THE PRESERVATION OF THE SCRIPTURES
Notes of Address
Trinitarian Bible Society,
Ebenezer Chapel, Luton.
14th May, 1971
Dr. P. M. Rowell
The doctrine of the divine inspiration of Scripture is a fundamental truth well known to most if not all those present this evening, I hope we really do believe that the whole of Scripture is breathed out by God in such a way that the writers and speakers of Scripture conveyed precisely what God intendedÂ—that not only does God ensure that the general sense of Scripture is according to His will but that His inspiration ensures that the precise words used are exactly those which God purposed. This doctrine is believed by all reformed Christian people and is well-known, but a closely connected and very important doctrine is not so often emphasized and that is our subject this evening, the preservation of Scripture.
This doctrine of divine preservation of Scripture is essential to true Christian faith, for if there is no preservation of God’s Word, then the doctrine of inspiration is a useless doctrine so far as we are concerned for we can have no confidence that we have God’s inspired truth before us in the Bible if there has been no preservation of that truth. In these circumstances we would be contending for inspired Scripture given by holy men of old but now irretrievably lost or so basely corrupted as to bear little or no relation to the originally inspired words.
One immediately realizes the tremendous implications of denying the preservation of Scripture and Satan is not slow to recognize this. He has been and is constantly working to overthrow all confidence in God’s Word and our young people are having to face this problem constantly at school and in colleges and universities. They are told that the Bible is just like any other ancient book and must be treated as such books are treatedÂ—as a mixture of true and false, genuine history and traditional myths inextricably mixed so that even after centuries of the most careful examination by the greatest scholars of all time we are still in the position where each man decides for himself what part he receives and what part he rejects. The Bible then becomes a book subject to the superior understanding of man who is the final arbiter of truth and error and all thought of the authority of Scripture over the reader is effectively destroyed!
Firstly then, the denial of the preservation of Scripture effectively destroys any sense of the authority of Scripture for persons or churches in the present day.
Secondly we must consider what the Scriptures themselves claim regarding this doctrine for they are not silent on this important point. In Matthew 5:17-19Â—
“Think not that I am come to destroy the law, or the prophets: I am not come to destroy, but to fulfil. 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. Whosoever therefore shall break one of these least commandments, and shall teach men so, he shall be called the least in the kingdom of heaven: but whosoever shall do and teach them, the same shall be called great in the kingdom of heaven.”Â—
Jesus is speaking of the law given by God to Moses particularly, though He doubtless included all instructions given by God to Israel through Moses and the prophets. It is clear from these verses that the words familiar to Him and His hearers are so precisely those given to Israel centuries before, that not one jot or one tittle (the very smallest marks in Hebrew writing) shall pass from the law till all be fulfilled. Imagine now the consequence of denying the preservation of Old Testament Scripture to the time of Christ! Such a suggestion makes absolute nonsense of Jesus’ words, for then neither He nor anyone else could be sure of what was originally written, and the solemn warning against those who break these commandments becomes quite invalid since no-one can be certain that they really are the commands God originally gave. At Romans 15:8-12, Paul, speaking of the dignity of Jesus as a Minister of God to the Jews, says that He came to confirm the promise made unto the fathers, following with a series of quotations from the Old Testament. Again consider the implications of a denial of the preservation of Scripture! How could Paul know what these promises were, which were so long ago given to Abraham, Isaac, Jacob and many more? How could Jesus confirm promises, the truth of which was altogether in question? The very suggestion strikes at the heart of God’s teaching and destroys the harmony of Old and New Testament, and the unique position of Christ as fulfilling all the prophecies in the Old Testament concerning the Messiah. It also utterly discredits Jesus and the apostles as being gullible traditionalists who professed to believe words in which they could have no real confidence.
Paul, writing to Timothy in the second Epistle, chapter 3:16-17, gives a clear declaration regarding the ‘inspiration’ of scripture, well known by all who believe in this doctrine, but taking the sixteenth with the seventeenth verse we see how clearly he also teaches ‘preservation’. We ask: ‘What use would the inspired Scriptures be to anyone today if they were not preservedÂ—how could they be profitable for doctrine, reproof, correction, for instruction in righteousness, that the man of God may be perfect, throughly furnished unto all good works?’ No! The teaching is plainÂ—Scripture is preserved, and was to be the infallible guide of Timothy’s life, which having made him wise unto salvation was now to be his daily instructor in the narrow way which leads to eternal life.
