The Westminster Assembly

and the Inspiration and Preservation of the Word of God

By Doug Kutilek

[Reprinted from “As I See It,” 6:9]

 

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 vulgar language of every nation 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.”

 So reads chapter I, paragraph 8 of the famous Westminster Confession of Faith (1646).  One particular phrase of this paragraph has been introduced into the present English Bible translation controversy, namely, “by his singular care and providence kept pure in all ages.”  This clause has been presented as proof positive by some in the KJV Only camp that the great Westminster assembly of puritan divines held to the self-same doctrine of infallible preservation of Scripture as that which is a hallmark of the modern KJV Only movement.  Before addressing and exposing the error of this claim, we must first gain some background understanding of just who these divines were and why their confession is considered of great importance.

 In the turbulent decade of the 1640s, an assemblage of learned pastors, theologians, scholars and laymen, dominated by the Puritan party, was gathered in London for the express purpose of reforming the Church of England.  This assemblage, known today as the Westminster Assembly of Divines, sat from 1643-1649, and produced several important theological documents including the famous Longer and Shorter Catechisms, but their most famous production was the Westminster Confession of Faith (WCF).  In 33 chapters, they detailed their doctrinal beliefs on the spectrum of Christian doctrines.  Their completed confession became normative for Presbyterian bodies for centuries and continues as such for many Presbyterians today, being treated as virtually just below the Bible in authority for doctrine (for the complete text of The Westminster Confession of Faith, in both English and Latin, see Philip Schaff, ed., The Creeds of Christendom.  Grand Rapids: Baker, 1983 reprint of Harper and Row, 1931, 6th revised ed., revised by David S. Schaff.  Vol. III, “The Evangelical Protestant Creeds,” pp. 598-673.  I. 8 is found on pp. 604-5)

 Baptists view confessions of faith as convenient summaries of doctrinal views, boundaries delineating orthodox theology, but do not ascribe to them any authority beyond or above that of any other human writings.  Even so, several Baptist groups have adopted confessions of faith based in large measure on the WCF, with only such alterations (chiefly in matters of ecclesiology) wherein Baptists differ from Presbyterians.  One such Baptist confession is the Second London Confession of 1677.  For the most part it agrees verbatim with the WCF, and does so precisely in section I. 8  (see W. L. Lumpkin, Baptist Confessions of Faith.  Valley Forge, Pa.: Judson Press, 1969.  Revised edition.  Page 251).

 The statement in I. 8 concerning the inspiration, preservation and authority of the Scripture, coming from the highly respected puritans, and acquiesced in by mainstream Baptists is brought forth as evidence that the “perfect preservation” doctrine espoused by modern KJV Only partisans is no recent innovation but is a long-held view of doctrinally sound Christian theologians.  A careful examination of the facts will prove that this understanding of the WCF is erroneous in every detail, and that the WCF dissents from the KJV Only movement at every step.

 First of all, note that inspiration and authority is ascribed to the original manuscripts alone: “The Old Testament in Hebrew . . . and the New Testament in Greek . . . being immediately inspired by God . . . are therefore authentical; so as in all controversies of religion the Church is finally to appeal unto them.”  The absurd notion of having “the final authority in one’s hand” in the form of an English translation of the Bible, namely, the KJV, is discredited (see my article “Having ‘The Final Authority’ in One’s Hand,” AISI 3:12).  No, any and every English version without exception is dependent on, subordinate to, inferior to and subject to correction by the original texts of the Scripture in Hebrew and Greek.  Nor is any translation singled out as the standard by which all other translations are to be judged; such a position would usurp the unique and sole authority of the original language Scriptures.  In an age in which the Roman Catholic Church was making extravagant claims for the Latin Vulgate translation of the Bible--claiming it was infallible, perfectly preserved, superior to the extant Greek and Hebrew texts and the ultimate standard for all truth, in brief, virtually every claim made by the KJV Only movement for the KJV--the Westminster assembly explicitly or implicitly rejects every one of these claims.

