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The Westminster Confession says the following:

WCF 1.8: The Old Testament in Hebrew (which was the native language of the people of God of old), and the New Testament in Greek (which at the time of the writing of it was most generally known to the nations), being immediately inspired by God, and by his singular care and providence kept pure in all ages, are therefore authentical;

Robert Estienne's Editio Regia, the first edition of the Greek New Testament with a critical apparatus, had been published almost a century before the Westminster Assembly. By that time it would have been well known across Europe that there were substantial variants in Greek manuscripts of the New Testament.

What did the Westminster divines (ie, theologians attending the assembly) mean by saying that the New Testament has been "kept pure" by God? Does this phrase express a rejection of the task of textual criticism? If so, what was the text that they considered to have been "kept pure", and what did they make of all the variants?

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Background

We need to read the Westminster Confession of Faith document & Catechism in the proper historical context (1647), which is partly a reaction to the Roman Catholic Council of Trent Decrees (1564) & Catechism (1566), where each side (Protestants and Catholics) claimed authority to teach the faith for their respective adherents, including specifying which texts are considered authentic Scriptures.

We also need to take into account the Greek & Hebrew translations, manuscripts, and textual apparatus available to the Westminster divines who were drafting WCF 1.8, which include these frequently used Greek editions:

  1. Erasmus's Novum Instrumentum Omne 3rd edition (1522)

  2. Robert Estienne's Editio Regia 3rd edition (1550), includes apparatus, close to Erasmus 4th & 5th editions, also known as Textus Receptus, and "became the standard form of the Greek NT text in England" (see The History of the Textus Receptus)

Finally, we also need to take into account the other confessions in the same period which has roughly the same statements:

  1. The 1647 Westminster Confession of Faith 1.8
  2. The 1658 Savoy Declaration 1.8
  3. The 1689 London Baptist Confession of Faith 1.8

Which text was "kept pure"?

Robert Truelove, a pastor of Christ Reformed Church, wrote a 2018 blog article Reformed Confessions of Faith and the Traditional Text which deals directly with your question, framing 1.8 as:

  1. A response to Trent declaring the Latin Vulgate to be the authentic Scriptures
  2. An argument to regard a certain Greek & Hebrew "traditional text" version as authentic and divinely inspired & "kept pure"

Robert then proceeded to quote contemporaneous Reformed writings of the late 17th century to unpack what the divines meant by "pure traditional text", not only against the Hebrew & Greek textual base for the Vulgate, but also against certain textual variants which came up in the late 17th century. He came to the conclusion that the version which the confession framers had in mind was ...

... the Greek Textus Receptus (the printed edition of the Greek text at the time) along with the Byzantine manuscripts (the Traditional Text) upon which it was largely based and the Hebrew Masoretic Text.

...

What we have therefore in our Protestant confessions is a direct rebuttal to Rome. It is not the Latin Vulgate that is “authentic” (by virtue of the authority of the church) but the original language texts of the Greek and Hebrew Scripture as preserved in the Traditional Text (by virtue of its own, internal self-authentication by the Holy Spirit). When we actually look at what the 17th century Reformed Scholastics taught on this matter, there can be no doubt as to the meaning of the confessions of this same era.

What did they make of all the variants available at the time?

Taking John Owen (chief framer of the Savoy Declaration) as a representative:

First note that Owen clearly does not see a huge dichotomy between the Textus Receptus and the manuscript tradition from which it was derived.

Secondly, he states it should be the standard against which variants in the manuscripts are compared. He is saying that the Textus Receptus should be the starting place of enquiry.

This again demonstrates that those in the era of the great English confessions believed their Received Text was a functionally pure text in spite of any variant issues which they saw as so trifling as to be virtually dismissive of them. ...

Does this phrase express a rejection of the task of textual criticism?

Robert's article addressed your question by hinting the answer as a YES:

To say that if they possessed the evidence we now have they would have agreed with modern critical thought is an anachronistic claim that fails to grasp the concerns of our forbears. While it is true they came before the discoveries of many of the the ancient Egyptian papyri, they were yet aware of the problem of variants (as their writings reveal) and rejected the older uncials they had considering them unreliable because they did not conform to the Traditional Greek Text passed down in history through the Greek speaking church.

Indeed, their doctrine on the text of Scripture was first and foremost a matter of dogmatics, not a rationalistic pursuit.

Robert then conclude with an assessment from none other than Dr. Kurt Aland of Nestle-Aland critical Greek edition fame, the Greek text used by practically all modern Bible translations including NASB, ESV, RSV, NIV, and NLT. Two quotes from him:

Finally it is undisputed that from the 16th to the 18th century orthodoxy’s doctrine of verbal inspiration assumed this Textus Receptus. It was the only Greek text they knew, and they regarded it as the original text.

Yet no real progress was possible as long as the Textus Receptus remained the basic text and its authority was regarded as canonical.

