Starting with a flawed foundation dooms a building, and starting with improper instruction in the Christian faith can often have disastrous consequences. Thankfully, the Spirit overcomes our ignorance and our traditions, all to His glory, but we should surely be very concerned that we give new believers a solid foundation upon which to develop a heart of wisdom to God’s glory.
One of the areas I have focused upon in my ministry that is vital to the maturity of modern Christians is the trustworthiness of the Scriptures. I am convinced that we must tackle the “tough issues” in the context of the community of faith before people are exposed to the “spin” of the enemies of the faith as they cherry-pick the facts of history and prey upon the unwary and immature.
One of the most often asked questions I encounter has to do with the relationship between the reality of textual variation and the doctrine of inerrancy, or even the general concept of inspiration. And this goes directly to the foundation that must be laid regarding this vital area.
First, we must understand that the doctrine of inspiration speaks to the origination and character of the original writings themselves, their character and authority. Inerrancy speaks to the trustworthiness of the supernatural process of inspiration, both with reference to the individual texts (Malachi’s prophecy, 2 John) as well as the completed canon (matters of pan-canonical consistency, the great themes of Scripture interwoven throughout the Old and New Testaments). While related to the issue of transmission, they are first and foremost theological statements regarding the nature of Scripture itself. They were true when Scripture was written, hence, in their most basic forms, are not related to the transmissional process.
Many new believers, upon reading the high view of Scripture found in the Bible itself, or hearing others speak of its authority and perfection, assume this means that the Bible floated down out of heaven on a cloud, bound together as a single leather-bound volume, replete with gold page edging and thumb indexing. The fact that God chose to reveal Himself in a significantly less “neat” fashion, one that was very much involved in the living out of the life of the people of God, can be disturbing to people. They want the Bible to be an owner’s manual, a never-changing PDF file that is encrypted and locked against all editing. And while I surely believe God has preserved His Word, the means by which He has done so is fully consistent with the manner of the revelation itself. We dare not apply modern standards derived from computer transfer protocols and digital recording algorithms to the ancient context for one simple reason: by doing so we are precluding God’s revelation and activity until the past few generations! What arrogance on our part! We must allow God to reveal Himself as He sees fit, when He sees fit, and we must derive our understanding of His means of safeguarding His revelation from the reality of the historical situation, not our modern hubris.
In my debate with Bart Ehrman almost exactly a year ago the issue of Ehrman’s radical skepticism about our knowledge of ancient documents came up. I pointed out that given his standards, God could not have begun His revelation of Himself until 1949, when the photocopier was invented. Why? Because given his presuppositions, it would require that level of photographic copying to allow for the promulgation of God’s revelation. God couldn’t speak until we could guarantee an absolutely perfect chain of transmission! But such ignores the entire scope of the history of God’s dealings with His people.
Consider the example of the New Testament. Did the New Testament writers display a modernistic view of the validity and transmission of the Old Testament text? Or did they recognize that God had preserved the text in such a way that they could quote from the Greek Septuagint (the text known to their target audience) and still identify this translation as the Word of God? Surely, their use of the Greek translation of the Hebrew Old Testament raises all sorts of challenging, difficult questions. But you know what? I have never received greater benefits than when I have, in trust and expectancy, knuckled down to do the work to figure out those difficulties. I feel sorry for the modern believers who think that instant answers and easy solutions must be theirs right now! Microwave theology. True, valuable, long-lasting insights come through patient meditation and study, and only in God’s time. We are rarely patient enough to obtain such lofty understanding, and the confidence that comes there from.
But, someone is sure to respond, how can we trust the Bible if there are textual variants? To which I respond, the same way Jesus or Paul or Luke did. There were textual variants in the days of Jesus and the Apostles. Only if you errantly assume, as Ehrman does, that this artifact of the mechanism of God’s means of preservation is, in and of itself, fatal to the truthfulness of the text, can you come to the conclusion that all is lost. But there is no reason to join Ehrman in his radical skepticism. Let’s consider the facts.
Take the two most representative texts of the two extremes of the NT textual tradition, the Westcott and Hort text of 1881 (an almost purely Alexandrian text) and the Robinson-Pierpont text of 2005 (the Byzantine Priority text). If you applied the same principles of interpretation to both texts what would be the result? Would you have one text teaching a different gospel than the other? Surely not! Would you have a different doctrine of the Trinity, the person of Christ, the crucifixion or the resurrection? No, you would not. What you would have, however, is a very slightly different set of texts teaching and supporting each of these divine truths. You might have a little longer list derived from the Byzantine text than from the Alexandrian (as the Alexandrian text is 1.75% shorter than the Byzantine), but you would not have a different Christianity arising from the two texts.
Or we could approach it from Ehrman’s direction: he claims various texts completely change the meaning of entire books of Scripture, but the fact is, he is wrong. Dead wrong. Take his favorite example, Hebrews 2:9 and the variant that has “without God” rather than “by the grace of God” (χωρις θεου/χάριτι θεοῦ). How does it follow that a sub-clause in one chapter can change the entire message of the book of Hebrews? Surely it is relevant to study the variation. Surely you should mention it when addressing the text (as I did when I preached through this chapter just a few months ago). But the book of Hebrews is not changed by the variant. The argument of the book is not done away with or altered. It is simply ridiculous to say otherwise. Ehrman’s assertion that whether Hebrews talks about the grace of God in the death of Christ or not is a calculated attempt at misdirection. Only a person who has never actually studied Hebrews or followed its argument could come to such a conclusion.
Speaking of Hebrews 2, I pulled up both the Byzantine Priority Text and the Westcott/Hort text in this section, and had Accordance compare the two. Here is the resultant screen shot:
Notice that in the eight verses following 2:9 there are only two differences between the Alexandrian family and the Byzantine: whether we read “flesh and blood” or “blood and flesh” (i.e., word order) and whether there is a movable nu at the end of one other term. So while I could find a number of texts with many more differences, this is a good illustration of how harmonious the major families of texts really are.
So I say to the person who wonders, “Why would God allow even small variations?”, have you considered the alternative? Aside from precluding the spread of the gospel through the widespread copying of the text, the only alternative is the Muslim one: a controlled, centrally edited text. Sound good? I hope not, as you then have to transfer your ultimate faith for the accuracy of the text from the original writers to the compilers/editors/redactors. Then you have to deal with the allegations of wholesale corruption and change, which can, in fact, be lodged against such a text. But with the means God used to spread the NT far and wide, that kind of allegation is simply bankrupt.
So as I consider God’s gift of His Word, I am thankful that I have been forced to examine its history closely, and from many angles. And when I do, I am again and again forced to my knees in thanksgiving for what He has done. He has not left us to wander in darkness. He has provided us with a reliable, trustworthy guide in Holy Scripture.