The Critical Text: Very Word of God? Fallible “Witness” of Man? Both!?

The Critical Text: Very Word of God? Fallible “Witness” of Man? Both!? April 18, 2016

Lecturns out of fashion but not pulpits? What might this mean?
Lecturns increasingly out of fashion but not pulpits… What might this mean?

Post by Nathan Rinne

“But the notion that in Scripture some things are recondite and all is not plain was spread by the godless Sophists (whom now you echo Erasmus)–who have never yet cited a single item to prove their crazy view; nor can they. And Satan has used the unsubstantial spectres to scare men off reading the sacred text and to destroy all sense of its value, so as to ensure that his own brand of poisonous philosophy resigns supreme in the church.” – Martin Luther to Erasmus

Original post here. Part II here.

This post features more follow-up thoughts about Satan playing the long game with what is known as the critical text. It amounts to part III, and looks to…

  • tie up some loose ends
  • address some of the misunderstandings of my first post, and
  • answer some of the best questions and challenges I have received.

One of my current students, reflecting on how much she has appreciated being forced to read and wrestle with the Bible, said this to me about her past efforts to read it:

"Did God really say?"
“Did God really say?”

“I would find myself questioning more of what I read rather than understanding and appreciating what it was. …we often find things in readings that are very small and compare them to others. We find something that really isn’t that important or shouldn’t have that big of a difference, but yet we focus on it. Why is it that when we read the Bible we find those small things that are so insignificant but yet we dwell on them as if there’s an unanswered question lurking behind?”

Its a good question. We all sometimes miss the forest for the trees. And I think this is especially true when it comes to text criticism of the Bible.

Why the hostility towards the Byzantine text?
Why the hostility towards the Byzantine text?

That said, I believe there is still a window for us, the church, to make adjustments in our attitudes regarding text criticism, because again, Satan plays the long game, as he evidently needs to do. Currently, there are a good number of persons in the Western world who still believe and teach that God’s word is reliable – and even without error (some don’t deny this because of outside pressure, even if they want to, but many still firmly believe this). And they are right – even when it comes to the critical text! In spite of its coming out of the academy, and not the church, the NA 28 critical text is the very word of God, period (also note that, for the time being, even liberal churches that now deny traditional Christian doctrine and practice still use the historic creeds and basically the same Bible as those who willing to assert they believe it)!

This is a time, I submit, to strengthen what remains – to pray that God would restore the Church’s confidence in His true Word.

At a theology conference last week in Bloomington, Minnesota, my pastor gave a rip-roaring scholarly paper (trust me, it is good, particularly because it is packed with the kind of important historical detail my pastor excels at, but I can only post some excerpts for now) titled “Martin Luther’s Sola Scriptura”. At the end of the paper, he summarized as follows:

A "coherence-based geneaological method...disregards a given manuscript in time and space, focusing solely on the grammatical composition of the text which it no longer calls a text, but a "witness".
A “coherence-based genealogical method…disregards a given manuscript in time and space, focusing solely on the grammatical composition of the text which it no longer calls a text, but a ‘witness’.” — Paul Strawn

Modern textual criticism, in the face of 5600 manuscripts of New Testament texts has, with Nestle-Aland 28, thrown its hands in the air finally and conclusively determining that it is no longer their goal to establish an original text of the New Testament. And so the appeal has been made that Lutherans in particular return to the time of the Reformation, to once again understand how we can grasp Scripture as the Word of God, and yet have a somewhat transient or even “plastic” text of Scripture. A cursory overview of the efforts of Martin Luther demonstrates, however, that he himself grew up with the fixed text of the Vulgate, and even though confronted by an impressive number of Latin corrections of it, German translations, and even Greek texts of the Byzantine variety, he himself remained fixed upon the idea that the original texts of Scripture could be arrived upon, and translated clearly, so that they could read and understood.

Probably most troubling, is that the challenge of Nestle-Aland 28, is not new, but old. Writing in the first volume of his Christian Dogmatics Francis Pieper noted already in 1924 that “…now the objection to the inspiration of Scripture assumes another form, namely that an inspired Scripture becomes useless and should no longer be urged, since the presence of variant readings makes it, after all, uncertain which is the original Word of God.”[1] What follows then in that volume is a meticulous treatment of all of the issues involved, questions raised, concerns expressed.[2] But Pieper’s argument for the veracity of the Bibles we have was simple. 1) We know we have God’s Word before we even begin to investigate the text, for Christ promised that we would by: a) saying that all who come to faith would through the apostles’ Word (John 17:20); b) admonishing all Christians to remain in His Word (John 8:31-32); c) commanding that His Word be taught to all nations (Matt. 28:20). 2) And by textual criticism, the same conclusion is reached, for “not a single Christian doctrine has been rendered doubtful in any point by the “legion” of variant readings.”[3]

Un-Peiper-like scholars such as Rudolph Bultmann distinguished between the "Jesus of history" and the "Christ of faith". Now, the "Bible of history and the Scriptures of faith"?
Un-Pieper-like scholars such as Rudolph Bultmann distinguished between the “Jesus of history” and the “Christ of faith”. Now, are we facing the “Bible of history and the Scriptures of faith”?

