The King James Version
For many reasons a church ought to sanction one version for public services and other corporate uses. When the pastor reads the Bible aloud in public, everyone should see the same words in his own Bible. Using only one version has other advantages as well. It allows the congregation to read in unison and makes it easy to judge whether memorized Scripture is being quoted correctly.
In every Baptist church I have attended, the official version was the KJV. This is still a good choice, because it is easy to obtain. Any member can find and purchase a KJV Bible at a reasonable price. Nevertheless, for the sake of greater readability, a church today might prefer a modern translation. Two based on the Majority text are the New King James Version (NKJV) and Jay P. Green's Modern King James Version (MKJV). The latter is better in some respects, but much harder to acquire. Although the NKJV may be declining in popularity, it is still readily available.
I use the NKJV in my personal devotions. The wording is occasionally a little awkward, especially in the Old Testament, but the meaning is generally clear and accurate. For better style without much loss of accuracy, I may read the Old Testament in the NASB.
A pragmatic choice of the KJV for church use is not the same as taking a KJV-only position. When a Christian body treats the KJV as if it were the perfect Word of God, it is taking a dangerous step away from the fundamentalism of its fathers. Indeed, because it is enshrining a new doctrine as orthodoxy, it is moving in a heretical direction. And it may soon be moving with a momentum that is hard to stop, especially if the doctrinal shift is being driven by crassly self-serving motives. Where marketing strategy or political maneuvering can spawn one new conviction, why not others also? The prognosis for any organization joining the KJV-only camp is a gradual drift toward other doctrinal peculiarities that will divide it from historic fundamentalism. Such peculiarities wedded to iron authoritarian control by a power-hungry leader are good soil for the germination and growth of a religious cult.
The Critical Text
The church must remember that the debate over the texts is closely connected to the debate over inerrancy. As we have seen, CT contains obvious errors. It says that the darkness at the Crucifixion was only an eclipse. It says several other things equally wrong. So, if we say that CT is the correct text, or at least that it is the best approximation to the original text, we allow and even encourage the presumption that the original text of the New Testament was flawed. In essence we are affirming that so far as we can tell, the original manuscripts contained the same errors we see in CT.
A translation based on CT undermines the reader's confidence in his Bible. When he opens the NASB to the beginning of the New Testament, he notices on the very first page two footnotes telling him that the Greek (and, presumably, the original text) is in error. To "Asa" and "Amon," it appends the notes, "Greek, Asaph," and "Greek, Amos."
An institution or church may try to have its cake and eat it too—affirming inerrancy on the one hand, while recommending CT on the other. But a perceptive student in a school standing precariously on this inconsistency will be troubled by it. The more he learns to respect CT, the more he will be tempted to question inerrancy.
To reserve judgment as to the correct text of the Bible is always safe, at least at the current stage of debate. But to take an official stand in favor of CT is quite unsafe. It runs the risk that God will see it as siding with those who have deleted words from His truth, a serious matter according to the Book of Revelation.
18 For I testify unto every man that heareth the words of the prophecy of this book, If any man shall add unto these things, God shall add unto him the plagues that are written in this book:
19 And if any man shall take away from the words of the book of this prophecy, God shall take away his part out of the book of life, and out of the holy city, and from the things which are written in this book.
The Majority Text
Any text wanting to be accepted as the preserved Word of God must, as a first requirement, be a fixed entity. If a large cache of Alexandrian texts were discovered tomorrow, many majority readings might suddenly become minority readings. Advocates of the Majority text (MT) must prove that it has been the same in all ages of the church, unless they wish to argue that the Word of God has been preserved uncorrupted only for the age of modern scholarship. Hence, although the Majority text may be substantially correct, we cannot endorse it as correct simply because it offers majority readings. There must be another way to verify that these readings are true.
The Byzantine Text
As we noted earlier, Jesus promised,
Howbeit when he, the Spirit of truth, is come, he will guide you into all truth: . . . .
What exactly has the Spirit, in His role as guide to all truth, led the church to certify as Scripture?
