/ Westminster Confession / Stephen Steele

A Westminster Divine and an Alexandrian Codex

At the heart of the critique of modern Bible versions by some in the Reformed world is their assessment of the Greek manuscripts on which they are based.

All major English Bible versions since 1881 (apart from the NKJV) have made use of Greek manuscripts which were not available to the editors of the ‘Textus Receptus’ (the family of printed Greek editions which mostly lie behind the King James Version).

Because these manuscripts were not available to TR editors in the sixteenth century, and because the Westminster Confession of Faith teaches that God’s word has been ‘kept pure in all ages’ (1:8), the assertion is made that these manuscripts must be rejected where they disagree with the ‘received text’.

But how would the Westminster Divines have reacted to new discoveries of Greek manuscripts? Manuscripts which only became available to scholars after the King James Bible was published? And what if those manuscripts had originally come from Alexandria in Egypt of all places?

Would the Divines have rejected them as suspect? Or even Satanic? Would they have resisted all efforts to correct the received text based on discoveries of manuscripts which were much older than those available to Erasmus and the other TR editors?

In the case of the Westminster Assembly’s fifth-most prolific speaker, we don’t have to guess.

Thomas Goodwin (1600-1680) delivered approximately 400 speeches at the Westminster Assembly, was appointed to 35 committees, ‘respected by the Scottish commissioners’ and given oversight of printing of the assembly’s papers. While he is sometimes described as the first congregationalist, ‘Goodwin is more accurately remembered as one of the last of the puritans’.1

(Goodwin was also one of those appointed by the Puritan-dominated Long Parliament to oversee the revision of the King James Bible in 1653 – something that had been called for by Westminster Divine John Lightfoot in a sermon to the House of Commons in 1645.2 Others involved in the project included fellow Westminster Divines Joseph Caryl and William Greenhill, along with John Owen.3 However, the attempted revision did not survive the death of Oliver Cromwell and the restoration of Charles II).

In a posthumously published work, The Glory of the Gospel, Goodwin is enthusiastic both about the theoretical and actual discovery of ancient Greek manuscripts. Commenting on Colossians 1:26 – ‘Which hath been hidden from ages and from generations’ – Goodwin gives the following illustration:

‘To have an old copy of the New Testament, though it doth not differ three words throughout the whole from what we commonly have, yet if it be an old copy (as lately one of the Septuagint, written thirteen hundred years ago, was sent over), what a value is there set upon it!’4

(He also uses the illustration of scholars finding manuscripts by a church father, the rediscovery of the Book of Enoch quoted by Jude – rumoured to have been found in Goodwin’s day, but not actually rediscovered until 1773 – and the discovery of Solomon’s writings on herbs and plants).

However, as the editor of Goodwin’s Works notes, what the Puritan at that point in his life thought to be only an old copy of the Septuagint (the Greek translation of the Old Testament), actually turned out to contain the New Testament as well. Goodwin’s editor says that the author is ‘Doubtless’ referring to ‘the famous Alexandrian manuscript, which was sent from Constantinople, as a present to Charles I., in 1628’. Today we know it as Codex Alexandrinus – an almost complete copy of the New Testament from the fifth century. It was sent to England by the Calvinist patriarch of Constantinople sixteen years after the publication of the King James Bible, and originally intended for King James himself.

Along with Codex Sinaiticus, Codex Vaticanus and Codex Ephraemi Rescriptus, it is one of only four manuscripts from the first millennium which were originally whole Bibles. In the gospels it is the oldest example of the ‘Byzantine’ text, but in the rest of the New Testament ‘it ranks along with Vaticanus and Sinaiticus as representative of the Alexandrian type of text’.5

Of course, Goodwin referring to Codex Alexandrinus is one thing. But would he have used it to correct the received text? When the Westminster Divines said that the Greek New Testament had been ‘kept pure in all ages’, did they mean that the Textus Receptus (first published 1516) could not be questioned?

After all, does Goodwin not use the example of a hypothetical New Testament manuscript that ‘doth not differ three words throughout the whole from what we commonly have’. But what if it did differ? Would he have rejected it as untrustworthy? And would he have considered the mention of textual variants from the pulpit as endangering his hearers' faith?

In fact – as becomes clear in reference to a number of different Biblical texts – Goodwin had no qualms about suggesting there were places where the true text of the New Testament was preserved in an Alexandrian manuscript, rather than in the received text.

After all, as Goodwin explained in a sermon, ‘There are variæ lectiones of the New Testament, as well as of the Old; that is, various readings’.6 In other words, all Greek manuscripts of any significant length vary from one another. Any printed Greek text has to choose one reading over another (though will usually list alternatives in the ‘apparatus’). Since infallibility isn’t promised to the editor of any printed Greek edition, Goodwin had no qualms about opting for readings which are today found in the modern Critical Text, over against either the Textus Receptus or the Majority Text.

