D.A. Carson has, as usual, a thoughtful answer.
Tim has given you plenty to think about with respect to the Assembly’s understanding of Scripture. Perhaps your respect for its nature and authority has been heightened. Perhaps you will pick up your text with a deeper reverence as you consider what you hold in your hand is more than just the recorded words of ancient people in farflung places.
But perhaps also there remains a dissonance in your head about whether you can give these particular words singular authority.
It’s likely you’ve heard a name like Bart Ehrman, a professor at the University of North Carolina, who has written prolifically on the New Testament and takes issue with its credibility on the basis of what are called “textual variants.” To understand that you have to grasp what you’re looking at when you pick up a copy of the New Testament.
Our New Testament is really a composite document of what scholarship has determined to be the most reliable form of the original manuscripts. As you may know there are thousands upon thousands of copies of the books and letters of the New Testaments, some of which are in whole form and others in fragments. When you compare the copies, you inevitably find discrepancies between them in, for instance, choice of word, word order, and the like. The job of the New Testament scholar is to cull through the myriad copies of, say, the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew 5-7, and determine which of the copies are most likely to be the earliest and most pristine since the original manuscripts have not been preserved. The scholar makes his determination on the basis of the age of the document, how widely that copy had been distributed in the ancient world (the more widely distributed, the more authority it seemed to have among the early Christian community), and what seems to be the “hardest” reading–that is, a reading that a later copyist would’ve tried to clarify or elaborate upon in order to make its meaning easier to ascertain; a harder reading in this sense would seem to be closer to the original. Continue reading