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I had written a seminal paper entitled “A Plea for a Perfect Bible” published in the theological journal of the Far Eastern Bible College (FEBC) back in January 2003—The Burning Bush 9 (2003):1–15. It was met with great opposition from those who believe the Bible to be inerrant only in the past when it was first given but is not so inerrant today. They consider the Verbal Plenary Preservation (VPP) of Scripture which argues for a presently existing perfect Bible a “new” and “deviant” doctrine. The hatred for this doctrine was so great that they filed a suit against me in the Supreme Court of Singapore.
Recently, I read a paper by Ronald Hendel entitled “The Dream of a Perfect Text” in Joel Baden et al, eds, Sibyls, Scriptures and Scrolls (Leiden: Brill, 2016): 517–41. Hendel a PhD from Harvard is Professor of Hebrew Bible and Jewish Studies at the University of California Berkeley.
He is a practitioner of textual and historical criticism which seeks to deconstruct and diminish the Scriptures Christians believe to be divinely inspired—the infallible and inerrant Word of God. He is no friend of Biblical inerrancy and says that Christians today can only “dream” of a Perfect Bible; to him the 100% infallibility and inerrancy of Scripture past and present is but a mirage, a myth.
I would like us to consider again my appeal to a perfect Bible. Does a perfect text exist or is it merely a “dream”?
A Perfect Text
Hendel’s paper is quite revealing. Despite his unbelief and scepticism of a perfect text, his description of the faith and convictions of the Reformation saints and scholars is significant and useful. Hendel highlighted the fact that in the 16th century, the Reformation saints and scholars did not see their Hebrew and Greek Scriptures to be fallible and full of mistakes. They always presupposed they had a perfect text in their hands. Their perfect text was the original language Scriptures. Agostino Steuco for instance held the Hebrew Masoretic Text in his day to be “the unchanging and perfect original text”. In 1529, he used this perfect text to correct the erroneous readings of the Vulgate (Latin translation of the Bible). Hendel says, “the assumption that one text of the Bible was correct and all the others corrupt was widespread in Steuco’s time.” This is extremely important: The view that there is only one Bible that serves as the perfect standard and authority over against corrupt manuscripts and versions is not new and novel but the common and consensus view of the Reformation saints and scholars.
Opposed to the Reformation common and consensus view were the Roman Catholics who denied the existence of a perfect original text. Instead of the Hebrew and Greek Scriptures, they held the Latin Vulgate to be the “inspired text and thus flawless in every respect.” In other words, the translation is better than the original text! As such, the Catholics did not see the need to know the original languages. They ridiculed the Reformers’ plea to study the original languages and the original language Scriptures as something “completely insane” and “smacks of heresy”.
Sound familiar? The same malicious charge was levelled against FEBC. We at FEBC like the Reformers believe in VPP and a perfect text, ie the Hebrew Masoretic Text and the Greek Textus Receptus over against the ever-changing and evolving critical texts of the modern versions. This is the good old Protestant and Reformed view of the divine inspiration and perfect preservation of Scripture. But today, we have professing fundamentalists who like the Catholics dismiss the present infallibility and inerrancy of a perfect text as “foolish” and “heresy”. Instead of the Biblical and textual certainty of “a more sure word” in a VPP text, they prefer the liberal and agnostic textual criticism and the ever-changing and uncertain modern critical texts. This is tragic!
In the years 1546–1600, the debate on textual inerrancy and authority became even more intense. The Reformers advocated a perfect original text, but the Catholics regarded the Vulgate translation to be so. The Proto-Ruckmanites in the Council of Trent (1546) denounced as heresy the Reformers’ view of a perfect original text and declared the Latin Vulgate to be the authentic and authoritative text. John Calvin in 1547 wrote a critique of the Council of Trent entitled “Acts of the Council of Trent: With the Antidote”, and commented, “The sacred oracles of God were delivered by Moses and the Prophets in Hebrew, and by the Apostles in Greek…. [Those] who are acquainted with the languages perceive that this version [the Vulgate] teems with innumerable errors; and this they make manifest by the clearest evidence.” To further undermine the perfect original text position, the Catholics went on to say that the Hebrew and Greek originals cannot be trusted because they have been “corrupted by Jews and other heretics”. It is no wonder that Calvin deemed the Council of Trent to be not just “erroneous” but “barbarous”.
The Scribal Error Attack
In 1586, the Catholic apologist Robert Bellarmine attacked the Protestant principle of Sola Scriptura. Interestingly, Bellarmine disagreed with the Tridentine formulators that the Hebrew Scripture was corrupted by the Jews. Nevertheless, he averred that the Hebrew Scripture contained “scribal errors” and errors in the vowel-points and was thus not preserved “absolutely intact and pristine”. If there are indeed such “scribal errors”, then the appeal to a perfect text is untenable and flawed. Who then can settle the question of scribal errors in the text? As far as Bellarmine was concerned, it had to be the “inerrant” Catholic Church which to him could do no wrong.
