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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