Thoughts on the Textus Receptus: A Critical Text View

Author’s note: This is a revision of my opening statement from my debate with The Particular Baptist Podcast co-host Sean Cheetham. The content of this post is not representative of all contributors at The Particular Baptist.

CLICK HERE to read yesterday’s opening post by Sean Cheetham as he introduced this series with his position.

Recently, there has been a resurgence in debate as it relates to the text of the New Testament. Should the Textus Receptus (TR) be considered the “final word of God”? Those of the so-called “ecclesiastical text” or “confessional text” perspective would have us believe that the TR fits this paradigm. As debated in our last episode, Is the TR the Preserved Word of God? this was brought forward. To be clear, I do not mean to say that my opponent is “TR only”. He is not. However, I believe the core arguments for both “TR onlyists” and “TR advocates” are the same. Before moving on, I want to briefly provide context on what the TR (Textus Receptus) is.  The TR as it is known is really the combination of the Greek texts of Erasmus, Beza, and Stephanus. They each produced more than one Greek New Testament.  Their works would be utilized by the King James Bible translators.  The TR that is probably used most today is not strictly the works of Erasmus, Beza, and Stephanus.  It would be the work of Scrivener’s published Greek New Testament which is a work based on the underlying textual choices made by the King James translators.

Considering all the evidence we have is important if we are to honestly view the text of the New Testament. We should not simply pick a text-type, or a specific printed Greek text based on tradition or any other means that excludes honest historical evidence.  I believe that God has kept his Word pure in all ages as the 2nd London Baptist Confession of Faith states in chapter 1 paragraph 8.  I believe His Word has been preserved and kept from error.  This does not mean that the manuscripts were kept free from human mistakes as plainly seen by the over 400,000 variants that show up in our manuscripts which is more variants than there are words in the New Testament. But it does mean that in the tradition, God has kept his Word pure. As a side note, I do not believe that this confession is saying that a particular Greek text was kept pure, but that the text has been preserved in the manuscript tradition. James Renihan in an article titled “Our Confession and the Textual History of Scripture” writes on the historical accuracy of the claim that paragraph 1.8 is talking about the Textus Receptus. He notes,

“On the Confessional issue, I think that the matter has to be handled with great care.  On the one hand, it is easy to think that the language of the Confession supports the kind of doctrine of providential preservation promoted by modern defenders of the Textus Receptus.  But, in the study that I have done on the issue, I think that that is probably anachronistic.  Much more work needs to be done, but I think that the Confessional position is much more carefully nuanced than is sometimes represented to us today.”

He goes onto quote William Bridge who was a Westminster Divine and since the 1689 is based on the work of these Divines (at least in part), it can provide insight into what was believed by those scholars.  Bridge writes in his Works,

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

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

This statement by Bridge does not imply the settlement on a single Greek text or manuscript but taking the evidence that is given to reconstruct the original. What this means is that these men, at least with Bridge, would have loved to look at the other evidence we have today, yet would have held to divine preservation.  There may be a rebuttal that they would only be collating manuscripts of their day and therefore would not have envisioned using manuscripts found after their time. My response would be that nothing in what Bridge said implies only utilizing manuscripts of his day but discusses the method used to reconstruct the text. This method transcends manuscripts confined to a specific point in history and can be applied across the board.

Renihan goes onto quote Richard Muller who is a scholar in Reformed history from his Dictionary of Latin and Greek Theological Terms,

“specifically, variant readings in the several ancient codices of Scripture that lead to debate concerning the infallibility of the scriptural Word.  The orthodox, Lutheran and Reformed, generally argued that the meaning of the original can be recovered by careful collation of the texts.  In the second half of the seventeenth century, the argument was developed that inconsistencies occurred only in the copies, or apographa, and not in the now lost originals, or autographa, of Scripture.”

With confessional discussion aside, I want to address some assertions made by my brother Sean and bring out more detail than I was able to in our debate.

