On the first of March, 1516, the first published Greek New Testament, Erasmus’s Novum Instrumentum, rolled off the printing press. Almost exactly twenty months later the Reformation was born when Martin Luther nailed his 95 theses to the door of the Schlosskirche in Wittenberg. Luther later claimed that the Reformation never would have begun without Erasmus’s Greek New Testament in his hands. But with the emphasis on the Bible as our final authority in faith and practice, Protestants began to paint themselves into a corner, and Catholics capitalized on it.
By the 1630s, more than a century after this first published Greek New Testament, a publishing firm had called the Greek New Testament the “text that was now received by all” in the preface. Or, in Latin (as the preface was written), the Elzevirs’ Greek New Testament was the Textus Receptus. In the 115 years since the first published Greek New Testament, very few changes had occurred. Hence, the Elzevirs could make this claim, since there were no genuine competing rivals to the Greek text that was a direct descendant of Erasmus’ Novum Instrumentum.
Catholics did not sit idly by as the Reformation marched on, of course. And a part of their attack was to call the Greek New Testament, the Textus Receptus (or TR), a “paper pope.” By this, of course, they meant that Protestants had abandoned papal authority and had replaced it with a “pope” on paper, the Greek New Testament. As well, Catholics argued that there were thousands of textual variants in the Greek manuscripts and that Protestants didn’t really have a right to just pick one Bible to follow. That was arbitrary, unscholarly, tendentious, disingenuous, hypocritical. You name it, the Catholics threw the thesaurus at the Protestants! Further, these textual variants undermined both the authority of the TR and probably displayed some different doctrines than what Protestants had embraced.
The response by Protestants was swift, though perhaps not particularly well thought out. In 1646, the first doctrinal statement about God preserving his text was formulated as part of the Westminster Confession. The problem is that what the Westminster divines were thinking of when they penned that confession was the TR. By virtually ignoring the variants, they set themselves up for more abuse.
Catholics began collating manuscripts and showing the differences. In one sense, we might say that New Testament textual criticism was born as a polemic against Protestants, intended to show that they couldn’t really trust the Bible! But in 1707, an Oxford scholar named John Mill (or Mills) published a remarkable piece of work that had taken him thirty years to produce. It was a Greek text with more than 30,000 variants! He uncovered almost all of the major textual problems and a good number of minor ones, by working through Greek manuscripts, ancient versions, and patristic writings.
Mill’s work created alarm for some Protestants who said that it undermined faith in scripture. But an equally industrious German scholar decided to do something about the question rather than stick his head in the sand. Johann Albrecht Bengel examined the 30,000 variants in detail, and added several more based on a dozen manuscripts that he had collated. But he also pronounced the now famous dictum that not one of these variants disturbs any article of the Christian faith. So, although it is true that there are places in the New Testament where the text is uncertain, this does not mean that those uncertainties affect cardinal truths or even more peripheral doctrines that Christians embraced. Although it would be inappropriate (for reasons that I won’t get into now) to elevate providential preservation of scripture to the level of doctrine, it is significant that the evidence that Bengel produced would strongly suggest that we can speak of this, in general, as a historical reality. In short, God has preserved scripture in such a way that no essential truth is in doubt textually.
So, where does that leave us today? Evangelical Protestants who believe in inerrancy usually claim that only the original text is inerrant. They recognize that no published text exactly duplicates the original, but they also recognize that this is the high calling that biblical scholars have: get as close to the original text as is humanly possible. At the same time, Bengel’s dictum, repeated by scholar after scholar down through the centuries, still offers a great deal of comfort: no article of faith is affected by any textual variant.
I personally would not state things as strongly as Bengel has. I would instead say that no cardinal doctrine is affected by any viable variant. The two qualifiers’ “cardinal and viable” seem to be more accurate delimiters on what the data reveal. But frankly, it’s very difficult to find any places where an actual article of faith, no matter how obscure, seems to depend on a dubious variant. And again, I would not elevate my belief in some sort of preservation to doctrinal status precisely because I don’t believe the doctrine of preservation is taught in scripture. But I do believe that it can be demonstrated historically by an examination and sifting of the hundreds of thousands of textual variants that are known today. The vast majority of textual variants are so trivial that they can’t even be translated. And those that are significant and viable (that is, have some plausibility of containing the original wording) constitute less than one percent of all known textual variants. Shucks, if I didn’t know better I might want to say that some divine providence was orchestrating such preservation!