“First, the doctrine of preservation was not a doctrine of the ancient church. In fact, it was not stated in any creed until the seventeenth century (in the Westminster Confession of 1646).” From “Inspiration, Preservation, and New Testament Textual Criticism,” published in Grace Theological Journal, No. 12 (1992) pp. 21-25.
“I don’t hold to the doctrine of preservation. That doctrine, first formulated in the Westminster Confession (1646), has a poor biblical base. I do not think that the doctrine is defensible–either exegetically or empirically.” From “Mark 16:8 as the Conclusion to the Second Gospel,” by Daniel B. Wallace, in Perspectives on the Ending of Mark, David Alan Black, Editor. Nashville, TN: Broadman & Holman Academic, 2008, p. 7.
Is Wallace correct? Is preservation a new doctrine? Well, he may be correct that the doctrine was first “formulated” in a creed or confession in 1646. I am not aware of an earlier statement that spells out the doctrine of preservation the way that the Westminster Confession 1.8 does.[i] The Savoy and London Baptist Confessions follow this same “formulation”.
8. 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 authentical;880 so as in all controversies of religion the Church is finally to appeal unto them...
To dismiss doctrine because it was not stated in a creed is a dangerous step to take, and one that disregards the very nature of creeds and confessions. Those who “formulated” the Westminster Confession believed in preservation prior to creating the Confession. Anabaptist, Protestant, and Reformed writings exhibit this before 1646.[ii]
Creeds and confessions often address matters that were not previously addressed. Would we assume that all churches believed in abortion and homosexual marriage before some confession thought it necessary to mention these items? No. We would more likely accept the truth that there was no felt prior pressing need to address it.
The confessions most likely had not addressed preservation before because it was assumed. The earlier confessions obviously built on Scripture. They presupposed the inspiration, infallibility, inerrancy, and authority of Scripture. The Westminster Assembly most likely addressed this in 1646 because of the ongoing struggle against Catholics over Sola Scriptura (and perhaps underlying issues in the Church of England as well).
A number of debaters (such as Wallace) believe the preservation passages mean the general content of God’s Word, not a physical record of it.[iii] Most of us who posit the providential preservation of the Scriptures would agree. However, such an admission does not end the discussion. We would ask how Wallace and other naysayers against preservation know the content of God’s Word, absent the preservation of the writing on some type of media? How do you know the “divine ethical principles or the promise of fulfilled prophecy”? In other words, has God preserved the content to us via media, or in some other way? Is he giving you special revelation? It is evident that God’s people in both the Old and New Testaments bowed to the authority of the texts they had in hand. They believed God gave these words and preserved these words. They did not remove or diminish the authority to an absent autograph. When Abraham spoke to the rich man about his brothers, he said, “They have Moses and the prophets” (Luke 16:29). When Jesus post-resurrection taught his disciples, he referred to them to what was written (Luke 24:44), not to autographs they did not have.
Earlier evidence for preservation
The London Baptists, before they revised the Westminster Confession, adopted a confession in 1644. They enlarged it in 1646.[iv] In article 7, the 1644 confession stated:
The rule of this knowledge, faith, and obedience, concerning the worship and service of God, and all other Christian duties, is not mans inventions, opinions, devices, laws, constitutions, or traditions unwritten whatsoever, but only the word of God contained in the Canonical Scriptures. John 5:39; 2 Tim. 3:15-17; Col. 1:18, 23; Mat. 15:9
Such writings presuppose that they have the word of God, the next article stating:
In this written Word God has plainly revealed whatsoever He has thought needful for us to know, believe, and acknowledge, touching the nature and office of Christ, in whom all the promises are Yea and Amen to the praise of God. Acts 3:22, 23; Heb. 1:1, 2; 2 Tim 3:15-17; 2 Cor. 1:20
In 1646, articles 7 & 8 were revised to: “The rule of this knowledge, faith, and obedience, concerning the worship of God, in which is contained the whole duty of man, is (not men’s laws, or unwritten traditions, but) only the word of God contained [viz., written] in the holy Scriptures; in which is plainly recorded whatsoever is needful for us to know, believe, and practice; which are the only rule of holiness and obedience for all saints, at all times, in all places to be observed. Col. 2:23; Matt 15:6,9; John 5:39, 2 Tim. 3:15,16,17; Isa. 8:20; Gal. 1:8,9; Acts 3:22,23.”
