Doug has captured well the dissonance and incoherence of those who rail against the Bible alone as God’s Word to mankind. Well worth the read, I say…
The Nature of Sin
Excerpt from the book, The Plight of Man and the Power of God by Dr. Martyn Lloyd-Jones
Romans 1: 18, 28 and 32
18. ‘For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who hold the truth in unrighteousness;’28. ‘And even as they did not like to retain God in their knowledge, God gave them over to a reprobate mind, to do those things which are not convenient;’32. ‘Who knowing the judgment of God, that they which commit such things are worthy of death, not only do the same, but have pleasure in them that do them.’
I select these three particular verses from this section in order that we may consider the whole question of sin, at least as to its essential nature. We are driven to this in our study of this section by a kind of logical necessity. We have seen that man by nature is opposed to God and not a being who desires God. And we have seen that mere proposals and schemes for moral reform are not sufficient to deal with the problem of mankind. Why is this? What is it in human nature that accounts for this? These questions cannot be raised without our finding ourselves at once face to face with the doctrine of sin.
Of this doctrine we can safely say that it is one of the most hotly contested of all the doctrines. This is not at all surprising, for it is in many ways the very crux of the whole problem of man. There is certainly no subject which calls, and has called, forth so much scorn and sarcasm and derision. There has been no doctrine which has been so ridiculed. There is none which calls forth such passion and hatred. That, I say, is not at all surprising, for at any rate two very definite reasons. One is that if the Christian doctrine of sin is right and true, then the very basis of the modern doctrine of man is entirely destroyed. And in the same way this doctrine of sin is the essential postulate which leads to and demands the whole scheme of miraculous and supernatural salvation which is outlined in the Bible. It is not surprising, therefore, that the battle has been severest and hottest just at this point.
Here again, as we consider this matter, we find exactly, and precisely as we have done on former occasions, that the movement of thought has followed certain definite steps. And again as before, the main thing we notice is that the idea concerning sin which has been most popular during the past hundred years has been the exact opposite of that which obtained previously. Whatever else we may say about these modern ideas, we have to grant that they are consistent with each other. They all belong to a definite pattern and are parts of a general scheme.
The central idea is the profound change in the view of man as a being, his nature, his origin, his development, etc. A modern writer puts all this perfectly in one phrase when he said that the future historians of the past hundred years would probably not fail to observe that the decline, and the disappearance, of the doctrine of sin followed a parallel course to the doctrine of the evolution of man from the animal. That is the basic position. The new view of man at the centre had of necessity to lead to corresponding changes in the views held of man’s activities. Nowhere does that appear more clearly than in this question of sin.
The modern theory was not foolish enough to say that there was nothing wrong with man or that he was perfect. His actions alone proved that such was not the case. He still did things that he should not do, things that were opposed to his own interests and to the interests of society. He also failed to live the kind of life they believed he should live. All these facts in personal life, and further facts, such as war, in connection with communal life had to be faced and had to be accounted for somehow. Now it is just there that the change was introduced. The facts were not denied. But when it became a question of evaluating the facts and of explaining the origin of these facts, the new view was an entire departure from that which had obtained previously. The old view, as we shall see later in greater detail, had held that sin was deliberate, that it was something which had entered into human life, causing it to fall and creating a new problem. It stated that man had started in a state of perfection, and that sin was that which, entering in, had caused him to fall from that state. But the new view regarding man as a creature that has developed and evolved out of the animal, obviously could not subscribe to that old view and explanation of man’s faults and failures. And it has resolutely refused to do so. It provides, therefore, its own theory and supposed explanation.
We cannot consider this in detail, but we must note some of the commoner expressions of this view. Some of them are highly philosophical, while others are more practical. Belonging to the former category is the view that describes what has been called sin as a principle of necessary antagonism which seems to be a part of life. Sin is not so much evil as a kind of resistance which is provided by life in order that the positive faculties may be exercised and developed. Sin can be regarded as dumbbells which have to be lifted in order to develop the intellectual and moral muscles, or as a resistance which has to be removed in order that we may progress. It is something essential to growth and on the whole good rather than bad.
