Textual Criticism in the Writings of Francis Turretin

A Case Study in the History of Criticism and Dogma

by Michael Marlowe, May 2003

Francis Turretin (1623-1687) was professor of theology at Geneva and a prominent Reformed theologian. His major work was a systematic theology entitled Institutio Theologicae Elencticae ("Summary of Refutational Theology") completed in 1674 and published in 3 volumes, 1679, 1682, and 1685. This work was reprinted many times and it was widely used by Reformed scholars. In the first volume of this work Turretin discusses problems of textual criticism, a subject which scholars at that time were only just beginning to investigate in a serious way. His remarks on the subject give us a picture of how the problem of various readings was understood by educated men in the later part of the seventeenth century, and of the way in which polemical and dogmatic considerations influenced their thinking on the subject.

Turretin first takes up the subject of the various readings of manuscripts in connection with his discussion of alleged contradictions in the Bible. His main purpose here is to establish that "these various contradictions are only apparent, not real and true; that certain passages are hard to be understood, but not altogether inexplicable." His argument is directed against not only the "declared atheists" who allege many contradictions in order to overthrow the authority of the whole Bible, but also against the Roman Catholics who cast doubt upon the authority of the received Hebrew and Greek texts "so as to bring authority to their Vulgate version." And so the subject is widened into a discussion of corruptions in general. He begins with some general observations regarding the preservation of the text in Hebrew and Greek:

The question does not concern the irregular writing of words or the punctuation or the various readings (which all acknowledge do often occur); or whether the copies which we have so agree with the originals as to vary from them not even in a little point or letter. Rather the question is whether they so differ as to make the genuine corrupt and to hinder us from receiving the original text as a rule of faith and practice.

The question is not as to the particular corruption of some manuscripts or as to the errors which have crept into the books of particular editions through the negligence of copyists or printers. All acknowledge the existence of many such small corruptions. The question is whether there are universal corruptions and errors so diffused through all the copies (both manuscript and edited) as that they cannot be restored and corrected by any collation of various copies, or of Scripture itself and of parallel passages. Are there real and true, and not merely apparent, contradictions? We deny the former.

The reasons are: (1) The Scriptures are inspired of God (theopneustos, 2 Tim 3:16). The word of God cannot lie (Ps 19:8-9; Heb 6:18); cannot pass away and be destroyed (Mat 5:18); shall endure forever (1 Pet 1:25); and is truth itself (John 17:17). For how could such things be predicated of it, if it contained dangerous contradictions, and if God suffered either the sacred writers to err and to slip in memory, or incurable blemishes to creep into it?

(2) Unless unimpaired integrity characterize the Scriptures, they could not be regarded as the sole rule of faith and practice, and the door would be thrown wide open to atheists, libertines, enthusiasts and other profane persons like them for destroying its authenticity and overthrowing the foundation of salvation. For since nothing false can be an object of faith, how can the Scriptures be held as authentic and reckoned divine if liable to contradictions and corruptions? Nor can it be said that these corruptions are only in smaller things which do not affect the foundation of faith. For if once the authenticity of the Scriptures is taken away (which would result even from the incurable corruption of one passage), how could our faith rest on what remains? And if corruption is admitted in those of lesser importance, why not in others of greater? Who could assure me that no error or blemish had crept into fundamental passages? Or what reply could be given to a subtle atheist or heretic who should pertinaciously assert that this or that passage less in his favor had been corrupted? It will not do to say that divine providence wished to keep it free from serious corruptions, but not from minor. For besides the fact that this is gratuitous, it cannot be held without injury, as if lacking in the necessary things which are required for the full credibility of Scripture itself. Nor can we readily believe that God, who dictated and inspired each and every word to these inspired men, would not take care of their entire preservation. If men use the utmost care diligently to preserve their words, especially if they are of any importance, as for example a testament or contract, in order that it may not be corrupted, how much more, must we suppose, would God take care of his word which he intended as a testament and seal of his covenant with us, so that it might not be corrupted; especially when he could easily forsee and prevent such corruptions in order to establish the faith of his church?

