The Word of God Kept Pure for us to Read in our Language

*Note this was adapted from a paper I wrote from Covenant Baptist Theological Seminary. It includes a partial defense of the Confessional Text position and thus is not representative of the opinions of all the writers on The Particular Baptist.

CLICK HERE to read the response by Daniel Vincent.

The doctrine of the Scripture is one of the most important doctrines of Christianity.  It is by this doctrine that we know how to find God’s will and the knowledge of how we can be reconciled to Him.  However, underpinning this doctrine is the concept that we actually have access to the Scriptures.  If we do not have access to them, it does not matter that they are the sole infallible rule of faith or that they give us the wisdom unto salvation (2Tm. 3:16).  The 2nd London Baptist Confession of Faith of 1689 in chapter one paragraph eight lays out the details of how we can know we have access to the Scriptures today. The confession reads as follows:

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 nations), being immediately inspired by God, and by his singular care and providence kept pure in all ages, are therefore authentic; so as in all controversies of religion, the church is finally to appeal to 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.[1]

This paper will defend the statements of the Baptist Confession as being entirely biblical, will discuss the historical conflict with Rome over her authority and the puritan response that every word in the Bible had been kept pure as the reason that this paragraph is in the confession, and finally will demonstrate its disagreement with the assumptions of modern textual criticism. 

Biblical Basis

There are two major unique claims that the LBCF 1.8 makes that require a biblical justification.  First, that the Bible has been kept pure in all ages by God Himself, and second that the Bible should be translated out of the original languages they were written in into the language commonly used by the people reading them.  The other claims of the paragraph are either dealt with in more depth in other paragraphs of the confession (such as the affirmation that the church is to appeal to the Scriptures as the final authority), or are not usually disputed within church history (such as the affirmation that the Old Testament is written in Hebrew and the New Testament in Greek).[2] 

Dealing with the first claim, it is important to establish that God desires the scriptures to remain pure.  God cares about His word remaining free from the impurities put there by man.  He gives warnings about adding to or subtracting from His word in both the Old Testament (Dt. 4:2, Prov. 30:6) and the New Testament (Rev. 22:18-19).  The God who desires His words to be unaltered is able to prevent their corruption, as He can thwart the plans of man (Ps. 33:10-11). In various places, the scriptures testify that God has indeed kept them pure.  The confession cites Isaiah 8:20 as a proof text for this, which reads: “To the law and to the testimony: if they speak not according to this word, it is because there is no light in them” (Is. 8:20).  In context God, speaking to the prophet Isaiah, tells him that rather than going to seek knowledge from the dead, through mediums, the people of Israel should inquire of God.  Thus, they should go to the law and to the testimony, as that is where God’s will is clearly laid out.  Between the giving of the law and the time of Isaiah several hundred years had passed, and yet God still points them to that law.  Clearly, if the law and testimonies had become corrupt whether by poor copying of manuscripts or by malicious intent, God could not tell Israel to go to them, as they would be unreliable witnesses to His will. Thus, by implication, God has preserved His will even across the centuries in the written word.  Outside of the prooftext used by the confession, there are others that can be appealed to.  Referring to the words of Psalm 82, Jesus says, “If he called them gods, unto whom the word of God came, and the scripture cannot be broken; Say ye of him, whom the Father hath sanctified, and sent into the world, Thou blasphemest; because I said, I am the Son of God?” (Jn. 10:35).  Jesus’ argument to the Pharisees rests on the idea that because the scripture calls human judges gods, it is appropriate for Jesus to be called the Son of God. [3]  If scripture could be totally corrupted, His statement that scripture could not be broken would not be true, and thus His argument would fail.  The Pharisees could (in theory) say to Jesus that they did not believe the original version of Psalm 82 had such words, and thus they were not bound by them.  But Jesus reminds them that scripture cannot be broken, and thus they must deal with what they know to be what scripture says.  A final proof text is from Matthew’s Gospel, which reads, Heaven and earth shall pass away, but my words shall not pass away” (Matt. 24:35).  Jesus claims that even though something as fixed as heaven and earth will be destroyed, His words will never be destroyed.  In context, He is referring to His words regarding the destruction of the temple and of His coming.  However, the same confidence we put in those words not disappearing we can put in the rest of the scriptures not disappearing, as the same God that preserves them will preserve the rest.

