Does our confession require a printed text or indicate the need for a text critical methodology? | Timothy Decker

by | Jul 17, 2023 | Apologetics, New Testament

*Editors Note: This is the first installment of blogs related to Textual Criticism authored by Dr. Timothy Decker. Click on the following links to read the related blogs on this subject:

Does our confession require a printed text or indicate the need for a text critical methodology?

How the Reformers, Protestant Orthodox, & Puritans Approached Textual Criticism: Part 1

How the Reformers, Protestant Orthodox, & Puritans Approached Textual Criticism: Part 2


There are some fellow laborers in the gospel, some who I personally know and consider friends, men who are solidly confessional and faithful ministers, who advocate for a “Confessional Text” for the New Testament identified to be the Textus Receptus.[1] Among these men, we all share a love for the Scriptures and the proclamation thereof as well as a love for our Confession of faith (2nd London Baptist Confession of 1677/89). One such pastor explained this position to teach that “the authoritative text of the Bible is found in the Masoretic text of the Hebrew Old Testament and the Textus Receptus of the Greek New Testament… This view does not hold that it is our task to reconstruct the elusive original autograph or autographs, but it contends that the true text has been faithfully kept pure in all ages by God’s singular care and Providence.”[2] Note the emphasis on “true text.”

A similar definition is provided: “The Confessional Text Position can be defined as: the position that accepts the underlying Hebrew and Greek texts used by the framers of the major post-reformation confessions, which they called ‘authentic’ and ‘pure’, as the preserved text of the Bible… For the framers of the confessions, the ‘authentic’, ‘pure’ and ‘perfectly preserved’ texts are the printed editions of the Hebrew OT and the Greek NT then in their possession.”[3] Again, note the explanation of preserved texts to mean “printed editions” of the HOT and GNT.

According to this position, the Westminster and 2nd London confessions, being identical at §1.8, indicate not a doctrine of preservation alone but also includes a specific text of Scripture in the original languages. Here is §1.8 of our Confession,

The Old Testament in Hebrew (which was the native language of the people of God of old), and the New Testament in Greek (which at the time of the writing of it was most generally known to the nations), being immediately inspired by God, and by his singular care and providence kept pure in all ages, are therefore authentic; so as in all controversies of religion, the church is finally to appeal to them. But because these original tongues are not known to all the people of God, who have a right unto, and interest in the Scriptures, and are commanded in the fear of God to read and search them, therefore they are to be translated into the vulgar language of every nation unto which they come, that the Word of God dwelling plentifully in all, they may worship him in an acceptable manner, and through patience and comfort of the Scriptures may have hope.

There are key terms and phrases that need to be historically traced, such as “kept pure” or “authentic.” But sometimes the most obvious words get avoided, and yet it is where the freight of meaning is located: “The Old Testament in Hebrew… and the New Testament in Greek.” It is these that we confess are immediately inspired, kept pure in all ages, and are authentic.

Which lends me to ask: in speaking of the OT in Hebrew and the NT in Greek, is the Confession demanding a printed text, or is it referencing the wider manuscript tradition of the Hebrew and Greek Scriptures? Historically, the former is untenable when compared to the issues and debates of the 16th and 17th centuries as well as the words of the very men behind these confessions.


What is “Authentic” Scripture?

Paragraph §1.8 speaks of the Hebrew and Greek Scriptures as “authentic.” What is meant behind that? As the Confession goes on to state, what is authentic is that which is authoritative “so as in all controversies of religion, the church is finally to appeal to them.” This language of authentic arose on account of the Roman Catholic assertion that the Latin Vulgate was the authentic standard by which the church should be appealing as authoritative. This was codified by the papists at the Council of Trent:

But if any one receive not, as sacred and canonical, … as they are contained in the old Latin vulgate edition; and knowingly and deliberately contemn the traditions aforesaid; let him be anathema.

Moreover, the same sacred and holy Synod—considering that no small utility may accrue to the Church of God, if it be made known which out of all the Latin editions, now in circulation, of the sacred books, is to be held as authentic,—ordains and declares, that the said old and vulgate edition, which, by the lengthened usage of so many years, has been approved of in the Church, be, in public lectures, disputations, sermons and expositions, held as authentic; and that no one is to dare, or presume to reject it under any pretext whatever.[4] [italics added]

Therefore, the Reformers were required to state unequivocally that the authoritative or authentic Scripture was that in the original Greek and Hebrew Scriptures and not the Latin translation.

The language of authentic continued to be used by both Romanists and Reformers. Calvin, in his Antidote to the Council of Trent said,

But as the Hebrew or Greek original often serves to expose their ignorance in quoting Scripture, to check their presumption, and so keep down their thrasonic boasting, they ingeniously meet this difficulty also by determining that the Vulgate translation only is to be held authentic… No man possessed of common sense ever presumed to deprive the Church of God of the benefit of learning. The ancients, though unacquainted with the languages, especially with Hebrew, always candidly acknowledge that nothing is better than to consult the original, in order to obtain the true and genuine meaning.[5] [italics added]

Later, around the time of the 2nd London Confession, Francis Turretin wrote, “An authentic writing is one in which all things are abundantly sufficient to inspire confidence; one to which the fullest credit is due in its own kind; one of which we can be entirely sure that it has proceeded from the author whose name it bears; one in which everything is written just as he himself wished” [emphasis added].[6]

It is clear, then, that our own Confession is not using the term “authentic” void of meaning.[7] It is a reference to that which has final authority in matters of religious controversy and to that which the church should appeal. But notice again, it is not a printed text that is the appeal. It is to the original languages of the Hebrew and Greek. Therefore, “authentic” in §1.8 does not have historical connection to a particular printed text.


