Associate Pastor, Agros Church
Before I begin my response, I’d like to make clear how influential Dr. White has been in my walk, especially in regards to Mormon and Roman Catholic apologetics. His ministry has time and time again been a massive blessing to me and my friends. I do not join the group of people attacking James White’s character, ministry, or salvation because of a disagreement in one area of doctrine.
Edit: Dr. James White has responded to this post on the Dividing Line program. He did not consider my arguments convincing, but we followed up with dinner at a local restaurant and we were able to discuss the issue freely. Hopefully this response can be considered as evidence that the argument itself can be interacted with. I still have a tremendous respect for Dr. White, and despite our disagreement in this one area, I believe the work that Dr. White continues to do in regards to social justice, Calvinism, apologetics, and other areas is highly valuable and can be profited from greatly.
I have edited the article based on Dr. White's analysis of my argument, and hopefully the edited version presents the counter to the challenge more fairly and clearly, so that the reader can gain as much as they can from this article. As I stated before, Dr. White and I were able to sit down together for a meal and discuss the issue directly, and there is no animosity between the two of us, despite our disagreement.
A Response to the “Fatal Flaw” Argument Against the Traditional Text
On the Dividing Line on 2/19/2019, James White interacted with Jeff Riddle, Colin Pearson, and Robert Truelove regarding the veracity of the Traditional text position. In this article, I will attempt to interact with Dr. White's argumentation and demonstrate it can be engaged with. I will restate, just because Dr. White and I disagree in this one area, does not mean I devalue all of the tremendous work he has done over the years and continues to do. I continue to watch the Dividing Line weekly and gain a lot from it.
On the Dividing Line program, Dr. White offers an argument that he calls the “fatal flaw in the ecclesiastical text movement”. The argument is based on three major premises: A hypothetical situation, a critique of the methodology used to form what is now known as the Textus Receptus, and another critique that labels the defense of the TR as circular. The arguments are as follows:
1.) If all of the versions of the New Testament were wiped out, the methods employed by modern critical text criticism would be able to reconstruct the text that we have today. The goal of this argument by Dr. White is to see if the traditional text advocates can produce a consistent methodology of reconstructing the same Greek New Testament as the TR.
2.) The methods used to produce the traditional text of the New Testament are inconsistent and cannot be applied unilaterally. The goal of this argument is to advocate for the superiority of the modern critical methodology over and above Reformation era textual criticism.
3.) The case for the traditional text begins with the TR, and facts are used to support the text of the TR; therefore, it is circular.
The first part of Dr. White’s argument is based on a hypothetical situation that attempts to highlight the difference in methodology between the modern critical text and the traditional text. It depends on specific data being available based on the hypothetical situation presented. Respectfully, I believe this hypothetical can also be countered with another hypothetical. What happens to modern textual criticism if Codices Sinaiticus and Vaticanus were never published? Could the modern critical text be reproduced as it appears today in the NA28? The answer of course is no. The discovery and publication of Codex Sinaiticus and Vaticanus were the catalyst that started the ongoing work of modern textual criticism. Without these two publications, there would be no foundation for the current UBS and NA platform.
Of course hypothetical scenarios can be a great way to reason through a potential problem, but in this case, it is difficult to come to any conclusion on either hypothetical because in both cases, situations that have not actually occurred are presented. As Dr. White noted on his show, the hypothetical I presented is not reality, because it is hypothetical. My presented hypothetical could be easily countered, as can Dr. White's. This being established, I will attempt to address the purpose Dr. White proposed this hypothetical and give a response.
Dr. White is saying that if a text cannot be reproduced in the event of a massive loss of specific textual data, than that text is not a valid text. It assumes that if the Textus Receptus Greek Text cannot be produced using a modern methodology, then it is not a valid text. Underneath the hypothetical scenario is an argument for the modern methodology over Reformation methodology. The difficulty with answering this hypothetical is that TR advocates are arguing from a theological basis, not a historical-critical one. It is fair to say that those that prefer the TR, and hold to it as the authentic Greek text, are not attempting to prove its authenticity from an empirical basis, so Dr. White is, in a sense, correct. We cannot reproduce a TR using the modern critical principles. That being said, I do believe there are many convincing empirical cases that can be made for the defense of the traditional Greek and Hebrew text of Scripture, the traditional text advocates do not simply put their head in the sand. For more on these defenses, Dr. Jeff Riddle has dedicated a whole podcast to this called "Word Magazine," which can be found on Sermon Audio(https://www.sermonaudio.com/search.asp?seriesOnly=true&currSection=sermonstopic&sourceid=crbchurch&keyword=Word+Magazine&keyworddesc=Word+Magazine)
Dr. White makes two smaller claims outside of his main arguments to support modern critical methodology, which I will address briefly.
