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Study Resources :: Text Commentaries :: Don Stewart :: The Words of the Bible

Don Stewart :: What Does the Bible Teach about the Providential Preservation of Scripture?

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Question 14

What Does the Bible Teach about the Providential Preservation of Scripture?

One of the main issues of discussion among Bible-believing Christians with respect to discovering the original text of the Bible revolves around what is known as the “providential preservation of Scripture.” Simply stated, “Does the Bible teach any doctrine as to whether the Scriptures will be miraculously or providentially preserved by the Lord throughout history?”

In other words, do we find any promises in the Bible that God’s written Word will always be preserved intact with nothing added and nothing deleted? Basically, we can put Bible-believing Christians into three categories.

Option 1: There Is No Providential Preservation Taught in Scripture

One side says there is nothing in Scripture which promises God’s Word will be providentially preserved. While they do not deny that the written Word of God has been preserved throughout history, they do not believe that any passage of Scripture clearly teaches this to be true. In other words, while the providential preservation of Scripture has actually happened in history, nothing found in the Bible makes this a necessity.

Those who argue against the Bible teaching the providential preservation of Scripture make the distinction between the divine inspiration of Scripture and its providential preservation. They claim that there is nothing in the doctrine of the divine inspiration which necessitates that the Scriptures be providentially preserved. The texts used by those who claim Scripture does indeed teach providential preservation have been either misunderstood or misused.

Option 2: Providential Preservation Is Taught in Scripture

On the other hand, there are Bible-believers who say that the Scripture either directly or indirectly does teach the providential preservation of Scripture. Scripture says that God’s written Word must be preserved; it is not possible that anything has perished. However, those who affirm this position are divided as to exactly how the Scripture has been preserved.

Option A: The Case for Providential Preservation in All Manuscripts

Some feel God has preserved the text of Scripture in all of the existing manuscripts of the Bible (Hebrew, Aramaic and Greek). His Word can be found among all of the texts which have come down to us throughout history.

However, they do not argue that this has occurred in a miraculous manner. God has used secondary causes to bring this about rather than directly intervening to make it happen.

Thus, while the Bible clearly teaches that God’s Word is indestructible, it does not tell how and where His written Word is preserved. God has providentially preserved His word to the human race in the various manuscript copies of the sacred text. It is only by a thorough study and comparison of these manuscripts that we can ascertain the original wording of the text.

Option B: Preservation in a Certain Manuscript Tradition

Some, however, go further. It is argued that if the doctrine of the divine inspiration of the Old and New Testament Scriptures is a true doctrine, the doctrine of the providential preservation of the Scriptures must also be a true doctrine. God would not allow the same Scripture He divinely inspired to be lost or corrupted.

Thus, they hold the position which says we should not compare the Scripture to all other books written. We make a mistake when we do this. They do believe that the preservation of this one Book has been miraculous.

God has been directly involved in assuring the Scriptures be preserved. He did so with the Masoretic text, or the traditional Hebrew text, for the Old Testament and the Received Greek Text, the text behind the King James Version, for the New Testament.

Passages Used for Providential Preservation

The following passages are among those often cited to support the doctrine of the providential preservation of the Scripture. We will offer comments on each of these verses to determine if they truly teach the doctrine of providential preservation.

The psalmist wrote:

And the words of the LORD are flawless, like silver refined in a furnace of clay, purified seven times. (Psalm 12:6 NIV)

While this verse says that the words of the Lord are without flaw, it says nothing specifically about the preservation of these words. Thus, it does not deal directly with the subject.

The psalmist also said:

Your word, O LORD, is eternal; it stands firm in the heavens. (Psalm 119:89 NIV)

God’s Word is eternal and does stand firm in the heavens, but this says nothing about His written Word which has been given to humans.

In the same Psalm it says:

Long ago I learned from your statutes that you established them to last forever. (Psalm 119:152 NIV)

This passage may be seen as some type of promise that God’s written Word would be providentially preserved. The fact that He has established them forever may be viewed as a promise of preservation.

Later, this same psalmist wrote something similar:

All your words are true; all your just laws will stand forever. (Psalm 119:160 NLT)

Here we have another verse which could possibly be used to teach that God has promised to preserve His Word forever.

The prophet Isaiah said:

The grass withers, the flower fades; but the word of our God will stand for ever. (Isaiah 40:8 RSV)

These words from the prophet Isaiah can certainly be understood to teach some sort of providential preservation of God’s written Word.