Another view regards sin as the opposition of the lower propensities to a gradually developing moral consciousness. Here again the view is not that sin is actually evil or wrong, but that it is the fight put up by our lingering animal instincts against the demands made by our dawning and ever increasing moral consciousness. It is the struggle, if you like, between the man in us and the animal in us. Not that the animal is bad per se, but that it only becomes bad if we allow it to preponderate in our lives when the strictly human should be in control.
Another view puts that in a slightly different way by saying that sin is a kind of negative state, a negation rather than something positive and actual. It is the lack of positive qualities, lack of their full development. It
not so much an activity on the part of the lower, as a failure of the higher to exert themselves as they should. Thus we should not say that a man is actually bad; we should say that he is not good. Sin is a negative condition, a negation.
And then there is the view that regards it as almost entirely a matter of knowledge and of education. If, it argues, the lower is overexerting itself and the higher is not playing its part as it should, it is clear that the reason for this is lack of knowledge, lack of training, lack of education. This may well be due to the environment in which the man has been brought up. This is the view, therefore, that regards sin as being primarily a matter of housing and of education and which advocates slum clearance schemes and educational systems as the one and only necessary cure for the problem.
There are other views that we need not mention, such as the view which refuses to grant anything wrong at all in what is called sin. But there we have the main views. And it is clear that they all belong to the same pattern and are all based on the same central idea. That central idea we can state in this form. According to this view sin is not really a serious problem at all. The fathers, we are told, hopelessly exaggerated it, and not only made themselves miserable and unhappy, but also all others who came under their influence. The old view, we are told, led to endless morbidity and introspection and often even to despair. By making too much of the problem, it increased and magnified it instead of regarding it quietly as but an inevitable stage in man’s evolution. What was really nothing but a kind of spiritual growing pains was exaggerated into a dread disease, and one of the natural adjustments in connection with the physiological process and development of life was regarded as a pathological condition. The whole of life thus became sombre and dull, and men lived in a state of bondage and slavery. But the modern idea is entirely different.
In the same way, the new view refuses to regard sin as an active force and power, as something which has an independent existence apart from man. It is rather the failure to learn as we should about goodness, beauty and truth. It is a mere relic, a mere negative phase. It is not something in and of itself. It is just that stage of immaturity where the child has not yet become the man, or where the animal has not yet become entirely human.
And the other characteristic of this view is that it does not regard man as really responsible himself – it is always the conditions and surroundings or the opportunities that the man has had. The responsibility is taken from man and is placed in his economic conditions, or his home life, or early upbringing, and indeed at times in his physical make-up. The failure is to be pitied only. He is not to be blamed, he is not to be punished. We must speak nicely to him and encourage him to be nice and decent, whether he is an individual or a nation, like modern Germany. (There, incidentally, is a perfect illustration of this whole attitude. It is seen in the case of those who regard Germany as innocent, and who blame the Treaty of Versailles for all our present troubles.) But, clearly, the most significant fact concerning the modern view is that it makes no mention at all of sin in the sight of God. It never uses the word guilt and is quite unaware of the fact that sin is primarily transgression.
Now, the biblical view of sin is the precise opposite of this at every point. Let us but summarize it. It starts by saying that sin is not to be explained merely as a part of the process in man’s development. For sin is something that is outside man, something which can exist and which does exist apart from man. It is something that has entered human nature from without. No view therefore which regards it in purely human terms can possibly be adequate or sufficient. This it explains further by showing how actual experience points that way. We are aware of a power other than ourselves acting upon us, and influencing us, a power with which we can struggle and fight, a power which we can overcome and dismiss. This is seen supremely, of course, in the temptation of our Lord. No temptation could or did arise within Him, or from His nature, because He was perfect. The temptation, the incitement to sin, was entirely external.
