On May 24, 2019, I sent Dr. Jeff Riddle this email, with a desire to better understand his view of the preservation of Scripture. He was kind enough on June 20 to post his thoughts in a podcast episode as well as a written blog post. There are a few things to which I would like to respond.
One is not ready, it has been said, to properly analyze an argument until one can accurately reflect that viewpoint in one’s own words. My email was a test to repeat back the argument of Dr. Riddle’s position on textual preservation, to see if I could achieve this goal yet. I attempted this by first outlining some bullet points on which I thought we would have common ground. They were making historic truth claims that are either true or false. They’re either verifiable or disprovable. I was not expecting there to be major disagreement; but as it turned out, Dr. Riddle took issue with much of what I postulated. I found this to be perplexing. I wish to look at a few of Dr. Riddle’s replies. First, there is this one:
The Received Text did not come into existence only in the sixteenth century. It is identical with the divine original.
These are strong words. Identical? How identical? To the last “jot and tittle” (Matthew 5:18, which Dr. Riddle referenced in the podcast)? Dr. Riddle can’t mean to the last jot and tittle because elsewhere in this episode he said this:
There are obvious slight differences in the printed editions of the TR.
And this, about 9 minutes from the end:
Now during the Reformation period, there was a time when in the Providence of God the text was printed, it was edited, it was promulgated, and it became the basis for the vernacular translations of the Protestant era.
It was “edited.” How can that be identical to the divine original? There is an inescapable logical fallacy here with these truth claims. If someone wants to say that the TR is very close to the divine original, that is one thing, and we can all agree on that.1 But identical? This is ahistorical and, I say this as respectfully as I can, Dr. Riddle’s very words self-contradict this truth claim. There were more than 30 editions of the TR. Which one of them was identical to the divine original?
Since it is identical with the divine original, there were Greek mss. that “matched the TR” from the beginning. Thus, there were mss. that contained the inspired and preserved Word of God from the beginning.
I don’t understand the meaning of “matched the TR.” Do this mean that there are Greek manuscripts that have matched some version of the TR to its very last variant? Such a manuscript has never been found. No textual critic has ever claimed that such a thing existed. If such a thing did exist, all the Reformers would have needed was to find that perfect manuscript, and it would have saved them many thousands of hours of collation work. But they did not have that perfect manuscript, which means that that hypothetical document, no trace of which exists, was not preserved. By this logic and interpretation, God failed on his promise. By performing collating and engaging in textual criticism, the very behavior of the Reformers upon whom Dr. Riddle claims allegiance shows the fault of this viewpoint. There was no single Greek manuscript text that any of the Reformers solely relied upon. Dr. Riddle’s position here is in direct opposition to the belief and practice of the Reformers. It is not a continuation of it. It is a deviation from it.
Christians had the “full canon” the moment the last canonical book was written.
Which Christians? The ones who didn’t have copies of the last book the moment it was written?
God knew what the Bible would contain before he created the universe. But the completion of the canon in time and space is meaningless from man’s standpoint if nobody possesses it. Thus, it is pointless to say that in a theoretical sense, Christians had the full canon as soon as the canon was written. In that scenario, they don’t have it in a physical reality any more than they did back when it existed as nothing more than a thought in the mind of God. In reality, it would be hundreds of years before meaningful numbers of Christians possessed the full canon. This historical fact isn’t in dispute.
Next, we move on to Philip Schaff and his book Theological Propaedeutic. Dr. Riddle writes:
I would have to review his perceived KJV “mistranslations” one by one to see if they have any merit or if, as I suppose, they might be contested.
As noted in the episode, the book is available for free on Google Books. Here’s the direct link to page 193. Around minute 27 in the podcast, Dr. Riddle had this to say as well:
[Philip Schaff] has a dog in this fight. He’s trying to overthrow the KJV […]
There’s a lot of bias in that viewpoint. I encourage anyone to look at the avalanche of problems with the Authorized Version that Schaff points out and honestly assess them. Schaff isn’t trying to overthrow the KJV for the sake of overthrow. He’s demonstrating how badly in need of a new translation were the English-speaking people. It’s painful for instance to read John Gill’s mention of “straining at a gnat” and recognize that he’s memorized a printing error that doesn’t even make sense.
Next, I want to make a syllogism black and white to clear up some confusion.
- Nothing other than the original Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek are the divinely inspired Word of God.
- Most Christians do not have literate access to these original languages.
