Dane K. Jöhannsson
Lead Pastor, Agros Reformed Baptist Church
In our modern American Evangelical paradigm, in which the Christian faith is under attack from almost all sides, the practice of defending the faith, known as apologetics, is indeed necessary. However, we must be on guard that apologetics does not become the defining factor of our faith. As Christians we do not (and should not) be always on the defensive; rather, we can and must make positive statements of what we believe as well. This is why holding to an historic confession of faith is so helpful. In the historic confessions (the reformed confessions in particular) we are given thorough, biblical and robust statements of faith, that we as believers can uphold as accurate articulations of what we believe. Although offering a defense of our faith is called for (1Pet. 3:15), what is even more essential to the Christian religion are positive statements of belief that are founded upon the Word of God.
One problem that arises from Christianity taking the posture of defense as its primary interaction with the world around her, is the tendency to give too much weight to the arguments of non-believers. When Christianity is understood in primarily defensive categories, the Bible can begin to be viewed in light of counter-arguments which infidels may respond to its claims with. One place this often occurs is in the realm of text criticism, concerning the validity of certain readings in the text of Scripture itself. Atheists, Muslims, Roman Catholics, Jehovah’s Witnesses and Mormons are becoming more aware and more fluent in the text critical discussions taking place among Christians and are freely using them against the Christian faith.
We often hear opponents of Christianity say, “How can you make the assertion that the Bible is the Word of God and authoritative if it has been corrupted in its textual transmission and there exists many places where it simply cannot be known what the original wording was? How can it be God’s Word and authoritative if it has had words added to it and taken away from it throughout history, to the point that we may never be sure what the original reading was in some places?”
The fact of the matter is that the school of modern textual criticism does indeed teach that there are places in the Bible, no matter how “minor”, where we simply do not know what the original text said (see this article and this article for further discussion). Modern evangelical scholars even admit to this. And how do the opponents of Christianity respond? Atheists and humanists respond by placing unbelief and human reasoning over against the Bible’s authority; Muslims respond by placing the Quran as authoritative over against the Bible; Roman Catholics respond by placing the teachings and traditions of the Church’s magisterium over against the Bible; Jehovah’s Witnesses respond by placing the New World Translation and the Watchtower over against the Bible; and Mormons respond by rejecting the Bible’s authority for that of the Book of Mormon. Thus, by agreeing that the Bible has been corrupted, whether in part or in whole, evangelicals have handed their Bible over to their opponents.
One way that evangelicals have attempted to counter this problem is by saying that we should never base a doctrine on only one passage of Scripture, nor utilize contested passages of Scripture in either our positive presentation or defense of the faith. Andrew Nasselli writes in his book ‘Understanding and Applying The New Testament’: “We shouldn’t zoom in on just one text and interpret it without reference to the rest of the Bible.” (pg.16) There is certainly an aspect of truth in this statement (see LBCF 1.9), however it is often wrongly applied when the issue of textual variation is brought into the discussion. This argument states that we should not base doctrine off of texts which contain significant textual variants, since opponents of the faith can point to them and say, “the reading is spurious and therefore cannot be used as an authoritative proof of doctrine.” The tendency for defenders of the faith is to shy away from those passages and refer to other passages which do not have significant variants that teach the doctrine. However, in doing so, we place the opponent of the faith as judge over the Bible and capitulate to their biases and unbelief.
We often hear from well meaning evangelical scholars that, “no doctrine is affected by textual variants”, but is this really true? Nasselli writes that, “[d]octrines such as the Trinity, the deity of Christ, and justification by faith do not stand or fall based on textual variants.” (pg.38) While it is true that there are enough verses in the Bible which do not contain significant textual variants that teach these doctrines, such a statement (when combined with capitulation to the preferences of the unbelieving opponents) leads to a practice of not utilizing every verse in the Bible that teaches a doctrine authoritatively, since the opponent may reject or call the verses into question. This is a misguided and inaccurate understanding of Scripture’s authority. Christians should not capitulate to the preferences of unbelievers, but stand upon every word which God has inspired. Christians are not only permitted but also called to stand upon and utilize every jot and tittle of God’s Word.
In this article we will examine the problem with this argument and look at some of the disputed passages of Scripture and see why they can and should be used in making and defending doctrinal assertions.
“Do we have enough?” vs “Do we have it all?”
It has been my experience that evangelicals are usually minimalists in matters of faith and practice. When a matter involving faith or practice is brought up, I often hear questions such as,
“It may not be the best way to do church, but is it necessarily wrong to do it this way? This may not be the best book on the subject, but is it still okay to read?”, or, “The Bible says not to be drunk, but how many beers can I have? The Bible says to redeem the time, but how much time can I waste on video games and hobbies?”
