Sunday, February 14, 2016

The truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth

It is very difficult to get to the truth of some matters. One such matter is "the reliability of the Bible."
My eye chanced on a blogpost signalled on a blogroll here. Peter Head at Evangelical Textual Criticism takes on a "silly" article by Greg Gilbert at The Gospel Coalition (itself an adapted excerpt from a book written by Gilbert called Why Trust the Bible?). Some of the comments to Peter Head's article are in themselves illuminating as to ways in which evangelicalism can be, well, a bit precious.

Peter Head's underlying point, as one evangelical to a community of evangelicals is that evangelicals do no service to their advancement of the significance of the Bible as the authoritative written Word of God by underpinning arguments with sloppy logic and slippery use of available evidence.

I am with Peter Head. When we read the Old and New Testaments in their original languages we are reading documents with a complex and often difficult history. "Complex" because matching differences between manuscripts offers in many cases no simple argument which will clinch agreement on what the text of the "original" manuscript was (say, Paul as he or an amanuensis wrote the epistle which would then be circulated, or, then copied and those copies circulated to the  churches. "Difficult" because there are often decades of uncertainty between the widely agreed date of composition of the original document and the manuscript copy of that document agreed (widely, or otherwise) to be the oldest available to us. And, even then, it is quite possible that that document is a poor copy compared with the putative original, and a later manuscript is actually more reliable as a representation of the original.

These are complex and difficult matters when considering the New Testament alone. They are much more complex and difficult when considering the Old Testament (for which we have manuscripts in Hebrew and Aramaic, but much uncertainty as to how reliable our manuscripts are, noting variations when compared to the Greek Old Testament manuscripts and to evidence from manuscripts in other ancient translations of the Old Testament).

Evangelicals should not oversimplify the issues or underestimate the difficulties we have when we try to deduce from the myriad evidence available to us, exactly what the original form of the Bible was. We would all like a reliable Bible in which we were confident that we had manuscripts in the relevant ancient languages which were "the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth." But it ain't possible (short of some really, really remarkable archaeological or antiquarian discoveries of manuscripts much older than those we currently have). Yes, I am aware that we have the Dead Sea Scrolls, which are truly ancient and terrifically helpful in the quest for a reliable Bible, but they are not a "whole Bible" treasure trove of manuscripts.

Nevertheless we should not despair of the quest for the reliability of the Bible, providing we look for the right kind of reliability. I hope to come back to this quest soon.

20 comments:

Anonymous said...

On the other hand, there is no manuscript tradition that attests to the Sanhedrin's miraculous conversion during Jesus's trial, leading to Jesus's enthronement as King of the Jews, his many years of wise rule and teaching in Palestine, the delighted Romans' decision to delay the destruction of the Temple, his peaceful death in his sleep at age 65, and his son in law's bold evangelism in the Roman world. Really, there isn't. We do not need an Ideal Bible to know that the canonical documents broadly agree on the shape of the story of Jesus and on its meaning for the world.

And while many details of an *Ideal Bible In The Sky* elude us, the likelihood that familiar words in the early fathers are quoted from books that we too hear in church is rather high. Not every word on which Origen comments is in our text, but the thrilling thing is that his books are so clearly our books.

And even if some variants have different jots and tittles, perhaps they too have some sense that should not pass away? St John's woman taken in adultery, missing from all the *best* manuscripts, comes to mind. Ironically or appropriately, the story turns on the writing of Jesus in the sand to which no manuscript tradition attests.

Of course, a theory that invites closer examination of the text can be edifying for the student whether the theory is true or not. We will never know which gospel was written first. Even comparison of the probabilities for Markan and Matthaean priority is unlikely to be conclusive. But working through the alternate theories with Bible open has helped many into each book's distinct horizon. Similarly, when all the manuscripts are digitally available, we can expect that more historians in each period will try to account for the variants unique to their periods as best they can. Everything human is imperfect.