But it is not enough just to say that sin is a power that has independent existence. It is a mighty power, a terrible power. It has a fiendish quality, a malignity which is truly terrifying. It is a definite spirit, a positive attitude, active and powerful. Furthermore, it is a power that man has allowed to enter his life and which affects him profoundly and vitally. It is not something light and comparatively trivial. It does not belong to the order of vestigial remains. It does not merely affect one part of man and his nature. It is so deep-seated and so much a part of us that the entire man is affected – the intellect, the desires and therefore the will. Indeed, it constitutes such a terrible problem that God alone in Christ can deal with it.
Now, it is scarcely necessary to indicate that it is vitally important that we should be clear as to which of these two views is correct, before we begin to plan for the future. Can we regard this problem lightly, and can we be optimistic in our view of man and of life? Is what we call ‘sin’ something which mankind as it continues to progress will gradually slough off and leave behind it? Will the lower and the animal of necessity deteriorate and decay, and the higher and the human inevitably continue to develop and to increase? The answers to these questions are all important. We could in a sense answer them by just making an analysis of the history of the past century, when the optimistic view came into vogue, and during which its principles have been put into practice educationally, socially, and in almost every department of life. That analysis would reveal the utter fallacy of that light view of sin. Indeed, the condition of the world at this hour is a sufficient answer in and of itself. But we refrain from stating our answer in that way for two reasons. One is that the optimistic temperament and outlook are rarely influenced by facts. Like Mr Micawber, when all its schemes go wrong, and all its optimistic prophecies and predictions are falsified by events, it still retains its serenity, it still waits for what it has envisaged to ‘turn up’. Were this not the case, the last war and its consequences would have been sufficient. But in spite of the glaring facts to the contrary the exponents of that view clung tenaciously to it. My second reason for not adopting that method is that it is always better to deal with the principles that underlie conduct and actions. If it can be shown that the principles are wrong, then clearly what emanates from them must be wrong. And in any case the trouble with the life of sin, according to the Bible, is not merely that it leads to disastrous results, but that it is wrong in and of itself and in its very nature and essence.
We propose therefore to consider positively what the Apostle has to say on this subject in the verses we are considering. Never, perhaps, has there been a more thorough and terrifying analysis of sin and all its ways. And yet how masterly it is. The Apostle shrinks from nothing. He states the truth baldly and yet with such economy of style and language that he never becomes sensational. He feels he must reveal the whole horrible business in all its fullness and entirety, lest any illusions concerning it might remain; but not for a moment does he pander to the depraved taste of those who would like to wallow in the mire of the unsavoury details. What a contrast to the type of novel and of literature that has been so popular during the past years. God grant that as we try to unfold His teaching we also may be enabled to observe the same carefulness.
What Paul has to say about sin can be considered most conveniently under three main headings.
(i) His first great principle is that sin is deliberate. In the eighteenth verse he turns from the glorious proclamation of the gospel to the other side of the picture. He reminds them that as the righteousness of God is revealed from faith to faith, so also ‘the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men.’ And at once he begins to attack sin at the very centre. ‘The wrath is revealed,’ he says, ‘against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who hold down the truth in unrighteousness.’ At once he levels against sin the charge of deliberateness. But he repeats it in verse 28, where he says, ‘And even as they did not like to retain God in their knowledge,’ or, as the rv has it, ‘and even as they refused to have God in their knowledge,’ or, as the margin has it, ‘even as they did not approve of God,’ God ‘gave them over to a reprobate mind.’ Still the same charge. And once more in the last verse (32): ‘Who knowing the judgment of God, that they which commit such things are worthy of death, not only do the same, but have pleasure in them that do them.’
