His Word Will not Return Void — When Copies Differ (2)

“That Book in Your Hand”

As this study on Bibliology, the nature of the Bible, has progressed, we’ve been looking at the doctrine of Scripture preservation (“God’s work in ensuring that the Book that He gave us came down to us”).  Two posts ago, we saw that copying of the Scriptures, which for many centuries was done by hand, is the most common method by which God has preserved His Word.

I asked the question, “If the most common means of preservation is copying, and God didn’t guarantee the accuracy of any particular copy, how has preservation worked so that the bad copies haven’t supplanted the good ones?”  This was a much more important question in the past than it is today, when machines give us accurate copies at the push of a button.  I gave a partial answer in the last post — the Holy Spirit attests to the truth of God’s Word in the hearts of His people.  Thus, when faced with copies that differ, God’s people will recognise the truth of His Word and receive the accurate copy while rejecting the erroneous one.

Near the end of that post, I raised a further question — since God’s people aren’t always in tune with the Holy Spirit, and make mistakes as to God’s truth all the time, how do we know they didn’t mess up on this, too?  How do we know that (in pre-printing press days) God’s people did a good job of passing God’s Word down to us?


Sermons on the nature of the Bible:

  1. The inspiration of the Scriptures, their divine nature, from II Timothy 3:16.
  2. The moving of the Spirit in giving us the Scriptures, from II Peter 1:19-21.
  3. The inerrancy (complete reliability) of God’s Word.
  4. The preservation of God’s Word.

On this fourth sermon on the preservation of the Scriptures, I’ve written on the following:

  • Indirect teaching of the doctrine of Scripture preservation.
  • Direct Scriptural teaching of the doctrine.
  • Biblical examples of Scripture preservation in action.
  • When Copies Differ (1).  Soteriology and pneumatology meet Bibliology.

Ecclesiology Joins the Theological Chorus

If you didn’t read When Copies Differ (1), that heading may make you doubt my sanity — so please click through and read that first.  I discussed how the Biblical doctrines relating to salvation (soteriology) and the Holy Spirit (pneumatology) help us to understand the working of God in preserving His Word.

At this point, we’ll involve another “-ology” — ecclesiology.  “Ecclesia” is the Greek word for “church” or “assembly,” and ecclesiology is the doctrine of the church.

Helping Believers be Better Agents of Preservation

If believers were always completely spiritually in tune with the Holy Spirit, they would have always recognised perfectly which words are from God and which are errors in copying.  The church helps each member in the church to stay on the Spirit’s wavelength.

By example:

I Timothy 4:12

Let no man despise thy youth; but be thou an example of the believers, in word, in conversation, in charity, in spirit, in faith, in purity.

By teaching sound doctrine:

II Timothy 4:2-3

2 Preach the word; be instant in season, out of season; reprove, rebuke, exhort with all longsuffering and doctrine.
3 For the time will come when they will not endure sound doctrine; but after their own lusts shall they heap to themselves teachers, having itching ears;

By mutual exhortation:

Hebrews 3:13

But exhort one another daily, while it is called To day; lest any of you be hardened through the deceitfulness of sin.

By sharing the Lord’s Supper, leading to regular self-examination:

I Corinthians 11:27-29

27 Wherefore whosoever shall eat this bread, and drink this cup of the Lord, unworthily, shall be guilty of the body and blood of the Lord.
28 But let a man examine himself, and so let him eat of that bread, and drink of that cup.
29 For he that eateth and drinketh unworthily, eateth and drinketh damnation to himself, not discerning the Lord’s body.

There is much more that could be said about how the church helps us stay true to the Spirit and equipped to hear His spiritual voice attesting God’s words.  The above should be enough for our purposes here — properly functioning churches have always helped each believer be better agents of Scriptural preservation.

Restraining Errors

One of the roles of the church is to restrain and purge out errors.

Emphasising and spreading true doctrine:

I Timothy 4:16

Take heed unto thyself, and unto the doctrine; continue in them: for in doing this thou shalt both save thyself, and them that hear thee.

Purging error:

Romans 16:17

Now I beseech you, brethren, mark them which cause divisions and offences contrary to the doctrine which ye have learned; and avoid them.

Holding to true words:

II Timothy 1:13

Hold fast the form of sound words, which thou hast heard of me, in faith and love which is in Christ Jesus.

A true church is a group of believers who are all indwelt by the Holy Spirit, all participants in His work of attesting to the truth of His Word.  Should an individual member stray from the truth of God’s Word in holiness or in doctrine, a properly functioning church would not permit those errors to take hold in the church.

Certainly there have been many, many cases where an individual member of a church has been deceived by an error but the church has rejected the error and held to truth.  Churches are equipped by God to recognise, restrain, and reject false teaching.  Properly functioning churches would also recognise, restrain, and reject mistakes by each member as to which words are the true words of God.

Corporately Upholding Truth

“Corporately” doesn’t mean a church is a business corporation, it means that we are talking about something the church does together (“corporately”), as a church body.  The church is more than a help and a corrective to individual members, it is a functioning, organic unit.

