The Role of the Holy Spirit in Giving Us the New Testament

Ron Minton
Baptist Bible Graduate School of Theology, Springfield, MO

presented at the ETS National Meeting - Jackson, MS. - November, 1996


How was the Holy Spirit involved in giving and preserving the New Testament (inspiration of the initial writings, copying Greek manuscripts, preparing Greek New Testaments, and translation issues)? This is not a technical study on the Holy Spirit or on textual criticism. It is an attempt to explore what role the Spirit has played and should play in the development of the New Testament. Only the New Testament is considered, and it is assumed that the Holy Spirit does lead Christians in textual matters and translation decisions.

The four areas of significance for this study are original inspiration, manuscript copying, modern Greek editions, and English translation. Each will be briefly examined.

Holy Spirit Inspiration and the Originals

There are at least two clearly distinct meanings behind a statement like "I believe that the Bible is the infallible, inerrant, inspired Word of God." I will refer to these two as the TECHNICAL and the GENERIC. [Technical means specific and exactly; generic means in a general way but not always exactly.]

Historically, the words inspired, inerrant, and infallible have been used in a very positive but generic sense for many good Bible translations. When speaking technically about DIRECT Holy Spirit inspiration (some say "inspiration proper") of the Bible, evangelicals and all other inerrantists (as far as I am aware) have historically said that only the original writings (not copies or translations) are inspired, inerrant, and infallible. This view of direct Spirit inspiration does not allow for ANY errors of any kind (not even one letter) to have existed in the original writings that the Spirit inspired. The first mistake made by a copyist was likely made by the first person to copy a New Testament letter. He may have only misspelled one word, but technically speaking, that scribe still introduced an uninspired letter or word into the text. That mistake was allowed, but was not inspired or directed by the Holy Spirit. Yet, the readers of that first copy (let's say some believers in a house church at Thessalonica) could very well say they had an inspired and inerrant epistle from Paul. Technically speaking, they were incorrect. Generically speaking, they were correct. It is normal to use this general--non-technical--language when we speak and say our Bibles are the inspired inerrant Word of God. Translations are inspired only in an indirect or linear way, and the degree of inspiration (or quality) of them all is measured by how accurately and faithfully they reflect the original writings. Only in that sense do they share or partake of inspiration. No copy or translation was directly inspired by the Holy Spirit.

Unless one understands this dual (technical and generic) use of words like "inspired," "infallible," and "inerrant," he will experience (and may even cause) great confusion. Many examples from great leaders could be given to illustrate inspiration, inerrancy, and the dual use of these terms. It is sufficient to offer some quotations of Charles Spurgeon (1834-1892) who was the Prince of Preachers and a leading Baptist in England. Spurgeon had a very high view of inspiration of the original writings of Scripture and argued against those who said the use of human writers lessened their infallibility. His quotations are from the Metropolitan Tabernacle Pulpit.

Spurgeon used the 1881 English Revised Version, but his primary Bible was the KJV. The quotations below almost make him appear to believe the KJV was inerrant, and indeed some have misused his remarks to support such views. "Oh, brethren, it were better to die, that book being true, than to live, that book being false" (12:278). "I accept the inspiration of the Scriptures as a fact" (34:152). "If I did not believe in the infallibility of Scripture--the absolute infallibility of it from cover to cover, I would never enter this pulpit again" (36:9). "We will not have it that God, in his holy book, makes mistakes about matters of history or of science, any more than he does upon the great truths of salvation. If the Lord be God, he must be infallible" (37:159-160). "We believe in plenary, verbal inspiration, with all its difficulties" (45:21). "By the grace of God, from this confidence [in the Bible] I shall never be moved" (45:39). "Scripture never errs" (54:206). "We must settle in our minds that the Word of God must certainly be true, absolutely infallible" (55:242). The next quotations show how Spurgeon recognized the dual use of "inspired." "I do not hesitate to say that I believe that there is no mistake whatever in the original Holy Scriptures from beginning to end. There may be, and there are, mistakes of translation; for translators are not inspired" (35:257). "I fail to see how the sense of Scripture can be inspired if the words in which that sense is expressed are not also inspired. I believe that the very words, in the original Hebrew and Greek, were revealed from heaven" (57:187). "Men talk of the 'mistakes of Scripture.' I thank God that I have never met with any. Mistakes of translation there may be, for translators are men. But mistakes of the original word there never can be, for the God who spoke it is infallible, and so is every word he speaks" (39:195).

