Do We Still Have God’s Words? The Preservation of Scripture (Part 1)
Jeremiah 36 contains one of the Bible’s most astonishing stories about the Bible.
This word came to Jeremiah from the Lord, saying: Take a scroll of a book and write on it all the words that I have spoken to you against Israel, against Judah, and against all the nations, from the day I spoke to you, from the days of Josiah even to this day. . . . Then Jeremiah called Baruch the son of Neriah; and Baruch wrote on a scroll of a book, at the instruction of Jeremiah, all the words of the Lord which he had spoken to him.Jer 36:1–4
That narrative displays both inspiration and inscripturation in process. How long did that take? By hand! Not long after, that very scroll was read in the presence of King Jehoiakim. How did he react to this gracious gift of divine communication?
The king was sitting in the winter house in the ninth month, with a fire burning on the hearth before him. And . . . when Jehudi had read three or four columns, the king cut it with the scribe’s knife and cast it into the fire that was on the hearth, until all the scroll was consumed in the fire . . . .Jer 36:22–23
What about preservation? What’s to be done in response to the wanton and rebellious destruction of the sole existing manuscript of this divine revelation? God simply called for a rewrite.
Then the word of the Lord came again to Jeremiah, saying: Take another scroll, and write on it all the former words that were in the first scroll which the king of Judah burned.Jer 36:27–28
And, the narrative proceeds to record, Jeremiah did. That extraordinary example of preservation illustrates at least two simple but key realities: (1) God has a vested interest in preserving his words, even when powerful people try to destroy it; and (2) God has no difficulty in preserving his words—through whatever means he chooses—even when the first and only copy of it (the autograph) has been purposely destroyed.
How can we be confident that the words we read in our Bibles accurately reflect the words God first gave to Moses or David or Matthew or Paul to write down? The answer, in a word, is preservation. God has preserved his word. Why would we believe that, and how do we know that? Let’s start with some broad implications that argue for preservation.
The Fact of Scripture Implies Preservation
Divine self-revelation assumes preservation. Why? Because God chose to create creatures in his own image, like us. He then further chose to reveal himself and communicate his expectations for us. Moreover, even after we sinned, God chose to pursue a self-communicative relationship with fallen humanity. Beyond that, God chose to see to it that his words were written down for the sake of accuracy and access and permanence.
Having chosen to do all that, why would God then abandon the entire process of his self-revelation to humanity by failing to preserve his words for humanity? Given that succession of divine actions, is it likely that he would take no steps to preserve his self-revelation for future generations? This is not a proof of preservation, but it is a line of logic and intentionality that strongly implies preservation. In fact, we can take that argument one step further.
The Purpose of Scripture Implies Preservation
The Apostle Paul exhorted Timothy to
continue in the things which you have learned and been assured of, knowing from whom you have learned them, and [knowing] that from childhood you have known the Holy Scriptures . . .
—which he could not have known, had they not been preserved over the previous fifteen centuries or so. Why is that important? Because they, and they alone—
which are able to make you wise for salvation through faith which is in Christ Jesus. All Scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, thoroughly equipped for every good work.2 Tim 3:14–17 NKJV
In other words,
The Bible was given for a purpose which we might summarize as enabling the establishment of fellowship with God [which] involves our conversion . . . and our growth, as we learn from the Bible how to think and live to please God.Richard Brash, How God Preserved the Bible, 21–22
Not only the act of Scripture—the fact that God undertook such an enterprise in the first place—but also the inherent purpose of Scripture implies the necessity of its ongoing preservation.
After the Exodus from Egypt, God directed Moses to record these inspired words in Deuteronomy 8:3: “Man shall not live by bread alone, but by very word that proceeds from the mouth of the LORD.” Fourteen centuries later, Jesus cited those words as still an authoritative and necessary basis on which to resist temptation: “It is written, Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God” (Matt 4:4).
That expression—it is written—to which we can grow so accustomed that it loses its punch in our thinking, testifies to both the fact and the importance of preservation over those fourteen centuries.
Why would [God] give, in written form, information which every human being needs, and then make it impossible for anyone to know it . . . by doing nothing to guarantee that people could access this information.John Feinberg, Light in a Dark Place: The Doctrine of Scripture, 754
Speaking of the Old Testament Scriptures, Paul observes that whatever was written in earlier times was written for our instruction and written for our learning (Rom 15:4; 1 Cor 10:11). Paul’s argument is not that those passages happen to be useful and instructive because they happen to exist. His argument is that at least part of the reason the OT was written in the first place is because it was intended to be useful and instructive for later generations. That very purpose necessarily implies that preservation be part of the process of God’s self-revelation, so that the later generations would have access to it.
In truth, this line of argument is not just an argument from inspiration to preservation. It is an argument from God’s character . . . and humanity’s need of the information contained in Scripture to the likelihood or probability of Scripture’s preservation.Feinberg, ibid.
A third reality also argues for preservation.
The Authority of Scripture Implies Preservation
God incorporates multiple commands to read, meditate on, and obey his words: “Scripture’s authority . . . applies to everyone at all times.” In other words, “Scripture is the authoritative manual for what humans need to know and do to fulfill God’s purposes for them in the world” (Feinberg, 755). The enduring authority of Scripture is completely undercut apart from the preservation of Scripture. “How can we submit ourselves to the authority of those divine commands if God does not see to it that they are preserved for each successive generation of His people?” (McCune, Systematic Theology, 1:51–53).
Finally, a fourth and weighty consideration implies preservation.
The Glory of God Implies Preservation
One reason God has given his word is to validate his trustworthiness as the God who does exactly what he has said; and he is determined to validate that not just to his own people, but to all the nations. Here’s just one example from Ezekiel; the fullness of the quotation is necessary to underscore the point:
I had concern for My holy name, which the house of Israel had profaned among the nations wherever they went. Therefore say to the house of Israel, Thus says the Lord GOD: I do not do this for your sake, O house of Israel, but for My holy name’s sake, which you have profaned among the nations wherever you went. And I will sanctify My great name, which has been profaned among the nations, which you have profaned in their midst; and the nations shall know that I am the LORD, says the Lord GOD, when I am hallowed in you before their eyes. For I will take you from among the nations, gather you out of all countries, and bring you into your own land. Then I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you shall be clean; I will cleanse you from all your filthiness and from all your idols. I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit within you; I will take the heart of stone out of your flesh and give you a heart of flesh. I will put My Spirit within you and cause you to walk in My statutes, and you will keep My judgments and do them. Then you shall dwell in the land that I gave to your fathers; you shall be My people, and I will be your God. . . . Then the nations which are left all around you shall know that I, the LORD, have rebuilt the ruined places and planted what was desolate. I, the LORD, have spoken it, and I will do it.Ezek 36:21–36 NKJV
God intends history—specifically the full and future consummation of the new covenant—to vindicate to all the nations that he is the God who always keeps his words and does exactly and entirely everything he says. That high and holy divine purpose could not be recognized as anything other than coincidence, if he did not preserve his word as the testimony to what he has said he would do.
These four points are logical implications of larger theological truths—God’s character, God’s authority, God’s purpose, God’s glory—and they are weighty arguments as far as they go. For many, however, the bigger question is this: Does the Bible itself teach a doctrine of preservation?
More on that in the next post.