These three statements show us the essential nature of sin and especially the element of deliberateness. How far removed they are from that other picture of men which represents them as more sinned against than sinning owing to their circumstances and surroundings, or as creatures who are in a negative stage of their existence! How far removed from the idea that says that sin is not positive, but rather a failure to attain to the true level! Or that sin is due merely to lack of knowledge and of training! For the fact is that it is altogether and entirely positive. It is something active and militant. St Paul suggests, if we take the verses in the following order, 28, 32 and 18, that there are at least three stages in the manifestation of the activity.
The first is that men do not like to retain God in their knowledge, or refuse to have God in their knowledge. Having started with that knowledge, they decide that they are not going to continue in it. They do not approve of the knowledge. It is not simply that they fail to attain to its standard; they deliberately reject it as a standard. It is not only that they miss the mark; they cease to aim at the mark at all, and refuse to recognize it as a standard and objective in life. God is deliberately dethroned and His entire way of life is jettisoned. As that was true in the early days of the story of mankind, it has been true of recent times. There was in this country a religious background and a religious tradition. There was a view of life and a way of life based upon belief in God. It is a view which is still known to most people, a view with which all have come in contact at some time or other. It is a view, therefore, which has to be deliberately rejected before men can live the kind of life which so many are living today. They decide that it is wrong or foolish or old-fashioned, and, knowing precisely and exactly what they are doing, they reject it and choose its very antithesis. Indeed, the vast majority not only do not deny this, but actually glory in the fact that they have done so.
This is further shown by the fact that though they know what the Scripture teaches about God’s view of such conduct, they not only do so, but delight in all others who do likewise. What proves so conclusively that evil and wrongdoing are not mere negative remains of the animal part of our nature is the fact that in spite of all warnings of consequences, and, at all costs, man persists in sinning. Though it may mean loss of health or loss of money, though it involves loss of character and lowering of standard, and even though it threatens to affect eternal destiny, still men persist in it. What is worse is the pleasure which they take in the thing itself, the way they enjoy it, and talk and joke about it. Were it the case that they were ashamed, the argument about the negative nature of sin might at least have a semblance of truth, but the fact is that men boast of their sins and talk about them and encourage others to do precisely the same. One has but to read the newspapers or to listen to the wireless to discover how true this has become of life.
But the third step is that which the Apostle describes by saying that they ‘hold down’ the truth in unrighteousness. This is the final and clearest proof of the activity of sin and its deliberate character. Though men decide not to believe in God and to put Him and His ways out of their lives, though they ignore all consequences and in a spirit of bravado decide to follow the other life, they do not therefore finish with God and truth at that point. The truth continues to remind them of its existence and to worry them. It does so most definitely, of course, in and through the conscience. It warns, it condemns, and it prohibits. The Truth is not static and lifeless. It is actually within us – there is ‘the light that lighteth every man that cometh into the world’. That is the whole meaning of remorse and what we call the pangs of conscience. These become particularly marked at certain times – for example, illness or death or war, etc.. The Truth follows us and worries us. Man is not ignorant. He knows the difference between good and evil, right and wrong. This knowledge confronts him always and worries him. But what he does about it, says Paul, is to hold it down, to suppress it, to do his utmost to stifle it, and to destroy it. Men try to throttle this activity of truth within themselves. The ways in which they do so are almost endless. They argue against the truth and try to explain it away. They deny its postulates and try to rationalize their own misdeeds. They would even try to explain away conscience itself in terms of psychology. Anything to silence its voice and to rid themselves of its condemnations. And when argument and denial and persuasion are of no avail men deliberately plunge still further into sin, hoping thereby to drown it. They refuse deliberately to give themselves time to think and to reason; they deliberately avoid the truth and do their utmost to conceal it from themselves. ‘Why stop?’ they ask. ‘Why think when thinking is painful and disconcerting?’ Thus they hold down the truth in the interest of their unrighteousness and by means of it. The trouble with mankind is not that it does not know enough about the truth. It deliberately denies the truth. Its difficulty is not that its advance in the direction of truth is somewhat slow and laboured. It prefers to go in the opposite direction. Its problem is not that it lacks sufficient light, but rather, as we are reminded in John 3:19, that ‘men loved darkness rather than light because their deeds were evil’.
