Wednesdays With Robertson: Why Textual Criticism for the Preacher

It was in the classroom under the instruction of John A. Broadus that A.T. Robertson began to have an interest in textual criticism.[1] With great appreciation for his teacher and father-in-law, Robertson referred to Broadus as a “master of the theme” who taught the class with “zest and great skill.”[2]

            Textual criticism according to Stanley Porter “is the concern to recover the original form of the text by means of rigorous text-critical methodology to the available manuscript evidence.”[3] As Professor of New Testament Interpretation at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary Robertson taught New Testament textual criticism throughout his teaching career. The great theologian B.B. Warfield even requested that Robertson revise Warfield’s own introductory textbook on the subject, but Robertson was exhausted from researching grammar. Later in his career he ultimately would publish his own book, An Introduction to Textual Criticism of the New Testament in 1925.

            A year later Robertson published a collection of essays entitled Studies in the Text of the New Testament and in that volume Robertson dedicates an entire chapter to answering the question, why textual criticism for the preacher? It seems that Robertson felt the need to come to the discipline’s defense as theological institutions began to remove it from their curriculum. “To the average preacher there is no more uninteresting or uninviting field of study than the textual criticism of the New Testament. Many do not even know the meaning of the phrase. It is not taught in all our theological seminaries.”[4]  Worried that ignorance of the field would result in poor preaching, Robertson with perhaps a little too much drama writes,

“The intelligent minister today cannot afford to remain in complete ignorance of this subject. If he does, he may find himself preaching from a text that some of the Sunday School teachers know is not genuine. Or he may be unable to form an intelligent opinion on the point at issue and have to rely wholly upon the opinion of others. Few things are more dreary than pulpit quotations of scholars on any given point, whether pro or con.”

This past week I was faced with two scenarios that support Robertson’s concern. The first was the textual variant in Mark 1:41. Most manuscripts read, “and being moved with pity/compassion he reached out his hand and touched him”(καὶ ⸁σπλαγχνισθεὶς ἐκτείνας τὴν χεῖρα* ⸂αὐτοῦ ἥψατο⸃). However, an important Greek manuscript has a different reading and it is even favored by the NIV, “Jesus was indignant. He reached out his hand and touched the man” (καὶ ὀργισθεὶς ἐκτείνας τὴν χεῖρα αὐτοῦ ἥψατο). Although I preach from the ESV, many members at Hermon use the NIV and ignoring it from the pulpit didn’t seem helpful.

            The other scenario came from a loved one who sent me a text just this Monday morning. “Question, Matthew 18:11 in the NLT doesn’t exist. It skips from verse 10 to 12. I got a message from someone I gifted the Bible to. I looked it up and found it was added later. Does that information sound accurate?” These examples reminded me that I have the opportunity to protect believers from the false notion that there is “something wrong with their Bible.” In order to maximize that opportunity I need to continue to grow in my knowledge of textual criticism. These questions will not be left in the classroom. They will come from the lips of parishioners, family members, or friends.

With Robertson, I want to be able to encourage Christians to marvel that “through the centuries of repeated copying by so many men in so many languages the text of the New Testament has suffered so little real damage.We may be sure that nothing essential has been lost.”[5]

            Unfortunately, I was unable to take New Testament Textual Criticism as an elective during my MDiv. Every student has to make choices and I chose a class on the Septuagint. It was a great class and I don’t regret it for a second, but I wish I would have had one more elective available! This brings us to an important question. Given that textual criticism is such a technical field and the pastor will likely never achieve expertise in it, should he simply ignore it? Robertson says absolutely not.[6]

“Even if one does not become an expert in it, he will gain a sense of independence in reaching probable conclusions that will be satisfying…There is also a splendid training in clear thinking in this study. One balances the various forms of evidence before he reaches his final conclusion. This mental process calls for insight, weighing evidence, delicate balancing of probabilities, clear grasp of the data, honesty in deciding. These qualities are not confined, to be sure, to this study, but they are so demanded by it that one gains a fine intellectual drill in the exercise of them.”[7]

I will never be an expert in any field, but for the pastor expertise is not the point. Robertson reminds us of the joy of doing difficult things! The task of textual criticism challenges and stretches the preacher in positive ways. As the nonspecialist pastor labors over the text and the evidence, “he will gain a sense of independence…that will be satisfying.”

            Theological retrieval is emphasized today and rightly so! However, we can’t move from text to theology if we don’t have a text. In Why Textual Criticism for the Preacher, Robertson reminds us that students and pastors can’t afford to abandon the seemingly dry work of textual criticism.

            “It is plain that no intelligent minister can afford to be indifferent to the textual criticism of the New Testament, the subject fascinates those who study it long enough to feel at home in it, and it repays amply all the work that one may devote to it.”

[1] A.T. Robertson, An Introduction to Textual Criticism of the New Testament (Nashville: Broadman and Holman, 1925) vii.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Stanley Porter and Andrew Pitts, Fundamentals of New Testament Textual Criticism (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2015) 1.

[4] A.T. Robertson, Studies in the Text of the New Testament (New York: George H. Doran Company, 1926) 54.

