Thursday, November 30, 2023

Where should textual criticism be discussed in systematic theology?


This is a question I have been pondering since giving my paper at ETS this year on textual criticism in the Reformation. Note carefully that the question is not how or if to discuss textual criticism, but where. (For more on how, see here.)

The obvious answer, of course, is under the heading of bibliology. But where within that? Most modern theologies—certainly evangelical ones—discuss textual criticism under the subtopic of inerrancy. It makes sense given that textual criticism deals with errors and so does inerrancy. (For more on that below)

But this has not always been the place where textual criticism is treated. In my reading of Reformation writers, textual criticism is almost always addressed under the heading of authenticity. There are good historical reasons for this that were the subject of my paper but they are not my focus here. What interests me here is the other place I found textual criticism discussed and that is under the topic of the clarity of Scripture. Let me give some examples.

Ussher (1581-1656)

James Ussher in his Explication of the Body of Christian Religion, written in Q&A format, starts with a large section on Scripture or the “grounds of the Christian religion.” After discussing things like inspiration and canonicity he moves to objections. Textual criticism is discussed under objections, not to inspiration or infallibility, but perspicuity. The broader question is, “Are the Scriptures then plain and easy to be understood?” (p. 18). The specific question that leads directly to textual criticism is this:

How can the certain understanding of the Scriptures be taken out of the Original Tongues, considering the difference of Reading, which is in diverse Copies both of Hebrew and Greek; as also the difficulty of some Words and Phrases upon which the best Translators cannot agree?

I’ve discussed his answer before on the blog here. What I want to draw attention to here is the question itself where What about difficult word meanings? is treated right along with What about textual variants? For Ussher, both present problems for perspicuity. His answer, in part, is that not all the Scriptures are equally clear in themselves or to all readers. Just before this, Ussher had given no less than six reasons why God leaves some places in Scripture “obscure.” But my point here is to draw attention to the fact that Ussher puts uncertainties resulting from textual variation in the same category as uncertainties from interpretation.

Baxter (1615-1691)

Writing a little later, Richard Baxter does the same. In discussing the “many parts” of the Scriptures that have uncertainty, his first example comes from the fact that “many hundred texts are uncertain, through various readings in several copies of the original.” (By original, he means original language.) And what does Baxter discuss in the next paragraph? “Many hundred words in the Scripture that are ambiguous, signifying more things than one.” So, again, we have text-critical uncertainty dealt with in the same context as lexical or interpretive uncertainty. (For more on Baxter and textual criticism, see here.)

KJV Preface (1611)

One final and perhaps unexpected place one finds these two types of uncertainty combined is in the preface the King James Bible. Among the things Miles Smith needed to accomplish in the preface was to defend its use of marginal notes. The problem with notes is that they showed the reader where the meaning was uncertain and that might seem to undermine the Bible’s authority. But such uncertainty has a theological justification in that “it hath pleased God in his divine providence, here and there to scatter words and sentences of that difficulty and doubtfulness, not in doctrinal points that concern salvation ... but in matters of less moment” (source). 

It’s in this context that Smith mentions how Pope Sixtus V expressly forbid “that any variety of readings of their Vulgar edition should be put in the margin; (which though it be not altogether the same thing to that we have in hand, yet it looketh that way;) but we think he hath not all of his own side his favors for this conceit.” It’s that parenthetical remark (emphasis mine) that shows that Smith draws only a slight distinction between textual and lexical ambiguity. The KJV marginal notes themselves do even less to distinguish them. (For more on that, see my chapter here.) Again, then, we see textual uncertainty treated in the same category as semantic ambiguity.

So what?

