faith

In last week’s post on the doctrine of Inspiration, we focused on the biblical claim that the Scriptures have been inspired by God. In this week’s post, we will go a little deeper into this important topic by highlighting the quality of the manuscripts that we have for the biblical texts.

I’m confident that the Bible we have (66 books with about 40 authors over 1500 years of writing) is God’s inspired Word. But just because I’m confident doesn’t mean everyone else is confident. Textual criticism is that discipline that investigates the content and reliability of ancient texts. It is a discipline used for other manuscripts, but primarily associated with the Old and New Testaments of the Bible. If it is right to hold a high view of the inspiration of Scripture (that God is the author), then it should follow that the manuscripts we have for comparison purposes would not disagree with one another and create uncertainty in the meaning of the text. Can we have confidence in the manuscripts of the Old and New Testaments?

Here are some basic facts about the manuscripts we do have. You can find out more on this subject from Jonathan Morrow’s book, Questioning the Bible: 11 Major Challenges to the Bible’s Authority.

  • There are 5,756 New Testament manuscripts that can be compared and contrasted for quality and consistency purposes. Other ancient writings for a comparable time and place are as follows: Greek historian Herodotus, 109 manuscripts; Greek historian Thucydides, 95 manuscripts; Greek philosopher Plato, 219 manuscripts; Roman historian Livy, 150 manuscripts; Roman historian Tacitus, 31 manuscripts; Roman historian Seutonius, 300 manuscripts; Greek classic Homer’s Iliad, 2300 manuscriptsThe sheer number of New Testament manuscripts affords confidence that the documents we are reading today are consistent with the original manuscripts.
  • The NT manuscripts are significantly earlier than other ancient literature, within 35 years in at least one case and all of the NT within 200 years of the events.
  • While there are variations between the manuscripts, they do not distort the consistency or meaning of the New Testament. Bart Ehrman, professor and author of Misquoting Jesus, claims 400,000 variants within the New Testament manuscripts. Ehrman uses this number to undercut the confidence in the New Testament documents. Essentially, he reasons if there are so many variants, how can we be confident in the accuracy of the text? However, Ehrman fails to look into the types of variations carefully. According to Jonathan Morrow, “A variant is any place among the existing NT manuscripts where there is not uniformity of wording” (p. 98). A variant then could be a misspelled word in 1 manuscript different from 2,000 manuscripts. This would count as 2,000 variants. Morrow notes, “the reason we have so many variants is because we have so many manuscripts to work with” (p. 98).
  • Note the types of variation within the New Testament manuscripts:
    1) Spelling=70-80% of all the variants.
    2) Minor differences such as word order or the use of the definite article with a proper name.
    3) Meaningful, but not viable differences such as, “gospel of God” vs. “gospel of Christ.”
    4) Meaningful and viable differences such as “let us have peace with God” vs. “we have peace with God” (less than 1% are meaningful and viable). 
  • The Old Testament manuscripts and the and the Dead Sea Scrolls affirm that the copyists of the OT were careful, and that the OT that we do have is consistent with the earliest manuscripts. According to Douglas Stuart, it is a safe estimate that 99% of original words in NT and 95% of original words in OT are recoverable (quoted by Jonathan Morrow in Questioning the Bible). In essence, we can be confident that we have the Word of God.
  • These basic facts can be found in Questioning the Bible, by Jonathan Morrow pages 96-105.

The Old and New Testaments have been questioned and critiqued for millennia. Particularly, the New Testament has faced textual and source criticism aimed at discounting its claims of the supernatural and the deity of Jesus. This critique should not surprise us. We live in a post-enlightenment age where we question and doubt anything that cannot be tested scientifically.

These facts about the New Testament manuscripts do not force one to believe the stories they relate. But here is what they do. The sheer number of manuscripts dating back so nearly to the occasions of writing provide confidence that the New Testament we are reading today was the same New Testament originally written.

If we can have confidence in the consistency and accuracy of the Old and New Testaments, then we cannot claim that over time the authors changed stories to build their case for the deity of Jesus or other theological concepts. What they wrote is what we have. You may or may not believe what they wrote. After all, that underscores the importance of faith that permeates Christianity.