[5] Robertson, Studies in the Text of the New Testament, 64.

[6] A very important distinction needs to be made in regards to those who have theological education available to them and those who do not. Pastors and preachers who fill pulpits, work bi-vocationally, and/or have little access to theological education are a blessing. Ultimately 1 Timothy 3:1-7 provides the qualifications for an elder.

[7]  Robertson, Studies in the Text of the New Testament 58.

Wednesdays With Robertson

Jesus as a Soul-Winner

            If people know the name A.T. Robertson, they likely know it because of his Grammar of the Greek New Testament in Light of Historical Research, which has often been called “The Big Grammar.”[1] Other aspects of Robertson’s life and ministry are not ignored, but not as often discussed. In this inaugural Wednesday with Robertson we will look not at the grammarian or the professor, but the preacher. Late in Robertson’s life he collected and published two volumes of his sermons. The first volume Passing the Torch and Other Sermons was well received, encouraging Robertson to publish a second volume, Jesus as a Soul-Winner and Other Sermons. The feature sermon of volume two with all its eleven points will have our attention today.

            Preaching from John 4:1-42, Robertson wants his hearers to follow the example of Jesus in evangelistic zeal and method. The account that John gives is very personal and counter-cultural. It not only teaches us who Jesus is, but who we should be. Reflecting on the passage Robertson says that John  “…shows the Master in actual contact with an individual soul, precisely the point where so many ministers fail, who may preach eloquent sermons to the crowd. And yet most people won to Christ are brought one at a time, as the result of a personal word.”[2] Robertson presents Jesus as the model of personal evangelism, the exemplar of a soul-winner.

            Jesus pursues the evangelistic opportunity despite his tired and weary body. John tells us that Jesus had been travelling and was sitting, “wearied as he was from his journey” (John 4:6). Today it is easy for Christians to read past the narrator’s remarks, but Robertson takes note of them and reminds us that even though John’s Gospel was written to defend Jesus’ divinity, “no Gospel brings out more sharply the human side of the Master’s emotions.” Christians might find a number of reasons to not share the gospel. We are often too preoccupied with our lives, our social comfort, and personal time that we hesitate to evangelize.  Like many people we encounter in life the Samaritan woman “…was a stranger to Jesus, and His weariness was excuse enough for him not to try to win her soul. But Jesus was never too tired to do good, and so He took the initiative Himself.”

            Personalism is fundamental for personal evangelism and Jesus models what it means to be personal with the woman at the well. His interaction with her begins by asking for a drink of water—a completely natural thing to do by a tired traveller. With humor Robertson contrasts Jesus’ approach with the social awkwardness that manifests with zealous, but unempathetic evangelists,

Soul-winners make a stupendous blunder by a direct attack on the citadel of the soul, like the overwrought preacher who met a man on the road and blurted out, “Sir, are you prepared to die?” The poor man thought a bandit was holding him up.”

Evangelism by presentation is certainly better than not doing evangelism at all, but Robertson pulls no punches when he says, “The poorest way in the world is to apply a rule of thumb out of some handbook, and put the victim through a catechism.” For Robertson, evangelism is Christians turning everyday personal conversations into gospel opportunities.

            Jesus’ conversation is counter-cultural and controversial. Jesus was not just talking to a woman, but to a Samaritan woman. Jesus, Robertson tells us “overcame the race and national prejudice of His day and brushed it off as nothing.” During the conclusion of his sermon Robertson urges his hearers to abandon racial prejudice in order to fulfill the great commission, “There is no room, with such a harvest before one, for race prejudice, class prejudice, or any other kind.” This is a rather clear statement from a man who roughly 20-30 years prior to this sermon’s publication wrote a glowing review of a book that espoused racist ideology. [3]The book reviewed was Thomas Dixon’s, The Leopard’s Spots and was Southern propaganda to spread the Lost Cause mythology.[4] I can only hope that Robertson’s views were sanctified to repentance and that Jesus as a Soul-Winner represents such a change, but I do not know that and believe it would be irresponsible not to make readers aware of Robertson’s earlier errors.[5] The sins of our heroes are often difficult to talk about. Robertson the grammarian, the professor, and the preacher did so much worth appreciating and emulating, but I believe the healthiest way to appreciate our human heroes is to be intentionally mindful of their flaws, especially when they are egregious.

Although Jesus began with everyday conversation, he used the water to turn the conversation to spiritual things. Robertson notes that Jesus “made a parable of the water and told her of the water of life.” The Samaritan woman didn’t understand what Jesus meant by “living water,” and wondered how Jesus could give living water with nothing to draw with. Even after Jesus tells her that his water, “will become like a spring of water welling up to eternal life,” she still believes Jesus is referring to literal water. Robertson wants his hearers to follow Jesus’ perseverance, “…Jesus saw her failure, but did not lose patience, he did not give her up as a hopeless case, as we often do.”

It is one thing to hear about living water and quite another to know you need it. Jesus asking about the woman’s husband reveals her need, but when Jesus pushes back on her claim that she has no husband she quickly changes the subject. “Our fathers worship on this mountain but you say Jerusalem is the place where people ought to worship” (John 4:20).  Robertson uses the woman’s statement to relate to his audience.