What is “kept pure”?

The Confession specifically states that it is the “Old Testament in Hebrew… and the New Testament in Greek” which is kept pure in all ages. But does the reference to the OT in Hebrew and the NT in Greek equate to a specific printed text? Or is there an historical rootedness to this kind of language, just as “authentic” was anchored to a particular doctrinal matter?

William Whitaker’s Disputations of Holy Scripture (orig. 1588) likely stands behind much of the bibliology enshrined in chapter one of the Westminster and 2nd London confessions. In the section that takes up the matter of “the authentic edition of the Scriptures,” we might be led to believe that he meant an edited Greek New Testament or a printed text. However, he was simply speaking against Trent’s issue of authority of the Vulgate. He stated, “[T]he point to be decided in this question is, whether this Latin version, commonly styled the vulgate, is the authentic edition of scripture, or not rather the Hebrew text in the old Testament, and the Greek in the new.”[8] Then note that in listing the various disputations against Trent, he wrote, “[T]he third, that we must not in a disputation appeal to the Hebrew and Greek copies; the fourth, that, in matters of faith or morals, the Latin copies are not to be corrected from the Hebrew or Greek.”[9] Notice the emphasis on “copies” not printed editions. In his section on the “Hebrew edition,” he again does not appeal to a specific printed text but simply the tradition of Hebrew manuscripts that contain the Old Testament. “In this language, which the faithful after that time preserved incorrupt in one family [the family of Heber and Abraham in the context], the old Testament was published, as all unanimously agree.”[10] Ensuring that the published Old Testament was preserved, he claimed, “[T]he pious Jews had, no doubt, many copies of the Scripture in their possession, and could easily save them from that calamity.”[11]

Coming to the New Testament, Whitaker likewise equates “edition” with the original language itself. After dealing with the speculation that Matthew and Hebrews may have been written in Hebrew originally, Whitaker wrote, “The Lord willed the new Testament to be written in Greek, because he had determined to bring for the gospel from the narrow bounds of Judea into a broader field, and publish it to all people and nations. On this account the Lord selected the Greek language.”[12] His emphasis was never on a certain printed edition but the original language itself.

This has led modern explanations of the Reformers views and the confessional position of “kept pure” to mean “That God has kept His word pure through the ages in the manuscripts the church possesses” [italics added].[13] Or more explicitly, “By ‘original and authentic’ text, the Protestant orthodox do not mean the autographa [original autographs] which no one can possess but the apographa [manuscripts of the autographs] in the original tongue which are the source of all versions… the ‘original and authentic text’ of Scripture means, beyond the autograph copies, the legitimate tradition of Hebrew and Greek apographa.” [emphasis added][14] Historically speaking, therefore, the Confession is not appealing to the original autographic copy penned by Moses or Paul. What is kept pure is the manuscript tradition of the original languages: the Hebrew manuscript tradition of the Old Testament and the Greek manuscript tradition of the New Testament. This is not an appeal to a printed edition. It was an appeal to the original languages of the OT and NT and the manuscript tradition from which they disseminated.

John Owen himself confirms this concept by stating boldly and plainly:

We add, that the whole Scripture, entire as given out from God, without any loss, is preserved in the copies of the originals yet remaining; what varieties there are among the copies themselves shall be afterward declared. In them all, we say, is every letter and tittle of the word. These copies, we say, are the rule, standard, and touchstone of all translations, ancient or modern, by which they are in all things to be examined, tried, corrected, amended; and themselves only by themselves.

Men must here deal by instances, not conjectures. All that yet appears impairs not in the least the truth of our assertion, that every letter and tittle of the word of God remains in the copies preserved by his merciful providence for the use of his church.[15] [bold added]


Textual Criticism and Our Confession

If the above is historically accurate, then the demand for a “confessional text” or to read the Confession as requiring a printed text is anachronistic and incorrect. Rather, it seems to be assuming a manuscript tradition from which the church should draw. This is plainly the case for Turretin when he was explaining what was “authentic”:

[A] writing can be authentic in two ways: either primarily and originally or secondarily and derivatively. [First] That writing is primarily authentic which is autopistin (“of self-inspiring confidence”) and to which credit is and ought to be given on its own account… The secondarily authentic writings are all the copies accurately and faithfully taken from the originals by suitable men… The autographs [originals] of Moses, the prophets and the apostles are alone authentic in the first sense. In the latter sense, the faithful and accurate copies of them are also authentic. [emphasis added][16]

Turretin’s claim of two ways of authentic writings refers to either the autographs or the manuscript copies, also known as the apographs. His second way of the apographa was not a printed edition.