(ii) But St Paul is also anxious to show that sin is debasing and depraves. This we see most clearly in verses 21-23 and verse 25, where he sums up it all by saying, ‘who changed the truth of God into a lie, and worshipped and served the creature more than the Creator, who is blessed for ever. Amen.’ His case is, as we have seen, that men give up the worshipping of God deliberately and that therefore they are inexcusable. But that is not all. There is something else which is quite as characteristic of sin and its effects and which arouses the Apostle’s anger. Were men to give up God and then remain irreligious and cease to worship altogether, the situation would be bad enough. But actually it is worse than that. For sin is not only deliberate, but also debasing in its effects and essentially depraved in its nature. Having given up God, men do not cease to be religious, they do not cease to worship. They make other gods for themselves and then proceed to worship them. What is the nature of the new gods? Paul does not give the complete list; that, in a sense, would be impossible, for they are so many. But he gives a glimpse into the condition of heathendom in the words, ‘they changed the glory of the uncorruptible God into an image made like to corruptible man, and to birds, and fourfooted beasts, and creeping things.’ And again ‘and worshipped and served the creature more than the Creator’. So he summarizes all the phenomena of paganism, with its worship of ancestors, sun, moon, stars, four-footed beasts, birds, trees, stones, its belief in magic, etc.. From the glory of the uncorruptible God to – such things! From the Creator to the creature. Comment is scarcely necessary. What a fall! What a lowering of the standard! How utterly debased!
But what calls forth the sarcasm of Paul is that all this was done in the name of wisdom! They preened and prided themselves on it and boasted of their advance. What can account for this? Surely there is no adequate explanation save that which is given by Paul himself. It is the perverting and debasing effect of sin that darkens the mind and the understanding and makes fools of us, or, as the phrase, ‘they became fools,’ has been translated, ‘they became silly.’
And if that was true of his day, it is equally true today. There is something rather pathetic in the way in which men during the past hundred years have fondly imagined that they have been doing something new and original in giving up the worshipping of God. The fact is that they have but repeated this old, old story, and the repetition has been perfect right down to the smallest detail. Nothing has been more characteristic of this whole tendency than the way in which men have given up religion always in terms of advance and enlightenment, knowledge and understanding, emancipation from bondage and tyranny, and liberty and freedom. It has almost become the hallmark of intelligence to scoff at religion.
That has been the claim. But what of the facts? Once more an exact repetition of the old story. And as was true in the story Paul had to unfold, so it is still true that this debasing influence of sin is as manifest and evident intellectually as well as morally, as much in theory as in practice. We can look at this along the following lines:
Consider the gods that men worship today and that they have worshipped especially during the past twenty years. The use of the terms ‘gods’ and ‘worship’ is perfectly justifiable. That is a man’s god for which he lives, for which he is prepared to give his time, his energy, his money, that which stimulates him and rouses him, excites and enthuses him. He lives for it and is controlled by it, and is prepared to sacrifice all for it. What are the modern gods? First and foremost I would place ‘man’ himself. This may not have been quite as evident in the past two or three years, but prior to that the belief in man and his powers was almost endless. Nothing was impossible to man, and one of the strongest reasons for putting aside a belief in God was that that belief was an insult to man and imposed limits upon him. This belief in man has expressed itself in many different ways. Ultimately it is the explanation of Nazism and Bolshevism, the worship of race and blood and of the State. I am appalled at times at the number of people who worship England, and I suggest that much of the heroism that is being displayed today is often really the result of a definite worshipping of a code or a tradition. Other gods that are worshipped are money and wealth, the things that these can buy, such as houses and motor cars, social status and position. I have known parents who have literally worshipped their children. There was a time when it seemed clear that many were returning to a worshipping of the body and physical fitness, and one has but to glance at a newspaper to see that there has obviously been a marked and striking revival in the belief in astrology. I merely mention also the various cults that have flourished so much since the last war – theosophy, Christian Science and the popular psychological teaching which has told us to believe in ourselves, and to have faith in ourselves. I read a most interesting and provocative article which suggested that the ever-increasing number of pet animals kept by people was definitely a religious matter, and I need but mention the use of mascots. Such are the gods to whom men and women have turned, boasting as they have done so of their superiority over their fathers and forefathers, who worshipped the only true and living God. Comment is surely unnecessary.