 Such is the logical deduction from this clause of the WCF.  Or, as John Gill (1697-1771) well said: “To the Bible, in its original languages, is every translation to be brought, and judged, and to be corrected and amended; and if this was not the case, we should have no certain and infallible rule to go by,” (A Complete Body of Doctrinal and Practical Divinity: Or, a System of Evangelical Truths, [London: Mathews & Leigh, 1839; Sovereign Grace reprint,1971; The Baptist Standard Bearer reprint, 1984 ], p. 13).  According to the Westminster divines, we do have an infallible rule to go by--the Bible in the original languages, not in any translation in any language.

 Second, “because these original tongues are not known to all . . ., therefore they are to be translated into the vulgar language of every nation unto which they come, . . .  No one language, whether English or any other, is singled out as the channel through which one superior translation is to be produced and preserved, to become a new standard by which all translations are to be judged and emended (the Roman Catholics were making just exactly this claim for the Latin Vulgate version).  The preposterous modern notion that translations in Spanish, Japanese, Romanian, French and other languages are to be judged by and conformed to the KJV as a standard is wholly alien to what the Westminster divines professed.  Rather, every language is to have its own version, and the translation is to be made out of “the original tongues,” most assuredly not out of the KJV English.

Furthermore, by stating that the Bible should “be translated into the vulgar language of every nation,” it may be reasonably concluded that they would favor in principle the making and use of modern language English Bible translations.  We do not today speak early 17th century British English; our language is early 21st century American English, and as such, on the principle voiced by the WCF, we have a right to modern American English translations, rather than being constricted to the use of a version in archaic British English.

 Third, the providential preservation of Scripture which the WCF affirms is a preservation in the original languages, not in any translation: “The Old Testament in Hebrew . . . and the New Testament in Greek . . . being immediately inspired by God, and by his singular care and providence kept pure in all ages, . . . “ The WCF hereby dissents from the claim that “the King James Version of the Bible is God's Word preserved for the English-speaking people," as the KJV Only movement generally affirms.  God’s providential preservation is to be seen in the accuracy and quality of original language Bible manuscripts, not in translations.  To look for providential preservation in translations is to de facto discredit the original language texts, and by implication to charge God with failure to preserve the Scriptures in the languages in which they were originally inspired.  And most definitely, there is NO affirmation in the WCF that the KJV is the object of extraordinary Divine attention and care beyond that of other translations.

 Finally, what shall we make of the WCF statement: “by his singular care and providence kept pure in all ages”?  Do we here at least have one claim of the KJV Only advocates affirmed?  To determine that, we must first discover what it is that KJV Only advocates claim with regard to God’s preservation of Scripture. 

 A recently published book from the KJV Only side is advertised as “A Biblical theology of the perfect preservation of Scripture,” by which they mean “the verbal, plenary preservation” of the Bible’s inspired text.  “Preservation” is there alleged to be as extensive and intensive as the original inspiration, that is, preservation must extend to every single word and letter of the Bible, as did its original inspiration.  No allowance is made for the least scribal error, variation or alteration (nor indeed for printer’s errors, nor errors of translation).  It is further alleged in this advertisement that this perfectly preserved Scripture must be always and ever available to every generation of believers from the day the various parts of the Bible were originally penned.

 No one in the least familiar with the history of the transmission of the Bible text in manuscript form and in print, to say nothing of translations, would affirm what is entirely discredited by every single Hebrew and Greek manuscript and printed edition in existence.  No two manuscripts exactly correspond in every letter and word.  Every Masoretic Hebrew manuscript has hundreds of marginal notes of scribal errors and variants, besides its inherent differences from other manuscripts.  No two NT Greek manuscripts are identical, and not a single one corresponds precisely to any edition of the textus receptus or to any edition of the KJV; nor do any two textus receptus editions agree in every detail and word.  Nor do any two KJV editions agree in all details, without variation.  And there is certainly no trail of preserved identical manuscripts from the prophets and apostles to the present day.  Any such trail is purely the fabrication of someone’s imagination, completely devoid of basis in evidence and fact.  Rather, the preservation of Scripture is of a different sort, a fact long recognized by a broad spectrum of Christian scholars (see “The Preservation of Scripture," with quotes from Dean J. W. Burgon, F. H. A. Scrivener and J. L. Dagg, AISI 2:3; “T. H. Horne’s Expert Opinion on the Preservation of Scripture,” AISI 4:2; “The Providential Preservation of Scripture: the Views of [Sir Richard] Bentley, [Robert Lewis] Dabney, and [Sir Frederick] Kenyon,” AISI, 4:7).

