What is Verbal Plenary Preservation?
Question: "What is Verbal Plenary Preservation?"
“Verbal Plenary Preservation” is an argument from the discipline of study referred to as textual criticism, which is the study of what an ancient copy of an original manuscript says and from there determining what the author meant. Ultimately, biblical textual criticism seeks to determine what the original, divinely inspired autographs actually said. So to answer the question “which Bible translation is closest to the original?”, we must consider the texts from which the translation was rendered.
Verbal Plenary Preservation (VPP) is an argument promoted by some (usually from the “King James Version Only” advocates), in support of the view that the Textus Receptus or TR, is the only New Testament text that is both divinely inspired and divinely preserved. Verbal Plenary Preservation (if true), would require generation after generation of handwritten copies to be produced without error of any kind from the original autographs in the first century, producing the later manuscripts known as the “majority text,” from which the TR was created. In doing so, VPP proponents incorrectly link the doctrine of inerrancy with inspiration and “providential preservation.” Their conclusion is that the Textus Receptus and the majority text (MT) from which the TR came are not only faithful, inerrant, identical, replicas of the original autographs, but that all other New Testament manuscripts from any location, language, or time period are not inspired of God and are therefore unworthy of use.
The underlying problem with the doctrine of VPP is its basis in the false presupposition that God's inspiration of Scripture at a particular point in human history also requires His divine preservation of each and every jot and tittle ever written down by anyone who ever sought to do the work of a scribe. Further, that the majority text not only fits this description but must be the one preserved by virtue of the number of extant manuscripts—the majority rules—and is publicly accessible, which they say is evidence of its providential preservation. This idea, however, runs counter to the Bible’s own testimony, historical evidence, what constitutes a true “majority,” and the force of plain reason.
The Textus Receptus is a compilation/translation by Erasmus from manuscripts dating mostly from 900 A.D. to 1100 A. D. These manuscripts are referred to as the Majority Text (also referred to as the Byzantine Text). The name "Majority" however is a misnomer. Erasmus could have used manuscripts from numerous geographic locations to avoid any drifting in textual renderings inherent to a specific geography, people group, or scribal tradition. He also could have consulted manuscripts from varying time periods to identify any loss of scribal accuracy in copies over multiple generations, or considered the available Latin manuscripts which outnumbered the Greek two-to-one! Instead, he made use of none of these variables and instead used a very narrow group of texts.
Majority of What? When? Where?
As is usually the case with historical documents, the older something is, the fewer examples tend to survive. At the same time, older copies are generally believed to be more accurate renditions where variations exist. The thinking is that a fifth generation copy (written four hundred years after the original autograph) is likely to be far more accurate than a twelfth generation copy written fourteen hundred years after the original. TR/MT advocates would have us believe the exact opposite is true. Yet, the Dead Sea Scrolls, which are second-century copies predating the MT by hundreds of years, substantiated the accuracy of earlier non-majority text. The fact is that the MT are only a selection of Greek texts from a particular area of the world during a particular time period in only one of the many languages that the New Testament had been preserved in.
We have no evidence for Erasmus’s justification for his choosing to use certain manuscripts while disregarding others. Additionally, Erasmus did not use texts from a variety of locations or times. As a result, the texts he used cannot in any real sense be considered a majority. Erasmus may have used a narrow cross section of texts to minimize the variant renderings. But even in narrowing his textual sources, no consensus or majority emerged. More recent studies have found there to be six to ten variant renderings of each verse within the texts he used.
Additionally, there are nearly 2000 places where Erasmus’s TR differs from all MT, and numerous renderings in the TR have never been found in any Greek manuscript of any time period. Recently, 52 variants have been found within the space of just two verses within the MT. In such cases how are MT advocates to determine what constitutes a majority within the text? As a result, any level of certainty regarding the accuracy of renderings of the original text into the TR is logically and mathematically impossible. Even worse is the inherent view that majority equals certainty of inspiration. So, even if the MT were the only manuscripts in the world, thousands of verses in the TR not only lack a majority, but lack even a single duplicate for credibility, let alone any degree of certainty.
Not only is such a certainty mathematically impossible, but it puts God’s divinely inspired revelation at the mercy of man’s willingness to recognize any and all emergent majority renderings among dozens to choose from, thus placing God in need of human omniscience to preserve textual and doctrinal purity mathematically, among what would amount to millions of combinations of renderings of the thousands of verses in the New Testament, each of them with dozens of variations from verse to verse, word to word in all the manuscripts that make up the MT. Erasmus would indeed have to be inspired by God to get even half of the New Testament right. Clearly, God would not subject His message to mankind to such a flawed process with such flawed results, producing only one inspired copy.
Even if we concede that God might have done so, when we look at the physical evidence of Erasmus’s own work, we see the flawed results that cannot be attributed to God. We find that in a hasty effort to publish his efforts, Erasmus made hundreds of translational mistakes in his first and subsequent publications. Several editions of his TR were published as he discovered more and more mistakes after each printing. Additionally, there were hundreds of typographical and mechanical mistakes that were made. So again the TR/MT advocate cannot say that the MT was preserved without error and is credible based on its “majority.” All errors aside, they still have to determine which TR publication was the inspired one and for theological consistency how it constitutes a majority among the other TR versions.
All ancient writings both (secular and religious) indicate the Byzantine Text that make up the “majority text” were non-existent in at least the first three centuries after Christ. Early manuscripts like the Codex Sinicatus (by far the earliest complete NT text ever discovered), the Alexandrian Text, early Latin manuscripts, and those of the Dead Sea scrolls all predate the MT and support the renderings of modern translations. Also the non-MT manuscripts contain the entire New Testament, while the group of manuscripts making up the MT lacks certain portions of the NT altogether. Yet, TR/MT advocates claim the TR/MT is the only manuscripts “providentially preserved” by God? All things being equal, the older a copy is, the more likely it is to resemble the original. And yet VPP proponents would have us believe the opposite.
