Concordia Seminary, St. Louis Professor Jeffrey Kloha delivered a paper last year to a theological conference in Germany concerning the status of the original Greek text of the New Testament and it left many people scratching their heads as to what it meant.
This is not surprising since it comes out of the same exegetical department that is the home of Dr. James Voelz who penned the book “What Does this Mean?” which also left many scratching their heads, including seminary professors.
That book mistakenly bases knowledge and language in the matrix and abyss of the post-modern knower. Kloha’s paper takes the historically difficult yet manageable task of organizing the hundreds of ancient manuscripts and fragments of the Greek text of the New Testament, a task well handled by our own exegetes, and turns it into a new post-modern matrix that is essentially undiscernable. In Kloha’s terms it turns the Greek text into a plastic, pliable thing. It is not insignificant that Kloha considers Voelz a mentor and theological chum.
The Situation More Simply Described
This is a difficult matter. Here is the situation in as simple of terms as I know how to express it. 1.) Most everyone knows that the original language of the New Testament is Greek. 2.) The Greek New Testament that gets translated into our English versions did not come to us in a single book but instead is the work of scholars who have pieced together hundreds of fragments and partial manuscripts from the first few hundred years after Christ. 3) When compared and contrasted, these various fragments and partial manuscripts have numerous variants. 4.) These variants consist mostly in different letters here and there and on occasion an entire word or phrase. For instance, a fragment found in Syria in A. D. 220 may have added in the word “and” in a given verse that a manuscript found in Alexandria in A. D. 180 may not have. 5.) Though there are numerous variants, none of them impacts or changes any doctrine taught us in the New Testament. They can change the meaning of a given verse but our scholars have determined that none of these variants changes doctrine. 6.) Scholars have compared and contrasted these fragments and manuscripts and compiled through a scientific and sometimes artful method what is the best Greek text of the New Testament available through this sort of study.
This is a rigorous discipline that that every seminarian is required to study and know. (I still have my seminary issued chart of text families and when the rare occasion occurs that I need to examine a variant before preaching or teaching, I peruse it and my text commentary book to get a handle on the matter. I have also shown this little card and explained its significance to countless lay Bible classes.)
The traditional approach that I have just described is very logical, straight-forward and based on the common sense notion that God has equipped us with the ability to know things, the words that refer to them and to share that knowledge with others through a common language. (BTW – this is called common sense realism.)
Post-moderns seek after confusion and relativism like children after candy. For some strange reason, the other-wise confessional Dr. Voelz became entranced with the post-modern view of language which locks truth up in the matrix of the mind of each knower. Now, likewise, Kloha has taken this difficult but manageable discipline of manuscript study and likewise turned it into a matrix of sorts, casting doubt on the certainty of the text. We cannot trust the old fashioned, logical approach. There are too many manuscripts and too many variants. It is an abysmal matrix that leaves us at best saying that the text is just plastic and fluid.
Wilken Makes an Issue out of Kloha’s Abyss and Up Pops a Wardog
Todd Wilken from Issues Etc. brought Kloha’s paper to light on his a blog few weeks ago and an interesting and important debate has ensued. No less than John Warwick (aka “Wardog”) Montgomery has barked in on the discussion and offers a view that deserves our attention. We will get to that in a moment.
In my philosophical studies (MA, St. Louis University, 1987) I studied the modern era which led to an interest in post-modern relativism. I wrote my thesis on medieval epistemology and that work demonstrated to me the importance of maintaining a common-sense realist point of view on what and how we know. So these issues of truth and language are of personal interest.
When I first read the paper I scratched my head as well. Kloha does such an anal, scientific and linguistic study of the original Greek manuscripts that it leaves one asking if the Scriptures could still have been breathed by the Holy Spirit. Kloha does not intend this result. He has said so. I have also heard from many of his students and friends who vouch for his confessional view of the inerrancy of Scripture. My assessment before reading the Wardog was that he meant well, but that his use of the language and tools of the liberals who deny inerrancy, is a little disconcerting because it is exactly what got 801 DeMunn into trouble in the 60’s and 70’s and ushered in full blown liberalism into that beloved seminary. It is also a little disconcerting to know that it is happening in the same seminary which has promoted the revivalist, non-Lutheran tools of small group Bible study and contemporary worship apparently with Professor Kloha and others looking on. But I was still willing to give Kloha a pass.
Then along came the Wardog and given the fact that he actually bears the scars of the battle for the Bible and paved the way for the rest of us to live in the peace of inerrancy, his thoughts are worth our attention. We thank Reclaim News for posting Montgomery’s response to Kloha and keeping this issue in the forefront of LCMS debate.
