THE PRESERVATION OF SCRIPTURE
By Doug Kutilek
[Reprinted from "As I See It," vol. 2, no. 3, March, 1999]
The foundational premise of
the modern infallible English Bible movement is a belief that because God gave
the original Scriptures in a perfect, infallible and inerrant form, He is
thereby obligated to preserve the inspired Scripture in an absolutely perfect
and uncorrupted form throughout all subsequent time. And, furthermore, since God
evidently has not done that with the original language Scriptures (no two
manuscripts of the Greek New Testament, for example, being exactly alike in
every detail), therefore--they conclude by leap of "faith" (really
presumption)--God must have preserved it in some other form. This leads to a
"quantum leap" in presumption as they fix on the King James Version of
the Bible in English as the proffered infallibly-preserved modern day Scripture.
Conveniently ignored are legitimate questions: why this version and no other?
and, why in this language and no other? and what of the very numerous
differences between the various editions of the KJV published since 1611? (no
two being identical in all details--except for photographic reprints--which
being true, how can THIS meet the standard of an infallibly-preserved
The fact of the matter is, the basic premise that there is a Divine promise to infallibly preserve Scripture from any alterations of whatever sort in the copying and translating process is defective. No such promise is given in Scripture (and alleged "proof-texts" for this doctrine, such as Psalm 12:6-7; Matthew 5:17, 18; and Matthew 24:35; are without exception misinterpreted and misapplied).
That there is no Biblical promise of perfect preservation of Scripture in the process of copying and translating has been asserted repeatedly by devout, well-informed scholars. In a previous issue of AISI (1:6, June, 1998), we reproduced just such a statement by British New Testament scholar and advocate of the Byzantine text-type John William Burgon (1813-1888): ". . . That by a perpetual miracle, Sacred Manuscripts would be protected all down the ages against depraving influences of whatever sort,--was not to have been expected; certainly, was never promised." (THE REVISION REVISED, p. 335). And he certainly means promised by God.
Recently, we ran across another, similar comment by Burgon's contemporary and fellow-Byzantine text defender F. H. A. Scrivener. In his INTRODUCTION TO THE CRITICISM OF THE NEW TESTAMENT (Cambridge: Deighton, Bell, and Co., 1883. Third edition), Scrivener gives his expert testimony--and that he was expert in such matters no one familiar with the facts will dispute. In the 19th century, no one had a fuller acquaintance than he with the minutiae and details of the surviving Greek manuscripts of the New Testament as well as the various editions of the KJV, and no one was a more meticulous recorder and publisher of such details.
Scrivener opens his volume:
"1. When God was pleased to make known to man His purpose of redeeming us through the death of His Son, He employed for this end the general laws, and worked according to the ordinary course of His Providential government, so far as they were available for the furtherance of His merciful design. A revelation from heaven, in its very notion, implies supernatural interposition; yet neither in the first promulgation nor in the subsequent propagation of Christ's religion, can we mark any waste of miracles. So far as they were needed for the assurance of honest seekers after truth, they were freely resorted to: whensoever the principles which move mankind in the affairs of common life were adequate to the exigencies of the case, more unusual and (as we might have thought) more powerful means of producing conviction were withheld, as at once superfluous and ineffectual. Those who heard not Moses and the prophets would scarcely be persuaded, though one rose from the dead.
2. As it was with respect to the evidences of our faith, so also with regard to the volume of Scripture. God willed that His Church should enjoy the benefit of His written word, at once as a rule of doctrine and as a guide unto holy living. For this cause He so enlightened the minds of the Apostles and Evangelists by His Spirit, that they recorded what He had imprinted on their hearts or brought to their remembrance, without the risk of error in anything essential to the verity of the Gospel. But this main point once secured, the rest was left, in a great measure, to themselves. The style, the tone, the language, perhaps the special occasion of writing, seem to have depended much on the taste and judgment of the several penmen. Thus in St. Paul's Epistles we note the profound thinker, the great scholar, the consummate orator: St John puts forth the simple utterings of his gentle, untutored, affectionate soul: in St Peter's speeches and letters may be traced the impetuous earnestness of his noble yet not faultless character. Their individual tempers and faculties and intellectual habits are clearly discernible, even while they are speaking to us in the power and by the inspiration of the Holy Ghost.
