Bible: The Authentic Source Texts

4 - The Church and Textual Darwinism: How Did It Happen?

By Dr. Paul M. Elliott
On the most foundational of all issues, the church has ignored God's warning about "every wind of doctrine."

From the TeachingtheWord Bible Knowledgebase

Part 4 of a series. Read part 3.

On the most foundational of all issues, the church has ignored God's warning about "every wind of doctrine."

What Every Pilot Knows

Airline pilots know that they must continually monitor the effects of the wind during the course of a flight. Without constant course correction, a sustained wind of only two or three miles an hour can blow a large airliner hundreds of miles off its course during an ocean crossing. A short but intense gust of wind at any point during the flight can have the same effect.

The Holy Spirit warns us not to be "carried about with every wind of doctrine, by the trickery of men, in the cunning craftiness of deceitful plotting" (Ephesians 4:14). But during the past 150 years, the Evangelical church has been blown far off course by the ill wind of a Darwinistic theory of the text of the Bible. Not only have Evangelical leaders failed to correct their course to oppose this evil influence - they have actually permitted it to determine the church's course.

In our last article we saw that this theory manifests itself in the doctrinal statements of the vast majority of Bible colleges and seminaries, and tens of thousands of churches, which all declare that the text of the Bible was inerrant only in the original manuscripts. A simple syllogism shows the enormous danger of such a position:

A: Only the text of the Bible in the original manuscripts was the inerrant Word of God.
B: The original manuscripts no longer exist.
C: Christians do not have the inerrant Word of God today, and have not had it for nearly 2,000 years since the last of the original manuscripts passed from the scene.

The Church in the Grip of Naturalism

Just as the theory of Darwinian evolution denies the Bible's clear teaching that the entire creation is of supernatural origin and is supernaturally preserved, the Darwinistic theory of the Biblical text denies Scripture's clear teaching that the Bible itself is of supernatural origin and is supernaturally preserved.

The postmodern Evangelical church has fallen into the grip of naturalism, not only in its view of the origin and subsequent history of the universe, but also in its view of the origin and subsequent history of Scripture. Today, much of the church gives lip service to the concept of God as "creator" but does not truly believe that He spoke man and the world into existence out of nothing in six literal days. In the same way, much of the church gives lip service to the concept of God as the "inspirer" of Scripture, but does not truly believe that the exact Word He spoke into existence through Spirit-controlled writers still exists, free from error - a Word that God says He has exalted even above His own Name (Psalm 138:2). On the most vital matters, postmodern Evangelicalism reduces its deity to an impotent caricature of the mighty God of the Bible.

How Did It Happen?

How did Evangelical pastors and scholars - even many of the most conservative - come to accept and promote such a theory of textual Darwinism? We are going to answer this question in far greater detail later in this series, when we examine the history of the corrupted text used for most present-day Bible versions. What follows is a brief summary of part of the picture.

During the same decades in which Charles Darwin (1809-1882) was publishing and promoting his naturalistic theory of the origin and subsequent development of the universe, two British Anglo-Catholic priests, Brooke Foss Westcott (1825-1901) and John Fenton Anthony Hort (1828-1892), were developing and promoting their naturalistic theory of the origin and subsequent development of Scripture.

It is no mere coincidence that Westcott and Hort were both Darwinists themselves, and acknowledged Darwin's influence on their outlook. The strong influence of the naturalistic worldview permeates the work of Westcott, Hort, and their subsequent followers. The parallels with Darwin's theory of evolution are many. Let me mention just two at this point.

Just as Darwin developed and employed contrived evolutionary genealogies of man and animals, asserting un-provable and easily discredited sequences of events, Westcott and Hort developed and employed a contrived genealogy of the text of the Greek New Testament. Among other falsehoods, they asserted that a major revision of the authentic text took place in the fourth century A.D., when in fact even present-day followers of Westcott and Hort acknowledge that no such revision occurred.

Just as Darwin and his close friend Charles Lyell (1797-1875) developed and promoted the theory of the geological column to artificially classify earth evidences to fit a theory of long ages of evolution, Westcott and Hort developed and promoted a theory of the artificial classification of Biblical manuscript evidence into "text families" to fit a theory of the development of what they deceptively called the "better" manuscripts.

Both the Darwinian theory of evolution and the Westcott-Hort Darwinistic theory of the Biblical text gained acceptance largely because of the false notion that only highly trained, initiated minds could grasp these theories' complexities. In both cases, many Bible believers of the past century-and-a-half have kept quiet because they have felt ill-prepared to defend the Biblical faith. Others have kept quiet because they have coveted the acceptance of unbelieving intellectuals. Still others keep quiet because they have accepted these false teachings but do not wish to openly admit it. And still others have been deceived into thinking that it is a mark of Christian humility to tolerate error. In these naturalistic times it is the rare Christian who, by God's grace, is sufficiently willing to sacrifice his reputation to stand on Scripture alone against the tide of unbelief and accommodation.

How Did It Enter the Conservative Church?