Since we gain so much from the text's details in study, it makes sense that text critics investigate the text types and their transmission through time. Even their speculations suggest interesting hypotheses about the early Church. Some suspect that the Alexandrian rescension was backed by the muscle of a central and highly productive scriptorium. If so, what in Alexandrian Christianity prompted this? Many say that the Byzantine text type has more variants within itself than the others, and suspect that Eastern controversies through the first millennium caused it. This claim is likely to be revised when all Byzantine manuscripts have been digitised for comparison. But still, might the variants of a time and place tell a story about the devotion of the copyists? Ancient sources are too scarce for even these crumbs to be ignored. Larry Hurtado also has a point that study of the physical manuscripts themselves can show us intresting things about early Christian ways of reading. Certainly the Christian way of studying scripture as a hypertext across distinct books made the codex far more easy to use than the old jar of scrolls. What else can we learn?

Bowman Walton

Anonymous said...

Cont'd

But the main reason not to fidget about an Ideal Bible is that the Church that had to have produced it did not quite believe in it quite as moderns with Enlightenment anxieties do. For comparison, consider the line of Islamic apologetics that contrasts the close similarity of manuscripts of the Quran with the purportedly many variations in the manuscripts of the Bible. I have no idea whether these apologists are better textual critics than the hack at TGC or not. But I do know that an Abbasid *caliph* standardised the text of the Quran and ordered all the non-standard copies destroyed. He did not do this to help future text critics of the Quran; he did this because the Quran is itself the central miracle of Islam, comparable to the Resurrection in Christianity, so that the textual variants that had already cropped up were a scandal to the faithful. In that respect, the argument is easily turned on itself.

In contrast, even the table of contents of the Bible as a whole was not *officially* determined until the C16. What the fathers struggled to standardise in the face of emergent heresies was not the canon or the texts of scripture, but the *regula fidei*, the apostolic pattern of preaching about Christ reflected in the creeds. We see this such early works as St Irenaeus's Demonstration of the Apostolic Teaching, and such later ones as Rufinus's Commentary on the Creed. That the ecumenical councils defined Christian knowledge, not as official glosses on sacred texts, but as creeds for the recitation of the faithful is significant. We rightly claim that the creeds can be proven from scripture, but then the pattern of apostolic teaching appears to have been the working criterion of an informal NT canon. The central miracle in which Christians believe is not the text itself, but the Three behind it who unify it and who still use it for their purpose.

Bowman Walton

Anonymous said...


Cont'd again

A lesser miracle is that, even in bastions of US evangelicalism, influential scholars have begun to reformulate their teaching about the way the authority of scripture works. Progressives such as Peter Enns have proposed whole new theories, of course, but even such stalwarts of Chicago inerrancy (CSBI) as SBTS's Albert Mohler or TGC's Don Carson can acknowledge and irenically discuss its limitations. This month sees the release of yet another major book on the subject by Kevin J Van Hoozer (KJV, to his admirers and critics). Among evangelical institutions, more are following Fuller's lead in formulating their belief in scripture in ways that are new, and often trinitarian. Down under, Anglican evangelical Mike Bird has made notable ripples but no waves with his insistence that evangelicals everywhere but America get along fine without inerrancy, and by building his systematic theology around a criterial gospel very close to both the *creed and canon* (cf regula fidei) approach of Richard Hays and Robert Jenson and the grand narrative theology of N.T. Wright.

What distinguishes all of these efforts from the CSBI is that they are endogenous, driven by the inner creativity of evangelical theology, mostly evangelical, since Barth. Evangelical scholars of systematics and the Bible now feel free to delegate anxiety about what sceptics and liberals stuck in Enlightenment thought patterns might be saying to professional apologists, whilst focusing their own efforts on integrating the work of evangelicals with influences as diverse as Karl Barth, Henri de Lubac, John Zizioulis, and even... Rudolph Bultmann. It is startling to realise that the up and coming scholar in Bultmann studies is David Congden at, of all places, IVP Academic, and that he is claiming Bultmann's project for evangelicalism via Karl Barth's dialectical theology. Whether Congden is able to pull this off or not, the idea itself reflects a certain confidence. Although TGC may be slow to read the memo, the Evangelical tradition is now strong enough to define itself from the centre out rather than from the boundary in, taking territory rather than just holding a line. Inevitably, we look on textual criticism, not as a place where losses must be averted, but as one where some interesting things might be learned.

Bowman Walton

Peter Carrell said...

Thanks Bowman
You know much more than I do about these matters!

Father Ron Smith said...

