/ Westminster Confession / Stephen Steele

Reading the Confession in Context (1): 'Authentical'

Responsible preachers – and thoughtful Bible readers – are aware of the danger of taking verses out of context. A similar danger, which many of its adherents are less aware of, applies to the Westminster Confession of Faith.

As J. V. Fesko has pointed out, compared to contemporary commentators on the Westminster Confession like the Covenanter David Dickson, present-day commentators often have different theological questions pressing them than those faced by the Westminster Divines. Fesko warns:

‘As necessary as it is to bring the historic teaching of the Reformed faith to bear upon present-day theological challenges, it is important first to establish historically what the Standards have taught before its theology can be pressed into service’.[1] Significant parts of the Confession were phrased the way they were in in light of contemporary theological debates – and to miss that key fact can lead to wrong interpretation.

As Whitney Gamble explains: ‘Like the creeds and confessions of the ancient church, the Westminster Confession of Faith was framed in a particular historical situation to repudiate the errors confronting the church in that era’.[2]

Confessional Bibliology?

A growing movement in Reformed churches which often quotes part of the Confession with little reference to its historical context is known as ‘Confessional Bibliology’. One of its key claims is that the use of Bible versions based on a Greek text other than the ‘Textus Receptus’ is unconfessional. While in theory the advocates of this movement would be content for people to use any version based on the TR (such as the New King James Version or the Modern English Version), in practice it ends up advocating for exclusive use of the King James Version. (One recent book-length publication by this movement asked 25 individuals why they preach from the Received Text. In response, all 25 advocated for the KJV: the NKJV and MEV were mentioned only negatively).

A fuller critique of this movement will come in due time. In this article and the next I simply want to examine the historical context of the section of the Confession that is invariably appealed to. In the meantime however, it may be helpful for those being troubled by this movement to know that there is no single ‘Textus Receptus’. The Trinitarian Bible Society’s non-exhaustive list contains 24 editions. Mark Ward counts 28 and analyses some of the differences between them. If that in itself is not fatal to a movement which claims an ‘absolute’, ‘stable’, ‘settled’, ‘agreed upon’ ‘fixed’ text of Scripture, the fact that some of those editions don’t contain confessional proof texts surely is. In other words, we’re told that if we want to be confessional we must use the Textus Receptus, because modern versions don’t have verses which were used as proof texts in the Westminster Confession. And yet neither do all TR editions, including the TR which functioned as the basis for Martin Luther’s German translation at the beginning of the Protestant Reformation.

Furthermore, the only ‘Textus Receptus’ in print today was first compiled in 1881, and is a reverse-engineered Greek text based on an English Bible (the King James Version), put together by a man (F. H. A. Scrivener) who was not a TR-onlyist. Even many of those who use Scrivener’s TR do not realise this however as both publishers of it today leave out Scrivener’s preface.

Those being troubled by this movement should also know that despite claims to the contrary by some of its adherents, ‘Confessional Bibliology’ is not the same as the ‘Majority Text’ position. A Majority Text position requires the rejection of certain WCF proof texts, and therefore is unconfessional by the standards of ‘Confessional Bibliology’. In fact, whole verses in the TR are not in the Majority Text (Luke 17:36; Acts 15:34; Acts 8:37 and Acts 24:7). For a list of over 1000 differences between the Majority Text and Scrivener's TR, see here.

(The Majority text position is fairly self-explanatory, reflecting the majority of Greek manuscripts available today. While the Textus Receptus is a critical text, the 'Critical Text' designation has come to be associated with texts produced from the 1800s onwards, utilising manuscripts that were not available to the TR editors. All major English Bible translations since 1881 (apart from the NKJV) have been based on such texts.)

Only two of these three approaches to the original text of the New Testament can make their ultimate appeal to the original language manuscripts God has preserved. Those two approaches are the Majority/Byzantine Text position and the Critical Text position.