Goodwin explicitly appeals to Codex Alexandrinus against the TR on at least two occasions (comprising five variants). On another two occasions he opts for (or considers) readings found in Alexandrinus (and not the TR) without reference to it. (Or perhaps without knowledge of it - Goodwin likely only became aware of the readings of Alexandrinus through the publication of Bishop Brian Walton’s London Polyglot in 1657).7‌‌‌

While a handful of occasions may not seem like a big deal, TR-onlyism by definition must reject any reading that didn’t make it into (certain) printed TR editions. For them, to admit that the TR is less than jot and tittle perfect, or to accept any non-TR reading, would be akin to giving up the epistemological foundation of the faith, and to deny that the Bible has been kept pure in every age.

This, we are told, was the position of the Westminster Divines. As I will demonstrate below, it was not the position of leading Westminster Divine Thomas Goodwin.

‌‌‌‌1 Peter 5:10

‘The God of all grace…make’ – KJV (TR and Majority Text)‌‌
‘The God of all grace…will’ – ESV (Modern Critical Text)

As Goodwin explains, the question here is ‘Whether these words be a prayer of the apostle’s unto God, or a direct promise from God?’. The difference, as Goodwin elaborates on in a footnote, is one Greek letter in each of four words affected, for example: καταρτίσαι v. καταρτίσει.

He finds support for reading this as a promise from a number of manuscripts, including ‘the ancient manuscript sent by Cyril into England’, ie Codex Alexandrinus.

Goodwin then spends 1600 words arguing against defenders of the TR reading, on the basis of internal evidence. He cites a number of other Scriptural passages where the same words used in 1 Peter 5 take the form of promises, and concludes: ‘why therefore should not those copies that make it so here be esteemed genuine?’8

Why not indeed? Goodwin had no a priori commitment to the TR.

Acts 11:20

‘Hellenists’ – NKJV, ESV, NRSV (TR, Majority Text, Westcott & Hort, Modern Critical Text)9‌‌
‘Greeks’ – Revised Version, NIV, NASB, CSB (Griesbach, Wordsworth, Lachmann, Tischendorf, Tregelles)

Goodwin explains: ‘There hath been a question among some interpreters, whether these Grecians to whom these Jews preached were of Grecian birth and race, or Jews by race… called Ἑλληνισταὶ, or Grecising Jews’.

As Goodwin points out, the context strongly suggests Gentiles as opposed to Jews. Given that context, he opts for the reading of Alexandrinus over against the TR and the vast majority of Greek manuscripts: ‘The opposition clearly carries it; so accordingly in the manuscript copy sent by Cyril, that worthy patriarch of Constantinople, to king Charles I., they are expressly called (as it is here translated) Ἑλληνὲς, Grecians by birth and extraction’.10

Goodwin not only argues against the TR, he also goes against the Majority Text and the reading found in the Modern Critical Text (though critical texts in the past have agreed with Goodwin).

The point is not that Goodwin always agrees with the Modern Critical text. The point is that he is willing to accept the reading of a newly available Alexandrian manuscript in place of the TR.

F. H. A. Scrivener (the nineteenth century editor of the TR edition published by the Trinitarian Bible Society – but who did not hold to the TR position) notes his disagreement with the TR here and agrees with Goodwin.11

Jude 1:1

‘sanctified by God the Father’ – KJV (TR and Majority Text)
‌‌‘beloved in God the Father’ – ESV (Modern Critical Text)

Goodwin explains: ‘You have it indeed here read, and translated, “Sanctified by God the Father;” but if we consult both commentators and Greek original copies, as they are also cited by interpreters, we shall find that diverse, as authentic copies, as those that read it sanctified‚ &c., do write it beloved, in‚ or of, or by God the Father, ἠγαπημενοις, beloved, instead of ἡγτασμενοις’.

(Although Goodwin doesn’t explicitly cite Alexandrinus, it reads ‘beloved’ – as do the two codexes particularly disparaged by TR-onlyists, Sinaiticus and Vaticanus).

Goodwin then explains what he considers the proper procedure for deciding between the two options (significantly, it doesn’t involve going with the TR no matter what). In cases ‘where there are found two such readings in so many copies ancient, and but a small difference in the Greek words themselves, which might easily occasion a mistake in the writers’, the question is to be decided by the context and comparing Scripture with Scripture (ie internal evidence).

Having weighed the evidence, Goodwin opts for ‘beloved’. Even before coming across this alternate reading, Goodwin says that something had always seemed out of place to him with the TR reading.12 But now, having come across an alternative that fits better, he is convinced that it ‘hath far the advantage and appearance for it, to have originally fallen rather from our apostle’s pen’.13

Goodwin’s big concern is to discover what the Apostle originally wrote – and in pursuit of that desire he is willing to go outside the TR tradition.

