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

by | Jan 16, 2024 | Apologetics, Church History, Hermeneutics, Historical Theology, New Testament

*Editors Note: This is the second 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



Did the reformers, Protestant Orthodox, and Puritans participate and practice in the discipline we now call textual criticism?[1] While we generally think of the field of NT textual criticism developing in the 19th and 20th centuries, it may well be observed that there was not as much methodological innovation in the 19th and 20th centuries as some might lead you to believe. Those who were reforming the church and maintaining their conviction of sola Scriptura did not assert a frozen text in time. They certainly confessed the doctrine of “providential preservation of Scripture,” but they believed that such preservation was in the Hebrew and Greek tradition of extant Mss. In producing the first printed editions of the Greek NT, they had to do the work of collating, studying, and comparing Mss. They had to do the work of textual criticism and make textual decisions. They also had to do it for polemical and apologetical reasons, largely against the papists. Nevertheless, despite what some will say, they practiced NT textual criticism.


Who Said It?

Allow me to start with a longer quote, that, if you did not know better, you might think it was written in the recent era of post-modernity and neo-orthodoxy. Commenting on a textual variant from Matthew 6:1, one writer said:

Which must not seem strange, that in God’s book there should be divers readings, for in former ages, before printing was invented, the Scriptures of God were conveyed from hand to hand by means of writing. Now they that wrote out the copies of Scripture did now and then mistake some words and letters by negligence or ignorance, and put one thing for another, whereupon do come these divers readings. Yet we must not think that the Word of God is hereby maimed or made imperfect, for the true sense of the Holy Ghost remains sound and perfect, that it may be we cannot discern of the right reading. And the sense of Scripture is rather to be judged the Word of God than the words and letters thereof. Now it being here uncertain, which reading to follow (for either of them contains a sense convenient to the place), therefore I will exclude neither, but from them both propound this instruction.[2]

Are there shades of Karl Barth in the words “the sense of Scripture is rather to be judged the Word of God than the words and letters thereof”? Is the author quoted above being a relativist/pluralist when he says “therefore I will exclude neither [variants from the discussion], but from them both propound this instruction”? Does he not communicate a sense of textual instability or uncertainty when he says “it may be we cannot discern of the right reading… Now it being here uncertain, which reading to follow…”?

It may come as a shock to find that this was written by the father of puritanism himself, William Perkins (1558-1602)![3] Rather than leveling such accusations against Perkins, it seems more likely that he was just being honest with the textual data and cautious with his textual certainty. In the very least, we see that dealing with textual variants was a regular part of the pastoral work, even for the Puritan and Reformed.

Neither did Perkins appeal to a received or traditional text such as the TR in order to handle the controversy or answer the textual decision. Yet we are told of those Reformers, Protestant Scholastics, and Puritans, “Those godly men maintained that the Lord had not only immediately inspired the Scriptures in the original Hebrew and Greek, but that he had also kept them pure in all ages. This led them to affirm the classic Protestant printed editions of the Masoretic Text of the Hebrew Old Testament and the Textus Receptus of the Greek New Testament as the standard text of the Christian Bible.”[4] Does this hold up to the historical evidence?

I have no doubt Perkins would affirm WCF §1.8, were it written while he was alive. And yet, Richard Muller would contradict the above assertion saying, “The phrase ‘textus receptus’ or ‘received text’ comes from the Elzevir New Testament of 1633 – and as the context of the phrase itself and the use of the Greek New Testament in the seventeenth century both testify, there was no claim, in the era of orthodoxy, of a sacrosanct text in this particular edition. Nor did it, in the era of orthodoxy, provide some sort of terminus ad quem for the editing of the text of the Bible.”[5] Muller would go on to speak of “[t]he Protestant orthodox approach to textual criticism” on the next page, using Buxtorf and the Hebrew Bible as an example. For the purposes of this post and the next, however, I would prefer to use some NT examples, particularly from Romans 12:11 (see part 2), and observe how these godly men approached textual criticism and textual variants.


Reformed, Protestant Orthodox, and Puritan Text Critical Principles

To see that Muller was correct to speak of a “Protestant orthodox approach to textual criticism,”[6] Francis Turretin, James Ussher, Richard Baxter, and John Owen give helpful text critical principles.

Turretin used a common-sense approach for identifying the correct reading of a variant by utilizing what later would be known as “internal evidence” and “external evidence.”[7] He said, “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.”[8] For Turretin, there was the idea of weighing Mss and treating them as “better,” or the implication worse.

