HOLY SPIRIT LEADERSHIP AND 
THE BIBLE TRANSLATIONS CONTROVERSY

Presented at the Southeastern Bible College
Pastor and Christian Workers Conference - April, 2000

by Ron Minton, Th.D. 

 

It is impossible to know exactly how the Holy Spirit was involved in giving and preserving the New Testament. It is assumed that the Holy Spirit does lead Christians in textual matters and translation decisions. Of the four main areas of significance (original inspiration, manuscript copying, printed Greek editions, and English translation) only in the original inspiration does perfection exist. The Holy Spirit has not preserved a perfect Bible in any copy or translation. This is because God has not directly superintended in the work of copiers, translators, and printers like he did the original writers. Although copyists have carefully performed their duties and translators have provided excellent translations in many languages, none of them ever approached perfection.

The Holy Spirit and the originals

The role of the Spirit in the originals was to ensure inerrancy in quality. For centuries there have been at least two clearly distinct meanings behind a statement like "I believe that the Bible is the infallible, inerrant, inspired Word of God." These two meanings may be referred to as the technical and the generic. Technical means specific and exactly. Generic means in a general way but not always exactly.

Historically, the words "inspired," "inerrant," and "infallible" have been used in a very positive but generic sense for many good Bible translations. When speaking technically about direct Holy Spirit inspiration of the Bible, all inerrantists, as far as this author is aware, have historically said that only the original writings are inspired, inerrant, and infallible, not copies or translations. Such a view of direct Spirit inspiration does not allow for any errors of any kind (not even one letter) to have existed in the original writings that the Spirit inspired. This is because the God who gave the Scriptures cannot err. This is why the Second London Confession of 1677 instructs that only the original Hebrew and Greek writings were "immediately inspired of God." No copy or translation was "immediately inspired of God."

The first mistake made by a New Testament copyist was likely made by one of the first persons to copy a New Testament letter. He may have only misspelled one word, but technically speaking, that scribe still introduced an uninspired letter or word into the text. That mistake was allowed, but was not inspired, caused, or directed by the Holy Spirit. Yet, the readers of that first copy, perhaps some believers in a house church at Thessalonica, could very well say they had an inspired and inerrant epistle from Paul. Technically speaking, they were incorrect; their copy was not perfect. Generically speaking, they were correct. It is normal to use this general (non-technical) language when saying the Bible is the infallible, inspired, or inerrant, Word of God.

About "technically and generically" inspired

Translations are inspired only in an indirect or linear way, and the degree of inspiration (or quality) of them all is measured by how accurately and faithfully they reflect the original writings from which they were translated. Only in that sense do they share or partake of inspiration. As was noted above, no copy or translation was directly inspired by the Holy Spirit; all have flaws.

Unless one understands this dual (technical and generic) use of words like "inspired," "infallible," and "inerrant," he will experience, and may even cause, great confusion. Many examples from great leaders could be given to illustrate inspiration and inerrancy, and the dual use of these terms. It is sufficient to offer some quotations of Charles Spurgeon (1834-1892) who was known as the Prince of Preachers and a leading Baptist in England. Spurgeon had a very high view of the inspiration of the original writings of Scripture and argued against those who said the use of human writers lessened their infallibility.

The quotations below are from the Metropolitan Tabernacle Pulpit and almost make Spurgeon appear to believe the KJV was inerrant. Indeed, some have misused his remarks to support such a view. Failure to realize that he is speaking generically,not technically will mislead some. "Oh, brethren, it were better to die, that book being true, than to live, that book being false" (12:278). "I accept the inspiration of the Scriptures as a fact" (34:152). "If I did not believe in the infallibility of Scripture--the absolute infallibility of it from cover to cover, I would never enter this pulpit again" (36:9). "If the Lord be God, he must be infallible" (37:159-160). "We believe in plenary, verbal inspiration, with all its difficulties" (45:21). "By the grace of God, from this confidence [in the Bible] I shall never be moved" (45:39). "Scripture never errs" (54:206). "We must settle in our minds that the Word of God must certainly be true, absolutely infallible" (55:242).

The next quotations show how Spurgeon recognized the dual use of the word "inspired." Here he is clearly speaking technically. "I do not hesitate to say that I believe that there is no mistake whatever in the original Holy Scriptures from beginning to end. There may be, and there are, mistakes of translation; for translators are not inspired" (35:257). "I believe that the very words, in the original Hebrew and Greek, were revealed from heaven" (57:187). "Men talk of the 'mistakes of Scripture.' I thank God that I have never met with any. Mistakes of translation there may be, for translators are men. But mistakes of the original word there never can be, for the God who spoke it is infallible, and so is every word he speaks" (39:195).