The Wardog Barks
I have known of the Wardog, read his works, and listened to his apologetics show on the radio since my days of vicarage in Southern California in 1984. As I read his critique of Kloha I could hear his brash, passionate, somewhat squeaky voice cranking out each word. He is the founder of the Simon Greenleaf School of Law and Theology, has more academic degrees than many of us have parishioners and he helped lead the march during the hay day of the Southern California apologetics movement (e.g. Walter Martin, Hank Hanegraaff, Rod Rosenblatt, and now, to a certain degree, carried on in the Midwest by the likes of Todd Wilken at Issues Etc. and Chris Rosebrough at Pirate Christian Radio). Montgomery’s response to Kloha is very helpful and has changed my view of the situation.
First, he places the argument in history. The Wardog asserts that Kloha has decided to join rather than fight those who call into question the validity of the traditional approach to manuscript criticism described above. Fighting them would mean trusting that we have a decent enough set of manuscripts that closely approximate the original inspired texts and continuing to do the on-going work of incorporating new manuscripts into the discipline if and when they are found. Joining them on the other hand, is agreeing with the likes of Bart Ehrman (former Evangelical turned agnostic) who say that there are so many contradictions in the manuscripts that we must admit the New Testament text is plastic and pliable. This is the tack Kloha takes.
Montgomery then goes on to further weaken Kloha’s argument by cleverly uncovering a flaw in his primary analogy – the two natures of Christ. Kloha says Scritpure is like the two natures of Christ, human and divine. This plasticity shows up in the human side of the Scriptural equation. Just as Christ suffered according to his human nature, so too, the Scriptures come to us in this weak human vessel called text criticism.
As the Wardog points out, it is only an analogy (it illustrates but does not demonstrate anything to the point) and at that, it is a really bad analogy. The doctrine of the two natures of Christ is an embattled doctrine between Lutherans and Calvinists. The clear teaching of Lutherans over against Calvinists is that the divine nature is communicated to the human nature but the human nature is never “divinitised.” The result is, to quote Montgomery
If one wishes to analogize from living Word to written Word, therefore, one must never allow the human side of Scripture (including the work of the lower/textual critic) to overwhelm the divinely inspired character of it. Scripture is first and foremost God’s divine, inerrant revelation to a fallen race; textual activity must operate ministerially, not magisterially, in relation to that fundamental perspective.
When analysis of the human nature (textual criticism) brings into question the divine nature then something is amiss. The text of Scripture then is sort of like the two natures of Christ but in the end not all that much. Nicely played Wardog.
Montgomery discovers another disconcerting thing in Kloha’s argument. A few decades ago it was popular to undergird the truth of Scripture with the power of canonicity. In other words, we could trust the words of Scripture because the community of faith, over a prolonged period of time arrived at a trust level in a certain set of ancient books, i.e. the canon or current Biblical books and counted them as Scripture. This was a breath of fresh air after years of the outright liberal attack on the Scriptures but in the end it merely placed the authority of Scripture in the hands of man, albeit a really big family of man, and over several centuries. Kloha likewise argues that we must simply entrust text criticism (arriving at the proper original text of the Bible) to a similar family and everything will be OK. Given enough time we can sort of sort our way through the matrix abyss of manuscripts but in the end we will still only end up with something that is plastic.
Not so fast says the Wardog. We confess not the power of community, but the power of the Holy Spirit and the Scriptures he has bequeathed us. The Reformation Sola Scriptural confession is at stake here. Montgomery asks
Do we really want to return to the notion that the Spirit somehow manages to keep the Church on track in spite of there being no objective, propositional revelation by which the Church’s activity can be evaluated? Had this view been maintained by Luther, how could his Reformation ever have occurred?
Most critical is Montgomery’s point that Kloha’s work will cause the pastor to hesitate to preach “thus says the Lord” from the pulpit and for the laity to likewise lose their trust in the truth of Scripture. He also points out that Kloha encourages us to find encouragement in the Gospel and make Christ the center of our Christian hermeneutic (approach to understanding). The Wardog rightly growls that this is a new form of Gospel reductionism. It takes the question of truth out of language and plops into the world of the reader/hearer/believer. As I mentioned above, words and truth can stand on their own even apart from Christ. (Trusting that those words grant eternal life is a whole different matter that only the Holy Spirit can wrought in us but the act of studying manuscripts is not a ninja-like matrix experience. It is a straight-forward exercise of analysis.) I can’t help but notice the similarity between Kloha and Voelz. Voelz, like the other post-moderns, likes to say, understanding is not all that easy. There are so many different ways that people interpret each and every word. Understanding is nigh near impossible. Likewise Kloha says there are so many manuscripts it is nigh near impossible to sort them all out. But in contrast, no one ever said understanding was not hard work and no one ever said text criticism was not hard work. But occasional difficulties do not necessitate a near hopeless matrix approach to either.)
Montgomery concludes his response to Kloha with an insightful review of the need for textual criticism but he defends the traditional approach which does not end up with a text that is plastic and pliable. He shows that textual criticism can be done and done in a way that does not bring into question the validity of the Gospel.
All in all, Montgomery has barked out a clear word of what the rest of us could only whimper. Personally it was a wonderful blast from the past. For the communion of believers, his response to Kloha is a great blessing for preserving the purity of God’s word and one more skirmish fought and won by the Wardog.