What is Verbal Plenary Preservation?
Question: "What is Verbal Plenary Preservation?"
Answer: “Verbal Plenary Preservation” is an argument from textual criticism, which is the study of ancient copies of original manuscripts in order to determine the author’s intended meaning. Ultimately, biblical textual criticism seeks to determine what the original, divinely inspired autographs actually said. To find out 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 “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, and 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 false presupposition that God’s inspiration of Scripture at a particular point in human history also requires His divine preservation of every jot and tittle ever written down by anyone who ever sought to do the work of a scribe. Further, VPP advocates insist the Majority Text is the one so preserved by virtue of the number of extant manuscripts—the majority rules—and its public accessibility. This idea 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 AD 900 to 1100. 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 various time periods to identify scribal inaccuracy or considered the available Latin manuscripts, which outnumbered the Greek two-to-one! Instead, Erasmus made use of none of these variables and 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 the more accurate renditions. The thinking is that a fifth-generation copy (written four hundred years after the original autograph) is likely to be 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, predating the MT by hundreds of years, substantiate the accuracy of earlier, non-Majority texts. The fact is that the MT is only a selection of texts from a particular area and a particular time in only one language.
We do not know Erasmus’s justification for choosing certain manuscripts while disregarding others. Erasmus may have used a narrow cross section of texts to minimize variant readings. But even in narrowing the textual sources, no consensus emerged. Erasmus’s texts cannot in any real sense be considered a majority. Recent studies have found there to be six to ten variant renderings of each verse within the texts Erasmus chose.
Additionally, there are nearly 2,000 places where Erasmus’s TR differs from the 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 just two verses within the MT. In such cases how are MT advocates to determine what constitutes a majority within the text? Any 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 even a single duplicate.
The doctrine of VPP puts God’s divinely inspired revelation at the mercy of man’s recognition of emergent majority renderings (among dozens to choose from), thus placing God in need of human omniscience to preserve textual and doctrinal purity. With dozens of variations from verse to verse, Erasmus would indeed have to be inspired by God to get even half the New Testament right. Clearly, God would not subject His divine message to such a flawed process, 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 flawed results that cannot be attributed to God. In a hasty effort to publish his work, Erasmus made hundreds of translational mistakes in his first and subsequent publications. Several editions of his TR were published as Erasmus discovered more and more mistakes after each printing. Additionally, the printings contained hundreds of typographical and mechanical mistakes. So, again, the TR/MT advocate cannot say that the MT is credible and preserved without error based on its “majority.” All errors aside, we 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 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 group of manuscripts “providentially preserved” by God?
Who was inspired?
TR advocates generally believe that the MT was divinely inspired and preserved. However, the MT did not contain the entire New Testament. 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 Text had so many variants of a given verse that Erasmus could not determine which reading to use, so he made up his own. Proponents of VPP, if they recognize these facts, are forced to conclude either that the Textus Receptus was not divinely preserved (as they define it) or that God’s inspiration of Scripture continued for another 1,500 years after Christ’s resurrection. This would place Erasmus in the category of inspired biblical authors with Peter, Paul, and John.
The initial publication of the TR was arguably its most publicly accessible edition, yet it contained the most errors. Updated 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 that wasn’t printed until 1550.
Biblical testimony and public access
In 2 Kings 22 we see there was a time when God had sovereignly preserved only one copy of the Old Testament. Additionally, we see throughout the Bible that God often works through the remnant, and the “majority” is consistently in the wrong. Most TR/MT advocates argue the virtue of majority rule, saying that public accessibility is evidence of God’s providential preservation. However, the Greek manuscripts that comprise 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, the MT has 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. All extant OT manuscripts (approximately 10,000) have been verified to have errors in them (most of them scribal errors). These errors amount to far less than 1 percent of the text and have no doctrinal significance—the “errors” are usually misspellings of names. In addition to these “errors,” the Hebrew manuscripts have thousands of variant renderings of passages, verses, phrases, or words. Ironically, because of the scribal traditions requiring the destruction of any scroll discovered to contain even a single error, 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 imperfect 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 1) God was careless or incapable of preserving the OT; 2) He had no interest in preserving it, and the preservation of Scripture has only been through the power of mankind; or 3) God preserved the NT using VPP but did not do so for the OT (which constitutes roughly 80 percent of the Bible). Clearly, none of these conclusions are 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 Holy Scripture, when it is easily demonstrable that every extant manuscript in the MT not only has errors but is incomplete?
If the doctrine of Verbal Plenary Preservation were true, then, presumably, the older surviving texts would also have been divinely preserved, making the MT possible yet completely inconsequential. The MT would then be a variant of earlier texts and would have to be considered an errant version and proof that the VPP is false. So, proponents of VPP are forced to conclude that VPP applies only to the MT/TR, with no historical, biblical, or logical reason for the claim.
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. Taken as a whole, these variations do not negate God’s message or His preservation of that message. God has ensured the purity and preservation of His Word through thousands of surviving manuscripts spread over thousands of years and miles. These manuscripts 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.
Recommended Resource: The King James Only Controversy by James White
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What is Verbal Plenary Preservation?