This is the second part of a two part article.
We have a preserved Bible
The doctrine of the preservation of Scripture has become controversial within Christianity especially among many conservatives. While it is abundantly true that God has preserved His Word and that God’s people, in hundreds of languages, have the Word of God in their hands, some have limited preservation to one language group, even to one translation within that group. Having grown up in the midst of that controversy, I have heard good and gracious men on both sides, and unkind men on both sides. The wonderful preservation of the Bible should not divide us but rather unite all who name the name of Christ, in whatever language they may speak, and with any translation which faithfully translates those original languages into their own language.
McCune touches the real issue when he says, “The work of preserving Scripture has been and basically is a providential, as opposed to a miraculous, work.”14 This has been a dividing issue within the doctrine of preservation. If we have a perfect, errorless translation today then preservation would have to involve the miraculous. If preservation, however, is a matter of God’s providential protection, using fallible men who make errors, then we cannot expect a perfect translation. That is why the translators of the KJV wrote, “But the difference that appeareth between our translations, and our often correcting of them, is the thing that we are specially charged with.”15
The treatment of the preservation of our Bible is therefore partially negative and partially positive. For those of us who still use the KJV, we must realize that it is not a perfect translation (indeed none are), but at the same time rejoice that God’s Word has been preserved in this and other faithful translations. I will give five reasons why I think this view of preservation is correct.
1. Miraculous preservation contradicts Biblical cessationism. Most conservative Bible believing people believe that the miraculous gifts of the Spirit such as healing, tongues, prophecy, and infallibility, ceased when the New Testament was completed. This has been our interpretation of passages such as 1 Cor. 13:8-13. The revelatory and sign gifts ceased with the passing of the apostles including the miraculous inspiration of Scripture (see 2 Cor. 12:12). This is why we do not allow charismatic gifts in our churches and also why we do not accept cultic claims that more/other Scripture has been written. If we allow miraculous preservation beyond the completion of the New Testament, we have nothing to say to Mohammad or Joseph Smith when they claim to have received a miracle from God.
Jude said that the Faith was “once for all” delivered to the saints (Jude 2). Like the Incarnation of the living Word, the written Word came once as well. In Psalm 68:11 David wrote, “The Lord gave the word: great was the company of those that published it.” God gave it through miraculous inspiration but it is published through men who are called “great” but not infallible.
2. Miraculous preservation obviously did not happen. This is a fact with which all of us must grapple. There is no perfectly preserved manuscript or translation of a manuscript. That is, of the 5000+ New Testament manuscripts that exist, no two of them are exactly alike. Of all of the English translations of the KJV or any other translation, no two editions of them are alike. The documentation for this statement is abundant. For example, D.A. Carson says, “no manuscript agrees perfectly with any other.”17 Daniel Wallace is referenced by Ed Glenny pointing out that the most similar manuscripts disagree six to ten times per chapter!18 No text family, including the TR, can claim unanimity either. Even in the TR, no two manuscripts agree.
This forces us to ask some pertinent questions. Did God miraculously preserve all the manuscripts with all their differences so that every one of them is perfect? Yet how could even two things that differ both be perfect? Did God preserve only one manuscript out of the 5000+ and it alone is the perfect one? If so, no Bible is based on it. And which one would that be? Which one of the thousands of manuscripts that make up the TR is the perfect one? This seems unlikely also. In addition, did God preserve one English translation perfectly? Again, which one would that be? Even in 1611 there were two editions of the KJV and those differed in over 2000 places.19
It is not enough to say that such differences were printers’ errors and obvious mistakes. To say that is to admit that God did NOT miraculously preserve manuscript or translation, and that we must practice textual criticism at any level of preservation. What is also clear is that if any one of those manuscripts or translations is perfect, then nothing before it or after it was or is perfect since nothing before it or after it agrees with it in every detail. Therefore, miraculous preservation cannot be sustained by the historical evidence.
