Charles Darwin published his “On Origin of Species” in 1859, which began a major attack on the veracity of the Word of God. Darwin’s message essentially was an attack on the true history in Genesis, even the actual historicity of the Genesis account of creation and the events that followed shortly thereafter. That ultimately means it was a challenge to the trustworthiness of the Bible. Since that time we have seen a rapid decline of faith in the veracity and authority of God’s Word, starting with Genesis. The visible church has fallen in great apostasy.
Here when I write of God’s Words and their veracity and infallibility I refer to the God breathed Words in the original autographs, which for the New Testament were largely written in the ancient Greek vernacular.
Bishop Brooke Foss Westcott and Professor Fenton John Anthony Hort were conservative, Anglican (Church of England), scholars who produced a new Greek New Testament based on the Alexandrian codices (uncial books), mostly Vaticanus B and Sinaiticus ℵ (Aleph), which are believed by many to be among the oldest extant Greek texts. But age does not guarantee purity of a form closest to the original.
Westcott and Hort were translators on the committee of the Revised Version of the English New Testament published in 1881, which was the first significant new translation of the English Bible since the 1611 King James Bible. Nearly all of the many Bible translations since then have been based on their Greek New Testament.
Westcott and Hort were Darwin’s contemporaries. How much were they influenced by him? From his own hand, we can ascertain that Hort was quite impressed by Charles Darwin. On March 10th, 1860, the year after Darwin’s book was published, he wrote to Westcott,1
“Have you read Darwin? How I should like a talk with you about it! In spite of difficulties, I’m inclined to think it unanswerable. In any case it is a treat to read such a book.”
‘Unanswerable’ means that Hort accepted Darwin’s hypothesis as truth. The significance of course is in the book of Beginnings—Genesis. If Genesis is not the truth, historical truth, where does the story-telling end and truth begin? The whole Christian message is drawn into question once you reject Genesis as real history. By the way, Jesus accepted it as real history (Matthew 19:4, he who created them from the beginning made them male and female; Mark 10:6, from the beginning of creation, ‘God made them male and female.’)
Hort was quite aware of the moral implications of Darwin’s thinking. He wrote, to his publisher, Mr MacMillan, in regards to possibly writing an article on what he called Darwin’s Theory.
“… the moral bearings of the subject: it is a ticklish matter, and one wants months and months to think and read about it…”2
Darwin knew his theory was anti-Bible. Hort could not have been under any delusion there, so why would he as a faithful follower of Christ want time to think about it? This was not for the purpose of criticism. His letter indicates he would present it in a positive light.
These men, Westcott and Hort, whose work has significantly affected most modern Bible translations since 1881, compromised in some significant areas of theology, therefore it might be important to know something about their beliefs.
Fallibility of Scripture
We know for certain that they did not believe in the infallibility of the Scriptures in the original autographs. In their “Introduction to the Greek New Testament” (1896) Westcott and Hort wrote,3
“Little is gained by speculating as to the precise point at which such corruptions came in. They may be due to the original writer… .”
The corruptions they refer to are those in the Greek text of the N.T., of which now we only have copies. They speculate that corruptions could have come in at any stage from the original author, or from his amanuensis (secretary), or any scribe thereafter. This indicates though that neither of them really had a high view of Scripture. To suggest the actual writers of the NT books themselves introduced corruptions is to believe that the texts are not infallible in the original autographs.
At some stage in their history Westcott must have expressed the view that he did believe in some sort of infallibility of Scripture. This is evident from a letter Hort wrote to him, on May 2, 1860,4
“But I am not able to go as far as you in asserting the absolute infallibility of a canonical writing.”
Yet on May 5th, 1860 it seems that Westcott replied to Hort,5
“For I too ‘must disclaim setting forth infallibility’ in the front of my convictions. All I hold is, that the more I learn, the more I am convinced that fresh doubts come from my own ignorance, and that at present I find the presumption in favour of the absolute truth — I reject the word infallibility — of Holy Scripture overwhelming. Of course I feel difficulties which at present I cannot solve, and which I never hope to solve.”
