Tuesday, April 03, 2018

William Whitaker on Textual Criticism and Translations

One of the most significant historical works on bibliology is William Whitaker’s A Disputation on Holy Scripture (1588).  Whitaker was a Cambridge theologian who tirelessly defended the Christian faith and especially the doctrine of Scripture. His Disputation was primarily directed against Roman Catholic false doctrine regarding the scriptures. His work is a tour de force concerning the canon, the use and authority of the Latin Vulgate, and the authority, perspicuity, and interpretation of the Bible.  His arguments continue to hold great force even today in the support of true Christian doctrine.

My interest in Whitaker stems from the foundation he laid for the Westminster Confession of Faith, and especially the Confession’s first chapter, Of the Holy Scripture. {1} The section on bibliology is absolutely outstanding, a true gift to the church in elucidating the critical elements of the doctrine of scripture. Despite its thoroughness, people who hold to the truths spelled out by this document don’t always agree on certain controversial issues, such as preservation and translations. Since Whitaker’s Disputation touches on these issues, I thought it would be helpful to set forth his views as a respected and impartial voice that pre-dates our modern controversies. With that in mind, let’s look at what Whitaker says regarding the topic of textual criticism (an integral part of the preservation debate) and then move on to translations.


Most of what we will see here comes from Whitaker’s chapter on the “Authentic Edition of Scripture.” To set the context, this chapter deals with the question of the church’s official Bible. Should the church consider the Latin Vulgate the final authority regarding the text and teaching of Scripture, or, as Whitaker argues, should it be the underlying Hebrew and Greek text, what he often calls the “originals.”  It should be obvious that the Vulgate and the original language texts differ.  Which one, then, is true/authentic, and which one is corrupt? How would you decide? In his discussion, Whitaker often refers to the existing Hebrew and Greek manuscripts and the related subject of textual criticism.  His point is that the original language documents are superior to any Latin translation and therefore should be considered the true standard Biblical text for the church.

Let’s start where Whitaker does with the integrity of the Hebrew manuscripts.  He asks, if the Hebrew text is corrupted, “How were they corrupted? By the copyists? This cannot be said, since all the MSS agree.” [132] {2}  While this view may be overly optimistic (possibly reflecting the limited number of Hebrew texts available to him at the time), notice what he goes on to say after considering supposed errors in the Hebrew text:

“These then are the passages which Bellarmine was able to find fault with in the originals [i.e., the Hebrew MSS]; and yet in these there is really nothing to require either blame or correction. But, even though we should allow (which we are so far from doing, that we have proved the contrary), that these were faulty in the original [i.e., in the extant Hebrew MSS], what could our adversaries conclude from such an admission? Would it follow that the Hebrew fountain was more corrupt than the Latin streamlets, or that the Latin edition was authentic? Not, surely, unless it were previously assumed, either that canonical books of scripture cannot be erroneously copied sometimes by transcribers, or that it is very easy for us to discover many more errors in the Latin edition which ought not, and cannot be defended, as we shall hear presently.” [160]

In other words, if you could prove an error in the Hebrew manuscripts (which he is not conceding), then his appeal is to the facts that (1) copyists can make mistakes and (2) we observe much more corruption of this sort in the Vulgate than we do in the Hebrew.  I think it is fair to conclude that Whitaker believes the Hebrew manuscript evidence to be pristine – it hasn’t been proven to him otherwise – but he is not ruling out the possibility of corruption due to copyist mistakes, and that it would be reasonable to appeal to such a mistake if a real error were discovered in an extant Hebrew text.

Moving on to the NT text, he knows we need to do textual criticism with the existing Greek manuscripts because of the presence of copyist mistakes.

“Now then, if the originals of sacred scripture have not been so disgracefully corrupted by any malice of Jews or adversaries, as some person have ignorantly suspected; and if no mistakes have crept into the originals, but such as may casually be introduced into any book, (which our opponents expressly allow); why, I pray, did not the Tridentine fathers [i.e., Catholic officials who participated in the Council of Trent] rather command that the originals should be purified with the greatest care and diligence than that the muddy stream of the Latin edition should be preferred to the fountain, and become authentic?” [161]
“But if they say that the originals [i.e., the original language MSS] are only corrupted by some accident, we to may affirm the same, and with much more justice, of their own Latin version: for such accidental causes extend no less to the Latin than to the Hebrew and Greek books.” [162]

Whitaker says copying mistakes should be expected, just like you would have with copying “any book.” Such mistakes have occurred in both the original language manuscripts as well as copies of the Latin Vulgate. Instead of preferring the Latin Vulgate, though, the Catholic church should have been more concerned with purifying the small errors in the Greek MSS tradition than preferring the muddy errors of the Latin.

How should one go about making these corrections?  This is the subject of textual criticism and while Whitaker does not spend much time on this subject, he does mention some things that should sound familiar to us today.  The context for what he says concerns differences between the Vulgate and the “originals” and how he argues that the Greek or Hebrew reading is best. I find what he says here fascinating.

