Thursday, January 26, 2006

Theodore Letis

Jim Leonard has drawn my attention to the page Theodore P. Letis in Memorium [sic], a tribute to an ecclesiastical historian who wrote controversially on matters relating to textual criticism. He died last year in a car accident returning from a gig. There seem to be varied interpretations of what his position was. He could be seen as KJVO, Majority Text, anti-inerrancy, Childsean—categories that do not usually appear alongside each other. He was highly idiosyncratic and it seems that during the last decade of his life he espoused views that he would not have held earlier. I met him in Tyndale House, Cambridge, a few years ago, and had been previously convinced that he was basically an up-market KJVO advocate. However, if I understood our conversation correctly—and he seemed to enjoy mystifying—he basically accepted a fairly standard history of the text during the first four centuries, but believed that what the text that the church had come to receive was the locus of authority. For instance, he thought that Mark 16:9-20 was secondary and inspired. He was aware that some of his conservative constituency did not realize that his position involved this.

The tribute is followed by comments from someone who knew him exclusively as a blues musician. It seems that he kept is identities somewhat separate. (“... we knew him as a swaggering front man who liked Muddy Waters and The Stones above all else in life.”)

Further links on Letis can be found on:


The second link in particular, which gives no indication of Letis’ death, suggests that there may be some work to do bringing Letis’ intellectual legacy into order.

I discovered the authoritative pronunciation of his name as Lee-tiss when I experienced his strong reaction as I tried to order a taxi for him using the pronunciation Lettuce.

I have not read widely in the Letis corpus; I tended to be disappointed by what I read. I should therefore be interested to know if anyone formed a more favourable opinion of what he had to say.


  1. One of Dr. Letis's benefactors was Pensacola Christian College. They once bankrolled an "outreach" effort on behalf of King James Onlyism that involved sending out videotapes to hundreds of fundamentalist churches. The tape was called "The Leaven in Fundamentalism," that leaven being textual criticism. Dr. Letis was a featured speaker in this video. In it he seems careful to avoid explicitly denying the doctrine of inerrancy. However, that position is abundantly clear in his writings. It was in this video that I (along with many others) first became acquainted with Letis.

    You hit the nail on the head, Pete, with your description of his position in your example about the long ending of Mark. His view of the historical transmission of the text is basically Hortian. However, the text was improved over time via "orthodox corruption," which was a work of God, in part to remove the errors that Letis frankly confessed were in the autographa. Letis heavily applauded Ehrman's book, Orthodox Corruption. He viewed the received text as the canonical form of God's Word, hence his association with the views of Childs. To Letis, no book exemplifies the pinnacle of this canonical development better than the majestic King James Bible, coincidentally written in Letis's own native language.

    Of what I have read by Letis, the one essay I would most recommend is chapter of his book, The Ecclesiastical Text. In this chapter he argues that the reading monogenhs theou in John 1:18 is of gnostic origin. It is the only true text critical study of his I have seen, and one that showed a good handle on that field, in my opinion.

    I might add that I don't see his approach to the text of the NT as that unique. It is basically the same as what many (perhaps most?) evangelicals are doing now with the Masoretic Text of the OT. It is one way a person with a high view of Scripture's authority can deal with some of the theological questions that have arisen elsewhere on this blog.

    I don't follow Dr. Letis in claiming canonical status to the KJV, or to any other text or text-type. Since "canon" is a term that applies only to the delimitation of the books, not to any particular variation of the wording therein. However, I am open to the idea of a secondary addition, such as the long ending of Mark (if it truly is secondary), or the received ending of Deuteronomy (which along with other portions of the Torah I do take to be secondary), being inspired. I'm not sure how we are supposed to identify such inspired secondary additions. But, supposing it can be done (which might be a good discussion for later on), the idea is at least compatible with an inerrantist understanding of inspiration.

  2. I just listened to one of his radio gigs on the ESV where he talks about the long ending of Mark. First he bashes the ESV for being a spinoff of the RSV and then he gets all worked up over the note in body text after Mark 16:8 which tells the reader that some early witnesses omit the following verses. His main objection seems to be the placement of the note in the body text rather than in a footnote. He cites B. Metzger and K. Aland in support for the canonicity of the long ending and then concludes that ESV is a more "sinister" version than the TNIV.

    The radio production sounds vaguely late 30s, pictures of FDR and Joseph Goebbles were flashing through my mind. Hard to take this guy seriously.

  3. I read his The Ecclesiastical Text and found it interesting, but generally unpersuasive. I always thought his PhD sounded interesting, but I haven't ever seen it (or even know the exact details).

