Has God preserved a fixed master copy of the Scriptures?
God has preserved His written Word. We have the Bible. But He has done so providentially, not miraculously.
Once upon a time, there were two brothers who printed a Greek New Testament in 1633. They wrote in the preface a bit of good advertising. Their claim was that their edition was “the text now received by all in which we give nothing changed or corrupted.” So this form of the text came to be known as the “Received Text” or, in Latin, the “Textus Receptus” commonly abbreviated as the TR (152). This matters today because the New Testament of the King James Version is based on the Textus Receptus. And some believe the Received Text, the Textus Receptus, is how God miraculously preserved the words of the New Testament. And some would say that God did the same thing in the Masoretic Text for the Old Testament. But what does Scripture say about its preservation?
For ever, O LORD, thy word is settled in heaven (Ps. 119:89, KJV).
Does that settle it? Does this mean God has a perfect copy of Scripture in heaven and He’s given us the same on earth in the Textus Receptus and Masoretic Text? Well, actually this verse doesn’t tell us anything about what God has done with Scripture on earth. And when this verse refers to the Lord’s word, instead of referring to the written Word of God, it’s best understood as “God’s all-embracing purpose and will” (831). But that’s not to say that Scripture doesn’t tell us anything about preservation. There are actually verses that have something to say about God preserving His written word. Take, for instance, Psalm 119:152:
Long have I known from your testimonies that you have founded them forever (Ps. 119:152).
And, just a few verses after that:
The sum of your word is truth, and every one of your righteous rules endures forever (Ps. 119:160).
These verses are talking about Scripture. God made it to last forever. So Scripture does teach preservation. But to what extent? The three common beliefs are these.
One: God miraculously preserved every word in one single text.
Two: God preserved every word providentially in the mass of Greek and Hebrew manuscripts in existence.
Three: God providentially preserved, not every word, but the essential message in the available manuscripts.
The first one is incorrect because Scripture doesn’t make this claim for itself. There are some passages commonly quoted out of context or misapplied to argue in favour of preservation (Psalm 12:6–7, Psalm 119:89; 1 Peter 1:25). Some of these passages aren’t making anything about the written Word of God, but God’s oral communication to man. Or let’s look at one of the classic Scripture texts used to support preservation. Take Psalm 12:6–7 quoted from the KJV, as is commonly done:
The words of the LORD are pure words: as silver tried in a furnace of earth, purified seven times. Thou shalt keep them, O LORD, thou shalt preserve them from this generation for ever (Ps. 12:6–7).
But the thing is, the “them” in v. 7 isn’t referring to the “words of the Lord” in v. 6. It’s actually referring to the “poor” and “needy” back in v. 5. If you want to know why some of these commonly cited verses don’t actually teach preservation, I recommend this excellent article by William Combs that looks at which verses don’t support preservation and which ones do. And here’s another good one by Mark Ward written at more of a lay level.
Now, please don’t get me wrong. Scripture does truly teach preservation—just not the same kind of preservation that some people want to claim exists. The claim of miraculous preservation fails to account for the reality that none of our manuscripts are in perfect agreement. There are all kinds of variants. And how would we even know which manuscript or text perfectly preserves Scripture? So, no, God has not miraculously preserved every word in one single text. But He has given us many manuscripts and many scholars who can study them to give us a text very near to the original. And this affects us in our translations.
Is the translation of Scripture you read still the Word of God even though you’re not reading the original manuscripts of Scripture? And for an answer, we can look to our featured theologian: Reuben Archer Torrey. R. A. Torrey served in the church and academy and was one of the editors for The Fundamentals. And he had this to say about our translations of Scripture:
“The answer is simple; they are the inerrant word Word of God just to that extent that they are an accurate rendering of the Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments as originally given, and to all practical intents and purposes they are a thoroughly accurate rendering of the Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments as originally given.” (The Fundamental Doctrines of the Christian Faith, 36–37. Cited by Combs).
Your Bible is a faithful and accurate rendering of Scripture. It is the inerrant Word of God so much as it reflects those original manuscripts. And it reflects them very closely.
For application, let’s consider one more passage used to argue in favour of miraculous preservation: Matt. 5:18. And, again, I’m going to quote from the KJV.
For verily I say unto you, Till heaven and earth pass, one jot or one tittle shall in no wise pass from the law, till all be fulfilled (Matt 5:18).
A “jot” is the smallest letter in the Hebrew alphabet, a yod. And a “title” is a “horn” or a “hook.” It’s just a little projection used on different Hebrew letters. Jesus is using hyperbole to say that God’s written revelation cannot be changed. No original hearer would have interpreted this to mean there was a perfect line of manuscript copies of the Hebrew Bible. Jesus isn’t making a statement on the preservation of Scripture. He’s saying it’s valid and it’s authoritative.
God hasn’t miraculously preserved His Word. We have many manuscripts and there are many differences, but the main message of Scripture is clear as a bell. Like in Matt. 2:9, what did the star guiding the wise men to Jesus do? Some manuscripts say “it came and stood over” where Jesus was. Other manuscripts say “it came to rest over” where Jesus was. Two different words, but no doubt about the main message. Clear as a bell.
And we can determine a lot of the finer details by comparing and evaluating the differences we come across. That’s called textual criticism. It’s the discipline of determining which word to choose, but even in that choice, there are no significant questions that affect any real teaching of Scripture. Christianity is not affected by this discussion.
Our problem isn’t knowing what the Bible says, it’s doing what it clearly states. What God has done is that He’s given us His valid and authoritative Word that He wants you to believe and obey.
And as one writer put it:
The main problem in understanding the New Testament [and we can include all Scripture] is not any uncertainty about its precise wording but rather our inability to grasp and absorb the message in its full impact and complexity (23).
As Jesus said in Matt. 5:18, Scripture is valid. God tells us what He wants us to know about Him and what He requires of us. And everything He tells us is authoritative for us to believe and obey.
Thanks, David! This was a fun topic to research.