The first example comes from the last phrase in Romans 1:32, “but have pleasure in them that do them” (KJV). The Jesuit Robert Bellarmine prefers the Latin reading,“but they also that consent to them that do them” (Douay-Rheims) since, “according to the Greek the sense is, that it is worse to consent to an evildoer than to do ill oneself; whereas, taken absolutely, it is worse to do ill than to consent to another doing ill.” [195] To be honest, I don’t find much difference in the meaning of the Latin (as translated by the Douay-Rheims version) compared to the Greek (as translated by the KJV). I think this may be more of an interpretation issue, but the overall point that I want to show is not the meaning of Rom 1:32 but how Whitaker tries to defend the reading of the Greek text. He says:

“The sense of the Greek therefore is very true; and is what is given by the Greek interpreters, Chrysoatom, Theodoret, Cecumenius and Theophylact. And in all the Greek copies which Stephens followed, that is, all which he could by any means procure, there was no variety of reading in this place. That the Latin fathers read it otherwise, need not surprise us; since they did not consult the originals, but drew from the streams of this Vulgate translator.” [196]

In other words, all the Greek copies agree here, as do the Greek church fathers. This supports his contention that the Greek text is correct. He is careful, though, to qualify his statement regarding the Greek manuscripts with “all which he could by any means procure.” Thus, he allows for the possibility that other extant manuscripts may or may not agree with this reading. The main thing is that he is putting a premium on the Greek copies (over a translation) and collaborating the manuscript evidence with readings from the Greek church fathers.

Another very interesting example is Romans 11:6 and the omission in the Vulgate of “But if it be of works, then is it no more grace: otherwise work is no more work.” Regarding this phrase, “Bellarmine confesses that this sentence is in the Greek, but says that it is recognized by none of the commentators upon this place except Theophylact.” [196] Whitaker disputes this assertion but goes on to say:

“But what if the clause were not to be found in the commentaries of these writers? Must we, therefore, deem it spurious? By no means. For the Greek copies, and very numerous MSS of the greatest fidelity, and the most ancient Syrian translator, will suffice to prove that this sentence came from the apostle’s pen; whose evidence is still more confirmed by the very antithesis of the context and the sequence of the reasoning. For as the apostle says, ‘If it be of grace, then it is not of works; for then grace would not be grace;’ so to balance the antithesis he must say, ‘If it be of works, it is not of grace; for then work would not be work.’” [197]

Notice the modern sounding criteria Whitaker mentions: number of manuscripts (“very numerous”), quality of the manuscripts (“greatest fidelity”), other ancient translations (“Syrian translator”), age, (“most ancient”), church fathers (“commentaries of these writers”), and internal evidence (“context and sequence of the reasoning”).  These are all things that modern textual critics consider when evaluating textual differences among extant manuscripts.  Notice that he didn’t say anything like, “it has to agree with Tyndale” or “it’s the wording received by the church.”

Whitaker, in fact, denies the authority of the church in evaluating authentic scripture:

“As to Bellarmine’s last excuse, -- that the church hath interposed its authority, and judged the first version to be the truer – I ask, when, or how the church declared that judgment? Or what church it is that he means? Or what right any church had to determine a false or improper version to be truer than a true and proper one?” [134-135]

There are more examples of Whitaker’s method of textual criticism.  Regarding 1 John 5:13, he quotes the Latin and then says,

“And so indeed the text is exhibited in some Greek copies, as Robert Stephens informs us in his Greek Testament. But the majority, even the Complutensian {3},  otherwise, thus: . . . . “ I’m leaving out his citation of the majority Greek text reading. He then immediately follows with, “But we do not choose to raise any great contention with our opponent upon the reading of this passage, since there is no difference in the sense.” [199]

Here he acknowledges differences within the extant Greek evidence and suggests two things: (1) that the number of Greek language variants helps determine the authentic original reading of the text, and (2) that since the meaning is not impacted, there is no need for “great contention.” 

One last example should suffice, this time regarding Matthew 19:7. Whitaker quotes the Latin and then says, “But in most, and the most correct, Greek copies, we read…” [201] and then he references the Greek reading he prefers. Again, he cites the number of manuscripts and the quality of the manuscripts as evidence for preferring the Greek reading over the Latin.

While I believe there are good reasons for following a Reasoned Eclectic method of textual criticism over a majority text-like methodology, I appreciate what Whitaker is trying to do.  He acknowledges the existence of differences in the Greek manuscripts and other translations that need to be sorted out.  He concedes that copying errors can and do creep into biblical manuscripts just like they are “introduced into any book.” When these differences occur, he uses the same sorts of textual criticism techniques used today to determine the true reading of the autographs – age, number of MSS, other translations, church fathers, quality of the evidence, and internal contextual considerations. What he views as finally authentic, though, is “what came from the apostle’s pen,” not what the church views as authentic, or what aligns with tradition, or what corresponds to the primary English version of the day (e.g., Tyndale 1534 at this time).


Speaking of versions, Whitaker also had quite a bit to say regarding the need for vernacular translations. Here are some important takeaways:

1. Translations must be verified, tested against, and corrected by the original language texts, and ultimately by what was written by the inspired penmen.

“For translations of scripture are always to be brought back to the originals of scripture, received if they agree with those originals, and corrected if they do not. That scripture only, which the prophets, apostles, and evangelists wrote by inspiration of God, is in every way credible on its own account and authentic.” [138]

2. Translations are not inspired. That term should be reserved for the text delivered through inspiration by the prophets. Inspired documents are inerrant; translations are not.