Having surveyed these three examples, let’s tweak our initial question by asking instead What benefits might we gain by a return to this older way of treating textual criticism? Instead of treating it as a problem for inerrancy or inspiration, what if we treated it as a problem for the clarity of Scripture? Here are some initial thoughts:

  1. It avoids the problem of conflating textual errors with theological ones. As noted above, one reason people naturally put textual criticism together with inerrancy is that both trade in the language of “error.” The problem is that most scribal errors do not produce a text that is in theological or historical error. If we discussed textual criticism as a problem for the clarity of Scripture, this would probably be more obvious to people. Textual variants do affect the meaning of Scripture even if the meaning they affect is not a matter of larger theological consequence.
  2. It makes the problem ours rather than God’s. What I mean here is that treating textual criticism in relation to the clarity of Scripture connects the issue to hermeneutics (our role) more than inspiration (God’s role). This follows from the previous point. We have to decide if Goliath is either four or six cubits, and that has some affect on our interpretation of the narrative. But that is just one among several interpretive questions that affect our reading of the story. We can still understand the story, still appreciate it, still apply it even when we have unanswered questions leftover. Just as we can all live with uncertainty in interpretation, so we can live with uncertainty in textual criticism. Hence the final point:
  3. It reminds us that the clarity of Scripture has never required absolute certainty or total clarity. If you read the full context from the three examples I gave above, you will see that they all go into detail about how not everything in Scripture is equally plain to every reader at all times and in all places. One thing that still surprises me in reading the Reformers is just how readily they admit that there are “dark” or uncertain places in the Bible. They never hide from this. And yet, they were equally clear that the existence of such dark places doesn’t require a magisterium because it doesn’t nullify the Bible’s magisterial authority. If that’s true in interpretation, surely it’s true in textual criticism too.


If these are some benefits, are there any drawbacks to treating textual and interpretive uncertainty together? Here’s two I can think of:

  1. It obscures the knock-on effect of textual uncertainty. Someone might object that, since interpretation depends on textual decisions, uncertainty about the text has greater ramifications than uncertainties of interpretation. Treating them together obscures this. Perhaps, but I would venture that uncertainties of interpretation (and translation with them) are far more common and typically more serious than textual ones. The places where commentators disagree about the meaning has to be far greater than where they disagree about the original text. That seems true across time—it’s not just a function of our modern manuscript discoveries. Interpretive disagreements have always outweighed and outnumbered textual ones. Whatever uncertainties we can tolerate when it comes to interpretation have to be more than enough to encompass the textual uncertainties.
  2. Because inerrancy is tied to the autographs we should treat textual criticism in relation to inerrancy. I’m sensitive to this one since this is usually how textual criticism comes up in theological contexts. When an evangelical student learns about textual criticism, his next question is never “But what about perspicuity?” It’s usually “What about inerrancy?” But, while this is the case, should it be? Must it be? Maybe we wouldn’t field so many concerned theological questions if we were in the habit of treating textual criticism as a question for the clarity of Scripture. We could still talk about the distinction between the autographs and the copies, but that distinction itself might not need to bear so much weight (see point one above under So what?).
Well, these are my initial thoughts and I’d be very happy to hear yours.


  1. If we treat textual criticism under revelation, and under this, inerrancy, we are asking the question, "what did God say (which text)"? If we address textual criticism under interpretation, we are still asking the same question, "what did God mean when he said (which text)"?
    It affects both areas of systematic theology. It makes sense to discuss how TC affects both areas when those areas of SysTheo are discussed.

    1. Simple yet clear response

  2. Maurice A. Robinson11/30/2023 3:12 pm

    When I began the study of NTTC in the late '60s, I was not concerned with either inerrancy, perspecuity, clarity, systematic theology, or absolute certainty (most of which I barely understood at that time). The issue that piqued my interest then and even now was which reading at any given point of variation had the better claim toward authenticity on text-critical groubds, and what needed to be done to determine such. A developed theory and praxis came later, and it still does not primarily involve views on inerrancy, perspecuity, clarity, systematic theology, let alone absolute certainty. I suspect matters flow easier that way.

    1. So, if a colleague were writing a systematic theology and asked you where to discuss textual criticism, what would you say?

    2. Maurice A. Robinson11/30/2023 4:51 pm

      As Peter noted regarding Reformation writers, "almost always addressed under the heading of authenticity."

    3. (Sorry, that was me. Not sure why I wasn't logged in.)

    4. Timothy Joseph12/03/2023 1:41 pm

      Dr. R.,
      Yep, same for me. My interest has been from the beginning the ‘original text’ and the method for determining that. Surely, issues like inerrancy and clarity have come up, but mostly in trying to find the original.

    5. Maurice A. Robinson12/05/2023 1:28 am

      My primary point is that one must not attempt to establish the text at any given point by appealing initially to a determinative filter of inerrancy or systematic theology.

