The Providential Preservation of the Text of Scripture

David Burchard Doctrine 5 Comments

Introduction

Section 8 of Chapter 1 of the Second London Baptist Confession (2LBC), on The Holy Scriptures, reads as follows,

The Old Testament was written in Hebrew, the native language of the ancient people of God. The New Testament was written in Greek, which at the time it was written was most widely known to the nations. These Testaments were inspired directly by God and by his unique care and providence were kept pure down through the ages. They are therefore true and authoritative/authentical, so that in all religious controversies the church must make their ultimate appeal to them. All God’s people have a right to and a claim on the Scriptures and are commanded in the fear of God to read and search them.  Not all of God’s people know these original languages, so the Scriptures are to be translated into the common language of every nation to which they come.  In this way the Word of God may dwell richly in all, so that they may worship him in an acceptable manner and through patience and the comfort of the Scriptures may have hope.[1]

The most controversial claim in this paragraph is often overlooked, or, at least, misunderstood. “These Testaments were inspired directly by God and by his unique care and providence were kept pure down through the ages.” This is a confession about the Biblical text actually possessed by the confessors in 1689, that is, the Hebrew Masoretic Text and the Greek Textus Receptus. This is not confessed of a hypothetical text. It is not, contrary to post-Warfield modern thought, confessed of the autographs, no longer extant in 1689. The confessors believed, and so should we, that the Hebrew and Greek Scriptures received at the time of the Reformation were in fact the very Word of God, pure, authentic, authoritative, not a victim of man’s corrupting influence through the ages, but providentially preserved through the ages. This claim will be established in four steps; first, with a brief exposition of the entire paragraph, thereby demonstrating the logical context of the paragraph’s third sentence. Next, historical background to the claim of providential preservation will be provided. Third, the Biblical basis of providential preservation will be examined. Finally, three practical points of application to this confessional conviction will be specified.

Brief Exposition of 1.8

The first two sentences of 1.8 refer to the original autographs. Not written in Latin or English, the 39 books of the Old Testament were written in Hebrew and the 27 books of the New Testament were written in Greek. The beginning of the third sentence is also about those autographs. “These Testaments were inspired directly by God…” What does that mean? It means that though men thoughtfully, willfully wrote the Scriptures, they only ever perfectly wrote down God’s very words, His inspired, His breathed-out words. The words of Moses and David and Luke and Paul and all the rest are all God’s words. Men wrote, carried along by the Spirit (2 Pet. 1:21).

It is at this point in the paragraph that the focus shifts from what was, the autographs, to what is, the very Hebrew and Greek in the possession of the confessors. They assert that the very words God inspired to be written have been “kept pure down through the ages.” Now, this is normally impossible. Books of antiquity exist today because copies of copies of copies were made. The originals never escape entropy’s greed. And copies of copies of copies are susceptible to man’s error, intentional or otherwise. Give the best of intentions to a copyist, and he is only but a fallible man. We do not, therefore, possess books of antiquity. We possess reasonable reconstructions of books of antiquity. We possess hypotheticals.

But the confessors are so bold as to claim that they possess the very words of God because, unlike every other book of antiquity, God kept His word pure through the ages­­­. God preserved that which he inspired. As Beeke states, “All along the way, God guarded and ensured the preservation of His Word. This divine preservation is the necessary and logical corollary to divine inspiration.”[2] God preserved the words He inspired by His unique care and providence–supernatural preservation. And so, the confessors, speaking of that Hebrew and Greek in their physical possession, say, “They are therefore true and authentical.” As the originals were inspired, so that which they possessed was inspired. As the originals were true and authoritative, so that which they possessed was true and authoritative. Whatever qualities belonged to the originals belonged to the Hebrew Masoretic Text and Greek Textus Receptus in 1689. They had not an echo of the Word of God. They had the Word of God, that to which the church must make all appeals in all religious controversies.

