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“Holding forth the Word of Life” Philippians 2:16
“Holding fast the Faithful Word” Titus 1:9
The doctrine of preservation is a foundational teaching of the Protestant Church. Most conservative Christians are in agreement that the original manuscripts of Scripture are inspired. But as we do not possess these originals, the doctrine of the preservation of these originals is of utmost importance. What this doctrine states is that while the Bible was immediately inspired in the originals, it was also kept pure throughout the ages. The purity of preservation is no less than the purity of inspiration as it is the work of God Himself. Yet sadly today the conservative Christian Church is teaching something quite different. They no longer believe in the doctrine of preservation, though some do claim a belief in it. There are pockets of Christianity that still hold to this doctrine, being unshaken by the postmodernism that has infected the Church at large. Some of the organizations that represent this remnant of historic Christian belief in preservation are the Trinitarian Bible Society, the James Begg Society, and the Dean Burgon Society.
To better see the distinction between historic Christianity and postmodern Christianity we will look at two confessions that deal with the preservation of Scripture – The Westminster Confession of Faith, and the Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy. The Westminster Confession of Faith (chapter 1, section 8) says this:
The Old Testament in Hebrew (which was the native language of the people of God of old), and the New Testament in Greek (which at the time of the writing of it was most generally known to the nations), being immediately inspired by God, and by his singular care and providence kept pure in all ages, are therefore authentical; so as in all controversies of religion the Church is finally to appeal unto them. But because these original tongues are not known to all the people of God who have right unto, and interest in, the Scriptures, and are commanded, in the fear of God, to read and search them, therefore they are to be translated into the language of every people unto which they come, that the Word of God dwelling plentifully in all, they may worship him in an acceptable manner, and, through patience and comfort of the Scriptures, may have hope.
We can see that the accepted doctrine of the Protestant Church was that God kept His Scripture pure in all ages. That is how preservation was defined. Now before we go much further, let’s look at what the word “pure” means. To be pure is to be complete, without fault, free of foreign elements.1 This gives us an excellent idea of what the Westminster Divines were telling us in this passage of the Confession. They believed that the Scriptures in their original languages were pure and perfect in the apographs (copies), not solely in the autographs.
Now let’s see what a modern confession has to say about the purity and preservation of Scripture. The Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy (article X) says this:
We affirm that inspiration, strictly speaking, applies only to the autographic text of Scripture, which in the providence of God can be ascertained from available manuscripts with great accuracy. We further affirm that copies and translations of Scripture are the Word of God to the extent that they faithfully represent the original.
We deny that any essential element of the Christian faith is affected by the absence of the autographs. We further deny that this absence renders the assertion of Biblical inerrancy invalid or irrelevant.
This clearly shows us that modern Christian teaching promulgates the idea that we can have Scripture with “great accuracy,” but not pure. How great is the accuracy? I’ve heard scholars suggest numbers from 98% to over 99% (Bruce Metzger et al), but never 100%. The statement of faith also shows that they look on the apographs as being the Word of God only to the extent that they represent the original. This is an interesting statement, as the originals do not exist. Logically speaking, since we do not have the originals this statement of faith confirms a belief that they do not know to what extent the Scriptures that we have are the Word of God since it is impossible for them to see how closely they represent the original.
There is another interesting statement in the Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy that seems to contradict modern textual criticism. Article XIV says:
We affirm the unity and internal consistency of Scripture.
We deny that alleged errors and discrepancies that have not yet been resolved violate the truth claims of the Bible.
While they say that they believe in the internal consistency of Scripture, let’s see what their modern textual criticism teaches us…
The basic criteria for internally assessing variant readings is as follows:2
- The more difficult the reading the better.
- The shorter the reading the better.
- The reading that is in verbal dissidence with other readings is better.
- The less refined and more rough reading is to be preferred.
The modern textual critic believes that the reading in dissidence with other readings is better! That’s hardly a case for internal consistency.
We also see the doctrine of preservation vanishing among Bible translators and Greek Text editors. I will look at two popular evangelical translations as well as the critical Greek Text put out by the United Bible Society.
2 Chronicles 31:16 (NASB):
without regard to their genealogical enrollment, to the males from thirty years old and upward—everyone who entered the house of the LORD for his daily obligations—for their work in their duties according to their divisions;
All ancient manuscripts contain “3 years old” and not the 30 that we see in the NASB. This shows that the translators feel a need to correct the Scriptures. This need to correct clearly goes against any honest teaching on preservation.
1 Samuel 13:1 (ESV):
Saul was … years old when he began to reign, and he reigned … and two years over Israel.
Here the ESV translators show that there is missing text in the Scriptures. Clearly you cannot show that there is missing text and still believe the text has been preserved. Remember that the definition of pure includes completeness. Besides, this would sound very strange if read in public.
The editors of the UBS critical Greek text also have a different idea of preservation. The UBS critical Greek text at Acts 16:12 uses “protes” – which is found in no manuscript. The reading should be “prote” without the “s.” The “s” makes the noun genitive, which changes the meaning. Instead of reading that Philippi is a foremost city of Macedonia, it reads that Philippi is a city of the first district of Macedonia. They do this because they do not think the text has been preserved, but rather it needs correcting.
I strongly urge Christians to consider where a denial of the preservation of Scripture will lead the Church. Without preservation there is no purity. Without purity the text can be questioned. When the text can be questioned we have no final authority. The early Protestant Church understood the importance of this doctrine. We should seek to embrace it again as something that is dearly beloved to us.
1 The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, sv, “pure.”
2 Bruce M Metzger, The Text of the New Testament: Its Transmission, Corruption, and Restoration, 3d ed. (New York: Oxford University Press, 1992), 209.
Lawrence E Bray (DD, ThD) heads the theological department of Mt Carmel Institute of Biblical Studies, and is a deacon of the Reformed Presbyterian Church of Boothwyn. He is a member of the Trinitarian Bible Society and James Begg Society. The paper above was originally published in The Presbyterian Standard (October–December 2006), and is reprinted here by permission of the author.
– Published in The Burning Bush, Volume 13 Number 2, July 2007.