  3. Part one

    In practice in the church - that is, in working with lay people - I have found that it is very difficult to deal with any text critical questions without first establishing what kind of book they think the bible is. And by that, of course, we mean how exactly do they think inspiration happened, and how does that affect the kind of book the bible now is.

    Evangelicals, in my opinion, tend to over-emphasise God's role in inspiration while de-emphasising the human author's role. We may pay lip service to things like authorial style or diction, but on the level of theological function we tend to assume a more dictation model of inspiration. We treat inspiration as primarily something that God did. Even Peter, in the OP here, called inspiration "God's role" . The bumper sticker says "God said it, I believe it, that settles it.". When we put the entire biblical text under the category of " God said it" we are effectively denying the role of the human author.

    That over-emphasis creates problems for textual criticism right from the get-go. The average church goer will rightly wonder why, if God took the time to say something, he did not also bother to ensure it was saved and preserved? Why would God pronounce his own word but then leave it to be cobbled back together by fallible and human text critics? What good is inspiration without accompanying certainty of what was inspired? Those types of problems naturally and probably inevitably flow from an overly-exalted view of God's role in inspiration, and they cause complications for the discussion of text critical issues with lay people.

  4. Part 2

    When working pastorally, i will often ask people if they have ever had an experience of feeling led or nudged by the Holy Spirit to go do or say something - maybe to go help that person, or give some encouraging words to this person. Most Christians have had such experiences. I ask them if they think that was just their own impulse, or was the Holy Spirit truly and literally acting on them in that moment. Many confess that they do believe it was actually the Spirit that was leading them. And i too still believe that the Spirit really does work in that way, which is why i guess i am still an evangelical.

    But then i ask them: do you think the Spirit has different levels of leading? Different strengths of guidance? Fundamentally different ways of acting upon humans? Specifically, when the biblical authors originally sat down to write, and the Holy Spirit inspired them to write this message or that message, do we think that Spirit guidance there was fundamentally different than the guidance the Spirit gave me to help this person or say those encouraging words to that person? And the layperson is free to consider that, but for me, i tend to believe that the spiritual guidance that the biblical authors received in "inspiration" was really no different than the spiritual guidance a Christian can receive today.

    But then someone might ask, how are the scriptures different than from say any old letter or blog comment that a Christian today may feel led by the Spirit to write?

    And that's when we flip over the pages in the systematic theology from inspiration to canon and even ecclesiology, because i believe that the real substantive difference between the biblical writings and something i feel the Spirit led me to write is that with the biblical writings, that same Spirit then gave the same guidance and leading to ensuing generations of the church to collect, edit, and pass on those writings, and otherwise treat them as different.

    But, and here's the practical pay-off, on a theological level, text critical work then becomes part of that same Spirit led enterprise of passing on those writings. In other words, text criticism can and perhaps should be a spiritual act of ministry. And maybe this is what differentiates an evangelical text critic from a regular one, but i think we should be praying when we consider variants: we should be praying and then hoping that we will - while knowing that we may not - receive the Spirit's guidance.
    Really not sure what chapter that would put the subject in, sorry to type all that and really give no answer!

    1. "when the biblical authors originally sat down to write, and the Holy Spirit inspired them to write this message or that message, do we think that Spirit guidance there was fundamentally different than the guidance the Spirit gave me to help this person or say those encouraging words to that person?" Absolutely, yes. Though I don't know if they were sitting or not.

    2. Absolutely they were sitting! They were told not to, but they wouldn't stand for that!

      Seriously though, when you say "absolutely yes" that makes me think you are pretty certain there was a difference. Can you expand then on what exactly this difference was? What was the difference between how the Spirit spoke to Paul while he was writing, say. romans, and how the Spirit speaks to regular Christians? And for that matter, did Paul always get that different, presumably high-powered, Spirit guidance? Or did he get that only when writing the letters that one day would be scripture, but the rest of the time, say when he was writing 3rd Corinthians, Paul received only the regular level of Spirit guidance which regular Christians can also receive?