So much then for the teaching of the New Testament writers about the Old. We must now come in the third place to consider the teaching of the New Testament about itself and what better than to turn to the words of the Saviour himself in Matthew 24:35. Jesus had been speaking prophetically of the signs of His second comingÂ—times which we are yet to see in the world’s historyÂ—and He assures us that heaven and earth shall pass away but His words shall not pass away. Have we any way of knowing what these words are? Certainly not, if Scripture is not preserved! Once more one sees that the denial of preservation implies a denial of the credibility of Jesus’ words. Paul in II Timothy 1:13 exhorts Timothy to ‘Hold fast the form of sound words which thou hast heard of me in faith and love which is in Christ Jesus.’ How clearly and precisely does the apostle show us the doctrine of preservation as he speaks of the form of sound words where the word ‘form’ is in the original Greek a word signifying ‘under-type’, i.e. the pattern from which we must take an exact tracing! A similar exhortation follows in Chapter 2:2, in which we see a command to treasure the teaching of the apostle by committing them to faithful men to be the very essence of their teaching in future ages. How could this be accomplished better than by committing
the writings to succeeding generations!
We have the testimony of Peter to the same truth in his first
Epistle, 1:24-25. The Word of the Lord endureth for ever in such a way that this is the Word, which by the Gospel is preached unto you, and Peter surely teaches us that though succeeding generations will fall like the flower of grass, the Word of the Lord will remain imperishable, and he surely could not mean this Word would remain a secret, locked up in God’s eternal mind so that no-one could know of it, for it is to be preached in all the world!
The fourth line of testimony I wish to adopt is that of the ancient testimonies of the belief of the Christian Church in past ages. This is necessarily a secondary testimony to that of Scripture itself but it is surely important and instructive to consider the belief of godly men and women of past generations. In the Swiss
declaration of faith, 1675, we read:
‘Almighty God not only provided that His Word, which is a power to everyone who believes, should be committed to writing through Moses, the Prophets and Apostles, but has also watched over it with fatherly care up to the present time, and guards it lest it might be corrupted by the craft of Satan or any fraud of
Again in the Baptist Confession of 1689:
‘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 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 authentic; so as in all controversies of religion-the church is finally
to appeal to them. But because these original tongues are not known to all the people of God, who have a right unto, and interest in the Scriptures and are commanded in the fear of God to read and search them, therefore they are to be translated into the Vulgar language of every nation into which they come, that the Word of God dwelling plentifully in all, they may worship Him in an acceptable manner and through patience and comfort of the Scriptures might have hope.’
Good Dr. John Owen has this to say (page 301, Volume 16 Â—Banner of Truth edition) on the ‘Divine original of Scripture’. ‘But yet we affirm that the whole Word of God in every letter and tittle as given from Him by inspiration is preserved without corruption.’
So a multitude of witnesses could be gathered to the same truth, that God has watched over His word to preserve it to us safely and uncorrupted even to this very day.
Objections are sometimes raised on the ground of variations in readings which occur in different manuscripts of the Scriptures, none of the original copies of which are preserved. This is a matter for careful study and I am not qualified to comment at length on it, but refer you to two useful booklets:
T. H. BrownÂ—’Divine Original’Â—T.B.S. Publication.
E. F. HillsÂ—’The King James Version Defended’
and also to Dr. Owen’s work previously referred to.
Lest any should be troubled by these arguments, let it be said that the parts of Scripture in question are a comparatively small number, that the differences are generally of little consequence and that the vast majority of manuscripts are remarkable for the close measure of agreement rather than their variations. To quote Owen again (page 302, Volume 16):
‘It is indeed a great relief against the inconvenience of corrupt translations to consider that although some of them be bad enough, yet if all the error and mistakes that are to be found in all the rest should be added to the worst of all, every necessary saving fundamental truth would be found sufficiently testified unto therein. But to depress the sacred truth of the originals into such a condition as wherein it should stand in need of this apology Â… will at length be found a work unbecoming a Christian Protestant Divine.’
(One might add a comment that Owen was speaking of translations and not the sort of paraphrases too common today which are not genuine attempts to faithfully translate the original Hebrew or Greek into good English but simply the writer’s idea of what the originals are saying!)
In conclusion we may summarize the position simply as follows: (i) The Scripture must have been preserved by God (ii) The New Testament writers testify to the preservation of Old Testament Scriptures (iii) The New Testament writers claim the
same inspiration and preservation for their own writings (iv) The true Church has acknowledged this doctrine down the centuries.
How deeply thankful to the Lord we should constantly be for such a miracle of grace to us in 1971 and how important it is to examine ourselves whether we do really in our hearts receive God’s word, for ultimately the question is one of faithÂ—when all merely rational arguments come to an end we must ask ourselves this one question: ‘Do I believe God and receive His Word?’