God in the word, not in experience

Most of my Christian life has been led from one spiritual mountaintop to another. In fact, there was a moment when I realized I was more focused on the experience, and feeling it, than I was about knowing God. It was finally when I found John 17:17 when I found the true force of sanctification. It was when I found Romans 10 that I found the true place where God meets us. Here is Michael Horton to explain much better what I mean..

 

Marketing gimmicks were made with people like me in mind. It took me a while before I wised up to the promotional ads announcing that I had won a free trip. Contacting the company to collect my “free” prize, I learned that there were several hoops I had to jump through in order to get it. A lot of Christians express a similar frustration. At first, they were overwhelmed with the Good News. Salvation in Christ is a free gift. However, the fine print came later. Now they are on a treadmill, try to find the “higher life,” hoping desperately to experience the fullness of their salvation.

Note Paul’s argument in chapter 10:

Moses describes in this way the righteousness that is by the law: “The man who does these things will live by them.” But the righteousness that is by faith says: “o not say in your heart, ‘Who will ascend into heaven?’” (that is, to bring Christ down)”or ‘Who will descend into the deep?’” (that is, to bring Christ up from the dead). But what does it say? “The word is near you; it is in your mouth and in your heart,” that is, the word of faith we are proclaiming… for “Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.” How, then, can they call on the one they have not believed in? And how can they believe in the one of whom they have not heard? And how can they hear without someone preaching to them? And how can they preach unless they are sent?… Consequently, faith comes from hearing the message and the message is heard through the word of Christ. (Rom. 10:5-17)

Do you see the logic of the method which Paul outlines here? Certain methods just go with certain messages, and that is certainly true in this case. We often hear it said that the message of the gospel never changes, but the methods do. However, Paul is saying that the gospel has its own method. It never changes. It always puts us on the receiving end.

The spirit of works righteousness says, “How can I climb up to God and bring Christ down to me, where I am, in my own experience?” Like Ulysses crossing the expansive seas to conquer dragons and finally to arrive at his reward, the logic of works righteousness conceives of salvation by personal conquest. Luther spoke about ladders that people climb in order to steal into God’s presence: mysticism, merit, and speculation were the ladders he had in mind. These same ladders are plentiful today: the feverish interest in makeovers, reinventing ourselves, and changing our identity. We are all looking for a plot to make sense of our lives, a script that will make us feel like our lives are not a waste, that they mean something. We all want a new drug, a new experience, a new achievement.

Where do you think you’ll find God? Some people speak of finding ultimate peace of mind in Tibet or rock climbing in the Alps. Perhaps it’s not surprising that we call spiritual epiphanies “mountaintop” experiences. Others talk about their experience of seeing the Dalai Lama, the spectacle of the Mass, or experiencing “transcendence” at a Hindu ashram or Buddhist temple. Some travel great distances to touch the hem of Jesus’ garment: to Lourdes in the hope of experiencing a miracle or at more Protestant venues, like Toronto or Pensacola to “catch the blessing.” We are always looking for a revival: something exciting, awe-inspiring, and majestic. Newsweek is not likely to send a reporter to your church next Sunday simply because the Word will be preached. That is not where the action is. And yet, Paul tells us, this is exactly where the Spirit is miraculously at work in his grace. It is precisely here where he unites us to Christ and gives us his gifts. Sometimes we make “spiritual disciplines” a way of making our way up the mountain to experience God. However, unless we are going regularly to the Scriptures to find Christ and crying out to him for salvation in prayer, even personal Bible reading and prayer can become methods of idolatry and self-trust.

We don’t expect to find God in the feeding trough of a barn in an obscure Palestinian village, much less hanging from an instrument of Roman execution. Yet this is where God meets us. While we are trying to climb higher, he descends lower. Of all our faculties, our natural religious, moral, and spiritual instincts are actually the least likely to find God where he has found us.

Page 105-106

Horton, Michael. The Gospel-Driven Life: Being Good News People in a Bad News World. Grand Rapids: Baker. 2009. Print.

Marcion and the Formation of Scripture

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Many people seek to divide the Old Testament from the New Testament. The God of the Old Testament, people claim, is a mean vindictive God who is more about wrath than love. Jesus, by contrast, is a God of love and compassion and forgiveness. This is most likely due to the misrepresentation of Jesus as a fluffy dove who wouldn’t hurt a fly.

