The question of whether or not Scripture has been preserved throughout history is vital to our spiritual lives. Why? Because if Scripture hasn’t been preserved, it matters little that it is God’s inspired and inerrant Word. Preservation has to do with the very Bibles we have in our hands: Can I be sure that this text accurately reflects the original text when it was first written down? If we are not firm at this point, we will be ever-doubting when we read the Scriptures and hear them taught. Such doubt will cloud our minds, dampen our affections, and keep us always adrift on a sea of spiritual uncertainty.
Happily, God has left us with a clear witness about the preservation of his Word. Consider these texts.
You shall not add to the word that I command you, nor take from it, that you may keep the commandments of the LORD your God that I command you.Deuteronomy 4:2
Long have I known from your testimonies that you have founded them forever.Psalm 119:152
The sum of your word is truth, and every one of your righteous rules endures forever.Psalm 119:160
The grass withers, the flower fades, but the word of our God will stand forever.Isaiah 40:8
Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them. For truly, I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not an iota, not a dot, will pass from the Law until all is accomplished. Therefore, whoever relaxes one of the least of these commandments and teaches others to do the same will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.Matthew 5:17-20
Truly, I say to you, this generation will not pass away until all these things take place. Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away.Matthew 24:35
Notice in Deuteronomy that it is God who is concerned with the preservation of his Word in its original form; he doesn’t want anyone adding to it or taking away from it. Jesus himself said that not even the smallest strokes of the pen will be erased from the law until all is accomplished (Matt 5:17-20). His own words will remain past the consummation of history (Matt 24:35).
What God doesn’t tell us in Scripture is exactly how he will preserve his written Word. Looking back across history, however, we can see the method God used to preserve his Word. How did he do it? By allowing it to be copied many, many times!
Now, you might say, “Hey, that actually allows for errors to creep into the text as its being copied!” Yes, it does. But, when manuscripts are multiplied over and over and sent all around the world, as they were during the early stages of the church, it ensures two things.
(1) No one person or coalition could change the text of Scripture
The rapid geographical expansion of the copies guarded against wholesale corruption of the original text because it placed the Scripture in many different hands in many different places. If strange teachings were introduced, they could be corrected by comparing each manuscript with other manuscripts. Allowing the rapid multiplication of manuscripts actually ensured that the original text would be protected. Which leads us to point #2.
(2) We can get back to the original text by comparing manuscripts with other manuscripts
The academic discipline of textual criticism is simply the work of comparing existing manuscripts with each other to determine the original text. For example, by taking all of the extant manuscripts of Romans and comparing them with each other, textual critics can get back to the original text of Paul’s letter with a high decree of certainty, even down to the correct spelling of words.
When it comes to amount of manuscripts we have to work with, Christians have what some evangelical textual critics have called “an embarrassment of riches.” We have over 5800 Greek NT manuscripts available as well us a large collection of writings from church theologians that include Biblical quotes, along with thousands of manuscripts of the Bible that were copied into other languages.
In other words, we have a massive amount of material we can use to get back to the original text of Scripture. Praise the Lord! He has fulfilled his promise to preserve his Word, and he has done it in a way that provides us with an empirical mechanism by which to determine the original wording with a high degree of certainty. We don’t have to guess at it: God has made it clear in his Word and in the way his Word has been passed down from generation to generation.