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The Ungodly Fruit of Modern Textual Criticism
October 1, 2007
David Cloud, Way of Life Literature, P.O. Box 610368, Port Huron, MI 48061

We further reject modern textual criticism because its fruit has been increasing uncertainty and skepticism, a weakening of the authority of Scripture, and the promotion of the ecumenical movement.

1. Modern textual criticism has resulted in uncertainty in the Biblical text.

Whereas prior to the late 19th century the vast majority of Bible-believing Christians were confident that the Masoretic Hebrew and the Greek Received texts were the preserved Word of God, today there is no real certainty where textual criticism has been accepted. The Masoretic Hebrew has been challenged by the Dead Sea Scrolls, the Septuagint, and other sources, so that some twenty to thirty thousand textual changes have been suggested for the Old Testament. The Greek Received Text has been replaced with a constantly changing so-called “eclectic” text.

Note the following statements by prominent textual critics of the last 100 years testifying to the gross uncertainty produced by modern textual criticism.

“[The New Testament text is more unsettled] than ever, and PERHAPS FINALLY, UNSETTLED” (Rendel Harris, Side Lights on New Testament Research, 1908, p. 3).

“The ultimate text, if there ever was one that deserves to be so called, IS FOR EVER IRRECOVERABLE” (F.C. Conybeare, History of New Testament Criticism, 1910, p. 129).

“In spite of the claims of Westcott and Hort and of von Soden, WE DO NOT KNOW THE ORIGINAL FORM OF THE GOSPELS, AND IT IS QUITE LIKELY THAT WE NEVER SHALL” (Kirsopp Lake, Family 13, The Ferrar Group, Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1941, p. vii).

“... it is generally recognized that THE ORIGINAL TEXT OF THE BIBLE CANNOT BE RECOVERED” (R.M. Grant, “The Bible of Theophilus of Antioch,” Journal of Biblical Literature, vol. 66, 1947, p. 173).

“The textual history that the Westcott-Hort text represents is no longer tenable in the light of newer discoveries and fuller textual analysis. In the effort to construct a congruent history, our failure suggests that WE HAVE LOST THE WAY, that WE HAVE REACHED A DEAD END, and that only a new and different insight will enable us to break through” (Kenneth Clark, “Today’s Problems,” New Testament Manuscript Studies, edited by Parvis and Wikgren, 1950, p. 161).

“...the optimism of the earlier editors has given way to that SKEPTICISM WHICH INCLINES TOWARDS REGARDING ‘THE ORIGINAL TEXT’ AS AN UNATTAINABLE MIRAGE” (G. Zuntz, The Text of the Epistles, 1953, p. 9).

“In general, THE WHOLE THING IS LIMITED TO PROBABILITY JUDGMENTS; the original text of the New Testament, according to its nature, must be and remain A HYPOTHESIS” (H. Greeven, Der Urtext des Neuen Testaments, 1960, p. 20, cited from Hills, The King James Version Defended, p. 67).

“ far, the twentieth century has been a period characterized by GENERAL PESSIMISM ABOUT THE POSSIBILITY OF RECOVERING THE ORIGINAL TEXT BY OBJECTIVE CRITERIA” (H.H. Oliver, 1962, p. 308; cited from Eldon Epp, “Decision Points in New Testament Textual Criticism,” Studies in the Theory and Method of New Testament Textual Criticism, p. 25).

“The primary goal of New Testament textual study remains the recovery of what the New Testament writers wrote. We have already suggested that TO ACHIEVE THIS GOAL IS WELL NIGH IMPOSSIBLE. Therefore we must be content with what Reinhold Neibuhr and others have called, in other contexts, AN ‘IMPOSSIBLE POSSIBILITY’” (R.M. Grant, A Historical Introduction to the New Testament, 1963, p. 51).

“...every textual critic knows that this similarity of text indicates, rather, that WE HAVE MADE LITTLE PROGRESS IN TEXTUAL THEORY SINCE WESTCOTT-HORT; THAT WE SIMPLY DO NOT KNOW HOW TO MAKE A DEFINITIVE DETERMINATION AS TO WHAT THE BEST TEXT IS; THAT WE DO NOT HAVE A CLEAR PICTURE OF THE TRANSMISSION AND ALTERNATION OF THE TEXT IN THE FIRST FEW CENTURIES; and, accordingly, that the Westcott-Hort kind of text has maintained its dominant position largely by default” (Eldon J. Epp, “The Twentieth Century Interlude in New Testament Textual Criticism,” Journal of Biblical Literature, Vol. 43, 1974, pp. 390-391).

