Thursday, August 08, 2019

Is Textual Criticism Theologically Safe?

Why do so many Evangelicals study textual criticism? (Besides because it’s the best.) Here’s one answer that I have come across several times now:
“Lower” textual criticism, as it is called, is often regarded as a pedantic prerequisite to “higher” historical-literary scholarship. Indeed, many believing Christian scholars choose New Testament textual criticism as their milieu just because it is blessedly boring and does not threaten their religious beliefs. But as the Johannine comma reminds us, it is the lower criticism, rather than its more glamorous younger sibling, that shows the biblical text to be contingent and thus subject to history. In other words, it is textual criticism that first humanized the word of God. —Raphael Magarik (source)
Speaking for myself, the theological cause-and-effect actually worked the other direction. The need for textual criticism itself posed a certain threat to my faith early on and that partly pushed me to pursue the field. The more I studied it, the less it posed a problem for me theologically. Before long, of course, the shear joy of textual criticism won me over! But I certainly didn’t set out in this field because I felt it was less threatening. Quite the opposite.

Update (8/20/19): I’m reminded today of one prominent place that discusses this. It is in Eldon Epp’s famous article on the multivalence of the term “original text.” He writes in the conclusion:
Nor (for those who choose to work within a theological framework) is textual criticism a “safe” discipline—a phrase I have heard for four decades—that can be practiced without challenge to theological convictions or without risk to faith commitments or truth assertions. I doubt that it ever was “safe”—at least for any who have thought through the implications of our myriad variation units, with their innumerable competing readings and conceptions, as well as the theological motivations that are evident in so many. But if it has been a “safe” discipline, it is safe no more. (p. 280)


  1. "shear joy": are you one of those scissors-and-paste editors? ;-)

  2. Or just a sheep waiting to be trimmed?

  3. For me, Textual Criticism made me believe more in the Bible than before and helped me to like books like Songs of Songs and Leviticus with more assurance.

  4. Textual criticism has made me more humble and less ”wooden” in my view of the bible, i.e., before my study I had not reflected how the biblical writings were written, collected, and transmitted throughout history.

  5. I have not specialized in textual criticism. I'm interested in it more than many, but not at the level that the contributors here are. But I do have a PhD in New Testament from a major university, where historical-critical methodology was expected. And my experience somewhat supports the claim that writing a dissertation on something text critical at least can be (and I suspect often is) a draw for inerrantists in that setting. When selecting a dissertation topic, I did have to consider and discuss with my adviser how some options could have put me in a position where I would face opposing pressures by my theological convictions as well as possible future evangelical employers to say one thing and by my committee to say another. Choosing a topic that avoids that problem was desirable, and textual criticism is not the only way to do that, but it is a big one.

  6. While not a text critical scholar, I am a Pastor committed to expository preaching and original language study. For me, it was the “Orthodox Corruption of the Scripture” that began my Text critical journey over 35 years ago. Textual Criticism was certainly not a safe place after reading Ehrman. Yet, I thank God for the delight that has been mine and my parishioners over the years through the often mundane work of TC! I am more confident than ever that we have the original text available to us within the manuscript tradition and I am glad that there are scholars who have dedicated their lives to this task.


  7. Textual criticism gave me greater confidence in the reliability of the text of the Bible.
    Why do 'they' call textual criticism 'lower criticism'? The 'higher' criticism seems to be less disciplined and 'made up'.
    Dan McConaughy

    1. Dan McConaughy,
      Textual criticism is "lower criticism" in the sense that it is further down the historical path of the text than "higher criticism," i.e., textual criticism involves the study of the text after its production-stage has been completed.

  8. Maybe it's just my own experience, but it has always seemed to me that evangelicals - particularly conservative evangelicals - have been disproportionately attracted to textual criticism.

    Other people have often observed that too, and it is frequently explained by saying, as per the OP, that text criticism is the theologically safe discipline, i.e. a place where conservatives can achieve academic standing without having their theology challenged.

    I think I reject that explanation.

    For one, I don't think it's true. I don't think textual criticism is or has ever been a "safe discipline." It frequently challenges and confirms theology. Ehrman famously blames/credits his text critical studies for his own loss of faith. Several other posters here in this thread have already commented how it affected theirs. Personally, I know my own doctrine of inspiration was revolutionised by my text critical work. So I don't think it's true in any sense that TC is a safe discipline. It's just as theological as any other field.

