Conservatism and the Preservation of Scripture
Last week, I began a series on the relationship of conservative Christianity to the issues of the preservation and translation of the Bible. My goal is to address the notion that those who use (mostly) old songs would be more consistent if they also used an old translation.
Let’s start with the question of the preservation of the text. And this needs to be very clear: I am not at all attempting to vindicate the critical text as the best text, nor am I aiming to undercut the argument for the TR. Rather, I’m addressing a very narrow question: is advocacy of the critical text at odds with having broader conservative convictions? Is there a “conservative” view of the preservation of the text that rules out the use of the eclectic text?
I think there is a very reasonable theological argument that the TR (or a text in that line) is the correct text. The argument is rooted in a strong confidence in the providence of God and a high view of the church. Since God is sovereign over history and the risen Christ is the Lord of the church, there should be a presumption that the family of manuscripts that the church has used predominantly for hundreds of years is the correct text.
While I remain unconvinced of this line of thought, I do think it is a very defensible position. My goal here is not to convince anyone who embraces this view to abandon it. Rather, I want to argue that my understanding of preservation—that the modern critical text better reflects the apostolic writing—is not incompatible with conservative Christianity.
My core argument is this: our chief task in textual criticism is to discern (by whatever methods we believe best) what the text of Scripture said when originally penned under the inspiration of the Spirit. A conservative approach to textual criticism aims to conserve and hand down the text that was originally written. It is not conservative to continue to propagate innovations, even if those innovations are of long standing and wide use.
Let me offer an analogy here. Conservative Baptists, even Reformed Baptists, find themselves regularly on the periphery of acceptance by brothers whose historical connection to the Reformation is more explicit. The sticky point is inevitably our insistence that the New Testament teaches credobaptism, a conviction that (admittedly) puts us out of step with the vast majority of church history.
“But,” we protest, “our standard isn’t to conform to the history of the church. Our standard is the apostolic doctrine itself, as revealed in the Word!” We must be content in the confidence that our position is the original teaching of the church, even if it isn’t the historical one. Our embrace of credobaptism does at times feel like an innovation in church history, as though we are the iconoclasts, the revolutionaries, and the paedobaptists are the conservatives. But we have to insist that, despite appearances, our conservatism runs truly deeper than theirs.
This is the argument for the use of the critical text in our churches today. From the perspective of church history, it does look like advocates of the critical text are innovating. The adoption of the new text seems blatantly unconservative in light of the steady use of something like the TR for so many centruies. But the goal of textual criticism is to discern what the text of Scripture originally said. That is a flatly conservative position: to discard innovations that have accumulated in the church, to hold to that which was handed down in the beginning.
To be sure: what I’ve written here is no proof whatsoever that the critical text is that text. That is a case that must be argued in the details, not the big picture. But it is to say that the ethos of conservatism is not intrinsically at odds with the use of the modern critical text.
About Michael Riley
Student of theology, apologetics, and Christian affections. Pastor of Calvary Baptist Church, Wakefield, Michigan.