Precisely the same thing is seen if we look at the way in which men spend their time, and contrast it with what was true when men believed in God and worshipped Him. Apart from the enormity of sin, I hate it and protest against it because of the way in which it insults man and debases all his powers and especially his highest powers. While men believed in God, they spent their time in a manner that was ennobling and uplifting. They were out to improve their minds. They read the best books they could find, and their conversation had reference to theology, politics, and other matters which called for the exercise of intelligence. And when I say this I am thinking not only of certain classes or of townspeople only. It was true in general, and of the country as well as the town. Is there anything which is more tragic than to compare and to contrast the average man of, say, fifty years ago and the corresponding man of today? The modern man lives on newspapers and periodicals, repeats the views of others without thinking for himself, and spends his time listening to the wireless or sitting in a cinema. In his talks and discussions he is interested chiefly in sport and gambling. Even his interest in politics had so degenerated, and he had become so apathetic, that he allowed himself to be governed for years by the dullest and most supine politicians that this country has ever known. Indeed, a good case can be made for saying that it was the slothfulness, and love of ease and pleasure, which characterized the majority of our people that accounted most directly for the present war. Crimes committed on the Continent which would have aroused the whole country fifty or sixty years ago were allowed to pass almost without a comment, leave alone a mighty protest. Intellectually as well as morally, we have been witnessing a sad decline, a decline that is the invariable consequent of worshipping and serving ‘the creature more than the Creator, who is blessed for ever’.
(iii) But there is a further statement concerning sin made by St Paul. He says that it is also disgusting. And he is not content with merely making the statement. He illustrates it by giving us a picture of the kind of life that was lived at that time. He gives a list of the foul and ugly sins of which men and women were guilty and in which they gloated – the sexual perversions, ‘fornication, wickedness, covetousness, maliciousness, full of envy, murder, debate, deceit, malignity, whisperers, backbiters, haters of God, despiteful, proud, boasters, inventors of evil things, disobedient to parents, without understanding, covenant-breakers, without natural affection, implacable, unmerciful’ (Rom. 1:29-31) What a horrible list. How disgusting. The list itself can be easily subdivided. All I am concerned to do is to show the ugliness and foulness of it all, which is to be seen quite as much in covetousness, maliciousness, envy, deceit, malignity, whispering, backbiting, pride, etc., as it is in the grosser forms of sexual licence and perversion. The same lust and passion, the horrible ‘burning’ to which Paul refers, is found in all, though we have tended to pass some as being quite respectable! How futile and ridiculous it is to try to make light of sin when we think of the twists and contortions, the passion and the lust which are displayed in temper and malice, in jealousy and envy, and the way in which men and women plot and scheme to destroy each other socially and in other respects. There is but one word to describe it all – it is disgusting.
But again we must remind ourselves that this list of Paul’s is as accurate a description of life today as it was then. What more perfect account is possible of our sex-ridden mentality, leading as it has done to promiscuity, infidelity, divorce and the moral muddle of present-day society? Life has become loud and ugly, decency and chastity are almost regarded as signs of weakness and incomplete development. Everything is justified in terms of self-expression, and the more animal we are the more perfect we are. The moral sense itself seems to be atrophied, for what Jeremiah said of his generation can be said of ours: ‘Were they ashamed when they had committed abomination? Nay they were not at all ashamed neither could they blush’ (Jer. 8:12). What an indictment! Beyond blushing – sunk and wallowing in the mire!
