In my last blog, I noted that the standard doctrine of preservation assumes that the text is accessible by God’s people down to the very words and down through the ages. But since the Old Testament text demonstrably has places in which scholars must resort to conjecture, this doctrine of preservation does not seem to match the historical data. This leaves defenders of the doctrine in the uncomfortable position of having to argue one of two things: (1) the doctrine is only true for the New Testament, which thus makes one methodologically a Marcionite; (2) the doctrine is true for both testaments, but we haven’t found all the manuscripts yet; however, this also must mean that accessibility is not the reason for preservation since the preserved text is not even completely accessible yet. Either of these views really negates the value of the doctrine, for it was originally framed to cover both testaments and to speak of accessibility.
This time I wish to briefly examine the proof-texts that have been used to defend this doctrine.
Six major passages are used as proof that preservation refers to the written Word of God: Ps 119.89; Isa 40.8; Matt 5.17-18; Matt 24.35; John 10.35; and 1 Peter 1.23-25. One of the fundamental problems with the use of these passages is that merely because “God’s Word” is mentioned in them it is assumed that the written, canonical, revelation of God is meant. (Further, almost all of these texts, if they refer to the written word at all, refer to the Old Testament. See the first paragraph above for problems with affirming this for the Old Testament.) But 1 Peter 1.23-25, for example, in quoting Isa 40.8, uses rhema rather than logos—a term that typically refers to the spoken word. Then there is Ps 119.89 (“Forever, O Lord, your word is settled in heaven”). Some actually take this to mean that God deposited an exact copy of the scriptures in heaven. Of course, even if that were what the Psalmist meant, it would do nothing for the value of the doctrine of preservation: namely, accessibility on earth!
It seems that a better interpretation of all these texts is that they are statements concerning either divine ethical principles (i.e., moral laws which cannot be violated without some kind of consequences) or the promise of fulfilled prophecy. Thus, “The scripture cannot be broken” (John 10.35), in its context, means “all will be fulfilled” or “all of it is true” rather than “we must have every word preserved.” “Not one jot or tittle from the law will pass away until all is fulfilled” (Matt 5.18) plainly refers either to the ethical principles of the law or the fulfillment of prophecy, or both. Either way, the idea of preservation of the written text is quite foreign to the context. Matt 24.35 (“Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away”) is frequently used in support a doctrine of preservation. But once again, even though this text has the advantage of now referring to Jesus’ words (as opposed to the Old Testament), the context is clearly eschatological; thus the words of Jesus have certainty of fulfillment. That the text does not here mean that his words will all be preserved in written form is absolutely certain because (1) this is not only foreign to the context, but implies that the written gospels were conceived at this early stage in salvation history—decades before a need for them was apparently felt; (2) we certainly do not have all of Jesus’ words recorded—either in scripture or elsewhere (cf. John 20.30 and 21.25).
Thus, ethics or eschatology is always in view. A moment’s reflection on the various contexts reveals this plainly.
So, where does this leave us? If the doctrine of the preservation of scripture has neither ancient historical roots, nor any direct biblical basis, what can we legitimately say about the text of the New Testament? My own preference is to speak of God’s providential care of the text as can be seen throughout church history, without elevating such to the level of doctrine. If this makes us theologically uncomfortable, it should at the same time make us at ease historically, for the New Testament is the most remarkably preserved text of the Greco-Roman world—both in terms of the quantity of manuscripts and in their temporal proximity to the originals. Not only this, but the fact that no cardinal truth is affected by any viable textual variant surely speaks of God’s providential care of the text. Just because there is no verse to prove this does not make it any less true.
What I am arguing for, then, is that we retire any notion of a doctrine of preservation, but that we also speak boldly of the historical evidence that affirms something akin to this. This is in keeping with an incarnational approach to bibliology: because God became man in time-space history, we have the privilege and the obligation to examine the textual data about his life with historical rigor. When we say ‘The Bible says it, I believe it, that settles it,’ all too often we betray the incarnation and elevate our bibliology above Christ. And the great irony is that many evangelicals can inadvertently subordinate Christ to the Bible by their stance on bibliology. This is doctrinal dominoes at its worst.