Of course for Luther, the issue was even simpler. The Bible as we have it is a work of the Holy Spirit even in these end times. Therefore, in spite of the questions raised by modern textual criticism, it remains without error, readable and understandable.

[1] Quotation from English edition (St. Louis: Concordia, 1950), p. 238.

[2] Pp. 238-265.

[3] Ibid., 239.

“The Bible as we have it… is without error, readable, and understandable”. The Word of God for us, by the power of the Holy Spirit, even in these end times!

Amen and amen and amen!

Take up and read, right? What are we waiting for?

" don't necessarily have the Word of God itself, but the fallible "witness" of man to God's word" - Paul Strawn, on Karl Barth's view of the Bible
“…you don’t necessarily have the Word of God itself, but the fallible ‘witness’ of man to God’s word” – Paul Strawn, on Karl Barth’s view of the Bible

“…but wait a minute”, you might say. “Didn’t you, in that past post, imply that Satan was behind the critical text?” Well, to be clear, that is not at all what I was getting at. In fact, Again, I think that the critical text, as it exists today, fully remains God’s word. In short (and to answer the question posed in the title), what we now have really is the Word of God (no confusion!) – even as some who are involved in certain kinds of textual criticism will look at the same text and think that it is a fallible, though “generally reliable”, “witness” [of man] (perhaps, however, capable of “becoming the word of God” in a person’s subjective experience).

My main point, again (many missed this) is simply about the importance of the church being thought of primarily as the receiver and preserver of God’s word – not it’s corrupter.[i] Just like Jesus and His apostles received the various manifestations of the Old Testament as God’s word in their day (in spite of the problems He identified with the Church’s leadership![ii]), so should we – for God preserves His word through His Church. Especially, when God’s Spirit inspires the leaders of His Church to put their best persons on the job and officially promulgate Bibles, our default reaction should not be to be skeptical – “They are just conserving and consolidating their power and keeping us down… authority is constructed, contextual, and saturated with unsavory privilege!” On the contrary, this, like few other things, should make us cry out with vigor, “Thanks be to God!”[iii]

Kurt Aland et al., "the 26th edition of the Nestle-Aland in 1979[] signal[ed] the rise to prominence of the methodologies of the intellectual behemoth which was Kurt Aland... at the INT in Munster..." -- Paul Strawn
Kurt Aland et al., “the 26th edition of the Nestle-Aland in 1979[] signal[ed] the rise to prominence of the methodologies of the intellectual behemoth which was Kurt Aland… at the INT in Munster…” — Paul Strawn
Some expressed concern over my talking about the “highly flawed” Latin Vulgate. The fact of the matter is that even with the problems that existed in the Latin Vulgate, God was merciful to his people. For example, it was while he was lecturing from the Vulgate that the Holy Spirit led Martin Luther, in his “tower experience”, to see the truth about justification before God by the faith which lives in repentance (even as the Vulgate caused great confusion because of its translations of the words “justification” and “repentance”, and hence reinforced Rome’s aberrant teachings on these doctrines).[iv]

And, to emphasize it yet again (third time is a charm), even with the “critical text” that we have today, the Lord has been merciful to us! Yes, it is true that out of Muenster, home of the critical text, we now hear the idea that those who value the Bible should think that they are unable to arrive at the text God gave His people through His apostles and prophets.[v] And yet, in spite of this unfortunate turn, what we have right now continues to be a reliable text. When I suggested that Satan was “playing the long game”, what I mean to call into question is faulty attitudes, orientations, mindsets, and methodologies – and not the critical text that we currently have. God, after all, can even use evil for good, and has a habit of doing so.

But then – am I obliquely implying that all textual criticism is evil? Again, my original post said nothing of the sort, and in fact sought to encourage younger textual critics. My point was simply to encourage those who feel led to explore these matters do so faithfully (as text criticism cannot avoid dealing with the matter of the church’s canon, i.e. what is found in the Bible it promulgates), and always with the good of the entire church in mind. Why say or do anything that is likely to give the impression that the basic content of the Bible is in anyway unstable or in question – when it clearly is not?

