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

by | Jan 29, 2024 | Apologetics, Church History, Historical Theology, New Testament

*Editors Note: This is the third 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



In the previous article, we noted that the Reformers, Protestant Orthodox, and Puritans did not appeal to a specific printed edition of the Textus Receptus but rather engaged in the process of textual criticism. That is because, as Muller claimed, “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.”[1]

As pointed out in part 1, they appealed to matters of what later text critical methodologies would dub internal evidence and external evidence.[2] They also seemed hesitant toward textual certainty, at least on occasion. That trend will continue as we narrow the focus to a particular test case—Romans 12:11.

In taking up the polemical fight against the papists, the Protestants were battling charges against the Greek Ms tradition being authoritative.[3] Rome argued for the primacy of the Latin Vulgate, and in this debate, a number of passages were treated as proof of the Vulgate’s superiority. A common objection leveled by numerous Roman Catholics upon Protestants was Romans 12:11 and whether the reading should be “serving the Lord” (κυρίῳ kyriō) as in the Latin Vulgate or “serving time” (καιρῷ kairō) as many known Greek Mss of that time so read. Let us make use of this passage as a test case to observe the Puritan and Reformed Scholastics in text critical action.


Romans 12:11 as a Test Case

We begin by examining the work of Edward Leigh (1602-1671), a true renaissance man of the Puritan era. Both a statesman and a churchman, Leigh was a prolific force for the Kingdom of God.[4] How does Leigh treat a textual variant such as “lord” vs “time” at Rom 12:11? In his Body of Divinity of 1644, he writes:

Objection: They [papists] instance in Rom. 12:11 to be corrupt, the Greek hath serving the “time” καιρω, for serving the “Lord” κυριω.

Answer: Many of the ancient Greek copies and Scholiasts have also καιρω, as Salmeron the Jesuit confesseth, “Serving the Lord,” and it appeareth in the Syriack Translation. And who seeth not, that it might rather be an oversight of the writer taking one word for another, rather then a fault in the Text; and the cause of the mistake (saith Beza) was the short writing of the word Κω [now known as the nomina sacra], which was taken by some for καιρω whereas they should have taken it for κυριω. If we should admit the other reading, we must not understand the Apostle as if he commanded us to be Temporizers, or to apply our selves to the corrupt customs and manners of the times; but to keep time in all our actions, and do them in the fittest season, as Col. 4. 5. Ephes. 5. 16.”[5]

What do we make of Leigh’s text-critical approach? He appealed to the external evidence weighing the ancient date of the copies as well as the ancient reading from the Syriac translation. He then offered a helpful explanation as to how the erroneous reading “time” arose from the correct reading “Lord.” This is a textual criticism principle still practiced today which states, “The variant most likely to be original is the one that best accounts for the existence of the others.”[6] Also note that while Leigh offered a helpful textual critical argument for the “lord” reading, yet he still offered a fitting sense for the “time” reading as well, much like Perkins in Matt. 6:1.

Leigh’s argument for the “lord” reading was contrary to Calvin’s position on the variant a hundred years earlier. Calvin wrote of Rom 12:11 in his commentary (orig. 1539),

But Paul seems to me to set in opposition to idleness what he commands as to the serving of time. But as κυρίῳ, the Lord, is read in many old copies, though it may seem at first sight foreign to this passage, I yet dare not wholly to reject this reading. And if it be approved, Paul, I have no doubt, meant to refer the duties to be performed towards brethren, and whatever served to cherish love, to a service done to God, that he might add greater encouragement to the faithful.[7]

Calvin was convinced on internal grounds that “time” is the preferred reading and thus disagreed with the now accepted TR “lord” variant. However, he admitted the external evidence favored the “lord” reading, and even offered an interpretation for it should one decide to opt for that reading. Matthew Henry similarly explained both readings, though he seemed to prefer the “lord” variant. He said, “Serving the Lord. Tō kairō douleuontes (so some copies read it), serving the time, that is, improving your opportunities and making the best of them, complying with the present seasons of grace.”[8]

On the other hand, Calvin’s successor in Geneva, Theodore Beza, in his own 1598 edition of the Greek New Testament (and also a printed edition in the TR tradition), disagreed with Calvin and opted for the now standard reading of “lord” rather than “time.”