This Word is not the property of the clergy or the pope in Rome. “All God’s people have a right to and a claim on the Scriptures and are commanded in the fear of God to read and search them.” Now, because most of God’s people lack fluency in Hebrew and Greek, “the Scriptures,” which the confessors authentically possessed, “are to be translated into the common language of every nation to which they come.”

Contrary to the claims of those who assert that God’s words cannot successfully come to His people through translation, the confessors assert that, through faithful translation, “the Word of God may dwell richly in all, so that they may worship Him in an acceptable manner and through patience and the comfort of the Scriptures may have hope.”

2LBC 1.8 only makes sense if it is recognized that the confessors understood themselves to possess the very Word of God. Written down by carried-along-by-God men, carried along and preserved in purity through time, God’s very words were the treasure of the confessors, and their ultimate authority, the standard of all standards.

Historical Background

That the Scriptures were providentially preserved and kept pure down through the ages was not confessed in a vacuum. This was confessed as a firm point of unity among Reformers in both the UK and the Continent.

The 2LBC speaks with agreement with the Westminster Confession and the Savoy Declaration, which are identical on this matter.

The Old Testament in Hebrew (which was the native language of the people of God of old), and the New Testament in Greek (which at the time of the writing of it was most generally known to the nations), being immediately inspired by God, and by His singular care and providence kept pure in all ages, are therefore authentical; so as, in all controversies of religion, the Church is finally to appeal unto them.[3]

These three agree. The English Protestant Reformation Confessions speak to providential preservation with one voice. In the Hebrew Masoretic Old Testament, and the Textus Receptus of the New Testament, they possessed the Word of God, pure and authentic and authoritative.

They agree with what was confessed on the Continent. Canon 1 of The Formula Consensus Helvetica 1675 reads:

God, the Supreme Judge, not only took care to have his word, which is the “power of God unto salvation to every one that believes” (Rom 1:16), committed to writing by Moses, the Prophets and the Apostles, but has also watched and cherished it with paternal care from the time it was written up to the present, so that it could not be corrupted by craft of Satan or fraud of man. Therefore the Church justly ascribes to it his singular grace and goodness that she has, and will have to the end of the world (2 Pet 1:19), a “sure word of prophecy” and “Holy Scriptures” (2 Tim 3:15), from which though heaven and earth pass away, “the smallest letter or the least stroke of a pen will not disappear by any means” (Matt 5:18).[4]

Turretin and his fellow Helvetic divines go further. They so believe in the providential preservation of the text of the canon, the books and the text contained therein, that they assert that the significance of the very vowel points of the Hebrew Masoretic text are authentic and the standard by which all textual variants should be judged. Canon 2 reads:

But, in particular, The Hebrew original of the OT which we have received and to this day do retain as handed down by the Hebrew Church, “who had been given the oracles of God” (Rom 3:2), is, not only in its consonants, but in its vowels either the vowel points themselves, or at least the power of the points not only in its matter, but in its words, inspired by God. It thus forms, together with the Original of the NT the sole and complete rule of our faith and practice; and to its standard, as to a Lydian stone, all extant versions, eastern or western, ought to be applied, and wherever they differ, be conformed.[5]

The confidence of these men is a product not of human reasoning judging the textual material. Rather, their confidence comes from dogma, from theology. Canon 3 argues that when human reasoning is the judge of the authenticity of Scripture, we assault the very foundation of our faith.

They go even to the point of following the corrections that their own rational powers dictate from the various readings of the Hebrew Original itself which, they maintain, has been corrupted in various ways; and finally, they affirm that besides the Hebrew edition of the present time, there are in the versions of the ancient interpreters which differ from our Hebrew text, other Hebrew Originals. Since these versions are also indicative of ancient Hebrew Originals differing from each other, they thus bring the foundation of our faith and its sacred authority into perilous danger.[6]

It should surprise us not that these Protestants were confessing directly contrary to the papists. In Session Four, the Second Decree, of the Council of Trent, the papists assert:

