Gunpowder, Treason, and Sola Scriptura

Dieuwe de Boer

The 5th of November has come and gone. It's an annual celebration that Guy Fawkes' plot to blow up the Protestant Parliament of King James I failed. This special date closely follows October 31st, which marks an important preceding event: the anniversary of Martin Luther nailing his 95 theses to the door of the Wittenberg Cathedral.

The Protestant movement has been characterised by the centrality of the Written Word over the traditions of men, a doctrine known as Sola Scriptura (Scripture Alone). This requires men to have ready access to the Scriptures, and in their own language.

Translation is ideally done from the original languages, and with the fall of Constantinople to the invading Turks, the West now had access to both the Greek New Testament preserved by the Eastern Church and the Hebrew Old Testament preserved by the Jews. The printing press and access to these original scriptures fuelled the translation of the Bible into all European languages.

The English translation work started by William Tyndale culminated in the publishing of the Authorised Version, known globally as the King James Bible — translated from the original languages, as preserved by God through His Church, is unmatched as an English literary work. The accuracy and unadorned fidelity of translation resulted in its universal acceptance by English Christendom. Had Guy Fawkes succeeded in overthrowing King James, the world might have looked very different.

Protestants upheld Sola Scripura for centuries and handed the Word of God in English down from generation to generation.

Yet, what if Scripture itself was thrown into doubt? What if you were not able to know for sure what was part of the inspired and inerrant Word, the foundation on which Sola Scriptura stands or falls?

It sure would be explosive to claim that Sola Scriptura has been betrayed.

At the dawn of the modern era came the birth of liberal textual criticism. Scholars collected and dug up old manuscripts and attempted to reconstruct a version of a text considered closer to its original authorship. This presupposes that errors have crept into later copies and that the oldest manuscripts are inherently more reliable. Yet, to apply this technique to Scripture is dangerous. The Bible itself claims Divine Inspiration:

For the prophecy came not in old time by the will of man: but holy men of God spake as they were moved by the Holy Ghost.

— 2 Peter 1:21

This Divine Inspiration is useless without promise of Divine Preservation, which the Bible also claims for itself. John 10:35 tells us that "the scripture cannot be broken" and 1 Peter 1:15 affirms that "the word of the Lord endureth forever." In Luke 16:17 Christ says "it is easier for heaven and earth to pass, than one tittle of the law to fail." God tells Isaiah that His people will be used to preserve the Word:

... my words which I have put in thy mouth, shall not depart out of thy mouth, nor out of the mouth of thy seed, nor out of the mouth of thy seed’s seed, saith the LORD, from henceforth and for ever

— Isaiah 59:21

God promised that He would faithfully past his Word down through the generations. The Church is the repository of the Word. This is why the Greek text that underpins Reformation-era Bibles is known as the Received Text. The Reformers believed in this Divine Preservation—that the inerrant Scripture was in the possession of the Church, and always had been. This made its way into their creeds and confessions:

[The Old and New Testaments] being immediately inspired by God and by His singular care and providence kept pure in all ages, are therefore authentical; so as, in all controversies of religion, the Church is finally to appeal unto them.

— Westminster Confession of Faith

Just over a century ago, a number of ancient 4th century Alexandrian manuscripts were put to use by liberal textual critics: the Codex Vaticanus and the Codex Sinaiticus. These are claimed to be the oldest surviving copies of the entire New Testament. The Sinaiticus was discovered in a monastery in the Sinai in the 19th century, purportedly saved from a waste-paper basket. The Vaticanus had lain unused in the library of the Pope since the 15th century, and seems to have been used as a practice text for an innovative student, as indicated by a margin note at Hebrews 1:3 left by a disgruntled monk:

Fool and knave, leave the old reading and do not change it.

What is notable about these two manuscripts is that they differ significantly from the majority of manuscripts and also each other. More importantly, they differ from the Byzantine manuscripts that have remained in use by the Church for two millennia. These minority texts had lain discarded and rejected. Many clauses, verses, or even entire sections are missing in the Vaticanus and Sinaiticus, and therefore the derived Critical Text which is the source of modern Bible translation.

As many as 200 verses or phrases are omitted, relegated to footnotes, or directly undermined in most modern Bible versions — from the ESV to the NIV to the NLT.

The sections thrown into doubt include most of the final chapter of Mark (16:9-18), the passage of the adulterous woman in John's Gospel (7:53–8:11), the confession of the Etheopian eunuch (Acts 8:37), the clearest Trinitiarian verse in the Bible (1 John 5:7), and the list goes on.

For there are three that bear record in heaven, the Father, the Word, and the Holy Ghost: and these three are one.

— 1 John 5:7

Liberal Christian scholars have effectively replaced Sola Scriptura with the traditions of men, using purely secular textual criticism to reconstruct the Word of God that they claim was not properly preserved by God through the Church. They treat the Bible as no different from any ancient text. Every new archaeological discovery or change in the standards of liberal criticism could result in a new edition of the Critical Text and a host of new Bibles. Every year, they print new updated versions of the "Word of God". If your Bible doubts in itself, why should you believe it?

Most Christians don't realise any of this or put much thought into it. They read the marketing brochure and their favourite celebrity pastor endorsement of the latest modern translation. They believe they're buying a straightforward translation rather than a different version of the text. They want a Bible without the "thee's and thou's". Coincidentally, all the Bibles without the thee's and thou's make use of the Critical Text and undermine the perfection and infallibility of the Scriptures.

Modern translations don't stop with bringing the Bible into line with secular Text Critical scholarship. The New International Version (NIV) was considered a fairly conservative translation and remains popular with many Christians. It has recently gone "inclusive" with heavy use of gender-neutral and feminist language. It smashes the patriarchy by replacing most references to fathers with "ancestors" and replaces many references to men and brothers with non-gendered words. Gender-neutral today, trans-gender tomorrow?

I speak in jest, but many using a gender-neutral Bible today would have laughed at the idea several years ago. Many switch to different conservative translations, but they will have to switch Bibles many times in their life. As modern cultural standards change, modern Bibles will change with them. Even the English Standard Version (ESV), which is being taken up by those looking for something less woke than the latest NIV, translates "person" instead of "man" for the Greek word anthropos. This leads to very strange readings, such as "let every person examine himself" (1 Cor 11:28). Not only does that sound a little queer, it also sets the stage for a full transition to gender-neutral language in a future edition.

The lack of a common English Bible created by this fad is also bad for Christian culture. The proliferation of modern versions has seen a drastic reduction in public reading and memorisation. The Reformation-era translators did not attempt to bring down the Bible a lowest common denominator reading level. They rightly expected the people to rise up and meet the reading level and comprehension standards needed to use a faithful literal translation. Today, the Bible is altered to meet the current ever changing politically correct standards of postmodernism.

Guy Fawkes failed to destroy the ground on which King James stood, but will the Critical Text succeed in bringing down the foundation of Sola Scriptura?