Fundamentalists and conservative evangelicals believe God has preserved His word. The debate among them is mainly over the manner of preservation and the form the preserved word has taken. Some believe we have a God-preserved, word-perfect text we can identify with certainty. Others believe we do not.
Those who hold to identifiable, word-perfect preservation cite several passages in support of their doctrine. Part 1 of this series examined several of the strongest of these to see what they they actually teach.1 I concluded that these passages lead us to believe God will preserve His word perfectly in a form that is at least potentially discoverable, but that they do not promise that God’s people will always be able to point to a particular manuscript or text and confidently claim it is the word-perfect, preserved text.
Others have examined these passages (and others) and come to very similar conclusions (Moritz, 86-88; Beacham and Bauder, 116-123; Williams and Shaylor, 83-111), and defenders of certainly-identifiable, word-perfect preservation have responded with counterarguments and accusations. Many of these obscure the real issues in the debate and attempt to frame it in a way that heavily favors their view.
Thou Shalt Keep Them
A fairly recent example is the book Thou Shalt Keep Them, edited by Kent Brandenburg in 2003 and revised in 2007. The book may well be the most thorough and thoughtful effort to make a biblical case for “verbal, plenary preservation” (23), but it also alleges that those who disagree with it’s view of preservation approach the Scriptures with attitudes strongly influenced by rationalism, humanism, and unbelieving textual critics (46-47, 131, 255), and with the aim of “trying to please the academic crowd” (126).
In Part 1, however, I argued exclusively from Scripture (both what it says and what it does not say), not from any external evidence. I cannot prove that I am not a rationalist or that I have no interest in winning the praise of the “academic crowd” (though perhaps “innocent until proven guilty” would be an appropriate principle here). What I can do is focus once again on what the Scriptures themselves reveal and, in the process, move toward framing the debate more accurately.
The Bible and Human Fallibility
Do the Scriptures teach that human beings normally do anything perfectly? If they teach that even faithful believers normally err in all they do, proponents of word-perfect preservation must make a biblical case for why believers would not err in the process of copying Scripture. So when we turn to the Bible, what do we find?
1. The fallibility of believers
We’re all sinners and all we do is tainted by that sinfulness (Rom. 3:23, Rom. 3:10, Isa. 64:6). Though believers are “new creations” (2 Cor. 5:17), sin remains an ongoing problem (Heb. 12:4, 1 John 1:8). We continue to sin both intentionally and unintentionally (Psa. 19:12-13).
In addition to this ongoing problem of wickedness, we also suffer from ordinary weakness (Matt. 26:41, 2 Cor. 11:29, 1 Thess. 5:14, Heb. 5:2). We make mistakes, forget things, express ourselves inexactly, grow weary, become confused, reason poorly, and literally fall down.
What sort of quality should we expect in the work of such beings as ourselves? Paul warned Timothy to exert himself diligently so that he would “rightly divide” (accurately handle) the “word of truth” (2 Tim. 2:15; see also 1 Tim. 4:16). The clear implication is that he was capable of failing to be adequately diligent and capable failing to handle the word properly. What’s more, even mature, committed, well-trained believers such as the apostle Peter sinned in ways that distorted the gospel (Gal. 2:11-14).
Our understanding of inspiration and preservation must account for what Scripture reveals about believers’ propensity to err and sin.
2. The fallibility of Israel and the churches
The writers of Thou Shalt Keep Them claim that God has used two key institutions to maintain word perfect copies of His word. Thomas Strouse summarizes their view as follows.
[T]he Biblical writers clearly delineated the means for the preservation of God’s OT and NT words in Scripture. That the Lord used His NT congregation, as He did His OT saints, to be the agency through which His Words were preserved, is irrefragible [sic]. (109)
Chapters 11-14 focus on making a biblical case for this view. But weighing the biblical evidence for the idea of perfect preservation through the community of true believers requires that we first recognize what the Bible teaches about the character of these institutions.
Scripture reveals that, when it comes to wickedness and weakness, what is true of individual believers is also true of the body of believers. The epistles were all written to address problems in local churches, and some of these problems were severe. Though the church is described as “the pillar and ground of the truth” (1 Tim. 3:15), these words describe the responsibility given to the church, not the church’s inherent character (cf. Brandenburg, 117-121). Paul does not assert that the church will perform its role as pillar and ground perfectly.
In the Bible, only one local church receives an evaluation free of criticism for failures. Christ commends the church of Philadelphia (Rev. 3:7-13) on every point. However, even this church receives the solemn warning to “hold that fast which thou hast, that no man take thy crown” (3:11, KJV). Even this church was capable of slipping and failing to do its work properly.
The body of true believers in the Old Testament was certainly no better! That they were given the responsibility of keeping and declaring the words of God (Brandenburg, 100) is not in dispute. But they were given many other responsibilities as well, and ultimately failed to execute any of them perfectly.