Surely, the church has no reasonable doubt as to the canon. And from the time of the Reformation until the late nineteenth century, the church believed that the true text of the New Testament resides in the Received Text, derived from Greek manuscripts belonging to the Byzantine tradition—that the true text is essentially the same as what we now call the Byzantine Text (BT) . The church never resolved every uncertainty as to the correct reading. The best alternative among some minor variants was never settled absolutely. But the church was content that, in the main, BT preserves the real New Testament.
Discoveries in the nineteenth century revealed other textual traditions and left doubt in the church as to which tradition is most faithful to the original. Defenders of BT have argued, and I think correctly, that the longtime supremacy of BT is a strong argument in its favor. Why, at the time of the Reformation, when the people of God were seeking the true text of the New Testament, would He have placed in their hands a text from the wrong textual tradition—in apparent violation of His promise to lead them, as they desired it, into all truth?
Replies to Carson
In protest to this line of thinking in defense of BT, D. A. Carson says,
The Westminster Confession of Faith, and its counterpart, the Baptist Confession of 1689, are quite correct to attest to God's "singular care and providence" inasmuch as the text has been "kept pure in all ages . . .;" but "all ages" surely includes the first, second, and third centuries, not to mention the nineteenth and twentieth. Because this is so, we cannot understand "kept pure" to mean that each manuscript agrees perfectly with the other, since no manuscript agrees perfectly with any other. What is at stake is a purity of text of such a substantial nature that nothing we believe to be doctrinally true, and nothing we are commanded to do, is in any way jeopardized by the variants. This is true for any textual tradition (1).
Two replies must be made.
- Doubts concerning the correct text indeed racked the church during the centuries he names—the first three and the last two. But these doubts do not undermine our confidence in BT. Weeding out all the invalid texts which immediately sprang up after the New Testament was completed was a process requiring several centuries, much like the process leading to general confidence in the exact limits of the canon. The last two centuries have been a period of apostasy. We should not be surprised that when modernist skepticism and cultic superstition have inundated the church, the church should also suffer a plague of false Bibles resting on false texts.
- Carson is right that the purity of the preserved text falls short of being absolute. But the umbrella of substantial agreement which covers the Byzantine manuscripts does not reach out to the other manuscript traditions. True, the differences between BT and AT do not threaten our certainty on any major point of doctrine or practice. Yet they are not trivial. As we have shown, they touch many historical facts and practical teachings of great interest to believers. Hence, it is extremely hard to imagine how, if AT is the right text, God could have so long withheld it from the church, while the church was seeking the "all truth" he had promised. Perhaps He withheld it precisely because it is a false text. The errors in AT stand at variance with the doctrine of inerrancy. Thus, He may have withheld AT until the time when, according to His sovereign plan, He was willing to let apostasy and its false teachings, including the denial of inerrancy, test the hearts of His people.
Although we can with confidence endorse BT, BT does not unequivocally specify every word of the New Testament. Occasionally it offers variant readings. Determining which readings are authentic is not just a scholarly exercise, however. No question bearing on what we accept as binding revelation can be strictly academic. On the question of origins, we cannot say, "Let the scientists decide. They are the ones who know the evidence. Let them, guided by objective judgment in the light of expert knowledge, tell us the true meaning of Genesis." The problem is that scholars are sinners. Moreover, ungodly scholars are sinners predisposed to conclusions that will free them from any obligation to obey God. Therefore, in the debate over the correct text of the New Testament, the leaning of their hearts is to favor the critical text. They are inclined to favor it because it demeans God and His Word. It demeans His Word by giving the reader falsehoods and corruptions, as if these were present in the original manuscripts. It demeans God by weeding out certain supernatural acts and promises of God, as well as by making Jesus look fallible.
Thus, Bible-believing Christians have no alternative but to learn and practice textual criticism themselves. They must undertake the task of sorting through readings and labeling them true and false. How should the church proceed? It must, I believe, take somewhat the course I have charted in the previous lessons. It must start by reexamining the assumption of academic criticism that the Alexandrian codices are the oldest and most reliable manuscripts, and it must throw them out as unreliable if in fact their readings fit the profile to be expected of secondary readings—in other words, if many individual readings are biased, theologically unacceptable, or dependent on an alternative reading.