The history of the church is, to a great degree, the history of spiritual warfare. The focus of Satan's attacks on the church is his unrelenting attack on the Word of God. Church history repeatedly shows us that Satan's most effective attacks on the Word begin in the institutions that educate and train its ministers. But Satan is a cunning enemy. Like the subtle wind that, given enough time, blows a large airliner far off course, a subtle wind of seemingly plausible but false doctrine can divert the church from the righteous path. That wind often first blows in the seminary classroom, but it soon reaches the pulpit as students enter the pastorate, and from the pulpit it soon reaches the pew.

In the case we are presently considering, the subtle wind that began to blow 150 years ago was the notion that the Bible "is" inerrant - but only in the original autographs. (That choice of verb tense exposes an immediate fallacy; you cannot speak of something that no longer exists in the present tense. What this theory really says is that the Bible was inerrant, but only when originally written.)

In the case of the American Bible-believing church (and thus for much of the world through its influence) the subtle wind of a Darwinistic theory of the Biblical text first began to blow at Princeton Seminary through the influence of a well-meaning but deceived theologian, Benjamin Breckenridge Warfield (1851-1921).

In his early years B. B. Warfield, as a Presbyterian, subscribed to the position affirmed in the Westminster Confession of Faith upholding the Biblical doctrines of the supernatural origin and providential preservation of the inerrant Word of God through all ages. But soon after Warfield graduated from Princeton Seminary in 1876, he decided to pursue further theological studies in Germany. Like many men of his time, Warfield thought that it was necessary to study in Germany in order to understand the latest developments in theology - in particular the relatively new field of textual criticism.

With a letter of introduction from theologian and church historian Philip Schaff, Warfield entered the University of Leipzig in late 1876. There he was exposed to the theories of Westcott and Hort, and his previously unflinching commitment to the ongoing inerrancy of Scripture began to weaken. Just as many men of that era determined to find a way to fit Darwinian evolutionary theory into Scripture, Warfield determined to find a way to fit the Darwinistic textual theory of Westcott and Hort into "orthodoxy."

Just as many theologians of his time found their "comfort zone" regarding the alleged nature of the universe by adopting an "old earth creation" position, Warfield found his "comfort zone" regarding the alleged nature of Scripture by adopting the view that inerrancy applied only to the original autographs.

Philip Schaff noted Warfield's defense of Westcott and Hort in the Presbyterian Quarterly Review of January 1882 in his own book endorsing Westcott and Hort, A Companion to the Greek Testament and the English Version (1883). Schaff's endorsement had the effect of immediately elevating Warfield and his views to the top rank of theological scholarship in America.

Beginning in 1878, Warfield taught at Western (now Pittsburgh) Seminary. In 1887 he joined the faculty of Princeton Seminary, where he spent the rest of his life. Warfield wrote voluminously in defense of the doctrines of the inspiration, infallibility, and inerrancy of Scripture. But he insisted that the doctrine of inerrancy only appllied to the original autographs. The naturalistic view of inerrancy remained at the core of his thinking. Deceived by the Westcott-Hort theory, Warfield promoted the notion of a contrived (and subsequently disproved) genealogy of the New Testament text, and a contrived manner of classifying manuscript evidence into "text families" to support their theory. He asserted that the corrupt Westcott-Hort Greek text was superior to the Received Text.

Warfield's influence was, and is, widespread. All branches of the Bible-believing church recognize him as a monumental figure. During the early 20th century the Southern Baptist Church adopted Warfield's views through the work of its greatest Greek scholar, A. T. Robertson, who was an admirer of Warfield and dedicated his Introduction to the Textual Criticism of the New Testament (1925) to Warfield's memory. Warfield's influence on Presbyterian and Reformed churches and schools was carried forward by leading conservatives who were his students at Princeton, such as J. Gresham Machen. Over ninety years after Warfield's death, it is still rare to find a book defending the inspiration of Scripture that does not quote him.

It is ironic that men who were in so many ways stalwarts of the Christian faith have promoted, and fallen prey to, a false view of the essential nature of the Biblical text. But it should not surprise us. Satan is a subtle foe, and God's people - especially His ministers - must be constantly on their guard. Even the Apostle Peter temporarily fell into the error of legalism at Antioch (Galatians 2:11-21), as did Paul when he returned to Jerusalem from his third missionary journey (Acts 21:17-26). But it is also possible for men of God to fall into long-term, even lifetime error on a matter as critical as the nature of the Biblical text.

Thus the vast majority in the Evangelical church have been diverted from soundness on the most foundational of all matters - the very nature of the Word of God in our hands - by a subtle but sustained wind of false doctrine. Part of the subtlety, in this case, is that the teaching in question is not a complete falsehood but a half-truth. But to compromise on the extent of inerrancy - to say that the church does not have the inerrant Word of God in its hands today - has, as we shall see, essentially the same effect on the life and doctrinal positions of the church as denying inerrancy.

Next: How Has the Darwinistic Text Theory Corrupted the Church?


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