Theology in 3D

Do We Still Have God’s Words? The Preservation of Scripture (Part 2)

Layton Talbert | January 26, 2024

The previous post explored four observations from which we can infer the necessity for a doctrine of preservation: the divine act of Scripture, the express purpose of Scripture, the inherent authority of Scripture, and the divine purpose of God to glorify himself among all the nations. This post turns to a more direct question: Does the Bible itself teach a doctrine of preservation?

Actually, not just scholars in general but Bible-believing scholars are divided on the answer to that question. They all believe that God has preserved his word; they just don’t all agree on whether the Bible teaches that God would, in fact, do that.

But before we tackle that question, there’s an important point to be made. We do not have an explicit biblical doctrine stating which books are part of the inspired canon; nor do we have a biblical doctrine stating that the canon would close at such-and-such a time. The Church has come to those conclusions based on the testimony of the providence of God over the facts of history.

Likewise, we do not need an explicit biblical doctrine in order to recognize all the theological arguments, and all the historical evidences, that God in his providence has preserved an accurate and reliable record of his self-revelation. So, we do not need a doctrine of preservation. But I think we have one.

The Text of Scripture Expects Preservation

A number of verses are commonly set forth in systematic theologies and elsewhere to demonstrate a biblical doctrine of preservation.

  • Ps 12:6–7
  • Ps 119:89
  • Ps 119:152
  • Ps 119:160
  • Isa 40:8
  • Matt 5:17–18
  • Matt 24:35
  • Luke 16:17
  • John 10:35
  • 1 Pet 1:23–25

Even those who believe in a biblical doctrine of preservation, however, differ with one other on how directly or indirectly some of these verses contribute to that doctrine—or even whether some of them teach preservation at all. At least some of these passages, nevertheless, really do seem to contribute to a biblical teaching creating the expectation that God preserves his written word.

Of old I have known from Your testimonies that You have founded them forever.

Ps 119:152 NASB

The sum of Your word is truth, and every one of Your righteous ordinances is everlasting.

Ps 119:160 NASB

The subject of Psalm 119 is clearly the psalmist’s relationship to the written word of God that he can read and reread, and memorize, and meditate on. That’s what the whole psalm is about. (If David authored this psalm, it’s worth remembering that Deuteronomy 18 required every king to make his own personal copy of the law. Regardless of the question of authorship, the creation of a succession of royal copies signifies preservation.)

Testimonies is a very broad term for God’s words; God’s testimonies are whatever he bears witness to . . . about anything—history, prophecy, instruction, promises. Those testimonies are established forever because God is forever, and he does not change. And preservation is the only way we have of knowing what those testimonies are.

The grass withers, the flower fades, but the word of our God stands forever.

Isa 40:8 NASB

What makes this Old Testament statement doubly significant is that it is corroborated with a citation in, and application to, the New Testament. Peter describes the word of God, which lives and remains forever, and then quotes Isaiah 40 as corroboration (1 Pet 1:24–25). Some think these statements do not necessarily refer to Scripture (God’s written word), only to his spoken promises. But if you read Peter’s letters attentively, he talks interchangeably about God’s words and the Scriptures. Three times he uses the specific term scripture—a term occurring over fifty times in the New Testament which refers to something written which, in turn, implicitly denotes preservation.

For instance, Peter exhorts his readers to desire the milk of the word (1 Pet 2:2)—where does one find this if it’s not located anywhere? He quotes the written words of the Scripture (1 Pet 2:6). He asserts that no prophecy of the Scripture is of human origin (2 Pet 1:20) and explains how those prophecies in the Scripture came from the Holy Spirit (1:21). He cites the words spoken by the holy prophets and by the apostles (2 Pet 3:2). He identifies Paul’s letters as part of the rest of the Scriptures (2 Pet 3:16). Peter speaks interchangeably about the words of God and the Scriptures; when he talks about the words of God, he’s talking about the Scriptures, and vice versa.

For truly I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not the smallest letter or stroke shall pass from the Law until all is accomplished.

Matt 5:18 NASB

In the preceding verse (v. 17), when Jesus said he came to fulfill the Law and the Prophets, he was talking about the written—and therefore de facto the preserved—word of God. How do we know? Because of this verse (v. 18). Jesus’ primary point is the absolutely certain fulfillment of every statement in Scripture. But he underscores that primary point with a secondary point. A jot refers to the smallest letter in the Hebrew alphabet. A tittle refers to the minutest scratch of the pen that distinguishes two very similar-looking letters from each other. In other words, jots and tittles are the stuff of written words. And written words imply preservation. Jesus guaranteed, however indirectly or secondarily, that God’s written words will outlast the present heaven and earth, until everything God said has been fulfilled. 

Given the collective testimony of these and other passages, it seems clear that the Bible does teach its own preservation. Again, we don’t necessarily need an explicit doctrine of preservation to believe and expect it; there are other theological arguments that support it. But it helps to have one.

One final point remains to be examined: the history of Scripture’s transmission.

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