Such is the problem with which we are confronted. There is in us, in man, this terrible, mighty power called ‘sin’ which alienates us from God and leads us to hate Him, and at the same time debases us and leads us to conduct which can only be described as disgusting. How idle it is to think of these matters and to discuss them theoretically. How criminal to look at life through rose-coloured spectacles. It is only as we face the facts, and realize the true nature of the problem, that we shall come to see that one power alone is sufficient and adequate to deal with it – the power of God.
The Number of Textual Variants: An Evangelical Miscalculation
In the Baker Encyclopedia of Christian Apologetics, by Norm Geisler (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1998; p. 532), there is a comment about the number of textual variants among New Testament manuscripts:
“Some have estimated there are about 200,000 of them. First of all, these are not ‘errors’ but variant readings, the vast majority of which are strictly grammatical. Second, these readings are spread throughout more than 5300 manuscripts, so that a variant spelling of one letter of one word in one verse in 2000 manuscripts is counted as 2000 ‘errors.’”
There are several problems with this paragraph, one of which is this: to say that variant readings are not errors is an odd way of putting things. If the primary goal of NT textual criticism is to recover the wording of the autographa (i.e., the texts as they left the apostles’ hands), then any deviation from that wording is, indeed, an error. It may well be a rather minor error (as the vast majority of them are)—in fact, something that cannot even translated it is so trivial—but it is an error nevertheless. The author, however, is most likely equating error with some reading that would render the Bible errant and fallible. It is quite true that (virtually) no viable variants are major threats to inerrancy; the major problems that the doctrine of inerrancy faces are essentially never found in textually disputed passages in which one reading creates the problem and another erases it.
The larger issue, however is how the number of variants was arrived at. Geisler got his information (directly or indirectly) from Neil R. Lightfoot’s How We Got the Bible (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1963), a book now fifty years old. Lightfoot says (53-54):
“From one point of view it may be said that there are 200,000 scribal errors in the manuscripts, but it is wholly misleading and untrue to say that there are 200,000 errors in the text of the New Testament. This large number is gained by counting all the variations in all of the manuscripts (about 4,500). This means that if, for example, one word is misspelled in 4,000 different manuscripts, it amounts to 4,000 ‘errors.’ Actually in a case of this kind only one slight error has been made and it has been copied 4,000 times. But this is the procedure which is followed in arriving at the large number of 200,000 ‘errors.’”
In other words, Lightfoot was claiming that textual variants are counted by the number of manuscripts that support such variants, rather than by the wording of the variants. His method was to count the number of manuscripts times the wording error. This book has been widely influential in evangelical circles. I believe over a million copies of it have been sold. And this particular definition of textual variants has found its way into countless apologetic works.
The problem is, the definition is wrong. Terribly wrong. A textual variant is simply any difference from a standard text (e.g., a printed text, a particular manuscript, etc.) that involves spelling, word order, omission, addition, substitution, or a total rewrite of the text. No textual critic defines a textual variant the way that Lightfoot and those who have followed him have done. Yet, the number of textual variants comes from textual critics. Shouldn’t they be the ones to define what this means since they’re the ones doing the counting?
Let me demonstrate how Lightfoot’s definition is way off. Today we know of more than 5600 Greek NT manuscripts. Among these, we know of about 2000–3000 Gospels manuscripts, 800 Pauline manuscripts, 700 manuscripts of Acts and the general letters, and about 325 manuscripts of Revelation. These numbers do not include the lectionaries, over 2000 of them, that are mostly of the Gospels. At the same time, not all the manuscripts are complete copies. The earlier manuscripts are fragmentary, sometimes covering only a few verses. The later manuscripts, however, generally include at least all four Gospels or Acts and the general letters or Paul’s letters or Revelation. But an average estimate is that for any given textual problem (more in the Gospels, less elsewhere), there are a thousand Greek manuscripts (this assumes that less than 20% of all the Greek manuscripts “read” in any given passage, probably a conservative estimate).
