A Layman’s Take on the Plastic Text of the New Testament — Part 2, Dr. Kloha’s Paper

Part 1 of this series set forth the premises and resolves of two overtures in the Convention Workbook 2016 of the Lutheran Church – Missouri synod concerning a paper by Dr. Jeffrey Kloha about ongoing revisions to the text of the Greek New Testament. Those two overtures triggered this series.

This part summarizes from a layman’s perspective the contents of what appears to be the final version the paper. A third part will give my layman’s issues and conclusions regarding the paper.

What appears to be the final version of the paper was published recently as a chapter in the book, Listening to the Word of God: Exegetical Approaches, Achim Behrens and Jorg Christian Salzmann, eds., Marion Salzmann, trans. (Göttingen, Niedersachs Edition Ruprecht 2016), titled “Theological and Hermeneutical Reflections on the Ongoing Revisions of the Novum Testamentum Graece.”

Here is the take-away garnered by me as one layman. As you read this, bear in mind, much of what Dr. Kloha is saying is simply his report of what others are doing or saying. Editors of editions of the Greek New Testament are doing things, textual critics are doing things, and skeptics are challenging Scripture. Those things would be happening even if Dr. Kloha had become a diesel mechanic and never said one word about the Greek New Testament. In assessing his paper, first distinguish between matters where he is only reporting versus matters where he is expressing his own views or proposals. It would be a mistake to shoot the messenger just to make it easier to bury our heads in the sand. Everyone concerned should read his paper itself.

The New Testaments that we lay people have in English are translated from Greek texts. Formerly, there was stability in the Greek text. Now the text is not stable.

The people who produce versions of the text are making changes more rapidly than in the past based on:

  • manuscript discoveries
  • study of patristic material
  • study of early translations (Latin, Syriac, and Coptic)
  • changes in methodology

 

The pace of change is too rapid for hardcopy editions to keep up. Electronic and online versions of the text have changes that outrun printed editions. Dr. Kloha states a challenge this situation poses:

How do we account for this in the teaching and preaching task? When we are writing commentaries? When dealing with apologetic issues? And, when the text is changing regularly, online, live before our eyes, if you will, how do we continue to pray Verbum Dei manet in aeternum [the word of God remains forever]? [p. 181]

All this is the result of something called textual criticism. When manuscripts have variations on the wording at some location in the New Testament, people who produce the Greek text make decisions about which variation is right.

In the doctrine of verbal, plenary inspiration of Scripture, plenary means the whole thing, and verbal means the parts right down to the very words. The whole of Scripture, and every part of it right down to the very words, is inspired by the Holy Spirit, and therefore it is authoritative.

This doctrine applies to the autographs, not to copies. An autograph is the original text when a document is first written and before any copies are made. The existence of variations in the copies means that the text used to make translations, besides not being the autographs, is not an accurate copy of the autographs. If we don’t have the words of the autographs, then wherever there are manuscript variations, we might not have the very words that the Holy Spirit inspired.

Some textual critics have given up on trying to recover the autographs. Instead they seek something called the Ausgangstext, or in English, the “Initial Text.”

This reconstructed text is not “what left the pen of the evangelist.” … Rather, the editors are producing the text from which all existing copies derive. This is a significant change. No longer are the editors proposing to reconstruct, say, the letter that Paul sent to Rome. Rather, they are constructing the form of Romans that became part of the Corpus Paulinum sometime by the end of the first century, and from which all extant manuscripts derive. [p. 177.]

In the case of the Gospels, the situation is even worse. The target is the text of, say, Mark that existed sometime, perhaps a long time, after the first century.

This opens the question, what becomes of the authority of the New Testament? How do we explain the inspiration and authority of the text when the text keeps changing, and we don’t know if we have the words that the Holy Spirit verbally inspired?