All this knowledge! No weonder ordinary Christians get confused! But, as one scholar reminds us; there is no such creature as a perfect (sinless?) human being. Even Jesus "took our sinful human nature upon himself". Now there's something to ponder for you philosophers.

Thank God, the virtues of Faith, Hope and Love do not depend on the philosophical ramblings of fallible human textual critics.

Bryden Black said...

Peter, I am tempted to copy and paste the Contents page of some Lenten Study Notes I gave out to accompany a series of Lenten sermons back in 2011. The pairs of Readings were the texts for each Sunday. NB Number 4 re Holy Scripture, "borrowed" from John Webster's Holy Scripture. As always it's context friend! And a pretty Anglican one at that!

Who Are We? [The title of the series]

1. We are the People of God - page 2

God’s Covenant creates a distinctive people, who are to declare God’s praises and witness to his Name, before God and before the world he governs.

Ex 19:1-6
1 Peter 1:22-2:10

2. We are the Body of Christ - page 9

The Gospel of Jesus establishes a specific community, who are to serve both God and his world, in word and in deed, and notably in anticipation of God’s restoration of all things.

1 Cor 12:1-6, 12-31
John 15:1-17

3. We are the Temple of the Holy Spirit - page 17

The Goal of Creation is God’s establishing a place (space) for his divine presence, in which creation may commune with God and of which the Church is the prototype and first-fruits in the Spirit.

Eph 2:11-22
Rev 21:1-8, 22-27

4. We are the Household of the Trinity - page 23

The triune God communicates himself in the economy of salvation, in the Word-made-flesh & the Holy Spirit: this primary sacramentum (“mystery”) works itself out in the course of human history as 1, 2 & 3 above, with then the Holy Scriptures being the divinely appointed servant and unique instrument bearing specific witness to this economy, and with the sacraments being divinely appointed means of communion in this economy.

Eph 3:1-21
1 John 1:1-2:2

5. We are Pilgrims of the Way - page 32

The Christian Gospel forms a people, who, in faith, hope and love, are to embody the life of God for the sake of the world, whose destiny is to share the renewed Image of Christ Jesus in the grace and power of the Spirit.

Heb 11:1-3, 8-12 & 12:1-3
Mark 10:41-52

Anonymous said...


Thank you, Bryden, for succumbing to temptation. Are you also tempted to write a brief systematic theology for Anglican study groups on that outline? I hope so.

Father Ron, Erasmus took the thief who died on the cross beside Jesus as his patron saint because he was saved with so little theology.

Ironically, Peter, much of the knowledge I mentioned condenses a complexity learned over the past few centuries into simple advice: read the scriptures with the creed. Tonight, volunteering at a soup kitchen, I heard an unread but earnest preacher from a Baptist congregation in the country grope through a reasonable trinitarian interpretation of Genesis 11:7. Never having learned how to preach the Old Testament like an unbeliever, he instead followed the text to the obvious verbal parallels at 1:26 and 3:22, and then explained them with Hebrews 1:1-4 and Colossians 1:15-20.

I have seen this done only twice before: Robert Jenson did it down there in a lecture series in Otago, and Richard Hays did it up here at the Trinity School for Ministry. Which is to say that I have seen a systematician from Princeton do it for students and laymen, a neutestamentler from Duke do it for ACNA, and a high school graduate do it for the poor and homeless hungry for a hot meal. All three audiences asked intelligent questions.

Bowman Walton

Brian Kelly said...

"Never having learned how to preach the Old Testament like an unbeliever, he instead followed the text to the obvious verbal parallels at 1:26 and 3:22, and then explained them with Hebrews 1:1-4 and Colossians 1:15-20."

Ha! ha! I suspect the systematician and the Neustestamentler were also hungry for a hot meal. Of course, reading the Trinity 'into' (out of?) the Old Testament was exactly what numbers of the Church Fathers did. I don't know when such readings were declared non-U - maybe in the 18th century with Gabler and the invention of 'biblical theology'? I'll have to check Calvin on Genesis.

Bryden Black said...

Given both the specific issue Peter has raised and our ‘environmental’ context in which we (still) struggle to address the matter, I cannot let your brief ref to Robert Jenson slip by so easily.

