Not too long ago, I made the decision to switch to the King James Version (first published in 1611) as my primary Bible translation. This is not just for the sake of being quaint or because I believe the KJV is inspired by God in its translation (an erroneous belief found among many “King James Onlyists”). (In fact, the main reason I prefer the KJV over a similar modern version such as the New King James is for the words thou and ye, which preserve the singular-plural distinction in the second-person pronoun, found in the originals.) But I use the KJV because its New Testament is representative of the Textus Receptus, or Reformation Text, as opposed to the critical text which underpins most modern translations. I confess, with the framers of the Westminster Confession, based on scriptural testimony:
The Old Testament in Hebrew (which was the native language of the people of God of old), and the New Testament in Greek (which, at the time of the writing of it, was most generally known to the nations), being immediately inspired by God, and, by his singular care and providence, kept pure in all ages, are therefore authentical. (WCF 1:8)
To determine what is truly meant by this, I will briefly consider the Hebrew text. At the Reformation and still today, Protestants hold to what is called the Masoretic Text as the inspired Word of God transmitted through the ages. Even though some earlier Hebrew Old Testament manuscripts have now been discovered which in places may be cited to support Greek Septuagint readings, this has not affected textual decisions. The foundation of the Masoretic Text remains unshaken. The same is not true of the New Testament.
The philosophy of modern NT textual criticism is that the perfect Word of God was found only in the autographs (those texts set down by the inspired authors) and, though they would argue that it has been preserved in all ages, that with the autographs being lost, it is our responsibility to reassemble the original text using whatever means we have – and they would say that the relatively recent rediscovery of many early manuscripts and fragments, and the existence of the critical text itself, have come about by God’s providence – and this is how He preserved the text. But this does not resolve the issue that the absolutely perfect original text is unknowable. Perhaps we can know about 95% of it. Perhaps we can be relatively certain of it, but we are essentially reducing the doctrine of preservation to probabilities and making the Word of God dependent on scholarship – often even on secular scholars.
Is this what the Westminster divines had in mind when they wrote about the doctrine? I would argue no, and I will cite their contemporary Turretin, the successor of John Calvin, in my favour:
By the original texts, we do not mean the autographs written by the hand of Moses, of the prophets and of the apostles, which certainly do not now exist. We mean their apographs which are so called because they set forth to us the word of God in the very words of those who wrote under the immediate inspiration of the Holy Spirit.
Turretin says that the original text can be found not only in the autographs, but equally in the apographs (faithful copies). Turretin could pick up his Greek Textus Receptus, the Reformation Text, and say with confidence, This is the original text of the New Testament.
But what is the Textus Receptus? It is so named because it is the text received by the Church. It is by nature ecclesiastical. Modern textual criticism, however, views the Bible in the same way as any text not preserved by God, and gives significant weight to two manuscripts in particular, the Sinaiticus and the Vaticanus, because they are the oldest extant manuscripts we have. Where these two manusripts agree, even against the majority of manuscripts, their reading is preferred to the majority. Nevertheless, simply because they are the oldest extant manuscripts does not entail that they represent the oldest apographs. It is possible that an older copy may be further removed from the original text than a newer copy because we do not know from which source they are copied. On the other hand, the Textus Receptus is based on the testimony of the Church.
The fact is that the Sinaiticus and Vaticanus readings are often not the ones copied (and therefore received) by the Church. The Textus Receptus position holds that God’s providential preservation of His Word is reflected in the transmission of the text, so we trust the texts copied over those which were lost. For the most part, the Textus Receptus is supported by the majority of Greek manuscripts and also by the witness of the Early Church Fathers and various versions such as the Syriac, Old Latin, Vulgate, and the Diatessaron. The witness of these together often predate the variants found in the oldest extant manuscripts and therefore the critical text: the “oldest is best” principle is therefore not applied consistently, but rather weighted subjectively. Some passages, such as the ending of Mark and the story of the woman taken in adultery, were universally received by the Church for over a millennium, but now there are scholars who would remove them on very limited evidence. While there are some minority readings found in the Textus Receptus (and these deserve to be dealt with separately), this is still well reasoned from the testimony of the Church: textual criticism is not faulty per se, but rather the method of it. The men who put together the TR were ecclesiastical in their method, and had a high view of the doctrine of preservation, but the intellectual descendants of Westcott and Hort treat the Bible as they would other ancient texts.
To summarize, I would rather trust the text received by the Church in faith (received by the ancient Greek and Latin Church, as well as by the framers of the Reformed confessions), and like Turretin, say that this is the original text – as I would argue God has promised – than to hold to a text which is always in flux, where verses can be removed and later inserted back into the text based on changing evidence. However, I am grateful that I can say that even with the critical text, we still have a New Testament which contains what the Apostles wrote, that even if I pick up a translation based on the critical text, it still contains substantially the very same doctrines as the Textus Receptus, and the majority of the differences are minor (order of words, spelling, etc.). The critical text does not contradict the Word of God. What a great providence this is!
For more information on the Textus Receptus position, I would recommend the book The King James Version Defended by Edward F. Hills, freely available as a PDF.