“It is one thing to be a prophet, and another to be an interpreter of prophetic writings. . . . Since the Vulgate edition is nothing more than a version, it is not of itself authentic or inspired scripture. For it is the function of an interpreter to translate the authentic scripture, not to make his own translation authentic scripture. Now Jerome both might, and did err in translating.” [147] {4}
“For authentic scripture must proceed immediately from the Holy Ghost himself; and therefore Paul says that all scripture is divinely inspire, 2 Tim 3:16. Now Jerome’s translation is not divinely inspired; therefore it is not authentic scripture.” [148]

3. He advocates something along the lines of formal equivalence as a translation philosophy.
“For it behooves a translator of scripture not merely to take care that he do not corrupt the meaning, but also, as far as it is at all possible, not to depart a hand’s breath from the words; since many things may lie under cover in the words of the Holy Spirit, which are not immediately perceived, and yet contain important instruction.” [165]

4. Translations should be updated on a regular basis.

Here is the Jesuit argument:

“In the seventh place, the Jesuit reason thus: if the scripture should be read by the people in the vulgar tongue, then new versions should be made in every age, because languages are changed every age; which he proves from Horace’s Act of Poetry and from experience. But this would be impossible, because there would be a lack of persons fit to make the versions; and if it were possible, it would be absurd that the versions should be so often changed. Therefore the scriptures ought not to be read in the vernacular tongue.”

Here is Whitaker’s response:

“I answer, every part of this argument is ridiculous. For, in the first place, it is false that languages change every age; since the primary tongues, the Hebrew, Greek and Latin, have not undergone such frequent alterations. Secondly, there is never in Christian churches a lack of some sufficient interpreters, able to translate the scriptures and render their genuine meaning in the vulgar tongue. Thirdly, no inconvenience will follow if interpretations or versions of scripture, when they have become obsolete and ceased to be easily intelligible, be afterwards changed and corrected. I would assuredly have passed over this argument entirely, if I had not determined not to conceal or dissemble any arguments of our opponents.” [232]

5. He rejects that idea that a long-used translation should not be replaced.:

Here is the Jesuit argument:

“He proposes his FIRST argument in this form: For nearly a thousand years, that is, from the time of Gregory the Great, the whole Latin church hath made use of this Latin edition alone. Now it is absurd to say, that for eight or nine hundred years together the church was without the true interpretation of scripture, or respected as the word of God, in matters pertaining to faith and religion, the errors of an uncertain translator, since the apostle, 1 Tim iii., declares the church to be the pillar and ground of truth.” [135]

Here is a portion of Whitakers multi-part answer:

• Since not all believers use the same language translation, errors in one translation do not impact those who don’t use that translation.

“I answer, in the first place, that the Latin was not at that time the whole church; for there were many and very populous churches of the Greeks and others. Although, therefore, the Latin church had erred, yet it would not follow that the whole church of Christ had remained for such a length of time subject to that error.” [136]

• It is a false argument that says you must have a perfect translation or even a perfectly preserved original language manuscript.  The Bible teaches the fundamentals of the faith over and over again throughout the Scripture so that errors or misunderstandings that may creep in here or there do NOT impact the main points of the faith. Even the Vulgate is good enough to keep one orthodox.

“Secondly, that the church may be deceived in the translation of some passages without, in the meanwhile, ceasing to be the church. For the church is not subverted by the circumstance, that some place of scripture happens to be improperly rendered . . . the fundamental points of the faith are preserved intact in this Latin edition, if not everywhere, yet in very many places.” [136]

• If God intended that there be one authentic version for each language on par with the autographs, then that version should have been in existence throughout time, not just starting at a point in time for that language group.  For English speakers, this means an authentic English version should have been available before 1611.
“Thirdly, if it were so necessary that the Latin church should have an authentic Latin version, which might claim equal credence with the originals, it would have prevailed always in the Latin church, not only after Gregory, but also before Gregory’s time. But we have shewn that there were many Latin versions in the Latin church before Gregory, and no one in particular authentic; . . . ” [136]


As I read through Whitaker’s writing, I am encouraged by the solid biblical foundation he laid, not just for the Westminster Confession of Faith, but for dealing with Bible text controversies both old and new. While Whitaker is not always right, and while others in his era may have expressed some of these ideas differently, he is a trusted voice from years gone past.  His views have not been corrupted by German rationalism or modern liberalism. Some people may be surprised to see that many of the ideas referenced here are not recent innovations but reflect the thoughts and arguments of solid conservative theologians from church history.


[1] Wayne Spear, “The Westminster Confession of Faith and Holy Scripture,” in To Glorify and Enjoy God. A Commemoration of the 350th Anniversary of the Westminster Assembly, John L. Carson and David W. Hall, eds. (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 1994). See also, Wayne Spear, Faith of our Fathers: A Commentary on the Westminster Confession of Faith. Crown and Covenant Publications, 2013.

[2] William Whitaker, A Disputation on Holy Scripture, 132. Throughout the rest of the document bracketed numbers will indicate the page from which I quote Whitaker.

[3] The Complutensian is an early 16th century Bible containing parallel texts – columns of Hebrew, Greek, and Latin for the OT and columns of Greek and Latin for the NT.  Erasmus published his Greek NT first (1516) because the publishing of the Complutensian got delayed until 1517 so that it could include the OT as well.

