Biblical doctrine is teaching derived from Scripture. While we may possess many strong convictions based on our experiences, on our understanding of history, or on the opinions of experts, these do not rise to the level of biblical doctrine or tests of orthodoxy.
The case of Bible preservation is no exception. Any position we identify as “the doctrine of preservation” must be taught in Scripture. In this series I’ve argued that while Scripture does give us a doctrine of preservation, that doctrine does not include all the particulars some attach to it. God assures us that His Word will endure forever and will not pass away. He assures us that believers will have sufficient access to His Word until all is fulfilled.
But some insist that the true doctrine of preservation must also include all of the following:
- Every word in its original form
- Continual access by many believers
- Certain identifiability in the form of a perfect text
That every single word is preserved is not in dispute. Whether it is preserved on paper, parchment or vellum here on earth is disputed by a few. Whether it is preserved here on earth in a discrete form we can point to and say, “there is the word-perfect preserved text” is contested by many.
A clear view of the central question
This series has not aimed to examine the case for perfect text preservation (PTP) comprehensively. Rather, my aim has been to scrutinize the biblical facts and identify what believers may properly term “doctrine of preservation.” Do we have biblical statements that say, or clearly imply, that believers will always have access to every word of Scripture in the form of a text they know is flawless?
Please note what the question is not. It is not, “Do verses indicate God’s Word will last forever?” It is not, “Do passages teach that God has tasked His people with maintaining written copies?” It is not, “Do verses emphasize that the words of Scripture are vital for Christian doctrine and Christian living?” Nor is the question, “Do people try to distort and sabotage the words of God?” Finally, the question is not, “Is God able to overcome human nature so that those He chooses perfectly preserve the text?”
The answers to all of these questions is yes. But if we look closely at what Scripture claims regarding the how-and-what details of preservation—and read the relevant passages with a scriptural view of human nature in view—what we see over and over again is that PTP is neither stated nor clearly implied.
A final look at Thou Shalt Keep Them
In part 3, I focused on the book Thou Shalt Keep Them (TSKT) as an example of one of the better efforts to establish PTP biblically as the correct doctrine of preservation, and evaluated several key passages. Here, I’ll consider remaining biblical arguments in the book, some of the secondary Bible-related arguments, and a few miscellaneous other points.
“It is written”
In TSKT’s eighth chapter David Sutton argues for PTP based on the perfect tense employed in the phrase “it is written.” The phrase occurs frequently in the NT to mark quotations from OT passages. Since the Greek perfect “shows completed past action with the results of that action continuing to the present” (p.76), Sutton observes, “Based on their inspired use of the perfect passive gegraptai, the writers of Scripture believed in perfect preservation” (p. 81).
Though Sutton’s explanation of the perfect tense is accurate, the chapter does not support the particulars of word-perfect text preservation. First, “it is written” expressed the condition that existed at the time the NT writers used the phrase. The tense does not communicate anything about the future. Second, “it is written” expressed the stands-written quality of the particular passages they were quoting. The writers did not say, “It stands written, along with every single word God ever inspired.” Third, even if we take the phrase to mean “will always stand written” and include every inspired word, the phrase still falls short of informing us that we will always be able to identify every word that stands written and access every one of them in the form of a perfect text.
“The word is very nigh unto thee”
Chapters 9 and 10 aim to support the continuing availability of every word of Scripture. In ch. 9, Kent Brandenburg examines Deuteronomy 30:11-14 and Romans 10:6-8 (where Paul quotes from the Deuteronomy passage).
For this commandment which I command thee this day, it is not hidden from thee, neither is it far off. 12 It is not in heaven, that thou shouldest say, Who shall go up for us to heaven, and bring it unto us, that we may hear it, and do it? 13 Neither is it beyond the sea, that thou shouldest say, Who shall go over the sea for us, and bring it unto us, that we may hear it, and do it? 14 But the word is very nigh unto thee, in thy mouth, and in thy heart, that thou mayest do it. (Deut. 30:11-14)
The argument focuses on the nearness communicated in the passage, especially by the phrase “the word is very nigh.”
[The words] could also just reside in heaven, which the text goes on to dismiss as a valid possibility. God guaranteed access to the Words would not require passing over a sea. … Since hearing and doing is dependent on accessibility, the text promises that these Words will not be inaccessible.* (p. 89)
Soon after, the author illustrates a widespread error in TSKT’s argument—the leap from “words” to “every one of the words.” “By saying that His Word is available, the context clearly implies that every one of His Words is also accessible” (p. 90). However, the passage does not say that every jot and tittle had to be in their “mouths” before they could obey.
