Tuesday, September 06, 2022

Jots and Tittles 5: John Owen on Preservation, Satan's Craft, and "Missing Verses"


My Notes:


In this episode I want to read a section on the divine providential preservation of Scripture from John Owen’s work titled, “The Reason of Faith, Or, The Grounds Whereon the Scripture is Believed to be the Word of God with Faith Divine and Supernatural” (1677) (Works, 4:5-115).

This is part of Owen’s larger study on the Holy Spirit.

I thought it might be helpful to share this given some of the misunderstandings and even outright misrepresentations of Confessional Bibliology that have recently been appearing online.

Owen’s overall thesis in this work is that the believer must come to receive Scripture as the Word of God based on an internal compulsion founded upon the fact that Scripture is divine revelation, rather than upon, what he calls “moral persuasion” based on “external arguments.”

So, he writes:

“The sum is, We are obliged in a way of duty to believe the Scriptures to be divine revelation, when they are ministerially or providentially proposed unto us…. The ground whereupon we are to receive them is the authority and veracity of God speaking in them; we believe them because they are the word of God” (49).

He adds:

“Wherefore, we do not nor ought only to believe the Scripture as highly probable, or with moral persuasion and assurance, built upon arguments absolutely fallible and human… if we believe not with faith divine and supernatural, we believe not at all” (49).

Nevertheless, Owen holds that there is a place for “external arguments” reasonably to confirm belief in Scripture as the Word of God.

In chapter 3 of “The Reason of Faith” Owen outlines five such “Sundry convincing external arguments for divine revelation” (20-47). They include:

1.     The antiquity of the writings;

2.     The providential preservation of the Scriptures;

3.     The overall divine wisdom and authority of the Scriptures;

4.     The testimony of the church;

5.     The doctrines derived from the Scriptures.

Owen on Preservation:

I want now to read Owen’s discussion of the preservation of Scripture as one of these five external arguments :

[Reading from Owen, Works, 4: 23-26]


The Reformed doctrine of the providential preservation of Scripture is one of the most neglected themes in contemporary theology. I think Owen’s views add insight into what the framer’s of the WCF meant in 1:8 when they spoke of God’s Word having been “kept pure in all ages.”

In recent years there have been various evangelical and even Reformed attempts either to reject this doctrine (See Dan Wallace) or to reinterpret it (See Richard Brash).

Confessional Bibliology represents an effort neither to reject nor reinterpret but to retrieve this doctrine. Sadly, lack of familiarity with and misunderstanding of this historic doctrine has resulted, in part, in the unjust confusion and conflation of Confessional Bibliology with IFB KJVO-ism (a phenomenon of the 20th century).

Most recently a Presbyterian youtuber has ungraciously mocked CB as KJVO because of questions raised by us about “missing verses” in the modern critical text and in modern translations, accusing us of promoting wacky conspiracy theories. He has also suggested that the historic Christian position is to accept uncertainty about what exactly the text of Scripture is, so that we have no reason for anxiety when modern editors and translators remove passage from OR ADD to the traditional text.

I think you can clearly see in this excerpt from Owen, however, that he believed in the meticulous care of God’s Word, as he puts it, “that not a letter of it should be utterly lost.” He expresses his trust in divine providence to preserve “this book and all that is in it, its words and its syllables.” He even speaks clearly of the Scriptures having been preserved despite Satan’s efforts to corrupt it. He speaks of Scripture having been preserved despite “the malicious craft of Satan.” He notes that God’s providence even kept “apostatized Christians” from “the corrupting of one line in it.”

I think we can see that the beef some have with CB is really a beef with John Owen and the Reformed Protestant Orthodox and, sadly enough, perhaps with WCF 1:8.

I hope that this reading of Owen might help to clarify this point for those with sincere, serious, and open-minded interest in this topic.



Logan said...

If you are referring to Matthew Everhard as the YouTuber who "ungraciously mocked" then I would say that is a false characterization.

As to your claim that those who don't accept your view actually have a beef with Owen, Reformed Orthodox, and perhaps the WCF, that is far from being shown. You have assumed Owen for your own position without digging further into what he meant and what he did not mean.

In Owen's Integrity and Purity of the Hebrew and Greek Text he states the following:
"Notwithstanding what hath been spoken, we grant that there are and have been various lections in the Old Testament and the New...[listing of some] If any others can be gathered, or shall be hereafter, out of ancient copies of credit and esteem, where no mistake can be discovered as their cause, they deserve to be considered. Men must here deal by instances, not by conjectures [here he refers to conjectures of people as to what the original must have said based on things like ancient translations] All that yet appears impairs not in the least the truth of our assertion, that every letter and tittle of the word of God remains in the copies preserved by his merciful providence for the use of his church."

We see that Owen grants that corrections not only can be, but should be considered if better copies are found. At the same time he believed that the word of God is preserved in every jot and tittle. This does not support your hypothesis.

Owen also calls the work of textual variant collection good, while still holding to the preservation of God's word:

"I say, if this work [collating variants as Walton's Polyglott did] might be done with care and diligence (whereunto I earnestly exhort some in this university, who have both ability and leisure for it), it would quickly appear, how small the number is of those varieties in the Greek copies of the New Testament, which may pretend unto any consideration under the state and title of various lections; and of how very little importance they are, to weaken in any measure my former assertion concerning the care and providence of God in the preservation of his word."

