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God's Word and the Manuscripts

Thoughts on Preservation

Has God preserved His Word? Jesus' Himself gives us the answer: "Heaven and earth will pass away, but My words will not pass away" (Mark 13:31). Thus we have it from the lips of God's supreme spokesman that His communication to man will not falter. Indeed, Jesus' proclamation is the capstone of numerous biblical references to God's promise to preserve His Word (Psalm 19:9; Isaiah 40:8; 59:21; Matthew 5:18). But what exactly does it mean for God's Word to be preserved? And is there a difference between the Word (i.e., the entire body of Christian truth) and words (i.e., the particular words, phrases, etc. of which the canon consists) of God? A few remarks in that direction:

1. I Take God's Word to be the full body of inscripurated truth. Of course, even here we must acknowledge the likelihood that other portions of God's Word are no longer extant. For instance, Paul's correspondence with the Corinthians apparently involved more than the two letters we possess. Presumably, these Pauline writing were also God's Word. At any rate, God has seen fit to preserve that which He deemed sufficient to communicate His will to us; this we term His Word.

2. God's Word in it's original form was perfect, flawless, inerrant. This is where the verbal, plenary terminology comes into play. God communicated via human beings and their personalities precisely what He wanted to convey. Obviously, the words (the individuals parts) and the Word (the overall content which eventually became known as the canon) were impeccable, without any pollution.

3. God's original Word comes to us through the various copyists, scribes, and translations down through the centuries. These copyists, however, have not composed error-free renderings of that which they transcribed. Thus, we are left with copies, copies of copies and so forth--none of which are flawless portraits of the autographa.

4. The question, then, concerns whether or not God has preserved His Word? Then again, perhaps this isn't a difficult question for most evangelicals. For we already agree (and that on exegetical grounds) that He has so preserved His Word. But how, or in what manner, are we to construct a doctrine of Scripture in light of what we already know (including #'s 1-3 above)? I would suggest at least the following in constructing a biblical and historically realistic picture of preservation:

a. God has allowed for the free communication of the gospel of His Son. Sometimes in Scripture, the phrase God's Word (or something similar) appears to be used almost synonymously for the good news. God promised that His gospel would not be chained, and history bears testimony to this fact.

b. Preservation must also take into account the basic message which God desired/desires to share with man. Thus God's Word is, in the broad sense, adequately preserved. The same message which was given through the Apostolic company, has come down to us undiluted.

c. Yet preservation must also include the actual writings (words, etc.) of the biblical writers, the vehicle by which He allows His message to continue. That is, words grouped together into sentences, paragraphs, etc. are the media through which God's mind is revealed to mankind. Thus, the manuscripts in which these words are imbedded must contain that which God prescribed for His people. To put it another way, the letters, words, sentences, etc. which God originally gave by His chosen writers are still found within the manuscript families. While the original message is easily found, however, the literal word-for-word original is now mixed throughout the various manuscripts.

d. Preservation--in order to occur--does not seem to require any single inspired manuscript or manuscript family. All that is required is a perfect original sufficiently mirrored in the manuscripts which are derived from it. But, someone may ask, what keeps this process from leading to such a corruption of the original that what is left bears little correspondence to the inspired autographs? Answer: Preservation!--and a preservation, by the way, which can be adequately demonstrated through a comparison of manuscripts which are sometimes centuries removed from one another.

e. Of course, if the actual words of almighty God are embedded in the manuscript families which have been discovered, we must ask whether we can "find" the original. If by original, we mean an actual word for word duplicate, the answer is, of course, no. If, however, we are seeking to draw out the original text in such a way that a close facsimile (better, an amazingly accurate reflection!) of the inspired autographs is discoverable, the answer is a resounding yes. Not only has God worked to providentially preserve His Word, but He has promised His people that that Word is theirs. This Word is a revelation, an unveiling of the divine mind. If, then, God has promised to preserve the truth by which He reveals Himself to us, we can rest assured that the truth can indeed be found!

f. Another question to ask is this: What constitutes preservation? We have already stated that it involves (1) the safe transference over time of the gospel, (2) the promise to never lose the overall biblical message, and (3) the maintenance of the original within the various manuscripts. Still, if we are to say that the original is embedded, if you will, within the extant texts available, how should we define "preserved?" For instance, let's say an original text read: ho huios anthropou (i.e., the Son of Man). If through copyist errors, the definite article tou (i.e., the) was added to a manuscript (thus leaving us with: ho huios tou anthropou), some might say that the original is lost; after all, the phrase reads differently than at first. But if--and I think this makes more sense--we see that the original as being contained within the existing manuscripts, it is easy to say at least the following: (1) The gospel remains intact since both phrases convey the same thought (i.e., the Son of Man), (2) The overall biblical message remains unaffected by such an minor discrepancy, and (3) The actual wording (i.e., the Greek letters and words) can still be found, albeit with the addition of a Greek article. Of course, textual matters often get much more complex than this simple example. I do believe, though, that it is possible to sufficiently identify the truth because God's preserving activity has made the available data decipherable. In other words, God's word is still "there," within the manuscripts. For all practical purposes, therefore, we can by faith (an intelligent faith at that!) depend on the text(s) we have received.

g. Obviously there is much, much more to discuss concerning these matters. But granted that something like the above is an accurate depiction of our current situation, one is still led to wonder why, that is, why God decided to preserve His Word in this manner. In a real sense, of course, we have surely entered the territory of speculation. Clearly, then, faith is the anchor which believers need in sifting through these issues. One thing, however, seems clear. It is that God has so united Himself/committed Himself to the human situation (i.e., what we are, how we do things, etc.) that He rarely by-passes the human equation in His dealings with man. God has given us a perfect Word; that Word has been/is--within the manuscripts--preserved. What is fascinating to observe is that God accomplishes this process through normal human means. We are left to marvel as we see human weaknesses and a variety of circumstances all utilized in rather typical ways to preserve forever that which will outlast the physical universe, namely God's perfect Word.


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