One aspect of the biblical preservation debate concerns public availability or accessibility.[i] Some insist that public accessibility is a necessary part of preservation, while others as insistently deny it. Underneath it all, for most this is an argument about which Greek text should have priority – specifically related to the debate between the Majority Text and Critical Text.[ii]
Kent Brandenberg succinctly states a “public access” view, writing, “Scripture says that the Bible will be available to every generation of believers.”[iii] Most others, in my opinion, discuss public access or availability but leave the definition unclear as to just what it entails. Ed Glenny, an opponent of accessibility and the doctrine of preservation, describes the accessibility argument this way, “The proponents of the TR/Majority Text make the doctrine of preservation a necessary corollary of inspiration, and they seek to establish textual purity and public accessibility as necessary corollaries of preservation. In other words, preservation does not mean anything if the text is not accessible, and inspiration does not mean anything if the text is not purely preserved accessibly.”[iv] That is correct, as far as it goes, but leaves much open to interpretation.
E. F. Hills argues that “God must preserve this text, not secretly, not hidden away in a box for hundreds of years or smoldering unnoticed on some library shelf, but openly before the eyes of all men through the continuous usage of His Church” and “He must have preserved them not secretly in holes and caves but in a public way in the usage of His Church.”[v] On the other hand, Dan Wallace claims, “First, the argument that the divine motive for preservation is public availability—as poor an argument as it is for the Greek text—is even worse for the Hebrew...the Hebrew scriptures were neither preserved publicly—on display through the church as it were—nor only through Christians…In what way can they argue that a bibliological doctrine is true for the NT but is not true for the OT?”[vi]
Certainly the opponents of “public access” will try to paint it in the worst light, while proponents will seek the best advantage. Rather than try to sort through the definitions for public access or public availability, I approach it in a different way. “Public access” generally sends the wrong connotation, which is further exacerbated by modern ideas of post-printing-press Bibles readily available in every home. The better understanding is that God gave his word to and preserved it in his churches, and that there is a sort of “church access” throughout the New Testament church age. No one, so far as I know, is arguing for universal public accessibility, but general accessibility among the people of God. The churches could not exist without the scriptures. We would neither expect the only word of God to be hidden away in archives of or forgotten in a monastery of the false church.
It is precisely at the point of “public access” that preservation opponents hope to break down the argument. Wallace quotes his mentor Harry Sturz: “…the Bible itself reveals that there have been occasions when there has been a famine or dearth of the Word of God. One thinks, for example, of the days of Josiah (2 Kings 22:8ff.) when apparently the Scriptures were reduced to one copy. Nevertheless, it still could be said that God’s Word was preserved.” (The Byzantine Text-Type and New Testament Textual Criticism, H. A. Sturz, Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 1984, pp. 41–42)
GotQuestions.org extends the argument:
“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.”[vii]
It is true that the record in 2 Kings 22 shows a limited access to and knowledge of the scriptures in a period in Israel. The application does not necessarily follow, though, and seems a sort of category error[viii] – assuming that what is true of the relationship of Israel and the Old Testament is necessarily a herald of what must be historically true of the New Testament and its churches. Regarding the New Testament era, the approach of Wallace and others might also be described as letting the “manuscript evidence [take] precedence over Scriptural promises.”[ix] The Old Testament had the benefit of being a complete preserved canon which existed at the time of Christ. Further, Israel was succoured not only by the law, but their existence as a visible nation depended on their being the progeny of Jacob, was ordered by a succession of the priests from Aaron, and, later, a succession of kings.[x] In contrast, the church is a spiritual creature of the word, built on the revelation of Jesus Christ and kept by it (Matthew 16:18).
The New Testament church is built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, which is their preaching and their writings (Ephesians 2:20). We no longer have the apostles and prophets with us, but we have the words they wrote down in scripture (cf. e.g. 2 Peter 3:16). The church of the living God, built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets is now, in turn, the pillar and ground of the truth (1 Timothy 3:15). The progress and perpetuity of the Bible and New Testament churches are inextricably entwined. As goes the fate of one, so goes the fate of the other. The charge of Christ to his churches is to teach “to observe all things whatsoever I have commanded you” with the adjoining promise “lo, I am with you always, even unto the end of the world.” (Matthew 28:18-20) We cannot know of the words of Jesus, his apostles or his prophets outside of the words supplied in scripture. It is scripture, inspired of God, that supplies all that is necessary for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, and for instruction in righteousness (2 Timothy 3:16-17). The churches and scripture stand and fall together.[xi]
Next Preservation: Texts, No. 1 (d.v.)