Spurgeon clearly believed that technically, only the originals were inerrant and inspired. He also boasted of the inspiration and infallibility of translations in a generic sense. Likewise today, when we preach, we can say just as proudly as Spurgeon, "This Bible is the inspired, inerrant and infallible word of God." No copyist error, translator's mistake, printer's slip, or improved revision nullifies our claim.

The Holy Spirit and Manuscript Copies

It is clear that the role of the Holy Spirit in original inspiration was direct. He not only guided but supernaturally kept from all error. Yet one sees a new thing when it comes to copyists. Having given perfection, God chose to surrender the preservation (copying, translating, publishing) of His Word to the frailties of human effort.

By God's grace, he ensured a kind of providential preservation of Scripture. The Spirit seems to have been involved and led many to copy or translate the written Word. Amazingly, and by the providence of our gracious God, we now have about 5,500 ancient Greek manuscripts and about 20,000 translation manuscripts of the New Testament. We praise God because we are ensured that his Word was abundantly preserved through the ages. However, none of the ancient copiers and translators were supernaturally kept from error and mistake. The earliest of these copiers used primitive paper made from papyrus plants. Some 100 of these ancient papyri manuscripts are extant today.

Papyri Manuscripts

Here only a few facts about these earliest of New Testament manuscripts need to be mentioned. Surely (some would say) the Spirit would want to get things off to a proper start, and would ensure perfection in the copyists of the first few centuries. Yet the best papyri manuscripts indicate serious divergence from each other; this is hardly Holy Spirit perfection. None of them are identical, but my focus will only be on p45, p66, and p75. P45 is from the Beatty collection and p66 and 75 are from the Bodmer collection. All date to about A.D. 200-225, and all are rightly considered among the most valuable because of their great age and considerable length.(1) These three ancient manuscripts have some 78 verses in common, yet they disagree among themselves more times than that. Christians are thankful for these early witnesses and rightly say the Spirit of God had a providential hand in the copying and preservation process. It is clear that the Spirit gave the responsibility and opportunity to publish the Word of God, but he did not impose an artificial infallibility upon the copiers. In fact, the unified testimony of these three seems to reflect a disaster of isolated church copies made in times of persecution. They are not nearly as accurate as one might wish. The details in the chart that follows are sufficient to suggest that the isolated churches or individuals that produced them may not have been able to freely contact well established Christian centers at c. A.D. 200.

VERSEp45p66p75   VERSEp45p66p75   VERSEp45p66p75   VERSEp45p66p75

The chart lists all 78 verses present in both the Chester Beatty (p45, p46, p47) and the early Bodmer (p66, p72, p75) papyri. It indicates when any of them agree. The passages are John 10:7-25; 10:30-11:10; 11:18-37; 11:42-57. The lac indicates a lacuna in p75 (p75 does not have parts of these four verses).

In the 78 verses above, UBS4 cites 12 variants, NA27 cites 147 variants, MT2 cites 77 variants, and the 114 variants above are cited by Swanson, New Testament Greek Manuscripts. More variants could be listed. For example, at 10:16 NA27 lists four variants, and MT2 lists two (but one is not mentioned by NA27). The Swanson text seems to give a good breakdown of the variants. P45, p66 and p75 all agree three times or 2.9%. P45 agrees with p66 six times or 5.3%. P45 agrees with p75 one time or .9%. P45 disagrees with both p66 and p75 104 times or 91%. All of these numbers could be slightly different, depending on which textual apparatus is examined and on how one interprets the data. However, the results will not vary far from the above.

