Bible - Inspiration & Authority

Answering the Higher Critics

By Dr. Paul M. Elliott
What is the answer to those who claim that the church must be satisfied with "uncertainty" and "ambiguity" about the Word of God?

From the TeachingtheWord Bible Knowledgebase

Part four of a series. Read part three.

What is the answer to those who claim that the church must be satisfied with "uncertainty" and "ambiguity" about the Word of God?

In the previous article of this series, we cited two examples of self-described evangelicals who effectively deny that God is sovereign over His Word - and have instructed an entire generation of evangelicals to think that way. They represent men of the same mind who occupy thousands of pulpits and teach in hundreds of Bible college and seminary classrooms across America and the wider world. Their influence is massive, and spiritually destructive. What is the answer to these representatives of the Bible critics? We now take up that subject.

In August of 2023 this writer, along with Andrew Uibel, our video producer, had the privilege of spending an intensive week in Brazil with Dr. Wilbur Pickering. Dr. Pickering is unquestionably the leading living expert on the manuscripts of the New Testament. It is no exaggeration to say that no one else in the history of the church has studied the New Testament manuscripts in the way and to the extent that Dr. Pickering has. Dr. Pickering pursued a bachelor's degree in mathematics, holds a master's degree in theology with a specialization in New Testament Greek, another master's degree in linguistics, and a Ph.D. in linguistics.

After decades working in the field of Bible translation in Brazil, he has spent the last twenty-four years gathering, collating, and comparing thousands of New Testament manuscripts from every part of the world. Dr. Pickering is, as I write this (in January 2024) 89 years old but still occupied full-time in this work. He has traveled to libraries, monasteries, and study centers around the world to examine ancient manuscripts firsthand. The availability, in recent years, of growing numbers of digital images of the manuscripts on the internet has broadened, deepened, and intensified his efforts. It has been, as he describes it, "slave labor" to do this work ten hours and more each day for over two decades. But as he puts it, "I have been God's slave for this. It is the task He gave me to do - to empirically demonstrate the objective authority of Holy Scripture. The painstaking process of collation is the only way to conclusively demonstrate that God has preserved His text as He promised. There are no shortcuts."

During our visit we recorded over 14 hours of video interviews with Dr. Pickering. We are documenting his life for a written biography, God willing. During part of these interviews he explained on-camera the methods he has used to empirically demonstrate beyond doubt that God is sovereign over His Word.

Dr. Pickering has entrusted to our ministry much of the work he has done - tens of thousands of pages of manuscript evidence, with his notations, demonstrating beyond a shadow of a doubt that the text of the New Testament as given by the Holy Spirit has not been lost, as the critics claim and as many evangelical pastors and scholars now mistakenly believe. Dr. Pickering has given us full and free rights to use and to enhance all that he has written over a lifetime of work. We have become the stewards of a great treasure.

Let me share with you an example of what Dr. Pickering has written about those who would claim that the church must be satisfied with "uncertainty" and "ambiguity" about the Word of God. In what follows he deals specifically with the falsehood, which we discussed in the previous article, that the closing verses of the Gospel of Mark are not in the original text. (Dr. Pickering has demonstrated empirically that they are unquestionably original.) But what he says applies not only to Mark but to the full body of Scripture from Genesis to Revelation:

The Holy Spirit inspired Mark's Gospel. And why would He do something like that? Evidently God wanted subsequent generations to have an official biography of Jesus Christ, a description of His life, death and resurrection whose accuracy was guaranteed and whose content was sufficient for His purpose. (The fact that there are four official biographies written from different perspectives does not obviate the integrity of each one individually.)

I find it inconceivable that an official biography, commissioned by God and written subject to His quality control, should omit proofs of the resurrection, should exclude all post-resurrection appearances, should end with the clause "because they were afraid"!

But most modern critics assure us that such is the case, that the genuine text ends at verse 8. So where was God all this time? If the critics' assessment is correct we seem to be between a rock and a hard place. Mark's Gospel as it stands is mutilated (if it ends at verse 8), the original ending having disappeared without a trace. But in that event what about God's purpose in commissioning this biography? Are we to say that God was unable to protect the text of Mark or that He just could not be bothered? Either option would be fatal to the claim that Mark's Gospel is "God-breathed".

If God tried but was powerless to prevent the mutilation of Mark in this way, how can we be sure that the book has not been mutilated in other ways and places, or even systematically? For that matter, how can we be sure that other New Testament books have not been mutilated too, or maybe even all of them? Anyway, the degree of mutilation would no longer be an issue because if God was powerless to protect His Word then He would not really be God and it would not make all that much difference what He says. The Bible would lose its authority and consequently its importance.

What about the other option - that God could have protected Mark but chose not to? Of what value would quality control be if it extended only to the writing? If God permitted the original ending of Mark to be lost before any copies were made then the biography was 'published' in a seriously incomplete form, and it becomes decidedly awkward to speak of its 'verbal, plenary' inspiration.

If God would permit a mutilation of such magnitude, then what assurance do we have that He would not permit any number of further mutilations? Again, the problem extends to the other New Testament books. Quality control would be gone out the window and we would be left 'whistling in the dark'. If God is not going to protect His text, will not the purpose of inspiration be frustrated? [1]

Since God is sovereign over His Word as He is over all else, the purpose of inspiration has not been frustrated. God has not been defeated. But what happens when Christians accept false arguments about the text of Scripture that effectively say that God's purpose has been frustrated? We shall consider this question as we continue.


1. Wilbur N. Pickering, The Identity of the New Testament Text, fourth edition (Brasilia, Brazil: Project Underground Church, 2014) pages 299-300.

Next: What Happens to Academia and the Church?


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