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When Should You Talk about Textual Criticism?

I’ve posted a question that originates with Thomas Hudgins over on the Energion Discussion blog. Here are my comments to go with that post.

The question has quite a number of implications. For example, if your listeners do not normally look at the textual notes in their Bible translation, they might not be aware of the issues. Not mentioning a difficulty might be an issue of honesty. (“Pastor, you never gave me any idea how many variants there are in the New Testament text. You lied to me!”) On the other hand, constantly mentioning textual variants, most of which are fairly minor (though translations normally mention only a very small minority, NET excepted, and thus only ones that impact meaning more significantly), and discussing the text all the time can be very distracting.

I resonate with much of what Thomas says in his post. It’s very easy, as a pastor or teacher, to leave the wrong impression. You can leave your listeners thinking they can’t study the Bible at all unless they’ve spent time with textual criticism as you have. You can make them think no translation is at all trustworthy.

There are always at least two types of tension here.

First, there’s the issue of what skill is needed in order to study the Bible. I took a Biblical Languages major as an undergraduate, rather than religion or theology, because I wanted to understand the Bible better. I don’t think I wasted my time. I can get more out of a passage using what I learned, including a quarter each in New Testament and Old Testament textual criticism, than I could if I was limited to English translations. On the other hand, it is not impossible to understand the vast majority of scripture using an English translation, especially considering the number we have available and the wonderful resources we have in addition.

Second, there’s the issue of the trustworthiness of the Bible. Many pastors avoid issues in the text because they’re afraid people will get the idea that they cannot trust the text of scripture. (“If major translations don’t even agree, how can I be sure?”) I think this is a questionable approach, because the vast majority of the text of the New Testament is not in dispute. It’s much more convincing to mention that before, rather than after, someone discovers textual variants. If you haven’t mentioned it, you’ll sound like you’re on defense, and you’ll sound like you’re making it up as you go along.

Some may ask why I’m concerned this much about the reliability of the text when I don’t accept the doctrine of biblical inerrancy. There are three answers to this:

1) It is a matter of historical fact that we have very strong evidence for the text of the New Testament, and that variations are, on the average, minor. Are there significant variants? Yes, but the disputed texts are not that numerous. In fact, a great deal of debate in this area centers around the vocabulary used to describe the situation. Numbers always need to be kept in perpsective.

2) I do believe in the providential preservation of God’s message. (Vocabulary alert: What is meant by “providential preservation” differs from person to person.)

3) I believe we need to be honest at all times.

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