Saturday, February 20, 2021

3. The Message over the Words, Part II

Two posts so far in this series trying to realign faith and reason.


6 cont. ... In the pages that follow, I am following a method I like to call "common sense reasoning." Sometimes in discussions of faith versus reason, someone will adopt large, grandiose conceptions like Christian worldviews or presuppositionalism or dogmatics to counter an attempt to invoke reason in these discussions. Perhaps X does not mark the spot. Perhaps, like Kierkegaard and Tertullian, reason does not deserve a seat at the table. Perhaps the Enlightenment and modernism are great enemies of faith.

I don't wish to get into such debates unless it is necessary. I have already invoked the notion of paradigms. I agree that presuppositions are a major element in what we think. I believe that truth is both discovered and revealed.

For the moment, I would simply point out that the books of Reformed epistemology use reasoning. The great dogmatician Karl Barth used reasoning. Cornelius van Til used reasoning. All thought uses what I am calling common sense reasoning. We all use common sense reasoning. Even the most bizarre conspiracy theorist uses common sense reasoning within a more bizarre, broader framework of thinking.

This is my gambit. My gambit is that the basic conclusions I am setting forth are based on such ordinary, common ways of thinking that a reasonable person will see that they are quite likely true. This is how I would say it happened with me. Basic, common-sense reasoning pummeled my counter-intuitive frameworks of thought like water that drips and pours until even the strongest structure begins to crack. And then, like a deluge, the water pours forth. The paradigm changes.

My goal, in the pages that follow, is to drip faith-filled reason on you enough until we eventually see our unexamined assumptions and undergo some paradigm shifts. The goal is that the dam of unreason will break and a more reasonable faith will roll down like waters. In my opinion, we Christians have sometimes contributed to the problems of society because of irrationality disguised as faith. Ironically, I believe we sometimes actually work against God's values in the name of an illogic and irreason claiming to be based in our own religion and hiding in misappropriations of the Bible.

We will see if I convince you.

7. In the case of the Lord's prayer, let me explain why I think any reasonable person will conclude that the NIV of Luke 10 much more likely renders the original text than the King James. I mentioned that I grew up on the King James. The NIV emerged just as I was about to enter my teens. I was given a copy of E. F. Hills 1956 book, The King James Version Defended

Eventually, perhaps those who gave me such resources thought me rebellious for, in the end, rejecting the positions of these defenders. I assure you nothing of the sort was the case. I am a people pleaser. I wanted to fight the fights of my family and clan. Who doesn't want to be a hero, your group's champion? I have long thought that I could have been on a very popular speaking circuit if that idiot common sense reason had not kept unraveling for me what my people wanted to hear.

But common sense reason kept dripping. In the end, I was not interested in finding whether it was possible to argue for the text of the King James but whether that was the most probable truth. I remained on the side of the KJV throughout college. I even wrote a paper in church history class arguing that the manuscripts behind modern versions were corrupt. It was only at the end of my first year of seminary that the flood of common sense reason broke through.

By the way, the response of my church history professor was quite insightful. He wrote that most of the differences between the manuscripts do not reflect some ideological controversy. I had made an elaborate argument that the key manuscripts could have been commissioned by Eusebius and Constantine, both of whom took the wrong position in the Trinitarian controversy of the early 300s. 

But, my professor remarked, most manuscript differences are a matter of simple copying mistakes. Raised to think of the conflict of large worldviews, I missed the simple common sense that you sometimes miss a line when you are copying by hand. It was this simple common sense that would get to me.

We can argue at length about different approaches to manuscripts. Would God allow the majority of manuscripts throughout church history to have a wording that is less original? Would not God have preserved the right wording--understood to be the original wording? Perhaps the more recently discovered older manuscripts did not survive because they were bad manuscripts and people did not copy them! And what if early church fathers quote the "majority text," the text that is largely found in the KJV? Should that not count as much as actual early copies of the Bible?

It was not the arguments over manuscripts that convinced me. Arguments over manuscripts can get pretty complex. If the previous paragraph is any indication, they can also get abstract and philosophical. It is in these sort of conversations that the ingenious can take what seems to be a fairly obvious conclusion and twist your mind into a pretzel.

8. But common sense is pretty straightforward. Is it more likely that some copyist would alter Luke's version of the Lord's prayer to make it more like Matthew's version or that someone would cut parts out of the Lord's prayer? Here I just do not see any real doubt as to what the more likely scenario was.

The Lord's prayer in Matthew 6:9-13 is magisterial. It is no wonder that we use it in church. As such, it is perfectly understandable that the Lord's prayer in Luke would be "harmonized" to fit with the better-known version of the prayer. It is much harder to imagine why someone, intentionally or accidentally, would chop out the pieces "our," "your will be done," and "deliver us from evil."

This common-sense rule of modern textual work is what convinced me. "Choose as original that reading that best explains how the other readings in the manuscripts came about." We create a kind of storyline and, using ordinary common sense, ask which storyline is more likely.

Here is the storyline that seems overwhelmingly likely. Some copyist of Luke, whether intentionally or because he was copying from memory, puts the form of the Lord's prayer known from worship, Matthew's version, into his copy of Luke. This is a fuller and more pleasing version of the prayer. As the more attractive version, it is the one that eventually makes its way into the majority of medieval manuscripts and on into the King James in 1611.

