Monday, January 16, 2017

Russell Fuller on John Owen and the Traditional Protestant View of the Old Testament

I listened today to the recently posted lecture by Dr. Russell T. Fuller, OT Professor at Southern Baptist Seminary, on “John Owen and the Traditional Protestant View of the OT" (see video above).  The lecture was given at the 2016 Andrew Fuller Conference on the theme, “The Diversity of Dissent.”

Fuller presents a compelling defense of the Hebrew Masoretic tradition as the authoritative text of the Old Testament, over against modern, reconstructionist text critical approaches, as represented in many modern liberal and also evangelical translations of the OT. And he does so on distinctly confessional grounds!

Here are some notes:

Fuller begins with a review of the “forgotten controversy” of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries over the antiquity of the vowel points and accents of the Hebrew Bible.

Traditional Jews and Protestant held to the antiquity of the vowel points and accents, tracing them back to Moses and Ezra.  The controversy began with the rejection of the antiquity of the vowel points and accents by the Jewish scholar Elias Levita and (surprisingly) the Protestant scholar Louis Cappel (Latin:  Capellus).  This was seized upon by Catholics who argued that the OT text was corrupted and proper interpretation only came through the Vulgate and the RC magisterium. Johannes Buxtorf (the elder) and his son Johannes Buxtorf (the younger) defended the traditional Protestant view.  This controversy re-emerged in the seventeenth century with Brian Walton’s Polyglott offering the same challenges and John Owen defending the traditional Protestant view.

Fuller rightly points out that the traditional Protestant view “has been discarded completely by the critical scholars and partly by evangelical scholars.”

While conceding that Owen and his colleagues “stumbled” in some details, he argues that they were correct on three core issues: (1) the preservation of Scripture; (2) the verbal inspiration of Scripture: and (3) the dangers of radical text criticism to Scripture.

The “final statement” of these confessional views were expressed in the Helvetic Consensus Formula (1675) and this view prevailed for c. 50-100 years.  The Baptist pastor John Gill, the Scottish theologian James Robertson of Edinburgh, and the German scholar Oluf Gerhard Tychsen represented a “rear-guard” defense of these views, but modernism eventually prevailed. The Hebrew text of the OT is now seen as corrupted, obscure, and outdated.

Fuller concludes: “We are all Capellian now.”

Nevertheless, he argues that the defenders of the traditional Protestant view were right on the core issues:

On preservation, he argues that the Masoretic Text of the Hebrew Bible should be considered the standard for the OT.  It has been preserved in the Aleppo Codex and the Leningrad Codex.

The antiquity and authority of the MT has been proven by various evidences [Babylonian Talmud and rabbinic literature, versions (like the Vulgate), Masada texts, Qumran texts (Isaiah scroll), LXX revisions, and even NT usage].

So, Fuller says, “The MT is the OT.”

To traditional Protestants the “original autographs” and the scriptures of their day were the same.

On verbal inspiration, he notes that the traditional Protestants stressed the inspiration not only of Biblical ideas but of the very words of Scripture.

On the vowels and accents, he notes the traditional Protestants were right to say that this included the vowels and accents, “the power of the points,” whether in written form or as preserved in oral tradition as the proper pronunciation.

The Masoretic tradition (consonants, vowels, and accents) are the “Lydian stone” of the OT against which all versions must be evaluated.

On radical text criticism, Fuller bemoans departures from the Masoretic Text in modern translations of the OT, which give weight to versions like the LXX, the Dead Sea Scrolls, the Pentateuch, and even to conjectural emendations.

Sadly, this is true not just of liberal translations (RSV, NRSV, NEB) but also of evangelical translations (ESV, NIV, NLT).

He cites a study that notes variations in the ESV from the MT of the OT:

277 times it follows the LXX;
18 times the Dead Sea Scrolls;
7 times the Samaritan Pentateuch;
26 times it amends with NO mss. support.

And this is just based on the consonantal text.  If vowel and accent changes were included variants would be in the hundreds!

Striking is Fuller’s observation: “If liberals amend [the text] thousands of times, evangelicals do so hundreds of times”!

He sums up (c. 37:15 mark): “Liberals and evangelicals create their own text.  Each translation committee creates its own magisterium.  This is what Owen and others foresaw and warned against.”

Though Owen and his allies erred in some details, they were right of the core issues:  preservation, verbal inspiration, and the dangers of radical text criticism.

JTR Evaluation:

I highly commend this lecture.  Fuller has hit the nail on the proverbial head with regard to the theological issues involved in text criticism of the OT and offers a compelling rationale for defense of the “traditional Protestant” use of the Masoretic Text as the text of the OT.

If you are making use of a modern translation of the Bible (like the ESV) which departs from the Masoretic text, you should pay especially close attention to Fuller’s argument.

I have one question/suggestion:  For the core issues, Why not follow the order inspiration, preservation, translation (as in Westminster I.8), rather than preservation, inspiration, translation?

And I have one significant disagreement.  It has to do with the only reference in the lecture to NT text criticism, and it goes by so quickly it might easily be overlooked.  At the 17:40 mark, Fuller says,

For the NT, Vaticanus, with obvious copyist errors noted, virtually reproduces the NT as given by the apostles. The same could be said for other famous uncial and papyri manuscripts.

This appears to me to be an inconsistency.  If Fuller prefers the traditional Protestant text for the OT why does he not also prefer the traditional Protestant text of the NT, namely, the Textus Receptus, or, at the very least, the Majority Text? When Owen and his contemporaries thought of the “autograph” they thought of the text of their day.  This was not, however, just the MT of the OT, but also the TR of the NT!

Part of his argument here is for the use of extant texts (the Aleppo and Leningrad Codices), over eclectic texts.  But why not the TR as the standard printed text of Protestant consensus?


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