Monday, March 27, 2006

Bill Combs on divine preservation

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.


  1. Thank you very much for this which is tremendously helpful. On the argument from the means for sanctification, I wondered whether 2 Peter 1:3-4 in fact makes this link explicit (twice).
    I had a couple of questions: if preservation is not absolutely perfect but is nevertheless effective and totally adequate for giving believers in all ages real access to inerrant scripture, is there a parallel doctrine of translatability? - the argument from God's intention in giving his word to his people seems to entail something like that, since most believers down the ages won't know the biblical languages and yet the gospel is for all nations. The way that the NT writers seem happy to treat the LXX as inspired seems to suggest that they operate with these two parallel assumptions about preservation and translation both being effective while not perfect.
    My other question is over conjectural emendation: if "preservation has taken place in the totality of the manuscripts" presumably that isn't perfect preservation either, so a correct reading could happen not to have made it into any of our existing manuscripts. Though we'd be cautious and expect it rarely to be the case, couldn't conjectural emendation sometimes get it right? - as I think Tov says, whenever we prefer a LXX reading we're not really sure whether we are defaulting to a variant Hebrew Vorlage or to a translator's own conjectural emendation; and wouldn't a lot of Qumran readings that we now use only have been conjectural emendations before 1947?

  2. Jennie:

    You raise some interesting questions. Yes, I think 2 Peter 1:3-4 would be applicable. I am not sure about a "parallel doctrine of translatability." I would think that the doctrine of preservation applies first and foremost to languages in which the Scriptures were given. But it is true that God in his providence has for the most part seen fit to have the Scriptures made available in the languages of his people. In most cases I believe it follows a logical pattern: the Scriptures are translated into the language of a new people group, which is then followed by the proclamation of the gospel.

    I suppose you are correct that "conjectural emendation could get it right," but, of course, how would we know, and with the amount of extant manuscript evidence what is the point of conjecturing? I am more familiar with the NT, and it seems to me that there are no insuperable problems with the text as presently construed in our Greek printed texts. I wonder if others share that view? I believe (?) that the only conjecture in the UBS text is in Acts 16:12, and I am not convinced this is at all necessary.

    What you say about Tov is interesting. I have no real expertise in the LXX, but I think I remember Jellicoe (The Septuagint and Modern Study) saying that at least the Torah was a fairly literal translation. If true, then I wonder if, at least, in the Torah, there was that much conjecture. I am sure Pete and others can help us here.

  3. Bill,

    In your paper you claim that Matt. 5:18 is hyperbole.
    I think this statement reqires more justification than a footnote to Craig Keener ...

    I am still reading perhaps you talk more about it later on.


  4. Jennie, interesting question about translatability. We could again make the distinction between a doctrine of translatability and mere belief in it. I'd prefer, however, to see this dealt with within a more general treatment of the effectiveness of divine communication (Vanhoozer style). It appears that in natural languages translation achieves something, but not everything.

    We also need to make sure that our definition of effective communication or textual preservation is not anthropocentric. Through much of history most people have not had God's word in their language, just as most people have not had access to perfectly copied or edited versions of the original text. Effectiveness must therefore be judged relative to divine intention. NB Ehrman in the climactic argument of Misquoting Jesus (p. 211) only argues against an anthropocentrically defined version of preservation.

    I'd be interested if someone could take Bill's analysis and try out 'minimalist' and 'maximalist' versions of it. What is the 'minimal' amount that would have to be preserved to achieve the preservation he argues to be necessary? On the other hand, what is the 'maximal' extent to which one could argue that preservation needs to have occurred.

