A Call to Believing Biblical Studies

On the Tuesday, February 17th edition of Dr. James White’s The Dividing Line webcast (here’s the link), he read a scathing review (read it here) of evangelical scholar9781598562408o Dr. J. Harold Greenlee’s, book, The Text of the New Testament, by Dr. J. K. Elliott of the University of Leeds, U. K. Dr. White takes this opportunity to demonstrate how that so often, secular scholars of Biblical Studies do not engage their evangelical counterparts with dispassionate scholarly restraint, simply answering their scholarship with superior argumentation, but rather tend to resort to ridicule and derision. This review prompted a veritable eruption from Dr. White, who, in the wake of his debate with agnostic Religious Studies professor, Dr. Bart Ehrman (his website) had already been considering this phenomenon, and apparently just needed to get it off his chest. Dr. White winds up calling on enthusiastic young Reformed scholars to consider entering the field of Biblical Studies, learning all the truthful facts that the secularist academics have to teach, but, as Dr. White said, “combining it with faith.”

This is exactly the kind of call I wish to see get out, so in the interest of doing so, I have transcribed Dr. White’s monologue below. My request to you is, if you know a Christian young man who may fit this profile, pass this message on to him, and I will be in your debt.

“I was really bothered . . . I read this review. And those of you who have the RSS Feed to the Evangelical Textual Criticism blog may have read it as well. This is a review by J. K. Elliott, of the University of Leeds in the U. K. of J. Harold Greenlee’s Text of the New Testament: From Manuscript to Modern Edition. Now, I do not have this edition of Greenlee–it’s on it’s way, it’ll probably arrive today–but this is an update of the books I do have, and that was his original work on textual criticism, which then became updated I think in the eighties or nineties, to Scribes, Scrolls and Scripture, and now has a new name with Hendricksen’s publishers.

“There are things that are said by Elliott in this–I want to check them out and make sure they’re accurate–I don’t have any reason to question that they are. For example, he goes after Greenlee for a bad Scripture Index. I understand how that happens, especially if you’re updating an older book. I can understand how Scripture Index issues can arise, to be perfectly honest with you. And some of the other statements he makes here, I would take some issue with Greenlee on, but I want you to listen to the voice of modern scholarship.

“This bothers me. . . and I hope it will bother you as much, because it really has prompted me to do a lot of thinking about how to avoid the irrationality of those who are scared of scholarship. . . And who are afraid of tackling truth. Dan Wallace has a good point: he talks about people who are more desirous of having certainty than of having the truth. And I’ve met many people who are very certain of untruths. So I don’t want to go there. But, at the same time, I don’t want to be J. K. Elliott. Listen to what he says. I’m just reading two paragraphs. This is from his review–this is from SBL. The Society of Biblical Literature. This is the RBL of January of 2009, so this is brand new. . . . 

“One of his ways to answer readers’ concerns is to offer palliative platitudes. Among such pacifying remarks are “The great majority of textual variants involve little or no difference in meaning” (83), and “The vast majority of the most theologically significant passages of the New Testament have no significant textual variations” (117), a blatantly unsustainable assertion that tests the gullibility of the readership. Also to be endured are his quoting Bengel’s pabulum that “the variations between the manuscripts did not shake any article of evangelical doctrine” (76) and his repeating Sir Frederic Kenyon’s words “we have in our hands, in substantial integrity, the veritable Word of God” (120), despite his not drawing attention to the unsettling get-out phrase “in substantial [i.e., not complete] integrity.” The fact that the majority of the text is secure may well be true, but what disturbs conservative readers is not the total percentage of variants that are insignificant as regards matters theological but that minority of readings that are indeed theologically important. More on these below.

“Another means used to placate the fundamentalists is to appeal to divine protection of the text. Surprisingly, in a book by a respected academic, is his appeal on more than one occasion to the Holy Spirit (although why the index has a reference to the Holy Spirit on 46–47 eludes this reviewer). On page 37 we do find: “we believe that the Holy Spirit guided the authors of the New Testament books so that their message would be protected from error” and “We likewise believe that the Holy Spirit operated providentially in the copying and preservation of the MSS through the centuries.” Oh! That is not the sort of presupposition one would find in works of textual criticism of the Greek or Latin classics or of other ancient literature. Nor is it warranted here. In any case, such a view is a hostage to fortune—the vast quantity of textual variants is hardly suggestive of providential preservation. It were better had Greenlee avoided such peculiar obiter dicta. Even Greenlee himself tells us in a prelude to a description of scribal habits that “we should not think that it was only by supernatural preservation that the New Testament was kept from being lost or hopelessly confused during those centuries” (37) Perversely, Greenlee allows (103) that Mark’s original ending has been lost. Mainly, though, Greenlee is concerned to show how the frail human agency of scribal copying resulted in accidental and deliberate change (and even he points to places such as 1 Thess 2:7 and 1 Cor 13:3 [!] where he is not certain which reading came from the “inspired” biblical author).”


“Now–ahem–listening to this was like chewing on aluminum foil for me. Here is someone who is, indeed, speaking the presuppositions of the modern Academy, represented by Bart Ehrman. It is not an argument to mock a position. It would be better to provide a meaningful interaction. But we do need to understand that this is the language of the modern Academy. Now I’ve never figured out why people who don’t believe in the inspiration of the Bible would spend their time studying the Bible, but there are a lot of people who do.

