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Textual Criticism and Preaching – Finding the Balance

textual criticism

In the realm of the theological sciences, no subject is as difficult to navigate as that of Old and New Testament textual criticism. Textual criticism involves a vast amount of linguistic consideration, transmission theory, historiographical data, philosophical reasoning, archeological discovery, and intertextual comparison. The number of factors at play makes textual criticism a specialist rather than a generalist science. Perhaps the most important factor in textual criticism is understanding how to approach textual variants in preaching.

Since most pastors are generalists rather than specialists, it is important for them to know how to approach variants in their exposition of books of the Bible. How much should a pastor talk about textual variants when preaching through books of the Bible? How should ministers address a textual variant when it is a more questionable reading of the text of the book through which he is preaching? These and many other questions are important for the simple reason that any minister preaching faithfully through the books of the Bible will inevitably be confronted with the difficult task of navigating the variants and using textual criticism.

Textual Criticism and Preaching

One of the first things we have to recognize in this discussion is the distinction between the inspiration of the original text of Scripture, given by God in Hebrew in the Old Testament and in Greek in the New Testament, and the preservation of the original manuscripts. John H. Skilton has rightly explained,

“According to the [Westminster Confession of Faith], the canonical books were given by inspiration of God (I.ii). The Old Testament in the Hebrew and the New Testament in the Greek — the Scriptures in the languages in which they were given — were immediately inspired by God (I.viii). Quite distinct from the inspiration of the original manuscripts have been the care and providence whereby the Scriptures have been kept pure. It is by virtue of these two separate considerations — the immediate inspiration of the sacred writings in their original form and the singular divine care and providence — that the Old Testament in Hebrew and the New Testament in Greek are to be regarded as authentical (I.viii). Indeed, far from confusing these two matters, conservative scholars would insist on making a very sharp distinction between them.”1

We both recognize the divine inspiration of the original writing of Scripture and God’s preservation of it. However, these are two different things. In the inspiration of the originals, God gave the church an inspired and infallible written revelation. In the preservation of His word, God has not given us a single manuscript collection for either the Old or New Testament texts. Some have erroneously tried to argue that Textus Receptus, or common Greek text of the New Testament, represents the ipsissima verba, written by the inspired men throughout.


The problem with such an argument is that the Textus Receptus is essentially a copy of Erasmus’ Fifth Basle Edition of the Greek New Testament drawn primarily from a few manuscripts in the Constantinopolitan family. It does not take into account the many other manuscripts and variants that lend substantial support to the work of textual criticism. While we should confidently affirm that God has preserved His inspired and inerrant revelation in the original Greek manuscripts, we cannot simply appeal to one single source. God has preserved His inspired revelation in transcribed manuscripts, just not in the original manuscripts in which it was written by “men. . .as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit” (2 Pet. 1:21).