The second major claim, that the scriptures must be translated, rests first on the idea that believers have a right to, an interest in, and a command to read the scriptures.  Because the believer needs and wants to have the scriptures, the confession states they should be translated so they can read them.  The believer desires to read the word because it contains knowledge of how to be saved (2 Tm. 3:15).  They have a have a right to the scriptures, as Jesus condemns those who take away the knowledge of how to enter the Kingdom of God:  “Woe unto you, lawyers! for ye have taken away the key of knowledge: ye entered not in yourselves, and them that were entering in ye hindered” (Lk. 11:52). For the command to read the scripture, the confession lists John 5:39 as a prooftext, which the King James and Geneva Bibles (the versions the framers of the confession would be most familiar with) do translate as Jesus commanding the Pharisees to search the scriptures.  However, as Gill points out, the verse could easily be translated as an indicative.[4] Another verse that would convey the idea would again be Isaiah 8:20; as demonstrated above, God has commanded people to go to the law and to the testimony in order to find out His will.  Thus, the believer has every desire to have the scriptures.

However, just because the people of God have an interest in knowing what the scriptures teach, does that mean that they should be translated for them?  It would seem obvious that since not everyone is able to read the original languages, that translations should be made, but the Bible also implies this is the case as well.  The confession rightly sites several texts from 1 Corinthians 14 to demonstrate the biblical nature of the idea.  1 Corinthians 14 contains a discussion about speaking in unknown languages by supernatural gifting and its edification to the church.  Here, Paul lays out a problem: “Therefore if I know not the meaning of the voice, I shall be unto him that speaketh a barbarian, and he that speaketh shall be a barbarian unto me(1 Cor. 14:11).  The fact that the church might not understand what is being said is such a problem that Paul says later, But if there be no interpreter, let him keep silence in the church; and let him speak to himself, and to God” (1 Cor. 14:28).   Thus, the argument for the translation of the Bible from this passage is as follows: because Paul says that the we need an interpreter, or else no one will know what is being said and be edified, we should provide an interpretation (translation) of the Bible, so the churches can understand what has been said to them by God.  Paul does not seem to be worried that the translation may not fully capture the meaning of the words of another language, so neither should we.  Thus, not only are translations of the scriptures the only reasonable to thing to do, to hinder the making of them would be to harm our brethren and those that would believe through the translations by denying them access to God’s word, which they have a right to.

Historical Background

In comparing the three, there is no difference between the wording of the Westminster,[5] Savoy,[6]  and Second London Baptist confessions of faith in Chapter 1 paragraph 8.  Renihan notes:

When it [the 1689] concurs with these other documents [the Westminster and Savoy], it can be read as an endorsement of the views espoused by those Presbyterian and Independents who subscribed those documents, and of the theological works they published in defense of the Confessional statements.[7]

Additionally, out of the questions debated at the 1689 general assembly, none of them were issues that deal with the preservation or translation of scripture.[8]  Thus, it is safe to conclude that the framers of the Second London believed that they were in line with what their paedobaptist brethren of the time were saying.  We, therefore, can look at both Presbyterian and Congregationalist writings of the period to gain insight into what the Baptists believed about the purity of scripture and its necessity of translation.  

            Protestantism in the 16th and 17th centuries had to respond to attacks by Rome on the source of its authority: the scriptures.  One attack was to claim that Hebrew and Greek texts were corrupt to show that Protestants needed to have the Church to have the scriptures.  Turretin summarizes the issue: “This question is forced upon us by the Roman Catholics, who raise doubts concerning the purity of the sources in order more readily to establish the authority of their Vulgate and lead us to the tribunal of the church.”[9]  Rome had declared that the Latin Vulgate with all its books and parts to be the authentic scripture and anathematized anyone who would say otherwise.[10]  Any other edition of scripture made would have to have the approval of the Catholic Church.  Some Catholics rejected the idea that there should be translations at all.  As Turretin reports: “Arbor says, ‘The translation of the sacred writings into the vulgar tongue is the sole origin of heresies,’ and Soto, Harding, Bayle, and many of the order of Loyola agree.”[11]  The Catholic translators of the Douay Rheims Bible obviously did believe in translations, but also declared that the Greek copies were corrupted by heretics and that the Protestant translations were “corrupting both letter and sense by false translation.”[12]  These ideas, if true, would be devastating to Protestantism, which was built on the bedrock that the word of God was the sole infallible rule of faith.  A compromise on the purity of the scriptures (either in underlying text or perhaps even in translation) could lead people to conclude that they needed an external authority to know God’s word and will, and that would lead to Rome.  John Owen, when confronting the idea that Walton’s Polyglot might lead believers to conclude the scriptures had become corrupt, commented on this idea: “We went from Rome under the conduct of the purity of the originals; I wish none have a mind to return thither again under the pretense of their corruption.”[13]

