B. B. Warfield and the Reformation Doctrine of the Providential Preservation of the Biblical Text 


The orthodox, the Reformation, the Westminster doctrine of the Scriptures has at least two key points. The first is that the Scriptures are the inspired, inerrant, word of God. The second, less well known, but equally important is God’s preservation of these inspired Scriptures throughout history for the benefit of his church. As the Westminster divines stated it,  

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 authentical, so as in all controversies of religion the Church is finally to appeal unto them. (WCOF, Ch. 1, Sect. 8).   

The Westminster divines did not invent this doctrine or dream it up as a necessary support for any doctrine of the Scriptures. Rather they supported this doctrine of the divine preservation of the Scriptures with an abundance of Scripture proofs. Some of the proof-texts for this doctrine are… 

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.  Matthew 5:18  

The words of the LORD are pure words: as silver tried in a furnace of earth, purified seven times. Thou shalt keep them, O LORD, thou shalt preserve them from this generation for ever. Psalm 12:6-7 

As for me, this is my covenant with them, saith the LORD; My spirit that is upon thee, and 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 

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

Being born again, not of corruptible seed, but of incorruptible, by the word of God, which liveth and abideth for ever.  For all flesh is as grass, and all the glory of man as the flower of grass. The grass withereth, and the flower thereof falleth away: But the word of the Lord endureth for ever. And this is the word which by the gospel is preached unto you. 1 Peter 1:23-25   

Both of these doctrines are crucial for the Church of Jesus Christ. And they stand or fall together. After all, there is no purpose in maintaining that God preserved some uninspired scriptures that are neither infallible nor inerrant. Similarly, it is meaningless to contend that the Church once possessed an inspired and infallible Bible, but it was not providentially preserved and has been lost and the best we now have is a corrupted facsimile. Yet, the latter is exactly the position that Warfield took. So ultimately, although Warfield contended for an inspired and inerrant Bible, it was a meaningless struggle. He could only attribute inerrancy to the original autographs which have long been lost. He could not say that we today have an inerrant and infallible Bible.  

Warfield held to the current theories of rationalistic textual criticism. These theories held that the true text of the New Testament has been lost and may or may not be recoverable. How did Warfield attempt to reconcile his views with respect to the preservation of the Scriptures? How can one reconcile the view that God has providentially preserved his word in all ages with the theories of textual criticism? Westcott and Hort, the leading textual critics of his day, believed that the Bible was corrupted in the 4th century. They believed that it remained in this corrupted state for over 1500 years. They taught that only in the late 19th century, through the science of rationalistic textual criticism, was the process of reconstructing the true text of the New Testament even begun. They taught that until the discovery of some of the oldest manuscripts of the New Testament text such as Codex Sinaiticus and Codex Vaticanus, the real text had been hopelessly lost. Warfield’s response to this dilemma that placed him at odds with the orthodox doctrine, the Reformation doctrine, and the statements of the Confession, was to attempt to synthesize the two. He took the view that it was through the science of rationalistic textual criticism that God was providentially preserving his text. That this involved him in hopeless contradictions was pointed out by Edward F. Hills, that great defender of the Textus Receptus. Hills writes,  

“(3) Are naturalistic New Testament textual critics providentially guided?  Many conservatives have adopted the theory that it is through textual criticism, and especially through the textual criticism of Westcott and Hort, that Christ has fulfilled his promise always to preserve in His Church the True New Testament Text. In regard to this matter J. H. Skilton (1946) writes as follows: “Textual Criticism, in God’s providence, is the means provided for ascertaining the true text of the Bible.” And half a century earlier Dr. B. B. Warfield (1893) expressed himself in a very similar manner. “In the sense of the Westminster Confession, therefore, the multiplication of copies of the Scriptures, the several early efforts towards the revision of the text, the raising up of scholars in our own day to collect and collate manuscripts, and to reform them on scientific principles—of our Tischendorfs and Tregelleses, and Westcotts and Horts—are all parts of God’s singular care and providence in preserving His inspired Word pure.

Dr. B. B. Warfield was an outstanding defender of the orthodox Christian faith, so much so that one hesitates to criticize him in any way. Certainly no Bible-believing Christian would wish to say anything disrespectful concerning so venerable a Christian scholar. But nevertheless it is a fact that Dr. Warfield’s thinking was not entirely unified. Through his mind ran two separate trains of thought which not even he could join together. The one train of thought was dogmatic, going back to the Protestant Reformation. When following this train of thought Dr. Warfield regarded Christianity as true. The other train of thought was apologetic, going back to the rationalistic viewpoint of the 18th century. When following this train of thought Dr. Warfield regarded Christianity as merely probable. And this same divided outlook was shared by Dr. Warfield’s colleagues at Princeton Seminary and by conservative theologians and scholars generally throughout the 19th and early 20th century. Even today this split-level thinking is still a factor to be reckoned with in conservative circles, although in far too many instances it has passed over into modernism.

Dr. Warfield’s treatment of the New Testament text illustrates this cleavage in his thinking. In the realm of dogmatics he agreed with the Westminster Confession that the New Testament text had been “kept pure in all ages” by God’s “singular care and providence,” but in the realm of New Testament textual criticism he agreed with Westcott and Hort in ignoring God’s providence and even went so far as to assert that the same methods were to be applied to the text of the New Testament that would be applied to the text of a morning newspaper. It was to bridge the gap between his dogmatics and his New Testament textual criticism that he suggested that God had worked providentially through Tischendorf, Tregelles, and Westcott and Hort to preserve the New Testament text. But this suggestion leads to conclusions which are extremely bizarre and inconsistent. It would have us believe that during the manuscript period orthodox Christians corrupted the New Testament text, that the text used by the Protestant Reformers was the worst of all, and that the True Text was not restored until the 19th century, when Tregelles brought it forth out of the Pope’s library, when Tischendorf rescued it from a waste basket on Mt. Sinai, and when Westcott and Hort were providentially guided to construct a theory of it which ignores God’s special providence and treats the text of the New Testament like the text of any other ancient book. But if the True New Testament Text was lost for 1500 years, how can we be sure that it has ever been found again?”  (Edward F. Hills, The King James Version Defended, The Christian Research Press, 1973, pp. 109-110.)   

