The Preservation of Scripture: Its Process and Form

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Originally posted January, 2010 as “Preservation: How and What?”

The doctrine of preservation of the Scriptures has been hotly debated in recent years. Much has been written and said, but most of the rhetoric on the subject has been closely connected to defending or rejecting one view or another on the translation issue. The result has often been that important foundational questions have been overlooked in a rush to get to conclusion A or B in the translation debate.

Among the neglected questions are these: (1) what process did God say He would use to preserve His word and (2) what form did He say that preserved word would take? Both of these are subsets of another neglected question: What does Scripture actually claim (and not claim) about it’s own preservation?

The questions of process (“how”) and form (“what”) are at the heart of the controversy because nobody (among fundamentalists or conservative evangelicals) denies that the word has, and will, endure. The question of what Scripture actually claims is critical as well, for multiple reasons. For one, only a clear answer to that question can put us on the right track to answering the others.

Two general schools of thought exist regarding the how and what of preservation.

Discrete preservation

One set of views on the how and what of preservation holds that the word must be preserved in a form that is accessible and identifiable with certainty as the preserved form. In other words, preservation means there is an original language text one can identify as “the preserved text.” In most cases, discrete preservationists believe this must also extend to a translation—one existing (or future) translation in each language, which we can identify as “the preserved translation.”

A missionary I spoke with on the subject a few years ago offered the following observations:

I believe since we do not have a copy of the originals, and Scripture mentions God would preserve His word, we have to have His word in a translation. I believe the only translation that was preserved in the English language is the translation coming from the Textus Receptus; the King James Bible.

A more detailed and incisive variation of the view is expressed in this Bible college doctrinal statement:1

We believe … that the King James Bible is God’s preserved word in English. We reject any attempt to correct it with the Greek critical text as is done in the Revised Standard Version, New International Version, and the New King James Version.

We believe … that God’s Word was spread around the world by the Reformation Era Bibles and Bible translations made from them during the beginning of the modern missions movement (1700’s and early 1800’s). Tragically, for nearly two hundred years, the United Bible Society … has tried to replace these Received Text Bibles with corrupt translations.

… the Word of God in Spanish is to be found in the Reformation era 1602 Valera Bible and properly done revisions …

Book length cases for word perfect preservation in discrete form are now available as well (for example, Thou Shalt Keep Them: A Biblical Theology of the Perfect Preservation of Scripture edited by Kent Brandenburg, 2003) in addition to numerous articles and blog posts on the Web.2

Dispersed preservation

Another approach to the how and what of preservation emphasizes the challenge we face in looking for answers to preservation questions. For example, the writers of Bible Preservation and the Providence of God offer the following caution:

What is less clear is how God is preserving the Bible. Though the Bible describes a little of the process of inspiration, it does not describe in detail the process of preservation. Since God also chose in His providence not to preserve the autographs [originals], it takes more effort to understand the process. (Schnaiter and Tagliapietra, 33)

In the chapters that follow, Schnaiter and Tagliapietra detail their view of the process and form of preservation. In an appendix, Schnaiter summarizes as follows:

I believe that the presence of copyists’ errors or translator’s errors or publishers’ errors in every copy of the New Testament … justifies the conclusion that God has not preserved the precise wording of the text … in any particular manuscript or copy or translation, but that He has indeed preserved both wording and sense. The sense is preserved in every copy since each is generally unaffected by the wording variations. (Schnaiter and Tagliapietra, 285. Emphasis original.)3

James White describes a similarly complex process and form of preservation:

You see, if readings could just “disappear” without a trace, we would have to face the fact that the original reading may have “fallen through the cracks” as well. But the tenacity of the New Testament text, while forcing us to deal with textual variants, also provides us with the assurance that our work is not in vain. One of those variant readings is indeed the original. (White, 48)

To these writers, and many others, preservation is not something God does by maintaining a singular certainly-identifiable form, but rather, something He has done (and is doing) in a dispersed way in the manuscripts He has kept from extinction.

The Bible on preservation

To most of us the burning question is, “What does the Bible itself say about its preservation?” In particular, what does the Bible reveal about God’s preservation process and what does it reveal about the form in which His preserved word will reach His people?

Seven passages speak most directly and clearly about the enduring nature of God’s word. Those who believe God has preserved His word in each language in one translation based on the proper Greek text often cite one or more of these in support of their view. For summary purposes I list them here with brief excerpts (in the KJV).

  • Psalm 119:89 “forever … thy word is settled in heaven”
  • Psalm 119:152 “thy testimonies … thou hast founded them forever”
  • 1 Peter 1:24-25 “the word of the Lord endureth for ever”
  • Psalm 12:6-7 “thou shalt preserve them from this generation forever”
  • Psalm 119:160 “every one of thy righteous judgments endureth for ever”
  • Matthew 24:35 “my words shall not pass away”
  • Matthew 5:18 “one jot or one tittle shall in no wise pass”

Analysis

In Psalm 119:89 we have probably the least helpful passage of the seven for discerning the how and what of preservation on earth. The Psalmist’s goal is to magnify the Lord by pointing out that His word is natsav, firmly fixed and unchanging, just as God Himself is. But the location is “in heaven.” Similarly, Psalm 119:152 reveals that God’s word is “founded” (yacad) forever. The idea again is a firm (and by implication, unmoving) placing. But we do not gain any information as to what we should expect to be able to hold in our hands and read.

