I have posted Word Magazine # 80: Review: Douglas Wilson and James R. White Debate the Text of the NT (listen here). In this episode I read through a draft of a review article giving some analysis of the the recently (summer 2017) published booklet, Debating the Text of the Word of God: Douglas Wilson vs. James R. White (Simposio, 2017).
Here is the opening of my review:
This booklet is a brief written debate between Presbyterian theologian Douglas Wilson, perhaps best known most recently for distancing himself from the “federal vision” theology he once championed, and Reformed Baptist apologist James R. White. The debate ostensibly addresses the question, “In the context of the Christian faith, has God best preserved His written word in the New Testament in the Textus Receptus or in the modern Nestle-Aland/UBS Text Platform?”
The debate structure consists of five parts: (1) opening statements; (2) rebuttals; (3) cross-examinations (each participant poses seven questions to the other, who replies); (4) closing statements; and (5) questions and answers (with some questions posed to both participants and others to each individually). In addition to the written debate, the publisher also has available an audio version.
In this debate, Wilson is meant to defend the TR and White the NA/UBS. The exchange becomes somewhat confused, however, by the fact that Wilson puts forward a unique defense of the TR based on his idiosyncratic understanding of the text of the NT from a “canonical” perspective, a view which White appears, perhaps justifiably, only flounderingly to grasp or critique, as he falls back on some stock arguments in favor of the modern critical text. Though there are significant differences between the two positions, in the end both advocate a version of a “reconstructionist” perspective on the text of the NT.
And here is my concluding analysis:
This written debate on the text of the NT is brief but dense in content. In the end, I agree with Wilson that the approach of both presenters is “structurally identical.” They both present a “reconstruction” view of the text of the NT, as opposed to a classical Protestant, confessional view of the providential preservation of Scripture, as expressed in chapter one, paragraph eight of the Westminster Confession (and the Second London Baptist Confession). Both believe that the text of the NT, at present, can only be closely approximated but it remains “unsettled.” Wilson presents a unique “canonical” view of the text, suggesting the best current approximation of the true text is found in Stephanus’ 1550 edition of the TR. White is taken aback by Wilson’s unique approach and struggles properly to understand his perspective. For White the closest text to the autograph is found in the current edition of the modern critical text (NA 28/UBS5), which he doggedly defends. The problem, again, is that neither view articulates the traditional Protestant perspective on the text of Scripture and its preservation as presented in the confession.
Jeff, I'm thankful for your words here. I remember reading this debate some years back when it was posted on the Credenda-Agenda website. I don't know if that was a truncated version of what appears in this booklet or not. That said, in what was written I was having a hard time getting my arms around the methodology that Wilson was using to defend his position. Having studied the textual issue for quite a season, I've yet to encounter that particular argumentation. I think you are correct in pointing out that, much like the CT approach, Wilson's methodology leaves us with an unsettled text. I believe that a truly Protestant (if we are to wholly affirm Sola Scriptura), confessional position necessitates a settled text.
Thanks for your good work on this topic, Jeff! Have you seen the new book by Garnet Milne, "Has the Bible been kept pure? The Westminster Confession of Faith and the providential preservation of Scripture"? - https://www.amazon.com/gp/product/1522039155/
Kip, thanks for the encouragement. Yes, I'm not sure about the connection between this booklet and their previous conversation. White's brief reference to the CBGM and some newer references to current shifts in academic text criticism lead me to believe that this exchange is new or, at the least, updated. I also have not run into anyone who makes the same "canonical" argument on text as Wilson.
Steve, thanks for your comment. I saw a notice on the Milne book but have not read it, as yet. Looks interesting,, but cost is a little pricey, and there are a few other things in the queue ahead of it. It's on my Amazon wish list, so hopefully I'll eventually read it and do a review.
I've come to settle on the idea of a "canonical text". A canonical table of contents is meaningless without a canonical text. The question for me is, does one's view espouse a present canonical EDITION of the text, does it lead to the possibility that we will ever have a canonical edition, or does one's view NEVER lead to a canonical text? The later is the undoing of Biblical authority.
The problem with every critical textual theory is that no mere empirical methodology will ever produce a canonical text. Without the autographs, and using them as the standard, no empirical methodologies can ever produce such a text. All forms of textual criticism are an infinite regress not to mention for many books of the Bible. The issue is not the rediscovery of autographs (the idea of a single "autograph" for many books of the Bible is historically naive), but the final canonical form of the text. Wilson touches on this but doesn't demonstrate why this is a critical clarification that needs to be made in identifying the "canonical text".
I think that Wilson wants his position to sound respectable, so he advocates future revision of the TR under the right circumstances. The methodology for such a revision is left completely up in the air. On the one hand we have a canonical text, but on the other, not quite yet...but we can get to it.
White's position will never deliver a canonical text but a text in flux until the coming of Christ. Wilson's position advocates the Biblical idea of text as canon, but doesn't quite get us there.