Who was inspired?
TR advocates generally believe that the MT was divinely inspired and preserved, lending credibility to the TR. However, the MT did not contain the entire New Testament because those sections did not survive the passing of time. So in some places Erasmus was forced to back-translate his own Greek Text from existing Latin manuscripts (not part of the MT) that were themselves translations from other Greek manuscripts. In other places the Majority Texts had so many variants of a given verse or wordage that Erasmus could not determine a consensus of which rendering to use, so he made up his own. Proponents of VPP, if they recognize this fact, are then forced to conclude either that the Textus Receptus has not been divinely preserved (as they define it) or that God's inspiration of Scripture continued for another 1500 years after Christ’s death, placing Erasmus in the category of inspired biblical authors with Peter, Paul and John.
The first publication of the TR was arguably the most publically accessible, and yet contained the most errors. Versions were published in 1516, 1519, 1522, 1527, and 1535. In point of fact, the actual edition that became the “Textus Receptus” as we know it, was Robert Estienne’s third revision of Erasmus’ fourth edition and wasn’t printed until 1550.
Biblical testimony and public access
We see in 2 Kings 22 a time when God had sovereignly preserved only one copy of the Old Testament. Additionally, we see throughout the Bible that God works through the remnant, and the “majority” is almost universally and consistently in the wrong. Most TR/MT advocates argue the virtue of majority rule as providing public accessibility and see this as evidence of God’s providential preservation. TR/MT advocates cannot make the same argument of divine preservation evidenced by “majority rule” which in turn is supposedly demonstrated by public accessibility for the NT. The primary reason is that the Greek-only manuscripts that make up the MT were not accessible to non-Greek speaking individuals, nor were they accessible to the vast majority of Greek speaking Christians outside the geography from which the MT came. Those without MT access (throughout every age of Christian history) vastly outnumber those Greek-speaking Christians who did have access. Furthermore, because of human efforts to physically preserve the manuscripts, the MT have only been publicly accessible in any general sense since the early 1980s.
Biblical and Historical Evidence
Few Old Testament scholars would claim that there are any extant Hebrew manuscripts without error. It is well known by OT scholars that all extant OT manuscripts (approximately 10,000) have been verified to have errors in them (most of them are believed to be scribal errors). These errors amount to far less than 1% of the text and have no doctrinal significance (usually spelling errors of names). In addition to errors, they have thousands of variant renderings of passages, verses, phrases or words. Ironically, because of the scribal traditions requiring the destruction or burial of any scroll that was discovered to contain even a single error in it, those manuscripts that have been discovered are of a far higher quality than even the very best manuscripts from the MT. Yet, they too are not perfect and have variations from one manuscript to another. Therefore, the mere existence of the imperfect manuscripts seems to disprove VPP.
So if inspiration equals inerrancy and divine preservation, then either: 1) God was careless in His preservation of the OT, or He was incapable of preserving it exactly as it was; 2) He had no interest in preserving it, and the preservation of Scripture has only been through the power, participation, and interest of mankind; or 3) God preserved the NT using VPP, but did not do so for the OT, (which constitutes roughly 80% of the Bible). Clearly, none of these conclusions is accurate or reasonable.
Force of plain reason
Can any informed Verbal Plenary Preservation advocate reasonably claim that the MT represents God’s best efforts to provide an inerrant, divinely-inspired, providentially-preserved collection of His Holy Scriptures when it is easily demonstrable that every single extant manuscript in the MT not only has errors, but is incomplete?
Another biblical consideration that falls into all the above categories is the Hebrew OT Masoretic text created by scribes in Jerusalem vs. the later Greek translation of the OT called the Septuagint or LXX, which was translated in Egypt. In the time of Jesus, He and the apostles most often quoted directly from the foreign-produced, and less prevalent LXX, rather than the Masoretic text.
If the doctrine of Verbal Plenary Preservation were accurate, then presumably the older surviving texts would also have been divinely preserved, making the MT possible, and yet completely inconsequential. The MT would then be seen as variants from the earlier texts, and would be considered errant versions and living proof that the VPP is false. So proponents of the VPP are forced to conclude that VPP applies only to the MT/TR, with absolutely no historical, biblical, or logical reason for ascribing inspiration and the necessity of preservation to the MT/TR alone. Nor can they with any level of certainty support any of Erasmus’ unique renderings of the text or support what appears to be a necessary presupposition of divine inspiration to Erasmus fifteen hundred years after John ended the book of Revelation.
Ironically, the early church had no doctrine of preservation. In fact, no doctrine of preservation in any form was ever stated in a creed until the seventeenth century. This is significant because the doctrine was apparently non-existent during the creation of the earliest manuscripts predating the MT, during the period of the MT, and even well beyond the creation of the TR by Erasmus.
The simplest and most reasonable conclusion regarding Verbal Plenary Preservation is this: God inspired the original autographs and has sovereignly protected his Word through the preservation of thousands of manuscripts with thousands of slight variations—arguably none of which is doctrinally significant—and when taken as a whole, neither negate His message and doctrines, nor His participation in a form of preservation totally inconsistent with VPP, which may include the MT, but not exclusively so. And in doing so, He ensured the purity and preservation of His message through thousands of surviving manuscripts spread over thousands of years and miles. These manuscripts, when taken as a whole, show God’s superintending care through the use of imperfect men so that the Bibles we have today can truly be called God’s Word.
The King James Only Controversy by James White and Logos Bible Software.
While he is not the author of every article on GotQuestions.org, for citation purposes, you may reference our CEO, S. Michael Houdmann.
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What is Verbal Plenary Preservation?