The other day I was reading an article by some people whose work I greatly respect, which was encouraging Christians that we can trust that the Bible is the word of God, due to its remarkable preservation. (I’m not going to give the exact reference, because it isn’t really important.)
While this might surprise you, I disagreed with most of what the article said, despite the fact it matches the general tenor of the articles I’ve been publishing here. My disagreement wasn’t because they were using bad arguments; it was because I disagree with their fundamental basis for their position.
You see, I knew from extensive reading that one of the co-authors of the article believes that there are passages in scripture that do not belong. So when I picked up the article, I was immediately on the defensive, knowing that what it would be defending would be essentially “faux preservation.”
This is not to disparage the authors, I am only using it as one example of what is actually quite a common phenomenon among fundamentalist/evangelical Christians today. Many of them will probably still tell you that they believe in preservation. They are sincere in this; and in a sense, they are right. They do believe in the preservation of scripture. They just don’t believe in scriptural preservation. Not because they reject what scripture has to say on the matter (in most cases), but because they’ve not given it much thought—they have either assumed, or concluded with some consideration, that what they believe is in harmony with the Bible.
So I thought it would be a good idea to explain the difference between genuine, biblical preservation of scripture, and the amorphous doctrine of ‘scripture must have been reliably preserved, so that we can trust the Bible.’
This will both provide an opportunity for people to consider whether their beliefs regarding preservation square with scripture, and also help others to discern whether things that they hear said about preservation are actually in favor of the preserved text, that is, whether they are biblical.
So here are some questions that you can ask yourself when you hear someone talking about preservation, to determine whether it is genuine, biblical preservation of which they are speaking.
1. What is the foundation? #
The first and most important question to ask is whether the belief in preservation is propositional. Is it based on scripture, or is it only a convenient (and very relieving) deduction from the evidence?
It might seem almost inescapable; how can one not base his belief in preservation on scripture, when the Bible has so much to say on the subject? However, the article that I read did not once mention that preservation was a doctrine taught by scripture.
This is not to say that every time we speak of preservation we must mention that fact, but I certainly tend to do so, because it is the basis for my belief. If another person’s basis for believing preservation was scripture, I would expect that they would be hard pressed to avoid saying so when expressing their thoughts on the subject. After all, the Bible should be our final authority in all matters, and I certainly think that the authors of the article believe and try to practice that. In this case, however, there is clearly a tendency to argue for preservation based on deductions from the evidence, or from propositions not explicitly derived from scripture, by essentially arguing that ‘God would want us to know what he said, so therefore scripture must have been preserved.’ The conclusion may be true, but the argument is weak; this kind of reasoning is not necessary when we can show that the Bible teaches this explicitly. The propositional approach gives a firm foundation for the belief, in scripture.
[This is akin to the difference between belief in ID (intelligent design) and belief in biblical creation. The biblical creationist believes what he believes because of what Genesis 1 (and the Bible as a whole) says, while the ID advocate usually is (or tries to be) purely evidence-oriented, basing his beliefs on observation; he may not give any consideration to what the Bible has to say on the matter.]
It is certainly good to point out that the evidence fits exactly what we would expect based on what the Bible says; but we shouldn’t believe in preservation only because we can prove it, we should believe it because the Bible says so. (Consider how the evidence-only approach would apply to the resurrection of Christ, for example.)
Of course, if scripture is your basis for belief in preservation, then your beliefs should match what the Bible says. On the other hand, if scripture isn’t the basis for your beliefs, then we might expect there to be differences.
Indeed, this may explain the apparent reluctance to quote scripture in regard to this, because it would tend to contradict certain aspects of what they believe. This is why it is more convenient to treat preservation as an auxiliary doctrine or observation, rather than something taught explicitly by scripture. The two are apparently so different that the Bible is not used to defend their position.
So once the Bible ceases to be the foundation for this doctrine, here are the other questions you’ll probably find answered in the negative by people promoting “preservation”.
2. Is it miraculous? #
In the Bible, God promises to preserve his word. Not that his word will be preserved, but that he will preserve it (Psalm 12). Thus, scriptural preservation is the result of divine action and intervention. It is not something that could or did naturally occur. It is a miraculous thing, made possible only by the hand of Almighty God.
However, there is no miracle in the “preservation” spoken of by those whose belief is merely based on deduction. They may find it hard to avoid saying that “God preserved his words,” but this statement has little actual meaning. The events and processes to which it refers are quite natural, and could just as easily have happened without God having to take part. Indeed, no evidence is presented to support the claim that it was a work of God; they only say so because it seems that it ought to be said; that God ought to have had a part in the preservation of his words. And well he should. But if he did, that role should be necessary and effective, not practically useless and undetectable.
