Thursday, March 10, 2016

The Text Criticism of John Calvin


On February 25-27, 2016, Houston Baptist University hosted a Theology Conference, "Ad Fontes, Ad Futura: Erasmus' Bible and the Impact of Scripture."  Pastor Jeff Riddle presented his paper on "John Calvin and Text Criticism" on February 26, 2016.

Here is a portion of Pastor Riddle's opening remarks (I changed some words and grammatical constructions to make my summary flow better in written form):

"Some of today's reformed [Christian] advocates question the wisdom of jettisoning the Reformation text of Luther, Tyndale, and Calvin for the Modern Critical Text.  In response to calls for returning to the Reformation text, some modern critical text advocates have suggested that the foundational theologians and preachers of the Reformation era were largely unaware of many of the disputed textual passages in the Greek New Testament because they lived in the age before the discovery and publication of the great uncial manuscripts and papyri.  Thus, it is suggested that they naively used the printed editions of the Textus Receptus (TR) Greek New Testament out of convenience or ignorance, rather than conviction.

Such a perspective is evident in popular apologist James R. White's book, The King James Only Controversy.  In assessing the claim that the TR was the preferred text of the Reformation or the text of the reformers, White writes: 'Is this claim tenable though? Everyone admits that the Greek text utilized by Luther in his preaching and Calvin in his writing and teaching was what became known as the TR.  But we must point out that they used this text by default, not by choice.  In other words, it was not so much a matter of their rejecting other text types as it was a matter of using what was available.  One cannot assert with any level of confidence that Calvin, were he alive today, would hold to the TR as the inspired text.  In fact, there is good reason to think otherwise...The TR as the reformers text assertion is more than slightly misleading, especially if it is meant to indicate that they were particularly choosing the TR over against non-Byzantine text such as those used in modern textual criticism.  The simple fact is the research and study into those texts had not yet sufficiently advanced to allow reformers to have a weighty opinion in matters that were not, at the time, under discussion.'  James White's assessment is two-fold: (1) Calvin and the reformers used the Textus Receptus by default and not by particular choice and (2) Major textual matters were not even discussed in the day of Calvin and his contemporaries."

Next, Pastor Riddle outlines his challenge to White's assumptions and arguments by offering references to Calvin's study of the Greek Text of the New Testament and Calvin's exegetical treatment of several disputed passages.  Here is my summary of Pastor Riddle's points:

"Calvin was the father of Reformed Theology and a diligent student of the Bible.  His concern for the text of Scripture and its proper translation came through his sermons, theological exposition, and most especially in his commentaries.  Calvin translated most of the New Testament into Latin for his commentaries that was carefully constructed and made with the help of the best technical tools at his disposal.  Calvin was among the early students of the Greek language in the 1530's.  For his day, Calvin was an excellent Greek scholar; his Hebrew was good, but his Greek was better.  Calvin's basic text for his 1540 Roman's commentary and for succeeding commentaries up to 1548 was the Colinaeus Greek Text of 1534, a text similar to a modern critical text.  For unknown reasons, the later Calvin or mature Calvin apparently abandoned Colinaeus's text for the Textus Receptus as his preferred Greek text.  Calvin made use of Greek manuscripts and performed works of text criticism; he was well aware of variants and alternate Greek readings.  He worked meticulously and diligently to establish the best text.

First, Calvin was aware of controversy regarding the doxology of the Lord's prayer: 'For thine is the kingdom, and the power, and the glory, for ever. Amen,' (Matt. 6:13).  In particular, he knew that it was omitted in the Latin versions, including the Vulgate, but it was included in many Greek copies.  In his commentary on the passage, Calvin observed that it was added to teach us that our prayers are founded on God alone so that we may not rely on our own merits.  He included an exposition of the Lord's prayer in the Institutes in Book 3 and noted that the doxology is not extant in the Latin versions, but stated that it is so appropriate to this place that it ought not to be omitted.  The doxology is an example of Calvin's rejection of the Latin Vulgate in favor of a reading supported by the Greek textual majority as well as theological reasons.