Kept pure in all ages…authentical’

The part of the Confessional appealed to by ‘Confessional Bibliologists’ is Chapter 1, Section 8. The first sentence of this section states that the Old Testament in Hebrew and the New Testament in Greek:

‘being immediately inspired by God, and by his singular care and providence kept pure in all ages, are therefore authentical; so as in all controversies of religion, the Church is finally to appeal unto them’.

The phrase ‘kept pure in all ages’ and the word ‘authentical’ (or authentic) are often applied to modern-day debates between the Textus Receptus and the Critical Text. For example, an annual conference devoted to promoting ‘the Textus Receptus as the authentic Word of God’ even takes the phrase ‘Kept Pure in All Ages’ as its title.

The organisers’ use of the phrase ‘Kept Pure In All Ages’ suggests that the Westminster Divines were adjudicating on the correctness of the Textus Receptus compared to other Greek editions (which did not yet exist). Likewise, when the conference description speaks of ‘the Textus Receptus as ‘the authentic Word of God’, it suggests that no other printed Greek text can claim that title.

But what is the historical context of these phrases, and how were they used by the authors of the Confession and their contemporaries? Did the Westminster Divines believe that the Textus Receptus was exactly equal to the original text of Scripture in every place, and could not be questioned? Did they consider it to be ‘jot and tittle’ perfect?

Those are questions that we will seek to answer in this article and the next, focussing here on the word ‘authentical’.

“You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means”

In a recent book promoting the Textus Receptus, the word ‘authentic’ (or ‘authentical’/‘authenticity’) is used 104 times. The General Secretary of the Trinitarian Bible Society contributes a chapter entitled ‘Is there such a thing as an authentic text?’ His answer is yes – the Textus Receptus. One of the book’s editors, Christian McShaffrey describes how his confidence in the TR was once shaken, before he ‘embraced the historic Protestant position on the authentic text of scripture’. Another contributor shares how he ‘started believing in the authenticity of the Received Text’. Yet another seeks to defend ‘the Received Text…as the authentic and kept Word of God’. The Appendix states: ‘There has been a significant revival of interest in the authentic text of the Hebrew and Greek Scriptures over the past several years’. A sermon with over 800 downloads on SermonAudio (which one PuritanBoard contributor credits with making him an ‘Exclusive AV-ist’) is entitled ‘Authentic Text’. In it, the preacher poses the question: ‘Which group [of Greek manuscripts] reflect perfectly what Paul wrote? What’s the authentic text?’

However the question facing the Westminster Divines was not about which manuscripts or printed Greek editions to use. Rather, the issue they were addressing was whether the Hebrew and Greek were ‘authentical’ – or whether the Latin Vulgate was. A century before the Westminster Divines met, the Roman Catholic Council of Trent had declared that the Vulgate:

‘which, by lengthened usage of so many years, has been approved of in the Church, be…held as authentic; and that no one is to dare, or presume to reject it under any pretext whatever’.

According to Trent, the Vulgate is ‘authentic’ (Latin: ‘authentica’); according to the Westminster Divines, that designation belongs to ‘the Old Testament in Hebrew…and the New Testament in Greek [which] being immediately inspired by God…are therefore authentical’.[3]

As John Calvin had put it in his Antidote (1547) to the Council of Trent:

‘as the Hebrew and Greek original often serves to expose their ignorance in quoting Scripture…they ingeniously meet this difficulty by determining that the Vulgate translation only is to be held authentic. Farewell, then, to those who have spent much time and labour in the study of languages, that they might search for the genuine sense of Scripture at the fountainhead’.

Indeed, according to Roman Catholic apologists, the Vulgate ‘hangeth between the Hebrew and Greek as Christ did between the two Thieves’.[4] The preface to the King James Version refers to ‘the Latin edition of the Old and New Testament, which the Council of Trent would have to be authentick’.

That this is the issue the Westminster Divines had in mind is confirmed by David Dickson’s commentary on the Confession, Truth’s Victory Over Error. As Fesko points out, ‘Dickson was alive during the creation of the Westminster Standards, interacted with theologians who were present’, and also wrote ‘a summary of the Westminster Standards which was appended to the documents by the Scottish Kirk’ (The Sum of Saving Knowledge). Dickson’s commentary is in question and answer format, and Question 12 incorporates the relevant part of the Confession:

‘Hath not the Lord by his singular providence and care kept pure in all ages the Old Testament in Hebrew and the New Testament in Greek’.