James Ussher had to do work in handling textual variants. And we know that he was influential for the Particular Baptist Hercules Collins, as Collins cited Ussher when dealing with the Apostles’ Creed’s “descent clause” in his Orthodox Catechism. Ussher was the Archbishop of the Church of Ireland and tried to reunite the Anglicans and Presbyterians. Though he was invited to the Westminster Assembly, he declined. In a letter to Louis Cappel, Ussher made the comment when dealing with variants in the Hebrew text saying,

In the variant readings, a great consideration must be given to the antiquity of the copies from which they are taken: and where those older translators have used them, when they agree with the reading of the Hebrew text received today, it is not to be confused with the name, because the later reading, or translators, or even other Hebrew models, differs from it. All other things are found to be equal, to that canon you must resort: that one should be preferred which produces the more suitable sense, and the one more in harmony with what follows and precedes.[9]

Here, the appeal was not only to external evidence and weighing the manuscript evidence, but Ussher fell back on a (now disputed) canon of internal evidence: the sensible and contextual reading is the best reading. This would seem to conflict with the later lectio difficilior potior or preference for the harder reading as the stronger one. Regardless, he made the text critical decision based on a methodology of internal evidence rather than relying upon any one printed edition.

Richard Baxter adhered to a dictum that B. B. Warfield would later employ. Baxter said of the reality of variants and obvious errors that “It is unlikely that this should deprave all copies, or leave us uncertain wholly of the right reading, especially since copies were multiplied, because it is unlikely that all transcribers, or printers, will commit the very same error.”[10] Centuries later, Warfield would say something very similar in his explanation of WCF §1.8,

“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.[11]

Both Baxter and Warfield are certain that the preservation of God’s Word has been kept in the Ms tradition and can be verified by an approach to textual criticism without concern that there is a loss of God’s Word.[12]

Finally, we have John Owen who wrote, “It is true, we have not the autographa of Moses and the prophets, of the apostles and evangelists; but the apographa, or ‘copies’ which we have contain every iota that was in them.” Yet he goes on to admit the textual situation, “There is no doubt but that in the copies we now enjoy of the Old Testament there are some diverse readings, or various lections.”[13] Similarly, he says of the NT situation, “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.”[14]

In dealing with Walton’s London Polyglot (1657) containing an appendix of variant readings, Owen lamented it and gave 10 points of criteria by which he may ascertain the preferred reading. That is, he engaged in the practice of textual criticism and employed a text critical methodology.[15] More specifically, his first 8 criteria were related to matters of internal evidence, such as redundancy of words (known as dittography) or unnecessary words. He also dealt with intentional tampering of the text when there was a move toward either the Latin Vulgate or the Septuagint. Included was the matter of conflation of parallel passages. His tenth criterion was against readings that had been corrupted by heretics for doctrinal reasons. He cited 1 John 5:7 as example, although I would take issue with Owen at this point.[16] Only the 9th criterion did he give over to external evidence when variants “arise out of copies apparently corrupted, like that of Beza in Luke.” Therefore, he weighed manuscripts and found corrupted manuscripts to have less value than others. What he did not do, however, was appeal to a standardized printed edition as though the matter was settled. While Owen may have come the closest to being a text absolutist, nevertheless he would still arrive at his position by way of doing textual criticism. If we are to retrieve the views of Owen,[17] are we not also to retrieve his methods as well?


Summary so far

What have we seen so far? It would be grossly naïve to think that the Reformers all the way to the Puritans did not deal in matters of textual variants and engage in textual criticism. Point of fact, textual criticism was not a modern invention nor did it begin to be practiced in the 19th and 20th centuries. In matters of variants and textual issues, the Reformed and Puritans appealed to Ms evidence and reasoned internal arguments for one reading over another. And they were not always in agreement with one another. Neither was there an appeal to a particular printed edition as though that settled the textual matter. It turns out that they did not believe a printed edition was a settled matter, as we are sometimes led to believe. The TR tradition itself was continually being revised and updated.[18]

Therefore, it seems to be a logical leap to say on the one hand (correctly, in my opinion) that “those godly men [of the Reformation, Protestant Orthodoxy, and Puritans] maintained that the Lord had not only immediately inspired the Scriptures in the original Hebrew and Greek, but that he had also kept them pure in all ages,” while on the other hand assert that such a belief would result in or appeal to a standardized text like the TR: “This led them to affirm the classic Protestant printed editions of the Masoretic Text of the Hebrew Old Testament and the Textus Receptus of the Greek New Testament as the standard text of the Christian Bible.”[19] I find this to be a logical disconnect (non sequitur) and not confirmed historically.

My goal here was to demonstrate that the Reformers, Protestant Orthodox, and the Puritans all dealt with textual variants, applied standard methods of textual criticism that we still practice today, and therefore involved themselves in the discipline of textual criticism. And if retrieval and resourcement is the aim, then by Jove, let’s retrieve it! Or maybe we should be asking, “Did we even lose it so as to retrieve it?” Aren’t we simply continuing the tradition of examining the Ms data and producing a more accurate rendering of the text with every new edition of the Greek NT? If so, then by consequence, this also means that the Reformers and Puritans of the 16th and 17th centuries did not think of preservation to mean a frozen text in a particular printed edition in the way that some TR advocates might.



