A Presuppositional Approach to Preservation
Attempting to be neutral in oneâ€™s intellectual endeavors (whether research, argumentation, reasoning, or teaching ) is tantamount to striving to erase the antithesis between the Christian and the unbeliever. Christ declared that the former was set apart from the latter by the truth of Godâ€™s word (John 17:17). Those who wish to gain dignity in the eyes of the worldâ€™s intellectuals by wearing the badge of â€œneutralityâ€ only do so at the expense of refusing to be set apart by Godâ€™s truth. In the intellectual realm they are absorbed into the world so that no one could tell the difference between their thinking and assumptions and apostate thinking and assumptions. The line between believer and unbeliever is obscured.
Such indiscrimination in oneâ€™s intellectual life not only precludes genuine knowledge (cf. Prov 1:7) and guarantees vain delusion (cf. Col. 2:3-8), it is downright immoral.
Greg Bahnsen in Robert Booth, ed., Always Ready: Directions for Defending the Faith (Nacogdoches, TX: Covenant Media Press, 1996), pp.7-8 (emphasis his)
Presuppositional apologetics is best summarized by Paul in 2 Corinthians 4:3:
We having the same spirit of faith, according as it is written, I believed, and therefore have I spoken; we also believe, and therefore speak;
In other words, we fear God so that we can understand and know. As Bahnsen correctly says (p. 20),
To make Godâ€™s word your presupposition, your standard, your instructor and guide, however, calls for renouncing intellectual self-sufficiency â€“ the attitude that you are autonomous, able to attain unto genuine knowledge independent of Godâ€™s direction and standards. Instead of beginning with Godâ€™s sure word as foundational in their studies, they would have us think that they begin with intellectual self-sufficiency and (using this as their starting-point) work up to a â€œrationalâ€ acceptance of Scripture.
So, believers are set apart from unbelievers by their assumptions (John 17:17 again). The believer assumes that Scripture is true, no matter what it says. The unbeliever assumes that all Scripture must be tested by other evidence. Cornelius Van Til, in his book The Defense of the Faith (1), traces this autonomous desire of man all the way back to the garden of Eden, where Satan challenged Eve to â€œgo to as many as possible of those reputed to have knowledge.â€ Of course, in Eveâ€™s case, there were only two â€œreputed to have knowledge.â€ God commanded Eve not to eat of the fruit, â€œfor in the day that thou eatest thereof, thou shalt surely die.â€ In deciding these things, Van Til reminds us, God would have us to know first â€œwhat do we knowâ€ and after this, â€œhow do we know it.â€ Satan urged Eve to first consider â€œhow do we know itâ€ while ignoring the question of â€œwhat do we know.â€
So, Eve stepped out and became her own authority, took the neutral position, and decided for herself. God said, â€œthou shalt surely die.â€ Satan said, â€œYe shall not surely die. For God doth know that in the day ye eat thereof, then your eyes shall be opened, and ye shall be as gods, knowing good and evil.â€ But ultimately, the woman made herself the final and ultimate authority.
And when the woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was pleasant to the eyes, and a tree to be desired to make one wise, she took of the fruit thereof, and did eat, and gave also unto her husband with her; and he did eat.
Presuppositions are inescapable. We either presuppose that Godâ€™s Word is true and ultimate, or we presuppose that our opinions and decisions for the truth are true and ultimate. We cannot claim to somehow mix these two presuppositions. No man can serve two masters. If we claim a â€œneutralâ€ position and come to the truth by weighing evidence, then we serve the master of our own personal autonomy. We ignore the question of â€œwhat we knowâ€ in favor of asking â€œhow we know.â€ The submissive assumption of the believer is that â€œwhat we knowâ€ is most important, while â€œhow we knowâ€ can only be answered after the first question.
A Presuppositional View of Preservation
On the issue of Preservation, â€œwhat can we know?â€ Confessing Christians must take a presuppositional approach to this question. We presuppose that we can know what God has told us, what He has said we can know. We can know that God Himself will preserve His Word, that one jot or one tittle shall in no wise pass from the law, till all be fulfilled. We can know that Godâ€™s Word will be generally accessible to men in all generations.