3. Miraculous preservation is not presented in any Biblical text. Does the Bible actually say that God will preserve His Word in a particular manuscript or translation? It would not be hard to find the word “preserve” in a verse, but the question would be whether that verse is talking about miraculous preservation. For example, Psalm 12:5-6 is often quoted because it mentions “the words of the Lord” and also the word “preserve.” Yet it is begging the question to conclude that this verse proves miraculous preservation of the Bible. It is actually promising preservation of the people of God as God’s Word has promised. Matthew 24:35 says, “Heaven and earth shall pass away, but my words shall not pass away.” But does that mean miraculous preservation? It is actually a promise to tribulation Jews that God’s covenants with them will not be rescinded in the midst of tribulation judgments.
Kutilek is right when he says, “A careful examination of the ‘proof texts’ set forth in support of perfect preservation in the KJV demonstrates that NONE of them is talking about the copying or translation process of transmitting Scripture.”20 This is where many believers choose to differ because we all have the right to interpret for ourselves. But I have had to also consider this with the previous point and ask myself, if these verses promise a miraculous preservation, where is it?
4. Miraculous preservation is not the historic position of the church. Although one may find a believer somewhere in history that held to miraculous preservation, it would be fair to conclude that such a position has escalated among a few in the late twentieth century. My experience has been that some are uncomfortable unless their position is farther to the “right” than anyone else’s and this position seems to make one more conservative than others. Perhaps this position seems to make one identified with the good fundamentalists at the turn of the century who fought against the liberals for the integrity of God’s Word. But miraculous preservation is not what the early fundamentalists stood for.
The voices of fundamentalists have been quoted by a number of writers on this issue. Rolland McCune concludes, “Historically, fundamentalists have held that the inspiration and inerrancy of the Bible pertained to the autographs only,”21 There is an informative booklet published by Mount Calvary Baptist Church in Greenville, SC that quotes well-known fundamentalists and conservatives on this issue.22 Space does not permit me to quote each of these men but the list of 31 men includes John Smyth, John Owen, John Wesley, F.H.A. Scrivener, C.H. Spurgeon, A.T. Pierson, D.L. Moody, F.B. Meyer, Alexander Maclaren, C.I. Scofield, Oswald Chambers, R.A. Torrey, G. Campbell Morgan, H.A. Ironside, Noel Smith, John R. Rice, Bob Jones, Sr., and Bob Jones, Jr. Bob Jones, Jr., writes, “There are other good translations in the midst of all the bad ones. Unfortunately, there are no perfect ones, including the Authorized Version, as evidenced by the many corrections and amendments that have been made through the years.”23
5. Providential preservation, however, is abundant in Scripture and history. If we can understand the preservation of Scripture in the context of God’s providence, we can affirm and rejoice in the fact that God indeed has preserved His Word and that we can call our Bible the Word of God. Through His control of history and people, God has seen to it that we can have confidence in proclaiming any good translation as the Word of God.
The Scripture does promise this kind of preservation. Rolland McCune presents what he calls “sufficient preservation.” In referring to Matthew 5:17-18 on the “jot” and “tittle” he writes, “Here the references to the ’smallest letter’ . . . are hyperbolic, indicating the inalterability and thus the continuing authority of God’s entire revelation. And, if this revelation has continuing authority, the implication is that the text will be sufficiently preserved so that it may continue to govern each generation of believers.24
In addition to Scriptural promises, the facts are clear that no other book even comes close to the reliability of the Biblical text, whether Hebrew, Greek, or English. We can be more sure of what Jesus said than any other figure in history. Geisler and Nix give this example:
Next to the New Testament, the Iliad has more extant manuscripts than any other book (543 papyri, 2 uncials, and 188 minuscules for a total of 643). Like the Bible, it was considered sacred, and experienced textual changes and criticism of its Greek manuscripts. While the New Testament has about 20,000 lines, the Iliad has about 15,000. Only 40 lines (400 words) of the New Testament are in doubt, whereas 764 lines of the Iliad are in question. Thus the 5% corruption of the Iliad stands against the less than 1% of the NT text.25
J. Gresham Machen, who loved and used the KJV, showed in his writings that it was not a perfect translation.26 Concerning the preservation of Scripture he went on to say,
No, my friends, these things did not come by chance. God did these things. He did not do them by a miracle. But it was just as much God that did them as it would have been if He had done them by a miracle. He did them by His use of the world that He had made and by His ordering of the lives of His creatures. Very wonderfully and very graciously, according to our view of the Bible, has God provided for the preservation, from generation to generation, of His Holy Word.