Ephesians 1:18

“the eyes of your understanding” – KJV (and TR)
‌‌“the eyes of your heart” – ESV (Majority Text and Modern Critical Text)

This final example is significant – not because Goodwin comes down strongly on one side or the other – but because the TR and the Majority Text are often conflated. In fact, they differ in places – and where they do, TR-defenders are forced by their a priori assumptions to defend the TR reading over against the Byzantine one, even when there is little or no Greek manuscript evidence for it.

In this case, as the Lutheran Johann Albrecht Bengel noted in the first half of the 1700s: ‘Rec. Text, without any of the oldest authorities, reads διανοίας, of the understanding’. However, as he goes on to note, Alexandrinus, Vaticanus and many others support ‘heart’.

As Princeton theologian Charles Hodge put it: ‘Instead of διανοίας understanding, the great majority of ancient manuscripts and versions read καρδίας heart which is no doubt the true reading’.

Goodwin cites ‘the king of Spain’s Bible’ [ie the Antwerp Polyglot] in favour of ‘heart’ but then goes on to argue that there is not much difference between the two readings, concluding: ‘I speak this to reconcile those diverse readings which the copies have’.14

A TR-onlyist, however, would not have the option of reconciliation – non-TR readings must be rejected. Goodwin was not a TR-onlyist.

Conclusion

In conclusion then, Goodwin explicitly cites Alexandrinus twice, both times agreeing with its readings over against the TR. On another occasion, he goes with the reading of Alexandrinus against the TR, without explicitly citing it. On a final occasion, he attempts to reconcile an Alexandrian (and Majority) reading and a TR reading. He has no a priori commitment to the TR. On 3 occasions, Goodwin opts for (or considers) a reading which we now know is also in Sinaiticus and Vaticanus.

Significantly, Goodwin cannot even be claimed as a Majority Text advocate. Where the Modern Critical Text and the Majority Text disagree (two of the four examples), Goodwin opts for a reading now found in the Critical Text. Nowhere does he argue for a reading based merely on counting manuscripts. After Alexandrinus became available, the oldest and best manuscript he had access to took priority.

So-called ‘Confessional Bibliologists’ claim to hold the position of the Westminster Divines. However they certainly do not hold the position of leading Westminster Divine Thomas Goodwin.

It has been said that in the century after Goodwin, ‘the Received Text was still treated with excessive veneration, and was not actually replaced in England until the nineteenth century. But events in the scholarly world had been gradually bringing about its decline, ever since the arrival of the Codex Alexandrinus (A) in 1627’.15

For an example of a Reformed pastor who gratefully used readings from this newly discovered manuscript in preference to the TR, we can go all the way back to Westminster Divine Thomas Goodwin.

‌‌‌‌

1. Chad Van Dixhoorn, The Minutes and Papers of the Westminster Assembly (Oxford,, 2012), i, 213; T. M. Lawrence, ‘Goodwin, Thomas (1600–1680)’ in Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (Oxford, 2004; online edn, Jan 2008).
2. John Lightfoot, Works, i, xv.
3. David S. Katz, God's Last Words: Reading the English Bible from the Reformation to Fundamentalism (New Haven and London, 2004), pp 88-90; John Eadie, The English Bible: An External and Critical History of the Various English Translations of Scripture, with Remarks on the Need of Revising the English New Testament (London, 1876), ii, 343-7.
4. Thomas Goodwin, Works, iv, 288.
5. Bruce Metzger and Bart Ehrman, The text of the New Testament: its transmission, corruption and restoration (4th edn, Oxford, 2005), p. 67.
6. Goodwin, Works, i, 299.
7. Walton was assisted in this endeavour by Westminster Divine John Lightfoot, James Ussher and others. Goodwin’s sermons on Ephesians were preached in the early 1640s (ODNB).
8. Goodwin, Works, ix, 370.
9. The KJV translation of ‘Grecians’ undoubtedly follows the TR reading, but for the purposes of comparison I have used the NKJV’s less unambiguous translation. Most commentators who accept the majority reading resolve the difficulty of the verse by understanding ‘Hellenists’ as a reference to Greeks rather than to Greek-speaking Jews.
10. Goodwin, Works, v, 475.
11. F. H. A. Scrivener, A Plain Introduction to the Criticism of the New Testament (London, 1894), ii, 371.
12. ‘this did always in former times in the reading of it breed some jar in my thoughts, as if the words had not been, at least, rightly and orderly placed’
13. Goodwin, Works, ix, 218.
14. Goodwin, Works, i, 300.
15. B. F. Harris, ‘Richard Bentley and the text of the Greek New Testament’ in Evangelical Quarterly, xxxiv, no. 4 (1962), p. 214.

‌‌‌‌

‌‌‌‌

‌‌‌‌

‌‌‌‌

‌‌‌‌

‌‌‌‌

Stephen Steele

Stephen Steele

Stephen is minister of Stranraer RP Church in Scotland. He is married to Carla and they have four children. He has an MA from Queen's University Belfast where his focus was on C19th Presbyterianism.

Read More