 The Westminster divines were not ignorant of the reality of manuscript variants in all exiting Hebrew and Greek manuscripts.  It was a fact known to every close student of the Greek NT that no two of the printed Greek texts were identical, just as there were known to be variations between all manuscripts.  As early as 1550, Robert Etienne in the 3rd edition of his Greek NT, the text that became the standard textus receptus edition in England, published in the margin hundreds of variant readings he had found in printed texts and manuscripts; such variants were increasingly catalogued by later scholars, a process that continues even to this day.  So also, the Westminster divines would have known full well the manuscript variants which the KJV itself reports in its margin (see the original 1611 edition at Ezra 10:40; Matthew 1:11; 26:26; Luke 10:22; 17:36; Acts 25:6; Ephesians 6:9; James 2:18; etc.).  In the face of such evidence, these learned and rational men would not have affirmed the infallible, perfect preservation of Scripture in the copying process, a thing neither to be expected, nor by God promised (It is notable that the darling of the KJV Only movement Dean Burgon himself declared in his book The Revision Revised, “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." [p. 335]).

That our understanding of the WCF at this point is sound, and the “spin” put on it by certain KJV Only zealots is erroneous, consider the following remarks, quoted at some length, by B. B. Warfield (1851-1921), one of the most diligent and careful students of the Westminster assembly and its works (for a listing of some of Warfield’s very numerous published writings on the subject of the Westminster assembly and its works, see the bibliography at the end of this article).

 “The providence of God in preserving so good a text in constant use; in preserving material for its improvement; in raising up men of scholarly minds and critical powers to give themselves to the task of reforming the text; it is in these and such things that God’s hand is seen by his singular care and providence keeping his Word pure in all ages for the use of man.”  (Benjamin B. Warfield: Selected Shorter Writings, vol. 2, edited by John E. Meeter, p. 557)

 “[T]he Confession affirms the providential preservation of the inspired Scriptures in purity in the originals and the adequate purity of the Word of God in translations.

 The necessity of looking upon the original Scriptures only as ‘authentical,’ that is, authoritative in the highest sense, and appealing to them alone as final authorities ‘in all controversies of religion,’ is based by the Confession on the fact that these original Scriptures, and they alone, are the inspired Bible.  The Confession uses the strongest phrase of technical theological terminology to express their divine origin: ‘Being immediately inspired by God.’  It thereby points to the originals as the very Word of God, authoritative, as such, in every one of their deliverances of whatever kind.  The possibility of appealing to the original Scriptures, as we now have them, as the Word of God, is based on the further fact that they have been ‘by God’s singular care and providence kept pure in all ages.’  The Confession thus distinguishes between the autographic text of sacred Scripture, which it affirms was ‘immediately inspired of God,’ and its subsequent transmission in copies, over the course of which it affirms, not that an inspiring activity of God, but a providential care of God has presided, with the effect that they have been kept pure and retain full authority in religious controversy.  This distinction cannot be overlooked or explained away; it is intentional, as is proved by the controversies of the day in which the framers of the Confession were actively engaged.

