Milne and Textual Conjectures by Calvin

The topic of the preservation of Scripture is a hot topic among the Reformed. Books are written, podcasts made, and articles posted (including this one!).  Garnet Howard Milne wrote a book on what the purity of the text of Scripture meant according to the Reformed called, ‘Has the Bible been kept pure? The Westminster Confession of Faith and the providential preservation of Scripture.’ This work is large and provides many citations and discussions surrounding preservation and purity. The book, at least by and large, is a response to B.B. Warfield (Milne 46 for example). On pages 60 and 61, Milne goes into a discourse about two alleged conjectural emendations made by John Calvin.  These two places are at James 4:2 and 1 John 2:14. I want to interact with Milne here. An editorial note: I have left out the Greek words from citations. It is much easier to simply provide the translation, from my perspective, than to try to type out the Greek letters. So, while the Greek words are not available in my quotations, a translation is provided or the Greek is replaced by ellipsis. Call me a novice, but so be it.  

Conjecture At James 4:2 

Calvin says this about James 4:2 according to Milne: “Some copies have… “ye kill;” but I doubt not but that we ought to read… “ye envy,” as I have rendered it; for the verb, to kill, does in no way suit the context” (qtd. In Milne 60). Calvin picked “ye envy” instead of “ye kill”. Milne goes on to say this on page 60: “This does not qualify as a conjectural emendation because he plainly believes that there are copies which read [ye envy]. Only ‘some’ copies have [ye kill]. Calvin is also following Erasmus’ second edition, and he probably assumed Erasmus also had manuscript support for his use of [ye envy]”.  Calvin says that “some” copies have “ye kill,” yet Milne assumes this means that Calvin thought that there were copies that had “ye envy” and therefore does not qualify as as conjectural emendation. Let’s look at a couple of things before looking at Milne’s use of Calvin. First, we should look at a working definition of “conjecture.” Jan Krans gives us such a working definition: “Sometimes, in the critical apparatus of a Greek New Testament or in commentaries, one comes across instances in which critics ‘go beyond what is written’ by proposing a conjecture. Such conjectures can be defined as readings not attested in the manuscript tradition, which are proposed and argued for by a critic with the intention of restoring a lost text…” (Krans 1). This is the definition that Krans works with throughout his book as seen in his introduction. I will now engage with Milne directly.

  • Calvin does not indicate in any way that he was referring to other manuscripts in this quote when referring to “some” manuscripts. Calvin could have simply been saying that some manuscripts contain “ye kill” while others do not have either reading. We cannot know without historical evidence, which of course Milne does not provide, nor does Calvin in that quote. Milne simply assumes this based on the quote Calvin provided that the limiter “some” means the there are others that do contain the reading. This is a non-sequitur.
  • Calvin specifically says why he believes the reading is “envy” — because to kill “does in no way suit the context” (qtd. In Milne 60). He uses internal evidence to support his reading, not manuscript evidence. This could suggest that he did not have any manuscripts to support his claim or, at the very least, he was not using any. This is not a smoking gun but provides historical doubt to Milne’s claim.
  • Milne notes that Calvin is following Erasmus’ second edition of the Greek New Testament in his reading of James 4:2 where he says, “…he [Calvin] probably assumed Erasmus also had manuscript support for his use of [ye envy]” (Milne 60). Krans also confirms that Calvin is using Erasmus for this reading (Krans 126). The question then is: what did Erasmus think of this text? If Erasmus had viable manuscript evidence to support his claim, then at the very least we do not have a conjecture. But in this case, if Erasmus made a conjecture, then Calvin is also making a conjecture since he is following Erasmus. Calvin basically paraphrased Erasmus here as Erasmus’ notes bring to light: “I do not see how this word ‘you kill’ makes sense here. Perhaps there was written…’you are jealous and you seek, and you cannot obtain’, and so a sleeping scribe wrote [ye kill] instead of [ye envy]; especially since there follows ‘the spirit desires jealously’” (Qtd. In Krans 126). This is basically the same language that Calvin uses to discuss his reasoning for the preferential reading. In both cases, the context is given as the reason for the conjecture and not any manuscripts. As a side note, the conjecture is well received as seen in Beza, Luther, Calvin and utilized by early English Bible translations (but not the King James Bible) (Krans 126-127). Given the evidence of Erasmus’ use of James 4:2, the definition of ‘conjecture’ that Krans provides in looking at Beza and Erasmus in his book’s introduction, and Calvin’s utilization of Erasmus, we can see that Erasmus and Calvin did not have manuscript evidence to support his reading. Ergo, both Erasmus and Calvin were making conjectures at this point. It is also important to note that Milne is using the alleged assumption of Calvin that he probably thought Erasmus had Greek manuscripts for ‘ye envy’ as evidence that this reading is not a conjectural emendation by Calvin. There is no historical evidence provided by Milne to substantiate that and as we have seen, Erasmus did not use manuscripts nor have any to back up his conjecture. Milne is engaging in speculation himself (ironically) and on his understanding of conjectural emendation would have to conclude that Calvin was indeed engaging in that practice. Calvin was using the 1519 edition of Erasmus’ Greek New Testament, but the 1516 had the reading for ‘ye kill’ (Krans 127). The 1519 edition was unique in that it is Erasmus’ only Greek New Testament that had the conjecture in the Greek text (Krans 127). Calvin had access to the 1516 edition (“Erasmus and the Renaissance of the Bible”). It makes no sense that Calvin would simply assume that Erasmus had the manuscripts in hand to support the unique reading. In fact, Krans says that ‘you kill,’ published in Erasmus’ first edition, was in fact “the received text” (Krans 127). The conjecture was a deviation from that tradition. Finally, I should note for clarification that Krans’ use of “conjecture” may not be what Milne means by “conjectural emendation,” although there are similarities. Milne is assuming that if there is manuscript evidence available, then it is not conjectural emendation and Krans follows along the same lines with “conjecture.” However, it is important to demonstrate that Calvin was doing “conjecture” regardless of Milne’s understanding of “conjectural emendation.” Calvin was still working off no manuscript evidence while Milne said he was.