The light of nature and the power of observation clearly demonstrate that among these authentic/authoritative copies, there are variants between them. Therefore, such a tradition would require some form of textual criticism as well as a methodology of textual criticism to inform it. As it happens, Turretin briefly noted this need of textual criticism and methodology, writing, “The various readings which occur do not destroy the authenticity of the Scriptures because they may be easily distinguished and determined, partly by the connection of the passage [internal evidence] and partly by a collation with better manuscripts [external evidence]. Some are of such a kind that although diverse, they may nevertheless belong to the same text.”[17]

John Owen similarly wrote, “That there are in some copies of the New Testament, and those some of them of some good antiquity, diverse readings, in things or words of less importance, is acknowledged.”[18] Owen drew a distinction between the autographa as the original writings with the apographa, which he defined as “the… ‘copies’ which we have contain every iota that was in them [the autographa].”[19] Like Turretin, Owen is speaking of the manuscript tradition of copies rather than a collated, edited, and printed edition of the Greek New Testament.

In dealing with the reality of textual variants among the apographa, some may appeal to Westminster divine William Bridge who wrote, “How can we hold and keep fast the letter of the Scripture, when there are so many Greek copies of the New Testament, and those diverse one from another? Yes, well; for though there are many received copies of the New Testament, yet there is no material difference between them.”[20] What he means by “no material difference between them” may be better understood by the very next sentence, “The four Evangelists do vary in the relation of the same thing; yet because there is no contradiction, or material variation, we do adhere to all of them, and deny none.”[21] As it pertained to the textual variations of the NT, he said, “[T]hough there be many copies of the New Testament, yet seeing there is no material difference between them, we may adhere to all: for whoever will understand the Scripture, must be sure to keep and hold fast the letter, not denying it.”[22] Whatever else we may say about the veracity Bridge’s claim of “no material difference,” we must take note that he placed the authority not to a printed edition but to a textual tradition of Greek manuscripts.



If we compile all this information, can we truly say that our Confession is demanding a “confessional text” such as the Textus Receptus for the New Testament? We must admit a resounding “no” to such a claim. The historical reality is, the Confession appeals to the Hebrew and Greek textual tradition of Scripture. And as this textual tradition has within it, admitted by all, variations among them; the necessary result demands we engage in textual criticism. What the Confession should do for us is inform a text critical methodology. As for this author’s own attempt at a “confessional text critical methodology” proposal, stay tuned.

Nevertheless, I find myself in agreement with B. B. Warfield:

“What mistakes is in one copy is corrected in another,” was the proverbial philosophy of the time in this matter; and the assertion that the inspired text has “by God’s singular care and providence been kept pure in all ages,” is to be understood not as if it affirmed that every copy has been kept pure from all error [something we know is not true by the light of nature and observation], but that the genuine text has been kept safe in the multitude of copies, so as never to be out of the reach of the Church of God, in the use of the ordinary means.[23]


[1] For more of an overview of this entire position, see Mark Ward, “Which Textus Receptus? A Critique of Confessional Bibliology,” Detroit Baptist Seminary Journal, vol. 25 (2020), 51–77.

[2] Jeffrey T. Riddle, “The Confessional Text Position: A Succinct Statement,” Word Magazine Podcast, Accessed here: For a more recent presentation on the validity of the Textus Receptus, see Jeff Riddle, “A Defense of the Traditional Text of Scripture,” Sword & Trowel, 2022 no. 1, 9–18.

[3] Dane Johannsson, “Five Good Reasons Reformed and Confessional Christians Should Use the KJV,” Pulpit and Pen, Accessed here:

[4] The Council of Trent, Session IV “Concerning the Canonical Scriptures,” decree 1 and 2. Accessed at

[5] John Calvin, Acts of the Council of Trent with the Antidote, Accessed at

[6] Turretin, Institutes of Elenctic Theology, 1:113.

[7] Many more examples could be provided.

[8] William Whitaker, Disputations on Holy Scripture, orig. 1588, Soli Gloria Publications edition, p. 111.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Ibid., p 113.

[11] Ibid., p. 114.

[12] Ibid. p. 127.

[13] James M. Renihan, To the Judicious and Impartial Reader, p 70.

[14] Richard A. Muller, Post Reformation Reformed Dogmatics, Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2003, 2:413.

[15] John Owen, The Works of John Owen (Carlisle, PA: Banner of Truth, 1968), 16:357, 359.

[16] Turretin, Institutes of Elenctic Theology, 1:113.

[17] Turretin, 1:114.

[18] John Owen, Works, 16:363.

[19] Ibid., 16:301.

[20] William Bridge, Scripture Light the Most Sure Light, as printed in The Works of the Rev. William Bridge, London: Printed for Thomas Tegg, 1845, 1:450

[21] Ibid.

[22] Ibid.

[23] B. B. Warfield, The Works of Benjamin B. Warfield (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1987), 1:238-239.

Follow Us In Social Media

Subscribe via Email

Sign up to get notified of new CBTS Blog posts.

Man of God phone

Pin It on Pinterest

Share This