Spurgeon clearly believed that technically, only the originals were inerrant and inspired. He also affirmed the inspiration and infallibility of translations in a generic sense. Likewise today, one can say just as confidently as Spurgeon, "This Bible is the inspired, inerrant and infallible word of God." No copyist error, translator's mistake, printer's slip, or improved revision nullifies the claim.

The leading of the Holy Spirit in manuscript copies

It is clear that the role of the Holy Spirit in original inspiration (i.e., regarding the original autographs) was direct (2 Pet. 1:21; 1 Cor. 2:13). He not only guided but supernaturally kept from all error. The original words, and only the original words, were God-breathed. Yet one sees a new thing when it comes to copyists. Having originally given perfection, God committed the work of preservation (the copying, translating, and publishing of His Word) to the imperfections of human ability and effort.

By God's grace, he ensured a kind of providential preservation of Scripture. The Spirit, it seems fair to say, led many to copy or translate the written Word. Amazingly, through the providence of God, there now exist around 6,000 ancient Greek manuscripts and around 20,000 translation manuscripts of the New Testament. Believers are certainly ensured that his Word was abundantly preserved through the ages. However, none of the ancient copiers and translators was supernaturally kept from error and mistake. No two Greek copies are exactly alike. The earliest copiers used primitive paper made from papyrus plants. Around 100 of these ancient papyri manuscripts are extant today.

PAPYRI MANUSCRIPTS

Only a few facts concerning these earliest of New Testament manuscripts need to be mentioned. Surely, some would say, the Spirit would want to get things off to a proper start, and would ensure perfection in the copyists of the first few centuries. However, the best papyri manuscripts indicate serious divergence from each other. This is hardly Holy Spirit perfection. Papyrus manuscript P45 is from the Beatty collection and P66 and P75 are from the Bodmer collection. All date to approximately A.D. 200, and all are rightly considered valuable among the New Testament manuscripts because of their great age and considerable length. These three ancient manuscripts have only 78 verses in common, but they disagree among themselves more times than that. Christians are thankful for these early witnesses and rightly say the Spirit of God had a providential hand in the copying and preservation process. It is clear that the Spirit gave the responsibility and opportunity to publish the Word of God, but he did not cause the copyists to miraculously produce infallible copies. If this had happened, one would expect scribes to have produced identical manuscripts, but they did not. In fact, the unified testimony of these three papyri seems to reflect a tumultuous situation in which isolated churches made copies in times of persecution. They are not nearly as accurate as one might wish.

UNCIAL MANUSCRIPTS

To some, the great uncials ( , A, B, C, D, W, ?) promise to paint a brighter picture than the papyri. Not only are they old (4th and 5th centuries) but they are lengthy and even has the complete New Testament. Many of them were copied by professional scribes under church sponsorship and would perhaps reflect more involvement and personal leading by the Spirit.

However, these also have problems. F.J.A. Hort overrated Vaticanus (B) as much as Tischendorf overrated Sinaiticus ( ). These two great manuscripts disagree with each other more than 34 times per chapter in the Gospels. When reading through the Prison Epistles (Ephesians, Philippians, Colossians, and Philemon), one will notice that even in the UBS textual apparatus they disagree more times than they agree.

Manuscripts A, C, D, W, and ? (usually considered the next five leading uncials) are all mixed textually and D is almost 15% longer in Acts. Therefore, believers can be thankful for these seven preserved uncials, but should not blame the Spirit for their mixed quality.

MINUSCULE MANUSCRIPTS

Majority text advocates frequently note that the minuscules are more consistent among themselves, are mostly Byzantine, and, with the lectionaries, outnumber the uncials about twenty to one. However, there are hundreds of times that the Majority text is divided. Half of the manuscripts must be wrong in those cases.

If it were not for the providential care of God in leading copiers to make so many manuscripts of the New Testament, the known sources would be poor indeed. Yet God should not be named as the cause of divergence in the minuscules. Though remarkably consistent, Carson notes that there are still six to ten variants per chapter in the best minuscules.

It was natural for errors to creep into Greek manuscripts during the human copying process, and God did not prevent it from happening. No two New Testament Greek manuscripts are exactly alike. All have differences. This means that the Holy Spirit did not work a series of miracles to protect them from human imperfections.

CHURCH FATHERS AND QUOTATIONS

Those studying the New Testament text are blessed by the presence of New Testament quotations in the writings of early Christians (Church Fathers). There are many thousands of these quotations that have been preserved. Yet, there are problems: 1) No originals of the fathers are known. 2) They often paraphrased or quoted by memory. 3) Their sources are almost never known. 4) Multiple quotations differ, as when Origen quotes a verse in John different ways on different occasions. 5) Sometimes a father quoted from a version which was itself an imperfect translation. 6) Some quoted other fathers. 7) They often blend text-types. 8) Some fathers quoted the New Testament in a language that did not reflect all the elements of the Greek language.

