Did Providence Stop Working After 1633?


In Recovering the Reformed Confession (2008) I offered two categories by which to understand the great errors affecting the Reformed churches in the Modern period: QIRE (pronounced choir) and QIRC (pronounced quirk). The former stands for the Quest for Illegitimate Religious Experience, which is how I characterized revivalism. It is a desire for an unmediated encounter with the risen Christ. QIRC stands for the Quest for Illegitimate Religious Certainty, which is how I characterized fundamentalism. It is the desire for the unmediated knowledge of God. It seeks to know what God knows, the way he knows it. In the classical period of Reformed theology, the Reformed orthodox theologians called such knowledge archetypal theology. Theologians such as Franciscus Junius, who wrote the book on this distinction, argued that only God has archetypal theology. Creatures have one sort of ectypal theology or another. In their quest for certainty, QIRCers seek certainty where there is none. One of the prime examples of the QIRC is the King James Only movement. A distinct but related movement is that movement that seeks to restrict the churches to a one or two families of Greek texts behind our English New Testament. I have addressed the question of translations previously (see the resources below). Here I want to focus on the question of the transmission of the text.

The Question

Recently a regular reader of this space and a valued correspondent wrote to ask about these movements and how we should think about them and especially about those who argue that the Westminster Confession requires orthodox Reformed Christians to reject the practice of textual criticism in favor of those texts that were extant at the time of the Westminster Assembly.

The argument is twofold. First, in 1.8, the Westminster Confession of Faith says,

8. 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. But, because these original tongues are not known to all the people of God, who have right unto, and interest in the Scriptures, and are commanded, in the fear of God, to read and search them, therefore they are to be translated into the vulgar language of every nation unto which they come, that, the Word of God dwelling plentifully in all, they may worship him in an acceptable manner; and, through patience and comfort of the Scriptures, may have hope.

The inference is sometimes drawn that the clause “by his singular care and providence, kept pure in all ages” we should understand that only the Byzantine Text type (i.e., those texts underlying the MT) or the Western text type, i.e., those texts underlying the Textus Receptus (TR), are to be regarded as those preserved by God’s singular care and providence.  Second, sometimes advocates of this approach also argue that the only reliable translation of Holy Scripture into English is the King James Version. Others, particularly those devoted to the Majority Text (MT), prefer the New King James.

Does confessional fidelity require Reformed people only to use the the TR or the MT? Does it also require that we only use the KJV or the NKJV? This has practical implications. Are we required to affirm the longer ending of Mark (16:9–20), the pericope of woman taken in adultery (John 7:53–8:11), or the so-called Johannine Comma of 1 John 5:8?

This is a significant question in part because in the nineteenth century, in Egypt, scholars discovered a large cache of texts including copies of the New Testament, which scholars have sought to incorporate into their understanding of textual basis of the New Testament. The text that emerged from this work is described by scholars as the Eclectic text (ET). It has elements of the material discovered in the nineteenth century as well as the TR and the MT. It is on the basis of the ET that most modern translations (e.g., the NASB, NIV, ESV) have been made.

To put the question another way, does God’s “singular care and providence” end at 1611 or did it extend to periods beyond the seventeenth century?
To answer this question we need to understand that, contrary to the impression that some have sought to create, faithful Christians long compared textual variants to try to ascertain what the best reading is when there is a question. This is not a practice that only emerged in the Modern period, after the discovery of the texts in Egypt. Indeed, as Bruce Metzger explained,

In 1550 [Robert] Stephanus published at Paris his third edition, the editio Regia, a magnificent folio edition. It is the first printed Greek Testament to contain a critical apparatus; on the inner margins of its pages Stephanus entered variant readings from fourteen Greek manuscripts, as well as readings from another printed edition, the Complutensian Polyglot.1

Stephanus’ edition, typically accepted by advocates of the MT and/or TR  is evidence that faithful, orthodox scholars have long had to select between different readings, which scholars call “textual variants.”