The Protestant theologians refuted Bellarmine’s subtle attack by reaffirming the absolute infallibility and inerrancy of the self-authenticating and self-interpreting Scripture which be the sole, supreme and final authority of the Church’s faith and practice. It is the Scripture that validates the Church and not the other way round. In 1588, William Whitaker, Regius Professor of Divinity at Cambridge, rebutted Bellarmine and the Catholic scholastics by declaring in no uncertain terms that the Scripture is totally infallible and inerrant, “Say they, the church never errs; the pope never errs. We shall shew both assertions to be false in the proper place. We say that scripture never errs.” In his book Disputations on Holy Scripture, Whitaker powerfully argued for a perfect Bible, “The books of scripture are called canonical, because they contain the standard and rule of our faith and morals. For the scripture is in the church what the law is in a state, which Aristotle in his Politics calls a canon or rule. As all citizens are bound to live and behave agreeably to the public laws, so Christians should square their faith and conduct by the rule and law of scripture. … Hence it plainly appears why the scriptures are called canonical;—because they prescribe to us what we must believe, and how we ought to live: so that we should refer to this test our whole faith and life, as the mason or architect squares his work by the line and plummet. Hence, too, we may perceive that the scripture is perfect, since otherwise the title of canon or rule could hardly be applied to it.”
Hendel is right to point out that “Whitaker extended the inerrancy of Scripture to include the detailed perfection of the Hebrew text. He argued that the Vulgate is a tissue of scribal and translational errors, while the Hebrew Bible is unblemished. He responded point by point to Bellarmine’s examples of scribal errors in the MT, arguing in each the Hebrew is correct.” Whitaker powerfully argued for a divinely preserved perfect text not only in its consonants but also vowel-points, not only in matters of salvation but also history, geography and science. Similarly, Amandus Polanus in his Systematic Theology of 1615 wrote, “The Old Testament Scripture was transmitted by God through the prophets, not only with respect to the sense, but also with respect to the words, and therefore also with respect to the vowels, without which the words cannot be clear.” This is in keeping with what Jesus Himself promised 2000 years ago, “For verily I say unto you, Till heaven and earth pass, one jot or one tittle shall in no wise pass from the law, till all be fulfilled.” (Matt 5:18); “Heaven and earth shall pass away, but my words shall not pass away.” (Matt 24:35).
Against Textual Criticism
Hebrew scholar Johannes Buxtorf affirmed the truth of a perfect text. He said that the Hebrew Bible is not to be tampered with in any way, and spoke against textual criticism for it is not in keeping with Sola Scriptura. Hendel rightly observes, “For Buxtorf and the orthodox Protestant theologians, the attribution of error of any kind opened a theological abyss. As Laurentius Fabricius wrote in a letter to Buxtorf in 1625, ‘Variants are arts of the devil’.”
The devil did not rest after that though. He continued to undermine the perfection of the Scriptures, this time through Louis Cappel who was not Catholic but Protestant. Now, an enemy from within! In 1634, Cappel dismissed “the concept of one manuscript as the perfect text” and insisted that the perfect text that the believers in those days upheld as infallible and inerrant was tainted with scribal errors and that it is for the textual critic to correct these scribal errors. To Cappel, it is not divine authority that is needed to determine the original text but human reason. Thus, he invented and introduced a new method of textual criticism. Hendel comments, “This injected a human dimension into the biblical text that was unsettling to the orthodox. Further, it meant that theologians had to cede some of their authority to scholars.” The Protestant and Reformed theologians resisted Cappel’s new view and invention as a “most pestilential poison”. They responded with a statement of faith called the Helvetic Consensus Formula in 1675 which in no uncertain terms affirmed VPP and a perfect text. The first three Canons of the Formula state:
“Canon I: God, the Supreme Judge, not only took care to have his word, which is the ‘power of God unto salvation to every one that believes’ (Rom 1:16), committed to writing by Moses, the Prophets and the Apostles, but has also watched and cherished it with paternal care from the time it was written up to the present, so that it could not be corrupted by craft of Satan or fraud of man. Therefore the Church justly ascribes to it his singular grace and goodness that she has, and will have to the end of the world (2 Pet 1:19), a ‘sure word of prophecy’ and ‘Holy Scriptures’ (2 Tim 3:15), from which though heaven and earth pass away, ‘the smallest letter or the least stroke of a pen will not disappear by any means’ (Matt 5:18).
“Canon II: But, in particular, The Hebrew original of the OT which we have received and to this day do retain as handed down by the Hebrew Church, ‘who had been given the oracles of God’ (Rom 3:2), is, not only in its consonants, but in its vowels either the vowel points themselves, or at least the power of the points not only in its matter, but in its words, inspired by God. It thus forms, together with the Original of the NT the sole and complete rule of our faith and practice; and to its standard, as to a Lydian stone, all extant versions, eastern or western, ought to be applied, and wherever they differ, be conformed.”
(To be continued…)
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