Clearly Westcott had his doubts. He just could not accept the Scriptures as infallible. Both, in fact, questioned the veracity of God’s words. From what I can understand from reading what they wrote, it seems that they believed there is truth in the Scriptures but not in the actual Words of God themselves. Perhaps they once hoped they might find, through textual analysis, those original Words but by this time that hope had faded.
Many Biblical scholars say God used men to write the Bible and hence the Holy Spirit imparted his message through the filter of imperfect humans. So by study man might find the message of God in there somewhere. That seems to me to be what a lot of Christians believe today, and not in the infallibility nor the authority of the actual Words themselves. It reminds me of what I was taught by a Roman Catholic priest, soon after I was saved. It very much seems to be in line with Roman Catholic teaching. And it is no secret both Westcott and Hort had strong leanings that way.
Denial of the historicity of Genesis
On March 4th, 1890, Westcott wrote to the Archbishop of Canterbury,6
“No one now, I suppose, holds that the first three chapters of Genesis, for example, gives a literal history—I could never understand how anyone reading them with open eyes could think they did—yet they disclose to us a Gospel.” (emphasis added)
Here is written evidence that B.F. Westcott, a bishop in the Anglican Church, denied the authenticity and historicity of Genesis 1-3 as a literal historical narrative and he did not keep it a secret. This means he did not believe in the six ordinary 24-hours-day Creation of the universe by the Creator God. He didn’t believe that Adam and Eve actually existed, nor that there was a Garden in Eden, nor the God pronounced Curse on man and the great Flood etc.
According to Westcott all these aspects of the Genesis account are not literal history, yet he believed they provided some basis for the Gospel. That view is not unlike the modern Framework Hypothesis compromise of Genesis, where it proponents say there is no literal history in Genesis but a framework of stories to provide a basis for the Gospel and salvation. But if Adam did not literally sin against God and pass that sin to his descendants, all humans, then why do we need a Kinsman-Redeemer (Isaiah 59:20) in Jesus Christ to redeem human-kind?
“Original sin—the notion that we are all born sinful, and hence we need a Saviour—becomes the next domino to fall. Obviously so; Paul’s epistles make it clear that our sin nature is a consequence of the first man Adam’s transgression, an act of real history. If that is not regarded as ‘really real’ by Christian leaders, is it any wonder that the Gospel itself is being seen as less and less ‘real’?”7
On July 9th, 1848, F.J.A. Hort wrote in a letter to Rev. John Ellerton,8
“I’m inclined to think that no such state as ‘Eden’ (I mean the popular notion) ever existed, and that Adam’s fall in no degree differs from the fall of each of his descendants as Coleridge justly argues.”
Hort also denied the infallibility and authority of God’s Words starting from Genesis. This includes a denial of the historicity of the Genesis account. In reference to Article IX of the 39 Articles of the Anglican Church, Hort wrote to Mr. H. Brinton in January of 1886:
“The authors of the Article doubtless assumed the historical character of the fall in Genesis. This assumption is now, in my belief, no longer reasonable. But the early chapters of Genesis remain a divinely appointed parable or apologue setting forth important practical truths on subjects which, as matters of history, lie outside our present ken.” (emphases added)
Though conservative biblical scholars, I would say they were biblically heretics, on these aspects of the biblical faith. One error opens the door to more error, when man decides for himself what can and can’t be believed. It is the slippery slope—where does it stop?
Beginning of a slippery slope
“Until the middle of the nineteenth century, the opinion in England maintained the same position as Catholic theologians. They held uncompromisingly to the opinion demanded by the Apostles’ Creed, and affirmed the resurrection of the Flesh. … Bishop Westcott is really the author of the great change. He entirely abandoned belief in the Resurrection of the Flesh as formulated in the Creed; but he never said so. On the contrary, he used all his matchless powers of shading language, so that the change from white to black appeared inevitable, natural, indeed scarcely perceptible.”9
So wrote Kirsopp Lake,9 in 1922, in his book under the heading “Appendix I: The Abandonment in the Church of the Belief in the Resurrection from the Flesh.” Lake then quotes from Westcott (1883), where he made plain what he believed:10
“I believe in the resurrection of the flesh. …The ‘flesh’ of which we speak as destined to a resurrection is not that substance which we can see and handle, measured by properties of sense.”
