Tuesday, October 18, 2005

What are the principal characteristics of evangelical textual criticism?

This is a big question, but one that must surely be bashed out thoroughly here. I suppose that one clear characteristic will be that it is based on verbal inspiration, i.e. the idea that particular words come from God. Whether we use the phrase 'original text' or 'initial text' or some other phrase there's no getting round the idea that evangelical views of scripture state that some actual words do come from God and some do not. Though this is an essential feature of evangelicalism it is not necessarily a distinctive feature of evangelicalism. Arguably, historic Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox accounts of scripture would say the same. Where some distance from older Roman Catholic accounts is found is in the Protestant emphasis on original languages. More recent Roman Catholic approaches have tended to come nearer to the Protestant accounts on this, but, sadly, modern Roman Catholic theologians can be a bit fuzzy about the idea that God gave particular words. In principle, however, a key element of an evangelical approach to scripture could be shared by someone with a completely different ecclesiology and soteriology.

Another feature of evangelical textual criticism is caution, but, again, evangelicals cannot claim the monopoly on this virtue.

A further feature will be confidence in God's provision of His word for us, the idea that His communication with us has not been lost (this obviously needs further unpacking and clarification). Again, this confidence or textual optimism need not be exclusive to evangelicalism.

Thus in principle three key tenets of an evangelical approach could be shared by a non-evangelical.



  1. In line with this discussion I think that the idea of confluencey needs to be included. God superintended human authors to capture His Word and this, I think, would be an important element to include, both for considerations of text criticism and to differentiate between other conceptions of divine revelation. This sort of verbiage would also impact the overall goal of the evangelical text critic in terms of defining what exactly is being attempted to recover – a co-called ‘original’ or the ‘final’ text.

  2. Yes, this is an essential part of most modern accounts of verbal inspiration (some earlier accounts, e.g. Westminster confession, basically stress only Divine authorship). It is the text that has Divine and human co-authorship, which the evangelical textual critic will want to differentiate from the rest. I suppose, however, that some non-evangelicals would also do the same.

  3. what about the rejection of textual variants that deny evangelical doctrines, such as the virgin birth, for example?

  4. The above comment brings us to a good point of discussion. Perhaps we need to say a word or two about the definition of 'evangelical', specifically in regard to the nexus between theological method and the text. Certainly one major distinctive feature of evangelicalism is its theological method whereby a 'text up' approach is adopted. In this way, the establishment of the text necessarily precedes any organization or articulation of thoughts about God and His relation to all creation. As a result, I think we would want to affirm that the text drives our evangelicalism and not the converse.

  5. I agree with JV that we have to derive our doctrine from the texts, not vice versa. However, it is also the case that verses about the virgin birth are not under threat. I've documented in my book _Early Syriac Translation Technique_ (Gorgias Press, 2004) pp. 240-44, how the reading that allegedly does not contain the virgin birth in Matthew 1:16 is due to the imagination of modern scholars. Here the 'caution' characteristic comes in. When Von Soden adopted the reading without the virgin birth in his Greek Text (Die Schriften Des Neuen Testaments) he threw caution to the wind because he was egged on by a presupposition about the way Christianity arose.

  6. I think the relation between the text and evangelical doctrines could perhaps be stated as follows. Textual criticism only involves about 2% of the (NT) text. The doctrines of the faith are based on 98%. Evangelicals can feel justified in allowing theological considerations based on the 98% of the text to influence textual criticism because of their belief in the inspiration and unity of scripture. Non evangelicals have no such commitments, and although they accuse evangelicals of allowing their theological position to distort a 'scientific' approach to textual criticism, it is simply that they have differing theological convictions (denial of inspiration and unity of scripture) that also drive their textual decisions. In reality, evangelicals have the better argument: we are setting textual criticism within its proper context by not letting the tail of textual criticism (2%) wag the dog of doctrine (98%). Therefore, the rejection of variants (whether real or mistakenly attributed to the Syriac tradition) is perfectly legitimate if they do not comport with the basic doctrines of the faith.

    Other related questions arise, like the case of variants that appear to contradict other passages of scripture (eg. the staff/s taken by the apostles on their preaching missions in the gospels). Of course, with all of these sorts of questions, there must be plenty of room allowed for discussion about how a variant is to be interpreted, understood and accommodated within its context and an evangelical understanding of scripture.

    One last thing, how does one go about joining this blessed blog?

  7. Hi, anonymous, thanks for the comments. I guess some of us would be a bit more reserved about the use of percentages. It's hard to be sure what these are based on. Of course, the overwhelming feature of the textual tradition is fixity, not variability. At the same time we need to be very reserved about the use of dogmatic considerations to decide the text. The dogma may be both correct and certain, but the link between dogma and application is very uncertain. The article of faith that the Bible is true does not tell us which of many ways we might interpret the relationship between various synoptic accounts involving the word 'staff' or 'staffs'. Attempts to use inerrancy as a criterion for the original text have often been rather blunt (as when Gleason Archer in his Enclyclopedia of Bible Difficulties emends the number '14th' both 2 Kings 18:13 and Isaiah 36:1 to preserve the doctrine, or in some poor attempts to remove 'Cainan' from Luke 3:36).

    Yes, of course the truth of scripture is important and relevant, but we would need to develop more rigorous criteria for how it could be used. At the moment the use of bad textual criticism to rescue inerrancy has brought the cause into some disrepute (and rightly so).

    As for how to join this list, as mentioned in the first blog, it is aimed at people (normally) who have either read the NT or OT in their original languages and have a classic evangelical approach to scripture. We are deeply grateful for prayer support and comments from others. If you think that you may be an appropriate member of the blog team then I'd invite you to contact me (my e-mail address is on my Aberdeen University webpage).

    Warm regards.

  8. anon said: 'the rejection of variants is perfectly legitimate if they do
    not comport with the basic doctrines of the faith.'

    I am uneasy about this. First, there is always the chance that orthodox
    scribes *did* correct manuscripts (not sure if I was convinced by Ehrmann,
    but it's a possibility. I think of the Lord reigning from the tree in Ps 95[96]:10, or the Jewish mangling of Zech 12:10 in LXX and kennicot mss as it did not fit their theology).

    Second and more seriously, I am not sure what such variants would look
    like. Doctrine, and certainly major doctrines, are not dependant on one
    verse. There is always a longer story. So even if Luke didn't teach
    substitutionary atonement in his gospel, that does not make it untrue (or
    mean that he didn't believe in it, or teach it elsewhere). Big doctrines
    are us walking on snowshoes, not stilettos. So one verse that didn't
    immediately fit with our present exegetical justification of part of the
    Nicene creed is not a problem. Orthodox theology is not about proof

    Third, the bible is often a lot more complex and alien than evangelical
    theology. It may contain things that we find difficult to assimilate into
    the UCCF DB or WCF. Fancy that! I would be very wary of using this
    criterion. We are not trying to create Gk and Heb NIV.