First, Sean asserts in a paper he wrote called, “The Word of God Kept Pure for us to Read in our Language” that modern textual criticism means text has been lost due to corruption. He writes,

“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…If it is true that the Bible was corrupt, then at best we could say that it 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.”

This argument is a strawman as it presents modern textual criticism as monolithic when it is not. Notice what Kurt and Barbara Aland said about the text’s tenacity in their book The Text of the New Testament on pages 291-292 and 294 respectively,

“The transmission of the New Testament textual tradition is characterized by an extremely impressive degree of tenacity. Once a reading occurs it will persist with obstinacy …. It is precisely the overwhelming mass of the New Testament textual tradition which provides an assurance of certainty in establishing the original text”

“It is probably quite clear that the element of tenacity in the New Testament textual tradition not only permits but demands that we proceed on the premise that in every instance of textual variation it is possible to determine the form of the original text”

They held that we have the original readings in our textual tradition without doubt, which by implication means God has preserved His Word and kept it pure in all ages.  To imply that modern textual scholarship as a whole means text has been lost is to misrepresent the position.

Second, my brother has asserted that we must determine the Greek text of the New Testament primarily by presupposition, meaning that since the Scripture is our ultimate standard, we must believe it to be the case from a textual stand point. Since his position holds the TR as the standard, we must believe that to be God’s Word, kept from error.  An evidence of this is found in his paper,

“Although there are variances between the printed editions of the TR, the variances are minor , 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.”

To argue your view of a certain Greek text by using “presuppositionalism” is a misapplication of Cornelius Van Til’s system of apologetics. And if all agree that his systematizing of apologetics is truly biblical, an appeal to the Scriptures for authority on this apologetic methodology cannot be done without utilizing his method. Van Til did not apply his apologetic methodology to a specific manuscript or Greek text.  You find evidence for this in his book The Defense of The Faith on page 130 of the Fourth Edition,

“The proper attitude of reason to the authority of Scripture, then, is but typical of the proper attitude of reason to the whole of the revelation of God. The objects man must seek to know are always of such a nature as God asserts they are. God’s revelation is always authoritarian. This is true of his revelation in nature no less than of his revelation in Scripture. The truly scientific method, the method which alone can expect to make true progress in learning, is therefore such a method as seeks simply to think God’s thoughts after him. When these matters are kept in mind, it will be seen clearly that the true method for any Protestant with respect to the Scripture (Christianity) and with respect to the existence of God (theism) must be the indirect method of reasoning by presupposition. It in fact then appears that the argument for the Scripture as the infallible revelation of God is, to all intents and purposes, the same as the argument for the existence of God.”

In the referenced passage in his book, we see no mention of the “TR” or any specific Greek manuscript or text. In fact, in Van Til’s specific discussion of the doctrine of Scripture (on pages 127-136) he never once discusses directly the aforementioned items. Van Til’s point here has to do with the nature and authority of Scripture, not a certain Greek New Testament, or otherwise. Even if the rebuttal is that you are not strictly arguing what Van Til proposed, you are still utilizing his method, effectively borrowing from his worldview (ironically so, given Van Til argued the same about what the unbeliever does with the Christian worldview). And if you use the teachings of another individual as is done here in supporting the TR position, those words and messages still carry the meaning as they were originally intended. Just like when the unbeliever borrows from the Christian worldview, the meaning of those items he is borrowing do not change just because he is not giving God the glory. When we go to apply the teachings of a man, we should be careful to use them as they were intended, not as we want them to be. This is also not an argument from silence, as Van Til asserts his arguments for Scripture in the positive in relation to its authority and nature as opposed to anything else.  Also, this would be the place one would expect Van Til to address an issue such as a specific text of the New Testament as he clearly applies the same ontological argument for the existence of God to the Scripture being the infallible Word of God, but does so in the context of its authority and nature and not in any way implying a specific Greek text. But do not confessional text advocates argue a Greek TEXT by presupposition? Yet Van Til never argues a TEXT by presupposition, but the Scripture’s NATURE by presupposition. The only way this could be consistent is if a specific Greek text and the nature of Scripture are conflated.