The discussion often revolves around just how much is permissible in the christian life rather than what is best in the christian life. I have seen this same mindset within discussions of textual criticism; “Even if the modern translations are missing verses, don’t we still have enough of the Bible to know the gospel and live the christian life? Don’t the modern translations give us enough of the Bible? What is the big deal if I lose a few verses if the doctrine is still intact?” This type of thinking is minimalist at best and downright lazy at worst. The question is not “Do we have enough of the Bible to get by”, but, “Do we have all of the Bible which God inspired?”
If God has inspired and preserved the Bible for us entire, why would we want to use only part of it? We should not want just the most important parts of God’s Word, but all of it. We should cling to it with ferocious, thankful vigor; not make piecemeal of it. If we were to apply this minimalist standard to today’s best-selling fiction books they would no longer be best sellers. If multiple chapters had their endings removed, but the main story was there, would people really think this was acceptable? Of course not! They would sit gathering dust in some dingy second-hand bookstore. So why is it that when we come to the Holy Scriptures we are okay with missing endings and excised pivotal plot developments (Mark 16:9-20; John 7:53-8:11)? The time for accepting minimalist views of Scripture needs to end.
Using All of God’s Word
The premise that the Christian is not permitted to use each and every Scripture to base doctrine is, in fact, anti-biblical. The Apostle Paul, writing to Timothy, said, “All scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is 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.” (2Tim. 3:16,17) All Scripture is profitable for doctrine, Paul said; not the most important or least disputed parts. Why is this? Because all Scripture is given by inspiration of God. It comes forth from God by His will and for His purposes. Once we truly see this for what it is we will have a much more clear vision of what is actually taking place when we call into question the veracity of certain disputed readings in the text of Scripture.
We are to use all of Scripture in both formulating doctrines and in defending those doctrines. But if we are constantly questioning whether we have the correct reading or not, or (what is worse) allowing unbelievers to dictate what verses may or may not be used to establish and defend doctrine, then we demonstrate that we do not believe Paul’s words, that all Scripture is profitable for doctrine. This is not the way that the theologians of the reformation and post-reformation viewed the Scriptures. They felt that they were permitted by the authority of God to utilize every passage of Scripture in formulating and systematizing doctrine, regardless of what their opponents said about the veracity of the readings in those passages.
As Christians we are permitted to use every passage in the Scriptures, even if they are disputed by unbelievers. Furthermore, we are even permitted to use every word of Scripture in the formulation of doctrine. In the passage quoted above Paul says “all Scripture is given by inspiration of God”. This is the only verse in the Bible that explicitly states that the Bible is inspired by God. Many other passages allude to or explain God’s work of inspiring the Bible (2Pet. 1:19-21; John 16:13; Acts 1:16), but no other verse in Scripture states that the Scriptures are inspired. Although this statement is eight words long in the Authorised Version, it is actually translated from one Greek word (theopneustos).
This word is used only one time in the entire New Testament. Words that appear only once in the New Testament are called “hapax legomenon”. Our main proof text for the doctrine of inspiration, though bolstered and supported by many other verses, is founded upon one single word that occurs only once in the Bible. So what are we to do if a cache of ancient manuscripts is discovered that have 2 Tim. 3:16 but are missing this one word? Do we allow doubt to be cast upon this passage simply because the earliest manuscripts do not contain this word or have a different word? Are we no longer permitted to use this verse as our primary proof text for inspiration simply because unbelieving opponents of the faith may cast doubt upon it? Can we no longer consider this one word authoritative because of its transmission history? The reformers and post-reformation divines didn’t think so. They often founded doctrine upon not only contested passages but also upon contested words because they took God’s promise to keep His inspired Word pure in all ages seriously. Because they took God’s promise seriously they believed that they possessed His Word entire. (See LBCF/WCF 1.8; Matt. 5:18; Matt. 24:35)
We will now look at a few disputed passages that have significant textual variants to see how our reformed forefathers viewed them as authoritative in formulating doctrine and see why we should follow in their footsteps.
Can we use disputed passages in formulating doctrine?