“...WE FACE A CRISIS OVER METHODOLOGY IN NT TEXTUAL CRITICISM. ... Von Soden and B.H. Streeter and a host of others announced and defended their theories of the NT text, but none has stood the tests of criticism or of time. ... following Westcott-Hort but beginning particularly with C.H. Turner (1923ff.), M.-J. Langrange (1935), G.D. Kilpatrick (1943ff.), A.F.J. Klijn (1949), and J.K. Elliott (1972ff.), A NEW CRISIS OF THE CRITERIA BECAME PROMINENT AND IS VERY MUCH WITH US TODAY: a duel between external and internal criteria and the widespread UNCERTAINTY AS TO PRECISELY WHAT KIND OF COMPROMISE OUGHT TO OR CAN BE WORKED OUT between them. The temporary ‘cease-fire’ that most--but certainly not all--textual critics have agreed upon is called ‘moderate’ or ‘reasoned’ eclecticism’ ... the literature of the past two or three decades is replete with controversy over the eclectic method, or at least is abundant with evidence of THE FRUSTRATION THAT ACCOMPANIES ITS USE...” (Eldon Epp, “Decision Points in New Testament Textual Criticism,” Studies in the Theory and Method of New Testament Textual Criticism, 1993, pp. 39-41).

“...every textual critic knows that this similarity of text indicates, rather, that we have made little progress in textual theory since Westcott-Hort; that WE SIMPLY DO NOT KNOW HOW TO MAKE A DEFINITIVE DETERMINATION AS TO WHAT THE BEST TEXT IS; that we do not have a clear picture of the transmission and alteration of the text in the first few centuries; and, accordingly, that the Westcott-Hort kind of text has maintained its dominant position largely by default” (Eldon Epp, “The Twentieth-Century Interlude in NT Textual Criticism,” Studies in the Theory and Method of New Testament Textual Criticism, p. 87).

“...we no longer think of Westcott-Hort’s ‘Neutral’ text as neutral; we no longer think of their ‘Western’ text as western or as uniting the textual elements they selected; and, of course, we no longer think so simplistically or so confidently about recovering ‘the New Testament in the Original Greek.’ ... WE REMAIN LARGELY IN THE DARK as to how we might reconstruct the textual history that has left in its wake--in the form of MSS and fragments--numerous pieces of a puzzle that we seem incapable of fitting together. Westcott-Hort, von Soden, and others had sweeping theories (which we have largely rejected) to undergird their critical texts, but we seem now to have no such theories and no plausible sketches of the early history of the text that are widely accepted. What progress, then, have we made? Are we more advanced than our predecessors when, after showing their theories to be unacceptable, we offer no such theories at all to vindicate our accepted text?” (Epp, “A Continuing Interlude in NT Textual Criticism,” Studies in the Theory and Method of New Testament Textual Criticism, pp. 114, 115).

“As New Testament textual criticism moves into the twenty-first century, it must shed whatever remains of its innocence, for nothing is simple anymore. Modernity may have led many to assume that a straightforward goal of reaching a single original text of the New Testament--or even a text as close as possible to that original--was achievable. Now, however, REALITY AND MATURITY REQUIRE THAT TEXTUAL CRITICISM FACE UNSETTLING FACTS, CHIEF AMONG THEM THAT THE TERM ‘ORIGINAL’ HAS EXPLODED INTO A COMPLEX AND HIGHLY UNMANAGEABLE MULTIVALENT ENTITY. Whatever tidy boundaries textual criticism may have presumed in the past have now been shattered, and its parameters have moved markedly not only to the rear and toward the front, but also sideways, as fresh dimensions of originality emerge from behind the variant readings and from other manuscript phenomena” (E. Jay Epps, “The Multivalence of the Term ‘Original Text’ In New Testament Textual Criticism,” Harvard Theological Review, 1999, Vol. 92, No. 3, pp. 245-281; this article is based on a paper presented at the New Testament Textual Criticism Section, Society of Biblical Literature Annual Meeting, Orlando, Florida, November 1998).