While this is wrong, it is not new. In fact, this is one of the oldest plays in the book as far as church history is concerned. I will introduce you to a man named Marcion who advocated many of the charges heard against the bible today, and was roundly refuted by the early church. This shows the importance of church history in the life of a Christian. We stand in a long line of men who have gone through many of the same challenges we have, and have held the line. This controversy also has something to say about the formation of the canon of scripture into the bible that we see today.

Confrontation with the “Shipmaster of Pontus”

Marcion was a rich businessman with an interest in church affairs. As is often true in such cases, his money gave him the opportunity to propagate his own peculiar theology. He was from Sinope, a port city in the region of Pontus along the Black Sea. From that base he made his fortune in international shipping. But even as a young man, his theology was beginning to go astray. Marcion’s Father, who was probably a bishop, was forced to excommunicate his son for heresy. So what was a young, rich, charismatic, excommunicant to do? Go to Rome, of course, and see what doors his money might open there. Marcion did just that. Around the year AD 140 he arrived in Rome and made a huge donation to the church. But when the leaders found out what he was actually teaching, to their credit they returned the sum in full and excommunicated Marcion again. Yet this powerful man did not disappear off the scene. He became the overseer of a widespread network of Marcionite churches—which the orthodox of a widespread network of Marcionite churches—which the orthodox church leaders understood to be the work of Satan. Justin Martyr, who was living in Rome at the time, wrote, “Many have believed this man [Marcion], as if he alone knew the truth; and they laugh at us, though they have no proof of what they say, but are carried away irrationally as lambs by a wolf, and become the prey of atheistic doctrines and of devils.” Likewise we learn that Polycarp once ran into Marcion at Rome but completely ignored him. Apparently Marcion was feeling a little insecure about his reputation that day, for he demanded of the bishop, “Acknowledge me!” “I do acknowledge you,” replied Polycarp. “You are the firstborn of Satan!” This was probably not the reply Marcion was looking for.

What made the church fathers so angry at Marcion? Why would Tertullian take five volumes to demolish this heretic? The nature of his doctrine was so egregious that the orthodox writers—from Justin Martyr to Irenaeus to Tertullian and beyond—all felt compelled to refute him. In a nutshell, Marcion taught that there were two Gods. Playing off Marcion’s former occupation, Tertullian wrote, “The heretic of Pontus introduces two Gods, like the twin Clashing Rocks of his own shipwreck: One whom it is impossible to deny, our Creator; and one whom he will never be able to prove, a god of his own.” The God that Marcion saw in the Old Testament was cruel, arbitrary, petty, warlike, and stupid. He was more than simply a God of strict justice: he was literally a very mean God. This deity even said horrible things such as “I create evil” (Isa. 45:7) In contrast, Jesus came to announce a new or “alien” God. The Father God was loving, kind, and forgiving. According to Marcion, the Jews worshiped the old Creator who had fashioned our contemptible world. But all along there has always been another God. Formerly unknown to humankind, he eventually sent Jesus to tell us that our sins are automatically forgiven without any punishment. Jesus’s purpose was to announce universal salvation. To do this he did not really need a human body; So Marcion (like the Gnostics) was a docetist who denied a real incarnation. Against such nonsense Tertullian fired this sarcastic bullet: “You may, I assure you, more easily find a man born without a heart and brains, like Marcion himself, than without a body, like Marcion’s Christ!” For the orthodox church fathers, Marcionite theology simply was not Christian doctrine.

(105-106)

It is fair to say that Marcion is probably one of the most hated figures in history. He so enraged the early church with his writings that just about every church father we have writings on felt the need to write against him. Some wrote volumes! However, he did not only challenge sound doctrine, he also challenged the scriptures themselves.