The first claim is that Textual criticism prior to the papyri is irrelevant. Based on the witness of modern textual critics since the 19th century, it seems that the Uncials Sinaiticus and Vaticanus are the foundation for modern textual criticism, so it seems it would be more accurate to say that anything done before those discoveries would be irrelevant to the modern critical text position. I do not necessarily agree, because history is certainly important to consider in any field of study. That being said, Eldon J Epp, a bonafide text critic, calls the period of papyri (1930-1980), an “interlude” period because of how little textual criticism changed as a result of the papyri finds. The Uncial publications are the main scene and the papyri are the interlude. If anything, the papyri show that the Byzantine text was available as early as the Alexandrian text, which further shows that Westcott-Hort’s theory that Vaticanus was the earliest and best manuscript is not as strong as an argument as it once was. Further, the new data being produced by CBGM seems to support this as well. What may be helpful is a presentation on why the papyri are valuable to the discussion, and I would certainly be grateful for such a presentation.
The second claim is that the Reformers didn’t have 1/100-1/1000 of the data we have now. This argument is based on the assumption that the papyri, which would compose this data, are truly significant to modern textual criticism. As we saw demonstrated by Epp, modern textual critics typically do not affirm this position. Further, you can open up Calvin’s commentary, or Matthew Henry’s commentary, or Francis Turretin and John Owen to find extended dialogue on the same textual variants being discussed today. There has been discussion regarding the Vatican manuscript for centuries, which represents the basic text form of the modern critical text in a lot of ways. Finally, it must be noted that manuscripts have been lost or destroyed since being cataloged less than 200 years ago. Unfortunately, we have no way of gauging which manuscripts were extant in that period other than the mention of them in writing, especially since the labeling system was not introduced until the 19th century. If we are to trust the scholarship of those who engaged in textual issues prior to the 19th century, there seems to be a wealth of evidence supporting the fact that there were indeed more manuscripts available that have been lost or destroyed since that point. Dr. Wallace has even discovered that manuscripts which were initially cataloged many years ago have been lost or destroyed due to poor storage conditions in libraries. Not even the modern manuscripts are immune to this tragedy.
The second part of Dr. White’s argument is that the modern reasoned eclecticism has produced a better text because it can be applied consistently across every single textual variant. According to the argument, the Reformation period methodology is insufficient because it applies different standards to different texts. In theory, the modern critical methodology will always produce the same text when given the same textual data, whereas the Reformation era methodology will not.
I do not believe this is a fair challenge to offer to the traditional text advocates, because a group of 70 modern text critics engaging in the same task independently of each other, using the same methodology, would not produce the same exact text as each other. This is due to the modern methodology requiring the decision of the individual text critic to make a decision on each text. One text critic may decide that a particular reading is better, and another might decide an opposing reading is better. This happens often. Further, there are many places where the modern critical text cannot produce one definitive reading, and other cases where Dr. White rejects the reading that the methodology produces, like 2 Peter 3:10. Therefore, even without the hypothetical scenario where printed textual data is lost, the modern methods of textual criticism would produce multiple, different products if presented with the same challenge of reconstructing a text in the event of the destruction of printed editions. If the modern methodology was the best and most consistent method, there should not be any reason to reject, or to disagree with other scholars on which reading is best, like in 2 Peter 3:10. The modern critical method could not accomplish the same task charged to the traditional text advocates.
This raises an interesting critique of the modern critical methodology – it can be subjective. A great example is one of the rules of the modern text critical method, as noted by scholars like Metzger and Black, namely, the preference for the more difficult reading. Except for when it’s too difficult. But who decides what “too difficult” is? There are several rules that follow the same pattern, where the ultimate decision is based on the analysis of the individual text critic. The rules of the modern critical method are not as objective as one might think, and the rules have not produced a unified text. This has resulted in a “canon-within-the-canon” model of Scripture in many cases, where each individual gets to pick and choose which reading they want to have in their main text. In the apparatus of the NA28, there are many readings which are marked with a diamond that indicate that both readings could be equally valid(though some more valid than others). This being the case, those that advocate for the modern critical text should have no problem with TR advocates accepting the longer ending of Mark, as it is only excluded in two manuscripts. According to the aforementioned standard, if one can reject the reading of 2 Peter 3:10, one should have no problems with others accepting Mark 16:9-20. In fact, there are many modern critical text advocates that do accept the longer ending of Mark on this basis. If the standard that is applied to 2 Peter 3:10 is applied consistently across the board, then one should have no qualms with people deciding that every reading of the TR is preferred to the variant readings in the critical text. By his standard, it is merely a matter of informed preference. Of course this deserves proper discussion, as some of the TR readings are more difficult to defend empirically, but they certainly can be defended.
The third and final part of the argument is that defending the traditional text is circular, because it starts with the foundation that the TR is the Word of God, and evidence is used to prove that to be the case. It must be stated that this is not exactly the claim of the traditional text advocate. The TR argument is based on accepting readings based on what the church has received as God's Word, which is in part the same methodology used to accept the books of the canon. This is an interesting point of disagreement, because it is similar to the appeal one must make for the preservation of God’s Word in the critical text. The modern critical text advocate and the TR advocate actually share the same a priori assumption here, but the definition of how that preservation occurred is different. The modern critical text advocate believes that the artifact of God’s preservation must be determined by modern critical methodology, and the TR advocate believes that the artifact of God’s preservation must be determined by what has happened in history due to God’s providential working in time. The a priori assumption is not different, the a posteriori is. One view values the Christian witness to a text throughout time more highly, and the other values extant data more highly. It is said that the modern critical text advocate is valuing the text that has been received by the church throughout time, but this is based on the belief that the Alexandrian texts are earliest and best, which has been highly disputed throughout church history and even recently with the the implementation of CBGM.
