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,


Labels: , , ,


At 5:01 PM, Blogger Kent Brandenburg said...

Hi Andy,

Would you want me to comment on this?

I will or would.

Three preliminary comments, before I get into the detail of it. By the way, you can split your comment into parts and put that on my blog post. I think it would be nice to have it there, not so I can get audience, but so that people could see it there. I guess I could link to it over here onto my blog and you could get the traffic here.

Here are the preliminary comments.
1. You are not getting it, which is curious to me. No one, and I mean no one has or does argue that there are not textual variants. Making it every copy kept free from error is the strawman. That isn't any of their positions. It's not my position. If you think that is what Warfield was talking about, then, wow, you don't get it. That's what Muller said too. Your quotes of Shaw and others is spinning that into the Warfield position. I mean that as respectfully as possible. It is such a strawman, but maybe you don't intend it.
2. You have turf to preserve. You don't read like you want to know what they were thinking, but that you have to keep alive modern versions. That's too bad.
3. You don't present a biblical presentation, nor can you point me to one.

As I read it, I think again, it's too bad. You didn't deal with the position.

At 7:46 PM, Anonymous Andy Efting said...


I'm not inclined to cut and paste my response into your comment section. To be honest, I didn't realize how much I was getting myself into during this holiday period. I'm probably not going to have the time to get into a lengthy back and forth on this. You can respond however you feel you need to.

It's funny your comment about me not getting it. I sometimes wonder if you understand the implications of your own position. I don't mean to be snarky with that comment, just that I'm as dumbfounded with your responses as it seems you are with mine.

I read through everything in Muller that applies to the topic at hand and I just don't think he's the ally you think he is. But maybe I don't get it, like you say.

I'm really disappointed in your point number 3 to me. This whole exercise was not about a biblical presentation but rather it was to be a discussion on the historical position. Why would I bring in a biblical argument when that is not what we are discussing? Of course the biblical authority is of primary importance, and it ultimately why I disagree with you, but that was not the topic at hand.


At 7:29 AM, Blogger George Calvas said...

Your arguments have very little to do with what God is using today as the inspired text. The common faith of the church recognized the King James Bible to be the authority for the church around the time W&H brought in the vile Greek Text, for prior to that the only arguments that existed were found in higher criticism, and not within the body of Christ:

See below:

At 7:54 AM, Anonymous Andy Efting said...

My arguments have nothing to do with what God is using today because I was dealing with an historical question. Nevertheless, God is using many different versions today, including the KJV and other faithful translations, to accomplish his work. Also, the W&H text is not vile in the least; it is part how God has providentially preserved his word pure in all ages. Finally, the “common faith of the church”, whatever that means, recognized the KJV as an authority because it is a faithful translation of God’s word. No “common faith of the church” ever said there could be no improvements, either in translation or underlying Greek text.

BTW, I tried to go to your link but it didn’t work.


At 7:10 PM, Blogger George Calvas said...


I just tried the link. It worked for me.

Pure in all ages? I mean who are you trying to kid? An attempt of over 200+ English translations in the last 100 years has opened the flood gates for obscurity, not improvements! God "improved" the text? No, it was the vain imaginations of high-minded scholars who wanted the preeminence and authority over the body of Christ that opened the door to correcting the word of God (Holy King James Bible) every other year! Remember, they never corrected each other, but ALL of them corrected the English text of the Reformation.

This had nothing to do with the Lord God of the bible, since there are no improvements in any of the modern versions, but rather contradictions, obscurities and inconsistencies that have been written against to the point of ad nauseam in the last 30+ years.

The modern versions have given to America the organized religious historical position of the harlot church of Rome since all of the modern day versions follow the "historical" perverted ROMISH texts of Sinaiticus and Vaticanus.

You can trace that history of textual criticism all the way back to "Yea hath God said"?

At 9:10 PM, Anonymous Andy Efting said...


I know you have a heart for the Lord and want to see his Word magnified. For that I am grateful.

I pray that the Lord would richly bless you as you seek to serve him.


At 6:05 AM, Blogger George Calvas said...


Thank you.


Does not the historical position of the biblical text clearly delineate two separate lines of texts, one that points to perfect preservation and another that points to obscurity, always evolving?

That should be clear in the last 100 years of history.

At 7:42 AM, Anonymous Andy Efting said...


I really don’t see it that way. No manuscript has been copied perfectly – I think most people would agree with that – and I don’t see any reason not to take into account all the preserved manuscript evidence that we have. In fact, I see it as God’s wisdom to have copied records of his word (manuscripts) from different geographical locations, time periods, and groups of believers. That way no one person or group would be able to make a change, intentionally or unintentionally, without that change being noticed and therefore correctable. To me, my ultimate loyalty is to what God originally breathed out and so I want to take into account all of history and all the evidence so that we can best undo any errors in the text that may have crept into our copies.

Think about it this way – wouldn’t you rather have a Tyndale Bible (1534) than a Wyclif Bible (1380)? The reason you would is that time has enabled a better English translation based on more complete manuscript evidence. On top of that Tyndale is a more modern and easy to read/understand version (cf., 1 Cor 14:9).

Wyclif Translation (1380)
For god loued so the world; that he gaf his oon bigetun sone, that eche man that bileueth in him perisch not: but haue euerlastynge liif.

Tyndale (1534)
For God so loveth the worlde, that he hath geven his only sonne, that none that beleve in him, shuld perisshe: but shuld have everlastinge lyfe.

So, for me, I’d rather have an English version that is based on more complete manuscript evidence and that is easier to read. It’s because I love the Bible that I want that. I know you love the Bible, too. If you love and read and try to obey the KJV, I am all for you and wish you the best. It is a very fine translation and you won’t go wrong if you try to live by it.

Your friend in Christ,



Post a Comment

<< Home