Friday, December 20, 2019

Bernard Ramm on Textual Criticism (1957)

For Christmas, Christianity Today, the flagship magazine of American evangelicals founded by Billy Graham, has opened its full archives. These go back to 1956 and make for educational reading on the history of American evangelicalism.

Pertinent to this blog is an article from CT’s second year by Bernard Ramm. Ramm was a key figure in the neo-evangelical movement of the mid-20th century. He was, according to CT’s obituary, “best known for drawing evangelical theology into dialogue with science and culture.” Given the importance of both Ramm and CT in evangelicalism, I note here a brief comment from a 1957 article that Ramm wrote titled “Are We Obscurantists?” In it, he touches briefly on textual criticism.
The evangelical has no means of settling the text of the Scripture outside the usual methods of scholarship. There is no official copy of either the Hebrew or Greek Testaments. There are only copies of them. There is only one conceivable method of settling the text of Scripture and that is by the employment of the general science of textual criticism modified to fit the peculiarities presented by the biblical texts. When Calvin treated the text of Scripture, he employed the methodology he learned as a humanist and attempted scientifically to determine the true readings (cf. B. B. Warfield, Calvin and Augustine, p. 58). Warfield himself affirmed in another place that “processes that are valid for the ascertainment of a secular are equally valid for the ascertainment of a sacred text” (Critical Reviews, p. 81).

Evangelicals may believe that God has remarkably preserved the text of the Old and New Testaments, but to determine the precise text of Scripture is a problem for scientific criticism. This is the essence of the evangelical position, and there is, therefore, no place for obscurantism here.
Since the Fundamentalist-Modernist controversies in the 1930s, American evangelicals have sometimes suffered a nagging inferiority complex when it comes to academics. (It certainly doesn’t help when our finest historian says we have no mind!) All that makes for interesting background to Ramm’s appeal to textual criticism as one way to say we’re not, in fact, backwoods idiots. I suspect if Ramm were alive today, he would still agree with his assessment from 1956.


  1. Calvin murdered believers who disagreed with him. Why on earth is he so often quoted? He was by no means an academic scholar.

    1. Scholarship and murder are not mutually exclusive (with all due respect to Biblical scholars).

      Regardless of whether his conduct constituted murder, Calvin was fluent in Greek, familiar with the writings of Church Fathers, and wrote a commentary on all (except two) books of the Bible. How many Biblical scholars can make that claim?

    2. Nemo,
      Not many I suppose. But look at Calvin's acceptance of, say, the Comma Johaneum, and you might get some idea of how worthwhile his text-critically relevant statements are. I.e., they're not not the work of a specialist and his data is virtually all secondhand from very limited sources.

    3. James,

      Just by reading his commentary on 1 John 5:7-8, I'm not sure how Calvin's textual-critical approach is different from (and inferior to) that of a specialist. Could you elaborate?

      Having secondhand and limited sources is hardly the fault of the scholar, I would think, unless it can be shown that better sources were available to him but he failed to use them.


    4. We don't have the ark of the covenant or Noah's ark either. So if we don't have the original autographs and we don't have the providence of God to preserve the autographs in the copies we have now, it follows that the Bible is not really the inspired Word of God. Bart Ehrman must be right? I don't think so. The apographa preserve the inspired autographs.

    5. Calvin could not have committed murder since Michael Servetus received a fair trial under the civil and judicial courts of Geneva. Whether you agree with the law or not it was illegal to promote any heresy against the orthodox doctrine of the trinity. Romans 13 upholds the obligation of citizens and visitors to obey the law. Also, Calvin intervened with Servetus to try to get him to recant and to save his life. He refused.