But if we are honest with the data we have, we must accept that the biblical documents relate to us an accurate account of the original manuscripts. This becomes foundational to the doctrine of revelation regarding the inerrancy, sufficiency, and authority of Scripture.

Often, when we think about the doctrine of salvation, we mean the specific aspect of salvation called justification.

Justification is the aspect of salvation where we are declared righteous by God.

The doctrine of justification was seminal to Protestant Reformation. Martin Luther struggled regarding salvation for years. He sought to be justified (made right with God) through his works. This is the basic teaching of the Roman Catholic Church and was certainly Luther’s primary understanding prior to his conversion. For Roman Catholics, the works that justify are the sacraments (Baptism, Confirmation, Penance, Eucharist, etc.) By participating in these sacraments, the good Catholic is supposed to be justified, that is made right with God. Luther’s problem was that he was a consistent confessor of his sins and an effective participant in these sacraments, yet had not experienced salvation. He had no peace or assurance that he had been forgiven.

Luther’s turning point (and indeed the significant turning point in the Protestant Reformation) was Habakkuk 2:4 quoted in Romans 1:17, “The just shall live by faith.” Like a lightning bolt, Luther understood. One could not be justified by works or good deeds. Rather, justification came by faith alone.

Justification by faith alone initiated the Reformation emphasis of the five solas. Salvation is through Christ alone, by grace alone, in faith alone, from Scripture alone, for the glory of God alone.

Paul details the doctrine of justification further in Romans 3.

20 For by works of the law no human being will be justified in his sight, since through the law comes knowledge of sin.21 But now the righteousness of God has been manifested apart from the law, although the Law and the Prophets bear witness to it— 22 the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe. For there is no distinction: 23 for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, 24 and are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, 25 whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith. This was to show God’s righteousness, because in his divine forbearance he had passed over former sins. 26 It was to show his righteousness at the present time, so that he might be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus.

Romans 3:20-26, emphasis mine.

Justification comes by God through Christ’s work on the cross. Justification was earned by Christ. It is a gift of grace to the believer. It is received by faith.

You might ask, “Why doesn’t God just unilaterally forgive sin? Why did God need to go through the terrible judgment of the cross and judge our sin through Christ?”

Think about God as a Judge. He will one day judge every person who has walked planet earth. Could he just wipe away sin? I guess he could, but what kind of judge would he be if he just wiped away our sins? Consider a court of law. Imagine if a murderer were facing a judge. The murderer was evidentially and admittedly guilty of the crime. There was no challenging his guilt; he was guilty of his crime. But when standing before the judge, the judge pronounced him innocent and let him walk away. The judge said something like this, “The evidence is here. I’ve seen it. I choose to ignore the evidence and the guilt. I pronounce you innocent. You may go your way.” What confidence could we have in that judge or that judicial system? This is not what it means to be justified before God.

God, the Father, our Judge, has seen our sin and wickedness—with perfect clarity. Our guilt and sin are against God. He’s the One who has judged us guilty. But then God does something unique and wonderful. In the midst of his indescribable holiness, in the depth of our sinful depravity, in the truth and justice of our sinful guilt, God the Father does justify us (declare us right before him). He is able to do so, not because he unilaterally declares us innocent, but because he sent Jesus to take our place. Jesus’ death on the cross was God’s judgment on sin. As such, God did punish sin. He punished Christ for our sin. So when God declares us justified, he does so on the basis of Christ’s death on the cross that paid the penalty for our sin.

Justification is an act of God through Jesus Christ. It is a gift of grace, not merited by our works, but solely by Christ’s works. It is received by faith alone in Jesus Christ.

Justification motivates us to receive the glorious gift of salvation by grace through faith (Ephesians 2:8-9; Romans 3:24-25). If you haven’t received the gift of salvation, consider trusting in Jesus Christ today.

Justification provides us ample reason to praise God. Your salvation is not by your own deeds or from your own goodness. It is a gracious gift of God that reveals the unfathomable depth of God’s mercy and grace.