He answers in the affirmative and then makes the application:

‘Well then, do not the Papists err who maintain the Old Testament in Hebrew and the New Testament in Greek, which are the fountains, to be corrupted, and that their common Latin version is authentic?’[5]

Similarly, Archbishop James Ussher (who turned down an invitation to sit at the Westminster Assembly and whose work strongly influenced the Confession) writes of the original languages: ‘in them only the Scriptures are, for the Letter, to be held authentical’.[6]

Obviously the state of the Greek text is an important consideration if the Catholic claim is that it has been ‘corrupted’ and the Protestant response is that it has been ‘kept pure’. The key point to note however is that the issue was never about playing off one printed Greek edition against another. Rather it was the Protestant response to Roman Catholic claims that the Latin Vulgate should trump the Hebrew and Greek (and by implication, the Greek Orthodox claim that the Septuagint should trump the Hebrew Old Testament). As Richard Brash sums it up: ‘the distinction is not textual, but linguistic’.[7]

Sir Edward Leigh was a Member of Parliament who served as a teller at the Westminster Assembly and wrote in defence of sitting in it. According to Fekso, his work is ‘perhaps one of the more important resources that one can obtain to understand the theology of the Westminster Standards’. In a book advertising to treat ‘the Authenticall Edition…of Scripture’, Leigh defined authentical as a legal word meaning ‘writings…which have a certain and just authority in themselves’.

He then summed up what was at stake:

‘There is a Question betwixt the Church of Rome, and the Reformed Churches about the Authentick Edition of Scripture; they say, That the edition of the Bible in Hebrew and Greek is not authentical, but rather the Vulgar Latine. We hold, that the Vulgar Latine is very corrupt and false; that the Hebrew for the Old Testament, and the Greek for the New is the sincere and authentical writing of God; therefore that all things are to be determined by them; and that the other versions are so far to be approved of, as they agree with these foundations’.[8]

Versions and Editions

What did seventeenth century Divines mean when they spoke of Bible versions or editions? It is important to realise that they were referring to the language in which Scripture was written. When Leigh noted ‘There is a great diversity of Editions of holy Scripture’ he was referring to different language editions (Greek, Latin etc).[9] Similarly, Van Mastricht poses the question in terms of whether ‘the editions of the Scriptures not written in Hebrew (in the case of the Old Testament) and not written in Greek (in the case of the New Testament) are authentic’.[10]

Francis Turretin (1623-1687), for his part, uses the language of ‘versions’:

‘Of the versions of the Scriptures; some are prōtotypoi or archetypoi (“original” and “primary”) which the authors themselves used. Others are ektypoi (or “secondary”), namely versions flowing from them into other languages…we and the papists dispute whether each is authentic, of itself deserving faith and authority and the standard to which all the versions are to be applied’.[11]

Which Bible ‘version’ or ‘edition’ did seventeenth-century Reformed divines want you to use? They would not have answered in terms of a particular printed edition, but in terms of a language, namely the Hebrew of the Old Testament and the Greek of the New – and translations based on them.

It’s not the case however that God couldn’t use an English translation from the Latin Vulgate – as the Wycliffite Bible shows. Indeed ‘inauthentic’ translations were not necessarily rejected wholesale. According to Turretin, no-one denied ‘the utility of the Vulgate and its frequent correspondence with the truth’ – yet while ‘we respect the Vulgate as an ancient version, we deny its authenticity’.[12] In fact, Turretin says of the Septuagint that ‘it is of great weight and rightly to be preferred to other translations’. He gives six reasons for this, but in conclusion denies that ‘it has such an authority as that it ought to be regarded as authentic and equal to the sources’.[13]