[i] Russian Bible Wars: Modern Scriptural Translation and Cultural Authority by Stephen K. Batalden shows that “warring” over texts, translations and public accessibility are not “English-only” issues. “And in Filaret Drozdov’s mind, public accessibility to scripture was a defining issue.” (In this case public accessibility is different, related to having a modern Russian translation rather than depending on the Slavonic text.) pp. 129-130
[ii] Much debate relates to the Codices Sinaiticus and Vaticanus, which were unknown or unused throughout much church history, but important documents to all modern Bible translations since the Revised Version of 1881. Codex Sinaiticus, also known as “Aleph” (from the Hebrew letter א), was discovered in 1859 at the Monastery of Saint Catherine on Mount Sinai, Saint Catherine, Egypt. Codex Vaticanus, also known as “B,” was known earlier (catalogued in the Vatican library in 1475) but seldom used. Scholars ascribed little value to Codex Vaticanus before the 19th century. B. F. Westcott and F.J. A. Hort used it as the basis for their The New Testament in the Original Greek in 1881. In The Revision Revised, John William Burgon assessed these texts in this way, “Lastly, – We suspect that these two Manuscripts are indebted for their preservation, solely to their ascertained evil character, which has occasioned that the one eventually found its way, four centuries ago, to a forgotten shelf in the Vatican library; while the other, after exercising the ingenuity of several generations of critical Correctors, eventually (viz. in A.D. 1844) got deposited in the waste-paper basket of the Convent at the foot of mount Sinai. Had B and א been copies of average purity, they must long since have shared the inevitable fate of books which are freely used and highly prized; namely, they would have fallen into decadence and disappeared from sight.” (p. 319)
[iv] One Bible Only?: Examining Exclusive Claims for the King James Bible, edited by Roy E. Beacham and Kevin T. Bauder p. 105; W. W. Combs points out that “The corollary between inspiration and preservation is so compelling that even Glenny, who denies this principle in the text of his chapter on preservation, is forced to recant his denial in a long footnote to that same chapter.”
[vi] https://bible.org/article/inspiration-preservation-and-new-testament-textual-criticism Grace Theological Journal (Vol. 12, No. 1, Spring 1991) is where Wallace’s “Inspiration, Preservation, and New Testament Textual Criticism” was first published.
[vii] https://www.gotquestions.org/verbal-plenary-preservation.html 2 Kings 22:8 And Hilkiah the high priest said unto Shaphan the scribe, I have found the book of the law in the house of the Lord. And Hilkiah gave the book to Shaphan, and he read it.
[viii] A logical fallacy in which things belonging to a particular category are presented as if they belong to a different category or that confuses the properties of the whole with the properties of a part.
[ix] In his “Article Review of ‘The Preservation of Scripture’” by William W. Combs, Thomas Strouse points out in the “critical text” method that the “manuscript evidence takes precedence over Scriptural promises.” This article originally appeared in Sound Words from New England, Volume 1, Issue 4, March – May 2001
[x] In the Old Testament, the scriptures were in the hands of the priests. The king was supposed to have a copy of the law, but possibly this was not done. Deuteronomy 17:18-19 And it shall be, when he sitteth upon the throne of his kingdom, that he shall write him a copy of this law in a book out of that which is before the priests the Levites: And it shall be with him, and he shall read therein all the days of his life: that he may learn to fear the Lord his God, to keep all the words of this law and these statutes, to do them:
[xi] I have no expertise in manuscripts, but if our theology and ecclesiology is correct we would expect to find the word in some way distributed among those dissenting churches that existed outside the dominant false churches. I agree with Strouse, in that, “Although the testimony of historical evidence is incomplete and therefore secondary, the Lord used His NT churches through history to preserve His words.”