A Declaration of Faith of English People Remaining at Amsterdam in Holland, 1611 presupposes preservation, since “the scriptures of the Old and New Testament are written for our instruction” and “we ought to search them for they testify of Christ.”[v]
The 1596 Confession of the Brownists suggest that they have the authoritative Scriptures, since “the canonicall bookes of the old and new Testament” are the rule of faith, worship, service, and all Christian duties – and “in this word Jesus Christ hath revealed whatsoever his father thought needfull for us to know, believe & obey.”[vi]
The Waterlander Anabaptist Confession of 1577 supports this idea of presupposition, beginning the first article of faith with “We believe and confess with Holy Scripture…”[vii]
Michael Ayguan (1340-1460), commenting on Psalm 12:7:
“Keep them: that is, not as the passage is generally taken, Keep or guard Thy people, but Thou shalt keep or make good Thy words: and by so doing, shalt preserve him—him, the needy, him, the poor...” From A Commentary on the Psalms: From Primitive and Mediaeval Writers, Volume I, Psalm 1 to Psalm 38 (John Mason Neale, London: Joseph Masters, p. 177)
The Waldensian Confession of 1120 acknowledged the books of the Holy Bible for their sacred canonical scriptures.[viii]
John Chrysostom (circa AD 347–407) recommends exalting the word of God (which he presumably believed he had) above the words of men, writing, “Wherefore I exhort and entreat you all, disregard what this man and that man thinks about these things, and inquire from the Scriptures all these things…”[ix]
Gregory of Nyssa (circa AD 335–395) writes against Eunomius, acknowledging that the voices of the apostles and prophets have been preserved in writing:
Let him tell us whence he has this boldness of assertion. From what inspired utterance? What evangelist, what apostle ever uttered such words as these? What prophet, what lawgiver, what patriarch, what other person of all who were divinely moved by the Holy Ghost, whose voices are preserved in writing, ever originated such a statement as this?[x]
Cyril of Jerusalem (circa AD 316-386) saw the Scriptures (which he presumably believed he had) as authoritative over opinions:
For concerning the divine and holy mysteries of the Faith, not even a casual statement must be delivered without the Holy Scriptures; nor must we be drawn aside by mere plausibility and artifices of speech. Even to me, who tell thee these things, give not absolute credence, unless thou receive the proof of the things which I announce from the Divine Scriptures.[xi]
Athanasius of Alexandria (circa AD 298-373), in his Discourse 2, Against the Arians, compares the words of men which pass away with the word of God, which does not change or pass away:
For observe, many and various are men’s words which pass away day by day; because those that come before others continue not, but vanish. Now this happens because their authors are men, and ideas which are successive; and what strikes them first and second, that they utter; so that they have many words, and yet after them all nothing at all remaining; for the speaker ceases and his word forthwith is spent. But God’s Word is one and the same, and, as it is written “The Word of God endureth for ever,” not changed, not before or after another, but existing the same always.
Irenaeus of Lyons (circa 130–202), writing Against Heresies implied that he had the perfectly preserved Scriptures:
“If, however, we cannot discover explanations of all those things in Scripture which are made the subject of investigation, yet let us not on that account seek after any other God besides Him who really exists. For this is the very greatest impiety. We should leave things of that nature to God who created us, being most properly assured that the Scriptures are indeed perfect, since they were spoken by the Word of God and His Spirit...”[xii]
In Against Heresies, Book II, 27:2, Irenaeus speaks of “the entire Scriptures” and “the very words of Scripture…”
The teachings have been handed down in the Scriptures:
We have learned from none others the plan of our salvation, than from those through whom the Gospel has come down to us, which they did at one time proclaim in public, and, at a later period, by the will of God, handed down to us in the Scriptures, to be the ground and pillar of our faith.[xiii]
See also Against Heresies, Book III, 4:1, 5:1.
Athenagoras the Athenian (circa AD 133–190), addressing the Emperors Marcus Aurelius Antoninus, as well as philosophers, implies the writings of the Old Testament are preserved and available, not only to him, but also to his readers.
If we satisfied ourselves with advancing such considerations as these, our doctrines might by some be looked upon as human. But, since the voices of the prophets confirm our arguments—for I think that you also, with your great zeal for knowledge, and your great attainments in learning, cannot be ignorant of the writings either of Moses or of Isaiah and Jeremiah, and the other prophets, who, lifted in ecstasy above the natural operations of their minds by the impulses of the Divine Spirit, uttered the things with which they were inspired, the Spirit making use of them as a flute-player breathes into a flute;—what, then, do these men say? “The LORD is our God; no other can be compared with Him.” And again: “I am God, the first and the last, and besides Me there is no God.” In like manner: “Before Me there was no other God, and after Me there shall be none; I am God, and there is none besides Me.” And as to His greatness: “Heaven is My throne, and the earth is the footstool of My feet: what house win ye build for Me, or what is the place of My rest?” But I leave it to you, when you meet with the books themselves, to examine carefully the prophecies contained in them, that you may on fitting grounds defend us from the abuse cast upon us.[xiv]
Two traditions, which we might view as strange today, nevertheless show that some in the early church had no problem with the idea of special preservation of the Bible, even the possibility of miraculous preservation. First, the tradition of 2 Esdras/Ezra 4 14:1-48, in which Ezra writes the law again by divine inspiration after it had been lost, was held by early church fathers. Others believed that God preserved the Old Testament in Greek by a translation miracle.[xv] It is not necessary to agree with or endorse these views to understand that the early church writers held ideas about the preservation of the Scriptures.