One of the leading orthodox theologians of the sixteenth century, Theodore Beza (1519–1605) acquired a manuscript of the New Testament in 1562. The history of this MS, now known as Codex Bezae (Beza’s Book) but we know that a bishop brought it to the Council of Trent in 1546. Beza found it in a monastery in Lyons, France. He donated it to the university of Cambridge in 1581. Hence it is sometimes known as Codex Cantabrigiensis (the Cambridge book). From 1562 scholars of the New Testament now had to account for variant readings included in that copy of the NT, e.g., including what one writer calls “a unique rendering of John 21:22 found only in Codex Bezae,” to which the bishop at Trent appealed to justify clerical celibacy.2

As is well known, the expression Textus Receptus as used by Abraham Elzevir to describe the Western text as they published it (2nd edition), in Leiden, in 1633, was a publishers blurb. This is not an ecclesiastical judgment. The blurb says, “Therefore you…have the text now received by all, in which we give nothing changed or corrupted.”3 There had already been “approximately 160 editions of the Greek New Testament published since Erasmus published his landmark Novum Instrumentum Omne (New Complete Instrument) in 1516. It carried on the Byzantine text tradition which was well known. As Metzger reminds us, scholars in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries began to apply the same sorts of techniques used in the study of the classics to the Greek New Testament.4

By the late nineteenth century scholars had assembled a considerable library of variants. With the discovery of the Egyptian papyri (designated by P followed by a number, e.g., P66), which tended to be older than the MSS we had been using, scholars were able to see more clearly the ways that the Byzantine copyists had corrupted the text. They could see how marginal notes made by copyists, as a reference to future copyists, came to be copied in the text itself. They saw where a copyist’s eye had moved and copied a word from one line to another. They saw where copyists had sought to clarify something or to add to Scripture (e.g., the doxology at the end of the Lord’s Prayer or the longer ending or Mark). This is why we have brackets in our English Bibles noting that the passage about the woman taken in adultery may be an authentic narrative but it is not in the most ancient copies of the New Testament. The so-called “Johannine Comma” in 1 John 5:8 is quite late and not in the oldest manuscripts (MSS). It is almost certainly an attempt by a Byzantine copyist to make utterly clear what is implied. Its omission changes nothing about the teaching of Scripture. Claims to the contrary notwithstanding, the Christian doctrine of the Trinity is taught throughout the Bible so that, as the Belgic says, we have to choose them carefully so as not to overwhelm the reader. Anyone who thinks that the doctrine of the Trinity rests on a late variant of 1 John 5:8 does not understand Scripture or the Christian tradition very well.


In his commentary on Galatians, William Perkins observed,

Before I come to the consideration of these words, a doubt must be resolved. For some men may say that this is epistle is corrupted because these words are wanting in sundry translations and editions of the Bible. And Jerome says that they were not found in the copies of the Bible in his days. Answer. In the editions and translations of the Bible, there are sundry differences and diversities of readings. And these differences are not the fault of the Scripture, but of the men which used to write out the Bible. For the Bible heretofore was spread abroad, not by printing, but by writing. Again, though in the books of the Bible there be sundry varieties of reading, yet the providence of God has so watched over the Bible that the sense thereof remains entire, sound, and incorrupt, specially in the grounds of religion. And not the words principally, but the sense is the Scripture. For whether these words be left in, or put out, the sense of the verse is one and the same.5

Perkins recognized that the we are going to face textual variants. This is not a fault of Scripture but of the copyists. Nevertheless, he argued, the pure text of Scripture can be found amidst the copies. It has been, in the words of WCF 1.8, “kept pure in all ages.” Its purity rests upon the providence of God.