By reading the rest of what Westcott wrote there, in context, it is clear he did not believe in the resurrection of our tangible flesh bodies. With respect to this Kirsopp Lake explains,11
“Thus he explained that when the Creed spoke of the resurrection of the body it did not mean the resurrection of the flesh (though both in the Greek and Latin originals it said so), but it was affirming the survival of personal identity.”
Though Westcott was not alone in his belief; Bishop Gore also maintained the same belief, according to Lake, which was that the resurrection is not a fleshly resurrection but
“…our same selves shall be re-clothed in a spiritual body which we shall recognise as our own unchanged selves. A more complete denial of the Creed cannot be imagined, and the situation is not improved by the fact that Bishop Gore, unlike Bishop Westcott, did not shrink from quoting the erroneous English translation, — ‘body’ instead of ‘flesh,’—though he knew, … what the original Greek really was.”12
How important an accurate translation is, and that we believe in the same doctrines as the Apostles, who held to a literal historical Genesis account and a literal resurrection of the flesh, at the Second Advent.
On May 1st, 1860, F.J.A. Hort wrote to Rev. J.B. Lightfoot:13
“If you make a decided conviction of the absolute infallibility of the N.T. practically a sine qua non14 for cooperation, I fear I could not join you. … Westcott—and, I suppose, you—would say that any apparent errors discovered by criticism are only apparent, and that owing to the imperfection of our knowledge. I fully believe that this is true of a large proportion of what the rasher critics peremptorily pronounce to be errors; and I think it is possible that it may be true of all, but, as far as my present knowledge goes, hardly probable. … my own feeling that it is more reasonable to suppose an error. I do not think there is a real difference of principle between (at least) Westcott and myself, … Most strongly I recognise it [Providence]; but I am not prepared to say that it necessarily involves absolute infallibility.”
Here you have two men, who both had a significant input into most of the modern English Bible translations, one way or another, and neither believed in the infallibility nor the authority of Scripture. At a minimum they expressed their doubts about the infallibility of the Scriptures. What effect did that have when they compiled their Greek N.T.? And what errors entered their translations because they denied some biblical truths?
Practically all Christian doctrines begin in the Book of Genesis. A literal Adam means a literal Fall because Adam sinned and passed original sin onto all men. Hence all men need a Saviour. Before Adam sinned there was no death. Only by the first man Adam’s sin did death enter the world and only by the second Adam Jesus Christ can man be saved from his sins, and overcome death. So it is important to understand the book of Genesis as a historical account. But Westcott and Hort did not believe it was real history; to them Adam and Eve were just metaphors. They openly shared and taught their opinions. Now you can see where one source of poisoning the well started.
What other non-orthodox beliefs did they hold that influenced their translations and their Editions of the Greek N.T.? Certainly, these men were heretics as far as the historicity of Genesis, and the infallibility of Scripture. Remember, that these chapters also include God’s crowning creation, man, made in His image, and not evolved from some past ape-like ancestor after billions of years of evolution.
Two major changes
The period that these men lived in England saw the beginning of two major changes. One was Darwinian evolution that began to influence the way people thought about the Scriptures. They were no longer infallible or authoritative. The second was the presentation to the world of a new Greek New Testament, which had thousands of changes or corrections to the English Bible in use for the 400 years prior to that time. With the Revised Version of the English Bible came also a change is the once held high view of the Holy Scriptures. From that time on higher criticism15 of the Bible (as compared with genuine textual criticism) became more popular and the historicity Genesis and authority and veracity of the Bible was challenged. Today we see the effects of these changes in the Church; even to the point of a denial, by some, of the resurrection itself.
It is the Traditional Greek Text of the N.T. Bible, that has been used by true believers throughout the last two millennia since the Early Church, which these gentlemen challenged. It has been bravely defended by a few unto this modern-day. See Where are God’s actual Words written?
