Sunday, June 24, 2012

2.4 Implications of Textual Criticism

1. My early realizations about context

and continued with last weekend's start of discussing issues of the biblical text:
2.1 Issues of the Biblical Text
2.2 Manuscripts, Manuscripts
2.3 Common Sense Textual Criticism

Now the last of this group of reminiscences:
Those who wrote my church's statement on Scripture were careful to specify that they were talking about the "original manuscripts." In other words, they acknowledged the validity of textual criticism and legitimated modern translations for those who chose them. Stephen Paine, one of the primary influences on the Wesleyan Methodist's statements on Scripture, was actually involved in the translation of the original NIV.

There are theological implications here.  If we accept the majority position, then the version of the New Testament that dominated Christianity from around 400 to 1950 was not exactly the same text as the ones the New Testament authors wrote.  It was mostly the same to be sure, but perhaps as much as 5 percent different.  The bottom line: God was not particularly concerned that Christians use the exact wording of the original texts.  The message was what was important.

I might add that this is an implicitly fundamental value of Protestantism, implied by our fundamental sense that the Bible should be translated into the vernacular language.  You can't translate the particulars of wording.  Languages just don't do things the same way. So more than anything it is the message one translates.

Anyone who knows me will know my love of Greek and Hebrew and I am very interested in determining as much as possible the original wording of the Bible's books.  But the implication here is that God does not require the original text in the original languages to speak through Scripture, indeed that it is not a priority for him at all.  It implies that those who hate The Message because it is a paraphrase are out of touch with the way God has operated for the last 2000 years.  It implies that those who have opposed the NIV2011 because of switches from singular to plural, to capture an originally intended inclusiveness, are misguided--sincere but misguided. It implies that it is not a high priority for God that we "get back" to the original wording in the first place.

It may also have implications at the very least for arguments over verbal versus conceptual inspiration. I don't think God has a problem with any word in either the original texts of the Bible or the Byzantine textual tradition.  But it looks like God is really not so concerned with the precise wording. This at the very least tips the scales more toward "conceptual" rather than "verbal" inspiration. Conceptual inspiration is the idea that God breathed the fundamental message into the biblical authors and the precise words came more from them.

I'm not, by the way, saying that there may not be instances where God was very directive in the precise wording.  Nor do I mean to preclude the possibility of some mysterious duality of both human and divine verbal inspiration. It is probably best for us not to pin it down.

It is distressing that people have faith crises over textual criticism and that people fight over which version of the Bible they use. Looking at the example of the biblical texts, God apparently was not worried about such things. In fact, when you consider that we are so limited in our end of understanding, so prone to see our own meaning in the words, it is quite absurd to stake our faith on minor details of wording.


John C. Gardner said...

Here is a question: In our Wesleyan congregation most parishioners believe that Scripture is the inerrant word of God. Now, if our pastors or anyone told them that the precise language of Scripture was not critical or did not come directly from God this might cause a loss of faith or increase doubts. How should we approach such an issue(even if done gradually)? I am sympathetic to your position but it might be a difficult sale. This does not mean that the truth should not be pursued but it could cause disaffection and disunity. Any suggestions would be appreciated.

Ken Schenck said...

John, I want to be very clear here. The WC only holds that the Bible is inerrant in the original manuscripts. There is nothing here that contradicts that. I looked at the Discipline and it does not take a position on verbal inspiration, and I have suggested here a way to hold to verbal inspiration.

Our problem is that we have absorbed the fundamentalism of grass roots America. We don't know how to dance with the Spirit on the floor of the text any more, with our theology playing the music. If our preachers could model this, our congregations would catch on to the dance.

John C. Gardner said...

Hi Ken,
Thank you for this kind response. I teach an ABF class each year at our church. I want to be a thinking Christian and one who is rooted in God's grace and is moving toward sanctification(with God's grace and guidance). I believe that Wesleyanism provides we Christians with the opportunity of thinking and love tied together as we search for God's direction in our corporate and individual lives. I read this blog daily and have learned much from your sharing with all of us who read it. I am grateful for your contributions to my life.

James E. Snapp, Jr. said...


(This is in two parts)

While I wouldn’t say that God wanted copyists to make mistakes as they produced copies of the NT books, I would agree that God’s purpose, in communicating the contents of those books, was to share a message, without special regard for its exact written form. For example, I don’t think God is bothered, or that the church has been robbed, by name-abbreviations, or by some transpositions, or by some orthographic variations, that we see in the manuscripts.

However, I enthusiastically disagree with a couple of things you wrote, and I encourage you to revisit these subjects sometime.

First, I disagree with the notion that “The Message” represents the way that God has operated for the last 2000 years, in terms of how He has overseen the conveyance of the written message of the New Testament. No Greek NT manuscript displays anything remotely near the sustained looseness of “The Message.” Aside from harmonizations, and occasional interpolations and retro-translated phrases in the Western Text (i.e., phrases back-translated from Latin), the evidence that copyists consciously attempted to simplify the text to facilitate understanding is rather slim. Very consistently, the expectation was that the reader would rise up to the level of the text, not that the text would slip down to the level of the reader.

This is true not only of the Greek text, but also of the versional evidence, such as the Vulgate. Textual anomalies aside, the translation-technique was essentially literal, resembling the translation-technique of the KJV, NKJV, and NASB much; paraphrasing was a last resort in case of difficult idioms. Try to find a manuscript of Matthew in any language, from any era, that can be formally translated into English so as to mean what “The Message” says in Matthew 10:28. It can’t be done. And the reason it can’t be done is that Dr. Peterson habitually obscured the plain meaning of the text and replaced it with something out of his own head. I would say that it is those who claim that Dr. Peterson’s hyper-paraphrase is a normal way to present the New Testament’s message are out of touch with how the church has treated the written New Testament throughout its history.

Second, . . . (continued)

James E. Snapp, Jr. said...


Second, I don’t grant that the existence of textual variants, or the inability of non-Greek languages to convey the meaning of Greek words and sentences with absolute precision, in any way “tips the scales more toward ‘conceptual’ rather than ‘verbal’ inspiration.” While the words and sentences of the original text were given to convey what those words and sentences mean, that does not mean that God merely prompted the New Testament writers to write down something like what the original words mean. We see a stricter standard in Revelation 22:18-19; I don’t think that any copyist would have concluded from that passage that he was divinely permitted to adjust the wording as long as the conceptual content, the “fundamental message,” as you put it, was unchanged. And while that passage focuses on only the text of Revelation, I don’t see any grounds to imagine that the Holy Spirit would have one set of priorities for the transmission of the text of Revelation, and a different priority for the transmission of other NT books.

Someone might ask, “Well, do you think that the Holy Spirit inspired every letter of every word of the text?” The way I put it is that the producers (redactors as well as authors) of the New Testament produced exactly what God wanted them to produce. Whether via supernatural or natural means, God engineered a result that was exactly what He desired. Given that premise, the original text is capable of serving as a standard by which the accuracy of translations can be measured.

And, while I agree that /in some cases,/ “It is distressing that people have faith crises over textual criticism and that people fight over which version of the Bible they use,” I don’t think for a moment that Christians should take a casual attitude about textual variants which change the meaning of the text (that is, where one variant or another fails to convey what the original text conveyed), or about translations in which what was meant by the original text is obscured or replaced. We certainly should be vigilant about those things, as crewmen called aboard H.M.S. Word: in our weekly (or more frequent) voyages, if we want the flock at the destination-harbors to be fed, then we must protect the cargo, God’s message, and if we want the cargo to be safe, then we must care about the integrity of the hull of the ship.

Yours in Christ,

James Snapp, Jr.