I believe that we can speak of the canonical text and would go so far to say we can identify it in the Received Text of the Protestant Reformation. Not because of any particular scientific methodology, but because of the astounding providence and witness of the Holy Spirit to this edition of the Greek text. Let the variants between its printed editions be the matter before us and we will quickly see how minor the matter of textual variants are which providence has given us to consider. Scribes are not inspired, but minor variation (as with the Hebrew Masoretic Text) does not render the text of special providence non-canonical.
Wilson is correct in saying this is not a scientific issue, it is a matter of faith. This is made clear to us in the Hebrew Old Testament. If you do not receive the Hebrew text that we have received by faith, like Jesus and the apostles did, perish the though of ever "recovering" it by purely empirical methodologies.
My copy of this book just arrived (five minutes ago, in fact). I look forward to digging into your review after I've read it.
Meanwhile, one question: Are you aware of any "four views" type books on textual criticism that include the TR Preferencialist position?
If not, it would be wonderful to see such a book come into being.
Robert, thanks for your comment. Wilson's views are unique, no doubt. Yes, I would say the canonical text is the received text. Reconstruction views show no promise of every arriving at a consensus text. I am doing a Reformation conference at a sister RB church in Virginia at the end of October and have tentatively titled my lectures, "The Reformation and the Canon"--hoping to explore how the Reformation not only brought consensus on the books but also the text of Scripture.
Hi Noah. No I don't know of such a "four views" type book on text. I'm not normally a fan of such books (though I just started this week Stanley Porter, ed. "The Synoptic Problem: Four Views"), but I think one on this might be worthwhile. Just hope they don't ask Wilson to do the pro-TR view.
Hello Dr. Riddle,
Regarding openness to revising the TR...how would you compare/contrast Burgon's and Wilson's position?
I'd have to revisit what Burgon says on this. As I recall, he is less confident of the originality/authenticity of some aspects of the TR (like the CJ). I don't recall, however, that he uses anything similar to Wilson's "canon" argument.
Though Burgon was highly (and often bitingly) critical of what modern text criticism was doing to the traditional text and its attempt to displace the KJV, he was a high Anglican (with some pretty disparaging things to say about Baptists!) and not confessionally Reformed. Thus, he does not demonstrate a WCF or 2LBCF type view of Scripture or defend the TR on such confessional grounds.
Let me add that I think Burgon's continuing primary value is in his thoughtful, rigorous, and detailed defense of particular disputed texts. His book on the ending of Mark, for example, is still highly relevant and useful. I'd turn to him more for this sort of thing than for the forming of an overall doctrine or theology of Scripture. For this I'd look to Owen.
Thank you for your reply, Dr. Riddle.
When you speak of a defense on "confessional grounds" is this equivalent to "doctrinal grounds" (as opposed to empirical grounds)?
If I am missing something please elaborate...
I think we agree on the general utility of "four views" books. I would just like, as someone who is still developing an opinion on this issue, to see a public, professional dialogue between all sides.
Anon, yes, by confessional I mean doctrinal, but that is not to say that an empirical defense of the TR is excluded. Also, by confessional I mean, in particular, a doctrinal defense based on a Reformed confession, like the WCF or the 2LBCF.
Noah, maybe this could be suggested to a publisher.
The four views? Perhaps:
TR (confessional defense); NA/UBS (evangelical "original autograph" defender); NA/UBS (postmodern "initial text" defender); Majority/Byzantine Text.
Who would present each view? The first one that comes immediately to mind would be Robinson for Majority/Byzantine Text. Also, Dan Wallace for NA/UBS (evangelical). I would not suggest JW for this.
Thanks for your helpful your reply Dr. Riddle.
What do you believe is the proper way to combine a doctrinal/confessional defense and an empirical defense of the TR?
Anon, the question probably requires more of an answer than I can give here. The point is that the TR need not merely be defended on fideistic grounds. We can examine and be familiar with the external and internal evidence and defend traditional readings with reasonable arguments/evidences.
Understand...from a philosophy of science perspective it seems a purely empirical approach inevitably leads to skepticism as it would in ANY discipline. This may explain much of what some have observed in the contemporary academic text criticism arena). My thinking about the proper approach is to use the doctrinal to set a priori parameters...then explain the data within these boundaries...demonstrating that they may be harmonized and are not in irreconcilable contradiction...is this the trajectory of your thinking.
Pastor Riddle, I followed up on this thread via email using the info.crbc box. I'm happy to keep the conversation going there.
I do think my new book 'Has the Bible been kept pure? The WCF and the providential preservation of Scripture' does disclose the biblical and the historically Reformed view of the theology of the text. The Puritans have much to teach us.
Garnet, I ordered the book today. Look forward to reading it and will likely write a review also.
I agree with Robert Truelove here. He is spot on. There is an epistemological problem presented by the textual criticism models guiding the church now. Trying to sound scientific and relevant we've lost a text. All modern translations of various texts are established upon the 'science of textual criticism' and cannot yield absolute final authority since the textual variants and the scriptures themselves would be established upon some degree of probability; confusingly subjecting the entire bible to the authority of science falsely so called. I believe the KJV can function as final authority to English speaking churches as I've argued here and would appreciate any consideration:
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