[4] Regarding inerrancy he writes: “we cannot but wholly disapprove the opinion of those, who think that the sacred writers have, in some places, fallen into mistake.” [36-37] “Whereas, therefore no one may say that any infirmity could befall the Holy Spirit, it follows that the sacred writers could not be deceived, or err, in any respect.” [37] “it is the special prerogative of scripture that it never errs.” [40] Note that he anchors inerrancy to what the sacred writers originally wrote.

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Saturday, September 30, 2017

What Uncommon Love – the Marriage of Lafayette and Adrienne

Most Americans are at least marginally familiar with the Marquis de Lafayette, the young French aristocrat who embraced the glorious cause of the American Revolution as his own, and teamed up with George Washington to fight against the British.  The story of him self-funding his trip to the colonies at the tender age of 19, and how he selflessly endured the hardships of his adoptive comrades-in-arms, and how he demonstrated bravery and keen military leadership and strategy, is fascinating in and of itself.

What is even more amazing, though, is the relationship he had with his young bride. As was common back then, his marriage was arranged by his parents when he was 16 and she was only 14. At the beginning, her mother kept them apart in different chambers but after a couple years the marriage was consummated and Adrienne had her firstborn around age 16, a girl, Henriette.  Shortly thereafter, within a year, Lafayette up and left his daughter and very young bride to go fight against the British in America.   While he was gone, his first daughter died and Adrienne gave birth to a second daughter, Anastasie.  This is hardly the way to start off a successful marriage, and yet, how they grow in their love for each other, and where that love led them, is truly astonishing.
While he was gone, Lafayette wrote her often and lavished her with praise and expressions of love. When he returned after two years, she expressed great joy and admiration for him.  The fact of the matter was that he left as a young boy “with awkward country manners and clumsiness” but returned polished, confident, mature, and according to Adrienne, “as modest and as charming as when he went away.”* And so their love and relationship grew during this time, forging what would be a uncommon bond.  Before long, Lafayette left again for America, leaving Adrienne in charge of his estate, and would return two years later as a genuine victorious war hero of the American Revolution.
Upon his second return to France, Lafayette found himself in middle of the French Revolution.  He wanted the same freedom and liberty for his countrymen as what he helped establish in America.  The problem, though, was that the established royal leadership of France was not ready for republican ideals, nor were the commoners, the so-called Third Estate, able to resist the extremism of their leadership.  The French Revolution turned barbaric and left Lafayette no choice but to flee for his life since he would not submit to the extreme fanaticism of Robespierre.

The problem for Lafayette at this time was that his support for democracy had turned him into “the most hated man in Europe.”*  His ideals had caused problem for other royals throughout Europe, and so, when he crossed over into Belgium, he was arrested and sent to a Prussian prison. He had a board for a bed, nothing with which to read or write, and languished there for some time in the filth of that dungeon.  After two years he was transferred to another prison in Austria at Olmutz. “In comparison to Prussian prison cells, the cells at Olmutz were chambers of horrors. The prison was in part of the city wall over the Morawa River, which carried the city sewerage and filled the prison above it with suffocating stench and swarms of disease-carrying mosquitoes and flies.”* Lafayette was chained in his cell and suffered there in solitary confinement.

In the meantime, back in France, Adrienne was scrambling herself, trying to keep her family and assets safe. She was moderately successful but eventually even she was arrested. The American ambassador was able to keep her from the guillotine but earlier, her grandmother, mother, and sister, all met that horrible fate. Adrienne stayed in prison until the extremism of Robespierre proved too much for even his own supporters. He suffered a gunshot wound during a coup and was put out of his misery the next day, appropriately, via the guillotine.

In ensuing months, Adrienne worked to secure passports to flee to America but instead, and this is where her uncommon love for her husband comes to the forefront, she left for Vienna to plead her husband’s case to the emperor.  Frederick II would not grant him his freedom but he would let Adrienne and her two girls visit (a son, named after George Washington, had already found sanctuary in America) – on one condition – she and the girls had to share her husband’s fate and submit to being jailed! I don’t know how the girls felt about this but Adrienne willing consented. Consequently, for nearly two years she and the girls had to eat nasty prison food, endure the stench from the sewer, live in dark dirt-floored cells, sleep on pieces of wood, and hear the awful screams of other prisoners who were being flogged. Not exactly a second honeymoon!
On the positive side, prison officials allowed them to bring in books, along with paper with which to write letters.  The three provided comfort and companionship that Lafayette would never have had without them. Prison life, though, was not good for Adrienne and she developed fevers and swollen legs and arms.  She was offered the chance to leave Olmutz to get medical help but only on the condition that she not return.  Adrienne defiantly rejected that offer, choosing to suffer with her husband rather than leave him alone.
After much international pressure for their release (including pleas from George Washington), and the rise to power of Napoleon Bonaparte, the time finally came when neither Austria nor France wanted Lafayette’s presence.  His release and that of his family was secured but they were not able to travel to America, where they wanted to go, because of Adrienne’s health.  They ended up settling in Denmark, instead.

