by Pastor Robert Truelove
Christ Reformed Church
In Chapter 1, Section 8 of the Westminster Confession, the Savoy Declaration, and the 1689 London Baptist Confession of Faith we read:
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 authentic; so as in all controversies of religion, the church is finally to appeal to them.
When the confession speaks of the original Greek and Hebrew as “being immediately inspired by God” it is often thought today to only be referring to the original autographs. However, the confession proceeds to make clear that “immediate inspiration” is not referring merely to the autographs, but the text that came down to us through history for it is “by his singular care and providence kept pure in all ages, are therefore authentic”. That is, it is “authentic” because it has been “kept pure in all ages” and therefore the texts on hand were considered to be the locus of authority, not non-existent originals. The text on hand was the Greek Textus Receptus (the printed edition of the Greek text at the time) along with the Byzantine manuscripts (the Traditional Text) upon which it was largely based and the Hebrew Masoretic Text.
The declaration of these texts to be “authentic” is a direct rebuttal to the claims of the Council of Trent wherein Rome declared the Latin Vulgate to be “authentic” in the following words:
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.
Rome was pointing to their Latin Vulgate declaring it to be the “authentic” text or locus of authority and the Protestants were pointing to the Traditional Text of the Greek and Hebrew as “authentic”.
What we have therefore in our Protestant confessions is a direct rebuttal to Rome. It is not the Latin Vulgate that is “authentic” but the original language texts of the Greek and Hebrew Scripture as preserved in the Traditional Text. When we actually look at what the 17th century Reformed Scholastics taught on this matter, there can be no doubt as to the meaning of the confessions of this same era.
Below is an excerpt from David Dickson’s commentary “Truth’s Victory Over Error: A Commentary on the Westminster Confession of Faith on The Westminster Confession” which was written in the early 1650s just a few short years after the confession was published.
“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?
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.
2nd, Because there can be no urgent necessity shown, why the fountains are corrupted.
3rd, If any such corruption had been in the Scripture, Christ, and his apostles, and the orthodox fathers had declared so much.
The Helvetic Consensus of 1675, drawn up from Francis Turretin of Geneva, Lucas Gernler of Basel, Hummel of Bern, Ott of Schaffhausen, Johann Heinrich Heidegger of Zurich, and others of the time, contains some rather stunning assertions revealing how the Traditional Text was viewed by the Reformed churches on the continent in the 17th century.
Canon 1 concludes with a statement about the preservation of the text of Scripture saying:
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).
Herein we see they confessed to having (and will have to the end of the world), all of the words down to the smallest strokes. It’s important to note, this is not a theoretical text but one they considered in their possession.
Here is Canon 2 in its entirety:
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.
They confess that even the vowel points of the Hebrew Masoretic Text are “inspired” (or failing that, “the power of the points” designating the meaning we derive from the vowel points) and that all other translations were to be corrected by it (The Hebrew Masoretic Text) where they differed.
In Canon 3 they go on to condemn those who:
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.
That is, they condemn those who would “correct” the received Hebrew text they had on hand (again, being the Hebrew Masoretic Text).
In Turretin’s Systematic Theology he wrote:
By ‘original texts’ we do not mean the very autographs from the hands of Moses, the prophets, and the apostles, which are known to be nonexistent. We mean copies (apographa), which have come in their name, because they record for us that word of God in the same words into which the sacred writers committed it under the immediate inspiration of the Holy Spirit…Faithful and accurate copies, not less than autographs, are norms for all other copies…and for translations
Copies are “not less than autographs”. It is to the “faithful and accurate copies” we are to look and the faithfulness of the copies was gauged by their conformity to the Traditional Text.
Moving to England, in 1657 Brian Walton published his London Polyglot that contained a textual apparatus showing variants among the Greek manuscripts to which he had access. John Owen, who is the chief framer of the Savoy Declaration (wherein Chapter 1, Section 8 is identical to the Westminster and the 1689), responded to this development with his Considerations on the Biblia Polyglotta. The following are a few choice citations.
