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The Tyranny of Certainty: In Defense of Text Criticism

text crit boxes otI’ve mentioned previously that I tend to be rather open to discussions about theology and the meanings of Biblical texts, but that I also have two groups running around the Evangelical community who provoke my ire—Word Faith teachers & King James Only teachers.

I’ve written frequently of late about Word Faith teachers and so today I’d like to take a shot or two at King James Only teachers whose ignorance about issues of text criticism hinder many and make targets out of others as they fire empty headed and mean spirited accusations at solid Bible loving, Jesus following Christians.

King James Only folks desire a certainty in Scripture that circumvents all evidence, scholarship and thought. They’ve found it in an ill-conceived dedication to the King James Version. Some even take it so far as to claim that the Holy Spirit, RE-INSPIRED Scripture through the King James translators.

No… I’m not certain if they attach this to the original KJV which produced some 100 Bibles that read, “Thou shalt commit adultery,” or whether this perfection set in only after they corrected this printing press blunder. Though this itself should suffice to make the point about how important text critics are to the church.

It would be nice if every time a scribe made an error in copying that a voice from heaven peeped up and said, “Whoa there, Fella, (Or Felicia, I suppose) you just goofed that little bit there. Pay attention!” That is not, however, what happened. So, we need text critics. The doctrines of Inspiration, inerrancy, infallibility, sufficiency and authority are attached to the autographs (originals) not to copies or translations.

Unfortunately, any complexity or discussion over possibilities is, to King James Only adherents, a terror. Their faith would be unseated were they to discover that they did not, in point of fact, have absolute certainty about everything that touches on matters of the text and/or religion in general. Conviction that they have an inerrant English text is vital to their faith. They are, thus, forced to choose between losing their faith and losing their intellectual honesty… if they ever really had either.

Here are the facts. Our English Bibles are the product of millennia of scholarly preservation of sacred religious texts, which have been copied in a variety of ways both before and after the printing press and translated from antiquity into the languages of common people. This process has left us many thousands of manuscripts that differ in points of detail. Most of these are easy solutions. No major doctrine of the church is upheld or destroyed based on a difficult text critical choice [though particular meanings are affected at many points depending on the choices that one makes]. Even so, it is the demanding job of text critics to discover these differences and to discern the true/original reading of a text.

Text critics are not devils seeking to deceive the masses… taking Jesus out of the text, perverting Christian doctrine, supplanting the faith of millions. Text critics are, by my experience, people who love the text so deeply, who are so dedicated to the task of recovery, that they sweat and bleed over the need to provide the church with a pristine Bible. We all owe them a debt of gratitude.

Text criticism is an “art” and a “science.”

It is a science because there are rules of a sort, or at least strong guidelines that tend to help a person navigate human tendencies in copying texts, whether by hearing (a room full of people writing down what one person reads to the group) or by seeing (one person reading and re-writing) or based on known family histories of certain manuscripts or portions of manuscripts.

It is an art because the application of these guidelines requires skill and subtly, balancing them against one another. Some have a mind for it and some don’t. Some are driven more by personal desire for certain outcomes (like King James Only types) than by the tendencies of copyists and a fearless desire to discover the truth.

Text critics do not cause uncertainty, they expose it. We are not a more stable church without them, we are simply a more ignorant church.

King James Only people may spout off about supposed “study” of the issues involved in text criticism, but I can assure you, as one who is no slouch at the performance and not even remotely ignorant of the issues, the King James Only position is about as ignorant as one can get.

My confidence in Scripture has not been weakened by nearly 30 years of full-time education in Biblical Studies, nor by a 22 year emersion in text critical issues… in fact, it has made me more confident in the truths that I have discovered, tested and validated against the facts.

Fear not… just keep learning.

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