Marcion’s dislike for the God of the Jews had profound implications for his understanding of the Bible. He completely rejected the Old Testament as being relevant for Christians. With respect to the New Testament, Marcion accepted only the Gospel of Luke and the letters of Paul. Why these works alone? Marcion saw himself as the true inheritor of Paul. Only the great Apostle to the Gentiles got the message right and remained uninfected by Jewish ideas. Form Marcion’s radical point of view, the law/grace distinction in Paul’s writings became a distinction between two different deities, each with his own set of scriptures. Marcion thought that the letters of Paul and the “Gentile” Gospel of Luke contained many statements that were antithetical to the God seen in the Old Testament. Of course, anything that smacked of high regard for Judaism in Luke and Paul was edited away as a supposed corruption of their actual teaching. By settling on an edited form of the Pauline epistles and the Gospel of Luke, Marcion was one of the first figures to delineate which writings he viewed as “biblical.” For this reason he was an influential figure in the history of the canon of scripture. As I promised in chapter 3, I will now say a few words about that subject.

The Canon of Scripture

The word “canon” comes from the Greek word kanon, which referred to a straight reed used as a measuring rod. Books that are canonical “measure up” to the ultimate standard, thus becoming a measure of truth themselves. The process of canonization for the Old and New Testaments followed different courses. The early Christians had embraced the Jewish scriptures from the very beginning. While they were not always clear about the exact boundaries of some disputed writings, the core books of the law and the prophets invariably possessed authoritative status in the church. However, the ancient Christians did not at first refer to these works as the “Old Testament.” They were simply called “Scripture,” and quotations were often introduced with the formula “It is written…” The earliest believers did not have any awareness of a second “Testament” to compliment the first. For them the scriptures were the sacred writings that Jesus himself had read and interpreted. It took some time for the church to realize that another distinct Testament had been delivered to the human race. In this process of recognition, we can discern four stages:

  1. First Century: Writing of the Biblical Texts. Most evangelical scholars would agree that all twenty-seven books which comprise the New Testament were completed by the end of the first century. It is important to note that from a theological perspective, the inspired books are scripture from the very moment of their writing. So when we discuss the issue of the canon, we are talking about the biblical books being recognized for what they are. This process took several centuries. The ancient church did not create God’s Word, but simply identified it as such over time.
  2. Second Century: Authoritative Core Texts, With Some Dispute. During the second century the core of the New Testament came to have widespread authority throughout the church. This is not to say the biblical writings had possessed no authority before, for they certainly did. But what we find in the early to mid-second century is that Christianity became more of a book-based religion than it had been previously. Back in the apostolic days, the eyewitnesses of Jesus were still alive, so Christianity was spread through verbal proclamation rather than through texts. At that time it was still primarily an oral religion. The situation obviously changed in the second century, and thus the faith became more literary. There was a greater sense that the Christian religion possessed its own central books. During this period the four Gospels and the letters of Paul crystallized as core works. Other important writings such as Acts, 1 John, and 1 Peter were widely viewed as authoritative as well. However, there were some New Testament books that the early believers were unsure about (such as the tiny letters of 2 and 3 John). And there were other uninspired writings, such as an epistle thought to have been written by Barnabas, which some Chrsitians believed might belong in the canon. So the shape of the canon at this time was an authoritative core, with fuzzy edges.
  3. Third Century: Awareness of a Two-Testament Bible. As we said in chapter 3, Irenaeus was the first to use the term “New Testament” in connection with a body of writings. A little later Tertullian was even more clear in his usage of this term. IN fact, he is the church father to whom we assign the honor of giving us the literal term “New Testament” (from the Latin novum testamentum). If Irenaeus was somewhat vague about what he meant, two decades later Tertullian certainly operated with a conception of the “New Testament” as a distinct scriptural corpus. We see, then, that at the dawn of the third century a new awareness arose among the Christian faithful: that their Bible was comprised of both an Old and a New Testament. The church continued to function with this awareness for more than a century, until Emperor Constantine’s imperial acceptance of Christianity finally enabled church leaders to make some official pronouncements about the extent of the biblical canon.
  4. Fourth Century: List-making, Exclusion, and Final Closure of the Canon. When the church found itself no longer persecuted by the Roman authorities, and instead being favored by the emperor, it gained new opportunities to define its sacred canon. Emperor Constantine told his trusted adviser Eusebius to have fifty official copies of the scriptures made for use in prominent congregations. Eusebius took great interest in the matter of the canon, listing out those books he believed to be definitely canonical, possibly canonical, and certainly not canonical. His canon list was one of many written up during the fourth century. The first canon list in all of church history to clearly and unequivocally accept the twenty-seven books of the New Testament was composed by Bishop Athanasius of Alexandria in the year AD 367. Thirty years later, a council at Carthage ratified this same list (except for Revelation, which was added a few years after that). So we must view the canonization of the New Testament as a centuries-long process. It was begun informally as soon as people like Peter started calling Paul’s epistles “scripture” (2 Pet. 3:16). But it wasn’t really completed until around the year AD 400. Form this point on, the church has possessed a closed New Testament canon.

