Thursday, February 17, 2022

In persute of origins. . .

The goal and purpose of textual criticism and, indeed, the liturgical movement have been for a very long time to presume the original texts both of Scripture and the earliest liturgy.  The roots of historical criticism lie with the presumption that what we have in the text and how we have understood that text is under suspicion and reflects a later imposition upon the text.  Whether you spent time in seminary underlining portions of the Gospels that came from the Q source or divvying up Old Testament among the JEDP sources or not, it is a common presupposition that the text of Scripture is at best a compilation and at worst a different word that the original.  So the Hebrew Old Testament is constantly being reviewed and re-evaluated to decide which rendering is closest to the original and the Greek New Testament suffers the same fate of constant criticism in pursuit of an original text.  So also the liturgical movement has viewed early and good as one and the same, skeptical of the accretions of time and revision.  While some of this may end up as interesting debate, is it actually helpful to the Church and the mission of proclaiming the Word of the Lord that endures forever?

Disputes over text and Canon of Scripture having been going on long enough that they actually threaten the text itself and provide a distraction from dealing with the text that we have.  Textual criticism in the Bible and order of the mass can easily derail the Church from confidence that what we have and use today is reliable and trustworthy.  Some have recently been arguing for an earlier, rather than later New Testament Canon, perhaps that a "Four Gospel Canon" was set in place circa 100 in Rome.  I am happy when voices are raised to challenge the idea that the text we have has been developed over time and represents an evolution of texts instead of a Scripture we can trust or a Divine Service that is credible and reliable.  Recently I have begun to look less at modern versions who presume to be more accurate and have returned to reading out of the King James.  At the same time, the Vulgate, once regarded as an inferior tradition, has itself undergone something of a rebirth.

Of course, there are and will be variants in the texts and text families as we have received them.  But the real question today is not originality as the primary pursuit but reliability.  I could argue that the variants are not quite as significant as the critics make them out to be but that would move the argument right back to text and the discovery of some kind of pristine original.  In reality, the job of the Church and her exegetes has never been to unearth a perfect and original manuscript but to provide for the Church in public worship and for the people of God in private reading a usable, reliable, and orthodox text of Scripture to read and the Divine Service to guide our praise.  Originality is fine as a side gig but the most important purpose of textual criticism and exegesis is to aid the Church in preaching the Word that bestows faith by the Holy Spirit and to give a faithful order by which the people of God unite their voices in prayer, praise, and thanksgiving -- receiving the means of grace both with confidence and with gratitude.

Reconstructing the original is a pursuit that may be fabulously interesting but not quite helpful to the Church.  This is because it presumes that what was original is somehow different than what we have today and the Bible and the liturgy as we know them are unreliable and suspect.  That is the problem.  They are not.  Reform is always a good thing in restoring to the Divine Service its integrity as the place where the people of God receive His gifts and the review of the text is always a good thing when the goal is preaching that Word that gives life and faith to the hearer but reform is a dangerous thing if it leaves in its wake the presumption that what we have had is wrong or defective.  Confidence in what we have been catechized has been the aim and goal of the teaching and worship of God's people since St. Luke penned that phrase in explaining his Gospel.  We must be wary of becoming so distracted by the pursuit of the original that we allow suspicion and doubt to linger at what we have in Scripture and Divine Service.  If we don't, we leave our people adrift on a sea of doubt about the very means to that confidence.


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