            Protestants, therefore, began to defend the Scriptures both by evidence that they had been perfectly preserved, and on the biblical mandate that God said they would be.  They also began to defend the veracity of their translations.  The common protestant view of the day was that each individual word of God had remained uncorrupted.  Thomas Cartwright wrote a work defending the preservation of the Bible against what had been said by the translators of the Douay Rheims and said that “no one oracle or sentence of God can fall away,” and “the old and new testament written in their original tongues cannot either by addition, detraction or exchange be corrupted.”[14]  The Westminster Divines made reference to Cartwright and to his work during the assembly, showing his influence.[15]    He also defends the idea that, while the English translations of his day may not have been perfect, more work would improve them.[16]  Thus, translations could accurately communicate the word of God to their readers.  Many of the members of the Westminster assemblies defended perfect preservation in their sermons and writings.  Daniel Featly, a Westminster divine,[17]  held that Matthew 5:18 (a prooftext for the confession) meant God preserved “the smallest parcels of Scripture.”[18]  Thomas Manton, another divine, speaking about the same text stated that “Christ hath promised not a tittle shall fall to the ground.  The word hath been in danger of being lost, the Miracle of Preservation is therefore the greater.”[19] Here an acknowledgment of the reality that while the Greek and Hebrew copies may have had errors in them, God’s word had still not fully passed away.  It was only in danger of being lost, not that it had been.  Thus, Manton was confident he had the word down to the tittle in his day.  John Owen, whom many of the particular Baptists admired, wrote “whole Scripture, entire as given out from God, without any loss, is preserved in the copies of the originals yet remaining … In them all, we say, is every letter and tittle of the word.”[20]  Owen thus explicitly affirmed that every letter of the word existed in the copies of his day.  This was the milieu that the framers of the 1689 Baptist Confession had grown up in.  They no doubt feared an attack on the purity of the scriptures would result into people returning to the kingdom of the great enemy of Christ, and thus felt, like their other protestant brethren, that their confession of faith needed to include a section on the purity of the text and a note on translation to affirm that God had indeed kept His word pure in all ages.

Modern Application

One practical application of this paragraph has remained unchanged from the time of the Reformation;  Rome makes similar claims today about the necessity of its authority in order to know what the scriptures are in their text, and they can be refuted on the same grounds that our protestant forbearers did.  However, a perhaps newer application of this paragraph in the confession is to resolve a modern controversy, namely whether God’s word needs to be reconstructed using modern textual critical methods.  While this may be a controversial opinion, the author of this paper finds that the modern idea that the text of the church has been corrupted and needs to be restored to be unbiblical and unconfessional. 

Modern textual criticism rests on the idea that the text of the Bible has become corrupt and is currently in the process of being restored.  Take the title of one of the books by Bruce Metzger, one of the leading authorities on textual criticism in the 20th century: The Text of the New Testament: Its Transmission, Corruption, and Restoration.[21]  Clearly, he viewed the text as having become corrupt at least at some point and believed that it needed to be restored.  Wescott and Hort, two major forerunners of modern textual criticism, wrote that textual criticism is the “attempt to present exactly the original words of the New Testament, so far as they can now be determined from surviving documents.”[22] Thus, they were not even sure that they could fully restore the original biblical text with the manuscripts in their day.  This has not changed since the days of Wescott and Hort, as some modern biblical scholars define New Testament textual criticism as “the art and science of reconstruction the original Greek autographs as closely as possible.”[23]  Even if the texts produced by modern textual criticism do not disagree in core doctrine from the text of the framers of the confession, they clearly are not certain of the faithfulness of specific words in parts of the Bible.

These ideas do not appear to be in line with either the biblical data discussed in this paper or the views of the protestant orthodox.  If it is true that the Bible was corrupt, then at best we could say that is was kept pure in some ages, but not that it was kept pure in all ages.  This is not to ignore the fact that the manuscript copies of the Bible do contain variances from one another, and clear deviations from the original text.  However, that fact does not mean the true church as a whole had a completely corrupted textual transmission.  We would expect by God’s providence that, even if only in a minority of manuscripts, the correct words of any part of scripture would be preserved somewhere in the Greek and Hebrew and at least some of the church would have access to it.  Any idea that part of the text has been completely lost to the church (even if only for a certain amount of time) should be rejected on its unbiblical nature.  If it were true, Jesus’ words in John 10:35 that “scripture cannot be broken” would be wrong.  Scripture could be broken, as we might not have its correct reading, and even if we did, we might not know it.  Thus, any power it would have over us would be null.  Finally, if our protestant forebearers could say they had the complete and uncorrupted word of God down to the letter in their day and be wrong, then likewise, we would not be able to say with full confidence that we have the uncorrupted version today.  This leaves the believer in a precarious spot indeed, and susceptible to Rome or anyone else would seek to undermine the authority of the scriptures. 