Conclusion

In producing Editio Regia, Robert Estienne made some judgment of variants available to him, so in a sense the confession framers who adopted the 3rd edition as Textus Receptus indirectly made use of textual criticism. But then the framers, as shown in their writings about the text of Scripture, elevated that edition dogmatically to be the standard to measure other variants, and thus precluded further employment of textual criticism. Their conviction (like John Owen) was that the Textus Receptus should be the starting place of enquiry for evaluating variants.

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    Excellent research, thank you! Sounds like they weren't strictly opposed to all textual criticism, but they did it from the perspective of what we'd now call a Majority Text proponent. Or in other words, when it comes down to the unproveable axioms of textual criticism, they'd side with texts the church used for a thousand years over old forgotten manuscripts. – curiousdannii May 15 at 3:56
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    @curiousdannii I incorporated your comment into the conclusion; feel free to edit it. The research made me appreciate more the deep attachments some Christians have to KJV & TR. Good comparison between TR and NA advocates here. Looks quite convincing, although polemically phrased. What do you think about it? Basically evangelicals today are being challenged by their own forbears. Sounds similar to traditionalists Catholic favoring Douay-Rheims Version vs. "liberal" Catholics favoring NRSV. – GratefulDisciple May 15 at 13:04
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    I only skim read that page, and have no sympathy for the position it advocates. I've never seen any argument for TR that is remotely plausible to me. It seems to me that there's a big parallel that gets glossed over: Protestant TR proponents say the early manuscripts shouldn't be trusted because they were not used and copied, but that's also true for all Greek manuscripts in the Western Church. If the use and duplication of texts is how we know that God's hand of protection is on a text, then that should apply to the Vulgate (and in a way I'd say that's true.) – curiousdannii May 15 at 13:17
  • Actually I'm not sure I'm really comfortable with my summary being included, or that I even agree with myself now. Thinking a little more, I think pulling the full Byzantine vs Alexandrian debate back to the 17th century is anachronistic. The Editio Regia didn't even include an Alexandrian text I don't think, Bezae is Western. While the Alexandrian family is dwarfed in raw numbers, it is by no means poorly represented. I think John Owen's "the Textus Receptus should be the starting place of enquiry" is perhaps the better summary. – curiousdannii May 15 at 13:26
  • I'd be interested to know which manuscripts exactly Robert refers to when he says they rejected the Uncials, and how many they knew of. If I had 100 Byantine and 3 Alexandrian, I'd reject them too! But if I knew there were hundreds of Alexandrian texts, I'd start paying them more attention. Wikipedia also has an interesting note on the Vaticanus: in Erasmus's time they thought it was an Old Greek text in the tradition of the Vulgate. So the Divines may have assumed Alexandrian texts fit the Vulgate and dismissed them along with it, rather than being an important third category of texts. – curiousdannii May 15 at 13:31
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Chapter 1 Section VIII of the Westminster Confession states that it is both the Hebrew (O.T.) and the Greek (N.T.) texts in their original languages that the Westminster Divines said were “immediately inspired of God”, being authentic and “kept pure in all ages by God’s singular care and providence.” Christians were to translate them “into the vulgar language of every nation unto which they came”. However, there is a need to give a historical time-line, for clarity of thought about textual criticism, after which we may return to what the Westminster Divines meant in Section VIII.

You have already mentioned the role of Robert Estienne, who (in 1550) made marginal notes from various Greek manuscripts of the N.T., and some readings from the Complutensian Polyglot. The Wikipedia link is useful for such details, and it notes that “The third edition became for many scholars, especially in England, the normative text of the Greek New Testament. It maintained this position until 1880.”

The Westminster divines met from 1643 to 1648, which was shortly before the development of what later became known as “The Enlightenment” period which, in turn, gave rise to Deism. It became

“a view of religious knowledge that placed common principles of human reason and common religious ideas of humanity at the center and judged all claims to special revelation by them. The Deists thought this new, rational approach to religion most consistent with the basic impulses both of Protestantism and the new philosophy and science of the Enlightenment…
Deism was an effort to demonstrate Christianity to be the highest and best expression of a purely natural religion of reason… Once blasphemy laws were no longer enforced in England and North America, most Deists openly denied such doctrines [as the deity of Jesus Christ and the Trinity]…
At the most basic level, then, Deism’s distinctive nature among Protestant movements in theology had to do with its view of religious authority. All the other Protestant theologies were theologies of Word and Spirit. Luther, Calvin, Zwingli, Cranmer, Hooker and the Anabaptists all emphasized the dialectic of Word and Spirit as the true Christian authority for faith and practice. The Word of God, especially as expressed in Holy Scripture, was seen as the objective, infallible special revelation of God delivered through the agency of the Holy Spirit by a supernatural operation known as inspiration. But the Word without the Spirit illuminating it to readers’ minds and hearts would remain a ‘dead letter,’ and so the Holy Spirit is also crucial to Christian authority. All the major first-generation Protestant Reformers agreed that the Holy Spirit does not deliver new doctrinal truths after the completion of Scripture but does illumine it to readers of faith and impress its truth on them through the testimonium internum Spiritus Sancti – “the internal witness of the Holy Spirit.” 1