    Second, I think there is a better explanation. Conservative evangelicals are more likely to be attracted to textual criticism because they are more likely to be practicing a literal interpretation of the scriptures. I'm not saying that as a complement or a criticism, simply as a description. Any more allegorical, metaphorical, or in any way looser hermeneutic is simply not going to be as affected by minute changes in wording as a literal method will be. In a literal hermeneutic, each and every word always matters, so it should be no wonder that the literalists are more interested in settling what each and every word is. That's also, of course, why conservative literalists are less open to some of the more uncertain aspects of the field, such as conjectural emendation or Parker's model of a "living text" .

    1. Ryan,

      You make some valid points but I think also neglect some others.

      I think you're right about how Parker's view exemplifies a kind of TC scholarship that seems less safe for evangelicals, in the sense that it would be hard to engage it dispassionately without showing one's theological cards. And other examples could be mentioned. But note that this is a case of a big-picture theoretical treatment of TC, rather than a narrowly focused study of a text-critical question that puts into practice certain assumed text-critical canons. And I think the cases where evangelicals have been able to treat TC specializations as safe are more along those practice-of-TC lines, than in the larger questions about how lower and higher criticism can blend together.

      Often, in a work of textual criticism, an inerrantist can practice the method in exactly the same way as a nonevangelical and produce a work that is indistinguishable from one a that could have been written by anyone from any other theological stripe. In many subspecialties of biblical studies this is less the case. For example, an inerrantist who theologically presupposes that everything the Gospels claim about the life and words of Jesus is what was really said and done in history, would have difficulty writing a work on the historical Jesus that would satisfy the demands for objective treatment of such questions that allow for judgments in either the affirmative or the negative that most nonevangelicals would have for such works. That is not to say it can't be done. But navigating those pressures is something that evangelical scholars in those pursuits have to think about, and may be motivated not to want to deal with it. Similar things could be said about any studies that would require taking stands on the authorship of any books of the NT outside the undisputed Paulines, as well as various other areas.

    2. Thanks Eric,

      I think I'd still disagree with you, but I think it depends on how we're defining our terms.

      What do we mean by "theologically safe"?

      I think what most conservatives mean is something that will not challenge or otherwise be in tension with their conservative theology. Actually, I think liberals would probably define it the same way, mutatis mutandis.

      Either way, I think the assumption there is that there are some things which contain, implicitly or not, a theological or ideological framework (or assumptions, whichever model works for you) and some things which do not. Those things that do have such implicit beliefs are potentially "dangerous" because the implicit beliefs could disagree with your own beliefs and even, potentially, lead you away from them. Things which have no implicit beliefs, or are ideologically or theologically "neutral", are considered "safe" because they contain no such implicit beliefs which could challenge your own.

      Thus, as per your example, historical Jesus studies are classed as "dangerous" as there is, obviously, a host of implicit beliefs intrinsic to the method which would definitely challenge most conservative theologies. Narrow textual studies, on the other hand, can be classified as "safe" because such practical, concrete methods are theologically neutral: there is no theological beliefs implicit to the practice of counting manuscripts, for example; both a liberal and a conservative would count them up in much the same way.

      I think that's a relatively common way of framing the issue, and if I read you right, that's basically what you're saying.

      My beef is that I don't agree that even narrow, concrete textual or manuscript studies are devoid of implicit beliefs or are "theologically neutral."

      I think, as human beings, our implicit beliefs affect every single thought process we have. There are, I would say, no substantive thought processes that are not affected by our own beliefs, and therefore no substantive conclusions we can make which do not, at least implicitly, express our theological beliefs.

      This is, of course, normally just called "bias", and again, I don't think there is such a thing as being truly "neutral."

      As Westcott and Hort said, "No individual mind can ever act with perfect uniformity, or free itself completely from its own idiosyncrasies: the danger of unconscious caprice is inseparable from personal judgement." (Introduction, 17.)

      And I think that personal bias affects - and is therefore implicit in - even those studies as mechanical as counting up manuscripts. After all, such counting is simply a matter of statistics, and what do we say about statistics? Less trustworthy than both lies and damned lies!

      I will concede that methods such as historical Jesus studies are much more explicitly theological (and therefore "less safe" if you're evaluating things that way) but I would still say that even the more mechanical and narrow textual studies are just as theological - the theology is simply more implicit.

      In other words, I think anyone who says that textual criticism is "theologically safe" is simply not recognizing how much their theology is actually affecting their text critical work.

    3. I appreciate the thoughts. But I have a question about how to get to this article and others.
      Occasionally the title of an blog goes missing from the main page of ETC. I think I saw a title for this blog, briefly on the first day, then later the title, the number of comments, and the tags all went missing from the home page. Now all that is shown is the text of the blog and the author's name. (And, occasionally, a "recent comment" on this blog, if that feature happens to be working, which is finally how I got onto this page.)
      It's happened before, and I'm just wondering if it's accidental, deliberate, or some strange problem on my part (I haven't been reading the blog that long). When I opened the home page on my phone, this blog did not even show up. Anyone else have this problem?