The principal arguments for the integrity of the Scriptures and the purity of the sources are four. (1) The chief of these is the providence of God, who as he wished to provide for our faith by inspiring the sacred writers as to what they should write, and by preserving the Scriptures against the attempts of enemies who have left nothing untried that they might destroy them, so he should keep them pure and uncorrupted in order that our faith might always have a firm foundation. (2) The religion of the Jews who have always been careful even to the point of superstition concerning the faithful keeping of the sacred manuscripts. (3) The diligence of the Masoretes who placed their marks as a hedge around the law that it might not in any way be changed or corrupted. (4) The number and multitude of copies, so that even if some manuscripts could be corrupted, yet all could not. 1

In the next paragraph Turretin begins to discuss some examples of "contradictions" which are easily resolved by paying due attention to the different contexts of the passages which are being compared. But before going on to discuss a more difficult example, in which he wishes to depart from the commonly received text of the New Testament in order to solve the problem, he returns to the subject of providential preservation, and reiterates an important qualification of the doctrine:

Although we give to the Scriptures absolute integrity, we do not therefore think that the copyists and printers were inspired, but only that the providence of God watched over the copying of the sacred books, so that although many errors might have crept in, it has not so happened (or they have not so crept into the manuscripts) but that they can be easily corrected by a collation of others (or with the Scriptures themselves). Therefore the foundation of the purity and integrity of the sources is not to be placed in the freedom from fault of men, but in the providence of God which (however men employed in transcribing the sacred books might possibly mingle various errors) always diligently took care to correct them, or that they might be corrected easily either from a comparison with Scripture itself or from more approved manuscripts. It was not necessary therefore to render all the scribes infallible, but only so to direct them that the true reading may always be found out. This book far surpasses all others in purity. 2

Turretin then takes up the problem of Luke 3:36, in which a certain Cainan appears in the common text in the genealogy of Christ, which Turretin considers to be "contrary to the truth of the Mosaic history, Gen. 11:13." He is of the opinion that this mention of Cainan is "spurious, having crept in from the version of the Septuagint ... either from the carelessness of copyists or from a certain pious zeal, that Luke might be consistent with the Septuagint which was then of great authority." He then proceeds to justify this conclusion by the following text-critical argument:

This [i.e. that Cainan in Luke 3:36 is spurious] is plainly proved: (1) by the authority of Moses and of the books of Chronicles which, in the genealogical records formed in three places (Gen. 10:24; 11:13; 1 Chron. 1:18), make no mention of him; (2) the Chaldee paraphrases which uniformly omit Cainan in the book of Genesis and Chronicles; (3) Josephus does not mention him, nor Berosus guided by him, nor Africanus whose words Eusebius quotes in his Chronicorum (cf. 1.16.13 [PG 19.153-54]); (4) the sacred chronology would thus be disturbed and brought into doubt in the history of Moses, if the years of Cainan are inserted between Arphaxad and Sala. Abraham would not be the tenth from Noah as Moses asserts, but the eleventh. (5) It does not exist in any of the Codices. Our Beza testifies that it is not found in his most ancient manuscript (Annotationes maiores in Novum ... Testamentum, Pars prior [1594], p. 262 on Luke 3:36). Ussher ("De Cainano Arphaxadi filio" in Chronologia Sacra 6; cf. Whole Works [1847-64], 11:558) asserts that he saw the book of Luke written in Greek-Latin on the most ancient vellum, in characters somewhat large without breathings and accents (which having been brought from Greece to France was laid up in the monastery of St. Irenaeus in the suburbs of Lyons; and being discovered in the year 1562 was afterward carried to England and presented to the University of Cambridge), and in it he could not find Cainan. Scaliger in his prologue to the chronicle of Eusebius ("Prolegomena," Thesaurus temporum Eusebii .. chronicorum canonum [1606/1968], 1:ii) affirms that Cainan is lacking in the most ancient copies of Luke. Whatever the case may be, even if this passage proves to be a mistake, the authenticity of Luke's gospel cannot be called in question on that account: (a) because the corruption is not universal; (b) this error is of little consequence and a ready means of correcting it is furnished by Moses, so that there was no necessity for that learned man Vossius to throw doubts upon the purity of the Hebrew manuscript in order to establish the authenticity of the Septuagint. 3