(All citations from the Reformed Confessions come from James T. Dennison Jr.’s four volume set “Reformed Confessions of the 16th and 17th Centuries in English Translation”)
First Timothy 3:16
The first passage we will look at is (1Tim. 3:16) which, in the Authorised Version, reads: “And without controversy great is the mystery of godliness: God was manifest in the flesh, justified in the Spirit, seen of angels, preached unto the Gentiles, believed on in the world, received up in glory.” This verse is one of the most explicit, clear and glorious testimonies to the deity of our Lord Jesus in all of Scripture, “God was manifest in the flesh.” However, since the 1800’s the science of modern textual criticism has told the world that this reading is wrong and that the more reliable reading is not “God was manifest in the flesh” but “he was manifest in the flesh”. It is important to remember that our reformed forefathers were well aware of the fact that this variant reading existed, yet they rejected the reading “he” as spurious and unauthentic. Although they understood that this passage had textual variants, which their opponents used against them, they still stood upon the received reading of “God”, and built their Christological doctrines upon it.
The Westminster Confession of Faith uses this passage as a prooftext for the hypostatic union of Christ in 2.8 (Dennison, 4.44). The Heidelberg Catechism uses it as an explicit proof that Jesus was both God and man in one nature in Lord’s Day 6, Question 18 (ibid, 2.774). The 1556 Confession of the English Congregation at Geneva used it as their proof text for Jesus Christ being “equal with God” and yet taking upon Himself the “shape of a servant” (ibid, 2.97), as did the Confession of Cyril Lukaris 1629/1631 (ibid, 2.158).
In the Documents of the Debrecen Synod 1567, this verse was used with explicit weight being placed upon the reading “God” to refute Servatus and his “cobblers” who had argued that Christ was a creature who is sent from God, similar to the “angel of God”, and was not Himself subsistent with God. They write,
“First, Christ is called the Word, God, Jehovah, subsisting in the form of God; for He, of whom John says that He became the Word, is said by the apostle (Phil.2) to be equal with the Father, as He calls the Father subsistent, and says that He assumed the form of a servant (cf. Phil. 2:6,7). First Timothy 3:16 calls Him God manifest in the flesh, or God assuming flesh … we say … that Christ was the Logos, through whom all things were made (John 1:3; 1Cor. 1-2; Heb. 1).” (ibid, 3.37)
We are being told today that because this verse has textual issues, we should not use it to prove doctrine. However, after recognizing that there is a textual variant in this place, Calvin goes on to formulate christological assertions from it, and even states that this single verse silences the mouths of heretics who held that Jesus was either a created being or simply a manifestation of God who is one person:
“Let us now examine the various clauses in their order. He could not have spoken more appropriately about the person of Christ than in these words, ‘God manifested in the flesh.’ First, we have here an express testimony of both natures; for he declares at the same time that Christ is true God and true man. Secondly, he points out the distinction between the two natures, when, on the one hand, he calls him God, and, on the other, expresses his ‘manifestation in the flesh.’ Thirdly, he asserts the unity of the person, when he declares, that it is one and the same who was God, and who has been manifested in the flesh. Thus, by this single passage, the true and orthodox faith is powerfully defended against Arius, Marcion, Nestorius, and Eutyches.” (John Calvin and William Pringle, Commentaries on the Epistles to Timothy, Titus, and Philemon: Bellingham, WA. 92; Emphasis mine)
The second passage we can turn to is (John 1:18). A textual variant exists here between the reformation era texts, which read, “No man hath seen God at any time; the only begotten Son, which is in the bosom of the Father, he hath declared him” and the modern critical texts, which read, “No one has ever seen God; the only God, who is at the Father’s side, he has made him known.” (ESV) Besides the translational difference in the KJV and ESV (which pastor Taylor and myself have discussed here) the main difference between these two readings in the Greek texts lies in the readings “only begotten Son” (KJV) and “the only begotten God” (NASB) The reading which the orthodox reformed received and stood upon was “only begotten Son”. They viewed this as another bulwark for defending the deity of Christ.
Should it stand to reason that since we now have additional information about this variant that we no longer view the correct reading as “Son”, or question its authority as a prooftext for the deity of Christ? I don’t think so, since all of the reformed received it and employed it to this end.