(107-110)

Litfin, Bryan M. Getting to Know the Church Fathers: An Evangelical Introduction. Grand Rapids: Brazos. 2007. Print.

James White and Textual Transmission

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Continuing where I left off with the last post, here are some more pages from James White’s book The King James Only Controversy. Here he is discussing the transmission of the bible, something every Christian should be aware of because of the many challenges to its authority by critical scholarship.

 

Scribes and Their Work

Back in Kindergarten we used to play “telephone.” We would sit in a circle and attempt to pass a message around the circle by whispering it to the person next to us. Normally, the message would not get to the other end without some kind of humorous alteration. The game illustrated how things can change when they are told and retold over and over again.

On another level we can see how the same thing can happen with written documents. We have already noted some of the kinds of errors that can take place when a person makes a handwritten copy of someone else’s handwritten document. We might note some other problems that arise specifically in the course of repeated copying over time. For example, what if you have trouble reading the style of handwriting of the person who copied the book you are trying to reproduce? Some people write their t’s and their f’s alike; with others it is hard to distinguish between letters like e and o or c. The same kinds of problems exist in other languages. And if you are not in a position to ask the original author or copyist due to your geographic location, or due to the age of the document you are copying, you have to make your “best guess” at what is supposed to be on the page before you.

Another problem that crops up has to do with marginal notes. What if you are going along just fine, when all of a sudden you realize you skipped a line or a sentence up above. Remember, your writing materials are expensive. You can’t just wad up a piece of papyrus and start all over again. If you are using vellum you might be able to erase what you wrote, but what if it was far enough back to make this too difficult? In either case, you might write the skipped portion in the margin in smaller letters, and give some indication that it is supposed to be included in the actual text. But this might lead to confusion further down the line. Let’s say you are copying someone else’s work and you encounter something written in the margin. Did the original copyist intend this material to be included in the text, or is it just a note they have included there to explain a particular aspect of the passage? If you can’t ask him, how are you to know? You don’t want to put something in that isn’t original, but at the same time you don’t want to leave anything out, either. It seems that for most, it seemed safer to add the extra material than to leave it out.

When we put the problems that arise with hand-copying manuscripts into the context of history, we begin to see the outlines of some of the major issues up for debate regarding the text of the New Testament. Since many fine works exist that go into great depth on this issue, we will not repeat what others have done so well. Instead, we will summarize the important points.

First, the text of the Bible was transmitted in the context of history. That is, we cannot isolate the discussion of how the Bible came to us from the ebb and flow of history. The rise and fall of the Roman Empire, for example, is an important aspect of the transmission of the Bible to our day. So, too, is the rise of Islam and the protracted conflict between Muslim and Christian forces around the ancient city of Constantinople. These things had great influence upon Christians and, necessarily, upon the manuscripts in their possession. This might seem rather elementary and not worthy of noting, but scholars have put forth entire theories about the text of the Bible that seemed to be utterly oblivious of the simple facts of history and how they impacted the entire process.

In some ways the text of the New Testament was more impacted by external forces than the text of the Old Testament. There are a number of reasons for this. There was a natural “isolation” of the text of the Old Testament due to the reverence given to it by the Jewish people, and by their distinct standing as a religious and ethnic group. Hebrew as a language was not well known outside of Jewish circles, which gave an added measure of “control” to the transmission of the text. In comparison, the Greek of the New Testament, at least in the first few centuries after it was written, was the “common language” of the people. Since the Gospel went to “all people,” all sorts of different people had direct access to the New Testament and hence were able to make copies of those documents in a language they understood. Christians were very open about spreading their message far and wide, and as a result the text of the New Testament went far and wide as well. Rater than being limited to trained scribes, we discover that businessmen, soldiers, and even literate slaves often made personal copies of one of the Gospels so as to be able to read about their Lord Jesus. The less trained individuals might make more errors in their transcription than the experienced scribes, but this was unavoidable given the Christian belief that the message of Christ was to go to all men.