It is sufficient to say that while many of these church fathers were Spirit-filled and Spirit-led, they were far from inerrant. They, like modern Christians, were Spirit-guided, but that did not prevent human error.

EARLY TRANSLATIONS OF THE NEW TESTAMENT

The Holy Spirit greatly used early translations of the New Testament in evangelism and in building hundreds of Christian congregations. Some versions, such as the Old Latin, were made in the late 100s. There were many other translations. These were all blessings from the God of heaven. However, the ancient versions are not perfect. The extant version manuscripts need textual criticism themselves because only imperfect copies exist. The versions contain many translation mistakes and there are vocabulary and other difficulties in translation work. For instance, Latin has no definite article, Syriac has no distinction between the aorist and imperfect, Coptic has no passive, and other syntax problems exist. Scholars often disagree on the readings or value of many versions. They are valuable, but they are also very limited.

All of the above discussions demonstrate that the Holy Spirit led in the copying and translating of the Bible. However, the Word of God, used by millions, was not protected from all error by any miracles.

The Holy Spirit and modern printed Greek New Testaments

There were about 30 early printed editions from Cardinal Ximenes' 1514 edition through the Elzevirs' Textus Receptus editions of the 1600s. Hundreds of editions or printings of the Textus Receptus have been made, but none are exactly the same. Finally the UBS3 (United Bible Societies third edition) and the NA26 (Nestle-Aland 26th edition) agreed. UBS4 and NA27 also agreed in 1993. Yet the number 27 (27 editions) itself is staggering.

The Hodges and Farstad Greek New Testament According to the Majority Text (1982) soon needed revision (1985) and the editors do not consider it to be identical to the original in every respect. Many, including this author, consider it to be one of the most accurate Greek New Testaments available today, although it differs about 1,850 times from the 1825 Oxford Textus Receptus, which is its base.

Certainly these modern Greek editions are a blessing from God, but no thinking person is willing to select one as perfect. All have errors. The Spirit has used most of them, but has not ordained any to perfection. The God-breathed original writings have not been perfectly preserved in any of them. It is true that the Greek New Testament has every word and letter that God inspired. However, it is not always possible to declare that the word in the text is the original and that the alternate word in the notes is not. Some always change places in the next edition.
 

The Holy Spirit and English translations


Here, it is sufficient to look at a few of the more influential English translations from Wycliffe to the NIV. The purpose is to ascertain what role the Holy Spirit played in their development.

WYCLIFFE

John Wycliffe produced the first English Bible and was surely led of the Spirit. It is certainly true that Wycliffe, who was a Roman priest, had come to know Christ and had a profound appreciation for the authority of the Bible. He was the spiritual leader of Oxford University. Yet, one may reasonably ask to what extent the Spirit would lead and guide Wycliffe's team to work from the Latin Vulgate, since it also was an imperfect translation. The final product, which was completed in the 1380s, was almost as much Latin as it was English. And why, if the Spirit had sanctioned it, was it completely revised by 1395 into much better English by John Purvey? One must conclude that this second Wycliffite Bible (the "Wycliffe Bible") was blessed of God and directed by the Spirit. Many thousands were won to Christ with these hand-copied labor of love editions. Yet, since it was already a revision and since the hand copies differed because of copying error, one sees that the role of the Spirit was not to sovereignly decree perfection in this work. In spite of this fact, it was greatly used of God.

TYNDALE

William Tyndale, the man who has made the greatest contribution to those who love the Bible in English, was an incredible person. He became a born-again believer three years or so before 1525, which was the year his English translation of the Greek New Testament was completed. It seems certain that he was Spirit filled and led. If the Spirit did not guide him when he accomplished so great a task, can it ever be known for certain that he has guided anyone? Yet Tyndale's New Testament went through five editions in his short lifetime. As great as he was, his best edition contained mistakes (for example, at Isaiah 53:11 he has "servants" - plural for the singular). Therefore, it is obvious that the role of the Holy Spirit in guiding Tyndale did not include a supernatural prevention from all error.
 
 

The KJV

The KJV was finished in 1611 and served almost unchallenged as a standard for more than 200 years. Yet it was revised in 1629, 1638, 1762, and 1769. Almost all changes that have occurred in the KJV have improved it and made it closer to the text it was translated from. But in contrast to this, any subsequent changes to the original New Testament would have changed perfection to imperfection because it is impossible that the Holy Spirit could have made or allowed a mistake in what He had the writers pen. It must be concluded that the KJV translators were led by the Spirit, but not infallibly so. Would the Holy Spirit direct them to include Shakespeare's name in Psalm 46? Would the Spirit direct them to include Acts 9:5b-6a even though it has no Greek manuscript support at all? Would Holy Spirit perfection necessitate any changes? The following shows that there have been actual changes in the KJV over the years. Some are significant.