Both the 1689 London Baptist and the Westminster confessions use this verse as a prooftext for the deity of Christ (Dennison, 4.237,536). The 1553 Emden Examination of Faith also made use of this verse (even basing their argument on the reading “Son”) in question 13, “What do you believe with these words: And in Jesus Christ, His only Son, our Lord? Answer. That is: I also place my trust in God’s Son, given that He is His only begotten Son (John 1:18), and therefore true God, praised in eternity above all.” (ibid, 2.47)
When discussing Christ’s mediatorial office the 1559 Confession of Piñczow used this verse as proof of His deity,
“we may understand that whatever pertains to the title of Christ, that is, the Incarnate Word, also pertains entirely to His office as our mediator towards God. Thus, according to the office of prophet and our teacher under the title of Christ, we believe and profess that it pertains to the office of the Mediator to reveal to us and tell us about His heavenly Father and His entire will and indeed the whole mystery of our salvation, in accord with that text of John, ‘In the beginning was the Word’ [1:1]; and again, ‘No one has seen nor can ever seen God, but the only-begotten Son, existing in the bosom of the Father, He has spoken’ [1:18].” (ibid, 2.158)
Neither did the 1535 Bohemian Confession shy away from using the verse in “Article 6: Christ the Lord and Faith in Him” (ibid, 1.307) in demonstrating the deity of Christ. Therefore, if our reformed forefathers used this verse to proclaim and defend the deity of Jesus Christ, regardless of what their opponents said, then why shouldn’t we? Regardless of what modern textual critics (many of whom are enemies of the true faith) say the reading should/might be, we are not to deviate or shy away from using the reading which the giants of the faith before us received and used.
The third passage which we will look at is (Mark 16:9-20). This is the famously contested “longer ending” to Mark’s gospel; the section which the ESV has placed a heading above in all caps, reading, “SOME OF THE EARLIEST MANUSCRIPTS DO NOT INCLUDE 16:9-20”; that portion of Holy Scripture which is missing in only two of the 1,000 plus extant manuscripts which contain the passage. It is widely accepted as spurious by today’s scholars because of the work of Wescott and Hort, who based their work off of primarily two Alexandrian manuscripts full of inconsistencies, inaccuracies and strange readings, namely, Sinaiticus and Vaticanus. The Genevan post-reformation dogmatician, Francis Turretin, said this about the reading, “There is no truth in the assertion that the Hebrew edition of the Old Testament and the Greek edition of the New Testament are said to be mutilated; nor can the arguments used by our opponents prove it … Not Mk. 16 which may have been wanting in several copies in the time of Jerome (as he asserts); but now it occurs in all, even in the Syriac version, and is clearly necessary to complete the history of the resurrection of Christ.” (Institutes, pg.115)
As we have seen from Turretin above, and as those proficient in Latin can see in the annotations of Erasmus and Beza on this verse, the variant reading (which deletes 9-20) was well known to the reformers and yet rejected by them as spurious. They received, as authentic, the longer ending of mark. Interestingly many of the reformed pointed to this passage (specifically verse 19) as a proof text for the ascension of Christ to the right hand of the Father in glory. If we count this passage as spurious we not only stand over and against our reformed forefathers, but also forfeit the only mention in all four of the gospels to Christ’s being seated at the right hand of the Father. Sure, without this passage we still have a gospel account of Jesus’ ascension (Luke 24:51), but where He ascended to is missing. The Apostles fleshed out the doctrine of Christ’s mediation at the right hand of God (Acts 7:56; Rom. 8:34; Col. 3:1; Heb. 12:2), and it would stand to reason that Mark’s account of Jesus’ ascension would have been their ground for doing so.
Zwingli, when discussing the spiritual and corporeal ascension of Christ in his 1531 Fidei Exposito, used (Mark 16:19) to prove that it was not only the divinity of Christ that ascended into heaven, but his physical body also, since within the person of Christ both deity and humanity are hypostatically united. (Dennison, 1.188,189) The 1552 Rhaetian Confession quotes the same verse as its sole proof text that Christ is at the right hand and “intercedes on our behalf.” (ibid, 1.676) The 1556 Confession of the English Congregation at Geneva also felt it permissible to use the verse in expositing the phrase “He ascended into heaven” from the Apostles Creed. (ibid, 2.98)
The reformed not only used the longer ending of Mark to prove the ascension of Christ, but also for the necessity of gospel proclamation (Westminster Larger Catechism: Q. 35&60; 1689 London Baptist Confession: 7.2. ibid, 4.305,311,541) and baptism (Westminster Confession: 28.4; 1662 Waldensian Confession: Article 29. ibid, 4.267) This passage of Scripture has been long cherished and received by the Church and used by her to proclaim the gospel and formulate precious doctrines. Recent doubt being thrown upon it by the enemies of the faith is no reason for Christians to either reject or neglect its usefulness.
