sadly, I have heard (and you may have too) both pastors and professors assert, “Textual criticism is not a subject that is appropriate for the local church; it is too technical and may undermine the believer’s faith.” My response is that it is true that it can be an in-depth and often technical subject, but it has, and can be, communicated in such a way that God’s people can grasp important rudimentary uses; and second, what is in danger of undermining the faith of believers is to remain ignorant of the history of their Bible!
Here is an outline of reasons why TC is essential for God’s people,
In the Local Church
1) Two of the most common questions in the local church which believers ask their pastors are actually two textual critical questions: “Where did we get our Bible?” and, “Is the Bible we possess today the same Bible used in the early church?” Who says that believers are not interested in textual criticism?! They want to learn not just what is in Scripture, but its history and reliability as well.
2) You cannot witness to a Muslim for a half hour without them bringing up their most common objection to the Christian faith. Can you guess what is the nature of their objection? You guessed it…a textual critical objection. They will inevitably object by saying, “Your Bible cannot be trusted because it is based on thousands of manuscripts in which not a single one of them agree with each other.”
All of a sudden textual criticism is no mere academic exercise…it is real life, practical—it is staring you in the face waiting for you to give a TC answer to the Muslim that you profess to love and hope to see come to Christ. There is a TC brick wall between them and the Christian faith.
To be sure, one does not have to be a TC scholar to answer such objections. It is not either/or (that is, ignore TC all together by convincing yourself it is not vital; or, become a TC scholar and be able to answer every question and objection). A basic knowledge of TC will allow the Christian to answer most of the superficial objections to the history of the transmission of the Bible.
3) How will you respond to atheists and happy agnostics? Just recently we have read on the A&O blog about “Lawrence the atheist” who says, “The bible is not proof, because it was written centuries after the so called life of Christ. God only exists in your head.” To be sure, this is not the root reason for resisting the Christian faith. He is an atheist with a rebel unregenerate heart who is in enmity against a holy, loving God. But he has latched onto a TC objection as one of his pretexts to live as his own god and according to his own law.
But it is our duty to address his TC objection because it is the will and wisdom of God for his people to use apologetic, biblical, historical reasoning to defend the faith, and God willing to bring them to the faith.
4) Then there is the group of liberal mainline Christians who have a low view of Scripture who will use TC objections against Evangelicals. These folks basically believe that the Bible contains words about God, but not actually God’s Words. And you can bet that they will throw out some TC objections as the Atheist-Agnostics do.
5) Have you ever had the Bible that you use for personal devotions and memorization undermined by a King James Only advocate asserting that modern versions of the Bible are corrupted and therefore you are in danger of jeopardizing your faith or spiritual walk with God? I have. In fact, I once was a KJVO advocate, and grew up in that encrusted-Tradition.
How will you respond by their common objection that the Greek manuscripts behind modern versions are not represented by the vast majority of Greek manuscripts? (though they like to forget their inconsistency of the Comma Johanneum, 1John 5:7-8, which is not in the majority of Greek Manuscripts; and that the wording in the Textus Receptus cannot be found before the 16th century in any Greek MSS.)
And here are some more invariable KJVO assertions: “Are you aware that modern translations omit parts of Scripture?; change words and phrases; and minimize the deity and blood of Christ?” Once again, TC is important. Though, TC vis-à-vis KJVO is an important matter to be aware of, the believer should also have a basic awareness of why different versions may place some verses in brackets and footnotes (e.g. “Some manuscripts say…”) That is, what are the general differences between the Greek editions behind modern versions and those of earlier centuries such as the KJV?
Exegesis and Preaching
6) In scholarship, textual criticism is often called “lower criticism” not because it is inferior but because it is the foundational field for interpreting the Bible. Exegetes, theologians, and all believers cannot interpret the Bible if there is no text! And determining the text of Scripture by sorting, comparing, examining manuscripts will give us a text to do exegesis. And though there are no major doctrines that are affected by decisions of TC, there are significant variants that preachers need to be aware of in sermon prep. It cannot be ignored because if a preacher is reading a version without a phrase or word in it, and three hundred persons in the pews are reading a different version with the phrase and word contained in it, they may be distracted by the “error” and thus think about it for most, or all, of the remaining sermon. In short, TC is essential for Biblical interpretation.
More reasons could be cited, but if these do not convince someone of TC’s importance, no more additional reasons will. The field of TC should be embraced because it also corroborates the Christian faith, gives the church a defense to many popular objections to the history and nature of the Bible, and it testifies to God’s sovereignty in the preservation of his Word throughout history.