What is the result for you, my friends? The result is that you can take down your Authorized Version from the shelf, the version hallowed, for many of you, by many precious associations, and be very sure that it will give you good information about that which stood in the autographs of the Word of God.27
We have a translated Bible
Translation is the process of transferring the meaning of one language into another. If the meaning is properly transferred into the second language, we may say that we have what the original writer intended to say and therefore have his words. At Pentecost, when the people from 18 different countries heard the disciples speak, each in a different language, they replied, “we do hear them speak in our tongues the wonderful works of God” (Acts 2:11). They did not hear with the same letters, words, and syntax, but they heard the meaning in each language’s letters, words, and syntax.
The translators of the KJV wrote in their preface,
The very meanest translation of the Bible in English set forth by men of our profession . . . Containeth the word of God, nay, is the word of God: as the King’s speech which he uttered in Parliament, being translated into French, Dutch, Italian, and Latin, is still the King’s speech, though it be not interpreted by every translator with like grace, nor peradventure so fitly for phrase, nor so expressly for sense, everywhere.28
Our English versions, and all other language versions, are translations done by fallible men who do their best to transfer the meaning from the original languages into another language. The original writing, done by the hand of original writers, is what was inspired. That was the miracle of God which gave us the very Word of God without error. Each translation is good in as far as the meaning of the original is transferred. Therefore any translation that faithfully gives the meaning of the original writers is and should be called the Word of God.
In 1876 a Baptist pastor in New York named John Quincy Adams printed a book titled “Baptists Thorough Reformers.” Spurgeon used the book as a text in his Pastor’s College. Adams wrote, “Let it be remembered, that the Bible which we possess is a translation. The words of our English version are invested with Divine authority, only so far as they express just what the original expresses.”29 Adams warned of a growing error in his day, “In England and America the English version, which is acknowledged to have many defects, is made the standard, instead of the original.”30
Conservative believers, especially Baptists, have always understood what a translation is. It is not the original manuscript nor can it be. Those were written under miraculous inspiration in original languages. A translation is a human attempt to transfer the meaning, as best as fallible human beings can do, into languages that people now speak. When this is done in a good and honest way we should rejoice that we have the Word of God in that language.
And So . . . .
The words of the great prince of preachers, C.H. Spurgeon, should suffice as a conclusion.
No Baptist should ever fear any honest attempt to produce the correct text, and an accurate interpretation of the Old and New Testaments. For many years Baptists have insisted upon it that we ought to have the Word of God translated in the best possible manner, whether it would confirm certain religious opinions and practices, or work against them. All we want is the exact mind of the Spirit, as far as we can get it.31
From the revelation to the inspiration to the preservation of God’s Word, God’s people can rejoice in the reliability of our translations. No other book in the world has ever come close to the credibility of this Book. No other book has been so studied, scrutinized, criticized, translated, printed, and read as the Bible. You can hold high the translation you use and say, “thus saith the Lord.”
14. Rolland McCune, 49.
15. The Translators To The Readers, The Bible, Authorized king James Version With Apocrypha (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1997) lxiv.
16. This fact is noted in almost any book on textual matters.
17. D.A. Carson, The King James Version Debate (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 1979) 18, 26, 56, 119.
18. Roy Beacham & Kevin Bauder, Gen. Eds., One Bible Only? (Grand Rapids: Kregel, 2001) 76.
19. Doug Kutilek, ”The Error of Verbal Plenary Preservation,” As I See It, 12:11.
20. Kutilek, Ibid.
21. Rolland McCune, “Doctrinal Non-Issues in Historic Fundamentalism,” Detroit Baptist Seminary Journal, Fall 1996, p. 171.
22. Trusted Voices on Translations, Mount Calvary Baptist Church, email@example.com.
23. Ibid. p. 11.
24. McCune, 51-52.
25. Geilser & Nix, p. 181.
26. Machen, p. 38.
27. Machen, p. 42-43.
28. Translators, Ibid.
29. John Quincy Adams, Baptists Thorough Reformers (New York: Backus Book s, 1980) 129.
30. See chapter VIII on “The Establishment of the Correct Principle of Biblical Translation.”
31. Trusted Voices, p. 5, quoting the Metropolitan Tabernacle pulpit, vol. XXVII, pp. 342-343.