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“Holding forth the Word of Life” Philippians 2:16
“Holding fast the Faithful Word” Titus 1:9
“A Grave Matter: Verity, Sagacity and Clarity in the Textual Debate” is an article written by the Rev Dr Jack Sin, pastor of Maranatha Bible-Presbyterian Church, Singapore.1 Rev Sin wrote this article with a concern over the textual issue being debated among Bible-Presbyterian churches in Singapore, which he sees as causing “grievous events,” “devastating disunity and heated disagreements within the churches, Christian families and kindred friends.” The problem caused by this debate, we are told by Rev Sin, goes beyond a local level and affects foreign missions. Under these circumstances, therefore, his purpose is to offer “an objective and biblical appraisal” of that textual debate. This is a noble goal, for the Christian must always be “objective and biblical” in his approach to all things, but whether Rev Sin himself has fulfilled this or not remains to be seen.
Rev Jack Sin called for “honesty” in “biblical scholarship” particularly in the area of the New Testament Greek Text debate. This is certainly commendable, and it may be added that honesty must be cultivated not only in this area but also in all areas of Christian living (Rom 12:17; 2 Cor 8:21; Phil 4:8; 1 Pet 2:12; Matt 5:37; 2 Cor 1:7; Jas 5:12).
But what does Rev Sin mean by “honest biblical scholarship”? An analysis of his entire paper shows that what Rev Sin means by “honesty” in the NT textual issue is to conclude that all the words of God are not preserved exclusively in the Textus Receptus (TR) underlying the King James Version (KJV) but in “all the providentially preserved Majority or Traditional or Byzantine Greek manuscripts of over 5,000,” and his contention that the divine, perfect preservation of God’s words in the Greek New Testament underlying the KJV cannot be biblically or theologically proven.
Rev Sin believes that the Byzantine family of manuscripts, not the Alexandrian family, preserves the words of God. But it may be observed that when it comes to the Greek printed texts that represent those over 5,000 manuscripts, his commitment to “honesty” has made him unable to know or identify the inspired and preserved words in the various editions of the TR. At this point, he disagrees with Dr Edward F Hills whom he appears to follow since he quotes him frequently as an authority, for Hills had no problem identifying the Greek Text of the KJV to be God’s approved Text. A portion from Hills which Rev Sin failed to quote, though he should have in the quest for “honesty” in biblical scholarship, reads,
But what do we do in these few places in which the several editions of the Textus Receptus disagree with one another? Which text do we follow? The answer to this question is easy. We are guided by the common faith. Hence we favor that form of the Textus Receptus upon which more than any other God, working providentially, has placed the stamp of His approval, namely the King James Version, or, more precisely, the Greek text underlying the King James Version.2
It is a fact that there exists variant readings in the Greek manuscripts that number over 5,000 and that even in the TR editions there are a few minor differences. This is admitted by those who believe in the doctrine of Verbal Plenary Preservation (VPP) for it is a fact, and hence it is wrong to imply otherwise. Yes, Hills (and others as well) does recognise the existence of those variants and the difficulty in making a textual decision in certain cases, yet he does not stop there, for a specific identification of the text is necessary if every word of God is to be authoritative, and he did identify the KJV Greek Text to be the God-approved Text as the above quotation shows. For practical purposes, others like the Trinitarian Bible Society (TBS), which has been quoted by the Rev Sin as another authority, also uses the KJV Greek Text as edited by F H A Scrivener.3 What the VPPists believe is no different. The VPPists believe that out of the several editions of the TR, the TR underlying the KJV is the best and purest for it perfectly preserves all the words of God originally given by divine inspiration. As such, holding the TR of the KJV in our hands, we can say without apology, “This is the very Word of God.” (Note that the issue is not about translations, but the Bible in the original languages.)
