The Westminster Confession on the Text of Holy Scripture
“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 authentical; so as in all controversies of religion the Church is finally to appeal unto them.
But because these original tongues are not known to all the people of God who have 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. (WCF 1:8)”
The Confession of Faith here states that the existing Hebrew Old Testament and Greek New Testament are to be the final appeal “in all controversies of religion”. The thing that so many miss is that it has nothing whatever to say about the manuscripts originally penned by the authors of Scripture — the autographs; but rather its whole concern is with the existing copies in the hands of the church – the apographs. (We read of “original languages’ but not “original manuscripts”.)
We know this because, in the first place, all of the originals have perished long ago and all we have are the copies. And secondly, because in this paragraph, these are the Scriptures to which final appeal is to be made, and which are to be translated into the languages of the nations, so that they can be read and searched by God’s people. You cannot do any of those things with the non-existent autographs!
These apographs include the approved hand-copied manuscripts that survived in the hands of the Greek church until the time of the Reformation, as well as the printed editions of the Textus Receptus that the Reformed church’s scholars actually used. These it establishes as “inspired” and “preserved”, and therefore “authentical”. And being authentic, they are therefore canonical – that is to say, the only rule of faith and practice. The one includes the other.
The language of the Confession not only implies that there had been no significant corruption of the text, such that the texts available needed to be restored; but it states that the text as handed down is “authentical”. In other words, it is an accurate and authoritative representation of the originals from which it was copied. You cannot have authenticity without accuracy of transmission. An inaccurate, error-ridden copy such as we are often told the Received Text of the New Testament is would be inauthentic, and would have no authority.
So the authenticity of the Scriptures is said to depend on two facts: inspiration and preservation; both of them essential. If we remove the parenthetical material from the paragraph, it will be easier to see what I am saying:
The Old Testament in Hebrew, and the New Testament in Greek, being immediately inspired by God, and by his singular care and providence kept pure in all ages, are therefore authentical.
The Confession’s attribution of authenticity to the existing text is striking. It is an exact equivalent of the word used by Roman Catholic scholars to describe the Latin Vulgate, which is supposed to be the only authoritative text used among them;possessing more authority than either the Hebrew or the Greek! In law, a “fair copy”, certified as identical to the original is considered “authentic”, and it possesses the same qualities and authority as the original. If therefore, the original was inspired, then every accurate copy possesses the same quality of inspiration.
The accuracy of the existing copies is not dependent on the diligence of the copyists alone: it depends on the faithfulness of God, who wants the church to always have the same pure word of God. Notice how full and forcible the assertion of preservation is: “being… by His singular care and providence kept pure in all ages”. “His” (God’s) “singular care” “and providence” “kept pure” “in all ages”. Nothing could better illustrate the Westminster Divines’ conviction that they had in the Received texts something practically identical to what the inspired penmen originally wrote.
The textual criticism that developed soon after the Westminster confession was written, was founded entirely on an erroneous, naturalistic doctrine of Scripture. It did not assume inspiration and preservation; rather the opposite. One cannot be objective, they said, if we begin the investigation by pre-supposing the conclusion. If we assume that the Bible has never undergone corruption, then we will have to interpret the data in a way that accords with that assumption. No, we must stick to the facts, and assume nothing beforehand. The Bible must be treated like any other book; and our conclusions must be dictated by the data alone.
What’s wrong with that? Doesn’t it seem reasonable? And yet it is dead wrong. Why? Because it is impossible to be free of presuppositions. Only an idiot is free of presuppositions. To have knowledge and reason is to have presuppositions of all kinds. We work hard to acquire them. The scientist must assume that the world is stable, that it has universal and regular laws that govern it, and so on.
And the text-scholar must either assume that the Bible is God’s book, or that it isn’t. And one’s conclusions will be affected by one’s assumptions. There is no neutral ground. The critics think that they are neutral; but the fact is that they start with an opposite assumption. This is the identical method of materialistic scientists today who claim neutrality when they rule out beforehand the possibility of a God of creation and providence who rules the material world; with the erroneous justification, that such an assumption would make true science impossible. The result is bad science, or science falsely so called.
And this naturalistic textual criticism made its case against the Received Scriptures by arguing that the known worst manuscripts were in fact the best! Now, this cannot possibly be true, for these so-called “best manuscripts” are entirely discordant with one another; while the vast majority of manuscripts are united in their accord with the Received Text. But on the assumption that there was no Divine providence keeping the text pure; it is logical to assume that the oldest manuscripts are the purest; and the more recent of them are the most corrupted.
This occasioned two serious problems for them:
First, the mass of later manuscripts, allowing for spelling differences, are virtually identical. They should not be. They should exhibit hundreds of different forms of the text, with varying degrees of corruption. But they don’t.
Second, the earliest manuscripts differ greatly from each other. This should not be; for these are the oldest manuscripts; and they are supposed to be the purest.
Instead, they are so different that it is impossible to reconstruct the text from which they are supposed to have evolved.
But even if these discordant early manuscripts had witnessed to the existence of a single text, there would be no logical reason to exchange the text approved, copied and passed on as its official text by the church in all ages for a text based on manuscripts the church had knowledge of, but evidently did not consider worth copying. By what act of omniscience do textual scholars know that this rabble of witnesses without identifying information or particular histories points to an earlier and more accurate form of the original text than the one the Greek church passed on to us?
In fact, the presumptuous quest for the autographic text, for texts more perfect than the ones God has supplied, has produced a plethora of speculative texts that can only be called synthetic. Truly they are, for they are fabricated from these worst of all manuscripts, according to rules that are so arbitrary that textual scholars cannot agree on what they should be. Readings are chosen according to the subjective judgment of the individual scholar.
Once we were assured that the textual critics would some day remove all doubt about the text of Scripture; but it ain’t happened yet! If you open a modern critical Greek New Testament at random, you will find a set of cryptic notes that offer, for each place in the text shown on that page that they consider uncertain, a series of choices labelled, say, A,B, C, etc., each given a rating based on the text-critics’ opinion of which is more likely the true reading. The ratings change with each new edition. The reader gets to pick the one he likes best.
These synthetic texts are no better than a series of counterfeits. And the textual scholars and publishers who have attempted to foist these counterfeits on an unsuspecting world stand on the same moral ground as those who counterfeit wills, and currency, and such. Actually, while the crime is the same, it is far less heinous to deprive a man of his temporal property than to rob him of the pure Word of God.
Every Presbyterian minster has to subscribe to the truth of the Westminster standards, and must vow to uphold and teach its doctrines. How is it then, that most of them reject the authenticity of the Received text? That they rely on their critical Greek New Testaments for the true reading? That they use and approve translations of the critical text; and teach that the Authorized version is inaccurate? I think that those are fair questions.
Howard Douglas King
Revised December 1, 2015 and April 13, 2019