Autographa and Apographa – both authentic, but not in the same sense

Interestingly, when it comes to the authentic text, Turretin can make a distinction between the authenticity of the autographa [originals] and apographa [copies]. It is suggested today that the idea of distinguishing between their authority was a nineteenth-century invention by Charles Hodge and B. B. Warfield. Yet according to Turretin:

‘That writing is primarily authentic which is autopiston (“of self-inspiring confidence”) and to which credit is and ought to be given on its own account. In this manner, the originals of royal edicts, magistrates’ decrees, wills, contracts and the autographs of authors are authentic. The secondarily authentic writings are all the copies accurately and faithfully taken from the originals by suitable men; such as the scriveners appointed for that purpose by public authority (for the edicts of kings and other public documents) and any honest and careful scribes and copiers (for books and other writings). The autographs of Moses, the prophets and apostles are alone authentic in the first sense. In the latter sense, the faithful and accurate copies of them are also authentic’.[14]

According to Richard Capel, nominated to the Westminster Assembly: ‘Though we do not have the primitive copies written by the Apostles, ‘yet we have Copies…which vary not from the Primitive writings in any matter which may stumble any’ (emphasis added).[15]

What Peter Gurry says in regard to the nineteenth century is also true of the seventeenth: ‘it doesn’t take much to show that Warfield was not near the innovator that [Theodore] Letis and [Richard] Muller make him out to be’.[16]

This is all surely a problem for a TR-only position when it comes to readings in the TR which do not have any Greek manuscript support. If the authority of the lost originals is found in the copies, what does that say of a position that requires absolute commitment to a printed Greek edition which, in places, has no known Greek manuscript support whatsoever? (eg in Luke 7:31; Acts 9:5-6; Romans 7:6; Revelation 1:11; 2:20; 12:7; 16:5; 17:8; 21:2; 22:19).[17]

Variant readings ‘do not destroy the authenticity of the Scriptures’

While I mostly intended (for the sake of length) to save discussion of ‘kept pure in all ages’ to a future article, the two phrases are clearly linked in the Confession. If it can be shown that the Greek and Hebrew have not been kept pure, then they could not be appealed to as authentic.

It is important for now however to note that the Reformed orthodox did not see variant readings as impacting the purity of Scripture. Indeed, the Bible commentary that was so associated with the Westminster Assembly that it became known as the Westminster Annotations (1645-57) advertised ‘various readings observed’ in its very title.

(In the Annotations Codex Alexandrinus (an Alexandrian manuscript) is cited over 100 times, with many of those readings making it into the Modern Critical Text. Leading Westminster Divine Thomas Goodwin appealed to Alexandrinus over against the TR. Leigh mentions Alexandrinus in his very chapter entitled ‘Of the Authenticall edition of the Scripture’: ‘There is a most ancient rare Parchment M. S. copy of the Bible in Greek in the late King’s Library at St James’s’. Five years earlier, Alexandrinus had been cited in Parliament as evidence that the TR postscripts at the end of certain NT books were ‘but the bold and spurious additions of some Easterne Bishop or Monke’.[18])

Leigh is one of many contemporary writers to note that even the Hebrew manuscripts that have come down to us contain variant readings in the form of the Ketiv and Qere.

Leigh can distinguish between ‘a corruption’ and ‘a divers reading in certain Copies [even in the majority, in the example he uses] by the mistake of the Scribes’. (Leigh's example, Psalm 22:16, is a verse which Calvin believed had been ‘fraudulently corrupted’ by the Jews – Derek Kidner explains that ‘All the major translations reject the Masoretic vowels (added to the written text in the Christian era)’.

It seems that for Leigh a corruption would be an error that had crept into all copies.

James Ussher, after explaining that ‘the edition which proceeded from the Holy Spirit himself, and was first delivered by the Prophets and Apostles of the Church, must be recognised as authentic’, goes on to say: ‘These fountains are not so contaminated as to have lost their αὐθεντέια for their normative function’.[19]

Francis Turretin explicitly stated that: ‘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 and partly by a collation with better manuscripts’ (2.11.8).