Putting all this together, we can assume an average of 1000 Greek manuscripts being involved in any textual problem. Now, assume that we start with the modern critical text of the Greek New Testament (the Nestle-Aland28). Most today would say that that text is based largely on a minority of manuscripts that constitute no more than 20% (a generous estimate) of all manuscripts. So, on average, if there are 1000 manuscripts that have a particular verse, the Nestle-Aland text is supported by 200 of them. This would mean that for every textual problem, the variant(s) is/are found in an average of 800 manuscripts. But, in reality, the wording of the Nestle-Aland text is often found in the majority of manuscripts. So, we need a more precise way to define things. That has been provided for us in The Greek New Testament according to the Majority Text by Hodges and Farstad. They listed in the footnotes all the places where the majority of manuscripts disagreed with the Nestle-Aland text. The total came to 6577.
OK, so now we have enough data to make some general estimates. Even if we assumed that these 6577 places were the only textual problems in the New Testament (a demonstrably false assumption, by the way), the definition of Lightfoot could be shown to be palpably false. 6577 x 800 = 5,261,600. That’s more than five million, just in case you didn’t notice all the commas. Based on Lightfoot’s definition of textual variants, this is how many we would actually have, conservatively estimated. Obviously, that’s a far cry from 200,000!
Or, to put this another way: this errant definition requires that there be no more than about 250 textual problems in the whole New Testament (250 textual variants x 800 manuscripts that disagree with the printed text = 200,000). (It should be noted that, for simplicity’s sake, I am counting a textual problem as having only one variant from the base text, even though this is frequently not the case). If that is the case, how can the United Bible Societies’ Greek New Testament list over 1400 textual problems? And how can the Nestle-Aland text list over 10,000?
And again, this five million is not even close to the actual number. I took a very conservative approach by only looking at the differences from the majority of manuscripts. But if one started as his base text Codex Bezae for the Gospels and Acts and Codex Claromontanus for the letters, the number of variants (counted Lightfoot’s way) from these two would be astronomical. My guess is that it would be well over 20 million. Or if one started with Codex Sinaiticus, the only complete New Testament written with capital (or uncial) letters, the numbers would probably exceed 30 million—largely because Sinaiticus spells words in some strange ways that are not shared by very many other manuscripts. You can see that the definition of a textual variant as a combination of wording differences times manuscripts is rather faulty. Counting this way results in tens of millions of textual variants, when the actual number is miniscule by comparison. And that’s because we only count differences in wording, regardless of how many manuscripts attest to it.
All this is to say: a variant is simply the difference in wording found in a single manuscript or a group of manuscripts (either way, it’s still only one variant) that disagrees with a base text. Further, there aren’t only 200,000. That may have been the best estimate in 1963, when we knew of fewer manuscripts. But with the work done on Luke’s Gospel by the International Greek New Testament Project, Tommy Wasserman’s work on Jude, and Münster’s work on James and 1-2 Peter, the estimates today are closer to 400,000. Some even claim half a million. In short, as Bart Ehrman has so eloquently yet simply put it, there are more variants among the manuscripts than there are words in the NT.
Although this may leave some feeling uneasy, it is imperative that Christians and non-Christians be honest with the data. I would urge those who have used Lightfoot’s errant definition to abandon it. It’s demonstrably wrong, and citing it reveals a fundamental ignorance about textual criticism. And I would hope that the publishers of numerous apologetics books would get the data right. The last thing that Christians should be doing is to latch on to some spurious ‘fact’ in defense of the faith.
I have recently been in correspondence with some apologists (including Geisler), and I am happy to report that they are revising their definition of what constitutes a textual variant. Two or three of them have appealed to their publishers to correct the data in later printings.