In my opinion, the telltale signs that scribes have meddled with AT leave us no choice but to discard all its peculiar readings, even those shared with WT, another doubtful text. Inclusion in AT or WT or both does, however, add weight to a reading found in only a minority of Byzantine manuscripts. A reading rarely appearing in BT but enjoying other ancient support should not be rejected out of hand if the Syrian church and later the Byzantine church might have disliked it. Possibly in this category belong Acts 8:37 (absent from BT as well as AT, but present in various manuscripts and other ancient sources), which disallows infant baptism, and 1 John 5:7 (the so-called Johannine Comma), which might have offended any church that had not come to a mature understanding of the Trinity.
Of the variants that remain after rejection of AT and WT, most are obvious mistakes in copying—misspellings, word repetitions or transpositions, and the like. The small number of significant variants leaves us with very few uncertain texts. Moreover, at every point of uncertainty, the difference in meaning between rival variants affects no question of faith.
My position, near to the ground defended by the nineteenth-century scholar Frederic Godet, is that each significant variant must be evaluated on its own merits. Godet felt that exegesis rather than comparison of attestations was a better route to identifying the true text.
No positive rule which we might be inclined to take from these 27 particular instances [of variant readings in First Corinthians], certainly the most important in the Epistle, would be other than arbitrary. But the negative consequences are evident. The first is the absolute erroneousness of the method which claims to decide between variants by means of external authorities alone. The second, which completes the first, is the erroneousness of holding by any one of the three types of text, the Alexandrine, for example, to the extent of taking almost no account of the Greco-Latin text, and absolutely none of the Byzantine text, as is done by Westcott and Hort. . . . How can a voice on the subject be reasonably refused to the two other texts, when their superiority is attested in so many particular instances by the evidence of exegesis?
As to the Byzantine text, in particular, it cannot reasonably be supposed that there was not a separate and independent transmission of the apostolic text in the countries of Syria and Cilicia, where the first Churches of Greek origin were founded, quite as much as in Egypt and in the Churches of the West. And how can it be held that men like Chrysostom and Theodoret would have blindly adopted a text arbitrarily constructed a few decades of years before the date when they composed their commentaries. I cannot therefore help giving my entire assent to the opinion of Principal Brown of Aberdeen, in the extremely accurate and learned criticism which he has given of the system followed by the two critics I have just named, in connection with the following passages in which the superiority systematically ascribed to the Alexandrines completely breaks down: 1 Cor. 15:49; Mark 11:3; Matt. 27:49; Heb. 4:2; Matt. 19:16-17; John 1:18; Eph. 1:15; Luke 14:44; Acts 12:25; Rev. 15:6. In all these cases Dr. Brown justifies the old reading to a demonstration, and shows the impossibility, and, more than once, even the absurdity, of the Alexandrine text (2).
I quote Godet at length not because I fully agree with him (for example, in his estimate of the different text-types he takes a neutral stance which I do not share), but because I wish to show his forward-looking comprehension that comparison of attestations cannot be the court of last judgment in deciding the text of the New Testament. We can discover some true readings only by painstaking exegesis under the leading of the Holy Spirit.
In this process, we must resort to two sets of criteria: textual and spiritual. The textual criteria are three.
- Fitness. Which variant fits best into the narrative or argument? Does any variant fail to convey the author's exact sense? Which variant is most compatible with the author's style and language?
- Complexity. A fundamental principle of information science is that any form of transmission, including copying, introduces noise and blurs fine detail in the original message. Therefore, unless there is objective evidence of editorial elaboration, the more complex variant is probably correct.
- Independence. Any reading clearly secondary to another can be eliminated.
The spiritual criteria are three also.
- Harmony. Does any variant produce an assertion incompatible with other teachings of Scripture?
- Accuracy. Does any variant produce an assertion that is untrue?
- Reverence. Does any variant produce an assertion that belittles God or His Word?
Weeding out incorrect variants is unavoidably a subjective procedure, but it is a procedure that, guided by the Holy Spirit, can attain valid and convincing results.