People challenge the text with such questions as this: If the Holy Spirit could inspire the apostles to write his very words, why couldn’t He protect the transmission of the text? One miracle, of inspiration of the text, is no greater than another, of preservation of the text. If we can see that the Holy Spirit did not inerrantly preserve the text, what does that say about his inerrant inspiration of the autographs?

Kloha says Lutherans have not adequately addressed such challenges. He asks, “How will a Lutheran theology of the Word deal with these new editions of the Greek New Testament, editions that will change on a regular basis?” [p. 181]

Kloha mentions a couple metaphors or frameworks for viewing the nature of Scripture. One is an incarnational view, and another is a sacramental view.

He briefly likens the nature of Scripture to the nature of Christ. In the incarnation, Christ is both divine and human. The Word is both God’s word and human words. This analogy has been used in Lutheran theology. Kloha passes quickly from this, saying, “it might be more helpful to use a sacramental framework.” [p. 182]

Kloha briefly states an analogy between the Word and the Sacraments, based on both being means of grace, and on the Word being operative in the Sacraments despite contingencies in the earthly elements. But, this leaves us with “more of a mess on our hands than we would prefer.” [p. 182]

Next Kloha enumerates and develops three prejudgments about Scripture. One is that Scripture is inspired and authoritative. The second is about avoiding two opposite errors. One error is not seeing the divine Word and its authority in the text. The other error is not seeing that God’s Word in the text is stated in human words. This section is interesting and valuable for refuting several varieties of foolish readings of Scripture in many quarters. But it does not directly advance against the problem of a text that changes before our eyes.

The third prejudgment is a core point of the paper.

I will state my third prejudgment, which must also be incorporated into our hermeneutics: The reality of the historical nature of the transmission of the text and canon of the Scriptures. My explicit concern is this: The theological a priori we have at times used to argue for the authority of the Scriptures does not address the historical data that we now have regarding the formation of the canon and the manuscripts of the New Testament. We need a way of understanding the Scriptures that is able to deal with the challenges raised by the historical questions of our day. [p. 187]

After a rendition of the a priori dogmatics such as by Quenstedt, Kloha says, “Critics of the Scriptures and their inspiration will be able to demolish, and in fact already have, this naïve argumentation. And it has caused doubt among our people.” [p. 189]

There is also an a posteriori dogmatic that says, as Pieper does, no doctrine has been affected by the manuscript variations. That is true, but it changes the subject from the reliability of the text to the reliability of doctrine. Consequently this argumentation also does not hold up against criticism.

Kloha says of these kinds of arguments for Scriptural inspiration and authority,

[Bart D.] Ehrman’s book [Misquoting Jesus: The Story Behind Who Changed the Bible and Why] challenges the kind of argumentation for Scriptural authority described above. And the people in our classrooms and pews, who have been taught by us and by our students, have had their faith rocked to the core by Ehrman and his manuscripts, and Elaine Pagels and her gnostic gospels, and by the “Gospel of Judas,” and by The Davinci Code. [pp. 191-92]

Again,

We can comfort ourselves with our dogmatic formulations based on a single, original autograph, and repeat those formulations to our hearers, and in many cases that is enough. Soon enough, however, there will be another Bart Ehrman or Gospel of Judas or History Channel show that will cause the people in our congregations to question their trust in the Scriptures. [p. 201]

In a section titled, “Toward a Lutheran Approach.” Dr. Kloha begins, “I propose as a way forward that issues of the text are identical to issues of the historical development of the canon of the New Testament.” [p. 192] He recounts,

For Chemnitz, God is the source of authority, but that individual writings were in fact, from God had to be ‘judged’ and verified by the church, both as to the human authors and to their content. This took place historically, and Chemnitz goes to great lengths in his ensuing discussion to cite evidence from the church fathers, beginning with the earliest then available, that affirms this process of ‘judging’ the authorship and content of the writings. I would urge the same approach today: That we assume inspiration as an a priori, and then do the challenging and difficult work of going back to the earliest and most reliable sources in order to ‘judge’ and verify which readings are, in fact, apostolic. [p. 193-94]

This brings us to three classes or ranks of writings that are proposed to be Scripture, and the historical process of the church identifying which ones have what kind of authority.