Uncial Manuscripts

The great uncials (, A, B, C, D, W, ) are here and surely they promise to paint a much brighter picture than the papyri. Not only are they old (4th and 5th centuries) but they are lengthy and even has the complete N.T. Certainly they would reflect much more involvement and personal care by the Spirit.

Yet they do have problems. Surely all agree that Hort overrated Vaticanus as much as Tischendorf overrated Sinaiticus. These two great manuscripts disagree with each other (and this is not counting simple errors such as spelling) more than 34 times per chapter in the gospels. When reading through the prison epistles, one will notice that in the UBS textual apparatus they disagree more times than they agree.

Manuscripts A, C, D, W, and (often considered the next five leading uncials) are all mixed(2) textually and D is almost 15% longer in Acts. Therefore, believers can be thankful for these seven preserved uncials, but cannot blame the Spirit for their poor quality.

Minuscule Manuscripts

Majority text advocates may sigh a little in relief, because the minuscules are more consistent and they (with the lectionaries) outnumber the uncials almost twenty to one. But wait, many minuscules are Alexandrian while most are Byzantine. There are hundreds of times that the Majority Text is divided which means that half of the manuscripts must be wrong in those cases.

If it were not for the providential care of God in leading copiers to make so many manuscripts of the New Testament, our sources would be poor indeed. Yet God should not be named as the cause of divergence in the minuscules. Though remarkably consistent, Carson reminds us that there are still 6-10 variants per chapter in the best minuscules.(3)

It was natural in the human copying process for errors to creep into Greek manuscripts, and God did not prevent it from happening. No two New Testament Greek manuscripts are always alike. All have differences. This means that the Holy Spirit did not work miracles to protect them from human imperfections.

Church Fathers and Quotations

Those studying the New Testament text are blessed by the presence of New Testament quotations in the writings of early Christians (church fathers). There are many thousands of these quotations that have come down to us. Yet there are problems: 1) No originals of the fathers are known. 2) They often paraphrased or quoted by memory. 3) Their sources are almost never known. 4) Multiple quotations differ (as when Origen quotes a verse in John four different ways). 5) Sometimes a father quoted from a version with imperfect translation. 6) Some quote other fathers. 7) They often blend text-types.

It is sufficient to say that while many of these church fathers were Spirit filled and Spirit led, they were far from inerrant. They were Spirit guided, but that did not prevent human error.

Early Translations of the New Testament

The Holy Spirit greatly used early translations of the New Testament in evangelism and in building congregations. Some versions, such as the Old Latin, were made in the 100's, and there were many other translations. These were all blessings from the God of heaven. Yet versions are far from perfect.

The extant version manuscripts need textual criticism themselves because we have only copies. The versions contain many translation mistakes, and besides vocabulary difficulties in translation work, Latin has no definite article, Syriac has no distinction between the aorist and imperfect, Coptic has no passive, and other syntax problems exist. Scholars often disagree on the readings or value of many versions. They are valuable, but are also very limited.

The Holy Spirit and Modern Greek Editions

There were about thirty early printed editions from Cardinal Ximenes' 1514 edition through the Elzevirs' Textus Receptus editions of the 1600s. Over 500 editions or printings of the Textus Receptus have been made. None are the same. Finally the UBS3 (United Bible Societies third edition) and the NA26 (Nestle-Aland 26th edition) agreed. UBS4 and NA27 also agreed in 1993. Yet the number 27 (27 editions) itself is staggering.

The Majority Text is already revised and the editors do not consider it to be the original in every respect. Many, including the author, consider it the most accurate Greek New Testament available today, but it differs from the Oxford 1825 TR about 1,850 times.