Conjecture at 1 John 2:14  

Calvin thinks there is an unnecessary repetition here and asserts that he thinks the repetition is “superfluous” (Milne 60). Milne then admits that Calvin provides no manuscript evidence for this conclusion when he says, “He [Calvin] does not claim Greek manuscript support but seems to speculate on how they might have come into the copies…” (Milne 60). He even says, “But the repetition does occur in all known Greek copies…” (Milne 61). So, at the outset, Milne is willing to grant that Calvin did not claim manuscript evidence for his reading and as Calvin reasons for the reading, it becomes clear this is another example of using internal evidence to support his reading. There are two things I want to highlight from Milne’s discussion of this text:  

  • The assumption of manuscript evidence: In response to the above, Milne goes right into historical assumptions. “Calvin, rather than demonstrating a cavalier attitude to the text of Scripture, makes this suggestion precisely because he believes that he has access to the true text and because the Word of God, though often expressed in common and unadorned language, should not contain any unnecessary repetition. He probably has in mind that the Holy Spirit will always be consistent as the primary author of Scripture” (Milne 61). While it might be that Calvin is not being flippant with the text, that does not mean he thought he had access to the actual text. Given that there are no known Greek manuscripts that omit the repetition (including manuscripts from that era), that is evidence that Calvin did not have access to that reading. Milne admits that the reading is not there in the manuscript tradition. What he is left with, ironically, is conjecturing about what Calvin would have thought when there is no historical evidence to support the assumption. “Calvin may also have believed there was Greek manuscript evidence for his proposed deletion, although he does not say so” (Milne 61). Having any hope of Calvin believing this is a fleeting dream based on the historical evidence which goes against this. If the omission of the repetition is indeed the Word of God, it would have been preserved for us to be able to find in the manuscript tradition.
  • Excusing Calvin while holding a different standard elsewhere:  I think this is the most astounding part of Milne’s discussion on this reading of 1 John 2:14 by Calvin. Milne makes a distinction between introducing something into the text and removing something from the text. “Had he added a clause to Scripture without authority, then our conclusion would have to be re-examined.” And then, “…we have to note that since the same words, in the case of the fathers, occur in the previous verse, he is not removing any teaching” (Milne 61). In other words, removing a text that does not impact teaching is permissible, but adding to the text is a problem. I want to demonstrate why this is problematic not only on its own merits, but for Milne’s own understanding of the text of Scripture. First, taking away from the text of Scripture is always wrong, even if it does not affect the teaching of Scripture. If an original reading in the Greek tradition is what God has preserved as His Word, then it is dangerous to alter it regardless of how one feels about that text. This should go without saying. If we change God’s Word, it puts us in the place of God. We have no certainty in God’s revelation if we are going to tamper with the text. This is not to say we cannot engage in textual criticism, but to engage in a criticism that changes what the text of Scripture is would be to undermine Scripture itself. Second, by holding this standard of textual emendation for Calvin, Milne places himself where inconsistencies inevitably arise. For instance, if Calvin can just take away text that is attested to in all known Greek manuscripts, yet we do not have the text that Calvin allegedly had access to in that tradition, what does that say about preservation? Milne will spend time in the book discussing how preservation includes everything in the text (Milne 137-138).  