Our Confession and the Textual History of Scripture

Submitted by Prof. Renihan

Here is something that I wrote many years ago seeking to address the question of the providential preservation of the text of Scripture and the doctrine of our Confession of Faith.I hope it will be unto edification. The statement in question is Chapter 1, Paragraph 8, which says

8. 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 Nation),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 a 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.

Here are my comments:

On the Confessional issue, I think that the matter has to be handled with great care.  On the one hand, it is easy to think that the language of the Confession supports the kind of doctrine of providential preservation promoted by modern defenders of the Textus Receptus.  But, in the study that I have done on the issue, I think that that is probably anachronistic.  Much more work needs to be done, but I think that the Confessional position is much more carefully nuanced than is sometimes represented to us today.  Consider for example the words of William Bridge, a member of the Westminster Assembly, and thus someone whose comments carry some weight in terms of the opinions of (perhaps)some of the Westminster Divines.  I grant that he was an Independent, and so some holding the above noted views might dismiss him, but we cannot.  In fact his ministry gave quite a strong impetus to the Particular Baptists of Norfolk.  Daniel Bradford, an original co-pastor of the Norwich PB church had been a member of Bridge’s church.  Here is Bridge’s comment (from Works, 1:450):

“How can we hold and keep fast the letter of the Scripture when there are so many Greek copies of the New Testament, and those diverse from another?”

“Yes, well; for though there are many received copies of the New Testament, yet there is no material difference between them.  The four evangelists do vary in the relation of the same thing; yet because there is no contradiction, or material variation, we do adhere to all of them, and deny none.  In the times of the Jews, before Christ, they had but one original of the Old Testament, yet that hath several readings: there is a marginal reading, and a line reading, and they differ no less than eight hundred times the one from the other; yet the Jews did adhere to both, and denied neither.  Why? Because there was no material difference.  And so now, though there be many copies of the New Testament, yet seeing there is no material difference between them, we may adhere to all: for whoever will understand the Scripture, must be sure to keep and hold fast the latter, not denying it.”

These men were themselves scholars.  They knew that to assert a doctrine of providential preservation as is often promoted today, one would have to assert that there is at least one manuscript that has always been preserved from error of any kind.  But it is impossible to know which one it is.  They did not see one text as the standard for the churches (purposely plural!) but that the word of God was in the texts that they had. Richard Muller makes this comment (Dictionary of Latin and Greek Theological terms, page 323 s.v. Variae lectiones): “specifically, variant readings in the several ancient codices of Scripture that lead to debate concerning the infallibility of the scriptural Word.  The orthodox, Lutheran and Reformed, generally argued that the meaning of the original can be recovered by careful collation of the texts.  In the second half of the seventeenth century, the argument was developed that inconsistencies occurred only in the copies, or apographa, and not in the now lost originals, or autographa, of Scripture.”

So, I do not believe that our Confession requires from us a doctrine of providential preservation as it is often stated today.  This is a kind of successionism, not unlike the false notion promoted by Baptist successionists.  It is, in my opinion, an attempt to rely on something earthly: if we can’t prove antiquity, we have no firm basis for our faith (or practice).  It was rejected, and rightly so, by the first generation of particular Baptists (when challenged that their baptism was invalid because it had no successive lineage), and I think needs to be rejected by us.  The Word of God has a self-authenticating nature. We do not need church councils to approve the Bible.  The Scripture is contained in the text, and in faithful translations.

In my understanding, the Confessional doctrine simply asserts what Bridge states above: we have the word of God in our texts.  God has always preserved it.  We do not have to trace a line back to Paul or John or Isaiah or Moses (and the issue becomes even more complicated when the PP doctrine is applied to the OT).  We simply confess that God has kept his word pure through the ages in the manuscripts that we have.