    4. I agree with you that there is no true theological neutrality. At the bottom of any particular textual critical methodology there is bound to be a foundation of axioms that cannot be disembedded from theological beliefs.

      That said, in practice, textual criticism is an area within biblical studies where the differences between vastly different theological camps don't typically show themselves explicitly.

      We could discuss how this could be the case if it is really true that theological neutrality doesn't exist. In some cases it could be explained by non-evangelicals inadvertently relying on foundational ideas that they plundered from biblical Christianity. In some it could be evangelicals inadvertently compromising on their stated views. In some cases it could be that there is an area of theological agreement in spite of other disagreements. But regardless of the explanation, the phenomenon is a real one.

    5. Thanks Eric. I like how you phrased your first paragraph. Wish I could write like that.

      But as for explaining the phenomenon, I think we need to change it out of the passive into the active. Rather than expecting theological differences to "show themselves" , I think rather the onus is on us to see them. The question is not, I don't think, "why does the embedded theological bias show itself more explicitly in some fields than others" , but rather the question should be "why do we see the embedded theological bias more easily in some fields than in others?"

      As for an answer for that, my first guess would be the idea of anchoring. In psychology one anchor point can be used to influence how you see a second point. For example, if you saw only a sweater with the price tag "$25" you wouldn't be sure if that was a good deal or not. But if the merchant instead writes "regular price $50, now only $25," the first, higher price will anchor your idea of normal, and you'll therefore see the second price as a great deal in comparison. And you'll buy the sweater. Similarly, as you noted earlier, in textual criticism we have both more theoretical fields, e.g. the living text, and more mechanical fields. The more theoretical fields are more easily identified as theologically active, and with that anchor point set, when we look at the more mechanical fields - with all their counting, tabulating and transcribing - we see them as more objective by comparison.

      I think if we changed our anchor point, we would more easily see the embedded theology in those more mechanical fields.

      If we did our first degree in advanced mathematics, for example, and then came over to textual criticism, I think to a person like that even our more mechanical fields would look like the wild west of theory and theology!

      Incidentally, if you Google "bias and objectivity in mathematics" , it looks to me, from a brief perusal of the abstracts, that the mathematicians are also debating whether their own field is safe and neutral, or replete with bias and subjectivity.

  9. I have to agree with both sides here. My experience was something like Dr.Gurry's. I was raised in the Church and remember when the New King James version came out and the older folks in Church having discussions about the differences, specifically the omission of the comma of all things (I must of been about 10 yrs. old).

    Then of course there was getting force feed the Critical Text in Bible College which didn't help either!

    On the other hand, I can definitely see how NTTC (or OT) could be seen as the safe road for those at liberal Seminaries and Schools. Anything would be safer than writing a phd on the Text, history or even worse Introduction of the New or Old Testament when the Historic Critical Method is taught and in some cases required to be followed. Yikes! -MMR

  10. Kenneth W. Clark long ago told me that he chose textual criticism specifically because it was a "safe" field for him in the late 1920s and 1940s. By this he specifically meant that his theologically liberal views in any other NT field might preclude him obtaining a teaching position in most denominational seminaries, which at that time were heavily affected and cautiously wary due to the fundamentalist-modernist controversy.

    As an American Baptist, and previous to graduate school, Clark had already been dismissed from at least one Pulpit in New England due to his theological views, so it was on this basis that he chose to enter the "safe" field of NTTC.

    1. Interesting bit of history Dr. Robinson. So it seems that what once was a safe haven for Theological liberals in generations past, has now become a safe haven for Theological conservatives of the present (in some cases at least). -MMR

    2. On the other hand, some of us entered this field because we were genuinely interested and enthralled by it, with no concern regarding theologically or academically "safe" versus "unsafe" disciplines.

    3. I think it's important for all NT (& OT) Text critic's to be "genuinely interested and enthralled by" the technical study of the textual issues, nay the very fabric of the Word of God! Too many men have taken on this field with an agenda-or have lord it over those without expertise once they have mastered (at least in their eyes) the Science.

      It is comforting to know that a leader (quite possibly "the" leader) in the field of NTTC has taken it on as a labor of love. Kudos to Dr. Robinson and all those who have literally poured out their hearts, minds and strength into such a grave task!

      "and their works do follow them"
      -Matthew M. Rose