Moreover, the same sacred and holy Synod,—considering that no small utility may accrue to the Church of God, if it be made known which out of all the Latin editions, now in circulation, of the sacred books, is to be held as authentic,—ordains and declares, that the said old and vulgate edition, which, by the lengthened usage of so many ages, has been approved of in the Church, be, in public lectures, disputations, sermons and expositions, held as authentic; and that no one is to dare, or presume to reject it under any pretext whatever.[7]

Trent does not believe God’s providential preservation of the original Hebrew and Greek text down through time, to be used by us for our benefit as the ultimate standard in faith and practice. Whereas the Protestants point to the authority of God and His uncorrupted, self-authenticating Word, the papists point to the authority of the Church to establish what is the Word of God. For Rome, men stand over the Bible. And the Latin Vulgate, declared by the Church to be God’s Word, is the standard by which the corrupted Hebrew and Greek is to be corrected! David Dickson pens the Protestant response to this thinking:

“Hath not the Lord, by his singular providence and care kept pure in all ages the Old Testament in Hebrew, and the New Testament in Greek?” Yes; Mat. 5.18. Well then, do not the Papists err, who maintain, The Old Testament in Hebrew, and the New Testament in Greek, which are the fountains, to be corrupted, and that their common Latin version is authentic? Yes. By what reasons are they confuted? 1st, Because Christ says, till heaven and earth pass, one jot, or one tittle shall in no wise pass from the law, till all be fulfilled, Mat. 5.18. 2d, Because there can be no urgent necessity shown, why the fountains are corrupted. 3d, If any such corruption had been in the Scripture, Christ, and his apostles, and the orthodox fathers had declared so much. 4th, Because they never have nor can make out any manifest corruptions in the fountains, albeit, most manifest and undeniable demonstrations are given of the corruptions of their Latin version, which they make authentic.[8]

Providential preservation of the text itself, such that it was kept pure down through the ages, such that Christians at the time of the Reformation received God’s very Word in the Hebrew Masoretic Text and the Greek Textus Receptus, that which is asserted in the 2LBC 1.8, is the singular confession of the Protestant Reformation. Owen says,

Let it be remembered that the vulgar copy we use was the public possession of many generations,—that upon the invention of printing it was in actual authority throughout the world with them that used and understood that language, as far as any thing appears to the contrary; let that, then, pass for the standard, which is confessedly its right and due, and we shall, God assisting, quickly see how little reason there is to pretend such varieties of readings as we are now surprised withal.[9]

Reformed Baptist minister, Robert Truelove, points out that even Kurt Aland, of textual criticism fame, recognizes that the Reformed confessors did not agree with his presuppositions (and therefore the presuppositions of most modern scholarship).

Finally it is undisputed that from the 16th to the 18th century orthodoxy’s doctrine of verbal inspiration assumed this Textus Receptus. It was the only Greek text they knew, and they regarded it as the original text.[10]

Yet no real progress was possible as long as the Textus Receptus remained the basic text and its authority was regarded as canonical.[11]

Biblical Basis

Is there a Biblical basis for the confessors’ claim of providential preservation through the ages? The confessors certainly believed so.

They cite Matthew 5:18, which reads, “For verily I say unto you, Till heaven and earth pass, one jot or one tittle shall in no wise pass from the law, till all be fulfilled.” How much of God’s holy writ shall be preserved? All of it, down to the smallest of its parts, the jots and tittles. How long shall God’s holy writ be preserved? Until heaven and earth pass, God’s Word will perfectly remain.

Calvin writes, “There is nothing in the law that is unimportant, nothing that was put there at random; and so it is impossible that a single letter shall perish.”[12] Matthew Henry comments on the same verse:

Heaven and earth shall come together, and all the fulness thereof be wrapped up in ruin and confusion, rather than any word of God shall fall to the ground, or be in vain. The word of the Lord endures for ever, both that of the law, and that of the gospel. Observe, The care of God concerning his law extends itself even to those things that seem to be of least account in it, the iotas and the tittles; for whatever belongs to God, and bears his stamp, be it ever so little, shall be preserved…God will stand by and maintain every iota and every tittle of his law.[13]

Christ promises preservation.