Eventually Adrienne recovered enough to return to France and fight for the restoration of their family assets.  Her ability to do this showed amazing political and personal acumen. She had developed into quite the legendary figure herself, a force to be reckoned with in her own right. But if that was not enough, she was also able to secure the ability for her husband to legally return to France. Lafayette’s presence in France turned him into a political force once again, but in the end, he was never able to see the freedom and liberty that America enjoyed embraced or implemented in France.

It’s hard to imagine the life that was in front of these two young children when they were first married. It is harder still to image the love that developed between them.  I asked my wife, Daphne, what she would do if I was jailed in a similar situation – she was not too keen on the idea of joining me!  Sorry, Andy, you’re on your own!  I don’t know if Lafayette and Adrienne’s marriage vows included the phrases, “for better or for worse” or “for richer or for poorer,” but their vows meant something, even made at such a young age and to someone they hardly knew at the time.  Really, it’s an amazing story of true, steadfast love.

*All quotations from Harlow Unger’s Lafayette, the biography on which this post is based.

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Saturday, January 24, 2015

The Owl the Hawk and the Cuckow – Spiritualizing Run a Fowl

The title of this post comes from an allegorical sermon Spurgeon once heard on the text of Lev 11:16, which reads in the KJV, “and the owl, and the night hawk, and the cuckow, and the hawk after his kind.”  The venerable sermonizer related this text to three types of people: (1) night hawks were cheaters/stealers, (2) owls were drunkards, and (3) cuckoos were preachers who always said the same thing whenever they entered the pulpit!  These birds were all unclean and thus represented these three groups of unclean sinners.  Even Spurgeon, who relates this story in his Lectures to My Students (“On Spiritualizing”) in a somewhat positive manner, had to admit, “Was not this rather too much of a good thing?”   


Spurgeon is well known for sometimes spiritualizing the text but he does offer several warnings about the practice:
  1. Do not violently strain a text by illegitimate spiritualizing
  2. Never spiritualize upon indelicate subjects
  3. Never spiritualize for the sake of showing what an uncommonly clever fellow you are
  4. Never pervert Scripture to give it a novel and so-called spiritual meaning
  5. In no case allow your audience to forget that the narratives which you spiritualize are facts
Ironically, spiritualizing actually undermines each of these very legitimate concerns. Whenever a man does this, the sacred text becomes secondary and what we get is the mind of the preacher rather than the mind of God.  
Now to be fair, and I think Spurgeon hints at this in his defense, the truths that are preached are often biblical truths and presented in a way that is compelling and memorable.  The very fact that Spurgeon could remember a sermon preached from the Levetical minutia of clean and unclean animals shows how effective such preaching can be!  Those truths would be better preached from texts that actually teach those truths, however.

If you want to teach your listeners the mind of God and how he reasons and thinks, then you need to explain the flow the passage and how each part contributes to the overall idea that God wants us to get from a particular text.  You can’t do that if you are preaching on things that the text doesn’t say anything about.  If you want to make the text big and important in the mind of your listeners, then you need the text to be big and important in the preparation and delivery of your sermon. When they have finished listening to what you have said, their response should NOT be – “Wow, I never would have seen that myself!”  Instead, it should be, “Wow, how did I ever miss seeing that – it’s so clear!”*

*Modified and expanded from a section in Iain Duguid’s introduction to his commentary on Ezekiel (which is a book often given over to allegorical interpretation). 

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Saturday, November 29, 2014

Is Perfect Preservation the Historical Position?

Over on Kent Brandenburg's blog, I commented on his post, Honesty About the Historical Position on Preservation, that I agreed with B. B. Warfield regarding the Westminster Confession of Faith and the significance of the phrase, "kept pure in all ages."  My point was that so-called "perfect preservation" was not the historical position of the church but one that was debated back in those days, just like it is in ours.  Kent asked me to consider several posts, including a fairly lengthy paper by Paul Ferguson, that purports to show that his position is correct and that I am unaware of the true historical position.  I tried to leave the following in the comment field of his blog but I was limited in the number of characters in my response, so I am posting my response to Kent here on my blog:


There is certainly a lot to respond to, especially Paul’s very lengthy paper on the subject. Let me start by saying that I appreciated the time and effort that Paul put in on that, and while I don’t agree, I better understand where you guys are coming from.  I don’t have time to respond to everything so I think I will limit myself primarily to the issue of the WCF and then Muller’s comments that you quote.

Paul writes on page 40 of his paper that “the Westminster Divines never argued for the preservation of a copy, but the preservation of the Words, because that is what the Bible teaches.”  I tend to agree with that statement but I’m not sure that you guys are consistent with what that says, because later on Paul argues for a “reformation text” (p 42) which was “immediately inspired by God because it was identical with the first text that God has kept pure in all the ages” (p 43) with “no mistakes in the Hebrew Masoretic texts or in the Textus Receptus of the New Testament” (p 43).  These later quotes argue for the perfect preservation of a copy, not the preservation of words within the available manuscript evidence. But let’s move on to what the WCF actually claims.