Nothing that God said is missing from the textual tradition. He goes onto say, “Even when the Scriptures warn against adding or subtracting from Scripture, the Westminster divines did not interpret that to mean that it was possible to corrupt all copies of the Scriptures to the degree that the autographic text was lost or unidentifiable. Westminster divine William Nicholson (1591-1672) understood the warning found in Rev. 22:18-19 to neither add nor subtract from the Word to be a warning to not read more into Scripture than it teaches or to sell it short. This is consistent with the Reformed orthodox view that the complete Scriptures were available in their day, and that it was not possible to comprehensively so corrupt the Scriptures that any was lost or altered which could not be recovered from another extant manuscript” (Milne 145). Notice that Milne says the text was completely available to the 17th century church. Yet, if all known Greek manuscripts do not have the omission of the repetition at 1 John 2:14, as Milne readily admits, then there is no preservation of that part of God’s Word for our day that would have been available to the Reformers. Should not that text be preserved for us in the manuscripts that we have? You would think so based on this standard of preservation. Milne points out that Scripture cannot be lost and preserved at the same time. In his view it does not comport while also confessing that Scripture is preserved entirely (Milne 122, 173). Milne “Notice that Manton does not say ‘pass on the Scriptures as pure as you are able to make them’, but ‘to transmit it pure to the next Age, that nothing be added, nothing diminished; that it be published to the present Age, and transmitted pure to the next.’ In marked contrast, Warfield thought that it was still necessary to add to and subtract from the received Scriptures.” (Milne 170). Milne is responding to Warfield in this historical lesson and therefore it is safe to assume that this is what Milne believes as it relates to preservation. He is attempting to demonstrate that Warfield’s understanding of the Confession is incorrect as it relates to preservation at least. Warfield was apparently teaching the Scriptures could be altered, yet Milne finds fault with that assertion. But apparently that is fine for Calvin if what he takes away is not changing the teaching of the text. “If another previously unknown variant discovered at some future date would be used to eliminate or replace a text or a pericope or change the meaning even ‘minutely’ this would either be an addition or subtraction to the text, or an acceptance that the text up until that point had been deficient, corrupt, and erroneous.” (Milne 145-146). So, Milne, at least in effect, is fine with Calvin altering the preserved text found in all known Greek manuscripts, but then turns around and says that is not ok to do that since the practice would have negative implications.  


There are things to appreciate about Milne’s work particularly the historical data provided about Scripture’s preservation. There is much we can glean from that study. Yet, we must be careful not to defend a favorite theologian at the expense of consistency. These were mere men and were susceptible to error. They themselves were not inspired of God nor were they writing Scripture. They were communicating their theological understandings at the time which of course were not always accurate. This is not to say that one cannot trust great men of the faith, but they still should be read critically looking at their logical coherency and more importantly, their use of Scripture. It is ok to admit that so and so historical figure did not get it right if it can be demonstrated. That does not shake our faith. We do not have to follow them to the same erroneous conclusions.  

Note: Thank you to The Particular Baptist team for feedback/edits.

Works Cited

Milne, Garnet Howard. Has the Bible Been Kept Pure?: The Westminster Confession of Faith and the Providential Preservation of Scripture. Garnet Howard Milne, 2017. 

Krans, Jan. Beyond What Is Written: Erasmus and Beza as Conjectural Critics of the New Testament. Brill, 2006. 

Dseverance. “Erasmus and the Renaissance of the Bible.” Houston Christian University, 14 Oct. 2019,,editions%20of%20Erasmus’%20New%20Testament.&text=Erasmus’%20third%20edition%20contained%20further,the%20Greek%20manuscripts%20Erasmus%20consulted.

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