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.

    19 replies to "Has God Preserved the Scriptures? It Depends… (Part 2)"

    • M. Jay Bennett

      Great post Dr. Wallace. Thanks!

    • James Snapp Jr

      I agree with the sentiment that we should “retire any notion of a doctrine of preservation,” (as far as the notion of complete accessibility to the autograph-contents is concerned) but I’m not so sure that such a notion was ever hired to begin with. Quotations from KJV-Only advocates and Majority Text advocates, plus a quotation from R.A. Taylor’s 1977 article in JETS, do not a “standard doctrine” make. We will be on safer footing if we consider, say, a definitive expression of historic belief — say, the Westminster Confession:

      “The Old Testament in Hebrew (which was the native language of the people of God of old), and the New Testament in Greek (which, at the time of the writing of it, was most generally known to the nations), being immediately inspired by God, and, by His singular care and providence, kept pure in all ages, are therefore authentical; so as, in all controversies of religion, the Church is finally to appeal unto them.”

      I don’t see anything there about the Hebrew and Greek texts being kept 100% intact. I see a statement that the Hebrew and Greek texts were kept *pure.* A text can grow, and mature, and yet remain pure. Istm that we ought to be affirming the providential preservation of the purity of the extant text handed down to the church, by the church, for the church, rather than asserting (in the face of oodles of evidence to the contrary) the preservation of the entire autographic text itself.

      DW: “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.”

      That sounds good in theory, but how can you maintain that God has providentially protected even the Gospels from significant alteration in opposition to His will, while maintaining that John 7:53-8:11 and Mark 16:9-20 do not belong in the Biblical text? In the case of Mk. 16:9-20, the passage appears in over 99% of the Greek manuscript evidence, and it has been used as part of the Gospel of Mark since at least the middle of the 100’s. It was used by Roman Catholics before there was such a name as “Roman Catholics;” it was used by the Greek Orthodox before there was such a name as “Greek Orthodox,” and it was used by Protestants before there was such a term as “Protestants.” If this passage is an impurity, and its presence in the text opposes God’s will, then what sort of providential care is it that allows a 171-word interpolation to infiltrate and overwhelmingly dominate the transmission of the Gospels? (I don’t mean to dwell on Mk. 16:9-20, but it constitutes an interesting test-case for your approach, I think.)

      Yours in Christ,

      James Snapp, Jr.

    • richards

      Jim Snapp aside, Dan’s last statement reflects popular bumper-sticker bibliology, and the post offers a serious challenge to the foundation of our faith, namely, that we should be people of history more so than people of the book.

    • JoanieD

      Dan said, “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.”

      I agree.

      Joanie D.

    • Vance

      I would again suggest an alternative: that the definition of preservation is where the problem lies, when it is considered to be in the very words or the original autographs.

      Ultimately, you have to decide whether the doctrine of preservation is an historical one or a theological one.

      Is it merely the proposition, as a matter of historical analysis, that God DID preserve the Scripture? Or is it a belief, as a matter of theological faith, that for *the Scripture we have in our hands* to be considered holy and “God-breathed”, it has to have been preserved. I would argue that it can not be the former (for all the reasons Dan has stated), but it could be the latter, if we adjust our definition of what preservation means.

      The importance of preservation is a matter of communication. Either the Scripture is meant for us, or it is not. It is either a means of God communicating to Man or not. If we start with the presupposition, as a matter of faith, that Scripture WAS meant as a means of divine communication, then I don’t see how we can avoid some doctrine of preservation. Otherwise we have God communicating incompletely (or worse) for thousands of years.

      At the same time, I agree entirely that we have a varied and incomplete text, compared to the autographs.

      So, how can these two issues be resolved? I still think the best way is to accept that God DID preserve what He wanted us to have. The texts we have had throughout the history of the church is, indeed, what God intended for us. That Scripture IS entirely effective to communicate ALL God wanted for us. You could even add in inerrantly and infallibly if you like.

      But how could this be with all of the variations and even likely divergence from the original autographs? Very simply, the doctrine of preservation would have to be restated as God keeping His hand on the messages that were essential and letting the remaining details fall where they may, since they are non-essential.

      Again, ultimately, you have to decide whether the doctrine of preservation is an historical one or a theological one. If it is theological, then we have to consider whether our definition of it should be adjusted to fit historical reality.

      Think geocentrism.

    • Vance

      BTW, I should point out that I think that what I am suggesting is very close to what Dan is suggesting, but I am not afraid to call it a doctrine. I feel comfortable saying that God has preserved the essential message of the Scriptures, not just as a matter of historical analysis, but as a theological doctrine, since I believe there is a theological point to be made.

      And I would go even further to say that this type of preservation, with variations and incompletions and possibly even additions can be considered inerrant and infallible when those terms are also defined correctly.

    • Josh

      Would it be safe to say, that all that God has wanted to reveal to man in His Word, He has seen to it that it would remain intact?