The Westminster divines “were men of prodigious learning and were aware of many minor textual disagreements going back to the days of the Early Fathers” (p 42).  This quote corresponds with what B.B. Warfield says, and what I highlighted in my first comment to you, that the WCF recognizes a difference between the original autographs (“immediately inspired by God”) and subsequent copies (by God’s providence, “kept pure in all ages”). When the WCF states that the scriptures have “by his singular care and providence [been] kept pure in all ages” it can’t mean that every copy has been kept free from all error or alteration, or that a single copy always exists that has been kept free from all error or alteration. It must mean that the scriptures have been kept pure within the multitude of extant copies.  In other words God has kept his word pure providentially so that no one group, person, church, or government could corrupt the reading of the text without those changes (intentional or unintentional) being noticed and correctable through the process of textual criticism.

Warfield is not the only one who suggests this about the WCF wording.  Writing before Warfield, in 1857, Robert Shaw, in his An Exposition of the Confession of Faith of the Westminster Assembly of Divines, writes, “Copies we now possess generally coincide with the originals . . . Every succeeding age increase the difficulty; and though the comparison of a multitude of ancient manuscripts and copies has discovered a vast number of various readings, occasions by the inadvertency and inaccuracy of transcribers, yet not one of these differences affect any one article of the faith and comfort of Christians.” 

In my previous note I mentioned that Brian Walton contended against Owens’ position after his publication of the Polyglott. Here is what Walton said in his Considerator Considered, “that the special providence of God hath watched over these books, to preserve them pure and uncorrpt against all attempts of Sectaries, Hereticks, and others, and will still preserve them to the end of the world, for the end for which they were first written, That the errors or mistakes which may befall by negligence or inadvertency of Transcribers or Printers, are in matters of no concernment (from whence various readings have risen), and my by collation of other copies and other means there mention be  rectified and amended” – so he agrees with Warfield and me.

I think it is fair to say that both your position and mine requires the use of textual criticism.  You just use different criteria (giving priority to TR texts and KJV readings), while I would make use of more manuscripts and use a different method of textual criticism.  Warfield says the same when he says, “Men like Lightfoot are found defending the readings of the common text against men like Beza; as there were some of them, like Lightfoot, who were engaged in the most advance work which up to that time had been done on the Biblical text, Walton’s Polyglott, so others of  them may have stood with John Owen, a few years later, in his strictures on that great work; and had their lot been cast in our day it is possible that many of them might have been of the school of Scrivener and Burgon, rather than that of Westcott and Hort.” (PRR, 644).

Contra to this, Paul Ferguson tries to argue that the Westminster divines were referring to a “perfectly preserved TR (as cited in the confession)” (p 44) by supplying several quotes from men of that era to that effect.  Of course, any text they might be talking about was surely an edition of the TR because that was the Greek text currently printed and in use at the time.  However, to say that they uniformly viewed the TR family or any particular version of the TR as the perfectly preserved text identical with the autographs is not quite right. I don’t doubt that some thought that way.  It appears that some like Turretin and Owen believed than any corruption in the text throws the entire text, words, message, and all into doubt.  This argument, though, is not sound and does, as Wallace says, paints them into a corner.  The quote from Lightfoot (p 46) does not identify where God preserved “every part so that not so much as a tittle should perish.” His participation in Brian Walton’s Polyglott makes me think Lightfoot did not have a particular text in mind when he wrote that quote. I’ll have more to say about Lightfoot’s views below.

Same goes with Paul’s quote from Capel (p 45-46). Warfield quotes Capel as saying, earlier in the same document that Paul quotes from, “we have copies in both languages which copies vary not from the primitive writings in any matter that may stumble any. This concerns only the learned, and they know what by consent of all parties, the most learned on all sides amongst Christians do shake hand in this, that God by his providence hath preserve them uncorrupt [AE – he goes on to explain what he mean by this -- ] What if there be variety of readings in some copies? And some mistakes in writing or printing? This makes nothing against our doctrine, sith for all this the fountain runs clear.”  Capel admits that “Translators and Transcribers might erre, being not prophets nor indued with that infallible Spirit in translating or transcribing, as Moses and the prophets were in their Original Writings” but says that doesn’t matter because “the fountain runs clear”, meaning that the original were perfectly inerrant, and any such errors do not effect doctrine (“this makes nothing against our doctrine”).  So you cannot appeal to Capel, who basically takes the same position as I do.

In fact, Warfield quotes several WCF era theologians to show that they were aware of errors in the texts and the need for textual criticism to restore the text. 

“That Divine Truth in English, is as truly the Word of God, as the same Scriptures delivered in the Originall, Hebrew or Greek; yet with this difference, that the same is perfectly, immediately and most absolutely in the Orginall Hebrew and Greek, in other translations as the vessels wherein it is presented to us, and as far forth as they do agree with the Originalls. . . We do not say that his or that Translation is the Rule and Judge, but the Divine Truth translated; the knowledge whereof is brought to us in the Translation.” (William Lyford, The Plain Man’s Senses Exercised, 1657).

This quote highlights confidence in the original manuscripts and the fact that no one translation should be considered the sole final authority – others are valid and authoritative as they correspond to the original Hebrew and Greek.

Samuel Rutherford says in 1651 that “for  through scribes, translators, grammarians, printers, may all erre, it followeth not that an unerring providence of him that has seven eyes, hath not delivered to the Church, the scriptures containing the infallible word of God.” In other words, just because we have “only copies written by men, who might make mistake” that does not mean God was unable in his providence to nevertheless preserve his infallible word for us, in spite of the presence of those mistakes.