- Therefore, most Christians do not have literate access to the perfectly divinely inspired Word of God.
In a purely logical sense, this is true. Nobody disputes the first two propositions, and the conclusion necessarily follows. However, this can be easily misconstrued to imply assumptions that we normally associate with Islam and classical Catholicism. I probably did not need to include this as a bullet point in my original email. In a functional sense, we understand that to the extent that a translation follows the original text, it can be used with confidence and authority. However, it must be remembered that no translation is perfect or inspired and that ultimately our trust must be in the original.
Preservation does guarantee that the Bible does not change.
The printed TR tradition did not change much […]
Does the Bible not change, or does it not change much? Which is it?
This brings us to a very important point. When discussing the preservation of the Bible, we aren’t discussing whether the actual Word of God changes. Rather we are discussing whether our knowledge of what that Word is changes or not. Nobody in this conversation disagrees on the truth claim that the actual Word of God does not change. To state that truth claim in this conversation is irrelevant and distracting. The thing I’m interested in discussing is whether or not our understanding of what the Word of God is changes. And what’s fascinating is that in the second sentence, Dr. Riddle agrees with me that our understanding can and does change. If only he would be consistent!
When we change a print edition of a New Testament, we aren’t saying that the Word of God changed. We’re saying that our understanding of what the Word of God is has changed. The Reformers produced more than 30 editions to the TR. In doing so, once again the Reformers by their actions are refuting the truth claim that new discoveries and knowledge can’t affect our understanding of what God’s Word is. Any dissent to this is ahistorical.
Your “reconstruction” of the TR position is not something I recognize. What is this 100 year process? Who were the scholars working on this who rejected justification by faith and held other doctrinal errors similar to those held by modern text critics of the nineteenth century? Are you talking about Erasmus? This was not true of the Protestant orthodox (like Stephanus and Beza) who produced the printed editions of the TR.
Yes, I’m talking about the 16th century. As noted in the podcast, the first print edition of Erasmus’ Greek New Testament was in 1516. Beza’s last came in 1598. I’m talking about this time period.
It’s disappointing that Dr. Riddle fails to recognize the historical realities of the reconstruction process. In Beyond What Is Written we get an insight into Erasmus in his own words on page 23, in which he divulges his method of arriving at the “true reading” of a text:
The man who makes such advances does not follow any manuscripts which happen to come into his hands, nor does he stick to one only. He makes a selection. Nor does he rely only on the comparison of his manuscript authorities: he carries out careful research among the Greek and Latin commentators to find out how a passage has been read by the most reputable authorities, how they have explained it, what measure of agreement there is between them. And even then he does not deny anyone’s right to his own view unless the error is so obvious that it would be shameful to turn his back on it.
In his own words, Erasmus is rejecting the notion that any singular one of his consulted manuscripts could possibly be “identical with the divine original” as Dr. Riddle claims. Rather, he “makes a selection” amongst multiple manuscripts all of which have varying levels of accuracy and corruption. Dr. Riddle has an idealism that is grounded in fabrication and fiction, not in historic reality.
It’s interesting to see Dr. Riddle’s desire to distance himself from Erasmus while at the same time trying to claim that “the printed TR tradition did not change much.” If the tradition did not change much, that meant that Erasmus was an important pioneer who cannot be ignored. It’s a contradictory line of argumentation to try to distance oneself from Erasmus on the one hand, while at the same time maintaining that there was remarkable stability of the Greek Text during the 16th century.
Erasmus denied the gospel. In his On the Bondage of the Will, Martin Luther debated Erasmus on the core of the gospel. A man who denied justification by faith was a very heavy influencer on the TR that exists today. If Dr. Riddle insists that the early pioneers of the print edition of his text not be judged, then I ask him to extend the favor and never again speak of the ills of Westcott and Hort. Moreover, when one reads Erasmus in his own words, one comes to the inescapable conclusion that men like the late critical text advocate and scholar Bruce Metzger have held a higher view of preservation than did Erasmus.
But Erasmus aside, let’s talk about Stephanus and Beza. Theodor Beza was the successor to John Calvin at Geneva. What was Calvin’s view of the preservation of Scripture? Let’s look at his commentary on 1 John 2:14 for a sampling.
These repetitions I deem superfluous; and it is probable that when unskillful readers falsely thought that he spoke twice of little children, they rashly introduced the other two clauses. It might at the same time be that John himself, for the sake of amplifying, inserted the second time the sentence respecting the young men, (for he adds, that they were strong, which he had not said before;) but that the copyists presumptuously filled up the number.
