Why Advocate for the Received Text?

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The following is the contribution to “Why I Preach from the Recieved Text: An Anthology of Essays by Reformed Ministers” by Joshua White

As a Reformed Baptist Pastor, I am often asked the question, “Why do you advocate for and use translations based on the Received Text?” To be certain, I fully understand why the question is being asked. One only has to do a cursory search on the subject of textual criticism to find a great many dear and committed saints of God who not only do not hold to this position but reject it outright. While there seems to be a resurgence of Pastors and church leaders in the West who have begun to advocate for the Received Text, our numbers pale in comparison to the academically-backed opinions on the subject today.

Having been brought up in a conservative Pastor’s home and raised in a Baptist church that held to the doctrines of God’s sovereign grace, the King James Version of the Bible was used in personal, family, and corporate worship. As a child we were required to memorize Scripture from the aforementioned translation of Scripture. I was introduced to the arguments against modern translations at a young age, and never found myself questioning the veracity of such arguments.

One might think that my background lent itself to the position I now hold regarding the traditional text of Scripture. However, as happens in the lives of most young men, when faced with alternative reasoning, assumptions, and arguments from that which we have always held to be true, early in ministry I found myself having doubts about the text I had revered for so long.

Most of the challenges I faced at that time regarded the Greek text of the New Testament. My first “battle” came as a graduate student working on my ministerial degree. I was quickly and often faced with the question of why it was that I used an antiquated translation based upon an imperfect, even corrupt Greek text. Being the “odd man out,” I began to wonder if the many different translations that had come out since the time of my youth had something that the translation I was using did not. Going further, I wondered, “Did the curators of the Critical Text have something more, even better than the translators of yesteryear? If it were true that the Greek text from which my translation came had been added to and corrupted, then how could I have confidence in a translation from it?”

My second “battle” came after I was sent out by my church in Texas to help in the planting and constitution of the Reformed Baptist Church of Elizabethtown, Kentucky. Very early on, it was decided that only translations from the Received Text of Scripture would be used from the pulpit. Within a couple of years, however, there was an effort made to abrogate any idea that the Received Text is anything but subpar in light of modern discoveries and the Critical Text that has come to us as a result.

These two “battles” convinced me that the subject of textual criticism is not simply a conflict of ideas, but comes with very practical ramifications. This conviction was only bolstered by my study of the subject at hand. The curators of the Critical Text would have us believe that the church did not have the Word of God in hand with the same clarity we now have in modern critical editions. However, this claim seems to be a little more than suspect. Since the Critical Text was brought to the world stage in the 1880s, the curators of this text have made some very bold statements concerning the Scriptures that were available to and used by the people of the Lord Jesus Christ in personal, family, and corporate worship throughout history.

Those familiar with the subject are acquainted with Bruce Metzger. One cannot enter the halls of religious academia without encountering his voluminous work on the Greek texts of Scripture. Many conservative Christians, however, do not know or understand that Metzger held that every copy of the scriptures that came before the discovery of the manuscripts used to compile the Critical Text were, in fact, corrupt: “It was the corrupt Byzantine form of text that provided the basis for almost all translations of the New Testament into the modern languages down to the nineteenth century” (A Textual Commentary on the Greek New Testament, Corrected Edition, xxiii).

For those who uphold the Word of God as the sole authority for all faith and practice, this statement by a leading authority on modern textual criticism should cause some concern.

If we look to what was written by another leading curator of the Critical Text in the twentieth century, we have even greater cause for concern: “If the catholic (general) epistles were really written by the apostles whose names they bear and by people who were closest to Jesus, then the real question arises: was there really a Jesus? Can Jesus really have lived, if the writings of his closest companions are filled with so little of his reality? The catholic epistles, for example, have so little in them of the reality of the historical Jesus and his power, that it suffices for James, for example, to mention only Christ’s name in passing… When we observe this—assuming that the writings about which we are speaking really come from their alleged authors—it almost then appears as if Jesus were a mere phantom and that the real theological power lay not with him, but with the apostles and with the earthly church” (Kurt Aland, A History of Christianity, Vol. 2, 106).

The quote above does not specifically mention textual criticism, but it most certainly questions the authority of the Word of God. This comes from a man whose name is prominently attached to the modern Critical Text (the Nestle-Aland edition), which is the basis of popular translations such as the English Standard Version. Ultimately, the paradigm that was used by Aland in the quote above reflects the mindset of those who composed the modern Critical Text. When I discovered this, I became convinced that a significant shift had taken place in the doctrine of scripture, which had also affected the entire evangelical world. No longer was it the church serving as the proper curator of holy writ, but this task had been subcontracted out to those who were unorthodox.

