Friday, November 30, 2018

Why Didn’t God Preserve the Biblical Autographs?

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In the volume on Holy Scripture in his studies in dogmatics, G. C. Berkouwer, theologian at the Free University of Amsterdam, has a few pages on textual criticism. The discussion follows that of his predecessors Abraham Kuyper and Herman Bavinck quite closely and is worth a read even though I would probably demur at several points.

There are a number of issues worth discussing from Berkouwer, but I want to focus here on just one point because it is something I have heard many times from Christians. It is an answer to why, given the divine origin of the Bible, God did not preserve the actual autographs for us. Here is what Berkouwer writes:
The acceptance of this “textual criticism” is clearly related to the manner in which Holy Scripture was given to us. Obviously, it was not given to us in such a form that on the subjective human side it was merely possible and permissible to listen, with the exclusion of any “judgment.” Concern for a correct text shows clearly that this listening is set in a certain context. Textual criticism would be superfluous, according to Kuyper, “if it had pleased God to leave us perfect autographs.” Since this is not the case, we must respect the historical “aspects related to it.” Kuyper’s opinion about why the original handwriting is no longer at our disposal is that “such autographs would soon lead to idolatry, and it apparently pleased God to subject his Holy Scripture to the vicissitudes of time to ward off this evil rather than subject his church to the temptation of idolatry.” (Holy Scripture, p. 219)
In other words, the uncertainty that comes with textual criticism is better than that temptation to idolize the autographs that would come if we had them still. I have heard this a number of times as an explanation for why the need for textual criticism is okay. To his credit, Berkouwer goes on to say that
Opinions will differ concerning these considerations of divine motivations and providential intentions concerning the loss of the “autographs.” 
I say that this caveat is to Berkouwer’s credit because no matter how often I hear it, I have yet to find this reason very convincing.

It’s not because I don’t think God has any good reasons for withholding the original ink and parchment from us (he must, after all); it’s because I don’t see him saving us from countless other things our “idol factory” hearts worship like money, power, sex, or influence. If God doesn’t keep these things from us because we idolize them, why would he keep the autographs from us either? After all, idolizing these things creates far greater problems than any idolizing of the autographs would. What’s more, doesn’t God have other ways of addressing the problem of idolatry? And wouldn’t the first generation of Christians face this same temptation? Why not save them from it too?

It’s not that I’m against any suggestion for why God didn’t preserve the autographs (for instance, he didn’t need to; he isn’t afraid of the uncertainty that comes with textual criticism; he likes our blog; he knows I need a job; etc.); it’s just that idolatry isn’t a convincing one.

14 comments :

  1. To add to your point, evangelicals are perfectly capable of worshipping text critically formed versions of the text (eg KJV, NA28/USB, etc). Substitutionary autographs are still generated by and generate bibliolatry.

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  2. I have thought similar. Perhaps a reason is more associated with man's failings than God's preserving. This occurred with the Ark of the Covenant and it's location, no reason to think it can't occur in this matter also. Moreover, cf. 2 Kings 22:8 - the Lord is not tied to an "autograph," but to the accuracy of His message. TC seems to fit that bill.

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  3. I am in full agreement with you here. I have always thought the idolatry angle was pretty lame. But I do like Berkouwer's point on textual criticism forcing engagement with the text we otherwise would never have considered. I hadn't thought of it this way before.

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    1. I've definitely found that TC brings to me attention many exegetical gems I might otherwise have missed, perhaps especially when studying an author's style or the flow of thought in a book when trying to assess which reading has better intrinsic evidence on its side.

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  4. I haven't read Berkouwer's work, so I can't say for sure, but could he have had the story of 2 Kings 18:4 in mind? While scripture is not being treated as an idol in this passage, the bronze serpent could be considered an explicit witness to God's earlier work, and Hezekiah judged that the people of Israel were giving it too much reverence.

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  5. Theologically it is far better merely to accept the non-existence of the autographs as reflective of an otherwise unrevealed portion of the divine will and proceed from there. In this case, we rely on Isa 55.8-9, where God's ways and thoughts simply are not the same as ours.

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    1. So, you don't think it's because God likes our blog, MAR?

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    2. He definitely likes our blog and even gave it a thumbs up on Facebook (or so the "God friended me" guy on TV suggests).

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  6. In my sentimentality I like to imagine that the originals, as well as the 1st and 2nd generations of copies were read and handled so much that they would be impossible to have preserved. And this extreme usage points to the value and respect in which they were held amongst the first communities of faith.

    I echo Joey's comment above about 2 K 18 being an influence behind the idea espoused by Berkouwer.

    I think the main reason why they were not physically preserved was that God did not need them to be. :) Such a wonderfully scholarly position, right?

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  7. I agree Peter, I am sure that God in his foreknowledge allowed the autographs to be lost so that the ETC Blog and it's annual Hard Rock Cafe Blog Diner could exist.

    On a side note, I don't think that having the "physical" autographs would completely eliminate the need textual criticism or some textual uncertaint. Look at other more modern examples such as the Gettysburg Address. Again I find tge term "autograph" poorly defined. Which "autograph" should God have preserved? The notebooks of Luke? The initially dispatched copy of Romans written by Tertius? Or Paul's personal copy?

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    1. Also, one can make the case that in some sense the "autographs" have been preserved, that is, the text of the "autographs" (or a large majority of the text [thinking of the ending of Mark here]).

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  8. It's an oblique agreement, I think, but a scenario in which the autographs were somehow preserved would introduce a whole host of issues. How would one verify the authenticity of these manuscripts? How could one defend against the argument that these were forgeries, or the invention of man? In this scenario, further, stewardship of the alleged autographs would depend on particular ecclesiastical authorities, who almost certainly would seek to use them in order to enhance their authority. At the same time, critics of Christianity would have a much harder time placing trust in the very same texts.

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  9. It's a lame argument for another reason: God didn't preserve the originals of virtually any ancient Greco-Roman literature. Are we to say that he didn't want us worshiping the Iliad, too?

    And another one: if we knew that we had the autographs of some NT books, they probably would be encased in gold, never to be opened again.

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  10. My bet was that it likely wasn't an individual decision on God's part.

    That is, I doubt God sat there and considered the lone issue of "should I preserve the autographs or not?" .Rather, his "decision" not to preserve them was an integral part of a greater decision he did make about how he would move and work within this world.

    We call divine intervention "supernatural" because it is the exception to the natural rule. I don't think it's some slide towards deism to observe that, as a general rule, God's chosen modus operandi is to allow the world to proceed on it's natural course. And in 99.99% of cases, that's exactly what he does. When he does break into our physical world, we call that a miracle - and rightly so.

    As Dan already noted, in the ancient world the normal and natural course was for autographs to expire. So I think it's only natural then that the NT autographs did the same. We can try to find various theological silver linings in that outcome (and why not?), but from God's perspective, I doubt there was any special reason for it, any more than God had a special reason for allowing the thing I just dropped to fall, or the fire I just lit to burn, the cup of coffee I forgot on the shelf to get cold, or any of the other normal things in the world that unfolded today according to their natural course.

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