The situation with modern textual criticism likened to that of Darwinian evolution

It is evident that the situation in the field of modern textual criticism is similar to that of Darwinian evolution. While many of the chief principles of Darwin and his early followers have been refuted or seriously challenged, such as the theory that life could spontaneously arise or that natural selection could account for life as we know it or that man descended from apes, the superstructure of Darwinian evolution remains strangely unshaken. Likewise, modern textual criticism in 21st century sits firmly upon the foundation laid by its architects of the 19th, and even as the foundational principles have been disproved (e.g., a Lucian Recension, the existence of a neutral text, the reliability of intrinsic and transcriptional probability) the superstructure remains largely and strangely unshaken. In the case of Darwinian evolution, the chief thing that was rejected in the beginning was the doctrine of a Creator, and regardless of how devastatingly the foundational principles of Darwinian evolution are disproved, contemporary adherents of evolution refuse to reconsider the doctrine of a Creator or any form of Intelligent Design. In the case of modern textual criticism, the chief thing that was rejected by Westcott and Hort and other early proponents was the Greek Received Text (and with it any practical doctrine of divine preservation), and regardless of how thoroughly the foundational principles of Westcott and Hort have been refuted by textual critics in the past 100 years, the children of Westcott and Hort refuse to take a new look at the Received Text. The reason is that the adherents of both disciplines refuse to admit that they must approach these subjects by faith in God and by faith alone, that they can never know the truth about creation or the Bible apart from faith in the divine revelation. Any other foundation is shifting sand.

2. Modern textual criticism has resulted in “
the tyranny of the experts.”

“The critical point of departure had been made [with the ascendancy of the Westcott-Hort Text]. No longer was the majority of the Greek manuscripts, preserved by the churches, the basis for recognizing the original reading. From now on, the learned professors would deliver the Christian world from their ‘blindness and ignorance.’ By their scholarly expertise they would deliver to the churches a purer text of the N.T. Dr. Machen called this kind of scholarship ‘the tyranny of the experts.’ Now the ‘experts’ would rule over the churches and decide for them which variant reading was the acceptable one. After Westcott and Hort, the Pandora’s box had been opened. As a result, all the evils of German rationalism began to tear at the foundation of the Faith, the Holy Scriptures. This ‘wrestling’ of the Scriptures has continued on until this day in both the higher and lower forms of textual criticism. The situation today involves almost as many different texts of the Greek N.T. as there are scholars. Each ‘scholar’ decides for himself what he will or will not accept as the Word of God. It comes down to two choices. We can accept the text handed down by the churches for nearly two thousand years or accept the findings of modern scholars, no two of which agree. If we go with the scholars, there is no one text that is accepted by all of them. Confusion reigns among the scholars. There is no standard” (Charles Turner, Why the King James Version, p. 9; Turner is the founder of the Baptist Bible Translators Institute of Bowie, Texas).

3. Because of modern textual criticism, the certainty and dogmatism of a settled biblical text has been replaced with the uncertainty of conflicting texts.

This is true for the New Testament. Westcott and Hort’s principles that gave us the critical Greek text in 1881 have undergone continual modification throughout the 20th century and into the 21st, and the Greek Testament based on those theories has also continually shifted, with a subsequent change in the translations based on it. The 3rd edition of the UBS Greek New Testament differed from the 2nd edition three years earlier in more than 500 places, and the same five textual critics made those changes.

The same is true for the Old Testament. With the introduction of textual theories whereby the Hebrew Masoretic text was dethroned, the Old Testament has undergone continual revision on the basis of the Dead Sea Scrolls, the Greek Septuagint, the Samaritan Pentateuch, the Latin Vulgate, the Syriac Peshitta, the Targums, the Symmachus and Theodotion Greek translations of the Old Testament, and other sources. These are the sources listed in the Preface to the 1978 New International Version as the basis for the NIV O.T. translation (pp. viii, xi). Dr. Donald Waite observes: “The NIV editors have very honestly and very boldly altered the foundations of our Old Testament text in the above fifteen DIFFERENT WAYS, whenever it suited their fancy! You don't know at what point they’ve used one document to contradict the Masoretic Hebrew text, and at what point they used another document” (Waite, Defending the King James Bible). According to Dr. Waite’s calculations, the 1937 Hebrew text by Rudolph Kittel (Biblia Hebraica) and the 1977 Stuttgart edition of the Hebrew Old Testament (Biblia Hebraica Stuttgartensia) contain footnotes listing some 20,000 to 30,000 textual changes. Even the New King James Bible, which professes to follow the same textual foundation as the King James Bible, follows instead an eclectic Old Testament, modifying the Hebrew Masoretic with the Septuagint, the Latin Vulgate, “a variety of ancient versions,” and the Dead Sea Scrolls (New King James Bible, Preface). As with the New Testament, those who are doing the revision of the Old Testament do not agree in their principles or their conclusions. Consider one area of O.T. textual evidence, that of the Dead Sea Scrolls. The first of these was discovered in a cave near the Dead Sea in 1947, with subsequent finds in nearby caves. The first finds supported the Masoretic text but subsequent finds unearthed some O.T. manuscripts that differ from the Masoretic. Textual scholars do not agree on many important points touching these manuscripts, not even their date. G.R. Driver (1965) disagreed with Burrows, Albright, and Cross, claiming that the Dead Sea Scrolls were written in the first two centuries A.D., rather than B.C. This is brought out in the book Second Thoughts on the Dead Sea Scrolls (1956) by F.F. Bruce. The very title of the book exposes the fact that the textual scholars disagree and that their conclusions are in flux.

