Textual Criticism is the field of study whereby textual scholars try to determine the original reading of the Biblical text. For instance, did the apostle John write, “Unto him that loved us, and washed us from our sins in his own blood…” or “To Him who loves us and released us from our sins by His blood…” (Revelation 1:5, KJV & LSB respectively). In Greek, the difference between these two words rests on one letter. And, oddly enough, the two words were (most likely) pronounced the same way—at the least, very similarly. Manuscriptal support for both readings is strong. And, without a doubt, Jesus both “washed us” and “released us” from our sins by His vicarious suffering on Calvary’s cross. Textual criticism is hard work. But we owe a great debt to textual scholars of our day. Because of their work, there is more proof than ever that the Bible you read from is a faithful reproduction of what the New Testament writers wrote. If you read the book of Romans from the KJV or ASV—or modern translations like the NASB, NKJV, ESV or even the NIV—the truths in the book of Romans remain intact. The same Gospel is taught. Justification by faith alone (the theme of Romans) brightly shines forth.
And although textual criticism has long since answered skeptics of the Bible, it has occasionally come under attack—vehemently at times. Let me be clear—debates around textual criticism can be healthy and productive. It could be—perhaps should be—argued that such debates are needful among brothers—especially brothers of like faith and order.
This type of textual criticism is categorized as lower criticism. My fear, however, is that while the science of textual criticism often sits at the forefront of debates around Bible translations, a much greater danger among Christian conservatives has snuck in through the back door seemingly unnoticed--higher criticism.
Let me explain that term. While lower critics wrangle over word variances in thousands of handwritten manuscripts, higher critics undermine the foundation of the Biblical text altogether. For instance, in John 1:18, the KJV reads, “No man hath seen God at any time; the only begotten Son, which is in the bosom of the Father, he hath declared him.” At the same place, the NIV reads, “No one has ever seen God, but the one and only Son, who is himself God and is in closest relationship with the Father, has made him known.” The KJV refers to Jesus as God’s Son (which He is)—while the NIV refers to Jesus as “himself God” (which He also is). The lower critic valuates manuscripts to determine the original reading—and such work isn’t always easy. However—and this is the point you need to see—the higher critic denies that the entire book of John’s Gospel was written by the apostle John at all. He hypothesizes that it was written centuries later—by well-intentioned Christians seeking to produce an “orthodox” Gospel on the deity of Christ (as if Jesus’s deity isn’t often taught throughout the Bible). So, lower critics—though they do occasionally disagree—have a high view of Scripture. They diligently work to find the original reading of any given text. The higher critic, however, seeks to undermine Scripture altogether by seeking to rid from the Bible anything and everything he thinks isn’t reasonable—anything that doesn’t fit his preconceived notions.
But how has this idea—higher criticism—begun to sneak into churches that have historically had a high view of Scripture? I am glad you asked. I can sum it up in two words—unbiblical preaching. In Bruce Shelley’s book “Church History in Plain Language”, he describes the higher critics of the 19th century saying, “He wants to read between the lines and get behind the text to the events as they really happened”. And understand—by “as they really happened”, Shelley means “as the higher critic wishes they had happened”. This approach to Scripture is quite common, sadly. When a Biblical spokesman stands in a pulpit and begins stating things as fact that are not provable from the Bible, he has (at the very least) approached the Biblical text in the exact same manner as the higher critic. He has chosen to “exegete the white space”—adding unprovable “facts” to defend his topic. And while it may convince a weaker audience that he has a load of proof for whatever idea he may be pushing, usually the opposite is true. I mean, if a preacher has plenty of Biblical evidence for a doctrine he is promoting, why is he making things up as he goes?
Irvin A. Busenitz writes, “Too often in thematic preaching, a sermon is prepared on a purely topical basis, and the text chosen as a ‘motto’ to sound the theme and bless the preacher’s ideas…Unfortunately, this is an exploitation of the biblical text. The text ‘simply serves as a catalyst; the actual content of the sermon is derived elsewhere and frequently could have been suggested just as well by a fortune cookie.’” (Preaching—How to Preach Biblically, John MacArthur and the Master’s Seminary Faculty). Harsh? I don’t think so. If a church leader isn’t proving the points in his sermon directly from the text of Scripture, he is failing in his duty. Haddon Robinson once wrote, “A text cannot mean what it has not meant.” (Biblical Preaching). Well, that certainly hasn’t stopped many men (and women) from trying.
In the days of Malachi, the priests were abysmally falling short in their duty of teaching the Word of God to the people. Malachi writes, “For the lips of a priest should guard knowledge, and people should seek instruction from his mouth, for he is the messenger of the LORD of hosts. But you have turned aside from the way. You have caused many to stumble by your instruction.” (Malachi 2:7-8). And while today’s elders certainly are not priests, we are yet to nurture our flocks by explaining the Bible accurately to them—and that without going beyond what is written.
Simply put, the Scripture is sufficient—it is enough. We need it all—but we do not need less or more than what the Bible says. We certainly do not need hair-brained stories from preachers with wild imaginations. The apostle Paul put it this way to young Timothy—“All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work.” (2 Timothy 3:16-17). If God’s children are to be “complete, equipped for every good work”, it will come through the right preaching of the Bible—not through the dreams of men. Again, Paul warned young Timothy, “For the time is coming when people will not endure sound teaching, but having itching ears they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own passions, and will turn away from listening to the truth and wander off into myths.” (2 Timothy 4:3-4). These “myths” certainly include thoughts and ideas interjected into the white spaces of the Bible—doctrines intended to strengthen positions that cannot be established Biblically.
Am I going too far by likening this “imagination preaching” to higher criticism? Some may think so. However, I think the comparison has some merit. The higher critic undermines Scripture because he doesn’t believe what is written on the page—and certainly doesn’t believe it is sufficient. On the flip side, the “imagination preacher” also doesn’t believe the Scripture alone is sufficient—and so he adds his own thoughts into the text that aren’t there at all. I struggle to see how those two schools of thought aren’t (at the very least) 2nd cousins twice removed.
Pastors of this generation are laying the foundation for pulpit ministry in the next generation. Church leaders are either setting their churches up for success in the future or for failure after they are long gone. Whatever a man is allowed to get away with today, the next man will push farther tomorrow. More than ever, we need men in pulpits who have full confidence in the Word of God—men who believe it alone is enough. We need pastors who believe the Holy Spirit works through His Word when it is accurately preached. And because of that, we need to put great effort into “rightly dividing the word of truth.” (2 Timothy 2:15 KJV). Anything less cracks the door for a congregation to have a very low view of Scripture—the very problem which opened the way for higher criticism in the 19th century.
Pastor—take heed to the words of Paul as he met for the last time with the elders of the church in Ephesus—“Pay careful attention to yourselves and to all the flock, in which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to care for the church of God, which he obtained with his own blood. I know that after my departure fierce wolves will come in among you, not sparing the flock; and from among your own selves will arise men speaking twisted things, to draw away the disciples after them. Therefore be alert, remembering that for three years I did not cease night or day to admonish every one with tears. And now I commend you to God and to the word of his grace, which is able to build you up and to give you the inheritance among all those who are sanctified.” (Acts 20:28-32)
Todd Bryant is the Lead Elder at Sovereign Grace Baptist Church in Northport, AL. He has pastored there since 1998. For more more information on the church and links to audio sermons and apps for electronic devices, visit www.sovereigngrace.net