He goes on to discuss in detail several other problems of harmonization in the genealogies. Coming to Matthew 1:11, in which the common text reads, "Josias begat Jechonias," he suggests that one solution of the problem would be to suppose that the text was corrupted, and that "Iacheim should be supplied between Josiah and Jechoniah, Jehoiachim being the son of Josiah and the father of Jechoniah (which is proved by the authority of the ancient manuscript which R. Stephanus and Henry his son used, with whom Stapulensis and Bucer agree); and so the restoration would stand more truly Iosias de egennese ton Iacheim - Iacheim egennese ton Iechoniam." In this, and in the treatment of Luke 3:36 quoted above, he shows a preference for the most ancient manuscripts in establishing the true reading when the case requires such "restoration."

He is uninformed, indeed, concerning the manuscripts. He refers to Beza's "most ancient manuscript" (now called Codex D) and the one "written in Greek-Latin on the most ancient vellum" which Ussher describes, without realizing that this is the same manuscript. He also does not know that this is the only ancient codex which supports the omission of "Cainan," and so he is quite wrong when he says that "it does not exist in any of the Codices." There are other examples of mistakes even worse than this later in the treatise, in which it becomes apparent that he had almost no acquaintance with Greek manuscripts of any date, and was entirely dependent upon printed editions. It also appears that he neglected to notice some of the information about various readings of the manuscripts which was given in the Annotations of Beza's printed edition.

Nevertheless, the thing to be noticed here is that Turretin's concept of providential preservation in no way prevented him from calling the commonly received text "corrupt" in some details, and he points to the oldest available manuscripts as a superior authority. In addition to these, he also refers to the evidence afforded by ancient versions (the "Chaldee paraphrases" or Aramaic Targums) and to patristic quotations (Eusebius). In short, the question is to be resolved by referring to ancient copies, versions, and fathers, the same sources favored by textual critics today. Turretin supposes that by the preservation of these oldest witnesses, from which the more recent copies may be corrected, God has provided the means for the restoration of the text — and in this indirect way he has preserved every detail of the true text. Presumably, Turretin would say that God then makes use of text-critical scholarship to bring about the necessary corrections in due time.

Later in the same chapter of this work Turretin again covers much the same ground. After a treatment of the canon, he begins to discuss the "purity of the sources."

The question lies between us and the papists who speak against the purity of the sources for the purpose of establishing more easily the authority of their Vulgate version and leading us away to the tribunal of the church.

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.

The question is not, are the sources so pure that no fault has crept into the many sacred manuscripts, either through the waste of time, the carelessness of copyists or the malice of the Jews or of heretics? For this is acknowledged on both sides and the various readings which Beza and Robert Stephanus have carefully observed in the Greek (and the Jews in the Hebrew) clearly prove it. Rather the question is have the original texts (or the Hebrew and Greek manuscripts) been so corrupted either by copyists through carelessness, or by the Jews or heretics through malice, that they can no longer be regarded as the judge of controversies and the rule to which all the versions must be applied? The papists affirm, we deny it. 4

He then goes on to discuss the extreme carefulness of the Jews in copying and guarding the text of the Old Testament. and he concludes:

Although various corruptions might have crept into the Hebrew manuscripts through the carelessness of transcribers and the waste of time, they do not cease to be a canon of faith and practice. For besides being in things of small importance and not pertaining to faith and practice ... they are not universal in all the manuscripts; or they are not such as cannot easily be corrected from a collation of the Scriptures and the various manuscripts. 5