4. The contemporary doctrine of eclecticism has elevated the Bible student as the master of the text and has resulted in a massive decline in the authority of the Scriptures in this generation.

The concept of dogmatic interpretation and preaching has faded greatly because of this damnable principle. In a typical Bible study in a church that has bought into eclecticism, every individual is an authority unto his or herself as to what Greek manuscript or Greek text or English translation to follow in any given instance. There is no dogmatic authority for any statement, because someone can always come up with an alternative reading. This same principle has greatly weakened the authority of Bible preaching. I recall a visit in August 2003 to Saddleback Church in southern California, where Rick Warren of “Purpose Driven Church” fame is senior pastor. I observed on the way into the auditorium that only a few people carried Bibles, and the reason became clear when I saw the bewildering multiplicity of versions that were used in the preaching. An outline of the sermon was handed out with the bulletin, and six or seven versions were quoted, most of them loose paraphrases or dynamic equivalencies such as the Living Bible, the New Living Translation, The Message, Today’s English Version, and the Contemporary English Version. It would be impossible to follow along in one’s Bible. The result is that the people do not bring their own Bibles and do not therefore carefully test the preaching. How could they, when any biblical statement they would attempt to examine has dozens of variations?

5. The uncertainty produced by modern textual criticism has given ammunition to the enemies of the Bible.

They recognize, even if the evangelicals and fundamentalists who have adopted textual criticism don’t, that an array of conflicting texts and versions undermines the doctrine of divine inspiration and preservation.

6. Modern textual criticism has led many into theological modernism.

Dr. Edward Hills, who was trained in textual criticism at the doctorate level at Harvard, observed this phenomenon. “... the logic of naturalistic textual criticism leads to complete modernism, to a naturalistic view not only of the biblical text but also of the Bible as a whole and of the Christian faith. For if it is right to ignore the providential preservation of the Scriptures in the study of the New Testament text, why isn’t it right to go farther in the same direction? Why isn’t it right to ignore other divine aspects of the Bible? Why isn’t it right to ignore the divine inspiration of the Scriptures when discussing the authenticity of the Gospel of John or the Synoptic problem or the authorship of the Pentateuch? ... Impelled by this remorseless logic, many an erstwhile conservative Bible student has become entirely modernistic in his thinking. But he does not acknowledge that he has departed from the Christian faith. For from his point of view he has not. He has merely traveled farther down the same path which he began to tread when first he studied naturalistic textual criticism of the Westcott and Hort type, perhaps at some conservative theological seminary. From his point of view his orthodox former professors are curiously inconsistent. They use the naturalistic method in the area of New Testament textual criticism and then drop it most illogically, like something too hot to handle, when they come to other departments of biblical study” (Edward F. Hills, The King James Version Defended).

The theological danger inherent within the practice of textual criticism was admitted more recently from the liberal side by E. Jay Epps of Harvard Divinity School: “Nor (for those who choose to work within a theological framework) is textual criticism a ‘safe’ discipline -- a phrase I have heard for four decades -- that can be practiced without challenge to theological convictions or without risk to faith commitments or truth assertions. I DOUBT THAT IT EVER WAS ‘SAFE’ -- AT LEAST FOR ANY WHO HAVE THOUGHT THROUGH THE IMPLICATIONS OF OUR MYRIAD VARIATION UNITS, WITH THEIR INNUMERABLE COMPETING READINGS AND CONCEPTIONS, AS WELL AS THE THEOLOGICAL MOTIVATIONS THAT ARE EVIDENT IN SO MANY. BUT IF IT HAS BEEN A ‘SAFE’ DISCIPLINE, IT IS SAFE NO MORE. ... Any who embrace it as a vocation will find its intellectual challenges to have been increased a hundredfold by its enlarged boundaries and broadened horizons, which extend into codicology and papyrology and also into related early Christian, classical, literary, and sociological fields, all of which favor accommodation of the richness of the manuscript tradition, WITH ITS MULTIPLICITY OF TEXTS AND ITS MULTIVALENT ORIGINALS, RATHER THAN THE MYOPIC QUEST FOR A SINGLE ORIGINAL TEXT. Both broad training and knowledge, and A CAPACITY TO TOLERATE AMBIGUITY will be high on the list of requisite qualifications for its practitioners” (E. Jay Epps, “The Multivalence of the Term ‘Original Text’ In New Testament Textual Criticism,” Harvard Theological Review, 1999, Vol. 92, No. 3, pp. 245-281; this article is based on a paper presented at the New Testament Textual Criticism Section, Society of Biblical Literature Annual Meeting, Orlando, Florida, November 1998).