Yes, Turretin goes on to discuss variants that most evangelical Bible scholars today believe are not in the ‘better manuscripts’ (to use his phrase). However what is significant is that Turretin appeals to the Greek manuscript evidence rather than tradition. That some of his claims about the Greek manuscript evidence are pretty much the opposite of the truth (the reasons for which we will come back to in a later article) simply proves that a better collation of the manuscripts was needed than had yet happened in his day.

Identifying the Authentic Text is the starting point for textual criticism

For ‘Confessional Bibliologists’ to claim only one printed Greek text as authentic flies in the face of how the phrase is used in the Westminster Confession. In the words of Westminster Divine Thomas Goodwin, differing Greek manuscripts could both be authentic (‘diverse, as authentic’).[20] In fact, since no Greek manuscripts of any significant length perfectly agree with one another, the only two options are either to pick one manuscript and call it perfect, or compare the differing manuscripts to try and establish which readings are original (ie textual criticism). Indeed as the Puritan Richard Baxter put it, even if we had a perfect manuscript, we would not know it: ‘For how should we be sure of that one above all the rest?’[21]

To call the New Testament in Greek ‘authentic’ means to believe that the true reading is to be found among the Greek manuscripts, rather than other sources such as the Latin Vulgate. Indeed, Leigh defines the ‘Authentical’ edition as that ‘which of itself hath credit and authority, being sufficient of itself to prove and commend itself, without the help of any other Edition’. No individual manuscript is sufficient of itself to prove and commend itself in isolation – but the Greek manuscript tradition as a whole is, because that was the language in which the Holy Spirit breathed out the New Testament.

Francis Turretin, likewise, says (commenting on Luke 3:36) that ‘even if this passage proves to be a mistake, the authenticity (authentia) of Luke’s gospel cannot be called in question on that account’, because ‘the corruption is not universal’ (ie there are other manuscripts which do not contain this ‘spurious’ reading) and ‘the error is of little consequence’. Interestingly, the one manuscript which both Leigh and Turretin believed contained the true reading of Luke 3:36 was the fifth century Codex Bezae.[22]

In a chapter entitled ‘Why I Read and Preach from the TR and AV’, Trevor Kirkland writes: ‘If the church has the true, pure and authentic text, then we do not need to go looking for it’. This is true, but not the issue that the Westminster Divines were addressing with the word ‘authentic’. What was in question in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries was not the whereabouts of any text, but which one to appeal to: The Latin Vulgate, the Septuagint, or the Old Testament in Hebrew and the New Testament in Greek? Going with the confessional answer of the Hebrew and Greek does not negate the need for textual criticism. As Baxter put it, ‘God never promised all or any of the scribes or printers of the Bible any infallible spirit’ and so there is not ‘any one Hebrew or Greek copy, which any man is sure, is absolutely free from such miswritings’. Possessing the authentic text did not equal certainty, indeed ‘many hundred texts are uncertain’.[23]

For Turretin what would take away the authenticity of the Scriptures is even ‘the incurable corruption of one passage’.[24] However as seen in the case of Luke 3:36, the presence of the correct reading (in his view) even in one Greek manuscript was enough to deny the claim that a passage had been corrupted.

The conviction that God has preserved his word in the manuscripts of the Hebrew and Greek is what has always motivated believing textual critics to compare the differing manuscripts in those languages in order to try and work out exactly what the original readings were. Indeed, after quoting Petrus van Mastricht, Richard Muller says: ‘The orthodox discussion of autographa and apographa…functioned to assert the priority of the Hebrew and Greek over the ancient versions and to provide a methodological basis for the critical collation and comparison of the texts in their original tongues’.[25]  In other words, the orthodox discussion of authenticity functioned to provide the starting point for textual criticism.

The TR’s Inauthentic Holdovers

This very historical context is enough in itself to refute the TR-only position from a Confessional standpoint, because the Textus Receptus contains readings that were inserted from the Latin Vulgate without Greek manuscript support, simply because Erasmus (a Roman Catholic priest and the first TR editor) thought they should be there, or because (in the case of Revelation) his Greek manuscript was incomplete.