Regarding the text of the New Testament, he makes some assertions which reveal how poorly equipped he was to discuss the subject in detail. In the interest of countering the charge that the Greek manuscripts preserve only a "mutilated" text (presumably he is arguing here against a position maintained by some Roman Catholics), he says the following:

There is no truth in the assertion that the Hebrew edition of the Old Testament and the Greek edition of the New Testament are said to be mutilated; nor can the arguments used by our opponents prove it. Not the history of the adulteress (John 8:1-11), for although it is lacking in the Syriac version, it is found in all the Greek manuscripts. Not 1 John 5:7, for although some formerly called it into question and heretics now do, yet all the Greek copies have it [habent tamen omnia Exemplaria Graeca], as Sixtus Senensis acknowledges: "they have been the words of never-doubted truth, and contained in all the Greek copies from the very times of the apostles" [et in omnibus Graecis exemplaribus ab ipsis Apostolorum temporibus lecta] (Bibliotheca sancta [1575], 2:298). Not Mark 16 which may have been wanting in several copies in the time of Jerome (as he asserts); but now it occurs in all, even in the Syriac version, and is clearly necessary to complete the history of the resurrection of Christ. 6

The examination of practically any Greek manuscript would have revealed to Turretin that the statement of Sixtus Senensis regarding 1 John 5:7 is simply untrue, for at that time there was only one known Greek copy in which the disputed clause appeared; 7 and it is hard to understand how Turretin could assert that this clause and the Story of the Adulteress are "found in all the Greek manuscripts," when he really should have known otherwise from the notes in Beza's edition and in Walton's Polyglot. We must suppose that he had little interest in discovering the true facts of the case when the common opinion of uninformed men served his purpose. It is very instructive to note this weakness in the work of such a learned man as Turretin.

Resuming his discussion of the Hebrew text (which throughout his treatise seems to be the focus of Turretin's attention), he makes some precarious statements and arguments concerning the vowel points:

In order to weaken the authenticity of the Hebrew edition, our opponents have recourse to the "newness of the points" in vain, as if the punctuation was only a human invention devised by the Masoretes and therefore founded upon human authority, not upon divine and infallible authority; and that it can be changed at pleasure without risk and so always leave the meaning of a passage uncertain and doubtful. Several answers may be given to this. (1) Bellarmine agrees with us here "the errors arising from the points do not interfere with truth because they have come from without and do not change the text" (VD 2.2, p. 65). (2) On this hypothesis, not only does the certainty of the original text fall, but also that of the Vulgate which was taken from that source (unless it can be proved that the first author of that version — whether he was Jerome or some other one — received a revelation of necessary words directly from the Spirit which, were this not the case, it would be certain he had received from the tradition of the Jews; if this were uncertain, the whole authority of the sacred text would totter).

(3) Even if the points were lately added (as they maintain who trace their origin to the Masoretes of Tiberias), it would not follow that the punctuation was a merely human invention, depending solely upon human will (which, if established, would greatly weaken the authenticity of the Hebrew manuscript), because the points, at least according to those who hold this opinion, are not supposed to have been made at the pleasure of the Rabbis, but according to the analogy of Scripture, the genius of the sacred language and the sense established by usage among the Jews. For although (according to this latter hypothesis) the points may not have been from the beginning as to form, still it cannot be denied that they were always as to sound and value or power. Otherwise since vowels are the souls of consonants, a doubtful sense (and in fact no sense at all) would constantly arise from the words, unless they were coeval with the consonants. Prideaux well observes, "No one will deny that the points and accents have been from the first as to sound and value, but only as to the marks and characters" (Lectio 12, "De Punctorum Hebraicorum origine," in Viginti-duae Lectiones [1648], pp. 195, 197). And a little afterwards, "the vowels were coeval with the consonants as to sound and subjective power, although the marks and signs might not then have been known" (ibid, p. 197). Indeed it can scarcely be doubted that the vowels were represented, if not by their present form, yet by some marks in place of points (viz., by the letters ' v y, as some think) which moreover are called matres lectionis, so that the certain and constant sense of the Holy Spirit might be gathered (otherwise it would depend upon mere tradition, and the regulations and memory of men might easily be forgotten and corrupted). This is the opinion of the very learned Walton: "By the use, and according to tradition, by the aid of the three letters ' v y, called matres lectionis, and standing in the place of vowels before the invention of points, the true reading and pronunciation has been preserved" ("De Textuum originariorum integritate et auctoritate," [Prolegomena 7] in Biblia Sacra Polyglotta [1657], 1:44).