Prior to the reign of Josiah, idolatrous kings even managed to lose a vitally important copy of “the book of the law” for years, until Hilkiah accidentally rediscovered it (2 Kings 22:8). Opinions vary regarding whether this “book” was Deuteronomy or the entire Pentateuch, or whether any other copies of “the Law” were then available. Josiah’s reaction (22:10-13) suggests this “book” was, at best, one of very few surviving copies at the time. Some might object that these Israelite kings do not represent the true people of God during this time. However, if the leadership in Judah was not the chosen agency for preservation during that era, who could have been? It was certainly not the consistently idolatrous kings of the northern tribes.
In both the OT and the NT, the community of faithful believers is revealed to be one prone to error, and our doctrines of inspiration and preservation must take this clear biblical truth into account.
Implications for inspiration and preservation
Because the Bible teaches that imperfection is normal for God’s people, any claim that they have done something perfectly requires strong biblical evidence of an exception to the rule.
In the case of inspiration, we have that evidence. We are told that God acted directly on the writers of Scripture as they spoke and wrote. “Holy men of God spake as they were moved by the Holy Ghost” (2 Pet. 1:21), and every Scripture is theopneustos, God-breathed (2 Tim. 3:16). In every part, it possesses the quality of having flowed from God Himself.
That the Scriptures thus inspired must be God’s words—word for word—is the point of Peter’s “no prophecy…is of any private interpretation.” Peter’s assertion is, literally, that Scriptures are not of one’s own epilusis—explanation or analysis. Though the meaning of epilusis is debated, the context clearly contrasts the idea of one’s own epilusis with the idea of speaking as the Spirit moves. Consequently, the point is that the Spirit produced the words.
This miraculous phenomenon of fallible men infallibly communicating God’s words is what David describes in 2 Samuel 23:2. “The Spirit of the LORD spake by me, and his word was in my tongue.”
So in the case of inspiration, we have strong biblical evidence that God miraculously overcame select believers’ normal fallibility so that they would produce His perfect word. But in the case of preservation, do we find equally strong biblical evidence? Though passages indicating God expects His people to faithfully “keep”2 His word are indeed numerous (Brandenburg, 100-102), does the Bible indicate that God’s people will certainly obey that charge or that they will do so with word-perfect accuracy?
Though Scripture speaks often of the preservation of all of God’s words, it contains no direct descriptions of the process of word-preservation that parallel the kinds of statements we have about inspiration.3 No passage refers to men of old copying, guarding or preserving as they were moved by the Spirit—much less, translating with miraculous intervention to ensure a perfect result.
Nonetheless, the authors of Thou Shalt Keep Them (as well as others), believe a strong biblical case for miraculous, verbal, plenary preservation can be derived from multiple passages that speak to the subject less directly.
Future articles in this series will examine that evidence to see whether it should lead us to believe that God has enabled fallible human beings to make error-free copies of His word.
Brandenburg, Kent, ed. Thou Shalt Keep Them: A Biblical Theology for the Perfect Preservation of Scripture. Revised edition. El Sobrante: Pillar & Ground, 2007.
Moritz, Fred. Contending for the Faith. Greenville: BJU Press, 2000.
Williams, James B., and Randolph Shaylor, eds. God’s Word in Our Hands: The Bible Preserved for Us. Greenville: Ambassador-Emerald International, 2003.
Beacham, Roy E., and Kevin T. Bauder, eds. One Bible Only: Examining Exclusive Claims for the King James Bible. Grand Rapids: Kregel, 2001.
1 Kent Brandenburg objects at his blog that I ignored historical context in Part 1. However, the historical case for or against certainly-identifiable, word-perfect preservation is worthy of consideration in a separate article (or several). As demonstrated in Thou Shalt Keep Them, the Scriptures themselves are the best place to begin.
2 Brandenburg argues that the meaning of “keep” in many OT passages includes includes guarding and protecting physical copies (Brandenburg, 103). While I suspect this idea of “keep” is not in view in many of these passages, I grant this meaning here for the sake of argument.
3 Some have argued that the “scriptures” Paul says Timothy knew from childhood (2 Tim.3:15), refers specifically to copies they possessed at that time and that, therefore, the “all Scripture” described as “inspired” in 3:16 refers to copies as well. However, it is likely that Paul actually intends no distinction between the copies and the originals here because his point does not require that distinction. For all practical purposes, the copies partake of the quality of God-breathedness along with the originals. Thou Shalt Keep Them specifically denies any kind of re-inspiration on p. 204.
Aaron Blumer, SI’s site publisher, is a native of lower Michigan and a graduate of Bob Jones University (Greenville, SC) and Central Baptist Theological Seminary (Plymouth, MN). He, his wife, and their two children live in a small town in western Wisconsin, where he has pastored Grace Baptist Church (Boyceville, WI) since 2000. Prior to serving as a pastor, Aaron taught school in Stone Mountain, Georgia and worked in customer service and technical support for Unisys Corporation (Eagan, MN). He enjoys science fiction, music, and dabbling in software development.