      In reflecting on issues like these I find that we (thinking mainly of myself at this point) often put burdens on the text in which need not be there.

      The difficulty I have, and would greatly appreciate Dr. Wallace or anyone else for that matter in pointing out the solution to, would be:

      How does one truthfully and accurately define and determine what the “essence” (as some have said) of Scripture is?. As oppose to focusing on certain doctrines and teachings (Calvinism vs. Arminism, old earth vs. young earth, and even male/female roles within body life, for example)

      So let me try and focus my question on two other questions:

      1. Do you think that throughout God’s Word there is a consistent theme throughout its entirety, which could be used to define its “essence”?

      2. If you could make one statement (I know this is difficult) that would encompass Gods “theme” (if you think there is one) throughout the entire Bible.


      Your brother in Christ,


    • stevemoore


      God is Holy, we are not; through Jesus we can be holy before God.

      I had to throw a semicolon in there to make it one statement. That’s the barebones essence I can get at and I dont know if it would be deemed “sufficient” even as I’ve put it there.

    • JoanieD

      Josh, your question sounds like the one that was directed to Jesus:

      “Teacher, which is the greatest commandment in the Law?” Jesus replied: ‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ ” (Matthew 22:36-39 NIV)

      I think Jesus sums up nicely what God wants us to know, believe and follow.

      Joanie D.

    • Dan Wallace

      Good discussions again, friends. I appreciate how you all engage in the dialogue and think deeply about these issues. Of course, we’re all learning about these issues and I’m sure we don’t see eye to eye. But that’s what makes our time fun. After all, if we agreed completely, life would be a bit too boring. So, let me add a little excitement to the fray!

      To James I would say: I think the safest route for us to go is to hold to doctrines that are actually taught in scripture, rather than based on what we think God must do. You want to hold to a doctrine of preservation; my problem with that is that I see nowhere in scripture where it is taught. And as for the story of the woman caught in adultery and the long ending of Mark, if extra material is added to scripture that hardly means that God did not preserve the original. I fail to see the argument that you are making about those passages. You went so far as to say, “it has been used as part of the Gospel of Mark since at least the middle of the 100’s.” I wonder if that’s just a little bit misleading. I could just as easily say that it has been absent from copies of Mark from the earliest times. The fact that it was found in some manuscripts and not others is hardly an argument for its authenticity or inauthenticity. We’ve been over this before (you and I), and this is not the place for such a discussion. If anyone would like to see my detailed argument on the inauthenticity of Mark 16.9-20, a book will be coming out next spring by B&H on the ending of Mark’s Gospel. Five of us contributed to the book; three regard the long ending as inauthentic, while two regard it as authentic. So, you’ll get to see some arguments for authenticity there as well. Sorry you’ll have to wait till then to see the latest and most up-to-date discussion.

      To Vance, it seems that you are taking a similar view as James is taking in one respect—viz., that God must have preserved the text that he wanted us to have. The problem with this view, in your construct at least, is that it ends up arguing in a circle. Rather than follow the data and try to reconstruct the original text as much as possible, it sounds as though you are asking us to accept a Leibnizian text—that is, whatever has come down to us is what God wanted us to have. If Westcott and Hort had that attitude in 1881, we’d still be reading the King James Bible. How would you deal with any discoveries of manuscripts? I take the attitude that God wants us to honor the incarnation by doing serious historical work, and that therefore we need to aggressively hunt down manuscripts so that we can get back to the original. At the same time, as I’ve said all along, I do not think that any essential of the faith is disturbed by any viable variants. But exegesis and the meaning and application of a particular text can be disturbed by such; hence, we need to pursue the wording of the autographs as much as we can.

      To Josh, I would say that we actually had a lengthy blog and many comments about what constitutes the essentials of the Christian faith. It was called “Constructing a Credo: Will Dominoes Do the Trick?” I would refer you to that section of Parchment and Pen for some information and dialogue on this point.

      Thanks again, all! As my friends in Germany would say and you would emulate, “Ich denke gern.”

    • Lisa R

      Question for you, Dr Wallace, regarding your comment to Vance. If I understand you correctly, you are saying that the evolution of historical findings should confirm the original autograph? Then in that case, it would be circular, wouldn’t it? Otherwise, you’d open up future canonization possibilities.

    • Dan Wallace

      Thanks for the question, Lisa. I was referring specifically to variants within books, not to whole books of the New Testament. Although the canon has never been officially closed by a worldwide church council, I believe it is effectively closed. The three major criteria that the early church used to discover what was canonical were antiquity/apostolicity, catholicity, and orthodoxy. That is, any books considered for membership in the canon club had to be ancient and written by an apostle or an associate of an apostle; they had to be universally accepted; and they had to conform to orthodoxy. It is this second criterion that any new discoveries cannot meet, since such books have not been universally accepted. I suppose that if, say, Paul’s first and third letters to the Corinthians were found (we have his second and fourth), and if they were demonstrated to be genuine, and if they were accepted by the universal church, then yes, we should consider such to be canonical. But that likelihood on all fronts is so remote as to render it almost impossible.