3. Now this self-same parsimony in the employment of miracles which we observe with reference to Christian evidences and to the inspiration of Scripture, we might look beforehand, from the analogy of divine things, when we proceed to consider the methods by which Scripture has been preserved and handed down to us. God might, if He would, have stamped His revealed will visibly on the heavens, that all should read it there: He might have so completely filled the minds of His servants the Prophets and the Evangelists, that they should have become mere passive instruments in the promulgation of His counsel, and the writings they have delivered to us have borne no traces whatever of their individual characters: but for certain causes which we can perceive, and doubtless for others beyond the reach of our capacities, He has chosen to do neither the one nor the other. And so again with the subject we propose to discuss in the present work, namely, the relation our existing text of the New Testament bears to that which originally came from the hands of the sacred penmen. Their autographs might have been preserved in the Church as the perfect standards by which all accidental variations of the numberless copies scattered throughout the world should be corrected to the end of time: but we know that these autographs perished utterly in the very infancy of Christian history. Or if it be too much to expect that the autographs of the inspired writers should escape the fate which has overtaken that of every other known relique of ancient literature, God might have so guided the hand or fixed the devout attention both of copyists during the long space of fourteen hundred years before the invention of printing, and of compositors and printers of the Bible for the last four centuries, that no jot or tittle should have been changed of all that was written therein. Such a course of Providential arrangement we must confess to be quite possible, but it could have been brought about and maintained by nothing short of a continuous, unceasing miracle;--by making fallible men (nay, many such in every generation) for one purpose absolutely infallible. If this complete identity of all copies of Holy Scripture prove to be a fact, we must of course receive it as such, and refer it to its sole Author: yet we may confidently pronounce beforehand, that such a fact could not have been reasonably anticipated, and is not at all agreeable to the general tenour of God's dealings with us.
4. No one who has taken the trouble to examine any two editions of the Greek New Testament needs to be told that this supposed complete resemblance of various copies of the holy books is not founded in fact. Even several impressions derived from the same standard edition, and professing to exhibit a text positively the same, differ from their archetype and from each other, in errors of the press which no amount of care or diligence has yet been able to get rid of. If we extend our researches to the manuscript copies of Scripture or of its versions which abound in every great library in Christendom, we see in the very best of them variations which we must at once impute to the fault of the scribe, together with many others of a graver and more perplexing nature, regarding which we can form no probable judgment, without calling to our aid the resources of critical learning" [pp.1-3].
Or, to summarize Scrivener, God did perform a miracle when Scripture was originally written, and while He could have continued to perform a miracle in the copying (and, we would add, translation) process to prevent the least scribal variation from the original, He did not do so, the facts of the manuscripts and printed editions eloquently testifying against such an occurrence.
To the above opinions, we may add that of highly-respected 19th-century American Baptist theologian J. L. Dagg (1794-1884). In his MANUAL OF THEOLOGY (Harrisonburg, Va.: Gano Books, 1982 reprint of 1857 edition), he addressed the serious question--are variations in existing Bible manuscripts a barrier to confidence in the Scriptures? His reply is exactly on target:
"The Bible though a revelation from God, does not come immediately from him to us who read it, but is received through the medium of human agency. It is an important question, whether its truth and authority are impaired by passing through this medium. Human agency was employed in the first writing of the Scriptures, and afterwards in transmitting them, by means of copies and translations, to distant places, and succeeding generations" (p. 22).
"The men who originally wrote the Holy Scriptures, performed the work under the influence of the Holy Spirit. Such was the extent of this influence, that the writing, when it came forth from their hands, was said to be given by inspiration of God. . . .The men who spoke and wrote as they were moved by the Holy Ghost, were the instruments that God used to speak and write his word" (pp. 22, 23).
On the other hand,
"Although the Scriptures were originally penned under the unerring guidance of the Holy Spirit, it does not follow, that a continued miracle has been wrought to preserve them from all error in transcribing. On the contrary, we know that manuscripts differ from each other; and where readings are various, but one of them can be correct. A miracle was needed in the original production of the Scriptures; and, accordingly, a miracle was wrought; but the preservation of the inspired word, in as much perfection as was necessary to answer the purpose for which it was given, did not require a miracle, and accordingly it was committed to the providence of God. Yet the providence which has preserved the divine oracles, has been special and remarkable. . . .
The consequence is, that, although the various readings found in the existing manuscripts, are numerous, we are able, in every case, to determine the correct reading, so far as is necessary for the establishment of our faith, or the direction of our practice in every important particular. So little, after all, do the copies differ from each other, that these minute differences, when viewed in contrast with their general agreement, render the fact of that agreement the more impressive, and may be said to serve practically, rather to increase, than impair, our confidence in their general correctness. Their utmost deviations do not change the direction of the line of truth; and if they seem in some points to widen that line a very little, the path that lies between their widest boundaries, is too narrow to permit us to stray" (pp. 24, 25).
Or, to summarize Dagg: the miracle of inspiration was operative only in the original writing of Scripture and only the originals are infallible. Rather than involving the direct work of the Holy Spirit, the copying process was committed to the general providence of God, which, though permitting scribal mistakes and variations to occur, nevertheless restricted those variations so that the doctrinal integrity of the Bible was preserved intact.
But what about translations?
"As copies of the Holy Scriptures, though made by fallible hands, are sufficient for the guidance in the study of divine truth; so translations, though made with uninspired human skill, are sufficient for those who have not access to the inspired original . . . . [God] has bestowed the knowledge necessary for the translation of his word on a sufficient number of faithful men, to answer the purpose of his benevolence; and the least accurate of the translations with which the common people are favored, is full of divine truth, and able to make wise to salvation" (p. 25). How desperately our present generation of preachers, Bible college students and church members needs to lend an attentive ear to the sane and sensible analysis of these men, rather than embracing a fraudulent (though seemingly attractive) substitute for the truth!