The results in the 20th Century of Dr. Warfield’s thinking has been disastrous. It has left him and his followers with an emasculated theory of inspiration that applies only to the lost autographs. It has left the church without the conviction that it truly possesses the inerrant, inspired word of God today. It has sunk evangelicalism into the morass and quicksand of textual criticism. It has left the church at the mercy of a high priesthood of secular textual critics who will instruct her on what parts of the Bible are God’s words and what parts should be emended or deleted per the latest textual theories. It is the prime reason why at many evangelical colleges and seminaries any meaningful belief in the inerrancy and inspiration of the Scriptures is dead. As Dr. Theodore P. Letis expressed it recently, 

“The Lockman Foundation-the publishers of the NASB-have gone back to the drawing board and revised their product to keep it in step with the modern, ever sifting consensus within the discipline of New Testament Text Criticism. The original edition of the NASB was based on the 23rd edition of the Nestle/Aland Greek N.T. text. The current, “Updated” version of the NASB has been brought into conformity with the 26th edition of this same Greek Text.

    This move, while typical of the programmed obsolescence of “modern translations” was intended to keep their product viable; it only helps to reinforce the most telling critique of this movement: namely, that this independent, corporate, private bible editorial and publishing activity has no external constraints and as the Greek N.T. remains in constant flux, so do the English bibles. These bibles are in lock-step with this on-going experiment of trying to discover the “real” text of the Bible, an experiment that is now in its 27th try (1993). Hence, even this latest edition of the NASB (1997) still lags behind the most current textual consensus being based as it is on the now-out-of-date 26th ed.

The main difference between these two editions of the NASB will be seen in the shift in judgment by the Editorial Board, from accepting the Westcott and Hort theory regarding the so-called, Western Non-Interpolations, in the first edition, to finally rejecting this theory in its current Updated Edition (for a brief treatment of this subject of the Western Non-Interpolations, please see my “Theodore Beza as Text Critic: A View Into the 16th Century Approach to New Testament Text Criticism,” in Theodore P. Letis, ed. The Majority Text: Essays and Reviews in the Continuing Debate  2nd ed. [Philadelphia: The Institute for Renaissance and Reformation Biblical Studies, 2000], pp. 140-144). This has resulted in their placing back into the text, several doctrinally substantive readings in Luke’s Gospel, regarded by an earlier Editorial Board to be no part of the inspired text. One of these passages dealt with the ascension of Christ. The original NASB left this ascension account out, claiming it was not found in the best witnesses. They have now, forty years later, put the ascension back into the text, thus bringing the NASB closer in conformity to the original Protestant Textus Receptus Greek N.T. underlying the King James Bible.

As embarrassing as this might be, we must now ask the Lockman Foundation, at what point did it became evident to them that the ascension should now be reconsidered as part of the inspired account written by Luke? I can answer for them: as of the discovery of papyrus 75, (p75), a very early third century witness to the validity of this ascension account. This papyrus was discovered in the 1950s, just about the time that the NASB project was getting off the ground (translation work began on the NASB in 1959). The NASB New Testament portion appeared in stages between 1960 and 1963, but the entire bible did not materialize until 1971 and as with the current Updated Edition of the NASB which already lags behind the most current edition of the Greek N.T., 27th ed., the original NASB N.T. edition never took full advantage of this new evidence (p75 was first published in 1961, thus affording them plenty of time to adjust their text to this new data—a photograph of the very passage in question as found in this 3rd century papyrus document can be seen in Aland/Aland, The Text of the New Testament: An Introduction to the Critical Editions and to the Theory and Practice of Modern Textual Criticism trans. By E.F. Rhodes [Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1987], p.91). Rather, based on a 19th century theory about the text-which had by the Fifties been rejected by most N.T. text critics at any rate-the Lockman Foundation chose, nonetheless, to lock onto antiquated evidence, rather than be responsive to the most recent developments, even though this resulted in their dispensing with the ascension account in the Gospel of Luke! This reveals the lack of piety and respect the Editorial Board of the Lockman Foundation had for the text of Scripture. A bible translation project, once begun, cannot conveniently alter course, because it is like a large ocean liner which once in full sail cannot easily be stopped and expected to turn around and return to port without disappointing the financial investors (i.e., those who have purchased a ticket). For all the rhetoric about superior scholarship, in reality this factor tends to take a back seat to financial considerations in the world of the corporate boardroom bible.

The only question left to ask is this: If the ascension account in Luke, found in every edition of the English Bible from Wycliffe (cir. 1380-1384), until the liberal RSV (1946), was no longer considered inspired Scripture by the conservatives who produced the first NASB (1960-1997) which resulted in its removal from the text, how long can we now expect it to remain in the current edition, before the evidence shifts again and this precious passage is once more removed from the inspired canon?”  (See, Press release from The Institute for Renaissance and Reformation Biblical Studies,  January 9, 2002.)  

The above confusion is the inevitable result of abandoning the Westminster position on the providential preservation of the text of Scripture. The incompatibility of such thinking with any meaningful position with respect to the inerrancy and inspiration of the current Biblical text is also manifest. This is Warfield’s legacy and it is bearing bitter fruit in the Church of Jesus Christ.