His published version of those Burns Lectures in 2009, which I attended for the most part, is a delight: Canon and Creed. Interpretation: Resources for the Use of Scripture in the Church (WJKP, 2010). It should be required reading for seminarians - and folk on ADU! A lot of confusion would be quickly alleviated and may be even some progress towards consensus reached. Something about “the examined life” comes to mind ...

Brian Kelly said...

"That the ecumenical councils defined Christian knowledge, not as official glosses on sacred texts, but as creeds for the recitation of the faithful is significant. We rightly claim that the creeds can be proven from scripture, but then the pattern of apostolic teaching appears to have been the working criterion of an informal NT canon."

- Remember that the Gnostics and Arians could work with (pretty much) the same canon as the Catholics but come up with radically different interpretations thereof. Was it Irenaeus who used the famous image of a collection of jewels that could be configured to produce the shape either of a dog or a man?
As for IVP (USA), I think that publishing house has been moving a more liberal, post-evangelical direction for a few years now, as have some evangelical 'stars' or previous years, catching up with a post-Christian culture.

Brian Kelly said...

St Irenaeus: the King and the fox

Such, then, is their [the Valentinians'] system, which neither the prophets announced, nor the Lord taught, nor the apostles delivered, but of which they boast that beyond all others they have a perfect knowledge. They gather their views from other sources than the Scriptures; and, to use a common proverb, they strive to weave ropes of sand, while they endeavour to adapt with an air of probability to their own peculiar assertions the parables of the Lord, the sayings of the prophets, and the words of the apostles, in order that their scheme may not seem altogether without support. In doing so, however, they disregard the order and the connection of the Scriptures, and so far as in them lies, dismember and destroy the truth. By transferring passages, and dressing them up anew, and making one thing out of another, they succeed in deluding many through their wicked are in adapting the oracles of the Lord to their opinions. Their manner of acting is just as if one, when a beautiful image of a king has been constructed by some skilful artist out of precious jewels, should then take this likeness of the man all to pieces, should rearrange the gems, and so fit them together as to make them into the form of a dog or of a fox, and even that but poorly executed; and should then maintain and declare that this was the beautiful image of the king which the skilful artist constructed, pointing to the jewels which had been admirably fitted together by the first artist to form the image of the king, but have been with bad effect transferred by the latter one to the shape of a dog, and by thus exhibiting the jewels, should deceive the ignorant who had no conception what a king's form was like, and persuade them that that miserable likeness of the fox was, in fact, the beautiful image of the king. In like manner do these persons patch together old wives' fables, and then endeavour, by violently drawing away from their proper connection, words, expressions, and parables whenever found, to adapt the oracles of God to their baseless fictions. We have already stated how far they proceed in this way with respect to the interior of the Pleroma.

In like manner he also who retains unchangeable in his heart the rule of the truth which he received by means of baptism, will doubtless recognise the names, the expressions, and the parables taken from the Scriptures, but will by no means acknowledge the blasphemous use which these men make of them. For, though he will acknowledge the gems, he will certainly not receive the fox instead of the likeness of the king. But when he has restored every one of the expressions quoted to its proper position, and has fitted it to the body of the truth, he will lay bare, and prove to be without any foundation, the figment of these heretics.

Anonymous said...




"...the jewels which had been admirably fitted together by the first artist to form the image of the king, but have been with bad effect transferred by the latter one to the shape of a dog... he also who retains unchangeable in his heart the rule of the truth which he received by means of baptism, will doubtless recognise the names, the expressions, and the parables taken from the Scriptures, but will by no means acknowledge the blasphemous use which these men make of them. For, though he will acknowledge the gems, he will certainly not receive the fox instead of the likeness of the king. But when he has restored every one of the expressions quoted to its proper position, and has fitted it to the body of the truth, he will lay bare, and prove to be without any foundation, the figment of these heretics."

Thank you, Brian, this is a treat. Keeping in mind that St Irenaeus's "rule of the truth" is roughly the Apostle's Creed in its original use as a baptismal formula, his extended simile articulates two truths dear to my heart.

On one hand, he contrasts the *motivated reasoning* of the Valentinians (or any other kind of partisan) with the discernment of the baptised heart informed by the regula fidei. The theological study of the scriptures is a spiritual practise that depends on its proper virtues, and these are given as the soul receives *knowledge* of the Three in the creed. Accompanying the difference between *motivated reasoning* and discernment is a difference in subjectivity that we might almost call a difference in psychology. That is, the authority here is working, not just juridically, nor just temperamentally, but ontically through knowledge.

