Friday, September 21, 2007

Is there such a thing as “Evangelical Textual Criticism”? (again)

I was attempting to explain this blog to a colleague the other morning and I don’t think he was completely satisfied. Or perhaps he just wants an argument. He wrote me an email:
“I would place textual criticism as a necessary foundation to all NT and OT studies. If we cannot trust the text, we cannot trust the message that springs out of it. Where there is doubt or the hint of doubt, this opens the door to evangelicals to import radical methods of textual criticism that reflect the belief system of non-evangelicals arising from their non-evangelical belief in the inspiration and inerrancy of Scripture.
The fundamental issue that evangelicals must address at some stage in their academic career is how far can an evangelical adopt an eclectic approach to Scripture and remain an ‘evangelical’? By eclectic, I mean, one who creates a text that is not found in any MS, or is a hybrid text, which is not found in any family of MSS, or they invent a reading in the hope that it solves some perceived difficulty in the latest printed text.
It seems to me that you cannot have an “evangelical” textual criticism, when there is no consensus of what an evangelical position is on this topic. If a site like ETC is to have a goal it should work toward a consensus among evangelicals which should rule out some DIY approaches and agree on some parameters arising from an evangelical concensus on the inspiration and inerrancy of Scripture, or is there no consensus on that doctrine among evangelicals? Maybe ETC needs to work out a statement of faith on an ETC doctrine of inspiration of Scripture before it can move on to a statement about what an “Evangelical” position on Textual Criticism would look like?”
Leslie McFall (


  1. Surely the consensus among evangelicals is that the biblical text is authoritative, inerrant or whatever word you want to use in the autographs. Therefore, it seems to me as an outsider, the aim of evangelical textual criticism ought be to recover as nearly as possible that text of those autographs. This process ought not to be hindered by any scholarly conclusion that the autograph text differs from all surviving manuscripts.

  2. But ... first you have to define what an "Evangelical" is.

    As numerous articles at have shown (choose the Category "Evangelicals" and read all the articles and comments, including the Archives), and as D. G. Hart pointed out in his book DECONSTRUCTING EVANGELICALISM, the word can be be extremely difficult to define to the point of almost being better off not being used. IIRC, Hart argues that it's obsolete.

    If "inerrancy" is made the defining belief of Evangelicals, and "The Chicago Statement" is the meaning of "inerrancy," you'd still not achieve agreement. And when both Arminians and Calvinists can be "Evangelicals," then what does the term mean when competing and opposing soteriologies can be subsumed under a single term?

  3. In light of even the past (lengthy) discussions on this blogsite, it really seems that the most that can be said is that here we have the differing text-critical observations of those who otherwise would classify themselves as "evangelical" -- including within that definition some concept of the inspiration and authority of the autographs (leaving out all the more debatable terminology).

    Quite likely, beyond that we cannot go unless one prefers to consider fragmentation and diversity as the leading characteristic that defines an "evangelical".

  4. "Therefore, it seems to me as an outsider, the aim of evangelical textual criticism ought be to recover as nearly as possible that text of those autographs"

    There is no way of doing that as we don't have the autographs. In a sense it is trying to get back to something that never existed....a bound copy of original manuscripts.

  5. IMHO,

    1. In terms of what makes someone an evangelical surely it must be how one defines and expresses the "evangel". I've never understood making inerrancy or imputation the theological centre of evangelicalism.

    2. As for the goal of ETC, I think it should be to try to reconstruct the original text so that it can be taught to our churches as the inspired and inscripturated revelation of God.

  6. I would simply say that 'evangelical textual criticism' means doing textual criticism while holding an evangelical approach to the Bible.

    That is probably not a very well-defined way of saying it. So ...

    What that does NOT mean:

    (a) that there is only ONE method of doing evangelical textual criticism. No, some evangelicals will be eclectics, some will not - those who are not eclectics will not have to think very much while doing tc and so their evangelical presuppositions will have far less impact on their textual criticism.

    (b) that evangelicals will always prefer different variants to non-evangelicals. No, some evangelicals will often prefer exactly the same variant readings as Bart Ehrman.

    The reason that evangelical tc-ers and agnostic tc-ers will often agree on the same variants is simply because our presuppositions only play one part in our textual decision making - there are other methodological and non-methodological forces at work as well, that guide textual decision-making.

    (c) that tc is some 'scientific' discipline in which we may grind the handle of the 'sausage machine' and out will come the right answer, no matter who is turning the handle. That view is just not true - there are all too many factors which skew textual decisions when human beings are textual critics. Evangelicals (and non-evangelicals) need to be honest enough to admit that they too have theological, denominational, social and personal prejudices which affect their thinking. This other baggage that is brought to tc affects decision-making - not all the time, but every now and then.

    (d) that at the moment, the difference between evangelical and non-evangelical tc is all that great. No, you could get a certain group of evangelical tc-ers to put together a new NT text and it probably wouldn't be too different to the UBS text.

    Aha, say some, see - there is no practical difference!

    True enough, at the moment, the gulf is not really all that large. But, if you got the Internet Infidels to put together a new text of the NT, you might see a radically non-evangelical approach that would manifest itself in a pattern of readings showing an extreme prejudice being applied to the decision-making task.

    That day has not yet come, thankfully, but who is to say that such a day will never come when a militantly anti-evangelical group of academics shows the 'fruit' of its textual labours in a new text?

  7. I am not clear that Christians -- this is what we mean, after all; people committed to the truth of the bible -- are committed to any particular method of healing damage in transmission, so long as it is accurate and honest and objective. Every text on every bookshelf has minor errors. Scripture comes to us in earthen vessels, just like everything else. It is our duty to preserve it as best we can. If someone has torn out a page of the bible, we need to restore that page. If a word has become corrupt, we need to fix it. But beyond that? I really don't see the issue. Nothing in scripture commits us to the proposition that textual eclecticism is wrong. The spiritual risk of 'sitting above the text', of correcting the author, not the scribe, of coming to believe that there is no objective text, this is one that all text critics of all texts face, of course.

    The point about "evangelical textual criticism" is the tendency of those hostile to Christianity to abuse textual criticism as an excuse to debunk the bible and hence Christianity. We all know of this sort of ruse being practised a century ago, and the evil reputation left behind by the "higher criticism". But this was always simply bad scholarship to the extent that it did this; prejudice dressed up as scholarship for purposes of religious polemic.

    If all scholars were honest and objective, it would matter nothing if they were all atheists in private life. But since on matters of controversy there is a very definite tendency for scholars to use scholarship as an excuse to peddle their ideology -- think of 'German mathematics' or sociology -- then there needs to be a group of people who can act as a corrective to this tendency, precisely because they do not share the biases of contemporary society against the bible.