“Just a couple of things. He identifies as ‘pacifying remarks’, the statement, ‘the vast majority of textual variants involve little or no difference in meaning.’ I don’t know how many times I’ve heard Bart Ehrman say that. That is not even a disputable assertion. Given that the largest textual variant in the New Testament–and I don’t mean largest as in number of verses–but the most number of times this textual variant comes up–has to do with the “movable NU (watch this how to video on the movable NU).” The movable NU does not impact meaning. So, that’s a fact. How is that a pacifying thing? Or are we just not supposed to mention that? Does J. K. Elliot so live in the realm of variation that he can’t admit these facts?

Then the next quote: “The vast majority of the most theologically significant passages in the New Testament have no significant textual variation. Okay. I’ve got to agree with Elliott on that one. I wouldn’t say it that way. He says, “A blatantly unsustainable assertion that tests the gullibility of the readership.” I think Elliott is following Ehrman in his book review methodology, here, to be perfectly honest with you. But I wouldn’t say that. I think that there– any theologically significant is going to have either minor or major textual variation in it. Most of it is going to be minor . . .  But the things that bug me– he identifies  Bengel’s statement as “pabulum.”

If a conservative were writing about someone else–a liberal, they would be dismissed for this kind of clearly biased presentation. It’s amazing! But then, here’s what really hit me. . . .

“Another means used to ‘placate the fundamentalists.” That’s just bias. That’s bigotry. That’s prejudice. “To placate the fundamentalist” is to appear. . . face it folks, if you wanted to “placate the fundamentalists,” you’d be using the King James Version of the Bible, and you wouldn’t be writing the stuff that Greenlee’s writing in the first place! Trust me, I know!

“Another means used to placate the fundamentalist is to appeal to divine protection of the text.” See, it’s as if that can’t even be a possibility. It’s not even allowed on the table now. But how do you keep it off the table? You just mock the people who don’t believe it. You don’t argue against it. You don’t demonstrate any type of consistent worldview that would give you a reason for doing that. You just simply dismiss it. That’s how liberalism works, folks; it’s how it works in politics, that’s how it works in religion. That’s how it works in our seminaries. And this is what’s coming into the seminaries. This is the kind of attitude that’s producing the kind of literature that’s out there today.

“Listen to this: “Surprisingly, in a book by a respected academic, is his appeal on more than one occasion to the Holy Spirit . . . ” This is simple secularism. This is simple unbelief. Are you going to argue, Dr. Elliott, that the Holy Spirit has nothing to do with the transmission of the text of the New Testament? “Oh, but we can’t make reference to that.” What do you mean we can’t make reference to that? That sounds just like Bart Ehrman saying, “Well, a historian can’t say anything about God, because . . . well, God has nothing to do with history,” huh? But Christians believe that God has everything to do with history. And Christians believe that the Scriptures are theopneustos. And that pneustos, breathe, as related to pneuma, which is, Spirit! So, what we have here is, you cannot be a believing Christian and engage in this practice!

“I think what we’ve got to realize is, we’ve got a bunch of unbelievers who have hijacked the “leading edge” of this discipline, and we need to start identifying that. What that also means is, those who are believers, who, by the work of the Spirit in their heart, have had the rebellion against God’s Word removed, and, I believe, a part of regeneration, a part of the change of the heart, is to cause a person to bow the knee before God’s Speech; before God’s Word.

“The men of old who have changed this world have been people who gave clear evidence of obedience to the Word of God. And those in whose lives the Spirit has moved in that way, I challenge you, I plead with you: if you’re a young man and you feel called to the ministry, you feel called to study, I challenge the young men of this generation–go into this field. Learn what these people have to say, yes, but don’t imitate their unbelief. Take the truth that they say, yes, but combine it with faith, and begin providing the kind of believing scholarship that goes beyond the circularity–I submit to you, secular humanism is no foundation for dealing with God’s universe–it will always result in the stunted viewpoints that we see in a Bart Ehrman. It can give us no reason for life, no reason to get up in the morning and do what is right. I call upon those young people, as you go into this field, don’t just dodge this, don’t dodge this area, dive into it in trust and faith that God’s Word is true, and let’s begin producing a kind of believing Biblical Studies. We have so much given the field over to the unbelievers, so they can say, “Look at all we write. We run SBL, and we do this and we do that.”

“There is such danger when the Christian Academy is so in love with the acceptance of the world that we are no longer willing to stand up and say, “I operate under the Lordship of Christ; you operate under the Lordship of your own mind. You are a rebel against Christ.” And that simply isn’t allowed in the Academy any longer. I hope there’s some listening right now, I know young Reformed men, they have a lot of zeal, they have  a lot of desire. They desire to learn, they desire to study. I call you. Give consideration. Do you want to be a scholar? Do you want to teach? I’m not saying it’s going to be easy. You’re going to have to go against the flow. Anybody who believes in the Lordship of Christ, anyone who believes God is their Creator today has to go against the flow. But we need good, sound scholarship being produced out there. I’m not saying lower the level of scholarship, I’m saying go to a higher level of scholarship. Because I say to you, to do scholarship under the Lordship of Christ is the highest calling. To do scholarship under the lordship of Secular Humanism is not a high calling. We need to delve into this area and “give an answer for the hope that’s within us.”






2 responses

  1. Elliott’s review is very disturbing. It betrays the very nature of academia for him to stoop to emotive rhetoric that panders to his constituency. So much for the civil, gentleman scholar that used to distinguish the intelligentsia.

    I have just finished the review copy I was sent, and my own review is forthcoming. Needless to say, I am more appreciative of the work than is Elliott.

  2. Capt.,
    I guess I can just say “amen, brother.” I might mention that you always seem to provide the most provoking content.

    Christian West

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