Text-Types and Families

How is all of this important to us? Much in every way. One of the most critical elements of the entire KJV Only controversy, especially as it relates to the New Testament, revolves around the discussion of “text-types” or “text-families.” We are now in a position to understand how “text-types” came into being. Basically, a text-type or text-family refers to a grouping of manuscripts that share common readings or characteristics that distinguish them from other text-types. Some manuscripts belong to more than one text-type, for they may have one kind of text in the Gospels, and a different kind of text in Paul’s writings or in the general Epsitles. The lines between the various text-types that have been identified are often blurry. But in general, scholars have identified at least three, and probably four, “text-types” in the New Testament. They are:

(1)  The Alexandrian text-type, found in most papyri, and in the great uncial codices א (Sinaticus) and B (Vaticanus).

(2)  The Western text-type, found both in Greek manuscripts and in translations into other languages, especially Latin.

(3)  The Byzantine text-type, found in the vast majority of later uncial and minuscule manuscripts.

(4)  The Caesarean text-type, disputed by some, found in P and “Family 1” (abbreviated f)

As one can see from the names, these text-types are tied to geographic locations. The Alexandrian is thought to originate in, or at least to have been predominant in, the area around Alexandria, Egypt, where early church fathers such as Origen, Clement, and later Athanasius flourished. The Byzantine text-type is found consistently in the area around Byzantium, or Constantinople, and the Western, of course, refers to the Western half of the Roman Empire (though this one is a little less specific in nature, examples of this type defying precise geographical location).

The two “ends” of the spectrum, so to speak, are the Alexandrian and the Byzantine. The Alexandrian is the more “concise,” while the Byzantine is the “full” text. What does this mean? Most scholars today (in opposition to KJV Only advocates) would see the Alexandrian text-type as representing an earlier, and hence more accurate, form of text than the Byzantine does not contain some distinctive readings that are quite ancient, but that the readings that are unique to the text-type are generally secondary or later readings. Since the Byzantine comes from a later period (the earliest texts are almost all Alexandrian in nature, not Byzantine), it is “fuller” in the sense that it not only contains conflations of the other text-types, but it gives evidence of what might be called the “expansion of piety.” That is, additions have been made to the text that flow from a desire to protect and reverence divine truths. We will have more to say about this shortly.

The Byzantine text-type represents the vast majority of the Greek manuscripts we have available to us today. There is a fairly simple reason for this. Within a few centuries after the writing of the New Testament, Latin superseded Greek as the “language of the people” in the West. Obviously, when people are no longer speaking Greek the production of manuscripts in that language will be less than if everyone is still speaking that language.

Another historical event that greatly impacted the use of language was the rise of Islam and the Muslim invasion of Palestine, then North Africa, and finally all the way into Spain and southern France. Obviously, production of manuscripts in those areas was adversely affected by the rise of Islam as the predominant religion. If one thinks about a map, it becomes readily apparent that the only area that continued to speak and utilize Greek was the area under the control of Constantinople, also known as Byzantium. The brave people of this area withstood the attacks of the Muslim invaders for many years, finally succumbing in the middle of the fifteenth century. Given that these Christians continued to write and use Greek all through this period, while Greek had passed out of normal use throughout the rest of Europe and North Africa, the dominance of the text-type that was found in that area is easily understood.

KJV Only advocates disagree with this summary of the historical situation. The Textus Receptus, the Greek text from which the KJV New Testament was translated, is “Byzantine” in character, so AV Alone believers must find a way of defending the Byzantine text-type as the “best.” They explain the lack of ancient examples of the Byzantine text-type by theorizing that those manuscripts “wore out” from excessive use over the years, while the “Alexandrian” texts were quickly seen as corrupt and hence just buried in the sand. Such a theory, of course, defies proof by its very nature, but it is the explanation used by many of those who would assert the superiority of the Byzantine text-type.

Another common claim made by those who defend the KJV is that the Alexandrian texts have been corrupted by “heretics.” They point to men like Origen who did things and believed things that most modern fundamentalists would find more than slightly unusual, and on this basis make the very long leap to the assertion that the manuscripts that come from the same area must be “corrupt.” The problem is that you can also find excellent examples of orthodox Christians in the same area just as you can find some rather heretical folks in the Byzantine area, too.