Psalm 12:6-7 are a special case because what is meant by “them” in “preserve them” has often been debated. However, if we grant for the sake of argument that “them” refers to God’s “words” (in v.6), what we have again, is a promise that the words of God will not be destroyed by any evil generation (“from this generation” refers to the idle speakers, flatterers and oppressors described in 12:1-5). We do not have a promise here that the words will be accessible or identifiable with certainty.

In 1 Peter 1:24-25 and Psalm 119:160, however, we gain—by inference—a little information about God’s preservation of His word for readers. Peter describes the contrast between the short and frail lives of mortals and the eternally enduring word of God, quoting from Isaiah 40:8. The psalmist indicates that what will endure is comprehensive: not one of God’s judgments will be lost. But it’s the context of these two passages that is most helpful. In both texts, part of the point seems to be that God’s word endures for us. It endures in some form believers will be able to access from generation to generation.

With Matthew 24:35, we gain still more information. Here Jesus affirms that His own words will never pass away. And, though we have no details concerning the form or process of their preservation, we do have a hint regarding the location of their preservation. “Pass away” translates the Greek parerchomai, meaning a passing by or passing from. Jesus’ implication is that His words will continue to exist in the world where His followers live.

Jots and tittles

Matthew 5:18 might be the most important passage on the subject. In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus assures His listeners that “one jot or one tittle shall in no wise pass until … ” The statement actually includes two conditions, two “untils”: until heaven and earth pass away and until all (the law) is fulfilled. Here again, we learn more about what God will preserve: every iota and keraia, every smallest letter and smallest stroke. The verb parerchomai (pass from) occurs again indicating that the words will be preserved here below.

What has been promised

Discrete preservationists see in these passages a promise that every “jot and tittle” of Scripture will be available to every generation in a certainly-recognizable, written form. That is, believers of every age will be able to point to a copy and say with certainty, “Every jot and tittle is right here.” But there are several reasons to believe this is not what has been promised:

  1. The passages do not actually say there will be a recognized form with every jot and tittle perfectly preserved.
  2. Neither Jesus nor the other speakers or writers in these passages say that the word will be accessible for “every generation.” Even if a letter-perfect form of God’s word could be identified with certainty, the promises do not preclude the possibility that this form could be lost for some generations then recovered again (the fact that something has not passed away does not mean we must know exactly where it is.)
  3. None of those who heard these promises when they were given could point to a written form they knew to contain every preserved jot and tittle. That is, already multiple copies existed, and variations among them existed—not only in jots and tittles but (by Jesus’ day) in whole words. (When Jesus spoke, the Scriptures available were hand made copies of the Hebrew OT and Greek versions of the OT known collectively as the Septuagint).

Conclusions

A close examination of what Scripture claims about its own preservation reveals that God’s word is preserved forever independently of anyone’s access to it (“in heaven”). This examination also reveals, however, that every word—even every letter—will always be preserved, and at least potentially accessible, on the earth. Scripture does not claim, however, that its availability in word-perfect form will be without interruption or that God’s people will always be able to identify it with certainty. There is nothing close to a promise that a word-perfect translation of such a text will exist in English or any other language. (If we have no promise that the Scriptures will be translated at all we cannot possibly have any promises about the quality of translations.)

Some will object that if we cannot identify the perfectly preserved text or translation, we do not have preservation in any meaningful sense. But this argument is a distraction from facts we cannot escape. Whether or not we like the implications of what Scripture says (and doesn’t say), the Bible still says only what it says—no more and no less.

Case-making

One additional distinction is important here. The fact that we have not been promised a certainly-identifiable, perfect text or translation does not prove that we are without one. What that fact does do, however, is point the way to what kind of case must be made for a perfectly preserved text or translation. Such a case must consist of inferences from Scripture, historical data, other external evidence, and reasoning from these. In short, just as the case for preservation “somewhere in the manuscripts” derives from the silence of Scripture plus external data, the case for perfect preservation must also be made by appealing to external data. Divine authority cannot be properly claimed for either position.

Works Cited

Schnaiter, Sam, and Ron Tagliapietra. Bible Preservation and the Providence of God. Self published. Xlibris Corp., 2003.

White, James. The King James Only Controversy: Can You Trust the Modern Translations? Minneapolis. Bethany House Publishers, 1995.

Notes

1 I regret that I can no longer identify the source of this quotation. Either I am misremembering which college posted the statement or they have since replaced it with something more conciliatory. In any case, the view they described is not unique to them.

2 Examples include “The Modern Texts and Versions Have Produced the Fruit of Theological Liberalism,” “Reasoned Preservation of Scripture, “A Sniff Test for the History of Preservation of Scripture,” “Biblical Preservation: B. B. Warfield and the Reformation Doctrine of the Providential Preservation of the Biblical Text,” and many, many more.