As for me, this is my covenant with them, saith the LORD; My spirit that is upon thee, and my words which I have put in thy mouth, shall not depart out of thy mouth, nor out of the mouth of thy seed, nor out of the mouth of thy seed’s seed, saith the LORD, from henceforth and for ever. Isa 59:21
Knowing these things, we ask, â€œhow can we know this.â€ And we immediately find an answer â€“ thy word is truth. We can know this because God says it. God promises it. It will be done by the power of God. When we ask â€œhow will this be done,â€ we must again revert back to our original question, â€œwhat can we know?â€ We know that Godâ€™s Word is truth. We know that the church is the pillar and ground of the truth. Thus, the church, in an historical sense, bears witness to the truth. When we answer the question of â€œwhat we can know,â€ the question of â€œhow can we knowâ€ is readily answered.
In his book Mother Kirk: Essays and Forays in Practical Ecclesiology (2), Douglas Wilson demonstrates how this is done. I quote from Wilson here, not because he would necessarily agree with us on every point of doctrine (or that we would be in full agreement with him), but to point out that these are not â€œnew and novelâ€ ideas as others have claimed. Nor are they â€œa wildly unique and woefully complex position.â€ We want to point out that others who are not of our stripe believe basically the same thing that we believe.
Beginning with the canonization of 66 books, Wilson demonstrates that, far from establishing or determining, the Historic Church submissively received the Scriptures on their own authority. “They are the Word of God, and they speak to us as such. Nevertheless, God has given us a secondary earthly testimony concerning them.” The church gives witness to the Word, and this witness includes canonization. In this sense, the church is not granting authority to the Scriptures, but rather is giving important testimony. This testimony is established and settled, so that (as Wilson says), â€œGod does not intend for us to debate the canon of Scripture afresh every generation.â€ Rather, â€œin 393 at Hippo and 397 at Carthage, the Church formally testified that the twenty-seven books which we have in the New Testament are to be received as apostolic.â€
So, the churches did not testify on their own authority. They rather accepted what had been preserved through the copying efforts of the churches. The Bible, as the Westminster Confession states, is preserved by Godâ€™s â€œsingular care and providence.â€ The church and the churches give their witness to this fact by faith. It is an ungodly mock to ridicule our faith in Godâ€™s promise and plan.
Just as the churches testified of the canon of books, based on the faithful copying of Godâ€™s people, even so the churches, in settling on the Authorized Version, settled on the words of the Textus Receptus . The almost universal use of the Authorized Version from its inception up until the last one hundred or so years indicates that before liberalism launched their attack, the church had been settled on the Textus Receptus.
Wilson addresses this attack from liberalism first by pointing out the Catholic response to sola Scriptura. â€œThe Reformers might want to say they believed in Scripture alone, but in which textual family was it to be found? Without an infallible church, without experts of some kind, there was no way to tell.â€ (pp.54, 55). And then, Wilson gives the Reformationâ€™s answer.
The Reformers answered this question, not as neutral scientists, but as confessing Christians. The Word of God, they said, was basically found in the received text, which was representative of the manuscript family containing the overwhelming number of manuscripts. The Reformers asserted this, not on the basis of some neutral science, but on the basis of faith in Godâ€™s preservation of His own Wordâ€¦ For the Reformers, and for all consistent Christians, the doctrines of the Bibleâ€™s inspiration and the Bibleâ€™s preservation are twins.
The Evidential View of Preservation
Enter textual criticism. Wilson points out the similar reasoning of textual criticism in our day.
â€¦ evangelical scholars gradually came to the conviction that the science of textual criticism was in fact â€œa neutral science.â€ In other words, the worldview of the textual critic and translator does not necessarily matter. The foundation stone of all the modern versions is that textual criticism is a neutral science, and that Christians and non-Christians alike can be good practitioners of this science. The difference between evangleical and liberal textual critics is that the evangelicals have sought to fight off the principles of higher criticism by using the principles of lower criticism, little realizing that the fundamental principles are the same in each case.
In the last one hundred years or so, liberalism has challenged us to look at the evidence. No longer should we simply receive the Scriptures on their own authority and accept the witness of the churches. Today we have more information available. We are more capable of research. We are more equipped to examine the extrinsic evidence. Therefore, we are being called upon to go back and examine the veracity, not of the books of the Bible or of entire chapters, but of the words, of particular verses, and occasionally of particular passages.