This makes far more sense than some sinister or absentminded copyist mangling the text. But notice that, to go with the other option is to reveal a conspiracy-type mindset. It is no surprise to me, anecdotally, that the King James supporters I know have a penchant for conspiracy theories. This is the very problem that I am getting at in this book. There is a skewed pattern of thinking at work in the church that carries over into society, and it not only hurts the witness of the church but it can actually inflict harm on society in general. [1]

8. Time and time again, we will find that a common sense approach to variations in the manuscripts will point us in the direction of the wording behind modern versions and not the KJV. We can thus step back and formulate the most plausible explanation for what we see in the manuscripts. Here is my overall storyboard for the transmission of the biblical text.

After Christianity became a legal religion in the Roman Empire, the biblical texts could be copied freely and were used in public worship. This open, common worship led to a standardization of the biblical texts. The result was a cleaner, smoother, and more harmonized text of the Bible. It is no surprise that the majority of manuscripts, which come from the Middle Ages, would more or less read the same. It is also no surprise that the King James would use this basic text when it was translated in the early 1600s.

It is also no surprise that the early manuscripts we have discovered, the ones that date to the early 300s and earlier, are not so tidy. There is a common-sense rule in textual study (also called "textual criticism") that says, "Choose the more difficult reading as more likely to be original." That is because time "cleaned up" the text. It just makes sense that the church would "comb the hair" of the text as it was copied. It doesn't make sense that the earliest copyists liked to "mess up the hair" of the text. 

I am not talking about theological errors here. I'm talking about Greek style and aligning the wording of stories and material told in more than one place.

9. What are the theological implications? They are largely the same as the one we pointed out from the fact that we do not insist on reading the Bible in Greek, Hebrew, and Aramaic. God does not seem overly concerned with the exact wording of the biblical text. God was concerned with the message, not the precise words.

No doctrine is lost based on whether you follow the King James or modern versions--except a mistaken focus on precise wording in your theology of Scripture. 1 John 5:7 in the King James would be a lovely verse on the Trinity, but the early church fathers argued for the Trinity just fine without ever mentioning it. In fact, this is the most damning common-sense argument against the King James Version of 1 John 5:7 being original. This verse never came up in all the debates over the Trinity in the 300s and 400s! It appears in no Greek manuscripts prior to the 1400s. To argue that the King James is original here requires a level of conspiracy thinking that is ultimately staggering.

So is it any wonder that so many Christians are susceptible to manipulation and public illogic when we are open to such counter-reasoning? After all, so many have been programmed in church to think in terms of conspiracies, and "what you see isn't what you get." Clearly, the educated "liberals" are out to ruin your faith! 

It is also important to point out that I believe the KJV of 1 John 5:7 is true. There is nothing wrong theologically with the text of the King James. This is another important paradigm shift in the making. Debates over the wording of the Bible are not debates over what is true about God, Christ, or these matters of theology. It is rather a question of history. It is simply a question of what the original text of the Bible said, not a question about whether the words in question are true.

Hear me when I say that there is nothing wrong theologically with the text of the King James Version. Like the texts of most modern versions, the KJV gives us a text that is true. Indeed, I consider it a smoother version of the textual tradition, one very suitable for worship. After all, God let the church use that tradition of the text for over 1500 years! Here is another unexamined assumption--why is the original version necessarily preferable to the historical worship version of the Bible? If my question is not immediately clear right now, we will explore further what I am getting at in later chapters.

10. There is a phrase sometimes used called "verbal inspiration." It is the idea that God inspired the very words of the Bible. Certainly, it makes sense that God approved of every word that any biblical author wrote down. But, in the light of the differences in the manuscripts, the freedom early copyists at times seemed to have, even the freedom the New Testament authors sometimes showed in quoting the Old Testament, it would seem that this is mostly a theoretical doctrine. 

What I mean to say is that God does not seem to have been overly bothered with the precise wording that was passed on. The stories you sometimes hear about the carefulness of biblical copyists are stories about Jewish copyists in the Middle Ages, in the 900s. They are not stories about the earliest copyists of the books of the Bible, who sometimes seemed less worried about the precise wording. And again, we do not feel compelled only to read the Bible in Greek and Hebrew, which give us the actual words of the Bible. 

It would seem that the message is what is important to God, not the wording. We will continue to flesh out this basic, common-sense insight in the pages that follow.

[1] Long after I had switched paradigms I came across a book called New Age Versions of the Bible. This kind of book is very typical of the kind of source that sounds intelligent and convincing if you do not really know the evidence. Parts of the book gave me a hearty laugh, such as not knowing that metaphysics is a subject in philosophy going back to the Greeks and not just a word used in the more recent new age movement. But suggesting that Alzheimer's might have been God's judgment on some NIV translators is no laughing matter. In the end, this sort of infection of illogic in the church needs to be addressed and rooted out, if possible.   


Martin LaBar said...

"God does not seem overly concerned with the exact wording of the biblical text. God was concerned with the message, not the precise words."

Robert Thomas said...

You are comparing the KJV with the NIV making the point that the NIV is from earlier manuscripts but some argue that the NIV had an agenda with its own translation. For example does Exodus 21:22-23 say life begins at conception or first breath?

The KJV translate Exodus 21:22-23 as “her fruit depart her,” leaving open the question of whether the fruit departs due to miscarriage or premature birth. The NIV translates it as “she gives birth prematurely,” thereby implying the “life for life” punishment applied to harm caused either the woman or fetus.

(When the ‘Biblical View’ for Evangelicals Was That Life Begins at Birth, Jonathan Dudley, rewirenewsGroup)