Keep in mind that they were responding to Roman Catholics who said that the Hebrew and Greek were so corrupt as to be unreliable. In response, they insisted that a mistake in one copy was corrected in another, and so God's word was still kept preserved. Never did they point to any edition or series of editions. In fact, Owen also admires the textual work of those who came before, never insinuating that it was complete:

"The first and most honest course fixed on to this purpose, was that of consulting various copies, and comparing them among themselves, wherein yet there were sundry miscarriages, as I shall shew in the second treatise. This was the work of Erasmus, Stephen, Beza, Arias Montanus, and some others."

Owen likewise sometimes prefers readings not found in his printed copy in his comments on Hebrews 1:7 (and 10:2, 10:23, etc):
"The translation now in the Greek is the same with that of the apostle, only for πυρὸς φλόγα 'a flame of fire,' some copies have it πυρ φλεγον 'a flaming fire,' more express to the original;"

Logan said...

Owen isn't the only one. Calvin refers to alternate readings. Beza believed the Pericope Adulterae was not original in his notes on his Greek edition. Calvin treats the Comma Johanneum as both authentic and not in his commentary. These all treated the text as providentially kept pure (i.e., WCF 1:8) without ever even insinuating that their printed texts couldn't be improved. Here we have two passages questioned. Do these men also have a beef with "Reformed Protestant Orthodox"?

To them I might add:
Samuel Rutherford; Free Disputation Against Pretended Liberty of Conscience:

"And though there be errors of number, genealogies, etc., of writing in the Scripture, as written or printed, yet we hold Providence watcheth so over it, that in the body of articles of faith and necessary truths, we are certain, with the certainty of faith, it is that same very word of God, having the same special operations of enlightening the eyes, converting the soul, making wise the simple, as being lively, sharper than a two-edged sword, full of divinity of life, Majesty, power, simplicity, wisdom, certainty, etc., which the prophets of old, and the writings of the Evangelists, and Apostles had."

Keep in mind that this is the same Rutherford to helped create WCF 1:8!

I might add William Bridge, another Westminster Divine who said in Scripture Light the Most Sure Light, 1656 pg 47,

"How shall we hold and keep fast the letter of Scripture, when there are so many Greek Copies of the New Testament? and these diverse from one another? Yes, well: For though there are many received Copies of the New Testament; yet there is not material difference between them...In the times of the Jews before Christ, they had but one original of the Old Testament; yet that hath several readings: there is a Marginall reading, and a Line reading, and they differ no less than eight hundred times the one from the other; yet the Jews did adhere to both and denied neither; Why? Because there was no material difference. And so now, though there be many Copies of the New Testament; yet seeing that there is no material difference between them, we may adhere to all:"

He didn't feel compelled to pick or stay with only the printed versions either. So I ask you to keep an open mind as well: isn't your view only half of what they believed (the originals were kept pure), while neglecting the other half that they believed the work of textual comparison was good and necessary and if there were variants they weren't a threat to one's faith?

Jeffrey T. Riddle said...


Thanks for your comments. Yes, I was referring to Everhard and yes he grossly misreprented CB and did so in poor taste, not to mention his promotion of various factual errors (e.g., the CJ is supported by only one Greek ms., etc.).

With respect, I think you are misreading Owen. I'd suggest you read my opening essay on Owen's Bibliology in my book John Owen on Scripture: Authority, Inspiration, Preservation.

Owen, of course, recognized variants in the ms.tradition. In the essay from which you cite he was critiquing Walton's Polyglott, one of the first works of "modern" textual criticism, and pointing out the spiritual dangers of it.

See Theodore Letis's article, "John Owen Versus Brian Walton: A Reformed Response to the Birth of Text Criticism."

See also Richard Brash's WJT article in which he discusses the Bibliology of Owen and the Protestant Orthodox. I discuss it in WM 128:http://www.jeffriddle.net/2019/07/wm-128-brash-wjt-article-on-originals.html.

I think you are likely misreading Owen's comments on Hebrews also, but I don't have time right now to examine each in detail. Interestingly enough in Heb 10:23 he is defending the AV rendering of TR.

I'd also suggest you read R. Muller's PRRD Vol. 2 in which he explains that the Protestant Orthodox saw the apograph as the autographs and did not practice the modern method of "infinite regress" in textual criticism.

Muller will help place the quotes by Rutherford and Bridge in their proper context, as will Garnet Howard Milne's excellent book, Has the Bible Been Kept Pure? The Westminster Confession of Faith and Providential Preservation.

You should also take a look at the opening to Thomas Manton's (Manton was one of the Westminster commissioners) commentary on James to see his view on "missing verses."

As noted in the excerpt from Owen that I read here, Owen believed Scripture had to be received by the internal witness of the Spirit as divine revelation and not by "moral assurance" through "external arguments." So, he was not trying to reconstruct the original.

You also note that Calvin and other Reformers were aware of variants. Well, of course, they were. But where did Calvin land in the end? He affirmed the TR. See my article:


Best wishes, JTR

Kent Brandenburg said...

Dr. Riddle,

Good answer to this objection. Like what we see in the nation, in order to establish a new regime, they attempt to destroy the old either through a revised or deconstructed history. It's a kind of pulling down or toppling the statue. Hey look, it didn't happen.