[1] When I wrote this article, I was still awaiting Peter Gurry’s 2023 ETS presentation entitled, “Textual Criticism in the Reformation.” Any overlap of content is coincidental.

[2] William Perkins, Works, 1:392–393. The textual variant to which he is referring is between doing “almsgiving” (ελεημοσυνην) before men versus “righteous acts” (δικαιοσύνην) before men. The TR tradition is not unified on this reading, as Beza’s 1598 edition of the TR followed the “righteous acts” reading whereas Erasmus’s 2nd edition, the Stephanus 1550 edition, and Elzevir 1624 edition opted for the “almsgiving” reading.

[3] My thanks for Dr. Daniel Scheiderer for pointing me to this quote from Perkins.

[4] Riddle & McShaffrey, “Editorial Introduction” in Why I Preach from the Received Text (Winter Springs, FL: Greater Heritage Christian Publishing), 15.

[5] Muller, PRRD, 2:399.

[6] Muller, PRRD, 2:400. Jeffrey Riddle himself spoke of John “Calvin’s approach to text criticism.” See his “John Calvin and Textual Criticism,” PRJ 9.2 (2017): 138.

[7] Philip W. Comfort succinctly summarized both external and internal evidence saying, “These theories and methodologies generally fall into two categories: (1) those that pertain to external evidence (with a focus on the classification of manuscripts or studies of the documents themselves) and (2) those that pertain to internal evidence (with a focus on discerning the most likely reading from which all others deviated).” Philip W. Comfort, New Testament Text and Translation Commentary (Carol Stream, IL: Tyndale House Publishers, Inc., 2008), xiii.

[8] Turretin, Institutes, 1:114.

[9] Ussher’s Works, 16:223 partially quoted from Milne, 272-273. In Latin, the entire phrase reads: In variantibus lectionibus magnam antiquitatis exemplarium unde eae sunt desumptae rationem esse habendam: et ubi eaquibus antiquiores interpretes sunt usi cum hodie recepta Hebraici textus lectione consentiunt, non esse eam eo nomine sollicitandam, quod posteriorum, vel interpretum vel aliorum etiam, Hebraicorum exemplarium lectio ab ea discrepet. Denique ubi caetera omnia reperiuntur paria, ad illum tuum recurrendum esse canonem: ut ex variantibus lectionibus ea praeferatur, quae sensum parit commodiorem, atque consequentibus et antecedentibus magis coharentem.

[10] Baxter, Practical Works, 3:93.

[11] B. B. Warfield, The Works of Benjamin B. Warfield, 10 vols. (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1987), 1:238-239.

[12] For an excellent overview of Warfield’s wholly faithful understanding of WCF’s doctrine of preservation at §1.8, see Jeff Stivason, “B.B. Warfield and the Autographa,” in Advancing the Vision: Essays in Honor of John H. White (Beaver Falls, PA: Falls City Press, 2019), 185–194.

[13] Owen, Works, 16: 300-301.

[14] Owen, Works, 16:363.

[15] See Owen, Works, 16:366-367.

[16] Bugenhagen, Luther’s pastor and student in 1527 argued that “if Father, Logos, and Holy Spirit were one as Spirit, water, and blood are one, then the Arians are the winners; for this verse states only a unity of consensus, not a unity of essence.” For this and other rejections of the “Johannine Comma” of 1 John 5:7 among Luther and those in the Lutheran tradition, see Franz Posset, “John Bugenhagen and the Comma Johanneum,” Concordia Theological Quarterly 40 no. 4 (1985): 245–252.

[17] See this exhortation by Jeff Riddle himself in his recent article, “Retrieving the Bibliology of John Owen,” JIRBS (2023): 19–55.

[18] For a list of what I am referring to as the “TR tradition,” see the list and editions listed here:,

[19] Riddle & McShaffrey, “Editorial Introduction” in Why I Preach from the Received Text (Winter Springs, FL: Greater Heritage Christian Publishing), 15.

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God is Wise, and Hidden, and Revealed | Tom J. Nettles

God is Wise, and Hidden, and Revealed | Tom J. Nettles

Job mocks the repetitive irrelevance of the presentations of his comforters. He particularly derides the speech of Bildad for his restatement of the obvious that God is more powerful than his creatures. With seething sarcasm, Job quips, “How you have helped him who has no power!” Just telling me that God is stronger than I is neither enlightening nor particularly insightful in expanding our understanding of the ways of God with his creatures.

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