  • homologoumena
  • antilegomena
  • notha

Homologoumena are writings that the church quickly recognized as inspired and against which no one or nearly no one in the church spoke. This happened very early with the 13 writings of Paul. It happened later, but still early, with the four Gospels.

Antilegomena are writings like Hebrews against which appreciable voices in the church speak, saying they might be valuable, but we cannot be sure they are inspired by the Holy Spirit. Of course, the world speaks against all Scripture. But here we are not concerned with that. We are concerned with witnesses from within the church against a writing.

Notha are spurious or apocryphal writings that have no authority, though they might be good, pious writings which a Christian may read with benefit.

Of the antilegomena, Chemnitz says, “No dogma which does not have a certain and clear foundation in the canonical books dare be constructed from these [antilegomena] books. Nothing that is in controversy may be proved from those books if there are no proofs and confirmations in the canonical books. But what is said in these books must be explained and understood according to analogy of what is clearly set down in the canonical books. [p. 196]

Lay people are accustomed to seeing the same 27 books in the same order in their printed and bound copies of the New Testament. They might never have heard of two ranks of books within what they call the New Testament. They might not realize that in Lutheran theology, we never have agreed that the antilegomena are Scripture. But it is so, and there is a messy historical process relating to this.

Dr. Kloha proposes that “we apply this traditional canonical distinction not only [to] the books but also to the individual words in those books.” [p. 196]

The variant readings by the manuscript tradition can be classified as to their canonical status. Individual readings may be classified as ‘homologoumena’ readings – those ‘used by all’ the manuscripts and firmly in the text. Others would have to be considered ‘antilegomena’ readings – those ‘spoken against’ by the manuscript tradition and not to be considered firmly authoritative. And finally ‘notha’ readings – those readings that are clearly spurious, secondary additions or alterations and therefore not to be considered authoritative. [p. 197]

Dr. Kloha calls this a “canonical-textual approach” and says it allow us to view the changing wording of new editions of the Greek text within the theological and historical framework that the church always has viewed the biblical text. He says, “It helps us to realize that we are still today sorting out the antilegomena from the homolegoumena as we continue to sort out the best readings from those which are later alterations in the manuscripts.” [p. 197]

An important feature to understand about his proposal is that where a phrase has variant readings in different manuscripts, a version of the phrase is antilegomena because “it is spoken against by not by the critic but by the manuscripts themselves.” [p. 198]

When that happens, the approach would treat both readings as antilegomena because each is spoken against by the other. “Therefore, in our teaching, neither reading is independently authoritative, but each has a secondary authority.” [p. 198] In other words, both readings have a rank like the rank of Hebrews, because Hebrews is antilegomena. You then do with it what Chemnitz said to do with antilegomena.

The question arises, can we teach and preach from, say, the Nestle-Aland text if it is not the autograph? Kloha says, “I am certain that we can, because the church has done exactly that from the beginning, even if we have not acknowledged it.” [p. 199] Already there have been 28 editions of the standard Greek New Testament, and the church has carried on even with the changes from edition to edition.

To receive the Bible from God’s hand as his Word, as it is, with all the messiness of its writing and gathering into canon and copying, is not capitulation to the skeptics. It is a statement of confidence. That here God does his work, here, in my space and time, by this his Word – even in this edition of the text – which makes us his people. [p. 202]

In part 3, I will give my layman’s issues and conclusions about Dr. Kloha’s paper. A layman’s view might seem irrelevant, but notice how much of Dr. Kloha’s concern and passion is about what the issues are doing to the faith of lay people. He treats the impact on lay people as relevant and important, so I will offer comment from a lay perspective.

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