We come now to our fourth and final passage (1John 5:7). We can say we upon good grounds that this is the most contested passage of the reformation era Bible. Pastor Taylor has discussed some of the textual issues underlying this verse here. Admittedly, the extant manuscript evidence for the authenticity of this verse is rather poor. However, the reception which the church had of it is overwhelmingly in its favor. John Calvin wrote in his commentary upon this passage that he received it as the true reading,
“The whole of this verse has been by some omitted. Jerome thinks that this has happened through design rather than through mistake, and that indeed only on the part of the Latins. But as even the Greek copies do not agree, I dare not assert any thing on the subject. Since, however, the passage flows better when this clause is added, and as I see that it is found in the best and most approved copies, I am inclined to receive it as the true reading.” (John Calvin, Commentaries on the Catholic Epistles, 257)
The 1556 Confession of the English Congregation at Geneva used it to prove the triune nature of God when they wrote, “I believe and confess my Lord God eternal, infinite, immeasurable, incomprehensible, and invisible, one in substance and three in persons, Father, Son, and Holy Ghost”. (Dennison, 2.96) Lattanzio Ragnoni also quoted the passage as a proof for the trinity in his 1559 Formulario (ibid, 2.165), as did Theodore Beza in his 1560 Confession. Beza even went so far as to say that this verse was the nail in the coffin of the arguments against the Trinity put forward by “Sabellius, Samosata, Arius, Nestorius, Marcion, Eutyches, and all other heretics.” (ibid, 2.242) The contested character of this passage (especially by the opponents of the trinity) was no concern for Beza. The heretics could say whatever they wanted, but for Beza this verse was inspired and preserved by God and received by the Church and thus was profitable in all matters of faith and practice.
In fact the 1568 Synod at Szikszó, which was called to combat anti-trinitarianism, used 1 John 5:7 in what is arguably one of the clearest statements of the triune nature of God in the mid 1500’s. They write:
“Christ, the Son of God, is made coequal with the Father in three ways. In the first way, by nature. In the second, by operation. In the third, in the worship due to God alone. Likewise, Scripture teaches that the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are distinguished really hypostatically in three ways. In the first way, by hypostatic and personal property. In the second, by the official dispensation distinctly belonging to the hypostatic properties. In the third, by diverse manifestation. Christ encompasses all these in a single statement in this way: ‘I and the Father are one’ (John 10:30); and ‘These three, the Father, the Word, and the Spirit are one’ (1John 5:7).” (ibid, 3.149)
As the cherry on top of all these other confessional statements (being just a small sampling of the confessions which quote this verse), confessionally reformed Presbyterians and Baptists subscribe to a confession that uses this verse as a proof-text for the trinity and even quotes it verbatim in its wording (2.3 of both WCF and LBCF; ibid, 4.237,536)
So once again, though this passage is disputed within and without the church, this does not give us the right to reject or neglect it, when, as demonstrated by 150 years of reformed confessions, our forefathers received and used it. If our reformed forefathers, from whom we have received all of our doctrine, received it as authentic, then why shouldn’t we? If their Bible was corrupt, how do we know that their theology wasn’t also corrupt?
In conclusion, we as 21st century Christians have received an inheritance from great men who stood upon the word of God, regardless of what the enemies of the faith said. Let us therefore hold fast to our inheritance. God has given us His inspired and preserved Word in its entirety and we have no reason to doubt its authenticity. We must therefore proclaim it boldly and live according to its life giving principles. Let us give no ear to the clamourings of infidels; may they return unto hell from whence they came! Faith cometh by hearing and hearing by the Word of God, not by allowing non-believers to dictate which parts they are willing to hear.
“I am a Christian minister, and you are Christians, or profess to be so; and there is never any necessity for Christian ministers to make a point of bringing forth infidel arguments in order to answer them. It is the greatest folly in the world. Infidels, poor creatures, do not know their own arguments till we tell them, and then they glean their blunted shafts to shoot them at the shield of truth again. It is folly to bring forth these firebrands of hell, even if we are well prepared to quench them. Let men of the world learn error of themselves; do not let us be propagators of their falsehoods. True, there are some preachers who are short of stock, and I want them to fill up! But God’s own chosen men need not do that; they are taught of God, and God supplies them with matter, with language, and with power.”
Charles Spurgeon (New Park Street Pulpit, Volume 1, 110).
All Scripture citations, unless marked otherwise, are from the King James Version of the Bible
Calvin, John, and John Owen. Commentaries on the Catholic Epistles. Bellingham, WA: Logos Bible Software, 2010.
Calvin, John, and William Pringle. Commentaries on the Epistles to Timothy, Titus, and Philemon. Bellingham, WA: Logos Bible Software, 2010.
James T. Dennison. Reformed Confessions of the 16th and 17th Centuries In English Translation Volumes 1-4. Grand Rapids, MI: Reformation Heritage Books, 2014.
The Holy Bible: English Standard Version. Wheaton, IL: Crossway Bibles, 2016.
Turretin, Francis. Institutes of Elenctic Theology Vol.1. Phillipsburg, New Jersey: P&R Publishing, 1992.
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