It seems a strange combination of ideas to try to hold inspiration and inerrancy while rejecting special preservation.
“There exists no reason for supposing that the Divine Agent, who in the first instance thus gave to mankind the Scriptures of Truth, straightway abdicated His office; took no further care of His work; abandoned those precious writings to their fate. That a perpetual miracle was wrought for their preservation—that copyists were protected against the risk of error, or evil men prevented from adulterating shamefully copies of the Deposit—no one, it is presumed, is so weak as to suppose. But it is quite a different thing to claim that all down the ages the sacred writings must needs have been in God’s peculiar care; that the Church under Him has watched over them with intelligence and skill; has recognized which copies exhibited a fabricated, which an honestly transcribed text; has generally sanctioned the one, and generally disallowed the other.” John Burgon, The Traditional Text of the Holy Gospels Vindicated and Established, pp. 11-12
The Bible is the rule
Belief in or rejection of the doctrine of preservation ultimately rests squarely on the Scriptures themselves, not what has been declared by confessions of faith and personal creeds. Any new doctrine that has never before been posited in Christendom is suspect. Such is not the case with preservation. It has been written about directly, and presupposed over and over by those who make there case based on the writings of scripture.
For more on the doctrine of preservation according to the Bible, start with Preservation: Concluding thoughts. From there, you can work your way back for more via links at the bottom of the page.
[ii] The Westminster statement on the Scriptures shows some dependence on the Articles of Religion of the Church in Ireland in 1615. However, these articles do not specifically include the kept pure in all ages phrase. James Ussher (1581–1656), thought to be a prime mover in these articles, wrote in his A Body Of Divinitie (p. 10), “...the marvellous preservation of the Scriptures; though none in time bee so ancient, nor none so much oppugned, yet God hath still by his providence preserved them, and every part of them.” See also, for example, John Jewel (1522-1571) in Two Treatises (p. 14): “By the space of so many thousand years, the word of God passed by so many dangers of tyrants, of Pharisees, of heretics, of fire, and of sword, and yet continueth and standeth until this day, without altering or changing one letter. This was a wonderful work of God, that having so many so great enemies, and passing through so many so great dangers, it yet continueth still, without adding or altering of any one sentence, or word, or letter. No creature was able to do this: it was God’s work. He preserved it, that no tyrant should consume it, no tradition choke it, no heretic maliciously should corrupt it. For his name’s sake, and for the elect’s sake, he would not suffer it to perish.”
[iii] Wallace: “It seems that a better interpretation of all these texts is that they are statements concerning either divine ethical principles (i.e., moral laws which cannot be violated without some kind of consequences) or the promise of fulfilled prophecy.”
[iv] In 1646, articles 7 & 8 were revised to: “The rule of this knowledge, faith, and obedience, concerning the worship of God, in which is contained the whole duty of man, is (not men’s laws, or unwritten traditions, but) only the word of God contained [viz., written] in the holy Scriptures; in which is plainly recorded whatsoever is needful for us to know, believe, and practice; which are the only rule of holiness and obedience for all saints, at all times, in all places to be observed. Col. 2:23; Matt 15:6,9; John 5:39, 2 Tim. 3:15,16,17; Isa. 8:20; Gal. 1:8,9; Acts 3:22,23.”
[v] A Declaration of Faith of English People Remaining at Amsterdam in Holland, 1611.
[vi] A True Confession, 1596, articles 7 and 8.
[vii] “Confession of Faith (Waterlander, 1577),” Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online, 1577.
[viii] Waldensian Confession of Faith, 1120.
[ix] Homilies on 1, 2 Corinthians, Homily 13, 2 Cor. 6:11-12.
[xi] Catechetical Lecture 4, paragraph 17.
[xii] Against Heresies, Book II, 28:2.
[xiii] Against Heresies Book III, 1:1.
[xiv] A Plea for the Christians, Chapter 9. The Testimony of the Prophets.
[xv] “God...inspired Esdras the priest, of the tribe of Levi, to recast all the words of the former prophets, and to re-establish with the people the Mosaic legislation.”(Irenaeus, Against Heresies, Book III, 21:2,) See also, for the LXX: Justin Martyr (AD 150-160), Hortatory Address to the Greeks, Chapter 13, Irenaeus (AD 175-185), Against Heresies, Book III, 21:2, Eusebius of Caesarea (AD 300-340) Preparation of the Gospel, Book VIII, Chapter 1. It is not necessary to agree that these views were right. Simply notice that they believed the preservation of the Scriptures, contra the revisionism of Wallace.