(4) The adversaries take for granted the very thing to be proved — that the points are a human and recent invention, the contrary of which the Jews with great unanimity thus far (except one Eli, a Levite, who lived a hundred years ago) have asserted. In their footsteps follow many celebrated men, grammarians as well as theologians, Protestants and papists: Junius, Illyricus, Reuchlin, Munster, Cevalerius, Pagninus, M. Marinus, Polanus, Diodati, Broughton, Muis, Taylor, Bootius, Lightfoot, the great majority of modern theologians, and the Buxtorfs, who here say everything before them — the father in his Tiberias, sive commentarius Masorethicus triplex (1665), and the son in that very weighty work (Anticritica: seu vindiciae veritatis Hebraicae [1653]) in which he opposed the Arcanii punctationis L. Cappelli vindiciae adversus Joh. Buxtorfii (in Louis Cappel's Commentarii et notae criticae in Vetus Testamentum [1689], pp. 795-979). Nor would it be difficult to establish this opinion by various arguments, if appropriate here. But as this question seems rather to be grammatical than theological, we are unwilling to bring it into our field. Suffer us briefly to say that we have always thought the truer and safer way to keep the authenticity of the original text safe and sound against the cavils of all profane persons and heretics whatever and to put the principle of faith upon a sure and immovable basis, is that which holds the points to be of divine origin, whether they are referred to Moses or to Ezra (the head of the great Synagogue). Therefore, the adversaries err who wish to impugn the authority of the Hebrew manuscript from the newness of the points. 8

On this same subject of the vowel points we add here the three relevent paragraphs from the Formula Consensus Helvetica drawn up in 1675, which Turretin is said to have collaborated in.

1. 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" (Rom 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 (2 Pet 1:19), a "sure word of prophecy" and "Holy Scriptures" (2 Tim 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" (Matt 5:18).

2. But, in particular, The Hebrew original of the Old Testament which we have received and to this day do retain as handed down by the Hebrew Church, "who had been given the oracles of God" (Rom 3:2), 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. It thus forms, together with the Original of the New Testament, the sole and complete rule of our faith and practice; and to its standard, as to a Lydian stone, all extant versions, eastern or western, ought to be applied, and wherever they differ, be conformed.

3. Therefore, we are not able to approve of the opinion of those who believe that the text which the Hebrew Original exhibits was determined by man's will alone, and do not hesitate at all to remodel a Hebrew reading which they consider unsuitable, and amend it from the versions of the LXX and other Greek versions, the Samaritan Pentateuch, by the Chaldaic Targums, or even from other sources. They go even to the point of following the corrections that their own rational powers dictate from the various readings of the Hebrew Original itself which, they maintain, has been corrupted in various ways; and finally, they affirm that besides the Hebrew edition of the present time, there are in the versions of the ancient interpreters which differ from our Hebrew text, other Hebrew Originals. Since these versions are also indicative of ancient Hebrew Originals differing from each other, they thus bring the foundation of our faith and its sacred authority into perilous danger. 9

Now, on this issue of the vowel points Turretin was quite mistaken. Recent discoveries of ancient Hebrew manuscripts have proven beyond all doubt that they were in fact absent from the ancient text, and were added by the Masoretes in the early middle ages. It was unwise of Turretin to argue for their originality on the basis of a dogmatic prejudice, or to frame the issue in terms of polemical expediency, as he does in his Institutes candidly enough. Nevertheless we should observe that in his discussion of the matter, and in the Helvetic Consensus Formula, it is not flatly asserted that the points are original and inspired. The possibility that they were added later is left open, but it is asserted that if this be the case, the points are no less authoritative on that account, because they represent an authentic and reliable tradition of vocalization. So it is not really accurate to say that Turretin or the Formula categorically asserted the inspiration of the points.