“Mindful of the words… Remember the words”
The same leap from “words” to “every word” occurs in Gary La More’s chapter (10) on 2 Peter 3:2 and Jude 17. Peter and Jude warn their readers to be “mindful of the words” and “remember the words,” respectively. The chapter fails to make a strong case but claims to have done so anyway:
The correct and obvious interpretation of these texts and the implied belief of the apostles was that they had every Word of God preserved and available to them. Based on legitimate application of this text, the Lord’s true churches today have available to them not only the Words of the Old Testament prophets but also the Words of the New Testament apostles and other New Testament writers. The teaching of the availability of every Word of Scripture has been and continues to be a strong basis for opposing the attacks on the teaching of Scripture by apostates. (p. 94)
Indirect biblical arguments
Chapter 15 focuses on the phenomenon of textual attack, a genuine problem, to be sure. But the reality of this problem does not help us find a biblical answer to the question of whether God’s people are able to maintain perfect texts.
Chapters 16-18 defend the thesis that proper doctrine cannot be maintained without PTP. These chapters provide dozens of examples of passages where differences in manuscripts have doctrinal implications—if each passage in question is taken alone. But there’s the rub. None of the texts in question actually do stand alone. None of them is even the primary—much less exclusive—basis for the doctrine in question.
A random example is 1 Peter 2:2. Here, the UBS Greek text reads “that you may grow up into salvation” (ESV), whereas TR reads “that you may grow thereby.” Gary Webb and David Sutton conclude that “the TR never says to grow into salvation, for this is works salvation” (p. 190). But by this standard, Philippians 2:12 would also be teaching “works salvation,” along with James 2:24 and other passages. The doctrine of salvation by grace through faith is abundantly clear in Romans and numerous other passages and informs our interpretation of 1 Peter 2:2, with or without “grow into salvation.”
Every textual difference in these chapters is similarly non-decisive doctrinally. Though the examples are numerous, they do not add up to evidence that we must have every word in hand in order to maintain proper doctrine. We are able to believe and do what we should despite the variations among the manuscripts. It’s easy to see why. We know what we’re being told to do whether someone says, “Go jump in a lake” or “Depart and deposit yourself with vigor into a body of water larger than a pond but smaller than an ocean.”
This is not to say the actual inspired words are unimportant. Rather, it illustrates the fact that accurate knowledge of what God wants us to believe and do is not dependent on every pronoun, article and suffix being perfectly preserved.
TSKT offers several additional arguments. Chapter 19 argues that just as the 66 books of the biblical canon were established because the churches received them, so also the Masoretic Text and the Textus Receptus are received. The implication is that we cannot accept canonical books without accepting the canonical words. But, in reality, the books of the Bible are canonical because God inspired them. His people were able to exercise discernment and recognize their inspired quality, but how does one discern whether “he” or “who” is the inspired reading in a passage where the theological meaning is unaffected by either option? In any case, employing the canonicity argument in favor of the MT and TR in particular rests on one’s interpretation of history.
Pseudo-arguments are employed in TSKT as well. Examples include guilt by association (with theistic evolution, p. 143; with humanism, p. 47; with rationalism pp. 151, 255 and others), as well straw man fallacies—such as Webb’s question, “Should believers put their faith in Bibles put together by unbelieving textual critics?” (p. 50. Though the textual scholarship of unbelievers has had a role, no translations available today are based on texts put together exclusively by unbelieving critics.)
A little mind-reading is sprinkled through TSKT as well. Various writers characterize all who disagree with them as holding to their views because they want to win the esteem of liberal academia (p. 126), or because they have embraced rationalism (pretty much all of Addendum C), etc. In most cases, these assertions are not supported by any evidence beyond the fact that the targets do not accept the PTP view of preservation.
But these are all distractions from the more fundamental question. By a large margin, what matters most in the preservation debate is whether Scripture reveals a doctrine of preservation that includes the how-and-what particulars of word-perfect text preservation.
One thing is certain. God has preserved His Word in the manner in which He chose and in a form that is sufficient for doctrine, reproof, correction and instruction in righteousness.
*TSKT consistently capitalizes “Word” and “Words” whenever they refer to the words of Scripture. In quotations, I have attempted to follow the capitalization in the source. Sometimes the result looks a little odd because, at SI, we generally only capitalize “word” and “words” when using these as titular synonyms for “the Bible.”
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.