The Westminster Divines were 2nd generation Reformers, heirs to that original stance on the vital role of how the Holy Spirit preserved the authority and meaning of the original manuscripts of the entire Bible, though the original ‘Autographs’ from the 1st century were long lost. Although John Wesley upheld the authority of Scripture, by the late 1700s

“many of his more liberal heirs had developed the ‘Wesleyan Quadrilateral,’ treating reason, tradition, and experience as sources of revelation alongside Scripture.” 2

By the early 1800s, that, the Enlightenment, and Deism gave rise to “Textual Criticism” which sought to look at ancient Greek texts from a purely academic point of view. New Greek manuscripts had been discovered and, by the 1880s, they had been considered superior to some that the Reformers used. A new pedigree of Greek biblical texts were then promoted, which form the basis of all modern translations of the N.T.

To show that the Westminster Divines would have had no truck with such later developments, here is another quote:

“Reformation theology applies the magisterial-ministerial distinction when it speaks about the authority of the Word over the subordinate authority of the church, reason, tradition, and experience. The church has received a legitimate authority from Christ to reach consensual interpretations of God’s Word through its representative assemblies (as in the councils that led to the formation of the ecumenical creeds as well as the confessions, catechisms, and church orders of particular bodies). Nevertheless, this authority is always relative to and dependent upon the sovereign (magisterial) authority of God’s revealed word. Like the church, reason and experience and culture are servants through which we apprehend God’s Word, but we are never masters of it.” 3

Because Textual Criticism of the 1800s divorced the role of the Holy Spirit from the integrity of biblical manuscript copies and placed human reason and experience as the touchstone of authenticity, we can be sure that, had those variant manuscripts discovered in the 1800s been found in the era of the Westminster Divines, they would never have considered them the way scholars of the 1800s did. The Westminster Divines did, however, appreciate and use the work of Robert Estienne, for he did major spade-work in the early stages of getting back to the Greek text, instead of the Latin text of his day. The Reformers knew the worth of translating from the Greek text for the N.T. As the Wiki link states:

“Editio Regia (Royal edition) is the third and the most important edition of the Greek New Testament of Robert Estienne (1503-1559). It is one of the most important printed editions of the Greek New Testament in history, the Textus Receptus.”

That is the pedigree of texts used by the Reformers, the Westminster Divines, and right up until the 1880s when modern Textual Criticism broke with the principles of evaluating the Scriptures that they held so dear, resulting in a new pedigree of texts.

In conclusion, here is what a commentary on the Westminster Confession, ch. 1 section VIII states as to how they viewed the role of the Holy Spirit in ensuring the integrity of copies of the Autographs:

“We do not now possess the document so inspired of God as to be perfect in every way. Making use of this fact, Modernists (who disbelieve the original perfection of the text of scripture) have long argued that Reformed Christians have no infallible Bible to which they may appeal…
This brings us to the matter of God’s ‘singular care and providence’ by which He has ‘kept pure in all ages’ this original text, so that we now actually possess it in ‘authentical’ form. And let us begin by giving an illustration from modern life to show that an original document may be destroyed, without the text of that document being lost. Suppose you were to write a will. Then suppose you were to have a photographic copy of that will made. If the original were then destroyed, the photographic copy would still preserve the text of that will exactly the same as the original itself. The text of the copy would differ in no way whatever from the original, and so it would possess exactly the same ‘truth’ and meaning as the original. Now of course photography was not invented until long after the original copy had been worn out or lost. How then could the original text of the Word of God be preserved? The answer is that God preserved it by His own remarkable care and providence…
Remember, too, that in a day when there were no printing presses and only a few precious copies of the Bible, the people had to memorize much more than we do today. Thus it was that especially in the Greek-speaking Church, from the very beginning, the Greek New Testament had living witnesses who helped reduce the errors of copiers to an exceedingly small amount. Then, when the Reformation came, God in His providence had enabled mankind to discover mechanical means of printing. Because of this, the text of Scripture could be reproduced in thousands of copies without progressive deterioration in accuracy.
…(We may point out in closing our discussion of this section that God has similarly preserved the text of the Old Testament – through manuscript witnesses, and through the careful oversight of Hebrew-speaking Jews, who by their familiarity with the text of the Old Testament in their own language, quickly detected accidental errors in copy-work.)” 4

1 The Story of Christian Theology pp 520-1, Roger E. Olson (Apollos 1999)
2 Pilgrim Theology p69, Michael Horton (Zondervan 2011)
3 Ibid. p68
4 The Westminster Confession of Faith for Study Classes pp15-17, G.I. Williamson (Presbyterian & Reformed Publishing Co, 1964) Link to the Westminster Confession chapter on Holy Scripture: : https://www.presbyterian.org.au/index.php/index-for-wcf/chapter-1-holy-scripture Link to information on Robert Estienne https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Editio_Regia

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    Excellent companion to Grateful Disciples work above! You two really ought to collaborate:) – Mike Borden May 15 at 11:33
  • Excellent. Really excellent. Well studied and true to the history. +1. – Nigel J Jul 23 at 11:30

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