“the original [language] copies of the Old and New Testament are so corrupt that they are not a certain standard and measure of all doctrines, or the touchstone of all translations…Of all devices of Satan to draw off the minds of men from the Word of God, this decrying the authority of the originals [copies] seems to me the most pernicious.”
“Besides the injury done hereby to the providence of God towards His Church, and care of His Word, it will not be found so easy a matter, upon a supposition of such corruption in the originals as is pleaded for, to evince unquestionably that the whole saving doctrine itself, at first given out from God, continues entire and incorrupt.”
“the purity of the present original copies of the Scripture, or rather the copies in the original languages, which the Church of God doth now hath for many ages enjoyed as her chiefest treasure.”
Here we have in Owen (again, the primary framer of the Savoy Declaration) clear statements placing the locus of authority in the Traditional Text he had on hand. It is clear from Owen’s words that he saw the questioning of the wording of the Traditional Text to be an assault upon the authority of the Scripture itself.
Again Owen states of the Textus Receptus…
“Let it be remembered that the vulgar copy [being the Textus Receptus] 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.”
First note that Owen clearly does not see a huge dichotomy between the Textus Receptus and the manuscript tradition from which it was derived.
Secondly, he states it should be the standard against which variants in the manuscripts are compared. In the context if the rest of the treatise, it is clear he is not saying that the Textus Receptus corrects all the variants in the manuscripts, but that it should be the starting place of enquiry.
This again demonstrates that those in the era of the great English confessions believed their Received Text was a relatively pure text in spite of variant issues which they saw as trifling. It is therefore inconceivable that men like John Owen would accept many of the conclusions found in the modern Critical Text.
As a matter of fact, we can go one step further with John Owen and demonstrate that he saw Codex Vaticanus (seen by modern critics as one of the “best manuscripts”) as a corrupted text. He stated that we should reject readings that…
“Arise out of copies apparently corrupted, like that of Beza in Luke and that in the Vatican [Codex Vaticanus] boasted of by Huntley the Jesuit, which Lucas Brugensis affirms to have been changed by the Vulgar Latin, and which was written and corrected, as Erasmus says, about the [time of the] council of Florence, when an agreement was patched up between the Greeks and Latins.”
A Different Paradigm
When we place the writings of the Reformed Scholastics alongside the wording found in the confessions, it is difficult (if not impossible) to escape the conclusion that these confessions place the locus of authority in the Traditional Greek and Hebrew texts. Furthermore, we see a different mindset in their approach to the difficulties inherent in manuscript variants than that of the popular, contemporary approach to textual criticism.
To say they didn’t possess the evidence we now have and make anachronistic claims fails to grasp the concerns of our forbears. While it is true they came before the discoveries of the ancient papyri, they were yet aware of the problem of variants (as their writings reveal) and rejected the older uncials they had considering them unreliable (See The Text of the New Testament (second edition), by Kurt and Barbara Aland, P.4). However, it is also clear that they approached the issue with a completely different set of presuppositions. To the 17th century Reformed Scholastics, the text of the Bible was not a matter primarily of science, but faith. God had preserved his word in the Traditional Text that had been in use and preserved in all ages.
The Reformed confessions confess a view of the Greek and Hebrew Scriptures that accepted as “authentic” the text that they had on hand in the Traditional Greek and Hebrew Texts. Furthermore, they thoroughly rejected the notion that these texts were corrupted by confessing them to be infallible (that is, they do not err because they cannot err). They did not see a huge dichotomy between the Textus Receptus and the Greek manuscripts reflecting what they called “apographs” or “good copies”, and we now call the Byzantine Text-form (which makes up the vast majority of extant Greek manuscripts). Rather, they saw the Textus Receptus as being an accurate representative of the text found within the Traditional Text.