Though many changes were made by the Revisers to the Traditional Greek Text (starting in 1881 and beyond) the core Christian doctrines have survived, though many Bible translations from those Revised Greek Texts (of Westcott, Hort, Nestle and Aland) are not worth the paper they are printed on. They contain first and second century heresies either in footnotes as alternate readings or in the main text and are derived from Vaticanus B, Sinaiticus ℵ and a few other Greek manuscripts.
But what has not survived is the predominant belief among Bible believing Christians that the Bible is authoritative, that you can trust the straightforward meaning of the Words of God. The predominant belief among pagan churches (like the Roman Catholics) as well as among the so-called Bible believing churches is that the first 11 chapters of Genesis are not real history. We are now at a stage in history where you would be hard pressed to find a Bible college that teaches Genesis as real history. Jesus Himself quoted Genesis as literal history many times. Deny Genesis as God intended to be understood, and what else will you deny?
As result the church on earth is weak and a greater apostasy than ever before is now upon us.
References and Notes
- A. Hort, The Life and Letters of Fenton John Anthony Hort, MacMillan and Co. Ltd, London, 1896, Vol. 1, p. 414.
- Hort, op. cit., Vol. 1, p. 415.
- B.F. Westcott and F.J.A. Hort, Introduction to the New Testament in the Original Greek, MacMillan and Co. Ltd, London, 2nd Ed., 1896, p. 280.
- Hort, op. cit., Vol. 1, p. 422.
- B.F. Westcott, The Life and Letters of Brooke Foss Westcott, MacMillan and Co. Ltd, London, 1903, Vol. 1, p. 207.
- B.F. Westcott, The Life and Letters of Brooke Foss Westcott, MacMillan and Co. Ltd, London, 1903, Vol. 2, p. 69.
- C.W. Wieland, Follow the leader(s) … Even when they contradict the Bible? 5th March 2015.
- Hort, op. cit., Vol. 1, p. 78.
- K. Lake, The Immortality in the Modern Mind, Harvard University Press, Cambridge, 1922, pp. 38, 39.
- B.F. Westcott, The Historic Faith: Short Lectures on the Apostles’ Creed, MacMillan and Co. Ltd, London and Cambridge, 1883, p. 136.
- Lake, op. cit., p. 39, 40.
- Lake, op. cit., p. 40.
- Hort, op. cit., Vol. 1, p. 420, 421.
- An essential element or condition.
- Where are God’s actual Words written?
5 replies on “Two challenges to the infallibility of the Holy Scriptures”
This is Skip Joannes your friend from many years ago at Calvary Chapel in Perth. I have a former student who is a math and physics whiz who graduated from UCLA at 16 with a double major in physics and computer science.At 17 he finished up at Carnigee Mellon in Pittsburg. This kid is Amos Ng, has a Bible background and may contact you.
Skip, He did already.
Hi John. This seems to me a radical departure from your typically well-reasoned articles. This article commits the ad hominem fallacy—seeking to discredit a doctrine simply by attacking the character of some of its proponents. You might just as well jettison the doctrine of the Trinity or the Virgin Birth on the basis that the Roman Catholic Church (which rejects the Biblical Gospel of salvation by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone, and has brutally persecuted and martyred the saints of God) holds to these doctrines.
It would be far more reasonable to acknowledge, for example, that 1 John 5:7b (the so-called “Comma Johanneum”), “in heaven, the Father, the Word, and the Holy Ghost: and these three are one” could not have been in the autographs, since …
it is found in only eight Greek manuscripts, four of which contain it in the text of the manuscript, and the remaining four insert it merely as a marginal note. The earliest one that contains this reading in the text of the manuscript (#629), dates to the 14th or 15th century. The earliest one that contains it in the margin (#221) dates from the 10th century. There are literally thousands of New Testament manuscripts in existence, many of them dating well before the 10th century. So a reading that appears in only eight manuscripts can hardly be claimed to represent the “Majority Text”.