After our debate, Sean had sent me a passage from R.J. Rushdoony in a book called Faith & Action, Vol. 1: Authority, Humanism & Morality where he asserts that Van Til came to believe his apologetic methodology should be applied to the underlying text of our Bibles. The quote from him is on page 569. There are three reasons I do not believe this to be accurate:

  1. Van Til’s book The Defense of the Faith was not recanted as needing to be updated. Given what I have established already about Van Til’s position on Scripture, would it not it be important for Van Til to have updated his work to reflect his new view? Otherwise, would it not lend us to believe his work remains as is given the evidence presented in this paper? In my next point, I note what Oliphant says about this specific work of Van Til.
  2. This book is still printed as representing Van Til’s apologetic methodology and therefore his conclusions. The conclusion or application of a methodology systematized by an author cannot be divorced from the methodology itself. If Van Til did in fact change his conclusion, the methodology would indeed have to change along with it. Since the notion of “presupposition” being applied to Scripture only encompasses its nature in Van Til’s mind, the the meaning of it would have to be expanded to include a specific Greek text. If 2+2 no longer equals four but now equals six, we would not simply look at the conclusion (six), but would want to know WHY 2+2 now equals six. This is because we would see a change in methodology that now changes the conclusion that was at once different. Given what I have said about Van Til’s methodology and conclusions, notice what K. Scott Oliphant who is the editor of the Fourth Edition said on page ix of the forward of The Defense of the Faith, “Given this context of controversy, this book should be seen as the center of Van Til’s long (forty-plus years) teaching and writing career. All that he had written and taught previously leads up to this book, and all that came after reflects back to it. In that sense, this is the book to read if one wants to understand Van Til’s approach to apologetics.” The controversy noted is about critiques that were laid against Van Til in relation to his apologetic methodology.
  3. Oliphant knew Van Til in his later years while in retirement not long before his death. He corresponded with him at length and learned from him in person ergo becoming an eye witness to teaching from Van Til.  This would likely be the time that Rushdoony asserted Van Til believed his apologetic methodology should be applied to the underlying text of the Bible. Oliphant, who inputs multiple clarifications of Van Til’s methodology throughout the book, makes no mention of this alleged key shift in Van Til’s philosophy. One would expect this to be addressed given Rushdoony’s claim about how much of a controversy this was between Van Til and Hills. We also have the positive statement by Oliphant in my previous point that clearly references Van Til’s work in The Defense of the Faith as representing the apologetic views of this great man and those views do not include application of those views to a specific Greek text. The only note that Oliphant makes on page 130 as it relates to the quote I used by Van Til is where he quotes the Westminster Confession of Faith chapter 1, paragraph 4 on the authority of Scripture which is consistent with Van Til’s thought process in his discussion of Scripture.

Second, I want to address an inconsistency in Sean’s view of preservation and that the text the 16th century was “solidified”.

I want to demonstrate this by using the comma Johanneum.   He holds that the comma Johanneum is original, which creates problems with preservation on his own standard (the alleged grammatical issue created with the comma’s absence aside). The comma Johanneum does not show itself in the Greek tradition until the 13th century when a Greek copy of the Latin came into the scene.  This means that there is no early Greek evidence for this reading.  It only appears in Latin.  If a verse does not show up in the Greek tradition until the 13th century, and is later part of the text in the 16th century, doesn’t that mean the verse would have disappeared for nearly 1,200 years? This idea has been brought out by James White. Furthermore, does not this mean that the purity of the Word would not have been kept by God in all ages? This means that my brother cannot hold to preservation consistently with the very Greek New Testament he espouses as containing the Word kept pure. Even if you want to go to Erasmus, whose work was part of the TR, he did not include the comma Johanneum in his Greek New Testament until his third edition. If one of the framers of what would become the TR had issues with this verse, should that not cause one to pause and consider the authenticity of this verse? Luther’s German Bible did not even contain it since his New Testament was based on Erasmus’s second edition.