    6. A little more context is helpful:

      Hunted Heretic: the life and death of Michael Servetus, 1511-1553
      Roland Herbert Bainton (1894-1984)
      2011 edition

      “On only two counts, significantly, was Servetus condemned – namely, anti-Trinitarianism and anti-paedobaptism.” p. 140

      "The law under which Servetus had first been imprisoned was that of the Holy Roman Empire; the law by which he was in the end condemned was that of the Codex of Justinian, which prescribes the penalty of death for two ecclesiastical offenses-the denial of the Trinity and the repetition of baptism." - p. 142-143

      And I avoid calling Calvin a murderer, however I also see his actions white-washed by his supporters.

  2. I think this line is notable:

    "Evangelicals may believe that God has remarkably preserved the text of the Old and New Testaments, but to determine the precise text of Scripture is a problem for scientific criticism. This is the essence of the evangelical position, and there is, therefore, no place for obscurantism here."

    Notice how he neatly identifies two separate issues: the preservation of the text, and the restoration of the text. The latter he (correctly in my opinion, of course) assigns to the scholarly, scientific enterprise. The former, however, is simply assumed as a belief.

    I would love to hear his defence of that distinction.

    Why should one be established by evidence, but the other accepted by faith? Why do we need scholarly proof for which reading is original, but the premise that at least one of them is may be believed without proof?

    A KJV only-ist, on the other hand, would likely hold that both premises should be accepted on faith - by faith they believe the original text was preserved, and by faith they believe that text is the Byzantine or majority text.

    I, on the other handn would suggest that both premises need to be tested, and proven by our best evidence. The conclusion that the original text has, at all points, been preserved should be subject to the same scholarly scrutiny - the same burden of proof - that we expect from the evaluation of variants and construction of a critical text.

    I don't see how it is a mark of good scholarship to assume your very first premise on nothing more than faith - and throwing in a line about the size of the surviving manuscript base doesn't make the assumption any more scholarly.

    1. Ryan,

      Good question. I'm also very curious what evangelical scholars think about the issue you raise.

      I'm not a biblical scholar, but I see a parallel between textual criticism and my own field: a first premise accepted on faith. There is no scientific proof that the "secrets"(to borrow a phrase from Hume) of nature can be known, but we (at least some of us) accept it implicitly on faith. Having such a faith in no way hinders one's ability to conduct scientific research, on the contrary, it might serve as an impetus. In the same vein, having faith that God has preserved the text, even if that text remains a "secret", does not compromise scholarship, I would think.


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    3. I will go with Augustine and Anselm on this one. To say that Christianity needs to be proved true based on rationalism and reason is to become a skeptic and an agnostic. One must first believe that Christianity is true and by implication one must also believe the Bible is true. The fact that skeptics and liberals accept lower biblical criticism as an ever changing science that never arrives at the truth proves that its beginning axiom is relativism, not absolute truth. Either the autographa are preserved in the apographa or they are not. As a Calvinist I can fully affirm both presuppositionalism and providence. My beginning axiom is that the Bible is God's inspired Word. I begin with faith, not rationalism or skepticism.

      And though I disagree with B. B. Warfield on the eclectic approach to textual criticism, he did at least affirm that the Greek manuscripts do preserve the autographa. I once followed the more popular view that the Alexandrian texts preserve the best reading of the autographs. But my opinion has changed. I now support the Byzantine majority text. I think it is a bit much to use liberal axioms meant to undermine the Bible as a so-called Evangelical approach to textual criticism. It is misleading to say that 95% of the New Testament is supported by over 6,000 manuscripts while at the same time rejecting the majority reading in favor of a handful of early Alexandrian texts that may or may not be corrupt. There is really no proof that an earlier manuscript is more accurate than a later one.

    4. I stopped reading Christianity Today decades ago because it became more and more accommodationalist to liberal politics and social justice issues instead of defending the Evangelical view that the Bible is the final authority in all matters of faith and practice.

    5. Ryan,

      Neither premise can be proven or disproven scientifically. We have evidence, yet there is no way to know that we have it all,--nor the specific detail of which reading is correct in every aspect. Both the preservation and restoration of the Text are issues of faith to a large degree. The application of reason, principles, methodology and common sense are a secondary afterthought to belief, or unbelief.