I Timothy 3:15

But if I tarry long, that thou mayest know how thou oughtest to behave thyself in the house of God, which is the church of the living God, the pillar and ground of the truth.

A church is not a building — it is people.  The people who constitute a church are “the house of God,” according to this verse, and since the Holy Spirit is dwelling in us, this is an indirect reference to the Holy Spirit.  So the Holy Spirit dwells in the church, and working within the church causes it to function as “the pillar and ground of the truth.”  While the church is not a building, Paul in this passage uses building terminology to illustrate aspects of the church.

This isn’t the first time in Scripture that the analogy of a building is used — we see something similar in Ephesians, which discusses the foundation of the church:

Ephesians 2:19-20

19 Now therefore ye are no more strangers and foreigners, but fellowcitizens with the saints, and of the household of God;
20 And are built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Jesus Christ himself being the chief corner stone;

The church is built upon the revealed Word of God given by prophets and apostles.  Without that Word, the church fails, and becomes at best a social club.  The church is also the upholder of the truth, the “pillar and ground” of the truth, in the world.  As the Jamieson-Fausset-Brown commentary says:

The church is “the pillar of the truth,” as the continued existence (historically) of the truth rests on it; for it supports and preserves the word of truth.

This is not to say that the truth would not exist if the church did not uphold it.  It is to say that the truth is maintained in history (on this earth) by the church supporting and preserving the Word.  The church is not the giver of the truth — thus, it is not the foundation.  It is the upholder of the truth, anchored to that foundational truth, supporting it, spreading it in the world, and preserving it.

We see the church as a supporter of the truth in a variety of ways.

Teaching true teachers:

II Timothy 2:2

And the things that thou hast heard of me among many witnesses, the same commit thou to faithful men, who shall be able to teach others also.

Sending preachers of the Word into the world:

Romans 10:14-17

14 How then shall they call on him in whom they have not believed? and how shall they believe in him of whom they have not heard? and how shall they hear without a preacher?
15 And how shall they preach, except they be sent? as it is written, How beautiful are the feet of them that preach the gospel of peace, and bring glad tidings of good things!
16 But they have not all obeyed the gospel. For Esaias saith, Lord, who hath believed our report?
17 So then faith cometh by hearing, and hearing by the word of God.

Again, much more could be said on this.  It is probably sufficient to say it this way:  A true church is a Scripture-distributing machine.  It teaches and spreads the Scriptures, and teaches others to teach and spread the Word.

As churches drift from truth, they begin to teach human traditions, emphasise human authority and not the authority of Scripture, and eventually stop teaching Scripture at all.  They may actually discourage others from teaching and preaching Scripture, and some going by the name “Christian” have even persecuted those who spread the Word.  Such “churches” have not been faithful agents in preserving God’s Word — but there have always been those, committed to His Word, who have been willing (if imperfect) tools in God’s hand as He kept His Word faithfully.

When a church spreads the Word, by whatever means, it is preserving the Word — putting the true words of God in the hands and hearts of many people.  The more people who have the true words of God, the less opportunity for erroneous copies to take hold, the more people there will be who will say, “Wait a minute!  That other copy says this, and I’m pretty sure that this new one you are showing me is mistaken.”  Scripture-spreading churches have always been active agents (corporately) in upholding and preserving the Scriptures, and preventing erroneous copies from being accepted.

But Churches Make Mistakes, Too!

Yes, churches certainly do make mistakes, just like individual believers do.  But a true church consists of believers with the indwelling Spirit attesting to the true Word of God.  It is spiritually disposed to recognise the truth and say, “This copy, not that one.”  When you have multiple people who all have the Holy Spirit, His voice is very likely to be heard and received.

Yet, the preservation of the Scriptures has never relied on only one church.  Just as a group of people in a church provides protection against one person making errors that thwart the truth, so also multiple churches protect against errors in one church.  True churches may make mistakes, but they have a “spiritual genetic code” which disposes them to truth.  If that disposition is functioning in multiple churches, the error of one church would be restrained by others.  That single church may accept a false copy of the Word, but others would be unlikely to do so.

Four Lines of Defence

Perhaps it will be helpful to see God’s work of preservation as using four human “lines of defence” against errors in the copying process.

  1. God warned against changing His Word, so Scripture-loving copyists were particularly motivated to use accurate copies as their source and to be accurate in their work.  Thus, many errors would be caught on this first line of defence, and wrong copies would be prevented or rejected.
  2. Even Scripture-loving copyists occasionally made mistakes, both in their choice of source copies and their work, but Spirit-indwelt believers often recognised the true words of God, due to the attesting work of the Spirit, and rejected the erroneous copies.  Those errors by the copyists would have often been caught by a believer saying, “Wait a minute!”
  3. Spirit-indwelt believers made mistakes also, due to their failure to be completely in tune with the attesting work of the Holy Spirit, but true Scripture-spreading churches consisting of many Spirit-indwelt believers often recognised the true words and rejected the erroneous copies.  Even if the first two lines of defence failed, this one would “intercept” most of the remaining errors.
  4. True Scripture-spreading churches made mistakes also, because no church is perfect, but many other Scripture-spreading churches would have often recognised the true words, due to the Spirit’s work of attestation in those churches and their own “Scripture-spreading” ministry, and so the errors would generally be widely rejected.