John Calvin would have been fine with this “superfluous” verse to disappear. Just how received was this so-called received text? It sounds to me that John Calvin would have been much more at home with a modern day movement to fix the corruption of the text. My point is this: Dr. Riddle is trying to claim the Reformers to support a position that is historically implausible and that betrays an ignorance of what these men themselves believed.
The confessional text is NOT that “things were messy for the first 15 centuries.” No, God’s Word was “by His singular care and providence kept pure in all ages.” The true text has not been “messy.”
We have more than 5,800 New Testament Greek manuscripts available, and not one of them perfectly matches the TR. Yet Dr. Riddle claims that “there were Greek mss. that ‘matched the TR’ from the beginning.” That means that finding the Word of God (on Dr. Riddle’s terms) is looking for a needle in a haystack. A needle, I daresay, that we don’t have any historical grounds of ultimately finding. That sounds messy to me. And it sounds messy to anyone who’s spent meaningful time investigating the realities of the transmission of the New Testament text. At the time of the Council of Nicaea, Athanasius of Alexandria, defending the Trinity, had an Alexandrian Bible that would’ve looked a whole lot more like the CT than the TR. Meanwhile the heretic Arius, denying the deity of Christ, had a Bible that looked more like the TR. That sounds messy to me. The “received text” (to appropriate a confusing term) for the first 800 years of New Testament history was various forms the Alexandrian text. That sounds messy to me. The TR was wishy-washy on James 4:2, and the Tyndale Bible ended up skipping a phrase that the KJV later included, reflecting disagreeing versions of the TR. That sounds messy to me. For six years, the TR didn’t have the Comma in it. That sounds messy to me.
In all of this, I sense a fear that if one admits that the story of the preservation of the New Testament is messy, one must necessarily conclude that God’s Word is itself messy. But as I’ve tried to belabor above, the former does not require the latter. Denying the former is exchanging truth for certainty, and results in the loss of both.2
I’ll close with one final quote taken chronologically out of order in the podcast:
It is not true that God’s people have at various points not had the perfectly preserved Word. That would be contrary to the Confessional doctrine of Preservation.
I’m going to quote II Chronicles 34:14-15 to refute this one, using Dr. Riddle’s preferred English translation:
And when they brought out the money that was brought into the house of the Lord, Hilkiah the priest found a book of the law of the Lord given by Moses. And Hilkiah answered and said to Shaphan the scribe, I have found the book of the law in the house of the Lord. And Hilkiah delivered the book to Shaphan.
Part of being Sola Scriptura is that every doctrine ultimately comes from the Bible, not from perceived interpretations of confessions and man’s tradition. Sola Scriptura’s jurisdiction extends to the doctrine of the preservation of Scripture. The Bible makes it very clear that the Scriptures were lost for a period of time, for we read in verse 19:
And it came to pass, when the king had heard the words of the law, that he rent his clothes.
Had Josiah owned the book of the law before this moment, he wouldn’t have been surprised to hear its words from Shaphan. Our view of the preservation of Scripture must have room for the narrative in II Chronicles 34. The Word of God was lost and then later restored. If it could happen then, it could happen now. King David, with all of his Psalms that TR-onlyists love to quote in support of their position, came before Josiah.
It’s man’s natural thinking to want to put everything in a neatly-defined box. God’s bigger than that.
Necessity has required for me to disagree, in some cases strongly, with Dr. Riddle. I consider him a brother in Christ, and I pray that these examinations are both given and received in humility, and useful unto edification.
- Admitting that the TR is merely very close to the divine original is a slippery slope for a TR-onlyist, because it opens the door for a future printed text to be even closer. It opens the door for modern textual criticism to pick up where the Reformers left off. That is antithetical to Dr. Riddle’s position. I understand why ideologically he has to shy away from saying that. But it’s an inescapable historical reality that even he is forced to attest to. ↩︎
- We do not hold to doctrinal perfectionism. God’s salvation is perfect, but our understanding of it is imperfect. Similarly, God’s Word is perfect, but our understanding of it is imperfect. To say that our copies of the Scriptures today are ever so slightly different from the original autographs does not deny the doctrine of God’s Word enduring forever anymore than does our imperfect knowledge of salvation deny the fullness of Christ’s atoning work. ↩︎