Next, Calvin was also aware of variant issues regarding the woman caught in adultery in John 7:53 to 8:11.  Based on his commentary, Calvin recognized two areas of concern regarding this passage: (1) He knew it was omitted in a significant number of ancient Greek manuscripts, and (2) He was aware of the conjecture that the Pericope Adulterae was a so called floating tradition.  Nevertheless, he concluded that since it was always received by the Latin churches, found in many old, Greek manuscripts, and contained nothing unworthy of an apostolic spirit, there was no reason why we [Christians] should refuse to apply it to our advantage.  By this, Calvin preferred the text that is best preserved in the Western Church in the Latin tradition, but he made this judgment also based on the fact that this passage is supported by many extant Greek manuscripts.  He also recognized an apostolic spirit in the passage which is consistent with the rest of John's Gospel and the New Testament as a whole.  He anticipated the judgment of some modern text critics who have rejected the Pericope Adulterae as an original part of John's Gospel, but rather suggest that it preserves a memory of an historical event in the life of Jesus.

Calvin was aware of the mystery of godliness passage in 1 Tim. 3:16.  Calvin made it clear that he accepted the Textus Receptus reading of 'God was manifest in the flesh.'  He refuted the Latin versions which read, 'he was manifest in the flesh' and affirmed the reading of the majority Greek copies.  The key issue for Calvin in this passage was Christology.

Finally, Calvin was aware of the issues with the Comma Johanneum in 1 John 5:7-8.  This is the most rejected passage in the Textus Receptus.  Calvin was certainly aware of the serious disputes regarding this text.  In his commentary he appealed to the Church Father Jerome and noted the possibility that the omission was intentional, probably for theological reasons.  He acknowledged that the Greek copies do not agree, so he could not make an authoritative pronouncement based on the external evidence.  However, he turned to internal considerations noting that the passage flowed better when the clause was added.  Calvin concluded that the passage is the true reading and accepted it as such despite it's obvious challenges."

Pastor Riddle concludes his paper:

"In review, James White asserts that the Textus Receptus should not be considered the Reformation text because Protestant reformers, like Calvin, were largely unaware of and uninterested in textual issues within the Greek New Testament and that they only adopted the Textus Receptus by default and not by choice.  In looking at Calvin's commentaries and comments on disputed passages within the Institutes, this demonstrates that White's assessment is grossly inaccurate.  Calvin clearly did not have a naive or uninformed understanding of the text of the Greek New Testament.  He clearly was well aware of many, if not most, of the major textual issues that continue to be discussed even in our day.  Calvin's ultimate embrace of the Textus Receptus came only after measured and sophisticated study and deliberation.

The mature Calvin generally affirmed and made use of readings from the TR in line with the printed editions of Erasmus and Stephanus, though he was fully aware of the debates and disputes that existed regarding various textual difficulties and may have consulted various Greek manuscripts which were available to him.  He made use of a printed text, the Colinaeus text, that in some ways anticipated the Modern Critical Text, nevertheless, he eventually rejected this text in favor of the Textus Receptus.

The rise of Modern Text Criticism influenced by the Enlightenment and the Modern Critical Text in the 19th century and beyond, might not only be considered a toppling of the Textus Receptus, but also a rejection of a distinctly Protestant, reformed, and confessional approach to the text of Scripture that can be traced back to the reformers themselves, including most notably, the text criticism of John Calvin."

Pastor Riddle's comments from the Q&A:

"There should be an ongoing discussion with James White on whether or not, if you are confessional and reformed, your view on the text of Scripture is a confessional issue.  The 1689 London Baptist of Faith, Chapter 1, paragraph 8 states (emphasis mine):  'The Old Testament in Hebrew (which was the native language of the people of God of old), and the New Testament in Greek (which at the time of the writing of it was most generally known to the nations), being immediately inspired by God, and by His singular care and providence kept pure in all ages, are therefore authentic; so as in all controversies of religion, the church is finally to appeal to them.'  There is a problem with fellow reformed Baptists or confessional Presbyterians who have embraced the Modern Critical Text and modern translations and not considered whether or not that is a confessional issue."



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"The grass withereth, the flower fadeth: but the word of our God shall stand for ever," (Isaiah 40:8).