As we noted before, it is important to emphasize that the differences between the Alexandrian and Byzantine text-types do not result in two different New Testaments. A person who would read Codex Sinaiticus and who would apply sound exegetical methods to its text would come to the very same conclusions as anyone reading a Byzantine manuscript written a thousand years later.

White, James R. The King James Only Controversy: Can You Trust the Modern Translations? Minneapolis: Bethany House. 1995. Print.

Bart Ehrman, James White, & Textual Criticism

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It’s been a while since my last post and I figured I would post something involving transmission of the bible, something I have been doing a little study into lately. This subject is a little difficult to read up on but extremely rewarding because of how it impacts your view on the bible. When you really know how things were transmitted it helps you also to defend against the many attacks that are waged against the authority of the bible. First, I will show some of this criticism by displaying a section from the book Jesus Interrupted by Bart D. Ehrman, a major critic of Christianity.

Even though Misquoting Jesus seemed to stir up a bit of a hornet’s nest, at least among conservative evangelical Christians, its overarching theses were almost entirely noncontroversial. I would summarize them as follows:

  • We don’t have the originals of any of the books of the New Testament.
  • The copies we have were made much later, in most instances many centuries later.
  • We have thousands of these copies, in Greek—the language in which of all the New Testament books were originally written.
  • All of these copies contain mistakes—accidental slips on the part of the scribes who made them or intentional alterations by scribes wanting to change the text to make it say what they wanted it to mean (or thought that it did mean).
  • We don’t know how many mistakes there are among out surviving copies, but they appear to number in the hundreds of thousands. It is safe to put the matter in comparative terms: there are more differences in our manuscripts than there are words in the New Testament.
  • The vast majority of these mistakes are completely insignificant, showing us nothing more than that scribes in antiquity could spell no better than most people can today.
  • But some of the mistakes matter—a lot. Some of them affect the interpretation of a verse, a chapter, or an entire book. Others reveal the kinds of concerns that were affecting scribes, who sometimes altered the text in light of debates and controversies going on in their own surroundings.
  • The task of the textual critic is both to figure out what the author of a text actually wrote and to understand why scribes modified the text (to help us understand the context within which scribes were working).
  • Despite the fact that scholars have been working diligently at these tasks for three hundred years, there continue to be heated differences of opinion. There are some passages where serious and very smart scholars disagree about what the original text said, and there are some places where we will probably never know what the original text said.

The conservative evangelical response to my book surprised me a bit. Some of these critics criticized Misquoting Jesus for “misleading” people—as if facts such as those I have just cited could lead someone down a slippery slope toward perdition. A number of critics indicated that they didn’t much appreciate my tone. And a whole lot of them wanted to insist that the facts I laid out do not require anyone to lose their faith in the bible as the inspired word of God.

That last point is one with which I might take issue: there are certain views of the inspiration of Scripture, such as the one I had pounded into me as a late teenager, that do not stand up well to the facts of textual criticism. For most Christians, who don’t have a conservative evangelical view like the one I had, these textual facts can be interesting, but there is nothing in them to challenge their faith, which is built on something other than having the very words that God inspired in the Bible. And I certainly never intended to lead anyone away from the Christian faith; critics who have suggested that I myself stopped being a Christian once I realized there were differences among our manuscripts are simply wrong and being ridiculous.

In any event, as I indicated, these theses themselves were almost entirely noncontroversial. Who can deny that we have thousands of manuscripts? Or hundreds of thousands of variants? Or that lots of the variants involve spelling? Or that scholars continue to debate what the original text was in lots of places? All of these statements are factually true.

Ehrman, Bart D. Jesus, Interrupted: Revealing the Hidden Contradictions in the Bible (and Why We Don’t Know About Them). New York: HarperCollins. 2009. Print

As you can see, there is a little bit of a challenge to what Ehrman would call a “conservative Evangelical view.” The question is, if these facts are true about the bible, how can we trust it? Do they really destroy the veracity of the bible? Can we really know what is being said? To answer this I will enlist the help of James White, a Christian apologist and scholar. This is from the book The King James Only Controversy where James is arguing that the number of textual errors found in the copies actually allow us to trust the bible. Because of the length I will only post part of his writing now, and will later post the rest.