“How shall we hold and keep fast the Letter of Scripture, when there are so many Greek Copies of the New Testament? And these diverse from one another? . . . For though there are many received copies of the New Testament, yet there is not material differences between them.”  (William Bridge, Scripture Light the Most Sure Light, 1656).

“Consider how many copies were abroad in the world. The Old Testament was in every synagogue and how many copes would men take of the New Testament. So that it is impossible but still Scripture must be conveyed. . .  .It was their [the Masorites] care and solicitude to preserve the text in all purity . . . yet could they not, for all their care, but have some false copies go up and down among them, through heedlessness and error of transcribers. . . To which may be added that the same power and care of God, that preserves the Church, would preserve the Scriptures pure to it, and he that did, and could, preserve the whole could preserve every part so that not so much as a tittle should perish.” (John Lightfoot, Works) – Here Lightfoot connects the many copies of scripture with God’s providence to preserve each part, even though careful copyists still make mistakes.  In other words, he is basically saying the same thing as us – that God preserves his word within the multitude of extant copies.

All this to say that I believe Warfield is right concerning the WCF and “kept pure in all ages” terminology.  So much so, that my belief regarding preservation is satisfactorily expressed in this and similarly worded confessions.  Now, when I had a hand in writing a church doctrinal statement, we used the terminology “essentially pure”, so there would be no confusion, but I think they both mean the same basic thing.

I’ve been going on for quite some time, so instead of adding all my comments from Muller, maybe I’ll just close with what I consider to be his “money” quote concerning this issue.  Here is what he says on page 401:

“…scholars have tended to overlook the fact that the practice of most exegetes of the seventeenth century was somewhere in between the fairly radical conjectural emendation on the basis of ancient versions recommended by Cappel and the virtual denial of the usefulness of text-critical efforts that can be elicited from Owen’s attack on the London Polygot.” (Muller, 401)

In other words, Owen’s position did not represent a consensus but an extreme. Honestly, how could it be otherwise? It’s not surprising that people would use the TR text of the day for their work, as there was no real printed competition. Textual scholars of that day, though, knew the TR was not the “be all and end all.” 

As far as your basic premise goes, that your position is the historical position, that just cannot be sustained.  In my last post, I jokingly referred to Erasmus and Luther and their exclusion of the Comma, but in all seriousness, how can your text (based on your position) be the historical text when it wasn’t always the historical text and when there was no consensus among 16/17th cent believers for your position or text? There was controversy, just like we have today.

So with that I think I will end.

Hope you had a great Thanksgiving,


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Monday, November 24, 2014

Martin Luther and the German Bible

Emory University in Atlanta has recently completed a new building that houses their theological seminary and library.  It is a wonderful, state-of-the-art facility and almost makes me want to take a few more classes so that I could take advantage of their vast theological resources in this marvelous new complex.  Emory is proudly ecumenical but nevertheless maintains a remarkably diverse library such that I have been able to find nearly anything I've ever had occasion to search out, from Buddhist theology (when I needed to research such for an apologetics class I was taking) to Richard Muller's Post-Reformation Dogmatics volume on Holy Scripture (for examining the historical view of preservation for a blog discussion).

Pitts Theological Library, Emory University, Atlanta

One of the most special parts of the new library is a  small museum that displays various items of historical significance on a rotating basis. The current exhibition, Martin Luther's Reform of University and Church, draws from their vast holdings of Reformation era materials. Of particular interest to me, and what I consider to be probably their most noteworthy treasures, are a 1516 first edition and a 1519 second edition of the Greek New Testament produced by Desiderius Erasmus, along with a 1522 copy of Martin Luther's German translation of the New Testament.  Luther, of course, used an Erasmus 2nd edition Greek NT to translate the New Testament into German for the first time. See the photos below:

Greek New Testament (Erasmus, 1516)

German New Testament (Luther, 1522)
For being nearly 500 years old, these documents are in remarkable condition. Click on the pictures for a larger view.

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Monday, August 04, 2014

Koinonia and the Lord’s Table

“Take, eat: this is my body, which is broken for you: this do in remembrance of me.”

How many times have I heard this phrase repeated by the pastor as we partake of the first element of communion? Certainly hundreds of time by now. It’s so common and familiar that I barely give it a second thought. I am beginning to wonder, though, if I have not completely understood the significance of this element of communion all these years.

Often I have been asked to pray prior to the giving of either the bread or cup, and occasionally wonder what difference I should highlight in my prayer regarding the two elements.  Normally what I end up doing is equating the bread with the death of Christ and the physical pain he suffered on my behalf, and then seeing the cup as the blood shed on my behalf.  That distinction, though, has never been very satisfying to me because, ultimately, I view both of those things – dying and shedding his blood -- as the same thing, basically the propitiatory act that Christ suffered on my behalf to secure my redemption.

Recently on Wednesday nights our church has been studying the subject of koinonia or True Fellowship, as Jerry Bridges refers to it in his book by that title.  Our study of this concept reminded me of a place in 1 Corinthians where this terminology is used in conjunction with the Lord’s Supper. It is this passage that makes me think that maybe there is a more significant distinction in the symbolism of the elements than I had recognized before.  Here is the relevant portion of the passage:

1 Corinthians 10:16-17 (ESV)
The cup of blessing that we bless, is it not a participation [koinonia] in the blood of Christ? The bread that we break, is it not a participation [koinonia] in the body of Christ? 17 Because there is one bread, we who are many are one body, for we all partake of the one bread.

