Note: This is the second of a five part series offering review and analysis of Dan Wallace’s "Challenges in New Testament Textual Criticism for the Twenty-First Century" (JETS, Vol. 52, No. 1: pp. 79-100).
II. Postmodern Intrusions into New Testament Textual Criticism
Wallace proceeds to trace three "postmodern intrusions" into the field of text criticism (p. 80). The first two he sees as negative and the third as positive. The three intrusions:
(1) Defining the goal of the discipline.
Here Wallace refers to the fact that text critics in the academy have abandoned the traditional task of determining the original text or autograph of Scripture.
He cites here the work of British scholar David Parker, in particular, who sees the Bible as "a living, changing document" (p. 83). There are no longer wrong or right readings, but all are equally valid.
Wallace concludes that, at its worst, "postmodern textual criticism" is "anchorless" and "detached from history" (p. 85). For him, "the quest for the wording of the autographa is still worth fighting for" (p. 85).
Analysis: It seems to me that the root problem with contemporary evangelical academic text criticism is exposed in this section. The "traditional" textual work done by evangelicals like Wallace is, in fact, the cutting edge scholarship of the 19th and 20th centuries and not the 21st. "Traditional" text criticism is the same scholarship that was dominated by men like Westcott and Hort and adapted to evangelical church life by men like B. B. Warfield and A. T. Robertson. It gave us the overthrow of the ecclesiastical text and its replacement by the modern critical Greek text. It has also given us a multitude of new translations based on the new authoritative text. Sadly, the next generation is revealing that far from leading to certainty, the trajectory is leading to confusion.
The alarm expressed by Wallace is rooted in the fact that "mainstream" academic text criticism has entered a brave new world of near complete relativism where not only marginal textual variants but even Gnostic gospels are considered to be as relevant as the received text of the canonical gospels. The search for the original, authoritative text is passe.
What will the future hold for evangelical text critics? If the pattern is repeated here as in other fields, the most likely scenario is that the evangelical scholars will be led more toward the innovations of those in the academy in an attempt to gain scholarly respectability. It is highly unlikely that the new generation of "postmodernists" will be pulled back to the "traditional" goal by evangelicals, whose work they are most likely merely to dismiss offhand as outdated. What will future editions of the modern critical text look like? How will the text be altered? What will the translations made from such text look like A look at the ending of Mark’s Gospel in the NRSV with its inclusion of the "shorter ending," the "longer ending," and even the complete inclusion of the Freer Logion (in a footnote)might give us some clue as to the direction scholarship is heading.
(2) Epistemological skepticism.
The second intrusion, Wallace defines as "a frontal attack on any kind of certainty" (p. 85). Wallace offers a sociological explanation for this skepticism "cultivated in the soil of cultural pessimism" explaining that "Broken homes and lives racked with sin are not ingredients for hope or certainty" (p. 86).
Analysis: Though Wallace bemoans postmodern angst over ever achieving any measure of absolute certainty with regard to the establishment of an authoritative text, his own approach ironically reflects the same fatal symptoms.
Wallace concedes that his discipline will never produce an absolutely authoritative text. He asks, "Can we know with absolute certainty that what we have in our hands today exactly replicates the original text?" and answers, "Of course not" (p. 86). Nevertheless, Wallace says, this is a good thing since it corrects "the naïve epistomological triumphalism" of "modernism" (p. 86).
What do we have? According to Wallace, the best we have is "overwhelming probability that the wording in our printed Bibles is pretty close" (p. 86).
His critique of postmodernism is that it ignores "probabilities" if it cannot have absolute certainty: "At bottom, postmodern textual critics have confused absolute certainty—which we cannot have—with reasonable certainty—which we can have" (p. 89).
Wallace's response hardly leaves the traditional Christian with much assurance as to where things are heading. The abandonment of the received text has led to an evangelical text that is "pretty close" and to a postmodern text that is so completely uncertain that it is whatever one chooses to make of it.
(3) Focus on community/collaboration.
Wallace affirms this third influence as "a very positive trend" (p. 89). Whereas the great text critics of the past tended to be "lone wolves," postmodernism has made textual criticism a communal effort.
Analysis: Wallace’ praise for efforts at collaboration includes high commendation for ecumenical rapprochement. He commends, for example, the fact that the 4th edition of the UBS and the 27th edition of the Nestle-Aland text "involved Protestants, a Roman Catholic, and an Orthodox scholar—all three branches of Christendom" (p. 90, n. 48). Furthermore, Wallace approvingly reports on recent changes at that highly influential German INTF, a historically Protestant organization:
"When Barbara Aland retired a few years ago, the search was on for a new director. In 2004, Holger Strutwolf was found. What is remarkable about this appointment is that Strutwolf is a Roman Catholic. To understand how radical this shift is, just imagine the Evangelical Theological Society with a Roman Catholic as its president!" (p. 91).
That final remark got quite a laugh when delivered at the ETS meeting, given the recent ETS Francis Beckwith debacle.
One is left to wonder, however, if such cooperation is as healthy as Wallace makes it out to be. In losing the traditional text of Scripture have we also lost a distinctively Reformed and Protestant Bible? Will efforts to diminish cardinal doctrinal differences have an impact in future editions of the modern critical Greek text and the translations that are based upon it?
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