“…theological notions like providence and preservation need to be connected with the content of the New Testament and not with the letter. In that sense, the New Testament is historically and theologically fully preserved.” (p. 66)
Text critic Ernst Boogert: “…theological notions like providence and preservation need to be connected with the content of the New Testament and not with the letter. In that sense, the New Testament is historically and theologically fully preserved.” (p. 66 here)

And this not only means avoiding unnecessary confusion but making clear, for example, that prominent Bible detractors like Bart Ehrman excel more as rhetoricians than they do as decent scholars (and people think it is the Church that has a problem with bias!?). One should never expect persons like Ehrman to give us anything approximating an accurate and nuanced presentation of the reality that exists as regards early New Testament texts.

My hope is that the prayer of text-critics, established as well as up-and-coming, would be that they are led by a godly and reverent curiosity regarding these matters (yes, I realize some may not think that can exist – I think they are wrong), and one that works to encourage all confidence not only that the critical text we have is fully God’s inerrant, readable, and understandable word, but that other versions of the Bible – particularly those put forth by Christ’s Church specifically for worship! – are fully the Word of God. To crib the Apostle Paul “each [Church] should be convinced in [its] own mind”. (and I think it is even possible, but not provable, that even the individual N.T. writers themselves had Old Testament texts that they favored, whether in Hebrew, Aramaic or Greek versions, including the Septuagint).

Martin Luther believed "the Holy Spirit is no skeptic" and that the text was not just established, but actually existed: "Holy Scripture is God’s Word, written & formed in letters, just as Christ is the eternal Word of God enveloped in the human nature." - Luther (photo: Dr. Luther debates Dr. Eck - Martin Luther Memorial in Eisleben, Germany)
Martin Luther believed “the Holy Spirit is no skeptic” and that the text was not just established, but actually existed: “Holy Scripture is God’s Word, written and formed in letters, just as Christ is the eternal Word of God enveloped in the human nature.”

But isn’t that the issue, you say? Aren’t these texts different? I would say “No, that’s not the issue and has never been the issue”. Again, for the variations that do exist, nothing changes when it comes to doctrine. And here is the thing: even when it comes to the basic content, nothing really changes.[vi] This seems to be in line with the attitude of Martin Luther, who said:

“…people… raise all kinds of questions for which they want to have answers. If one, however, has a correct understanding of Scripture and possesses the true statement of our faith that Jesus Christ, the Son of God, has suffered and died for us, it will not be a serious defect if we are not able to answer them… When discrepancies occur in Holy Scripture (namely concerning such chronological questions as these: how many years Jesus taught openly, how the account of the Temple cleansing in John agrees with Matthew, and similar questions) and we cannot harmonize them, let it pass, it does not endanger the article of the Christian faith.”[vii]

My pastor, in his paper, says that Luther gives the impression of believing “Scripture to be a coherent whole, in spite of its many writers, languages, historical contexts and transmission issues… [and] Where conundrums were discovered he let them be.”


"Tolle lege" (take up and read). The words Augustine said he heard about the Bible.
“Tolle lege” (take up and read). The words Augustine said he heard about the Bible.

Yes, there are nuances to be carefully and responsibly addressed, but I am saying that getting caught up in what amounts to minutiae misses the big picture[viii] – a big picture that we should be shouting from the rooftops: “We live by every word that comes from the mouth of God, and He has, in these last days, given us His very own word!”

Take up and read! Even if you have a “critical text” in your hands! (again, the product is good, even if with the process in the background makes it easier for the text to be considered, by some, to be something less than the very word of God). Words that are Spirit and life indeed!

(and if you are one of those who feel called to role of text criticism, I also say: “Take up and read first and foremost for the life of the world, including you – and also give a good guy like Boogert a read“).




Adam and Eve by Cranach studio, 16th c. ; Kurt Aland, by Roberto Cruz ; Ernst Boogert, by Prostestantse Theologische Universiteit (used with permission); “Tolle Lege”, St. Augustine’s at Hammersmith (Longdon) by ramson ; Karl Barth by Hans Lachmann, Rudolf Bultmann, Porträtbüste von Michael Mohns, 2002 by Dbleicher ; St Pius X Church Lecturn, Saint John NB by Cusack5239 ; Byzantinischer Maler um 1020 – The Yorck Project: 10.000 Meisterwerke der Malerei. DVD-ROM, 2002. ISBN 3936122202. Distributed by DIRECTMEDIA Publishing GmbH (public domain) ; Martin Luther window at St. Matthew’s Lutheran Church in Charleston, SC by cadetgray


[i] From Charles Wiese, who has contributed to the Byzantine Greek New Testament project here: “Mainstream textual criticism holds to the idea that the church did not preserve the text but corrupted the text and so textual critics must recover and restore the text that the orthodox corrupted. It’s similar in some ways to the way that the Campbell/Stone movement and other Protestant groups view the Church in general where they think everything went to hell after the Apostles and now they have discovered the truth and restore the true teachings.”