    • veritas83

      Dr. Wallace: Thanks for a stimulating discussion starter!

      You said: “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.”

      Could it be that our problem is the definition of preservation? If we amend it to say that not all of the text has to be accessible to the Church, would not that change the entire dynamic?

      If I stand in the pulpit, hold up my Bible, and say that “I have the preserved Word of God (mostly)”…that would probably damage the faith of some lay people. But it wouldn’t damage my faith at all, and I don’t see that it should.

      Why does preservation have to be tied to availability to the Church?

      Stephen Stallard

    • kstifle

      Dr. Wallace,

      I just wanted to say I’ve enjoyed your posts on this subject.


    • Vance

      Dan, if I may nuance my position a little bit to address the points you make. We would only be stuck with the KJV, or any earlier text, if we also concluded that the EXACT WORDS of that particular translation were somehow what I held to be “what God intended us to have”. Instead, I am taking a broader view and saying that what we have, in its essentials and in sufficiency for God’s communication, is what God intended. This means that further scholarship and understanding could result in more effective translations in each generation, and even better understanding with accumulated wisdom, but I think these would have to be small accretions of additional insight into the texts, not significant shifts.

      Is this circular? Possibly, but that is only because it is based upon some faith presumptions: that God intended Scripture to be His primary means of communicating His message and His will to His Church, and that this would only be an effective communication if it did, indeed, communicate what God intended. The alternative would be that what God intended to communicate did not get communicated, and I don’t see that as a viable alternative theologically.

      Yet this would be the result if we say that there is a “better” version of the message out there, that what God REALLY intended to communicate is still waiting for us to discover. I agree with you entirely that we have a very close match to the original autographs, but not exact in every detail and that what we do have is full of variations.

      But are you willing to say that what we have today, as a collection, variations and all, what we have had for 1700 years or so, is NOT what God intended us to have? Or that there is something MORE that we were supposed to have, but have not yet received?

      Would the view I describe effect scholarship? Would we then stop trying to find the best versions we can get hold of? No, since that would still be useful in many exegetical ways, not least of which would be to continually remind us of these variations, as you have done, so that we do not get hung up on the minor details and make dogmatic statements regarding non-essentials. The stark facts about Scripture your discipline gives us helps keep us from making an idol of the text, and helps us to focus on the message more broadly.

    • centuri0n

      Dr. Wallace —

      Ditto to Vance’s last question. 🙂

    • Dan Wallace

      Vance, these are excellent points and a nice clarification. When it comes to what we have today and what we have had for 1700 years, as you put it, there are a couple of ways in which this can be answered. First, from the perspective of the average Christian, I think that God has preserved his word to such an extent that a person could get saved reading any translation of the Bible (including the New World Translation), and that person could grow in grace based on that translation. The same would apply to the Greek manuscripts themselves, early editions of the Greek New Testament, and the like. In other words, when it comes to the essentials of the Christian faith, I think that virtually anything out there that is a copy of scripture is adequate. On the other hand, I think that we must strive to recover the original wording for several reasons. First, because this honors Christ. If he held to a high view of scripture, so should we. If the incarnation demands serious, no-holds-barred historical inquiry on our part, then we only neglect this duty to our own peril. Second, from a purely historical motive (regardless of any infusion from the faith side of things), we should want to know what Luke and Paul and Peter and Jude wrote, stripped away of all the accretions that have been added over the centuries. Third, from an interpretive side, it’s crucial for us to get back to the original text as much as possible so that when we say ‘thus says the word of God,’ we have a relative degree of certainty that this is indeed what the original text said. Fourth, from an applicational side of things, I do think that there are many textual variants that need to be wrestled with so that we can know how to live and how to act. Should we fast as well as pray when performing exorcisms? Should women be silent in the churches or not? Is eternal security something that Christians have or not? Are we still under the OT law? How should church discipline be conducted—viz., should I address someone who has not sinned against me or am I allowed to confront only those who have sinned directly against me? These are issues that are directly affected by the textual variants and they require some serious thinking and wrestling with the data. So, I would say that to the extent that these variants do not represent the original text, to the same extent they are not what God intended.

    • Vance

      Ah, then, I would agree with that approach entirely and thanks for following up. It acknowledges that God IS an effective communicator in that He preserved all of the essentials (and, lets face it, the majority of the details) throughout history. And I think that all of the reasons you give for continued studies, to fine tune the remaining details, are also valid.

      I just wanted to avoid a scenario in which it seemed that we had only a “flawed” Scripture up ’til now, with the “correct” version out there undiscovered.

      I think God always leaves us room to grow and search and think and discover. He gave us minds and wants us to use them! 🙂

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