Romans 12:11 from Beza’s 1598 edition


In his textual notes, he said of the “lord” reading, “Thus in the most approved and ancient codex. And it is read in the Greek tradition, and the Syriac, and the old Latin translation.” He then cited Chrysostom, Theophylact, Clement, and Basil. He added, “Jerome rightly contends that such is the reading to Marcellas, towards the end of the second volume.” After citing Erasmus’s “time” reading, noting that Origen likewise followed the same, Beza said, “It can be explained in three ways. For there are those who think that the pious are admonished by this saying, that if something inconvenient happens, the good take refuge in it, that this may be consistent with what follows.” This offers an explanation of internal evidence based contextual consistency. Yet Beza would argue against this in his annotation, again appealing to the context and Paul, indeed all of Scripture saying, “I do not think that there is any place in Scripture in which such a saying occurs.” His explanation for the arrival of the “time” reading is based on the same logic as Leigh’s above: the misreading of the nomina sacra κω as καιρω rather than κυριω.

This logic was strong for the Anglican and Puritan divine, Andrew Willet (1562-1621).[9] After citing Beza’s argument against the “time” reading, he would go on to say, “The other reading [“lord”] is better,” and cited many of the same ancient authors and translations already mentioned. He added a few others witnesses (“Haymo… Lyranus, Beza, Tolet, Olevian, Faius, Pareus, with others”), as Willet was known to be a voracious reader.[10] What is even more interesting, however, is comparing his single paragraph he gave for arguing for the “better” reading (which he said, “I approve” of Beza’s annotations), with a longer paragraph of argumentation and interpretation from his initial treatment of the “time” reading.[11] (pp. 551–552). That is to say, in his commentary, he treated both readings with expository comments and left the reader to decide.

The venerable Scotsman, Robert Rollock (1555-1599), also had much to contribute to bibliology, the doctrine of preservation, and an approach to textual criticism of the reformation and post reformation eras.[12] Like Leigh, Rollock treats Rom 12:11, though after already handling quite capably other papist objections. He particularly noted Bellarmine, a Roman Catholic less extreme than other papists saying, “[He] do[es] not say that the Greek edition of the New Testament is altogether corrupt, as some of them have blasphemed; yet they say it is not so pure, that they can grant it to be authentical, because in some places it is corrupt.”[13] Rollock, in disputation with Bellarmine’s argument for the “lord” reading over the “time,” said,

“But the old Latin is, serving the Lord.” I answer, first, albeit ye read so the place, yet the sense is good and sound.[14] Secondly, the reading varies in many Greek copies, as witnesseth Origen’s interpreter, who reads the word κυριω, and he noteth it, that in many books he found καιρω, the time. The same saith Ambrose, who reads καιρω, serving the time; “yet” saith he, “in some books we find κυριω, the Lord.” Thirdly, the Syriac, Chrysostom, Theophylact, and Basil read κυριω, the Lord; which reading we best like. For which cause our Beza translates the word Domino, the Lord.[15]

Just as with Perkins, Calvin, Henry, and Leigh; Rollock was willing to argue the viability of either variant contextually and theologically. However, after weighing external evidence, including a reliance upon church fathers and the ancient Syriac translation, as well as internal evidence such as “the sense is good and sound,” Rollock agreed with both Bellarmine, Beza, and Leigh, that the “Lord” reading is the “reading we best like.” Indeed, it was not a TR edition that sealed the argument for Rollock, for he seemingly had a penchant for the “time” reading. However, after weighing the evidence, Rollock concluded that “Lord” was preferable at Rom 12:11 given his approach to textual criticism.