[ii] From my first post: “Even as Jesus Christ Himself urged the laity of his day to obey those who sat in “Moses’ seat”, He nevertheless blamed those same church leaders for a variety of  theological errors (painful detail here). And yet, in spite of this, He trusted that the Scriptures the church had received had been reliably preserved by God. Jesus’ default position was not that God’s assembly, or church, was the corrupter of the biblical texts, but its grateful recipient.”

[iii] Pastor Jordan Cooper: “It is also true that the whole manuscript tradition has in some sense been ‘received’ by the church, but not all of those manuscripts have been used by the church or viewed as its canonical text.”

[iv] Charles Wiese says: “For myself, I think it’s best to adopt the text that is the most catholic and has been received by the church most widely and which the church has shown the greatest care in its transmission. I think there is some room variation and I’m really more concerned with defending the idea of divine preservation than I am about having some elusive perfect text. I don’t think variant readings are evil. I have helped do some editing for this text [the Byzantine Greek New Testament] and it’s the one I typically use” This view makes some sense to me, even as I shy away from the importance of the numbers. In other words, even as God preserved His reliable word in a flawed Latin Vulgate, in the Eastern church he had preserved His word as well, promulgating many wonderful copies with the church’s imprimatur, and without the issues regarding things like justification and repentance.

[v] This is problematic, because, as Pastor Jordan Cooper says, over and against the goals of critical scholarship, we need to think about these questions: “what text serves as the church’s canon?” What has been “received, preserved, and used” in God’s church? This is related to the matter of the original text because, one assumes, that the church wants to hand on just that which God gave to His Apostles and Prophets for our salvation!

Still, as I argue in this post, it is good for us to not get bogged down in what amounts to minutiae. Of course, the questions will nevertheless come: “What about the longer ending of Mark? What about the periscope adulterae (John 8)?” These issues were known from early on in the church’s history, and have been dealt with in a variety of ways – and I think it does us well to admit there is much we can’t know for sure from our “scientific” or historical investigations. See the end of this post as well as the final footnote for more.

[vi] For example, in part II, I noted this: “…having read through the variants for example, I just can’t get too excited about them. If I gave two separate accounts of an event to two different persons, for example, I would have no trouble saying that I had told them the same thing, even if there was a little variation here and there. And, so long as there was nothing I had said was meant to hide anything from a certain person, I don’t think anyone else in their right mind would have a problem with my saying I had told them the same thing. I don’t think we are meant to be exacting and robotic persons like that. I can use totally different words and the meaning and content of what I say can basically be the same…..In general, interrogating me by saying ‘but you didn’t say exactly the same words!’ seems pretty lame.” (if this produces more questions in you, check out the full context here).

[vii] Found in Reu, Luther and the Scriptures, p. 90.

[viii] Some might counter here and say things like: “But what about the antilegmomena? Should those books really be in the canon at all? What about the longer ending of Mark and the story of the woman caught in adultery? Why do you reject the Apocrypha?” Here, I insist that, in the bigger picture, these are small things. Again, Luther, in spite of his hesitations regarding certain books, did not look to exclude them from the Bible even as he made clear that they, being books that were “spoken against”, should not be books that could singlehandedly be used to determine doctrine. This view has a very long pedigree in church history: these are certainly not the most important of the New Testament books. As for the longer ending of Mark and the woman caught in adultery, I fully understand if there are brothers who think they cannot accept these sections as canonical. I simply ask that they allow others, and the church at large, to do so – and without being overly critical of them for doing so! – even as again, these are passages that should not used to determine doctrine. Finally, Luther himself included the Apocrypha of the Western church in the German Bible, although he made it clear that they, also, were books of a lesser authority than even the antilegomena. The unique theological situation in the 16th century church, where Rome used not only the Vulgate but these books in particular against the Lutheran Reformers, resulted in them being excluded from Lutheran Bibles in the future. Again, the fact is that the church had never given these books pride of place, and had not, until Rome countered Luther, ever used these books to argue for doctrines. Insofar as Rome persists in doing this, I think it is reasonable for us to insist on keeping the Apocrypha out of the Canon altogether (note that if it were in our Bibles, it would not necessarily need to be “Scripture” – Jesus Himself, after all, only says to accept what the Pharisees teach in Matthew 23:2, and there is no indication that this would have included the Apocrypha, as seen, for instance, from the decision made at the council of Jamnia in 90 A.D.).

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