REFERENCE 1611 KJV READING CHANGES MADE DATE

Ruth 3:15 And he went and she went 1611 Ezek 24:7 upon the ground not upon the ground 1613 Lev 26:40 the their iniquity and the 1616

Psalm 69:32 seek good seek God 1617

Jer 49:1 inherit God inherit Gad 1616, 1617, 1629

Gen 6:5 God GOD 1629

2 Chr 13:6 his LORD his lord 1629

1 Cor 12:28 helps in governments helps, governments 1629

Deut 26:1 the LORD the LORD thy God 1629, 1637

1 Jn 5:12 the Son the Son of God 1629, 1638

Ex 21:32 thirty shekels thirty shekels of silver 1638

2 Ki 11:10 the Temple the temple of the LORD 1638

Ezra 2:22 children men 1638

Isa 49:13 God the LORD 1638

Judges 11:2 his wives sons his wife's sons 1762

Matt 16:16 Thou art Christ Thou art the Christ 1762

Gen 47:6 any man any men 1769

Matt 23:24 strain at a gnat strain out a gnat 1833, 1873

Acts 25:23 was entered were entered 1873

MODERN EDITIONS

The ERV - In 1881 the English Revised Version appeared as the greatest English Bible translation project since 1611. The Old Testament was finished in 1885. There was a lot of publicity, but in 1901 the ASV was made because of inadequacies in the ERV. Two generations later, the British discarded the old ERV for the New English Bible.

The RSV - In 1946, just after WWII, the RSV New Testament was completed. The entire Bible was released with great fanfare in 1952 and its sales reached the millions. Many people used it in the 1950s and 1960s, but it was replaced in 1989 with the NRSV.

The NEB - The British upgraded their 1885 Bible to the New English Bible in 1961/70. This time it survived only 19 years and in 1989 the Revised English Bible replaced it. Does the Holy Spirit change his mind or does the English language change that frequently?

The NASV - This Bible is an accurate and very literal translation. However, corrections were made from time to time and the NASV-95 edition has restored 21 verses that were previously left out.

The NKJV - The NKJV (1979/82) is really the fifth revision of the KJV. It might comfort some if indeed it were the final word, but italics were soon added and it has been upgraded on several occasions. There were even British and American editions.

The NIV - This Bible (1973/78) has sold 100 million copies so it can surely claim the Holy Spirit is its heritage. However, the dynamic approach, with some paraphrase, sometimes changes the Word of God, and of course there are the upgrades. The NIV committee, though reduced in size, is still intact and at work.

God is not a God of confusion. It is true that he leads in textual decision and in translators as they work. However, it cannot be demonstrated that any copier or translator has worked flawlessly. There is a difference between "guiding" and "moving." Copying and translating the Bible are human actions and responsibilities. They are not supernatural acts of the Spirit that resulted in the preservation of a perfect Bible at any stage in human history.

The Holy Spirit, Christians, and Bible difficulties

Illumination is the work of the Holy Spirit when he enables and assists believers in understanding the meaning of Scripture. It is presumed that he will not illumine one to understand the incorrect text in a textual variant, since that is not actually "Scripture." It is impossible to tell how much or how little the Spirit might help one in choosing the correct text. However, if Christians are willing to study the issues involved and if they have humble and teachable hearts, those determined believers can and should look to God the Holy Spirit for help, guidance, and discernment when making textual and other important decisions. Yet, the careful student of the Word must be aware of the subjectivity that can be present in "allowing the Spirit to guide" in textual matters. Since no two Greek New Testament manuscripts are identical, though the difference in all the manuscripts is very small indeed, it seems obvious that the Spirit did not supernaturally intervene in all textual decisions.

One's theological beliefs will always affect interpretation. Likewise, theological and philosophical positions can and will affect one's textual and translation decisions. Perhaps it is time to stop giving the Spirit credit for past human errors and just be thankful for what he has provided. If Scripture is unclear or uncertain, it is the reader's fault, not God's. Since the apostles considered the LXX the Word of God, all Christians can and should boldly say, with no hesitation, that their Bible is the inspired inerrant Word of God.

The Holy Spirit has used the completed and preserved Word of God to convict of sin and bring men and women to salvation in Christ for 1,900 years. He will continue to do so!

 

 PRINTER  VERSION