In the case of Revelation 22:19, Erasmus explains: ‘I supplied the Greek out of our Latin version. I did not want to conceal this from the reader, however, and admitted in the annotations what I had done. My thought was that the reader, if he had access to a manuscript, could correct anything in our words that differed from those put by the author…And yet I would not have dared to do in the Gospels or even in the apostolic Epistles what I have done here’.[26] His replication of a Vulgate error means that TR-based translations read ‘book of life’ rather than ‘tree of life’.

In The King James Version Defended, E. F. Hills notes several examples where Erasmus went with a Vulgate reading that was not in his Greek manuscripts, but claims that Erasmus was ‘guided providentially by the common faith to follow the Latin Vulgate’ in the face of all the Greek evidence.

We will not find a Westminster Divine who ever argued for a reading based on a belief that it had been lost in the Greek manuscript tradition but providentially preserved in the Latin Vulgate, the very Bible their opponents claimed as authentic.

[1] Fesko, The theology of the Westminster standards: historical context and theological insights (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2014), p. 24.

[2] Whitney G. Gamble, Christ and the Law: Antinomianism at the Westminster Assembly (Grand Rapids, MI: Reformation Heritage Books, 2018), p. 133.

[3] ‘It is obviously used here with direct reference to the deliverance of the Council of Trent on the Vulgate’. B. B. Warfield, The Westminster Assembly and its work, p. 237, n. 45.

[4] Cited in Edward Leigh, A treatise of divinity consisting of three books: the first of which handling the Scripture of Word of God, treateth of its divine authority, the canonicall books, the authenticall edition, and several versions; the end, properties and interpretation of Scripture (London: William Lee, 1646) p. 101.

[5] David Dickson, Truth’s victory over error (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 2007 [1649]) p. 12.

[6] James Ussher, A Body of Divinity: Or, the Sum and Substance of Christian Religion, Eighth Edition (London: R. J.; Jonathan Robinson; A. and J. Churchill; J. Taylor; J. Wyatt, 1702), p. 80.

[7] Richard F. Brash, ‘"Ad Fontes!"—The Concept Of The “Originals” Of Scripture In Seventeenth-Century Reformed Orthodoxy’ in Westminster Theological Journal, lxxxi, no. 1 (2019), 133.

[8] Leigh, A treatise of divinity, pp 91-2.

[9] Leigh, A treatise of divinity, p. 91.

[10] Petrus Van Mastricht, Theoretical-Practical Theology (Grand Rapids, MI: Reformation Heritage Books, 2018), i, 162.

[11] Turretin, Institutes, 2.11.1.

[12] Turretin, Institutes, 2.15.1.

[13] Turretin, Institutes, 2.14.5.

[14] Turretin, Institutes, 2.11.3

[15] Capel's remains being an useful appendix to his excellent Treatise of tentations, concerning the translations of the Holy Scriptures (London: John Bartlet, 1658) p. 20.

[16] http://evangelicaltextualcriticism.blogspot.com/2017/12/the-appeal-to-autograph-in-early.html

[17] For more on these references, see the relevant sections of Philip W. Comfort, New Testament Text and Translation Commentary. On Romans 7:6, Old School Presbyterian William S. Plumer (1802-1880) noted: ‘not a single manuscript supports our authorized version…it is best to follow the true Greek text’.

[18] For the references to Goodwin, see here. The use of Codex Alexandrinus by Leigh and the Westminster Annotations will be the subject of a forthcoming journal article.

[19] Cited in Warfield, The Westminster Assembly, p. 243.

[20] Goodwin, Works, ix, 217.

[21] Baxter, Works, xv, 64.

[22] Turretin, Institues, 2.5.12; Leigh, Annotations, p. 103

[23] Baxter, Works, xv, 64.

[24] Turretin, 2.5.7.

[25] Richard Muller, PRRD, ii, 414.

[26] Cited in Jan Krans, ‘Erasmus and the Text of Revelation 22:19: a critique of Thomas Holland’s Crowned with Glory’ in TC: A Journal of Biblical Textual Criticism, xvi (2011), p. 5.

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