Such a Bible position means that there is no need for the Bible scholar to practise textual criticism. The Bible scholar or student can confidently use and devote his time to the sincere exposition of the truth of God’s words, not doubting the text at all. Hills is thus an “honest” textual scholar, for though he recognises the difficulty in the textual issue, he calls on Christians to be guided by “the logic of faith” to identify specifically the Greek Text of the KJV to be the God-approved Text in the light of God’s special providence. Is this not precisely what has always been taught by VPPists? “Honesty” in the textual debate should not fail to mention Hills’s precise identification of the providentially preserved and authentic Text to be the Greek Text of the KJV.
Rev Sin’s quotation of J W Burgon also appears to lack “honesty.” Although he pays tribute to Burgon for his defence of “the historic faith and the Bible,” his quotations contain only a few portions of Burgon’s inconsistent statements on the textual issue. Many good points Burgon made about the TR in opposition to the Alexandrian manuscripts are not made known to the readers. “Honesty” in biblical scholarship should be unbiased in the assessment of the issue at hand by presenting the necessary facts so that the readers can judge for themselves.
Rev Jack Sin provides a clarification of his and Maranatha BPC’s position on the textual matter, which denies the VPP position. He believes that the perpetual preservation of God’s words lies in the plurality of Byzantine-type manuscripts. He went on to say that “the TR underlying the KJV does NOT fully represent the full body of the providentially and perpetually preserved Byzantine or Traditional (or sometimes called Majority) Text.” While this may sound appealing, it must be pointed out that this position essentially leads to uncertainty about textual variants, whereas the VPP position identifies exactly where and what the inspired words are by the logic of faith.
Moreover, this question must be asked: On what basis does Rev Jack Sin base his plurality of the Byzantine manuscripts position over the TR position? He has failed to provide even a single testimony in the infallible Scriptures to support his plurality of manuscripts position which has perpetually failed to identify the precise text or words of God. This means that Rev Sin still has to play the subjective and rationalistic game of textual criticism before he can proceed to do his exegesis, at least in some areas. How then can he claim that his position is “objective and biblical”? A person may believe whatever he wants, but the important question is: Is it proven or justified by the Holy Scriptures? Having rejected the biblical passages of Psalms 12:6–7, 19:7, 119:89, Isaiah 40:8, Matthew 5:18, 24:35, 1 Corinthians 13:8 which teach the doctrine of VPP either explicitly or implicitly, Rev Sin is left without any biblical basis for his position. If this is so, then he has arrived at his conclusion by means of his subjective interpretation or view of the Greek manuscripts, and not on any objective, biblical or exegetical grounds!
The most important thing in the textual issue (and in all other matters as well) is that no one should build his faith on the fallible authority of men, but on the infallible authority of the Holy Scriptures. However appealing a certain position might appear, if it is not squarely built on or concretely substantiated by Scripture, then it is only an opinion void of authority. A child of God must rest his faith on the testimony of the infallible Scripture and on it alone. Is belief in the present or rather the forever perfection of the words of God biblical? These passages Deuteronomy 8:3; Psalms 12:6–7, 19:7, 119:89; Proverbs 30:5; Matthew 4:4, 5:18, 24:35; Luke 4:4, 16:1, 21:33; John 10:35 say “Yes.”