Bellarmine’s explanation was similar to the Protestant argumentation above. Though he favored the Latin Vulgate, he said,

In Rom. 12:11 where we read: Serve the Lord, the Greeks do not have Κυρίώ but καιρώ δουλεύοντες, that is serve the time. And it is certain that our reading is the true one, both from Jerome in his letter to Marcellas, which begins with the words After the first epistle; here he says, that in the corrected Greek codices we do not find καιρώ but Κυρίώ; then we find the same thing in Origen, Chrysostom, Theophylact, and other Greek Fathers, who have our reading, and they explained it in their commentaries.[16]

As it happens, the “lord” variant would eventually become the standard reading in the TR tradition, including the Elzevir’s 1624 text afterwards. The 1560 Geneva Bible also includes the “lord” reading. Therefore, at some point, the textual criticism of those involved with the TR tradition overcame the “time” variant and standardized the “lord” reading, which no one now disputes, be they Roman Catholic or Protestant.

As alluded to already, the TR tradition initially read “time.”[17] From Erasmus’s 2nd, 3rd, 4th, and 5th editions, as well as Köpfel (1524), Colines (1534), and Stephanus’s editions (1546, 1550, and 1551), the common reading TR reading was “time.”  Even the 1657 London Polyglot, which Owen critiqued (see part 1), included this reading. Perhaps Stephanus 1550 was a transition point in that the “lord” reading was noted in the margins of the printed text (see below). Therefore, carefully consider that for these reformers, most of them opposed the initial TR reading (except Calvin), but rather the TR would eventually conform to the reformers’ (and papists’) textual criticism.

Romans 12:11 from Erasmus’s 2nd edition (1519)


Romans 12:11 from the Stephanus 1550 edition



Does §1.8 of our Confession indicate that we now have a perfectly preserved edition of the New Testament in the Textus Receptus and there is, therefore, now no longer any need to do the work of textual criticism? We might say, “What was good for the goose is good for the gander.” For those Reformed, Protestant Orthodox, and Puritans; they had to wrestle with textual variants and make textual decisions. And they did not all agree with one another. Nevertheless, as they were the theologians behind our own Confession of faith, would it not be reasonable to assume that if they had to wrestle with textual variants, make textual decisions given the evidence, and even update their Greek New Testaments; should we not also do likewise? And if Muller is correct in saying, “There was no claim, in the era of orthodoxy, of a sacrosanct text in this particular edition [of the TR]. Nor did it, in the era of orthodoxy, provide some sort of terminus ad quem for the editing of the text of the Bible,”[18] then those of us who uphold §1.8 of our Confession still have to employ textual criticism, just as our Puritan and Reformed forefathers did.


[1] Muller, PRRD, 2:399.

[2] 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.

[3] See a previous article where I explain this very issue here:

[4] For a brief but helpful biography, see

[5] Leigh, A System or Body of Divinity, 71.

[6] Michael W. Holmes, “Textual Criticism,” in Interpreting the New Testament: Essays on Methods and Issues (Nashville: B&H Academic, 2001), 56.

[7] Calvin’s Commentary on the Epistle of St. Paul to the Romans, note at 12:11.

[8] Matthew Henry’s Commentary on the Whole Bible, One-Volume edition, p. 2,226. See also Matthew Poole’s similar handling of both variants.

[9] See Andrew Willet, Hexapla, that is, A six-fold commentarie vpon the most diuine Epistle of the holy apostle S. Paul to the Romanes, (Cantrell Legge of the University of Cambridge,1620), 552. For a thorough biography of Willet, see Benjamin Brooks, The Lives of the Puritans, (London, 1813), 284–288.

[10] Brooks said, “Dr. Willet was a man of uncommon reading, having digested the fathers, councils, ecclesiastical histories, the civil and canon law, and numerous writers of almost all descriptions” (p. 285).

[11] Willet, Romans Hexapla, 551–552.

[12] For a helpful biography of Rollock, see

[13] Rollock, Selected Works, 1:123.

[14] It is not clear to me if he is saying this concerning the “lord” reading or the “time” reading.

[15] Rollock, 1:125–126.

[16] Robert Bellarmine, Controversies of the Christian Faith, tran. Kenneth Baker (Keep the Faith, Inc; 2016), 124.

[17] Actually, Erasmus’s first edition (1516) omitted the article and followed the “lord” reading: ζέοντες κυρίῳ. Only the Aldine 1518 edition followed this exact reading.

[18] Muller, PRRD, 2:399.

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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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