 When it is affirmed that the transmission has been ‘kept pure,’ there is, of course, no intention to assert that no errors have crept into the original text during its transmission through so many ages by hand-copying and the printing press; nor is there any intention to assert that the precise text ‘immediately inspired by God,’ lies complete and entire, without the slightest corruption, on the pages of any one extant copy.  The difference between the infallibility or errorlessness of immediate inspiration and the fallibility or liability to error of men operating under God’s providential care alone, is intended to be taken at its full value.  But it is intended to assert most strongly, first, that the autographs of Scripture, as immediately inspired, were in the highest sense the very Word of God and trustworthy in every detail; and, next, that God’s singular providential care has preserved to the Church, through every vicissitude, these inspired and infallible Scriptures, diffused, indeed, in the multitude of copies, but safe and accessible.  ‘What mistake is in one copy is corrected in another,’ was the proverbial philosophy of the time in this matter; and the assertion that the inspired text has ‘by God’s singular care and providence been kept pure in all ages,’ is to be understood not as if it affirmed that every copy has been kept pure from all error, but that the genuine text has been kept safe in the multitude of copies, so as never to be out of the reach of the Church of God, in the use of the ordinary means.  In the sense of the Westminster Confession, therefore, the multiplication of copies of Scripture, the several early efforts towards the revision of the text, the raising up of scholars in our own day to collect and collate MSS., and to reform the text on scientific principles--of our Tischendorfs and Tregelleses, and Westcotts and Horts--are all parts of God’s singular care and providence in preserving His inspired Word pure.

 No doubt the authors of the Confession were far from being critics of the nineteenth century: they did not foresee the course of criticism nor anticipate the amount of labor which would be required for the reconstruction of the text of, say, the New Testament.  Men like [John] Lightfoot are found defending the readings of the common text against men like Beza; as there were some of them like Lightfoot, who were engaged in the most advanced work which up to that time had been done on the Biblical text, Walton’s ‘Polyglott,’ so others of them may have stood with John Owen, a few years later, in his strictures on that great work; and had there lot been cast in our day it is possible that many of them might have been of the school of Scrivener and Burgon, rather than of Westcott and Hort.  But whether they were good critics or bad is not the point.  It admits of no denial that they explicitly recognized the fact that the text of the Scriptures had suffered corruption in process of transmission, and affirmed that the ‘pure’ text lies therefore not in one copy, but in all, and is to be attained not by simply reading the text in whatever copy may chance to fall into our hands, but by process of comparison, i.e., by criticism.  The affirmation of the Confession includes the two facts, therefore, first that the Scriptures in the originals were immediately inspired by God; and secondly that this inspired text has not been lost to the Church, but through God’s good providence has been kept pure, amidst all the crowding errors of scribes and printers, and that therefore the Church still has the inspired Word of God in the originals, and is to appeal to it, and to it alone, as the final authority in all controversies of religion,

 The defense of the right of the people to translations of Scripture in their mother tongue is based by the Confession on the universality of the Gospel and the inability of the people at large to read and search the Scriptures in the original tongues.  In making good this right, the competence of translations to convey the Word of God to the mind and heart is vigorously asserted; and as well the duty of all to make diligent use of translated Scripture, to the nourishing of the Christian life and hope.  The sharp distinction that is drawn between the inspired originals and the uninspired translators is, therefore, not permitted to blind men to the possibility and reality of the conveyance in translations, adequately for all the ordinary purposes of the Christian life and hope, of that Word of God which lies in the sense of Scripture, and not in the letter save as in a vessel for its safe conduct.  When exactness and precision are needed, as in religious controversies, then the inspired originals only can properly be appealed to.  But just because of the doctrine of the perspicuity of Scripture, as set forth in section 7, and that of its perfection, as set forth in section 6, translations suffice for all ordinary purposes, and enable those who truly seek for it to obtain a thorough knowledge of what is ‘necessary to be known, believed, and observed, for salvation.’  The use of translations is, thus, vindicated by the Confessional doctrine of the properties of Scripture.” (The Works of Benjamin B. Warfield, volume VI, pp. 237-241.  All italics in original).

 “[T]he Confession asserts that final appeal in all controversies is to be made to the original Hebrew and Greek Scriptures, which are alone safeguarded in their accuracy by divine inspiration, and it asserts that these originals have been, ‘by God’s singular care and providence, kept pure in all ages.’  Nevertheless, it vindicates the right of all to the possession and use of vernacular versions.  The Confession does not mean here to deny that any corruptions have entered the text of Scripture in the process of transmission, which require the care and study of men to remove.  It only means to affirm the adequately exact preservation of Scripture in the original texts, and the transference of the ‘Word of God’ into translations so far forth as to make it available to their readers.  This general position is illustrated sufficiently by [William] Lyford [1598-1653; he was a member of the Westminster assembly--ed.]: ‘I lay down these two conclusions: First, that Divine Truth in English is as truly the Word of God as the same Scriptures delivered in the Originall, Hebrew or Greek; yet with this difference, that the same is perfectly, immediately, and most absolutely in the Originall Hebrew and Greek, in other Translations, as the vessels wherein it is presented to us, and as far forth as they do agree with the Originalls.’ “ (Benjamin B. Warfield: Selected Shorter Writings, vol. 2, edited by John E. Meeter, p. 569)

