In 2012 at the Society of Vineyard Scholars annual conference, Matt Croasmun and Todd Kennedy described some problems with the notion of “original manuscripts” in regard to Scriptural texts. They suggest that the distinction between textual criticism and redaction criticism is based on a modern scholarly construct that we have imposed on the past—specifically, a distinction between licit and illicit revision of Scriptural texts, which happened in earlier and later periods, respectively. Croasmun and Kennedy suggest that the process of textual development is continuous, with no discernible transition from one phase to another, and therefore that we should set aside any attempt to distinguish between licit and illicit textual development on the basis of such phases. Instead, they suggest that identifying the authoritative Scriptural words among textual variants should be a matter of theological and spiritual discernment—and indeed that this is always already the case anyway, and that we should honestly embrace this reality.
They make a lot of good points and their analysis is helpful. I agree that there is continuity across the process of textual development, and that we should acknowledge and embrace the role of theological and spiritual discernment in the task of identifying the inspired words of Scripture. I especially agree with their position that the concept of “original manuscripts” is flawed and misleading because there never was any such thing.
However, I am not convinced that we should abandon textual criticism so blithely. If the meaning of a text resided only in its reception, such a proposal would make sense, but this is not the case. The intentions of authors and of our forebears in the faith are not transparent to us, but neither are they opaque; we can have an approximate yet reliable sense of those intentions. This means that both what the various authors and redactors intended to communicate and what the recipients of that communication understood and passed on are significant factors for our own understanding. This in turn means that we should redefine the goal of textual criticism in terms of canonical manuscripts rather than original manuscripts.
Despite the rhetorical justification of finding the “original manuscripts,” textual criticism has always in fact been aimed at reconstructing the initial versions of the texts that were circulated in the early church. It was only a misguided assumption that “initially received” and “original” were synonymous that caused this. But once we lay aside the misleading notion of “original manuscripts,” we become able to see textual criticism’s purposes and value correctly.
The results of textual criticism have been quite reliable. There is always a certain amount of uncertainty and room for scholarly debate over some passages, of course, but there are good reasons for confidence that our critical texts closely approximate the documents that the early church read, exposited, circulated, etc.
But why should the version of the Scriptural documents used by the early church be our standard? Put simply, because we follow a Lord and Saviour who was born at a certain time and place, and because such is the nature of tradition. Our faith has been handed down to us from our predecessors, and those closest to Jesus are the only ones we can look to to convey his words and deeds to us. The Spirit of God has never stopped communicating with us, but because we are imperfect listeners we need a κανῶν by which to gauge what we hear and from which to learn the characteristics and patterns of his behaviour. Unguided discovery is a poor pedagogical practice in a case like this; Jesus spent three years teaching his closest disciples in the ways of his Spirit, progressively releasing them into ministry as they gained competence in hearing and following the Spirit. He could not send them out to follow the Spirit’s lead until they had learned how to do so. So likewise for us today. We need guidance to learn the ways of the Spirit. We have nowhere to look for this guidance but to our forebears in the faith, and they all look back to their forebears. The Scriptures that guided the earliest Christians are therefore the Scriptures to which me must look, too.
Of course, the Scriptures would be lifeless apart from the Spirit working in and through them. And even with the Spirit working through them, they are only every instrumental towards the larger goal of bringing us into union and communion with God. But as the Spirit works through the Scriptures, we learn to recognize him. We need this Scripturally mediated revelation in order to learn how to recognize him, and we need this κανῶν to be handed down to us from the earliest days so that we can trust it even when we cannot trust our own discernment of his voice.
And so, the work of textual critics is legitimate and valuable. We need our Scriptures to align with the earliest canonical versions of the Church so that we can put our trust in them as reliable guides to learning to discern the word of the Spirit of God. It is important to consciously bring theological and spiritual discernment into the process of textual criticism, but we cannot reach the requisite level of theological and spiritual maturity to do so without first being formed by the Spirit through the Scriptures and the community of God’s people.