3 In the book, the emphasis in this paragraph is in all caps rather than italics, probably because the section is a response to correspondence in which all caps occur frequently in reference to Schnaiter’s views.

Declined language.....

One thing that comes to mind is that since Greek and Hebrew have endings on verbs, nouns, adjectives, and the like, the Biblical text is far more resistant to errors than, say, a text in Chinese, which has none of these.  The reason is that you can mess up those endings or even skip entire words without the meaning of the sentence being changed--the verb has a portion of the noun in it, noun, verb, and adjective all tell you plurality, gender, etc..  So it's a basic error correcting code inherent in the very language.

Neat means of preservation, no?

To a degree

I think I would agree to an extent. But there are several ways in which internal linguistic consistency fail to to produce realiable self-correction. A couple that come to mind...

  • when the "rules of customary usage" (which are always changing) conflict with the formal rules, creating an ambiguity in what would be "correct." I suspect every language has these collisions, with the customary usage dominating over time (and in many cases, there never was any other usage). It's why we're all increasingly comfortable with sentences like this: "If someone doesn't like the heat they should stay out of the kitchen." ("they" is plural and clashes--violently to many of us--with "someone"... but the rules of customary usage are making it "correct").
  • when more than one linguistically consistent reading is possible with only the smallest of changes to the text (I no longer have a list of examples of these handy, but I do remember seeing quite a few...  one that springs to mind is the difference between "us" and "you" in Grk... )

So, while the way a language is built might make copyist errors a bit less likely, there is still plenty of room even in the best of them.

also, non-standard grammar

The New Testament was written by native Aramaic speakers (for the most part, if not all) and I seem to recall that some of their Greek doesn't follow Greek grammar exactly. (Can't think of any examples, that was over thirty years ago I was taught that! ... as some would say, I've slept since then.)

Maranatha!
Don Johnson
Jer 33.3

What about "verbal, plenary inspiration"?

How does one account for grammar mistakes that lead to confusion if all Scripture was given by inspiration of God  and every word is divinely inspired?  Yes, God used the ordinary vocabulary of His writers, but does that permit the use of grammatical errors that prevent readers from actually knowing what was in the mind of the writers.  It's quite enough that we have to struggle through manuscripts that are fragmented, but now do we have to try to interpret the "hillbilly Greek," i.e., "Aramaicized Greek" of some of the writers?  I speak and write Spanish fairly well, but could a Spaniard ever really know what I were saying with exactitude if my faulty Spanish conflicted with the absolutely accurate use of his language?

There's a lot in that statement...

jimcarwest wrote:

How does one account for grammar mistakes that lead to confusion if all Scripture was given by inspiration of God  and every word is divinely inspired?  Yes, God used the ordinary vocabulary of His writers, but does that permit the use of grammatical errors that prevent readers from actually knowing what was in the mind of the writers. 

Some thoughts.

  1. The sufficiency of God's Word is correlated to His purpose for that Word. (See Isaiah 55:11; 2 Timothy 3:17.)
  2. There are limits to what God has revealed; some things are hidden and not our concern; some things are revealed and we're responsible to apply them. (See Deuteronomy 29:29.)
  3. On some occasions, the manner in which God reveals Himself actually hides things from a particular audience. (See Isaiah 6:9-10; Matthew 13:11.)
  4. Some audiences do misuse the difficult portions of Scripture (2 Peter 3:16). (But God keeps His own people from truly dangerous errors. See 2 Peter 3:17; 2 Timothy 3:15-17; 1 John 2:20.)

From these points, I'd conclude that God is not obligated to make the answer to every question clear, or even to reveal it at all. Even believers may "hit a wall" when probing the limits of what God has revealed.

So when you bring up grammatical ambiguities, I run them through the above points.

That being said, the purpose of language is to communicate meaning. I'm wading into deep semiotics here and probably shouldn't be. But let me throw this out: ordinarily, good grammar helps us to convey meaning. But "bad grammar" can be...

  1. A deliberate stylistic decision. The great poets and novelists don't get hung up about fragments.
  2. Part of "who we are" as our local dialect. If I'm writing a novel about the inner city or the boondocks or rural America, it just wouldn't do to have them speak college-professor English.
  3. A deliberate decision to break a rule to avoid distracting or stilted language. I have been won over to the "singular they" in my corporate policy writing; I'll use "he or she" sometimes, and I'll switch to plural nouns when I can, but occasionally, I'll go with the singular they as the least distracting choice. Another example is the "rule" about ending sentences with a preposition. (I have been influenced by Joseph M. Williams's book, Style: Toward Clarity and Grace. Not that I always execute well on it!)

I don't think the apostles were bound to use grammar in the same way that they are bound to get 4 from 2 and 2. The word "correct" isn't the same in both contexts. When adding, the whole point is to get the right answer. When speaking or writing, the point is to make yourself understood.

Michael Osborne
Philadelphia, PA


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