Certainly the modern editions are a blessing from God, but no thinking person is willing to pick one as perfect. All have errors. The Spirit has used most of them, but has not ordained any to perfection.

The Holy Spirit and English Translations

Here we simply want to look at a few of the more influential English translations from Wycliffe to the NIV. The purpose is to ascertain what role the Holy Spirit played in their development.

WYCLIFFE - John Wycliffe gave us the first English Bible so surely, some will say, he was led of the Spirit. It is certainly true that Wycliffe (a Roman priest) had come to know Christ and had a profound appreciation for the authority of the Bible. Yet, one may reasonably ask to what extent the Spirit would lead and guide Wycliffe's team to work from the Latin Vulgate. The final product, which was completed in the 1380's, was almost as much Latin as it was English. And why, if the Spirit had sanctioned it, was it completely revised in about 1395 (only ten years later) into much better English by John Purvey? One must conclude that this second Wycliffite Bible (the one we call "the Wycliffe Bible") was blessed of God and directed by the Spirit. Many thousands were won to Christ with these hand-copied labor of love editions. Yet since it was already a revision and since the hand copies usually differed because of copying error, one sees that the role of the Spirit was not to sovereignly decree perfection in this work. In spite of this fact, God greatly used it.

TYNDALE - William Tyndale, the man who has made the greatest contribution to those who love the Bible in English, was an incredible person. He became a born-again believer two years or so before 1525, the year his English New Testament was completed. We can feel comfortable in believing he was Spirit filled and led. If the Spirit did not guide him when he accomplished so great a task, can we ever say for certain that He has guided anyone? Yet Tyndale's New Testament went through four editions in his short lifetime. As great as he was (he even invented the word "Passover"), his best edition contained minor mistakes (for example, at Isa. 53:11 he has servants - plural for the singular). Therefore, it seems obvious that the role of the Holy Spirit in guiding Tyndale did not include a supernatural prevention from all error.

The KJV - The KJV was finished in 1611 and served, almost unchallenged, as a standard for over 200 years. Yet it was revised in 1629, 1638, 1762, and 1769. Some changes are listed below. Almost all changes that have occurred in the KJV have improved it and made it closer to the text it was translated from. But in contrast to this, any change at all in the original writings would have changed perfection to imperfection because it is impossible that the Holy Spirit could have made or allowed a mistake in what He had the writers pen. It must be concluded that the KJV translators were led by the Spirit, but not infallibly so. Would the Holy Spirit direct them to include Shakespeare's name in Ps. 46 (46th word from the top and the bottom)? Would the Spirit direct them to include Acts 9:5b-6a even though it has no Greek manuscript support at all? If he did, there is no measure of objectivity.

Gen 6:5GodGOD1629
Gen 39:16her lordhis lord1638
Ex 21:32thirty shekelsthirty shekels of silver1638
Lev 20:11shall be put to deathshall surely be put to death1638
Lev 26:23reformed by these thingsreformed by me1638
Num 6:14lambram1638
Deut 5:29keep my commandmentskeep all my commandments1629
Deut 26:1the LORDthe LORD thy God 1629 & 1637
Josh 3:11covenant, even the Lordcovenant of the Lord1629
Judges 11:2his wives sonshis wife's sons1762
Ruth 3:15And he went into the cityand she went into the city(4)1611
2 Ki 11:10the Templethe temple of the LORD1638
1 Ch 7:5were men of mightwere valiant men of might1638
2 Ch 13:6his LORDhis lord1629
2 Ch 28:11wrath of Godwrath of the LORD1638
Ezra 2:22childrenmen1638
Psalm 69:32seek goodseek God1617
Isa 49:13Godthe LORD1638
Jer 49:1inherit God (1612&1613)inherit Gad1616, 1617, & 1629
Ezek 3:11thy peoplethe children of thy people1638
Ezek 24:7poured it upon the groundpoured it not upon the ground1613
Matt 12:23Is this the son of David?Is not this the son of David?1638
Matt 16:16Thou art ChristThou art the Christ1762
John 11:3sistersisters1629
Acts 24:24which was a Jewwhich was a Jewess1629
1 Cor 4:9approved unto deathappointed unto death
1 Cor 12:28helps in governmentshelps, governments1629
2 Thes 2:14the Lord Jesus Christour Lord Jesus Christ1629
Heb 12:1run with patience run with patience the race1629
1 Jn 5:12he that hath not the Sonhe that hath not the Son of God1629 & 1638
Rev 13:6them that dweltthem that dwell1629

