After the recent discussions on divine preservation of scripture arising from the interview with Dan Wallace I decided to ask Bill Combs of Detroit Baptist Theological Seminary to give us a summary of his thoughts on divine preservation of scripture. Bill had earlier written a substantial article on this subject, in particular interacting with views of preservation presented by TR and KJV people (for article see here). I've asked for a presentation of his views without significant reference to such folk, and I hope that it can be discussed exclusively with reference to more serious positions.
Here are Bill's words:
I would affirm there is a doctrine of preservation of Scripture, taught by Scripture itself, possibility directly, but certainly indirectly. I would distinguish between belief in a doctrine of preservation and, simply, belief in preservation. Most would agree that the Bible has been substantially preserved to our day because of the actual historical evidence. Those who argue for a doctrine of preservation also believe that the historical evidence demonstrates the preservation of Scripture, but add that preservation is a theological necessity—Scripture must be preserved because Scripture itself promises its own preservation. Evangelicals have, I believe, commonly affirmed belief in a doctrine of preservation.
Many ancient writings have been preserved because God is in control of the universe (my Calvinism). Any ancient document that is extant today owes its present existence to God’s preservation. So we can say that all the works of ancient authors in existence today have been “providentially preserved.” “Providential” means preservation is by secondary causation, through ordinary human means, rather than by God’s direct, miraculous intervention. The preservation of Scripture is not different in method from any other ancient book God has determined to preserve. Both Scripture and non- inspired works have been preserved providentially by secondary causation, by essentially ordinary human means. But we could also say that Origen’s Hexapla has providentially not been preserved. The doctrine of preservation of the Scriptures affirms, however, that the preservation of Scripture was always assured even though God carried out his will to preserve the Scriptures primarily through the actions of human wills.
A number of verses are commonly used to support the doctrine of preservation, including Ps 12:6-7; 119:89, 152, 160; Isa 40:8; Matt 5:17-18; 24:35; John 10:35; and 1 Pet 1:23-25. In my article on this subject, I examined these verses (see here). I concluded that some verses (e.g., Ps 12:6-7; 119:89) are not applicable to the doctrine of preservation. It is possible that Ps 119:152 and Ps 119:160 may offer a more direct promise, but, admittedly, the case is not rock solid. Isa 40:8 and Matt 24:35 offer more indirect support to the doctrine, while Matt 5:18 and John 10:35 strongly imply a doctrine of preservation with their emphasis on the continuing authority of Scripture.
The argument for preservation from the continuing authority of Scripture contends that since the Scriptures are authoritative, an authority that comes from their inspiration (2 Tim 3:16), the Scriptures can have no continuing authority unless they are preserved. Genuine Christianity is not possible apart from a dependable form of the Word of God, and all people are responsible to be Christians. The purposes for Scripture, to teach, reprove, correct, and train (2 Tim 3:16) cannot be fulfilled unless Scripture is preserved. This is where Matt 5:17–18 and John 10:35 tie into the doctrine of preservation since both passages teach a continuing authority for Scripture. But the same can be said for numerous texts that command the believer’s obedience. If these texts are essential to the believer’s sanctification, and they are, they must have been preserved.
Another argument for a doctrine of preservation comes from the principle that preservation is a natural corollary of inspiration. To say that there is a corollary between inspiration and preservation does not reveal anything about the exact nature of that preservation. It is perfectly reasonable to assert a corollary between inspiration and preservation without asserting that preservation be in every way equal to inspiration—for example, that inerrant inspiration demands inerrant preservation. Basically, the corollary suggests that there is no real purpose or value in inspiring a document that is not preserved. What, we might ask, would be the purpose of producing an authoritative record (inspiration) and letting it perish? Why, for instance, let Paul write an inspired letter to the Romans and then have it perish on the way to Rome? Of course, that did not happen, but could it have happened? If one denies a corollary between inspiration and preservation, Paul’s letter could have perished before it got to Rome.The purpose of inspiration was to produce graphe (2 Tim 3:16), a written record, a deposit of divine truth for the readers, not the writer. Without preservation the purpose of inspiration would be invalidated. Since it was clearly God’s intention that Paul’s inspired letter to the Romans be read by the Romans—it could not have perished—there must have been a divine work of preservation at work for at least a few weeks or months until the letter was received by the Romans. This suggests that there is some degree of correlation between inspiration and preservation. And the letter to the Romans was not meant just for the Romans. No Scripture was intended for only the original recipient—“For whatever was written in earlier times was written for our instruction…” (Rom 15:4). Similarly, Paul says, “Now these things happened to them as an example, and they were written for our instruction…” (1 Cor 10:11). If the OT Scriptures (“these things”) were “written,” that is, inspired for the purpose of instructing future believers (“our instruction”), that purpose for the inspired writings demands their preservation. It is important to make clear that none of these Scripture texts and arguments tell us how God would preserve his Word, only that he would preserve it. We are told neither the method nor the extent of this preservation. It is an indisputable fact, proven by the manuscript and versional evidence, that God has not perfectly preserved the Scriptures throughout their long history of transmission. God has preserved his Word to this day, but because of the means he has chosen to use to accomplish this preservation—providentially, through secondary causation—the words of the autographs have not been inerrantly preserved. Instead, God has chosen to allow for variations to occur—variants within the Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek copies of the autographs. God has providentially provided all these copies in order to preserve the Scriptures. So it is proper to say that preservation has taken place in the totality of manuscripts. Because God chose this method of preservation, it was not possible to provide a perfectly pure text with no variations. This level of purity is sufficient for God’s purposes.
The evidence from manuscripts and versions suggests that, while not perfect, the Scriptures have been preserved in an essentially pure form such that we can rightfully affirm that the essential message of Scripture has not been lost or corrupted. We are justified, then, in referring to our reliable manuscripts and versions as the Word of God because they are tethered to the autographs and are sufficient representatives of them.
What does the doctrine of preservation mean for textual criticism? Since preservation is by secondary causation, through ordinary human means, only by careful examination of the preserved documents can the most accurate form of the text of Scripture be identified and ultimately preserved. The science (and art?) of textual criticism is thus essential. Textual criticism therefore becomes one of the ordinary human means God in his providence uses to preserve his Word. The doctrine of the preservation of Scripture correlates with the doctrine of Scripture’s inspiration—there was an original inerrant text of the canonical Scriptures to be preserved. Therefore, the goal of textual criticism should be the recovery of that inspired text to the degree the documents will permit. The doctrine of preservation does not, however, provide any basis for choosing between, for example, the Byzantine and Alexandrian text types since both preserve the essential message of Scripture. I am not sure how much more the doctrine of preservation impacts the actual practice of textual criticism except to say that I would think conjectural emendation would normally be avoided, certainly kept to a minimum.