To carry on the analogy introduced in Are you an Evolutionist?, this is similar to how people behave who believe in theistic evolution. They often hold the Bible as true, and usually seek to fit their view into scripture. Thus, people who believe in theistic evolution may say that they believe that God created everything, but they certainly aren’t a biblical creationist; their version of “creation” (evolution) looks absolutely nothing like what the Bible describes. In fact, it can hardly be called “creation” at all. It is not supernatural, because the hand of God is not actually needed. They merely pay lip-service by attributing the supposed result of a wholly natural process to him.
In the same way the form of “preservation” propounded by many is not preservation at all; and thus it looks nothing at all like the preservation described by scripture. It need not be supernatural, because the hand of God is not actually needed. They merely pay lip-service by attributing the result of what might be mistaken for a wholly natural process to him. The article even spoke of God’s “method of preservation,” just as theistic evolutionists say that evolution was just God’s “method” of creation. Of course, in both cases the Bible is clear that God’s “method” was miraculous, not just the guidance of chance. ‘God’s method of preservation’ is not that he allowed the Bible to get naturally corrupted, but that we can now attempt to reconstruct it as we would any other corrupt text. That is neither “God’s” nor a “method of preservation.”
Again, this is why they may choose not to quote scripture; after all, theistic evolutionists don’t go around quoting “in six days the LORD made the heaven, the earth, and the sea” in support of their position. Rather, they have to explain away these “difficult” passages, just as “preservation” advocates have to try and explain away Psalm 12 and many other verses.
3. Is it perfect? #
Without a basis in scripture, it might well be thought presumption to believe preservation is miraculous; and without belief that it is miraculous, it is impossible to believe that it is perfect. Thus, the “preservation” of which these people speak is hedged up by weasel words like “accurate” and “reliable”, and claims that “no major doctrines are affected” (but see the post What’s the difference?). They do not mean to say that every word that God inspired has been preserved down to the present day. They only mean that a text that “reliably” matches what he inspired has been preserved.
In other words, “preservation” really means that the Bible has been corrupted; that it contains things that it shouldn’t, and has lost things that it should contain; but that we can blissfully ignore this in the naive notion that “no major doctrines are affected.”
If this is “preservation”, then we might be forgiven for asking what non-preservation would look like.
The biblical preservationist can say that preservation means that every word is preserved to all generations. (Note that this doesn’t mean that manuscripts won’t have the occasional typo in them, but that we can always know exactly what the originals said.) But because the non-bible based position inevitably accepts a form of imperfect “preservation”, it is impossible to define exactly what would constitute preservation, and what would not, in a non-arbitrary manner.
So ironically, the evidence-based approach leads to a place where preservation is actually no longer a matter of verifiable fact, but a matter of opinion, which each person must decide for themselves based on what they constitute “preservation” to mean in this case. What would indicate non-preservation? How much would a doctrine have to be affected, and how “major” would it have to be? How many words would have to be added or lost? There is no scriptural basis for making such judgements on the text, and therefore we’re forced to make a judgement of our own mind. Thus is the nature of textual criticism.
4. Is it perpetual? #
God has promised that his word will be preserved to all generations for ever (Psalm 12 again, for example). This means that it is preserved perpetually: that every generation has the perfect inspired words of God. But this perpetual nature of the preservation declared by scripture is invariably overlooked or disregarded.
To the degree that some might argue (incorrectly) that the text has been sufficiently preserved in the Alexandrian manuscripts for us to perfectly reconstruct the original, they are arguing not for perpetual preservation but for modern reconstruction. Saying that God has preserved his word by preserving these manuscripts which we have found in the last 150 years is once again arguing for something fundamentally different than biblical preservation. The Bible teaches that every generation will have God’s words, whereas those who support this line of thinking are saying that for most of history they have been lost, only to be rediscovered. They say that God’s words (or the means to reconstruct them) have been hidden away somewhere on this earth, and so thus God has preserved them. But God didn’t say he’d keep his word stashed away somewhere so that we could try to reconstruct it in the last days: he said that he would preserve it to all generations for ever.
There are many people who sense the general necessity that God preserve his words, but they often put a modern spin, informed by the “science” of textual criticism, on an age-old doctrine. They speak of “preservation” in weasel words that are (unintentionally) deceptive. So it is important to think carefully about what people say on this issue, and to discern whether it is built on the foundation of scripture and matches what the Bible says. Do they believe that preservation was miraculous, perfect, and perpetual? Or do they believe that it was mostly natural, imperfect, and absent for most of history? The two are fundamentally different. Do we have to reconstruct what we think God might have said? Or did he preserve his words perfectly to all generations, for ever, as the Bible teaches?