Dan Wallace, in talking about the comma Johanneum and about those who say the TR is the original text in an article titled, “The Textual Problem in 1 John 5:7-8” says,

“Modern advocates of the Textus Receptus and KJV generally argue for the inclusion of the Comma Johanneum on the basis of heretical motivation by scribes who did not include it. But these same scribes elsewhere include thoroughly orthodox readings—even in places where the TR/Byzantine manuscripts lack them. Further, these KJV advocates argue theologically from the position of divine preservation: since this verse is in the TR, it must be original. But this approach is circular, presupposing as it does that the TR = the original text. Further, it puts these Protestant proponents in the awkward and self-contradictory position of having to affirm that the Roman Catholic humanist, Erasmus, was just as inspired as the apostles, for on several occasions he invented readings—due either to carelessness or lack of Greek manuscripts (in particular, for the last six verses of Revelation Erasmus had to back-translate from Latin to Greek).”

This has now been updated to seven readings due to later findings.

Would not this mean Erasmus ADDED to the text?  Does not that mean there would be more than God had preserved? How is that consistent with God’s Word being kept pure in all ages? To be clear, Wallace’s discussion about what TR and KJV advocates argue in his first two sentences does not appear to represent my brother Sean. But it provides context to what Wallace is arguing.

As to the notion of a “solidified” text in the 16th century, Sean writes about this as well in his paper. He asserts that the text the Protestants had was solidified with the help of the printing press.

“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).”

Sean noted in our debate that “solidified” was referring to the lack of ability for errors to be introduced into the text which by implication means the text had to be pure. Erasmus and the Reformers did not believe the Greek text of the New Testament was “settled” or “solidified” in their time as evidenced in the fact that not all the “TRs” of the day even agreed with one another. For instance, in Luke 17:36, Erasmus omitted this verse but Beza kept it. Theodore Beza even made a conjectural emendation at Revelation 16:5 deviating from Stephanus (as discussed in The King James Only Controversy second edition on page 105).

John Calvin, who was one of the Reformers, did not believe in a “solidified” or “finalized” text either as evidenced by his own changes to the “TR” of the time through conjectural emendations. Again, refer to James White in The King James Only Controversy of the second edition on page 114,

“Hills also noted that Calvin went beyond Erasmus, adding eighteen other places where he rejected TR readings in favor of others. Calvin also made two conjectural emendations: (1) at James 4:2, in reading “envy” instead of “kill”, and (2) deleting 1 John 2:14, seeming to him a repetitious interpolation.”

Reconstruction had to be done to the text.

Weren’t Reformers and Erasmus the ones who challenged Rome’s view of Scripture being preserved in the Latin Vulgate? Weren’t they the ones who were reconstructing Greek texts in opposition to the status quo? How are TR advocates not falling into the same position Rome did by challenging those who would criticize the TR? There were those who even questioned Erasmus’s view of inspiration in relation to his Greek New Testament as noted in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy on Erasmus’s life:

“Critics of Erasmus’ New Testament edition accused him of introducing changes to a sacred text and thus challenging the principle of inspiration. Erasmus denied these charges. On the contrary, he said, his edition restored the original text and corrected the errors introduced by translators and scribes.”

It can be seen from this short historical survey that this idea of a text that could not have errors introduced into it was unknown to the writers of the said text, and the one who advocates for that view must remain alone as it relates to its authors.

In conclusion, preservation of the Scriptures is especially important. If there is no preservation of God’s Word, there can be no confidence in what the New Testament teaches and therefore we cannot know what God has told us. Our faith would have no ground without the Scriptures. However, holding onto false notions of what the Greek New Testament should look like leads us into misrepresenting history. We must not fall into such historical fallacies.

2 thoughts on “Thoughts on the Textus Receptus: A Critical Text View

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