Verbal Plenary Preservation and the Doctrine of the Trinity

28 December 2023

By Dr. Adi Schlebusch

The belief in the Trinity is foundational and central to Christian theology, and like all Christian doctrines it of course requires a firm textual basis in the canonical Scriptures (see Westminster Larger Catechism questions 3-5).  This is why it is so important to address any challenges to this textual basis as fundamentally undermining the Christian faith.

The doctrine of the Trinity can be derived from various texts in Scripture, such as Genesis 1:26, 3:22; Matthew 3:17, 28:19; Luke 1:35; and II Corinthians 13:14. The most explicit reference to the Trinity in Scripture, however, is I John 5:7. Known as the Comma Johanneum, this text has been disputed over the past few centuries by textual critics in the tradition of Westcott and Hort. Their view of textual criticism, however, is suspect. These critics maintain that the oldest extant Greek manuscripts, and their readings, should be considered the closest to the original. Therefore, they argue these should be accepted as authoritative, even over those readings which Christians have received as canonical for centuries. While this naturalist, functionally agnostic presupposition is sadly accepted by the overwhelming majority of Christians today, its implications are very problematic with regard to the Christian doctrine of canonicity. The Westminster Confession declares in its first chapter, paragraph IV: “The authority of the Holy Scripture, for which it ought to be believed, and obeyed, depends not upon the testimony of any man, or Church; but wholly upon God (who is truth itself) the author thereof: and therefore it is to be received, because it is the Word of God.” The confession continues to say that the Greek and Hebrew manuscripts, “being immediately inspired by God, and, by His singular care and providence, kept pure in all ages, are therefore authentical; so as, in all controversies of religion, the Church is finally to appeal unto them.”

Furthermore, the Helvetic Consensus (1675) teaches that 

God, the Supreme Judge, not only took care to have his word, which is the “power of God unto salvation to every one that believes” (Romans 1:16), committed to writing by Moses, the Prophets and the Apostles, but has also watched and cherished it with paternal care from the time it was written up to the present, so that it could not be corrupted by craft of Satan or fraud of man. Therefore the Church justly ascribes to it his singular grace and goodness that she has, and will have to the end of the world (II Peter 1:19), a “sure word of prophecy” and “Holy Scriptures” (II Tomothy 3:15), from which though heaven and earth pass away, “the smallest letter or the least stroke of a pen will not disappear by any means” (Matthew 5:18) ... [and that this text is] not only in its consonants, but in its vowels either the vowel points themselves, or at least the power of the points not only in its matter, but in its words, inspired by God.

The doctrine of verbal plenary preservation taught by these historic confessions is clearly implied by II Timothy 3:15-16 where Paul writes with regard to apographa, that is, the Hebrew copies of the Scriptures that Timothy had read (as opposed to autographa—the original manuscripts), that these are “given by inspiration of God.” The Church is therefore rightfully incapable of laying down the criteria for canonicity, but merely receives the Scripture (by the inward witness of the Holy Spirit) as such. As John Calvin notes, “In vain were the authority of Scripture fortified by argument, or supported by the consent of the Church, or confirmed by any other helps, if unaccompanied by an assurance higher and stronger than human judgement can give.”1 Calvin also writes concerning the reception of the Word: “The Law of Moses [although this applies to all of Scripture] has been wonderfully preserved, more by divine providence than by human care. . . . [I]t has continued in the hands of men, and has been transmitted in unbroken succession from generation to generation.”2 

We see, then, that lower criticism, as applied by Westcott-Hort and those who adhere to their restorationist textual critical framework as opposed to the preservationist textual critical framework taught by our confessions, errs in the same way the Roman Catholic Church errs: both unlawfully regard human judgment (whether scientific or ecclesiastical) as the determining factor for canonicity. It is this heretical view of Scripture which underlies the doubt cast with regard to the Comma Johanneum on textual-critical grounds.

Furthermore, a common myth utilized to discredit this Trinitarian clause claims that a Greek manuscript containing the text was fabricated by the Franciscan monk Froy. This allegedly occurred when Disederius Erasmus requested a manuscript with the comma, so he could be surer of the authenticity of his translations. Yet, there is literally no primary source evidence that this ever happened, which means that this amounts to nothing more than conjecture. In fact the Dutch scholar Henk Jan De Jonge proves this to be the case in a 1980 article titled “Erasmus and the Comma Johanneum  published in the peer-reviewed journal Ephemerides Theologicae Lovaniensis. De Jonge begins by noting: “How often must those who lecture in the New Testament or textual criticism at universities the world over have passed on the story of the good faith with which a deceived Erasmus kept his word to the students in their lecture halls!”3 In this regard he even confesses his own guilt: “The writer of these lines cannot plead innocence in this respect.”4

De Jonge proceeds to disprove the historicity the anecdote by convincingly showing that “there is no trace of this tradition in the works of the great experts in the history of the text of the New Testament in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.”5 After extensive research, the earliest reference which De Jonge could find for the anecdote was in an 1818 work by T. H. Horne. And vitally, he adds, “It remains unclear from which source Horne derived his information.”6

While it is of course true that the Greek evidence for this clause is weak, the amount of Latin manuscripts make up for it. R.L. Dabney, though understandably weary of using this passage for polemical purposes against skeptics, makes a compelling argument as to why the Latin reading of this particular passage (mostly used by the Church through the ages) is to be received: 

[Here] the Latin Church stands opposed to the Greek church. . . . There are strong probable grounds to conclude, that the text of the Scriptures current in the East received a mischievous modification at the hands of the famous Origen. . . . Those who are best acquainted with the history of Christian opinion know best, that Origen was the great corrupter, and the source, or at least earliest channel, of nearly all the speculative errors which plagued the church in after ages. . . . He disbelieved the full inspiration and infallibility of the Scriptures, holding that the inspired men apprehended and stated many things obscurely . . .  He expressly denied the consubstantial unity of the Persons and the proper incarnation of the Godhead—the very propositions most clearly asserted in the doctrinal various readings we have under review.7 

As Christians we are therefore to receive this passage in faith as authentic and as the most explicit text in support of the most vital doctrine of the Trinity. As this article has shown, the challenges to its authenticity are wholly based on the false presuppositions of restorationist textual criticism and historical ignorance. In order to maintain the scriptural foundation of this doctrine against onslaughts, however, it is vital to maintain the epistemological foundation of Biblical infallibility, which fundamentally rests on the doctrine of verbal plenary preservation just as much as it does on the doctrine of verbal plenary inspiration.

1. John Calvin, The Institutes of the Christian Religion (1559), 1.8.1.
2. Ibid., 1.8.9.
3. H. J. De Jonge, “Erasmus and the Comma Johanneum,” Ephemerides Theologicae Lovaniensis 56, no. 4 (1980), 382.
4. Ibid.
5. Ibid.
6. Ibid., 383.
7. R. L. Dabney, Discussions of Robert Lewis Dabney, with a biographical sketch by B. B. Warfield, 2 vols. (Carlisle, PA, USA: The Banner of Truth Trust, 1967), p. 381-382.