To Err is Human

Men make mistakes, even when they are trying really hard. The greatest baseball player still strikes out. The greatest basketball player will miss the clutch free-throw and lose a game once in a while. The best archer will sometimes fire an arrow wide of the target. To err is human.

I am sitting at a computer writing this work. The computer checks my spelling (even while I am typing!), suggests other terms, and even analyzes my grammar. It prints out exactly what I tell it to print, and nothing else. And yet, I have made mistakes already in what I have written that others have pointed out to me as they have reviewed my work. Just today I was shown a rather obvious error in a later chapter. To err is human, even when that human is computer assisted.

There are dozens and dozens of citations in this work. As I sit here copying from a book, I make errors. My eyes skip to the next line; I misspell a word; I skip a phrase, or insert a phrase that is not in the original. Copying is difficult work, even with good lighting, a fresh set of eyes, and good conditions (a cool, air-conditioned room, no major distractions, etc.). Humans make mistakes when copying things. We were not born to be copy machines.

The scribes of old made errors, too. Even the best professional scribes had bad days. They made mistakes in what they were copying, even when they were copying the Scriptures. They worked under much more difficult situations. They often worked in the cold or the heat, and their lighting was almost always inferior to a good fluorescent lamp. May of them had to work long hours at what they were doing. Fingers cramped, backs ached. You may think of one of those long essay tests from college to get a slight idea of the rigor of the work. All of these things contributed to the simple fact that there is not a single handwritten manuscript of the Bible, in Greek or Hebrew, that does not contain, somewhere, an error, an oversight, a mistake. To err is human.

What kind of mistakes did scribes make? Most errors (the technical term that is used incessantly in scholarly works is “textual variants”) were of little importance and are easily recognized today. A scribe might misspell a word. He might skip a phrase, or even a whole line, due to his eye catching a similar word, or a similar ending, somewhere else on the page as he looks back at the text he is copying (another technical term is used for this, the “exemplar”). There are all sorts of examples of this in the New Testament, as we will see when we examine textual variants in chapter 7.

Other errors had to do with hearing. In some instances a place called a scriptorium was set aside specifically for the production of manuscripts. One individual would read from the “master” document, and the others scribes would copy down what he was saying. It is easy to understand how certain kinds of mistakes could occur here. We all can imagine how the mind could wander after a few hours of listening to someone reading a text while you labor to write down what they are saying. Words that sound alike but differ in spelling could easily be substituted, and this is exactly the kind of thing that has been discovered.

Another kind of “scribal error” has to do with harmonization. Let’s say you were used to the way a particular phrase sounds in a particular passage of Scripture because your pastor uses that verse all the time in church. But let’s say that a similar phrase occurs elsewhere in Scripture—similar, but not exactly the same. As you are copying that other passage of Scripture it would be very easy to inadvertently make that passage sound like the one you are accustomed to. You might not even know you had changed anything! But this kind of harmonization is found in many, many places. We will see numerous examples of this later, but looking at at least one right now would be helpful.

When Paul wrote to the Ephesians, he said, “Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ” (Ephesians 1:2, NASB). This phrase early on had a part in the liturgy of the church. It was a Christian greeting, a blessing of sorts. Many people continue to use it in that way to this very day. But when writing to the Colossians, Paul was not as complete in his wording as when he wrote to the Ephesians. Instead he wrote, “Grace to you and peace from God our Father” (Colossians 1:2, NASB).

Now place yourself in the position of a scribe who has memorized Ephesians 1:2. Each Sunday you hear “Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ” as you leave the worship service. It is second nature to you. Now you start making a copy of Paul’s letter to the Colossians. You start into verse 2 of chapter 1. “Grace to you and peace…” “Ah, I know this one!” you think to yourself. And so you write out the whole phrase, as you are accustomed to hearing it, and move on with verse 3. In the process, you have added an extra phrase, “and the Lord Jesus Christ,” without even knowing it. Or perhaps you look back at the original you are copying and notice that it does not say “and the Lord Jesus Christ.” “That is strange,” you might think. “It should say that! Well, the guy who copied this must have just missed it. I’ll fix it…” And so you put it in, again due to your familiarity with the same phrase but in a different context. This kind of harmonization is easy to understand, and it explains many of the most commonly cited examples of “corruption” on the part of KJV Only advocates. Indeed, this very example, Colossians 1:2 (the KJV does have the added phrase, “and the Lord Jesus Christ”), is found in nearly every KJV Only work in print as an example of an attempt to downgrade the lordship of Jesus Christ. Instead, it is a perfectly understandable mistake involving harmonization between one passage and another. The fact that all modern translations have “and the Lord Jesus Christ” at Ephesians 1:2 should certainly cause us to question anyone who would ask us to believe that there is some evil conspiracy at work behind the non-inclusion of the same phrase at Colossians 1:2. If someone is tampering with the texts, why not take out the phrase at Ephesians 1:2? We will start to sound like a broken record as we point this out over and over again.