So, if modern textual critical methods are unable to help us identify the true text, how do we know what it is?  We should expect based on the wording of the confession and the scripture that we should have the text that the true church of Christ has always had.  While it may be harder to see what the state of the text in the manuscripts was in earlier centuries, even with new manuscript finds, we do know what the text looked like that was available to Protestantism in the 16th century when the text became solidified with the help of the printing press. The Hebrew text of the Old Testament that was available was known as the Masoretic Text, and the Greek text of the New is commonly called the Textus Receptus (TR).  Although there are variances between the printed editions of the TR, the variances are minor,[24] and based on our faith in God’s word being preserved, we should expect that the TR editions should have the true reading somewhere and that it should be possible to identify which are true and which are false on theological or other grounds.  Thus, we can say that every letter of God’s word is available to us complete and pure.  Ultimately, as the Baptist Confession says, “our full persuasion and assurance of the infallible truth, and divine authority thereof, is from the inward work of the Holy Spirit bearing witness by and with the Word in our heart”,[25] and thus it is the Spirit who gives us true assurance of the word of God, not a scientific reconstructionist textual methodology.  While this view is not held by the majority of the reformed today, the author of this paper does find it to be biblical, and that it would help strengthen the faith of many by assuring them they have the true text of the Bible and would help us in our efforts to witness to Rome or any other group that claims infallible authority.

[1] 2LBCF (1677/89) I.8

[2] It should be noted that there are a very few places where the Old Testament uses Aramaic instead of Hebrew, and there is a dispute about whether Matthew may have been originally written in Hebrew instead of Greek.  Overall, however, the statement of the confession about the original languages of the Bible is without controversy. 

[3] There is a popular interpretation of the Psalm that holds the gods being referenced are heavenly beings.  The author of this paper holds that they are human judges, although either view would not invalidate the point being made.

[4] John Gill, An Exposition of the New Testament (1746–48; reprint, London: Mathews and Leigh, 1809), 1:807.

[5] WCF I:8

[6] Savoy Declaration I:8

[7] James M. Renihan, Edification and Beauty: The Practical Ecclesiology of the English Particular Baptists, 1675-1705 (Eugene: Wipf and Stock Publishers, 2009), 20.

[8] James M. Renihan, Faith and Life for Baptists (Palmdale: RBAP, 2016), 37-43.

[9] Francis Turretin, Institutio Theologiae Elencticae., ed. & trans J. Beardslee (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1981), II, 21 Questions, Q 10, accessed August 26, 2020. https://www.monergism.com/thethreshold/sdg/21%20Questions%20on%20Doctrine%20of%20Scripture.pdf

[10] Council of Trent, Session IV, First Decree

[11] Francis Turretin, Institutio Theologiae Elencticae., ed. & trans J. Beardslee (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1981), II, 21 Questions, Q 13, accessed August 26, 2020. https://www.monergism.com/thethreshold/sdg/21%20Questions%20on%20Doctrine%20of%20Scripture.pdf

[12] John Fogny, Rheims New Testament, preface, accessed August 25, 2020. http://www.u.arizona.edu/~aversa/rheims_intro.pdf

[13] John Owen, The works of John Owen. W. H. Goold, Ed. (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, n.d.), Vol. 16:370.

[14] Garnet Howard Milne, Has the Bible been kept pure? The Westminster Confession of Faith and the providential preservation of Scripture (self-pub., 2017), 73.

[15] Ibid, 68.

[16] Ibid, 70.

[17] Although he would eventually withdraw from the assembly before its conclusion

[18] Ibid, 138.

[19] Ibid, 126.

[20] Ibid, 195.

[21] Bruce M. Metzger and Bart D. Ehrman, The Text of the New Testament (New York, Oxford University Press, 2005).

[22] Stanley E. Porter and Andrew W. Pitts, Fundamentals of New Testament Textual Criticism (Grand Rapids: Wm. B Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2015), 2.

[23] Ibid, 1.

[24] James R. White, The King James Only Controversy. 2nd ed.  (Bloomington: Bethany House Publishers 2009), 113.

[25] 2LBCF (1677/89) I.5

Published by Sean Cheetham

There is nothing better in this life than to know God. There is nothing better to do in this life than to serve Him.

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