On the other hand, the simile also implies that the canon as a whole has an order intrinsic to itself that is recognised through the regula fidei. So the scriptures do have the inner coherence that Tom Wright and several other biblical theologians attribute to them. The tapestry of the canon's threads is not an arbitrary fabrication, and can be at least exhibited to almost anyone. Nevertheless, it is through knowledge of the Three from the baptismal creed that this coherence illumines the heart. One might ask-- Tom Wright in fact does ask-- how the short creed can do this when it omits so much of the story that the Bible tells-- Israel appears only in the Virgin Mary; there is nothing about Jesus's life between birth and death. But what the creed gives the catechumen are the ways of recognising each of the Persons. It is knowledge of the Three acquired by living in them that enables one to recognise them as the threads that run through the whole fabric. So as St Irenaeus works his way through the heresies of his time, he is also supplying a bridge from the mystagogy of St Cyril to the life of the mind in God.

Bowman Walton

Father Ron Smith said...

It is both salutary and helpful to know that Saint Francis of Assisi was not fond of his followers who buried their noses in learned treatises. He favoured Gospel activity before academic study. But then, he was both a mystic and a Doer of The Word. He also, along with St. Paul, "bore in his body the marks of the Lord Jesus".

Brian Kelly said...

Each to his own. I wouldn't dream of commenting on cricket or gardening, not because the subjects are unworthy but because I know nothing of consequence on them. At least Giovanni di Pietro di Bernardone had the advantage of scholars who lived before him and maybe if he had lived beyond his 44 years, long enough to watch young Tomaso from Aquino, he might have given his sunset years to reading theology. But that's the fun of counterfactual "history" - you can imagine what you like! What is beyond dispute is that Assisi and Gubbio are beautiful places - and that the Franciscans have a strong scholarly tradition to this day.

Bryden Black said...

Dear Brian; I must send you that Tea Towel which explains cricket most eruditly via lots of ins and outs, to conclude "howzat"! For all educated gentlemen should appreciate the game!
Just as I'm sure St Francis and St Bonaventure make a splendid pair of intercessors for the likes of the contemporary confused world, as their successors offer both cups of water and erudition on the soul's journey to God.

Anonymous said...


Meanwhile, back in Avignon, + James Tengatenga of the ACC is saying that the Primates have no authority to attach consequences, and ++ Justin Welby is saying that their authority might attach consequences to the criminalisation of homosexuality. The stories are in Peter's right margin at TitusOneNine and Kiwianglo's Blog.

Bowman Walton

Brian Kelly said...

Ah Bryden, I know that tea towel well - and I have a dear wife who is a cricket fanatic and a son who played for his uni side, so I'm not short of instruction if I seek it! Why, I even went to school with Stephen Boock (not that he knew me since I was a turd when he was in Form 7).
Needless to say, my admiration for Francesco is immense and the visits to Assisi and Gubbio were the highlight of our holiday in Umbria. I haven't read Bonaventure and may not get round to this side of heaven. My to-read list extends mercilessly ...

Anonymous said...


Yes, Brian, but Bryden and I know why the six-winged seraph gave the wounds of Christ to St Francis. Wouldn't you like to know too?

St Bonaventure's Itinerarium is easy, cheap, and short. And when you're done, the voluntarism of Cranmer's collects makes even more sense.

http://www.ccel.org/ccel/bonaventure/mindsroad.html

Bowman Walton

Bryden Black said...

Sometimes Google is really useful: “famous cricket tea towel” ... Enjoy Brian!

To be sure Bowman; exec types (aka Tengatenga - and ACPCA was once my alma mater) like to depict their own roles as they themselves see fit - whilst next door the neighbours are indulging in ‘incidents of domestic violence’ which we politely ignore as true Englishmen should ... although Samaritan types don’t know any better ...

Brian Kelly said...

Thank you, Bowman - I suspected it might be on CCEL. I did check it out on Amazon but I've made a Lenten vow not to buy any more books till I've finished the ones in the boxes in front of me - a vow I broke yesterday.
I'll check out CCEL.