Thousands and Thousands of Variants

You may hear someone speaking of the thousands of variants in the manuscripts of the Bible, and in one sense, they are speaking the truth, as there are thousands of variants. One number that appears often in this context is 200,000 variants in the New Testament alone! But just as it is wise to listen closely to what a politician is saying, it is wise to look closely at this claim as well. If you put ten people in a room and asked them all to copy the first five chapters of the Gospel of John, you would end up with ten “different” copies of John. In other words, no two handwritten copies would be absolutely identical to each other. Someone would skip a word that everyone else has. One person would misspell that one word that they can never get right. Someone would probably skip a line, or even a verse, especially if there were similar words at the beginning or end of the verse before and the verse after. So you would end up with a lot of variants. But would you not have ten copies of the same book? Yes, you would and by comparing all ten copies you could rather easily reproduce the text of the original, because when one person makes a mistake, the other nine are not likely to do so at the very same spot.

When people speak of huge numbers of variants, they are referring to the fact that when one manuscript has a unique spelling of a word at one point, this creates a variant over against all other manuscripts. There are currently over 3,500 manuscripts catalogued of parts of the New Testament alone. Obviously, with each one having small differences from each other, the number of “variants” becomes very high indeed. However, that does not mean that you have 5,000 different renderings of the New Testament. One can, by comparison of these many, many manuscripts, reproduce the original, just as we did above with the ten copies of the Gospel of John. Due to the fact that we are dealing with a more complex situation in the NT (the much longer period of time, the fact that we are working with copies of copies, etc.), things are not nearly as easy as our example would lead us to believe, but the principles are the same.

Taking the number mentioned above, 200,000 we first note that these variants occur in only about 10,000 places. How important are these variants? How do they impact the text? Textual scholars have answered in different ways, but with the same result. Westcott and Hort, the two men most vilified by KJV Only advocates, indicated that only about one eight of the variants had any weight, the rest being “trivialities.” This would leave the text, according to Westcott and Hort, 98.33 percent pure no matter whether one used the Textus Receptus or their own Greek text! Philip Schaff estimated that there were only 400 variants that affected the sense of the passage, and only 50 of these were actually important. He asserted that not one affected “an article of faith or a precept of duty which is not abundantly sustained by other and undoubted passages, or by the whole tenor of Scripture teaching.” The great American Greek scholar, Dr. A.T. Robertson, whose familiarity with the most intimate details of the Greek text is abundantly verified by his massive 1,454 page A Grammar of the Greek New Testament in the Light of Historical Research, indicated that areas of real concern regarding textual variants amounted to but “a thousandth part of the entire text.” It is because of this that Dr. B.B. Warfield could state that “the great mass of the New Testament, in other words, has been transmitted to us with no, or next to no variations.” As Dr. Gordon Fee put it:

“It is noteworthy that for most scholars over 90 percent of all the variations to the NT text are resolved, because in most instances the variant that best explains the origin of the other is also supported by the earliest and best witnesses.”

The reality is that the amount of variation between the two most extremely different manuscripts of the New Testament would not fundamentally alter the message of the Scriptures! I make this statement (1) fully aware of the wide range of textual variants in the New Testament, and (2) painfully aware of the strong attacks upon those who have made similar statements in the past. KJV Only advocates are quick to attack such statements, but I stand by it and will document its truthfulness throughout the rest of this book. The simple fact of the matter is that no textual variants in either the Old or New Testaments in any way, shape, or form materially disrupt or destroy any essential doctrine of the Christian faith. That is a fact that any semi-impartial review will substantiate.

 White, James R. The King James Only Controversy: Can You Trust the Modern Translations? Minneapolis: Bethany House. 1995. Print.