Our opponents in this debate presuppose that this is what all the early collators did, so therefore we should also. But there is another, more subtle and deceptive assumption being made. Textual criticism presupposes that man must decide for himself. Man must make determinations, not about how a word or verse should be translated, but about whether a word or verse should be translated. This assumption whispers in our autonomous ears that we must weigh the evidence and decide for ourselves whether this word or this verse or this paragraph should be included. God wants us questioning His Word, the text critic says. And so, as a result, we have mounds and mounds of different autonomous decisions being made. One version accepts I John 5:7 and rejects the end of Mark 16. Another version rejects I John 5:7 and accepts the end of Mark 16, though with a disclaimer. And probably more than a few versions reject both.
Text criticism stands in judgement of Godâ€™s Word. Its proponents demand that we allow them space to decide for themselves, to determine what should be there. This attitude is in keeping with the mindset of our culture, which considers itself the first society to actually â€œget it right.â€ We are autonomous. We come to our positions individualistically and autonomously, not submissively. No doubt, we will be treated to some excessively long comments in the comments section claiming this sort of autonomy has been common throughout history, even among the collators of the TR, and including massive amounts of data to reinforce this view and discourage the readers. But we must not be deceived on this point. If we stand back as â€œneutral scientists,â€ look at both sides of the issue, and then decide whether a word or verse should be included, then we have set ourselves up as the ultimate authority.
This is precisely what Wilson is arguing in Mother Kirk. After dealing with the necessary background information, Wilson says,
But when we consider the facts carefully, nothing is more apparent than that this is actually a battle of the paradigmsâ€¦ When we consider all the manuscripts we possess, we must still compare them to the number of all the manuscripts ever written â€“ which we do not have. The reconstruction of the autographic text is a task outside the competence of science, and any attempt to submit the task to scientific canons will only result in increasing confusionâ€¦ The autonomous text critic is someone who believes that this problem of the original text is one which admits of a scientific solution, or worse, that there is no solution. But the real solution to this problem is faith in God, and in His providential care for His Word. (emphasis his)
The point here is not to dismiss out of hand any sort of determining whatsoever, for that is impossible. Rather, the point is to dismiss a particular kind of â€œdetermining,â€ the kind of determining that wants to scientifically weigh the evidence. When we examine our Bibles, we should be asking, â€œwhat does this mean,â€ not â€œshould this even be here.â€
Now, we are not so naive as to think there will be no objections. A brief glance at the comment threads alone will reveal otherwise. A basic objection, and probably the most frequent objection to the presuppositional approach, is to point out the â€œmistakesâ€ themselves. And judging again by the comment threads, there are many of these â€œmistakesâ€ to be pointed out. We have said that we believe that God perfectly preserved His Word. We took some pains to define what we meant by â€œperfect,â€ demonstrating that perfect preservation should take the same shape as the inerrancy of Scripture. In other words, we do not make Scripture conform to our definition, but instead conform our definition to Scripture.
Our opponents counter this by arguing that if there is even one variant, then God did not perfectly preserve his Word, and the words are all up for grabs. As Kent quoted from Kevin Bauder, â€œIf they can admit that a legitimate margin of error exists within their sources, then they do not really believe in perfect preservation at all.â€
It should be pointed out here that unbelievers also use this line of reasoning to counter the doctrine of inerrancy. If they can find even one error, then the Bible is undone. And of course, they will find an error, and refuse to accept any explanation for it. The point is not that the error they found was actually an error. The point is that they refuse to believe, as anyone who is versed in presuppositional apologetics will know.
We believe that God has preserved His Word perfectly, not because no errors have been found, but because God said he would keep it. On the same basis, we believe that the Bible is inerrant, not because no errors have been found, but because it is Godâ€™s Word. This is presupposed. We have asked â€œwhat can we know,â€ and then asked, â€œhow can we know it.â€
Textual criticism asks â€œhow can we knowâ€ first, only asking â€œwhat can we knowâ€ when their first question is answered. Textual criticism demands evidence before it will settle. The text critic must decide for himself. He must be autonomous in his search for Godâ€™s words. Textual criticism is naturalistic. It has compromised to meet the demands of liberalism. It is theistic evolution. As Wilson said, it is â€œan anemic attempt to have it both ways, i.e., continuing to believe in the Bible while accepting (to a limited extent) the new critical approach to textual studies.â€
(1) Cornelius Van Til, The Defense of the Faith (Philipsburg, NJ: Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing, 1955), pp. 33-35
(2)Â Douglas Wilson, Mother Kirk: Essays and Forays in Practical Ecclesiology (Moscow, ID: Canon Press, 2001)Â for all of the quotes in this essay, please see chapter 3 “Receive the Word”, esp. pp. 51-60