The First Installment
Through great and terrible signs, God destroyed Egypt’s economy, decimated her people, humiliated her gods, and overthrew her king. In fire and cloud, He led Israel through the Red Sea and across the wilderness to Mt. Sinai. There He came down in fire and lightning, earthquake and darkness, and He spoke to Israel in a thunderous voice that reached some two million men, women, and children.
The man who called for the plagues, who led the Exodus, who brought down the law from Sinai was Moses, whom God knew face to face. Those who rebelled against his authority suffered immediate and extraordinary judgment. And so when Moses gave Israel the Torah, the first five books of the Bible, God’s people recognized it at once as the authoritative and infallible word of God.1
God Continues His Book
Before Moses died, he passed his prophetic mantle to Joshua, who oversaw the conquest of the Promised Land. God authenticated Joshua’s office with more signs and wonders — the river Jordan parted, the walls of Jericho fell, and the sun stood still in the heavens. Joshua added a new section to the Book of the Law (Josh. 24:26, “And Joshua wrote these words in the book of the law of God....”). God’s people knew it was the word of the LORD.
As the centuries passed, God raised up more prophets, validated their ministries with still more signs and wonders, and spoke His words through them. First came the “former prophets,” who wrote and interpreted history in terms of God’s covenant promise. Their books are Judges, Samuel, and Kings.2 Then came the wisdom writers and psalmists. After them came the “latter prophets,” whose messages read like sermons — or covenant lawsuits.3 In no uncertain terms they told God’s people, “Thus saith the LORD.”4
During the Restoration,5 miracles were rare and those with the prophetic gift were few. Nevertheless, God inspired men like Ezra and Nehemiah to write Scripture, and the people of God received their books as the authoritative word of God, including them in the Hebrew scripture. The prophet Malachi closed out the Old Testament canon.
But those who pondered God’s ways with men might well have understood that God was not done writing His book. For the prophets had spoken of a New Covenant and an incredible outpouring of God’s Spirit in the last days. Such things would surely be accompanied by more Scripture.
God Finishes His Book
In the fulness of time, God’s eternal Word became flesh. In a miracle beyond comprehension, God revealed Himself exhaustively in the Person of His Son (Heb. 1).
That revelation needed to be recorded. Jesus told His apostles that the Holy Spirit would guide them into all truth, that He would bring to their remembrance all that He Himself had said, and that they would judge His new Israel (Jn. 14:26; 16:13; Mt. 19:28). And so the apostles and their closest companions wrote the closing sections of inspired Scripture. God validated their ministry through signs and wonders, and the church received the apostolic writings as the very word of God. The Bible was complete.
Do Copies Count?
Of course, the original manuscripts (autographs) written by the prophets and apostles perished long ago. What we have are copies of copies of copies. Are they inspired? Are they infallible? Are they still the word of God?
When Paul told Timothy that all Scripture is inspired of God (God-breathed), he was talking about the Scripture that Timothy knew from childhood (2 Tim. 3:14-17). But Timothy had never seen the Old Testament autographs; he learned Scripture from copies of copies. It was to those copies that Paul ascribed inspiration and, by implication, authority and infallibility. Those extant manuscripts were the word of God.
The Preservation of Scripture
Scripture clearly teaches the doctrine of its own preservation. “It is easier for heaven and earth to pass, than one tittle of the law to fail.” God will keep and preserve His words forever (Ps. 12:6-7). Heaven and earth shall pass away, but Jesus’ words shall never pass away (Mt. 24:35). God’s words will remain in the mouths of believers and their seed and their seed’s seed forever (Is. 59:21). Till the end of time, God’s people will be responsible to search the Scriptures and to obey them.
Are we to think, then, that the transmission of the text has been miraculous? No, that is not what God has promised. History shows us that men have made mistakes in copying the text of Scripture. Some of these have been slight and unintentional; some have been horrendous. Certainly the ancient church knew of corrupted manuscripts, but that did not shake her faith in the Bible she had. Likewise, the church of the Reformation knew of corrupted texts and variations within the available manuscripts; yet she, too, confessed that she had an infallible Bible. We need to make the same confession. God’s providence has not failed His promise.
So how can we recognize the pure text from a corrupted text? The Bible itself tells us.
- The pure text of Scripture has always been in the possession of the believing church (an ecclesiastical text) ( Rom. 10:6-9; Eph. 4:11-16). This is what God has promised, and this is what His covenant requirements take for granted (Is. 59:21; Ps. 1; Ps. 119). Manuscripts rescued from waste bins and musty libraries must take back seat to the text the church has actually used in worship.6
- The pure text of Scripture will exist in the majority of manuscripts (a majority text). Doubtless false teachers have often altered the text of Scripture to promote their own agendas, but in the long run the church has not been interested. Jesus’ sheep hear His voice (Jn. 10:4; Jer. 23:28).
- The pure text of Scripture will most clearly direct our faith to Jesus Christ as the incarnate Son of God and the only atoning sacrifice (an orthodox text) (Lk. 24:44ff; Jn. 5:39). The testimony of Jesus is the spirit of prophecy (Rev. 19:10). The heretics of old liked to clip out references to the deity and blood of Christ. Manuscripts that seem foggy about these doctrines we should reject out of hand.
- The pure text of Scripture will be the one that God has used most to edify and renew His church (a reformational text) (Rom. 10:17; 1 Cor. 2:13). God can speak through the mouth of an ass; He can speak through corrupted texts and poor translations. Nonetheless, we should expect Him to bless His word as He gave it (Jn. 6:63). We should look to the Bible of the Reformation, the Puritans, and the great evangelical revivals. Yes, we’re talking about the Greek and Hebrew manuscripts behind our traditional Protestant Bibles.
God destroyed an empire to introduce His Bible. He moved the sun and decimated armies to authenticate His messengers. He raised His Son from the dead to seal His covenant. His providence has not failed His promise in the centuries since. The church has the Bible. It is still authoritative, still infallible, and still the word of God.
1. Though Scripture attributes the five books to Moses, it is still likely that Genesis existed first as a collection of documents or books, each written by a Patriarch and prophet of the ancient world. See Henry Morris, TheGenesis Record (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1976), 25-30. Cf. Luke 1:70.
2. We should probably include Ruth with Judges, although the Jews placed it among the Writings, the section that included the poetry books and the Restoration histories.
3. Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, and the Twelve (the Minor Prophets). The Jews placed Daniel among the Writings.
4. This phrase appears over 340 times. “The word of the LORD came to _____” appears over 100 times.
5. The Restoration Era began with the decree of Cyrus that let Israel return from the Babylonian Captivity. Its history writers gave us Chronicles, Ezra, Nehemiah, and Esther.
6. My parents were given a “Living Bible” when I was young. It’s still tucked away in some closet and still in perfect condition. Meanwhile, I’ve gone through four or five copies of the Authorized Version. Older may not mean better; it may mean less used.