What Christ promises in Matthew 5 should not be read in isolation from what He says in Matthew 4:4. “It is written, Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceedeth out of the mouth of God.” It is critical that God preserve every word, jot and tittle, in His Word because we, His people, need every word that proceedeth out of His mouth. We need every word for life, as we need bread. Would our loving Father have given us these words we need, only to then let some be lost and corrupted by man? No, our loving Father knows what we need. He has given us what we need. He has preserved all that which we need.

Turning to 2 Timothy 3:15, we see that Paul equates the copies of autographs possessed by Timothy with Holy Scripture itself. “And that from a child thou hast known the holy scriptures, which are able to make thee wise unto salvation through faith which is in Christ Jesus.” In the very next verse, still speaking of that which was possessed by Timothy, Paul says that, “All Scripture is given by inspiration of God.” Timothy’s copies had been so perfectly preserved by God, kept so pure, that they were Scripture, θεόπνευστος. And it was this Scripture, that which was actually possessed by Timothy, that was the basis of all his Christian life, “profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness: That the man of God may be perfect, throughly furnished unto all good works.” The text of Scripture must be providentially preserved by God if Timothy was to be furnished unto all good works and if we are to be furnished unto all good works, because we are sanctified by not an echo of the truth, but the truth itself (John 17:17).

Lastly, providential preservation, the keeping of the text of Scripture, resulting in the Reformers receiving the Masoretic Text and Textus Receptus at the time of the Reformation, is Peter’s theological assumption in 2 Peter 1:19. “We have also a more sure word of prophecy; whereunto ye do well that ye take heed, as unto a light that shineth in a dark place, unto the day dawn, and the day star arise in your hearts.” Peter believes that God’s people will possess the “more sure word of prophecy” until “the day dawn.” What was given by God through his prophets and apostles will be possessed by the church, truly possessed, because of the special care of God, until Christ returns in glory.

Practical Application

God, by a special care and providence, has kept His word pure down through all the ages. The confessors did not believe that they needed to reconstruct that which had fundamentally been corrupted. They believed that they were simply the grateful recipients of what God had providentially preserved and brought to them. This can be established through an examination of 2LBC 1.8 itself, the historical background of the paragraph, and an examination of the Bible’s statements on the matter. Recognizing that to be the case, what are the practical applications of this belief for today?

First, those who hold the 2LBC as their confession of faith should agree with the confessors on providential preservation. They should not agree with the Catholics or with modern text critics, both of whom use human reasoning as the standard by which the authenticity of the text of Scripture is assessed. The former look to the magisterium. The latter look to scholarship and the scientific method. The confessors look to God. We must presuppositionally treat the Bible appropriately, as the ultimate standard, the assessor, not the assessed, self-authenticating and self-attesting and the perfect circle for all reasoning.

Second, Reformed Christians should use the Hebrew Masoretic Text and the Greek Textus Receptus as the two sources for their Bible translations. Garnet Howard Milne writes:

If the Westminster divines were correct in their doctrine of Scripture, then we can expect to see the New Testament Received Text and the Old Testament Masoretic Text continue to be preserved and used by the Lord’s people. We would also expect to see the Westcott and Hort and Warfield approach to textual criticism eclipsed by a return to the Puritan religious epistemology so clearly defined in the Westminster Confession of Faith…As more Christians become educated on the developments of modern textual-critical theory they are likely to see the beauty, simplicity, and the Scriptural basis for the old religious epistemology of the Reformation and the authentic status of the common text of Scripture.[14]

This means that, in accordance with consistent confessionalism, Reformed Christians should not champion Critical Text translations. The Critical Text is the Greek product of those who reject the confessional, providential preservationist viewpoint laid out in this post. Those who have constructed the Critical Text reject the claim that the Textus Receptus is the result of providential preservation, the true Word of God brought to and received by the Reformers. Critical Text advocates say we have the full canon of Scripture, yet deny we have all the contents right, like a book dealer saying he has the complete set of Calvin’s Commentaries, while missing pages in the various volumes. The Critical Text is an ever-shifting New Testament text that, due to the methodology by which it exists, stands in conflict with the very doctrine asserted in 2LBC1.8. Therefore, CT translations, like the NASB, ESV, CSB, NIV, etc., though not without tremendous value, should not be our bread and butter Bibles.

