Charles Spurgeon and Textual Criticism

Elijah Hixson has a fascinating article published in the Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society titled, “New Testament Textual Criticism in the Ministry of Charles Haddon Spurgeon,” (JETS 57/3 (2014) 555–70) I found a pdf here. In it he notes that “one of the most paradigm-shifting events in the discipline of NT textual criticism happened during Spurgeon’s ministry: the publication of Westcott and Hort’s NT in the Original Greek [1881]” (555). It was Hort who “dethroned the Textus Receptus,”and Spurgeon found himself having to account for this shift.

Spurgeon offered this in Commenting and Commentaries: “Do not needlessly amend our authorized version. It is faulty in many places, but still it is a grand work taking it for all in all, and it is unwise to be making every old lady distrust the only Bible she can get at, or what is more likely, distrust you for falling out with her cherished treasure. Correct where correction must be made for truth’s sake, but never for the vainglorious display of your critical ability.”

Hixson then gives examples from 9 texts containing significant variants and how Spurgeon handled them. Sometimes Spurgeon kept with the traditional reading (the longer ending of Mark), other times he went with the “oldest manuscripts.” In one case, he preached a whole sermon point on a variant that he rejected as original. (“In Christ No Condemnation,” point III.): “Now we come to the third point, upon which we shall speak only briefly, because this part of my text is not a true portion of Holy Scripture.” It reminds me of John Piper’s approach to texts like John 7:53–8:11.

At one point Spurgeon preached an entire sermon on a textual variant: “And We Are: A Jewel from the Revised Version.”

Spurgeon preached eight sermons from Mark 16:9–20, and four expositions (Hixson, 562).

Hixson concludes with three observations: “First, Spurgeon was an independent, critical thinker, knowledgable in the discipline of NT textual criticism, and he weighed the evidence and made his own judgments, rather than taking the word of any one individual… Second, Spurgeon only discussed variants when necessary… Finally, to Spurgeon, evangelistic preaching of the gospel of Christ was preeminent. NT textual criticism was merely a servant to this goal” (568).

He closes with a quote which is worth repeating in full. The sermon was from Luke 4:18 which Spurgeon did not believe contained the full quotation from Isaiah 61:1. “Spurgeon’s solution to this problem was simple: rather than preaching from the text in Luke, he preached from the same text in Isa 61:1” (562):

“Concerning the fact of difference between the Revised and the Authorized Versions, I would say that no Baptist should ever fear any honest attempt to produce the correct text and an accurate interpretation of the Old and New Testaments. For many years Baptists have insisted upon it that we ought to have the Word of God translated in the best possible manner, whether it would confirm certain religious opinions and practices, or work against them. All we want is the exact mind of the Spirit as far as we can get it. Beyond all other Christians we are concerned in this, seeing we have no other sacred Book. We have no Prayer Book or binding creed, or authoritative minutes of conferences. We have nothing but the Bible and we would have that as pure as ever we can get it. By the best and most honest scholarship that can be found, we desire that the common version may be purged of every blunder of transcribers, addition of human ignorance or human knowledge so that the Word of God may come to us as it came from His own hand. I confess that it looks a grievous thing to part with words which we thought were part and parcel of Luke, but as they are not in the oldest copies and must be given up, we will make capital out of their omission by seeing in that fact the wisdom of the great Preacher who did not speak upon cheering Truths of God when they were not needed and might have overlaid His seasonable rebuke. Although we have not the sentence in Luke, we do have it in Isaiah, and that is quite enough for me.

The whole article by Hixson is fascinating, and I commend it to anyone interested in textual criticism or Charles Spurgeon.

4 thoughts on “Charles Spurgeon and Textual Criticism”

  1. Spurgeon: AD 1891 “If this book be not infallible, where shall we find infallibility? We have given up the Pope, for he has blundered often and terribly; but we shall not set up instead of him a horde of little popelings fresh from college.Are these correctors of Scripture infallible? Is it certain that our Bibles are not right, but that the critics must be so? The old silver is to be depreciated; but the German silver, which is put in its place, is to be taken at the value of gold. Striplings fresh from reading the last new novel correct the notions of their fathers, who were men of weight and character. Doctrines which produced the godliest generation that ever lived on the face of the earth are scouted as sheer folly. Nothing is so obnoxious to these creatures as that which has the smell of Puritanism upon it. Every little man’s nose goes up celestially at the very sound of the word “Puritan”; though if the Puritans were here again, they would not dare to treat them thus cavalierly; for if Puritans did fight, they were soon known as Ironsides, and their leader could hardly be called a fool, even by those who stigmatized him as a “tyrant.” Cromwell, and they that were with him, were not all weak-minded persons—surely?
    Strange that these are lauded to the skies by the very men who deride their true successors, believers in the same faith. But where shall infallibility be found? “The depth saith, it is not in me”; yet those who have no depth at all would have us imagine that it is in them; or else by perpetual change they hope to hit upon it. Are we now to believe that infallibility is with learned men? Now, Farmer Smith, when you have read your Bible, and have enjoyed its precious promises, you will have, to-morrow morning, to go down the street to ask the scholarly man at the parsonage whether this portion of the Scripture belongs to the inspired part of the Word, or whether it is of dubious authority. It will be well for you to know whether it was written by the Isaiah, or whether it was by the second of the “two Obadiahs.” All possibility of certainty is transferred from the spiritual man to a class of persons whose scholarship is pretentious, but who do not even pretend to spirituality. We shall gradually be so bedoubted and becriticized, that only a few of the most profound will know what is Bible, and what is not, and they will dictate to all the rest of us. I have no more faith in their mercy than in their accuracy: they will rob us of all that we hold most dear, and glory in the cruel deed. This same reign of terror we shall not endure, for we still believe that God revealeth himself rather to babes than to the wise and prudent, and we are fully assured that our own old English version of the Scriptures is sufficient for plain men for all purposes of life, salvation, and godliness. We do not despise learning, but we will never say of culture or criticism. “These be thy gods, O Israel!” (1891 The Greatest fight in the world C H Spurgeon final manifesto)

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    1. It’s a good quote! However, I’m not sure it has anything to do with textual criticism. In the section you quoted, the only specific example he gives is the question of the authorship of Isaiah (“…or whether it was by the second of the ‘two Obadiahs.'”) If you read the context beyond this quote (those who are interested can find the whole thing here: https://archive.spurgeon.org/misc/gfw.php), you’ll see that his concerns include the “conflict” between science and the Bible and whether to amend the doctrine of the atonement, but nothing about textual criticism. One thing this quote does demonstrate, though, is his concern that preachers handle the Bible in a way that instills confidence rather than skepticism, a concern that we do see demonstrated in the way he handled text-critical questions (as in the original post and Hixson’s article). Thanks for sharing!

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