We find that Jesus made it clear that nothing from the Hebrew Scripture would ever pass away. He said:

Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfill. For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth pass away, not one letter, not one stroke of a letter, will pass from the law until all is accomplished. (Matthew 5:17-18 NRSV)

While this could be understood to mean that nothing written would be lost, there are other possible meanings of Jesus’ statement.

John records Jesus saying that the Scriptures cannot be broken:

If he called them gods, unto whom the word of God came, and the scripture cannot be broken. (John 10:35 KJV)

This seemingly has to do with the truthfulness and proper understanding of Scripture rather than a promise that the text would survive intact.

Jesus said that His words would never disappear or pass away. Matthew records Him saying the following:

The earth and the heavens will disappear, but my words will never disappear. (Matthew 24:35 God’s Word)

This is truly an amazing prediction; a prediction which has come true. Yet it is limited to His spoken words, for as far as we know, Jesus never wrote anything.

Peter wrote about the Word of God abiding forever:

You have been born again, not from a seed that can be destroyed, but through God’s everlasting word that can’t be destroyed. That’s why Scripture says, “All people are like grass, and all their beauty is like a flower of the field. The grass dries up and the flower drops off, but the word of the Lord lasts forever.” This word is the Good News that was told to you. (1Peter 1:23-25 God’s Word)

God’s Word cannot be destroyed and it has not been destroyed! Yet this does not necessarily mean that every word will be providentially preserved.

Conclusion from the Biblical Evidence

From a look at the biblical evidence we do not find any explicit reference to the providential preservation of God’s written Word. However, there are passages from which this may be inferred. There is certainly no specific promise that His Word will be preserved in any one set of Hebrew or Greek manuscripts as some claim.

The good news, to which all can agree, is that God’s Word has come down to us in a marvelous way! The Bible we read today provides us with a clear message of who God is, who we are and what He wants from us.

Summary - Question 14
What Does the Bible Teach about the Providential Preservation of Scripture?

Does the Bible teach that the Scripture will be providentially preserved throughout history? Do we have God’s direct word that nothing in His written Word will be lost or changed? Christians continue to debate this issue among themselves.

Some believers say that God has specifically promised that His written Word will be preserved, while others say that He has not. However, even those believers who do not think the Scripture explicitly teaches the providential preservation of God’s Word consider that the historical evidence shows it has been accurately preserved. Therefore, everyone believes that the end result, the Bible, has been providentially protected by the living God.

Basically, believers can be divided into three groups over this issue. First are those Christians who do not believe that God has specifically promised that the Scripture will be preserved. Again, while not seeing any specific promise in Scripture to this affect, they still believe this is what has happened in history.

A second group believes that the Bible does promise that God will providentially preserve His Word. However, they do not claim that this preservation is limited to any one set of Greek or Hebrew manuscripts. It is a general promise of God.

There is a third point of view which claims that not only has God promised His Word will be preserved providentially, this also occurs in a specific group of biblical manuscripts. These people advocate the Greek text behind the King James translation for the New Testament as well as the standard Masoretic Hebrew text for the Old Testament as the only true text. They insist that all other textual traditions are corrupt.

As for the evidence of providential preservation, there are a number of verses which are cited as direct proof that God has promised such a thing. However, many of them prove no such thing. There are, however, two verses in Psalm 119 which come the closest to being a specific promise of providential preservation of God’s written Word (Psalm 119:152,160). Other passages could possibly be understood as indirectly teaching or implying the same thing.

While these passages seem to support some idea of the providential preservation of Scripture, they do not support the view of preservation that is put forth by certain individuals and groups; that God has perfectly preserved the Bible to our day in one textual tradition.

Instead, these passages seemingly give a general promise of preservation without specifying either the method which the Lord used or the exact extent as to how He has preserved His Word throughout history. What we can conclude is that the Word of God has come down to us accurately and the message has come through loud and clear.

Where Can We Find the Biblical Manuscripts That Still Exist? ← Prior Section
What Different Sources Are Used to Establish the Text of the New Testament? Next Section →
CONTENT DISCLAIMER:

The Blue Letter Bible ministry and the BLB Institute hold to the historical, conservative Christian faith, which includes a firm belief in the inerrancy of Scripture. Since the text and audio content provided by BLB represent a range of evangelical traditions, all of the ideas and principles conveyed in the resource materials are not necessarily affirmed, in total, by this ministry.

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