The ERV - In 1881 the English Revised Version appeared as the greatest English Bible translation project since 1611. There was a lot of fanfare, but in 1901 the ASV was made because of inadequacies in the RV. Two generations later, the British again discarded the old for the New English Bible.

The RSV - In 1946, just after WWII (perhaps they should have been fighting instead of translating) the RSV New Testament was completed. The entire Bible was released with great to do in 1952 and its sales were in the millions. So many people read it that it must have been worn out, for it was replaced in 1989 with the NRSV.

The NEB - The British upgraded their Bible to the New English Bible in 1961/70. This time it survived only 19 years and in 1989 the Revised English Bible replaced it. Does the Holy Spirit change his mind that frequently?

The NASB - This Bible is an accurate and very literal translation. However, corrections were made from time to time and now we have the NASB-95 which has restored the 21 verses it previously left out.

The NKJV - The NKJV (1979/82) is really the fifth revision of the KJV. It might comfort us if indeed it were the final word, but italics were added and it has been upgraded on several occasions. There were even British and American editions.

The NIV - This Bible (1973/78) has sold 100 million copies so it can surely claim the Holy Spirit is its heritage. However, the dynamic approach, with some paraphrase, sometimes changes the Word of God, and of course there are the upgrades. The NIV committee is still partly intact and at work, so stay tuned.


God is not the author of confusion. It is true that he leads in textual decision and in translators as they work. However, it cannot be demonstrated that any translator or copier has worked flawlessly. There is a difference between "guiding" and "moving." Copying, translating, and preserving the Bible are human actions and responsibilities; they are not supernatural acts of the Spirit.

Illumination is the work of the Holy Spirit when he enables and assists believers in understanding the meaning of Scripture. It is presumed that he will not illumine one to understand the incorrect text in a textual variant, since that is not actually "Scripture." It is impossible to tell how much or how little the Spirit might help one in choosing the correct text. However, if Christians are willing to study the issues involved and if they have humble and teachable hearts, those determined believers can and should look to God the Holy Spirit for help, guidance, and discernment when making textual and other important decisions. Yet, the careful student of the Word must be aware of the subjectivity that can be present in "allowing the Spirit to guide" in textual matters. Since no two Greek New Testament manuscripts are identical, and though the difference in all the manuscripts is very small indeed, it seems obvious that the Spirit did not supernaturally intervene in all textual decisions.

One's theological beliefs will always affect interpretations. Likewise, theological and philosophical positions can and will affect one's textual and translation decisions. Perhaps it is time to stop giving the Spirit too much credit for past human errors, and just be thankful for what He has provided. If the Scriptures are unclear or uncertain, it is our fault, not His. As Christians, we (including all of our missionaries) can and should boldly say with no hesitation that the Bible we hold in our hands is the inspired inerrant Word of God.

The Holy Spirit has used the completed and preserved Word of God to convict of sin and bring men and women to salvation in Christ for 1,900 years. He will continue to do so!


1. Most extant papyri manuscripts are fragments or contain a few pages only.

2. Most uncials are mixed textually, and the Byzantine uncials outnumber the Alexandrian.

3. D.A. Carson, The KJV Debate, pp. 68-9.

4. See the chart "Selected Readings From the King James Version" in this chapter.