    Some of the letters on the web-site are classics, and slightly 'mistifying' too.

  4. Curtis Dubreuil1/31/2006 4:09 am

    I am appreciative of the work of the late Dr. Letis. He was a good friend. For 25 years, I was a member of the most extremist sect of the KJV only movement. I attended Peter Ruckman's school and he ordained me into the ministry.

    Five years ago I read Dr. Letis' essay _The Revival of the Ecclesiastical Text and the Claims of the Anabaptist_. It shattered my extremists' views and caused me to rethink my theology (four point Arminianism). For this, I will ever be thankful for Ted Letis.

  5. Well I have to say textual criticism is a very interesting subject. I have not done a lot but some study on this issue. I used to read alot of the NASB and turned back to the Authorized Version and found it difficult to read any other translation. Honestly I felt it much easier to read the Authorized version than any other. As I understand Letis' case. King James Onlyist have gone way out of line and calling practically everyone heritics and especially many Reformed men of God. On the other end the what I would call the neo-textist scholars who claim the Authorized version is out of date archaic and based on a very few reliable manuscripts that have many copying mistakes. Theodore Letis I think bridges the gap between these two extremes. I would love to get more audio from him and more info on this issue. God Bless. Rev. Joe

  6. Dear Joe,
    Thanks for your comment. You set up a classic spectrum whereby KJVOs are at one end, 'neotextist scholars' are on the other, and Letis is in the middle. I think it would be possible to construct quite another spectrum whereby at one extreme we have people who follow what is found in Greek manuscripts (many reasoned eclectics, Hortians, Byzantine priority theorists) and at the other end we have people who are content following readings that are not in the manuscripts (TR people, sceptics, etc.). This seems to me a more significant spectrum.

  7. You are misrepresenting what Dr. Theodore (and since you also mention it, PCC) believe. They are not KJV-onlyism at all. You should al least watch the video(s) before making any accusation(s). To make such a comment which contradicts what is emphasized in the videos (The second of them, specially deals with that misconception ) makes you and those that leave comments irrelevant. Please do not respond to my comment before watching the videos. In that way you would be at least making an intelligent(contra-ignorant) post.

  8. Victor,

    I've seen the entire video series. Numerous times. I have it on tape. PCC, of course, explictly denies they are KJV Only. But are they? Can you name even on passage in the KJV they would excise? No. They do not like that term because Ruckman is in their same town, and he is associated with it. But do not be deceived - they are every bit the KJV Onlyists that Ruckman is only less consistent.

    Letis, however, was not. His base was the TR and his basis was a different ecclesiology than that found at PCC.

  9. Jerome Hagen1/20/2011 9:04 pm

    I knew Ted Letis personally as a fellow student at Evangel College and he was a friend of mine for three years there while we both finished our degrees before earning doctorates in different disciplines. I am not a trained theologian, but I can tell you that Ted Letis was not only an intellectual of the highest order, he was as honest and the noblest character and as much in Love with Christ as the greatest disciple! His integrity is beyond reproach, and some of the comments which insinuate any qualities less than I have stated above as a personal witness of his life and doctrine, are to the degree that they seek to malign his highest character, sincerest devotion to Christ and superior scholarship and intellect - are in serious error! I am presently rereading as much of his work as I can find, and, encouage others to do the same ... then, do whatever further reseach is needed, to form your own independent opinions regarding the sum and substance of his deeply researched and seriously analysed positions. Thanks! God Bless. Jerome Hagen

  10. I had the privilege of listening to Dr. Letis. He presented much hard, well researched evidences. He was definitely not in the same league with many of the run-of-the mill, aspiring theologians in this era. I would encourage people to read his work.

  11. Mr Williams, I have a question to ask you about Letis, would you mind contacting me at



    I would very much appreciate it.

  12. Anyone who claims Letis denied "inerrancy" is either blindly accepting this accusation from others, has never read Letis himself, or is purposely misportraying him.

    Letis believed and defended the infallibility of Scripture in every single word. He was a conservative Lutheran (Missouri Synod). Doctrinally he was far more conservative than the majority of conservative textual critical scholars today.

    What he rejected was B B Warfield's redefinition of infallibility to apply only to the autographs, which Warfield calls "inerrancy". Letis instead defended the Reformation doctrine that the infallibility of Scripture is not limited to the (lost) autographs.

    Anyone interested in reading about this ought to peruse Letis' books The Ecclesiastical Text and The Majority Text.

  13. I have (accidentally) found Letis' PhD here: