A Layman’s Take on the Plastic Text of the New Testament — Part 3, Conclusion and Issues

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.

Part 2 summarized from a layman’s perspective the contents of what appears to be the final version the paper.

This part gives my layman’s conclusion and issues regarding the paper.

I should be transparent about, as they say, “Where I’m coming from” as I approached this matter. I grew up in the American Lutheran Church when it had a formal quia subscription to the Book of Concord, and a decent confession of the inspiration, inerrancy, and authority of Scripture. During the same era as the Seminex walkout in Missouri, the ALC was wound up in the same controversies about Scripture. We just didn’t have a notable, galvanizing event like the walkout. Whereas, in the outcome, and as a whole, Missouri succeeded, the ALC failed. Defection from the doctrine of Scripture resulted in the destruction of my beloved ALC. Nearly everything you see wrong in the successor body, the ELCA, stems from that.

I am in Missouri now because of its strong commitment to Scripture and the Lutheran confessions. But every now and again we see symptoms in Missouri that could indicate a disease similar to what destroyed the ALC. When that happens, I take special interest because I don’t want to go through another synodical destruction.

When a preliminary and provisional draft of Dr. Kloha’s paper was leaked, the paper looked to me like it could be a symptom. Some apparently qualified people all but said that heresy was being taught at the seminary. That alarm bothered me.

On December 5, 2013 at 10:27 a.m., I sent an email to Dr. Kloha asking him a question about his paper. Imagine how that had to look on his end. My email plopped into his inbox out of left field. He and I never have met, nor had we ever spoken or corresponded before. And I am nobody in the synod. But, later the same day, he replied. It was apparent that the leaked version was preliminary and provisional. After receiving his reply, I promised to keep it in confidence. What he said satisfied me partly, but not completely. I told him I did not think his reply would be enough for his readership as a whole.

As things have developed, some – I say, some – of the people who spoke about the leaked draft jumped farther than Evel Knievel to monstrous conclusions.

When what is apparently the final version of the paper was published as a chapter in a book in Germany, I ordered a copy and waited with anticipation for it to be shipped across the pond.

For the sake of further transparency, as I read the chapter, I came to it in a tension between two impulses:

  • I am wary of textual criticism of Scripture.
  • I try to confine my reading of someone’s writing to its purport.

Some notable textual critics have made the enterprise suspect. Some of them postulate that the church dishonestly corrupted the text of the New Testament. For example, they say that during the Christological controversies, the church messed with the text to protect church dogma.

What pretends to be only bias against the church and its corruption of the text really is prejudice against Christ. First, they deny the orthodox doctrine of the Incarnation, and then they counter-mess with the Greek text (assuming the church ever did mess with it, which I don’t believe) to protect their anti-Christian commitment.

Without the Incarnation, there is no atonement. Thousands of people have been crucified, and without the Incarnation, Jesus is just one more. Without the Incarnation, there is no justification. At the altar, we do not receive the true body and blood of Christ. We do not receive what his blood was shed for, the forgiveness of sins. Everything collapses, and the rubble falls into a sink hole.

Every spirit that confesses that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is of God, and every spirit that does not confess that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is not of God. And this is the spirit of the Antichrist, which you have heard was coming, and is now already in the world. [1 John 4:2-3]

I don’t want to turn over control of the text to Antichrist.

Besides, I tend to have a catechetical response to issues like this. I read Luther’s explanation of the First Article, and I can’t feature the Father giving me clothing and shoes, but not his Word in the Bible in my hands. I can’t feature Jesus Christ giving me his body and blood, but not his Word. I can’t feature the Holy Spirit keeping me and the whole Christian church on earth in the true faith without giving me his Word. The Bible is God’s gift to me. I am naïve like that. Catechetically, Luther encourages such naivety.

At the same time, I try to confine my reading of someone’s writing to its purport. One of the most chronic causes of unnecessary disagreement is to interpret what someone says beyond its purport, and then dispute something the person didn’t say. We do have literary devices for saying things without saying them. So I do not constrain the purport for artful dodgers. I count those devices as locating a proposition within the purport.

With that tension between wariness of textual criticism and constraining reading to an author’s purport, I read the chapter. When I had gotten through it once, I had not found any false teaching. I read it again, taking notes. Still didn’t find any false teaching. Reading it a third time, I made a sketchy outline of the chapter. That did not identify any false teaching. I concluded that if any false teaching is there, it is too slippery for me to detect. But I didn’t sense any slipperiness, either.

Not everyone doing textual criticism brings a heretical prejudice to the task. Dr. Kloha is not known to have any heretical views.

On the whole, the discovery of new manuscripts has been remarkably reaffirming of Scripture. As one of the doctors of the church has pointed out to me, the variants do not affect any biblical doctrine, and except for three passages, the variants are not significant. It is possible to do textual criticism well for the good of the church.

Dr. Kloha’s discussion of textual criticism that is happening simply reports what other people are doing. While affirming the inspiration and authority of the New Testament, he says our way of accounting for the text is not standing up to new challenges, and we need to add a new, Lutheran way of doing it. Then he proposes one way, and so far as I can see, it fits into orthodox Lutheran theology, by an analogy to homologoumena and antilegomena.

Then the Convention Workbook 2016 was published. It had two overtures about Dr. Kloha’s paper. So I wrote to the Editor of Brothers of John the Steadfast proposing this series of articles. I said, “I have not identified anything unorthodox in Kloha’s paper.” The Editor signaled for me to go ahead. This was before the first edition of Today’s Business was published.

It is comforting that Dr. Kloha met with Synodical President, Rev. Dr. Matthew C. Harrison, Seminary President, Rev. Dr. Dale A. Meyer, and Rev. Dr. Daniel Preus. What President Harrison reported to the Regents of the seminary reflects well on all of them for the way they handled the matter. The report is that there is no false doctrine in the final paper. I have confidence in President Harrison and Rev. Preus. I am not implying anything negative about Dr. Meyer. I just happens that I never have met him and have read little of his writings.

Having said that I find no false doctrine in the paper, I do have some critiques of it. Let me make plain that now I am leaving the subject of true and false teaching, and moving on to something different.

My critiques relate to:

  • Dr. Kloha’s assessment of the impact of textual criticism on laity.
  • The prospect for good impact of his proposed solution on laity.

Dr. Kloha exhibits great concern and passion about what the issues of textual criticism are doing to the faith of lay people. That is nice to see in an academic paper.

It is sad how many of my friends seem to have been drawn away to unbelief by History Channel programs about the Bible, and by some of the other things Dr. Kloha mentions. For example, I’ve had a friend spend hundreds of dollars on mail order materials attacking the inspiration and authority of Scripture, including on grounds of manuscript variations and church corruption. He became an evangelist of the attack, and sought to get his family, friends, and acquaintances into it, including me.

But in deeper conversation with friends like that, I have found that people seize upon the criticisms of the transmission of the text opportunistically after they already don’t want to believe the Bible for other reasons.

The vogue reasons these days are desires for universalism, and if we can’t have that, then at least give us annihilationism. Before they ever heard of textual criticism, they rejected the Law’s condemnation of sin with its threat of hell, or they rejected the Gospel’s proclamation of forgiveness in Christ on the basis of his cross. They already wanted an untormented destiny aside from the cross, and the History Channel merely lets them back fill their desires with rational-sounding reasons that set hell and the cross aside.

But, my critique is only anecdotal and limited to my small range of experience. Lay people are strongly affected by their own anecdotal experiences, you know. Maybe this should be a topic of legitimate research.

I question the prospect of an analogy between textual variations and antilegomena of whole books being helpful with lay people. Among theologians, pastors, and academics, it might work quite well. But lay people are a different kettle of fish.

Many lay people never have heard of antilegomena. So we are going to reassure them about the inspiration and authority of Scripture by telling them not to worry about this word or phrase that we now are calling antilegomena, because that is just like Hebrews being antilegomena. Won’t many of them say, “Wait, what? You mean not only are we unsure of the Word at this location where a word or phrase is uncertain, but that’s okay because already many whole books are uncertain?” You’ll answer, “Well, yes. Isn’t that reassuring?” Won’t they ask, “Which books?” You’ll answer, “Hebrews, James, 2nd Peter, 2nd John, 3rd John, Jude, and Revelation.” I question the effect of salving a small wound by inflicting a bigger one.

A couple of final thoughts:

Since all this textual criticism takes place well out of the view of lay people, and we don’t know who the people doing it are or what they believe about Christ, sin, and salvation, it is not necessarily a bad idea to have at least one of our own guys in there, studying what is going on and talking about it. Maybe we should have several of our own guys in there. Then we wouldn’t have to take just one such person’s word.

Since the publication of the first two articles in this series, Dr. Kloha has provided me citations to additional writings of his that are intended for lay audiences. It is good that this concern and effort is being expended for lay people. Hopefully I will get the time soon to write about those materials.

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