This is a loud warning to those who have ears to hear. What Epps did not say is that all of the many fields into which the modern textual critic is led are dominated today by theological skeptics, and the evangelical or fundamentalist who follows this course is disobeying the Bible by not separating from heretics and is in dire danger of spiritual shipwreck. “Be not deceived: evil communications corrupt good manners” (1 Cor. 15:33).

7. Modern textual criticism has furthered the ecumenical movement by bringing Protestants, Baptists, and Catholics together in the field of Bible texts and translation. This is a powerful exhibit of the unscriptural fruit of modern textual criticsm:

Whereas the Roman Catholic Church never accepted the Greek Received Text or the Protestant versions based on it and indeed it put translators such as William Tyndale and John Rogers to death, Rome has readily accepted the critical text. Note the following statement by a Roman Catholic: “Catholics should work together with Protestants in the fundamental task of biblical translation...[They can] work very well together and HAVE THE SAME APPROACH AND INTERPRETATION...[This] signals a new age in the church” (Patrick Henry, New Directions in New Testament Study, Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1979, pp. 232-234).

The papal proclamation “Divine afflante Spiritu” in 1943 called for an ecumenical Bible. “[T]hese translations [should] be produced in cooperation with separated brothers” (New American Bible, New York: World Publishing Co., 1970, p. vii).

In fact, Rome has conformed its own Vulgate to the modern critical text. In 1965, Pope Paul VI authorized the publication of a new Latin Vulgate, with the Latin text conformed to the United Bible Societies Greek New Testament (Michael de Semlyen, All Roads Lead to Rome, p. 201). It was published in 1979 by the German Bible Society.

In 1966 the Revised Standard Version was published in the “Roman Catholic Edition.” This version included the apocryphal books inserted among the books of the Old Testament and incorporated Catholic readings such as “full of grace” in Luke 1:28. As a result, the chief editor of the RSV, Luther Weigle, was rewarded the “Papal Knighthood of St. Gregory the Great” in 1966 by Pope Paul VI (Peter Thuesen, In Discordance with the Scriptures: American Protestant Battles over Translating the Bible, 1999, p. 142).

Since 1967, Cardinal Carlo Martini has been on the editorial committee for the United Bible Societies Greek New Testament.

In October 1969, for the first time in its history the Church of England authorized a Catholic Bible for use in its services. The Full Synod of Canterbury Convocation authorized The Jerusalem Bible, which was published in 1966 with the imprimatur of Cardinal Heenan.

In 1973 the Ecumenical Edition of the Revised Standard Version was published. Also called the “Common Bible,” a copy was presented personally to Pope Paul VI by Bruce Metzger, Herbert May, and others. Metzger described this as follows: “In a private audience granted to a small group, comprising the Greek Orthodox Archbishop Athenagoras, Lady Priscilla and Sir William Collins, Herbert G. May, and the present writer, POPE PAUL ACCEPTED THE RSV ‘COMMON’ BIBLE AS A SIGNIFICANT STEP IN FURTHERING ECUMENICAL RELATIONS AMONG THE CHURCHES” (Metzger, “The RSV-Ecumenical Edition,” Theology Today, October 1977).

The Bible Societies translation projects today are “interconfessional.” In 1987 a formal agreement was made between the Roman Catholic Church and the United Bible Societies that the critical Greek New Testament will be used for all future translations, both Catholic and Protestant (Guidelines for International Cooperation in Translating the Bible, Rome, 1987, p. 5). (For more about ecumenical translations see our book Unholy Hands on God’s Holy Book, available from Way of Life Literature.)

copyright 2013, Way of Life Literature

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