The latest issue of Expository Times (118.12 [Sept 2007], pp. 583-89) includes an article by David Parker on "Textual Criticism and Theology". The blurb reads:
For various reasons, the topics of textual criticism and theology are disconnected. The importance of reuniting them is explored with reference to: the concept of the original text, theologically motivated textual variation, concepts of orthodoxy, and the texts as historical documents. This article offers a fresh theological approach.
Parker draws attention to: (1) The erroneous assumption that the only goal of textual criticism is the reconstruction of the original text; (2) The debate as to whether textual variations were theologically motivated; (3) The assumption that the New Testament was produced and preserved by orthodox circles; and (4) Doctrines of Scripture ordinarily ignore the reality of the origin, nature, and historical development of the Bible.
In place of these Parker argues:
(1) The concept of the restoration of an original text is both inappropriate and impossible (no surprises here). Parker regards the wealth of textual variations as indicating that Christians treated them as living texts that could be expanded, re-worded, or reduced in order to bring out the true meaning of the text. The division between inspired Word, church reception, and church tradition are no longer discernible. The best we can do is to aspire to reconstruct the earliest collected edition of the text from the period 200-300 AD. The goal of the textual critical craft is the reconstruction of the development of the text and the relationship between different texts. He states that: "If the quest for an original form is set aside, the old recoverable form has still great significance. But there is no obvious reason theologically why that particular form of the text should be given a greater authority than a later one" (p. 586). Parker's point has been rehearsed enough and various criticism have been set forth. What I would contest is whether the journey towards an original text is quite so futile and I suspect that I am not alone in that optimism. In addition, an original text is significant historically for reconstructing first century Christianity and it is significant theologically if we are to ask what it actually was that God-breathed out.
(2) Parker argues for the theological motivation behind many textual variants. The upshot is that: "we do not have a text received by the church, but one produced within the church" (p. 587). No objections from me on that one, but a few qualifications are in order. I dare to ask, what is the actual percentage of variations that can be solidly demonstrated as being theologically motivated? What criteria does one use to determine a theologically motivated variation? For example is the exomen of Rom. 5.1 based on a mishearing of the omicron/omega, or does it stem from a soteriological issue of whether peace with God is a reality or a possibility? Do you see the problem?
(3) Parker objects to a view of the linear development of orthodoxy which created and preserved the texts. Citing Walter Bauer he maintains that "orthodoxy was only able to emerge once certain groups had the political power to outlaw groups with other points of view" (p. 587). Thus orthdoxy is a late phenomenon and it did not originate the texts themselves. Later he states that the text resulted from "the pluralism of early Christianity" (p. 588). I grow exceedingly weary of the Bauer-trump card that is so often laid on the table. Bauer's thesis has several discernible weaknesses including his view of the extent of the authority and influence of the Roman church, the development of Christianity in Egypt, and even his arguments about Christianity in Edessa have been challenged (see works by Robinson, Hultgren, Hurtado to name a few). The surviving point of Bauer's thesis is that Christianity in the early centuries was diverse and that point is so prosaic and banal as to no longer need restatement. That means that the group of big nasty orthodoxy bishops who eliminated the innocent pluralism of early Christianity is a myth. In many cases it was the NT text(s) that proved to be the undoing of the sectarian groups which is why Marcion took a knife to Luke's Gospel, why alternative Gospels had to be written, and it explains the introduction of some variants due to "heretics" who inserted alternative readings (though that is not to say that the proto-orthodox did not respond in kind). To be fair to Parker he is willing to admit that Ehrman's view is not the only show playing in town in regards to the significance of heresy and orthdoxy for textual criticism. And Parker is correct that we cannot assume that the text was transmitted exclusively through orthodox groups, but it is a fairly safe default setting to make in the absence of evidence to the contrary.
(4) Parker argues that theological statements about the text are often made without reference to the nature of the text, how it was received, and the realities of textual criticism. Then he proceeds to argue that what we have in the textual critical enterprise are witnesses to a text and not access to the original witnesses themselves. Here I am very sympathetic to Parker. I opine the fact that few books on the doctrine of Scripture take serious account of textual criticism. There are some doctrines of Scripture that would fall apart if they ever came into contact with the Septuagint. If one is really fixated on the original autographs and assumes that the first Christians were too, then one was to explain why the early church sought to use a translation of the Old Testament that often did some very creative things with the Hebrew text. My point is not that the autographs are insiginificant, but there are a whole host of issues about canon and reception that need to be brought into the mix. I haven't read it yet, but I hope to read Craig Albert's book: High View of Scripture? The Authority of the Bible and the Formation of the New Testament Canon to see if this offers something that takes greater account of textual criticism. As for his view of witnesses (textually and theologically) all I can say is that not everyone agrees. If I am reading Parker correctly, he is saying that NT studies can only be textual critical studies or studies in reception-history. He writes: "all study of the NT text has to begin with the manuscripts, and having begun with them, cannot progress beyond them" (p. 589). On this account there is no possibility of a commentary on "Paul's letter to the Romans" only "The Epistle of Romans in Vaticanus" etc. Yet I think it worth pointing out that others such as Ehrman and Koester who have emphasized the diversity and corruption of the NT texts still find themselves adequately resourced to write about the historical Jesus, Paul, and the early church of the first century. It seems to me that our textual witnesses (albeit via a convoluted path) take us beyond a text and back to historical events and persons.