In personal interviews[6], I have many a time had those under conviction of sin try to turn the talk from their own sins to theological problems which must be settled before surrender to Christ. Jesus does not incline to answer her inquiry, whatever her motive, but He gives her one of the profoundest truths of his teaching, that God is Spirit, and is independent of place and nation, and is worshipped in spirit and truth anywhere by any one, whether Jew, Samaritan, or Gentile.”

The Samaritan woman shows she is receptive when she says, “I know that Messiah is coming” and so Jesus finally reveals himself to her, “I who speak to you am he.” With joy Robertson speaks of the woman’s conversion,

“There was, beyond doubt, a mental shock to the woman, not fear but a flash of light upon her soul, that revealed Him as the Living Water of which He had spoken, that ‘bubbled up into eternal life.’ The Light and the Life entered into her soul, and now she understood His knowledge of her life. She took Him at His word and was saved. Let us thank God that the way of life is so simple as this, like the trust of a little child, of an untutored woman.”

 Robertson appeals to Jesus’ satisfaction with doing the will of God (John 4:34) to inspire his hearers to desire such a feeling, “This is heaven on earth to the soul-winner, to see the light break into the heart and face of a lost sinner. This was Christ’s real work.” Many Christians cannot remember the last time they had this type of experience, but Robertson makes us hope for it and confident we will still.

            Bringing it all together as good preachers often do Robertson picks up on the Samaritans reception to the woman and to Jesus, especially that he is the “Savior of the world” (John 4:42). Concluding, Robertson leaves us with the universal scope of God’s good news in Jesus.

“And they call Jesus not the Messiah of the Jews or the Samaritans, though He was both, but “the Saviour of the World.” These Samaritans caught the world mission of Jesus and boldly proclaimed it, apart from national prejudice. This is missions, this is evangelism, this is the gospel for the world today.”

In eleven points the grammarian proves to be a man of the great commission. In Jesus as a Soul-Winner Robertson provides the example of personal evangelism in Jesus. When we fail and begin to feel discouraged, perhaps we’ll remember Jesus standing at the well as an evangelist, always doing perfectly what we struggle to do and with a new resolve be mindful of turning every day conversations into gospel conversations, so that we might experience a glimpse of heaven, “the light breaking into the heart and face of a lost sinner.”

[1] There is a smaller grammar written with his student and then colleague W. Hersey Davis. Given the difference in size it might as well be called “The micro grammar.” The volume I own of Jesus of a Soul Winner seems to have been gifted to a man named Sam Harvey from Davis’ wife. Written in blue ink-pen inside of the cover is  “Sam Harvey, From- Mrs. William Hersey Davis.

[2] All quotations come from Jesus As a Soul-Winner in Archibald Thomas Robertson, Jesus As a Soul-Winner And Other Sermons (New York: Fleming H. Revell Company)

[3] Accessed January 20, 2019.

[4] Ibid.

[6] By “personal interview” Robertson is referring to what we would call a gospel conversation.

Wednesdays With Robertson

As a young seminary student I became fascinated with the life and scholarship of A.T. Robertson. This fascination was soon met with frustration. To my knowledge there are no scholarly biographies on his life, ministry, and scholarship. There is the biography by Everett Gill, A.T. Robertson: A Biography that was published in 1943, but it is not exhaustive or critical.

Given the lack of secondary sources on Robertson, I began to collect works written by Robertson himself. Although he is well known as a grammarian, he was also a sound expositor who loved to preach. The following is from a biographical sketch of Robertson I wrote in seminary,

His place as an academic was sealed when after attempting to be a seminary professor and pastor of New Castle Baptist Church, Robertson realized he didn’t possess the stamina to be faithful to both.[1] He would go on to resign from the pastorate. It was this decision that permanently cements Robertson’s fate. Although he would not pastor a church, he would train those who would.

 It would be a mistake to conclude that because Robertson stepped down from the pulpit he was not a gifted preacher. Robertson was a mighty expositor and well sought after. Gill wrote of Robertson, “…his scholarship only increased his ability as a preacher. It gave body and lasting worth to his preaching.”[2] Although it is perhaps a great overstatement when Gill says, “there was no preacher like him among all his contemporaries” it is true that Robertson was anything but a dry academic.

Because I have a desire to learn more about the life and ministry of A.T. Robertson, I have decided to write brief reflections on his sermons, books, and scholarly contributions. My primary motivation is to learn about Robertson while also growing as a writer. If readers do engage with these posts it is important to note that I am simply a pastor who is very interested in Robertson’s life. Any critical remarks about his life and ministry need to be considered in that light.

See you Wednesday!

The love of Christ “is deep as human sin, and can touch the lost and loveless. It is as high as heaven itself, and comes out of the very heart of God who is love, and Christ is God’s love incarnate.”- A.T. Robertson

[1] Gregory Wills, Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, 1859-2009 (Oxford University Press, 2009) 270

[2] Gill, A.T. Robertson: A Biography

[3] Gregory Wills, Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, 270