Failing to substantiate his position from the infallible Scriptures, Rev Sin appealed to human authority. The authorities he quoted include the Westminster Confession of Faith (WCF), International Council of Christian Churches (ICCC), Trinitarian Bible Society (TBS), and Pensacola Christian College (PCC). It must be pointed out that no human authority is exempt from making mistakes. Admittedly it is not uncommon in theological debates to quote human authority, and it is certainly justifiable if the quotation is made within the boundaries of the Holy Scriptures which are our sole and supreme authority of faith and practice. But the question that needs to be raised is: Did Rev Sin quote correctly in the right context for the right purpose? One finds it difficult to say yes. For instance, the TBS identifies the texts it accepts as the true texts: “The Trinitarian Bible Society recognises and receives the Masoretic Hebrew and Greek Received Texts as providentially preserved and authentic.” As to the qualities of these texts, the TBS says, “These texts of Scripture reflect the qualities of God-breathed Scripture, including being authentic, holy, pure, true, infallible, trustworthy, excellent, self-authenticating, necessary, sufficient, perspicuous, self-interpreting, authoritative and inerrant (Psalm 19:7–9, Psalm 119). They are consequently to be received as the Word of God (Ezra 7:14; Nehemiah 8:8; Daniel 9:2; 2 Peter 1:19) and the correct reading at any point is to be sought within these texts.”4 This is a fine statement based on Scripture and it does not contradict the VPP position. To insinuate otherwise would suggest a lack of “honesty” and a failure to be “objective.” A close study of the other authorities he quoted will find them to be quite in line with VPP.
Rev Jack Sin rightly notes that “no translation of one language to another will ever be perfect.” It should also be noted that no VPPist would assign perfection to a translation. The whole issue is all about the Bible in the original languages. VPP is not against other language Bibles which have been faithfully translated from the providentially preserved Masoretic Hebrew Text and Greek Textus Receptus.
Rev Sin’s admonition to avoid “excessively emotive” tone in the defence of God’s Word, however, is instructive and should be taken to heart. Words or tone, which may cause offence unnecessarily, when the truth can be presented otherwise without compromise, should be carefully avoided. The defence of God’s Word should be carried out by presenting the truth as clearly as possible without any compromise and yet in love, meekness and in all wisdom so that it may have its full effect (Eph 4:2; 1 Pet 3:15; Col 1:28). Caricature, insinuation, misrepresentation and disparagement should have no place, for they will only blind the truth, and thus do no service to the cause of the truth.
Rev Sin’s mention of the problem of “NPP” (New Perspective on Paul) and “the Human Quest for Perfection” is entirely irrelevant to the current textual debate. One wonders why such mention is made at all. Neither is Rev Sin clear about the reason why he brings up these two categorically different matters. Is it an attempt to put VPP in the same box? One hopes not.
Rev Jack Sin’s expressed intention to assess the textual issue “objectively” and “biblically” with the spirit of “honesty” is surely commendable. Every theological issue must be appraised objectively and biblically. However, after analysis, the paper gives one the impression that the Rev Sin has fallen short of his noble goal, for he has no biblical authority for his own plurality of manuscripts position over against the perfect preservation of words position of VPPists which he is attempting to refute. Neither was he entirely fair in his quotation of the works of others nor unbiased in his presentation of the opposing view. His appraisal which is destitute of biblical proof, citing only human authorities with partial quotations, cannot be considered “biblical,” or “objective” or “honest.”
Since Rev Sin’s position is without biblical proof, he should not put in a bad light the VPPists who are able to support their position from Scripture, for that is a disservice to the cause of Christ. He should not engage in the unfruitful and unedifying work of criticising and disparaging the doctrine of VPP which is built upon the infallible testimony of the Scripture itself, but should rather re-examine his own position whether it is really tenable or found wanting when weighed on the biblical scale. Any position which lacks basis from the infallible and inerrant Scriptures needs urgent and serious re-examination. Only God’s Truth will stand forever, “For we can do nothing against the truth, but for the truth” (2 Cor 13:8).
2 Edward F Hills, The King James Version Defended (Des Moines, Iowa: The Christian Research Press, 1984), 223, italics added. Take note also that Hills uttered these words at the concluding part of his treatise.
3 Trinitarian Bible Society, “Statement of Doctrine of Holy Scripture,” http://www.trinitarianbiblesociety.org/site/statement.pdf, 6.
4 Ibid., 4.
Biak Lawm Thang (MDiv 07, ThM 08) is a lecturer at the Far Eastern Fundamental School of Theology, Yangon, Myanmar.
– Published in The Burning Bush, Volume 14 Number 2 (July 2008)