Perkins did not set providence over against text criticism, the work of evaluating and comparing textual variants. As Perkins understood it, providence works through the process of textual criticism. Those arguments that want us to stop with the Elzevir text, which seek to exclude the Egyptian manuscripts, is wrongheaded. God has preserved the Scriptures. This is the background for the language of the Westminster Divines. They were not implicitly telling us to stop doing textual criticism or to stop collecting texts or to ignore a cache of Egyptian texts should we find them. They were telling us how to understand God’s providential care of Scripture through the very process of textual criticism of which they were well aware. The copies we inherited and those we recovered in the sixteenth century, and later in the nineteenth century and since, have all been preserved by the singular care and providence of God.

Part of the argument is that the people who invented the textual criticism of the New Testament were theologically liberal and did so with the intention of undermining the credibility of the Scriptures. The Princetonian argument (e.g., by B. B. Warfield, who was a New Testament scholar before he taught systematics and who published a volume on textual criticism) was that the orthodox have nothing to fear from comparing texts. The answer to the liberals is not to stop doing the work of scholarship but to do it well. Warfield and his orthodox successors were right. Theological liberals are capable of doing good scholarship, from which we should learn, but they are also capable of doing poor scholarship. We should not assume, as some seem to do, that the liberals are more clever than we (they may be, in some cases) or that our case is inherently weak (it is not) and thus we ought essentially to hide from modern scholarship.

At the turn of the twentieth century Machen showed that the orthodox faith can stand on its own two feet. He rightly derided those who sought to avoid the challenges posed by the liberals as “obscurantist.” Calvin and Beza were not obscurantist. Neither were the orthodox who followed them. Our God is in his heaven. He is preserving his elect but he uses the means of grace to do so. By analogy, he is also preserving the autographa, i.e., the original text of Scripture in the original languages, through the work of collecting, comparing, and evaluating text variants. We evaluate them on the basis of their intrinsic probability (e.g., is it most likely that the author would have written this?), on the basis of transcriptional probability (e.g., might a copyist have been tempted to clarify the passage thus making a more difficult reading less difficult?) and on the basis of the objective evidence (e.g., the date and quality of the text). We know what God’s Word says. The questions are mostly minor. What if the narrative of the woman taken in adultery is judged inauthentic? Have we lost the biblical and Christian doctrine of forgiveness? Not at all. The variants threaten no essential teaching of God’s Word. Indeed, the more copies of Scripture we have discovered our confidence in the reliability of God’s Word has only grown because even in the midst of the copies we see how marvelously and consistently God has preserved his Word.

©R. Scott Clark. All Rights Reserved.


1. Bruce M. Metzger, A Textual Commentary on the Greek New Testament Second Edition, xxiii.

2. Jeffrey Miller, “Codex Beza Cantabrigiensis” in Lexham Bible Dictionary.

3. Metzger, xxiii.

4. Metzger, xxiv.

5. William Perkins, The Works of William Perkins: vol. 2: Commentary on Galatians, ed. Paul M. Smalley (Grand Rapids: Reformation Heritage Books, 2015), 146.


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  1. You know, it occurred to me fairly recently that a fair argument can be mounted apologetically against Islam in relation to the manuscripts found within the last two hundred years. Muslims claim that our NT is distorted, and yet the Koran quotes the NT as if people should go there to read what it says. One could argue that the great 4th and 5th century manuscripts were hidden so that Muslims would not destroy them, and so that we could prove that the text had not been distorted in the copies, but that the Bible we have now is substantially the same as what the early church had.

    • As a confessional presbyterian exiled amongst the reformed, while it warms our non PCA heart to see the Westminster quoted, what does the Confession mean “ by his singular care and providence, kept pure in all ages”? The way I’ve heard it put, it is not that textual criticism ceased after the Reformation, but that some, such as Burgon – not Baggins, sorry Lane – consider the texts of the 4th and 5th century as being providentially discarded because they don’t agree amongst themselves, never mind the TR, and therefore they are outside the mainstream per se. FTM I don’t think even those who follow the ET consider Codex Bezae to be that reliable.

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