In conclusion, we can say that although Turretin's approach to text-critical issues was largely determined by his anti-Catholic polemic, which led him to make some incautious mistakes, his writings show that he did not espouse such a jot-and-tittle view of providential preservation that he was unwilling to emend the commonly received Greek text of the New Testament. He acknowledged that various readings in the manuscripts may be more authentic than the readings of the Textus Receptus, and when he discusses these various readings he clearly shows his preference for the oldest witnesses to the text. Yet he opposes, for polemical reasons, the idea that the Vulgate is a credible witnesses to any ancient form of the text of the New Testament when it disagrees with the Greek manuscripts known to him, and he denies that the Septuagint is useful as a witnesses to the ancient text of the Old Testament when it seems to disagree with the commonly received Hebrew text.

1. English translation from Institutes of Elenctic Theology by Francis Turretin, trans. George Musgrave Giger, ed. James T. Dennison, vol 1 (Phillipsburg, New Jersey: Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing, 1992), pp. 71-72

2. ibid, pp. 72-73

3. ibid, p. 74

4. ibid, p. 106

5. ibid, pp. 108-9

6. ibid, p. 115. The original reads, “Falso Editio Hebraea Veteris et Graeca Novi Testamenti dicitur mutila: Nec quae ab Adversariis afferuntur testimonia hoc evincere possunt. Non historia adulterae, Joh. 8, licet enim desit in Syriaca Versione, reperitur in omnibus Graecis Codicibus. Non dictum, 1 Joh. v. 7, quamvis enim quidam in dubium olim vocarint, et vocent hodie haeritici, habent tamen omnia Exemplaria Graeca, ut Sixtus Senensis agnoscit: verba indubitatae semper veritatis fuerunt, et in omnibus Graecis exemplaribus ab ipsis Apostolorum temporibus lecta. Non Marci 16 caput, quod potuit in variis exemplaribus desiderari tempore Hieronymi, ut ipse fatetur; sed nunc in omnibus habetur, etiam in Syriaca Versione, et est plane necessarium ad pertexendam historiam resurrectionis Christi.”

7. It seems that between the middle of the sixteenth century and the end of the eighteenth, almost no one felt a need to consult manuscripts, because the editions of the Greek text printed by Estienne were accepted as being virtually equivalent to “the most approved copies.” Hence John Calvin in his commentary on the first epistle of John (published 1551) wrote concerning the Johannine Comma: Hoc totum a quibusdam omissum fuit. Hieronymus existimat malitia potius quam errore id fuisse factum, et quidem a Latinis duntaxat. Sed quum ne Graeci quidem codices inter se consentiant, vix quicquam asserere audeo. Quia tamen optime fluit contextus, si hoc membrum addatur, et video in optimis ac probatissimae fidei codicibus haberi, ego quoque libenter amplector. (“The whole of this has been omitted by some. Jerome thinks that this has happened through malice rather than through mistake, and that indeed only with refence to the Latin translations. [Calvin is here referring to a statement in the “Prologue to the Canonical Epistles” which purports to be by Jerome.]   But as even the Greek copies do not agree among themselves, I dare not assert any thing on the subject. Since, however, the passage flows better if this clause is added, and I see it to be supported in the best and most approved copies, I also gladly embrace it.”)

8. Institutes of Elenctic Theology, pp. 115-116.

9. English translation by Martin I. Klauber, Trinity Journal 11 (1990): 103-23.