The point of the passage is that the Corinthians should not knowingly eat meat offered to idols because it identifies you with or makes you a participant with the false god the idol represents.  You should purposely avoid fellowship or koinonia with demons (1 Cor 10:20). 

One of the illustrations Paul uses in his explanation is the symbolism of the Lord’s Supper. When we drink of the cup, we are showing our participation or identification with Christ on the cross. There is this koinonia with the blood of Christ in which we share.  I would say it goes further than just a remembrance and includes an affirmation of our union with Christ.  When I take the cup, it is as if I am saying, “I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by the faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me” (Gal 2:20). This fact by itself is noteworthy to me because it tells me that what I am doing during communion is very significant because of the koinonia with Christ and his sacrifice that it represents.

Now, though, look at what Paul says is the meaning of the bread. It is participation or koinonia in the body of Christ. While it might be possible to take “the body of Christ” as Christ’s physical body that he sacrificed on the cross on our behalf, Paul’s clarifying statement in verse 17 shows that he is thinking about the church as the body of Christ. It is the church that is the one body that is made up of the many.  The one bread symbolizes that one body, and the breaking of the bread (so that each person may partake) shows that each person is a part of that body.  When we break the bread and eat we are showing our koinonia or fellowship in that body. Just like taking the cup affirms our union with Christ, so the taking of the bread affirms or identifies us with the body of Christ.
If this is true, then the two elements of communion picture two different but important aspects of the koinonia we enjoy – our union with Christ and our membership in the church. There probably is a universal aspect to this but since the ordinance is administered in the conjunction with a local church, I think the primary membership it affirms is that of the local church. Nevertheless, even a visitor can partake and affirm that he is with his brothers and sisters in Christ and have true fellowship with them.

When I first noticed this, I wondered if any of my commentaries mentioned anything along these same lines.  The analysis above seems obvious to me, but if it is correct, why hasn’t anyone bothered to mention it before? Well, lo and behold, someone has.  Here are Gordon Fee’s comments on this passage from his commentary on 1 Corinthians:

“What is unique here is that Paul will go on to interpret the bread in terms of the church as his ‘body.’ Nowhere else in the NT is the bread interpreted at all [footnote 30]. Paul does so here probably because in this context the emphasis lies here. Thus he does not mean that by eating the bread believers have some kind of mystical ‘participation in’ the ‘broken body’ of Christ, but, as he clearly interprets in v. 17, they are herewith affirming that through Christ’s death they are ‘partners’ in the redeemed community, the new eschatological people of God.” (Fee, The First Epistle to the Corinthians, 468-469).

His footnote 30 says, “Although there is no evidence for it in the NT itself, the close association between the ‘broken bread’ and Jesus’ ‘broken’ body on the cross caused the bread eventually to be interpreted in this way (see the textual gloss in 11:24, ‘my body which is broken for you’).”  Now, Fee can sometimes go overboard in claiming that certain (inconvenient) statements are textual additions – his claim in this same commentary regarding women keeping silent in the church (1 Cor 14:34-35) comes to mind. In this case, however, there seems to be good support for his conclusion and the ESV, NASB, HCSB, and NIV all omit the term “broken” in 1 Cor 11:24. The gospels mention that Jesus broke the bread and that the bread refers to his body, but only here in 1 Corinthians 10 does the NT explicitly interpret the symbolism.

Other commentators appear to agree. Leon Morris, for example, says, “Believers are many but they are one body . . . communicates are united to Christ and united to one another” (Morris, 1 Corinthians, 144). Similarly, David Garland writes, “The disparate believers gathered around the table represent the one body of Christ – a theme that Paul will develop further in chapters 11-12” (Garland, 1 Corinthians, 478).

Anthony Thiselton, on the other hand, seems reluctant to abandon the idea that the broken bread refers to Christ’s broken body on the cross. Thus whatever ideas about church fellowship within the body of Christ these verses may teach, we should not limit ourselves to that one sole meaning, in his opinion (see his discussion on pages 763-771 of his commentary).  Thiselton bases many of his conclusions on scholarly monographs that he references without fully recapping their arguments, so without access to those resources, it is hard to tell how strong his position is. Nevertheless, even if Fee goes too far as Thiselton suggests, it is still true that verse 17 brings the unity and koinonia of the church into play on at least one level, even if it is not the sole intended meaning.

Interestingly, when he gets to chapter 11, Fee himself will also acknowledge that the bread does refer to Christ’s body, given for us as a vicarious atonement in fulfillment of Isaiah 53:12 (“he bore the sin of many”). So, if that is true, then my original understanding of the elements was not wrong so much as it was incomplete.  The bread does refer to Christ’s body, given on the cross for us, but we should not neglect the further significance regarding the church that Paul gives it in 1 Corinthians 10.

Therefore, taking all this into consideration, I would suggest that when we take communion at the Lord’s Table, we remember what Christ did on the cross for us, certainly, but that we don’t lose sight of the koinonia we enjoy with Christ our sacrifice and his body our church family. I see it as an opportunity for regular affirmation and appreciation that we are united, not only with the crucified Christ, but also with the body of Christ to which we are joined.