What the curators of the Critical Text advocate is a separation of faith from textual criticism and the treatment of the text of Scripture as any other work of antiquity. They then apply arbitrary rules such as, “the shortest readings are the best readings,” or “the oldest manuscript is the best manuscript.” In contrast to this, however, we find that the Word of God is self-authenticating, and that God has made promises concerning the veracity of his Word and its tenacity. In other words, the canon of Scripture is not like any other book in the world. This realization alarmed me, but it also led me to understand that the Critical Text and all subsequent translations from it are fruit from a poisonous tree, “for whatsoever is not of faith is sin” (Romans 14:23). By not separating faith from textual criticism, the issue was made simpler for me. This led me to ask, “What does the Word of God say about this issue?” This question was then followed up with another, “Has this battle been fought before within the church?”

What Does God Say About This issue?

He has much to say! How often it is in Scripture that we find the prophets of old affirming that it was indeed the Spirit of God who spoke to them and guided their messages to the people. David’s last official word to his kingdom began with, “The Spirit of the LORD spake by me, and his word was in my tongue” (2 Samuel 23:2). We see the very same thing in the major writing prophets of Israel when Isaiah writes as he testifies of God’s message concerning the coming Redeemer, “Come ye near unto me, hear ye this; I have not spoken in secret from the beginning; from the time that it was, there am I: and now the Lord GOD, and his Spirit, hath sent me” (Isaiah 48:16). Of course, there are many other scriptures that make this point.

As the Word of God continued to be revealed, we find that apostolic doctrine further affirmed as true what the prophets of old had written. Peter expressed this very clearly when he wrote, “For the prophecy came not in old time by the will of man: but holy men of God spake as they were moved by the Holy Ghost” (2 Peter 1:21). Paul further explains that within the revealed Word of God through the writers of the Old Testament, the hope that we have in Christ Jesus is made clear, “For whatsoever things were written aforetime were written for our learning, that we through patience and comfort of the scriptures might have hope” (Romans 15:4). What Paul wrote to the Roman church concerning the hope we find in Scripture is precisely what was expressed in Psalm 102:18, “This shall be written for the generation to come: and the people which shall be created shall praise the LORD.”

The plain truth is, that if the curators of the modern Critical Text that were quoted above are correct, then Paul could not have said to Timothy, “All scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness: That the man of God may be perfect, thoroughly furnished unto all good works” (2 Timothy 3:16-17). According to modern textual criticism, Christians during the first eighteen hundred years of church history were simply following the errant grammatical expressions of various scribes.

Has This Battle Been Fought Before?

Yes! These doctrinal battles are nothing new to the church. Certainly, there is nothing new under the sun. Many godly men of the past have also fought this good fight.

One such man was a pious Scottish Pastor named Samuel Rutherford, who lived during the seventeenth century. While writing of the early Christian martyrs, he explained that they trusted in the faithful copies of the immediately inspired Word of God and therefore did not forfeit their lives for “mere conjectures and opinions” or something as vain as “the faith of men’s fallible skill in grammar, printing and writing” (A Free Disputation, 334).

Another worthy opponent of the idea that the Word of God is corrupted and has a need for restoration, was John Owen. As a seventeenth century English nonconformist church leader and theologian, he too wrote in defense of Scripture:

It can, then, with no colour of probability be asserted (which yet I find some learned men too free in granting), namely, that there hath the same fate attended the Scripture in its transcription as hath done other books. Let me say without offence, this imagination, asserted on deliberation, seems to me to border on atheism. Surely the promise of God for the preservation of his word, with his love and care of his church, of whose faith and obedience that word of his is the only rule, requires other thoughts at our hands (Collected Works, Vol. 16, 173-174).

Both Samuel Rutherford and John Owen addressed the very issue that the church is facing today. With such company as men like these, and with the overwhelming internal evidence of Scripture itself, it became apparent to me that while those who advocate for the Received Text of Scripture are in the minority in our day and age, we must take great care not to be swayed into a paradigm that seeks the restoration of something that has been kept pure by the singular care and providence of God.

As a Minister of the gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ, I can study, counsel, and preach with confidence that I am expounding the very Word of God revealed to his people for his glory. I can also encourage the people under my pastoral care to use the scriptures for personal, family, and corporate worship with every confidence that it is the preserved Word of God to them. This is a confidence that the Critical Text advocate cannot offer. To those who believe that God has providentially preserved his Word, the question of the veracity and tenacity of Scripture has been asked and answered. God has spoken!

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