This phrase, that so plainly teaches the Trinity, was never cited by the Nicean Council nor by Athanasius or other supporters of the Trinity, which they surely would have done, had it been in their Bible.
The Comma did not appear in the original edition of Jerome’s Vulgate, but was added later.
Martin Luther certainly did not deem the “Comma” to be Biblical, for it does not appear in the “Luther Bible” of 1545. Yet, no one accuses Luther of not believing in the Trinity!
To argue that the King James Version is the only true Bible is to claim that the church did not have the true word of God until 1611. The Geneva Bible, for example, which was translated by the Puritans in 1560 and used well beyond 1611, would have been a “corrupt Bible”, since it is not word-for-word identical to the KJV. The Bibles of Wycliffe and Tyndale, likewise, are not identical to the KJV. In fact, every other Bible used by Christians, including those in translated into other languages, such as Luther’s Bible, is not word-for-word identical to the KJV, and hence, by the standards of KJV-only advocates, was “corrupt” and not truly the Word of God. This means, of course, that only the English-speaking church has had the true Bible in recent centuries, and not until 1611.
But the KJV translators did not claim to have produced the “perfect translation”, for they had footnotes in various places, giving alternative readings. In fact, in their Preface to the KJV, the translators stated “No cause therefore why the word translated should be denied to be the word, or forbidden to be current, notwithstanding that some imperfections and blemishes may be noted in the setting forth of it.” Clearly, the translators felt that a translation that contained “some imperfections and blemishes in the setting forth of it” still deserved to be regarded the Word of God. Morever, the KJV was a biased translation (compared to those that preceded it, such as the Geneva Bible and Tyndale’s Bible) in that the translators were instructed to use ecclesiastical words such as “bishop” rather than the more accurate “overseer”, etc.
Moreover, the same problem exists among the numerous Byzantine manuscripts that distinguishes Byzantine texts from Western texts—namely, variants. Any two given manuscripts—whether from the Byzantine family or not—do not agree 100% in wording. However, the differences among the variants—whether Byzantine or Western—are very minor and do not materially affect the doctrine taught. Unless, of course, you feel that you are unable to defend the doctrine of the Trinity without appealing to the Comma, or you belong to a church that practices “snake handling” or the drinking of poisons (Mark 16:18).
Revelation 22:18-19 pronounces a curse on those who add to the Scriptures, just as it curses those who take away from the inspired Word of God. All the textual evidence points to the Comma as having been added to the original text, not taken away from it.
So if the Comma is not inspired scripture, then the King James Version cannot be a perfect word-for-word translation of the original, since it contains the Comma.
Even so, it is a perfectly good and useful translation, and has served the church well for many centuries. The problem is that, if we errantly think we already have the word-for-word perfect translation, we will call the original text “corrupt” and “heresy” if we should ever find it. The older texts were written closer in time to the autographs, and would not be so subject to the accumulation of copyist errors from centuries of copying copies of copies of copies. It is not unreasonable, therefore, to consider that older manuscripts (i.e. Alexandrian or Western types) might be closer in wording to the autographs.
Mitch, I agree largely with what you have written here. I do no claim the KJB to be perfect. It is a translation based on the Traditional Greek texts which have been used for many centuries by the church. Your argument about the translators though does not hold. The Bible is not just any book. From the actual writings of Westcott and Hort one can consider how they may have put in their own biases to the Greek NT which they compiled. Even though I don’t believe any core Christian doctrines have been ejected in the better modern translations some alternate readings that have their origin in first or second century heresies are included. John 1:18 is example, ‘only begotten God’. God did not beget a God. And I personally use KJB, Geneva and KJ3, Jay Green Snr’s translation. All these are translations and only imperfect at that but I believe the KJB is the best and have found the KJVER a good modern choice. But the counter argument which you make – older is closer to the original autographs – I don’t agree with. Read John William Burgon for a full exposition on that. You are welcome to disagree with me.
Thank you for the clarification, John. Glad to hear you’re not in the KJV-only camp.
May the Lord bless you.