This means that the different views on preservation comes down to a difference methodology, which means that challenging the traditional text advocate to operate on the grounds of the modern critical text position is talking about apples and oranges. The TR advocate believes the textual criticism done in the 16th and 17th centuries was a part of the ongoing providential work God used preserve his Word, and the Christian modern critical text advocate believes the text criticism done in the 19th, 20th, and 21st centuries is a part of the ongoing providential work God is using to preserve his Word. Some even argue that these are two streams of the same river - that God used the traditional text in the Reformation period to preserve His Word, and God is now using the modern critical methods to preserve His Word. The traditional text advocate would certainly disagree, but the point is that the discussion isn't a monolith, and there is a great amount of nuance involved.
There isn’t a real substantial argument in calling foul for circular reasoning, because the basic assumption that God has preserved his Word is technically circular. The Reformed believers on both sides agree that it is fine to argue in this manner when dealing with canon, but the modern critical text advocates make the distinction when it comes to text.
I will argue that it is not an illogical position to connect the methodology used to determine canon to the model used to determine the text within that canon. To demonstrate this, imagine you are in the market for a set of Calvin’s Commentaries. You contact a seller, who claims he has all 22 volumes, and you schedule a time to inspect the books for quality. You arrive, and begin flipping through each volume, only to discover that there are pages missing from each volume. You would most likely not purchase those volumes, because the set is incomplete. That is not a preserved set of Calvin’s Commentaries. Just because all of the book sleeves are there, does not mean that all the books are there. In the same way, utilizing a theological method for determining the books of the canon but not the text of the canon would be like saying that the above mentioned set of Calvin was complete because all of the book sleeves are there, despite the content being incomplete. I understand that the modern critical text advocates have reasons to separate the two, but the point is that it is not illogical for those that argue for the traditional text of the New Testament are not unwarranted in believing the way they do.
After reviewing the “Fatal Flaw” argument presented by Dr. James White, I don’t find any of the arguments particularly compelling because in many ways the modern critical methodology could not not bear the weight of the presented critique. The hypothetical scenario can just as easily be countered with another hypothetical. The modern methodology that claims it can reproduce an exact text from scratch has yet to produce an agreed upon text as of yet. The claim that defending the TR is circular is really just a critique that the traditional methodology is inadequate compared to the modern critical methodology. It does not appear that this argument is “fatal” by any means when examined closely. It is fair to say that the methodology for choosing which text to prefer or which Bible to read is different, I think we can agree there. I am not convinced that it is fair to say that those that prefer the traditional text of the New Testament are unwarranted in doing so, however.
Ultimately what it comes down to is whether or not you trust the modern critical methodology over the product of the textual criticism done in the Reformation period. There is plenty to debate about regarding the differences in text, but rejecting the evidences that support the TR readings based on a preference of modern methodology does not prove that the traditional text is indefensible, or that it should be rejected. The vast majority of the attacks against the TR are based on appeals to modern text critic authorities (Bruce Metzger, Dan Wallace, and David Black, etc.) and attempts to discredit Erasmus, Stephanus, and Beza. The remaining critique is simply a preference for the methodology of Westcott-Hort and the German Bible Society. It may be beneficial to the whole conversation to dial down the heat and recognize that this is truly an inter varsity discussion. I do not believe the traditional text position is dangerous, or that it is impossible to do apologetics with the traditional text. I think that most of the modern critical text advocates would say the KJV and NKJV are translations of God's Word, which means that they meet the requirements of 2 Timothy 3:16 - which means that these translations are indeed capable of defending the faith and are sufficient for all matters of faith and practice. Faithful men and women of God have done so with the KJV throughout the last four centuries.
The Reformation happened in part over text, and it is not extreme to believe that another Reformation could happen over text. Now it is more important than ever to be ready to defend the text of Scripture, both sides of the discussion would agree. Almost every single major seminary is persuaded that the modern critical methodology is best, and unfortunately tend to bash the KJV and NKJV. I recently read a textbook called, “How to Understand and Apply the New Testament” by Dr.Naselli, which endorses the Message and NLT over the KJV and NKJV! I do not think this is helpful to the dialogue, so hopefully this article serves as a bridge for both sides to meet in the middle to discuss these important differences in a productive, irenic, way. It is important to know that the traditional text position is very defensible, and faithfully so. The KJV and other TR translations can in fact be used in preaching, devotions, and yes, apologetics. The strong aversion to the TR is not new, and began well before the papyri were discovered and published. I hope this article has been helpful to the TR and modern critical text advocates reading. And to everybody that has made it this far, Dr. James White clearly has a heart to defend the tenacity of the text, so please do not resort to calling him “apostate” and a “tool of the enemy.” Instead, engage with the argumentation, in all meekness and humility, as we are called to do, and as our heroes of the faith have done before us.
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