Thus, the attesting work of the Spirit and the proper functioning of the church were used by God, even when there was no technology to give us perfectly accurate copies, to preserve His Word by causing his people, in most cases, to reject the erroneous copies.

The Final Defence

God is the ultimate protection against copying errors.  He promised to preserve His Word, and He has and does.  Even if imperfect people and churches failed to filter out all the errors in the copying process, God is still active.

The imperfections of believers and churches do not jeopardise the preservation of the Scriptures — for those imperfect tools are in the hand of a perfect God.  Once, when I was a boy, we broke our hammer — so we used a rock to drive nails, and it did the job — I was smart enough to figure out how to hold the rock and use it to strike the nail just right.  We shouldn’t be surprised that a perfect God uses imperfect believers and churches in preservation — He is wise enough to know how to use messed up people like us.  After all, He also uses us in evangelism, teaching, etc.  My salvation is not imperfect because God used imperfect people to bring me to Him.  Nor is preservation flawed because of the imperfections of God’s agents.

As we saw previously, God will use whatever means is necessary to preserve His Word.  That He has worked through His people in His churches is evident, but we cannot know all He has done to preserve His Word down through the centuries.  Nations, monarchs, and government officials have risen and fallen — were some of those changes part of God’s preserving work?  Through the centuries, how many erroneous copies were destroyed in fires, shipwrecks, and other accidents, or just got lost, stuck on a shelf somewhere?  How many times did a copyist just “happen” to pick up the right manuscript to copy, rather than the wrong one, through a “coincidence”?  We will never know the answer to those questions.

Soteriology, pneumatology, and ecclesiology shed light on one aspect of God’s work of preservation, causing God’s people to reject mistaken copies, but we would be wrong to say that God has not worked in other ways as well.  God, and God alone, is the ultimate line of defence against copyist’s errors, and He is fully sufficient in that role.  We don’t need all the details of how He had preserved and continues to do so to believe what He has said.

Main article: His Word Will not Return Void — Summary

About Jon Gleason

Former Pastor of Free Baptist Church of Glenrothes
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2 Responses to His Word Will not Return Void — When Copies Differ (2)

  1. Chip Van Emmerik says:


    Appreciate the series. One question. You keep talking about believer’s being “in tune” with the Spirit so that the Spirit can attest the truth to them. I’m curious how you see the attestation happening; how exactly do you see the Spirit communicating with believers?

    • Jon Gleason says:

      Chip, it’s Spirit communicating with spirit (Romans 8:16). How does that work? I’m not sure we’re told, though we do have some hints.

      I think it is important to remember that the Spirit testifies primarily of Christ, not of Himself (John 15:26; 16:13-14). Thus, we would not expect the Spirit to give a lot of details in the Word about His work. He wants us to know what He does in us, but not a lot of “how” shows up in the Scriptures. Galatians 5 tells us the fruit of the Spirit, but doesn’t really address how He does those things in us.

      Furthermore, we have a direct statement from Christ in John 3:8 that at least one work of the Spirit, His work in our new birth, is somewhat unknown. It happens, God does it, but we aren’t going to have a detailed understanding of how the Spirit works.

      And yet, we do know some things. Faith comes by hearing the Word of God (Romans 10:17). Yet, many people hear the Word of God and do not believe. Others hear the Word many times before they believe — what changes? The answer is the work of the Spirit. He convicts / convinces of the truths of God’s Word (John 16:7-11). It was true before they believed, but they were naturally-minded, not spiritually-minded (I Cor. 2), until the Spirit worked. The Scriptures were freely given to us, but it is only by the Spirit that we confidently know the things they say (I Cor. 2:12). Romans 10 says it is the Word, John 16 says it is the Spirit that convicts, I Corinthians 2 ties them together. The Spirit convicts by causing people to know that the Word is true.

      God calls it a spiritual work, a spiritual testifying with our spirit. It isn’t something we see with our eyes or hear with our ears. It may impact our emotions, but there is no reason it necessarily would. It certainly impacts our minds, because it affects the way we think about God’s Word when we have that confidence that it is true. But it is a spiritual, not mental, communication. Romans 8 says the Spirit bears witness with my spirit, not with my mind. That puts is in a realm where, as with so many other things, we accept God’s Word for what He does even though we may not always understand how He does it.

      The attesting work of the Spirit is not primarily about knowing which copy is good and which copy is bad. It is primarily about knowing that what God has said is His Word, and is true. It is not about copies, but it does apply to the question of copies, and is one way in which God worked to preserve His Word.

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