  5. First, in the spirit of full disclosure I would like to say that I am a "moderate" Baptist (Southern Baptist tradition) who has witnessed firsthand the devastation of a denomination, seminaries, and personal lives all in the name of "inerrancy". So, I am very biased against that doctrine. I do, however, believe in the authority of scripture and am interested in how that authority can be articulated. Most doctrines of the authority of scripture, it seems to me, are expressed in terms of the original text, with which I have problems. Bill Combs' discussion here is very provocative and raises some questions about the necessity of connecting the authority of scripture to the original text.
    Combs states, "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."
    For me, this statement is helpful because it takes Scripture as an entity, not individually dictated inspired words. We have a "pure form" (essential message) not a "perfect" (textual) one. The scriptures as we have them are a "sufficient representation of the autographs" not an inerrant one. These statements, I believe, accurately state what we have, and I believe that articulations of the authority of scripture ought to emphasize what we have, not relegated to an original text that cannot be exactly provided by textual criticism. Is authority of scripture somehow lost for the church today if the original text cannot be completely recovered (not simply preserved)?
    By the way, I greatly appreciate the Evangelical Textual Criticism blog; it has renewed my theological reflection about the nature of scripture.

  6. Clay,
    I think perhaps you are correct--Matt 5:18 probably does deserve more attention than I gave it in the article. In my experience, it is the primary text the KJV-only folks use to support their belief in perfect preservation. As far as it being a hyperbole, I also cited Robert Stein in support, and there may be others, but I can’t remember. But I wonder how it could be anything else but hyperbole? Taken literally, it would seem to demand perfect preservation, which, of course, the evidence flatly refutes. If the expression “jot” refers to the Hebrew (or Aramaic) letter yod and “tittle” refers to small parts of letters, especially the small strokes distinguishing similar Hebrew letters, then Jesus could not have been referring to the paleo-Hebrew script, since, as I understand it (correct me if I am wrong), the old script did not have those distinguishing tittles and the yod is not especially small. Therefore, Jesus' statement could not have been reaching back to the autographs saying they would be perfectly preserved.

  7. Bill Combs, p. 15:
    "However, it is more probable that verse 7 (“Thou shall keep them…thou shalt preserve them”) is not even referring to “the words of the LORD” in verse 6. The antecedent of “them” in verse 7 is probably not the “words” of verse 6. The Hebrew “them” (twice in v. 7) is masculine, while “words” is feminine. Therefore, most interpreters and versions understand the promise of
    preservation in verse 7 to apply to the “poor” and “needy” of verse 5."

    There's no question that this passage--the whole psalm, in fact--poses some tough knots for the Hebrew grammarian to untie. But Combs does not settle the question with this rebuttal. To be specific, this is how the relevant words are conjugated in the Hebrew:
    poor: masculine plural
    needy: masculine plural
    words: feminine plural
    silver: masculine singular
    keep) them: masculine plural
    preserve) them: masculine singular

    Keeping all the conjugations in agreement, a la Combs, requires one to tie in the poor and needy with the first ‘them’, then back up to what–if not the parabolic silver, then the safety (masc. sing.) of v.5?–and connect it to the second ‘them’, thus skipping over the ‘words’ entirely.

  8. Dear Derek,
    Thanks for your frank disclosure and your supportive comments.

    You have declared yourself biased against the doctrine of inerrancy on the basis of your experiences of what has been done in the name of inerrancy amongst Southern Baptists. My own experience of Southern Baptists is extremely limited (aside from being mentored for a little while by Mark E. Dever) and I cannot therefore comment. However, I would like to urge you to separate your evaluation of a doctrine from your evaluation of the behaviour of people who support and use the doctrine.

    You wrote: 'I believe that articulations of the authority of scripture ought to emphasize what we have, not relegated to an original text that cannot be exactly provided by textual criticism. Is authority of scripture somehow lost for the church today if the original text cannot be completely recovered (not simply preserved)?'

    I agree that Combs does a fine job of tethering the authority of the text today to what was originally given. However, I do not think that we should accept the strong dichtomy between what we have today and the 'original' text. I'm pretty confident about the text of Luke 1:1-4 down to the last letter. Although one cannot empirically prove that to be the authorial or original text, there is no reason to deny it either. So even if, as you should, you think that uncertainty about the identity of the original text is a problem, you should not express this as if it is a problem across the entirety of the NT.

  9. P.J., thanks for your response. You are obviously right that my evaluation of a doctrine should not be based on those who espouse it. But I do believe my problems with inerrancy stem from a more intellectual/reasonable basis. That's why your thoughts and engagement with these issues is most helpful for me. I will continue to "eavesdrop" on the posts of Evangelical Textual Criticism.