 Beyond Warfield’s own comments, he produces in the first-cited work numerous quotations from the published works of various Westminster divines showing that his interpretation of the meaning of the WCF in section I. 8 is entirely in harmony with that of the original authors.  The reader is urged to procure and examine these quotes for himself.

 One additional fact may be noted to reinforce the truth that the WCF and its authors had no sympathy with the notion of an infallible and inspired KJV, and indeed were decidedly at odds with this eccentricity.  While the assembly was still sitting and the writing of the WCF was still in progress, John Lightfoot (1602-1675), the most learned Hebraist in the assembly, and for that matter in all of the British Commonwealth and likely beyond, preached a sermon to the House of Commons on August 27, 1645 in which he urged the making of a new English translation to supercede and replace the KJV (see William Barker, Puritan Profiles, p. 61).  Some attention was given to this proposal and tentative measures were undertaken to carry it through a few years later.  A bill was introduced into Parliament in 1653, proposing the appointment of a committee led by John Owens, Ralph Cudworth and several other scholars, for the express purpose of revising the KJV under the supervision of Thomas Goodwin, Anthony Tuckney and Joseph Caryl.  Unfortunately, the dissolution of that Parliament led to the suspension of the project, though four years later, the matter was referred to a committee directed to consult with several noted scholars.  Subsequent events, particularly the Restoration of the pro-Catholic Stuarts to the throne of England, left the design of revision unfulfilled (see Philip Schaff, A Companion to the Greek Testament and Revised Version [New York: Harper and Brothers, 1883], pp. 329, 330; William F. Moulton, The History of the English Bible [London: Charles Kelly, 1911.  Fifth edition], pp. 212, 213).  This proposal for revision merits further study.  I for one sincerely regret that this design was not carried through to completion.

 Let us hear the conclusion of the matter: the Westminster assembly of divines, their views being plainly expressed in their famous Confession, cannot legitimately be appealed to as providing aid and encouragement to those who claim perfect preservation of Scripture in the copying or translating processes, and who claim perfection for one translation (the KJV) in one language (English).  For KJV Only advocates to claim the agreement of the WCF with their views is a gross misrepresentation and distortion, not unlike their blatant abuse and misinterpretation of such Scripture texts as Psalm 12:6, 7; Matthew 5:18; and Matthew 24:35 to the same end. 

---Doug Kutilek

 

[For Warfield’s extensive writings on the Westminster Assembly, its confessions and its catechisms, see: The Works of Benjamin B. Warfield (Oxford University Press, 1931), volume VI, “The Westminster Assembly and Its Work,” 400 pp., which contains six separate and lengthy studies, and gives reference to 11 other shorter studies not reproduced in that volume.  Also, Benjamin B. Warfield: Selected Shorter Writings, vol. 2, edited by John E. Meeter (Presbyterian & Reformed Publishing, 1973), pp. 560-594 has 4 additional relevant articles.

 For information on many of the more prominent Westminster divines, see Puritan Profiles: 54 Influential Puritans at the time when the Westminster Confession of Faith was written, by William S. Barker (Christian Focus Publications, 1996); 320 pp.

  Informative brief articles on the “Westminster Assembly,” “Westminster Catechism,” “Westminster Confession” and many of the Westminster divines can be consulted in The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church, edited by Frank L. Cross; Cyclopedia of Biblical, Theological, and Ecclesiastical Literature, edited by John McClintock and James Strong; and The New Schaff-Herzog Encyclopedia of Religious Knowledge, edited by Samuel M. Jackson.  These abound in bibliography for further study].

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