Briefly Explaining Preservation of the Biblical Text

INTRODUCTION                                                                                                                      The The point of the past two posts have been to introduce to the reader four vitally important and related concepts that describe the historic Christian Doctrine of the Bible (also called bibliology): revelation, inspiration, canonization and preservation. Thus far we have considered the first three ideas. As I interact with people, both believers and doubters alike, there seems to be a blurring of the lines on these subjects. Oftentimes the terms will be switched or in some cases, denied altogether or in part. As a Christian who also pastors and preaches on a weekly basis, the Bible is my life and it is the chief document that I use in understanding life, eternity and communicating God’s truth in Jesus Christ to believers and unbelievers alike. It is hoped these posts will shed much needed light on these subjects for the reader. In today’s post we conclude this series by focusing upon the doctrine of preservation or what is sometimes called “transmission” of the Biblical text from autographs to copies to translations. To God be the glory!

PRESERVATION or TRANSMISSION: This particular stage of the Bible’s history is perhaps being more contested today among critics and believer’s alike. Much like canonization, this process too involved the Spirit’s work of “ordinary providence in preserving the words of God down to our day. The copies of the autographs and their subsequent translations and versions represent the over 3,000 Hebrew manuscripts and hundreds of translated manuscripts of the O.T. The N.T has almost 5800 Greek manuscripts and roughly 20,000 translated manuscripts. Preservation states that we have God’s words with us today, however it does not guarantee that there won’t be variations, transcriptional errors or damage to portions of each manuscript as time passes. So many of the criticisms of the Biblical text in regards to its reliability stem from this particular subject of preservation or transmission. Scholar and Christian Apologist Doug Powell writes in “The Holman Quick Source Guide to Christian Applogetics”, page 153: “A common misconception about the New Testament is that it is transmitted like links in a chain, each book being copied, which was then copied by someone else, and so on. This is often likened to the ‘telephone game’ where one person whispers a message to another, and then that person whispers it to another, and it goes around the room. By the time it reaches the last person the message is often corrupt. But this is not the case how the New Testament writings were handed down.”

Powell later notes in the same work on page 154: “As a result, the books were highly valued. But each church did not have each book. So when the church received a document from an apostle, they shared the book by making a number of copies to send to other churches. The recipients also made multiple copies and sent them to other churches, and so on. We even see Paul directing that copies be made and shared in Colossians 4:16. As a result, the number of copies grew in an exponential way, with each copy spawning a number of copies.”

Some of Powell’s comments on the New Testament text can be applied to the long process of copying and transmission of the Old Testament text throughout the centuries prior to the days of Jesus. In looking at our manuscripts, rather than focusing on the variations, think about the words of the autographic text we have. Textual criticism continues making our certainty of having those words being so close to 100% as to have no discernible effect on any major doctrine or practice of the Christian faith. So is this idea of preservation or transmission a Biblical one? In the online link:, Dr. Bill Combs of Detroit Baptist Theological Seminary comments on scriptures commonly cited regarding preservation of God’s words: “A number of verses are commonly used to support the doctrine of preservation, including Ps 12:6-7; 119:89, 152, 160; Isa 40:8; Matt 5:17-18; 24:35; John 10:35; and 1 Pet 1:23-25.”  

Preservation includes the notion that in as much as those copies and translations faithfully represent the autographic text, they carry with them the authority of inerrant and infallible scripture. We see Jesus and the Apostles treating their copies as such, never once charging the Bible’s of their day as not being the Word of God nor being erroneous or prone to failure. As time goes on and as we discover more manuscripts, our latest translations and critical editions of the Hebrew and Greek scriptures so closely represent the autographic text (Well over 95% certainty for O.T and 99.5% for N.T) that for all practical purposes, we can say we have the autographic text preserved in our English translations. I can say confidently that the Bible I preach or teach from, study, use to counsel and comfort people or the Bible you may use for such similar purposes is the inerrant, infallible Word of God.  No other document of antiquity comes even close to having the level of preservation of the words nor the sheer number of manuscripts like we see in the Bible.

CONCLUSIONS: We have taken these past couple of days to define and relate together four key terms that explain the development of the Biblical text from its inception, to completion to the translations we have in our churches and own personal possession. Those four terms which represent the key headings in the doctrine of the Bible (or bibliology) are: revelation, inspiration, canonization and preservation. By understanding what each of these terms mean and how the Holy Spirit of God functions in each area, it is hoped that confusion and doubt will be cleared away. This writer admits that such discussions on these issues can be quite technical. The doctrinal language we often use to discuss the Bible from its inception to finished product can at times get cumbersome. However the long and short of it is that in our Bible’s today, we have perfect doctrines, teachings and the Perfect Incarnate Word readily available in the pages and words of the Bible – which is the inerrant and infallible Word of God.

About pastormahlon

By the grace of God I was converted to saving faith in Jesus Christ at the age of 10 and called into the Gospel ministry by age 17. Through the Lord's grace I completed a Bachelors in Bible at Lancaster Bible College in 1996 and have been married to my beautiful wife since that same year. We have been blessed with four children, ranging from 7-18 years of age. In 2002 the Lord enabled me to complete a Master of Arts in Christian Thought at Biblical Theological Seminary, Hatfield PA. For nearly 25 years I have been preaching and teaching God's Word and have been studying the original languages since 1994. In 2016 God called my family and me to move to begin a pastorate at a wonderful Southern Baptist Congregation here in Northern New York.
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