      If i sound like i'm mocking you, well, i'm not trying to, but it is true that i'm not currently convinced that the distinction in "levels" or "types" of Spirit guidance can really be carried through in a consistent or thorough-going manner. Whenever i have tried, it ends up breaking down in the kind of silly distinctions and categories that i was just making.

      I'd love to hear how you do it though.

    3. Alex St. Onge12/08/2023 3:17 pm

      I think that the main issue of the guiding of the Spirit versus the authoring of Scripture is that the authoring was not mere guidance.

      If I may, when you guide or are guided up a mountain, the guide leads the path, but not each individual step. This is why we use the word inspiration (or God-breathed), because it if fundamentally different from the work of the Spirit in every day life. Inspiration is that these words (in the original autographs) are the very words of God in a way that disallows error, inaccuracy, or untruth. It is Scripture that is being recorded - direct and real revelation of God to mankind.

      This is not the case with the leadings of the Spirit because our actions or feelings are not inerrant, perfectly accurate, or always true. I may be fooled by the wiles of my soul and flesh, or I may misinterpret a guiding or leading. I may follow the path of the guide, but not each step. I think it is not sound to state that our guidance from the Holy Spirit is of the same nature as the inspiration of Scripture, because it would require that we elevate our "guidance" (even here, more definition would be needed as to what that even means; I suspect a certain John Owen quote is relevant) to the level of infallibility or authority of Scripture. Feelings become foundations and convictions become commands.

    4. I hear what you're saying, but it sounds to me that you are assuming the premise that the spirit "authored" each individual word.
      I don't see how that isn't a classical dictation model, which, if i correctly remember my first year systematic theology text book (which i believe was millard erickson), has never been the evangelical view. More than that, dictation does not seem to be reflected in the writings themselves. When you have things like Paul laughing about what big letters he writes with his own hand, or Peter complaining about how Paul's writing is sometimes hard to understand, not to mention personal requests like "bring my cloak" , all of that looks a lot more like someone writing a personal letter with their own personal flourishes, not someone who thought they were dictating word for word from the almighty.

      But your comment does, i think, re-enforce my bigger point: unless you first establish what sort of book the new testament is, you cannot say what sort of operation textual criticism is doing to it. And until you can say what sort of operation text criticism is, you cannot decide where it fits in systematic theology.

    5. I think there is a step between "guidance-type inspiration" and "dictation" that is being overlooked. Probably most good translators would understand this. A translator is not free to write what he wants to; he has a specific message that he needs to convey accurately, but, on the other hand, what he needs to write is not dictated to him. The message is clear, with a little room for variation, but the precise words are not dictated. He must choose the words he wants to use. This means different styles of translation. Some are matter-of-fact, some are polished, some are plain, some use a higher register of the language.

      In 1913 the General Conference of Mennonite ministers stated this, as its position on the inspiration of the Bible (unfortunately, many Mennonites in that particular group no longer hold this position, but there are still many doctrinally conservative Mennonites who do): “We accept the Bible as the one inspired, infallible, inerrant message of God, revealing Himself, His workmanship and His will to man. We believe the inspiration of the Bible to be different in kind and degree from any other literature in this: The men who wrote the Bible were in the hands of God to such an extent that their message, inbreathed of God, is free from all human imperfections, and is therefore absolutely inerrant and reliable, while in all other literature the imperfections and shortcomings of the writers find their way into their productions, Notwithstanding errors in language which appear in translations and revisions, the message of God as originally given to man is perfect and furthermore He preserves this message absolutely inerrant making the Bible God’s eternal message to man, complete and sufficient for all ages.”

      And I think it was Daniel Kauffman who said that the Bible is God’s Word because of its inspiration by God, but that he rejects the theory of inspiration that thinks of God as speaking to the world through puppets. He wrote that the Bible is at the same time both the message from God and also the message from the men whom He filled with the Spirit for that special work.

      What should that step between "guidance-type inspiration" and "dictation" be called? "Specific inspiration"? "Plenary inspiration"?

  5. Despite good evidence that the Jews of the 1st century produced different textual traditions of the OT (Hebrew, Lxx, Dss, etc), nobody in the NT is addressing that problem. What would be unreasonable in the outsider's conclusion that today's Evangelicals who engage in bible textual criticism work, have made Christianity far more complex that Jesus ever intended it to be?