I’m curious about whether any of you pastors and scholars have opinions on how textual criticism finds its way into sermons on Sunday. Perhaps the question needs to be stated as Should preachers talk about textual criticism?
Some of you might be wondering what, on God’s green earth, is textual criticism. That is a great question! The Pocket Dictionary of Biblical Studies has a decent summary:
“The scholarly discipline of establishing the text as near to the original as possible or probable (also known as lower criticism). Since we no longer have any original manuscripts, or “autographs,” scholars must sort and evaluate the extant copies with their variant wordings. For example, errors commonly occur when letters are confused (in Hebrew the dālet [ד]and the rȇš [ר]are easily confused), when letters and words are omitted (haplography; homoioteleuton) or written more than once (dittography), and when letters are transposed (metathesis) or juxtaposed from parallel words or texts. The textual critic not only sorts through manuscripts and fragments for copyist errors but also considers early translations (such as the Vulgate or Peshitta) and lectionaries for their witness to the text. For example, the Septuagint sometimes has a reading that appears older or closer to what scholars think was the original text of the Hebrew Bible and can form the basis of an emendation (a correction of a text that seems to have been corrupted in transmission). It is not always clear, however, when an ancient translation is preserving a different text or rendering a word or verse in a more comprehensible way. Textual criticism is often seen as the most objective of the various biblical criticisms because there are clear rules governing the establishment of texts. However, judgments regarding any textual reading involve an element of interpretation, so disagreements remain.
Obviously, if a pastor does his exegetical work in preparation for a sermon, he is going to encounter issues related to textual criticism. For example, should Mark 9:29 read, “This kind cannot be driven out by anything but prayer” or “This kind cannot be driven out by anything but prayer and fasting”? The differences are subtle, yet one can imagine how some people might begin to take a different perspective on the necessity of fasting based off of one reading versus the other.
Or perhaps we can consider whether we should even preach from texts such as John 7:53-8:11 (the woman caught in adultery) or Mark 16:9-20 (the longer ending to Mark). Many scholars doubt that those portions of the text are actually original to the biblical authors. I personally do not believe they are original, so the question then becomes: should I preach through what isn’t original to John or Mark? (I would say “yes” on John and “no” on Mark)
The bottom line is that most people who are sitting in the seats and listening to our sermons probably don’t have much of an understanding on things like textual criticism. Some of them might be interested, but in my experience, people are less likely to find this scholarly discipline of much interest. Hence, my question remains: should preachers discuss it?
I personally don’t think we can say that textual criticism isn’t important. That is a foolish idea. We also can’t say that people aren’t asking difficult questions related to the formation of the Scriptures. If we are trying to instill a trustworthiness in Scripture, ignoring this issue won’t make that happen, especially if people read any of the works by skeptics such as Dawkins, Harris, or Ehrman. Those folks are constantly attacking the truthfulness of the Bible and they often do so byway of textual criticism!!
With that being said, if one is not careful, a poor handling of the issue of textual criticism will easily not serve to help the Church. If one doesn’t present the facts, what we do know, than people can easily become suspect of whether they can trust the Bible as God’s book written by his people to testify of his works and ultimately of Jesus and his life, ministry, death, and resurrection (and return!!).
So there is a right and wrong way to do it, if we should do it (how is that for laying my cards while not showing them all?).
One example worthy of mention, I think, would be how John Piper handled the Johannine text previously cited (read sermon here). It is important to state thatnPiper’s congregation is far more biblically informed and theologically inclined than other congregations, so what he does here is not something that every pastor should attempt. Yet I think he does a splendid job of dealing with textual criticism on a Sunday. I probably went be as detailed myself, but perhaps I should!
What do you think? Have you ever spoke on the subject? If so, how did you talk about its. Did people walk away having a better understanding or did you feel like it was too confusing?
Luke is a pastor-theologian living in northern California, serving as a co-lead pastor with his life, Dawn, at the Red Bluff Vineyard. Father of five amazing kids, when Luke isn’t hanging with his family, reading or writing theology, he moonlights as a fly fishing guide for Confluence Outfitters. He blogs regularly at LukeGeraty.com and regularly contributes to his YouTube channel.