Third, using the Textus Receptus as our New Testament, from which our Bibles are translated, we should consider its readings as authentic, not because of human reasoning, but because of dogma, because of our theological commitment to providential preservation. Therefore, God was manifest in the flesh. Jesus wrote in the dirt (“Where is the man?”). There is a clear statement on the Trinity in 1 John. And our first account of Jesus’ resurrection from the tomb is genuine, from God, through Mark, for us.

Conclusion

The Confession asserts, consistently with the Scriptural witness about itself, that the story of transmission is a story of miraculous, supernatural preservation. God exercised unique providential care to preserve not just the right books down through the ages, but to keep pure the content of those books through the ages. Therefore, the canonical text, in Hebrew and Greek, was received by the Reformers, printed, and rightly used as the basis of all Reformation Bibles. The Hebrew Masoretic Text and the Greek Textus Receptus are the Word of God, the true and authentical standard for all matters of life and godliness. That this is what was believed by the confessors is plain from the historical background. That this is consistent with the mind of God is plain from Scripture’s own witness. That this should determine how you answer the question, “What is the Word of God?”, is a logical necessity.


[1] Calvin, John. Matthew Commentary. accessed February 22, 2019. https://biblehub.com/commentaries/calvin/matthew/5.htm

[2] Henry, Matthew. Matthew Henry Commentary on the Whole Bible. accessed on February 22, 2019. https://biblehub.com/commentaries/mhcw/matthew/5.htm

[1] Second London Baptist Confession (1677/89). accessed February 22, 2019. https://founders.org/library/1689-confession/chapter-1-the-holy-scriptures/

[2] Beeke, Joel R. “The King James Version: Its Tradition, Text, and Transmission.” In The Reformation Heritage Study Bible, The King James Version. accessed February 22, 2019. https://www.holybible.com/rhkjvsb

[3] Confession: WCF I:8. accessed February 22, 2019. https://www.holybible.com/rhkjvsb/westminster-confession-of-faith

[4] Helvetic Consensus Formula (1675). Accessed February 22, 2019. https://www.wscal.edu/personal-pages/helvetic-consensus-formula-1675

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Council of Trent IV:2. http://www.thecounciloftrent.com/ch4.htm

[8] Dickson, David. Truth’s Victory Over Error. Kindle Locations 171-180. Monergism Books. Kindle.

[9] Owen, John. The Works of John Owen. Vol. 4. pg. 472. accessed February 22, 2019. https://www.roberttruelove.com/reformed-confessions-of-faith-and-the-traditional-text/

[10] Aland, Kurt. Trinity Journal, Fall 1987. accessed February 22, 2019. https://www.roberttruelove.com/reformed-confessions-of-faith-and-the-traditional-text/

[11] Aland, Kurt. The Text of the New Testament. Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co, 1981. pg.4. accessed February 22, 2019. https://www.roberttruelove.com/reformed-confessions-of-faith-and-the-traditional-text/

[12] Calvin, John. Matthew Commentary. accessed February 22, 2019. https://biblehub.com/commentaries/calvin/matthew/5.htm

[13] Henry, Matthew. Matthew Henry Commentary on the Whole Bible. accessed on February 22, 2019. https://biblehub.com/commentaries/mhcw/matthew/5.htm

[14] Milne, Garnet H. Has the Bible Been Kept Pure? The Westminster Confession of Faith and the Providential Preservation of Scripture. Independently published 2017. pg. 301-302.

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