The Providence of God in Preserving Scripture


We have written previously on The Preservation of Scripture that God has kept his written word pure for the Church through all ages in the Hebrew and Greek faithful copies (apographa). We continue in this post by precisely explaining how he did so “by his singular care and providence.” First we will briefly discuss the nature of providence, then distinguish between general providence and special providence, and conclude with how this relates to the preservation of Scripture.

Providence is Teleological

“God’s works of providence are his most holy, wise, and powerful preserving, and governing all his creatures; ordering them, and all their actions, to his own glory (Ps. 145:17; Ps. 104:24; Isa. 28:29; Heb. 1:3; Ps. 103:19; Matt. 10:29-31; Gen. 45:7; Rom. 11:36; Isa. 63:14)”

Westminster Larger Catechism Question 18.

God executes his decrees in his works of creation and providence. Creation is God giving all things their nature, that is, making them what they are in their being. Providence is God bringing those things to their intended purpose. God creates things in a particular way so that he can bring them to the end that he designed. When we talk about providence, we are particularly asking how God, in time, brings about the end which he has for all of creation.

The final cause, or “the ultimate purpose for which a thing is made or an act is performed” [1] must be kept in view when considering God’s providence toward that thing. Providence brings it to the definite purpose for which it was intended. In order for that purpose to be achieved, the thing itself must be preserved.

The Providence of God is either conservational or governmental. Conservation is that whereby God maketh all things both universal and singular, both in their essence and existence, and in their strength to persist and continue (Psa. 104:19-20; Acts 17:28; Heb. 1:3)… This conservation doth necessarily come between creation and government of things created because whatsoever is created to some end and use, to which also it ought to be directed and governed, but it cannot attain that end nor be directed to it unless it be continued and conserved in its being.

William Ames, The Marrow of Sacred Divinity, p. 41.

General vs. Special Providence

Scripture distinguishes between the providence of God toward all things in general, and God’s special providence toward the Church in particular. As the nature of the Two Kingdoms are distinct, so is God’s providence toward those two kingdoms; God brings each kingdom to their designed end.

“There is a twofold consideration of Providence, according to its twofold object and manner of dispensation; the one in general, exercised about all creatures, rational and irrational, animate and inanimate; the other special and peculiar. Christ has a universal empire over all things (Eph. 1:22); He is the head of the whole world by way of dominion, but a head to the Church by way of union and special influence (John 17:2). He is ‘the Saviour of all men, especially of those that believe’ (1 Tim. 4:10). The Church is His special care and charge. He rules the world for its good, as a head consulting the welfare of the body.”

John Flavel, The Mystery of Providence

The Westminster Confession of Faith recognizes this distinction between general and special providence in Scripture:

“As the providence of God doth, in general, reach to all creatures, so, after a most special manner, it taketh care of his Church, and disposeth all things to the good thereof (Isa 43:3-5, 14; Amos 9:8-9; Rom 8:28; 1 Tim 4:10).”

Westminster Confession of Faith 5:7

In bringing the Kingdom of Grace to its designed end, the continued existence of Scripture as the ultimate rule of faith and life is absolutely necessary.

The Necessity of the Continued Existence of Scripture

We are commanded to “search the scriptures” (John 5:39) and live “by every word that proceedeth out of the mouth of God (Mat. 4:4; c.f. Deut. 6:6-9), Christ promises to be with the Church “always, even unto the end of the world” (Mat. 28:20), therefore “Scripture must exist until the end of the world for the fulfillment of this divine command in each generation of the church…Scripture contains the teaching necessary to the work of the church, without which the church could not function.” [2] Without faithful copies of the holy Scriptures throughout all ages, the institutional Church could not exercise the keys of the Kingdom of Heaven (Mat. 16; 18; 28), the key of dogma (John 20; 1 Cor. 4:1; 11:23; 2 Cor. 2:6-8; 2 Thess. 2:15), the key of order (1 Cor. 11; 1 Cor. 14), key of judgment (Matt. 18; 1 Cor. 5), and the key of authority (Rom. 10:15; 1 Tim. 4:14; Heb. 5:4). [3]

Scripture is “the firm and certain cause of faith” [4]; God’s Word was written “That thou mightest know the certainty of those things, wherein thou hast been instructed” (Luke 1:4) and “Christ himself, after his resurrection, directed his disciples to the Scriptures in order to make their faith more firm and certain (Lk. 24:26–27).” [5] “As God caused it to be written for the good of his people, so by Divine Providence he hath preserved the same whole and entire” (Leigh, Body of Divinity, Book I, chapter 1, p. 13). “And we know that all things work together for good to them that love God, to them who are the called according to his purpose” (Romans 8:28), including the preservation of his holy word for the use of his Bride.

“Let us hear the Scripture itself, witnessing of its own authority and durableness to all ages. Moses thus writeth of it: “The secret things belong unto the Lord our God: but those things which are revealed belong unto us and to our children for ever” (Deut. 29:29). David also professeth that he knew long before, that the Lord had founded his testimonies for evermore (Psalm 119:152). But our Saviour Christ’s testimony is of all others most evident: That Heaven and Earth shall pass, but that his word cannot pass, and yet more vehemently, that not one jot, or small letter of his Law can pass until all be fulfilled (Matt. 5:18). “For whatsoever things were written aforetime were written for our learning, that we through patience and comfort of the scriptures might have hope (Rom. 15:4). Therefore none of those which were written for that end are lost.

Edward Leigh, Body of Divinity, Book I, chapter 1, p. 73

Scripture is not merely inerrant in its autographs, it is also infallible in those Hebrew and Greek faithful copies that the universal Church has passed down to us today. Otherwise, the Scriptures would not be “profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness: That the man of God may be perfect, thoroughly furnished unto all good works” (2 Tim. 3:16-17) nor would they be able to function as the final court of appeal for the Church (WCF 1:8).

Edward Leigh similarly distinguishes between general and special providence in classifying the preservation of Scripture as a type of miracle. He argues that miracles of “confirmation” such as those done by Christ and the apostles, and the miracle of preserving Scripture from corruption “evince this Truth, that the Scriptures were from God.” [6] And although many secular books were written in ancient times,

“…those alone which pertain to godliness have been safely kept to Posterity; which is the rather to be observed, since many more in the world affect the knowledge of natural things than godliness and yet though careful of keeping them, they have not been able to preserve them from perpetual forgetfulness; whereas on the other side, these holy Writings, hated of the most part, and carelessly regarded of a number, have notwithstanding as full a remembrance as they had the first day the Lord gave them unto the Church.

Body of Divinity, Book I, chapter 1, p. 13.

We affirm with John Owen that to assert that the Hebrew and Greek texts of Scripture have been preserved in the same way as any other work of antiquity seems “to border on atheism.” Such a supposition neglects the special providence that God exercises with regard to his Church, the holy Scriptures being “most necessary (2 Tim 3:15; 2 Pet 1:19)” for the “better preserving and propagating of the truth, and for the more sure establishment and comfort of the Church against the corruption of the flesh, and the malice of Satan and of the world” (WCF 1:1) since at this point in redemptive history (Heb. 1:1-2) it is now the exclusive way in which he infallibly communicates his will to his Bride.

“It can, then, with no colour of probability be asserted (which yet I find some learned men too free in granting), namely, that there hath the same fate attended the Scripture in its transcription as hath done other books. Let me say without offence, this imagination, asserted on deliberation, seems to me to border on atheism. Surely the promise of God for the preservation of his word, with his love and care of his church, of whose faith and obedience that word of his is the only rule, requires other thoughts at our hands. We add that the whole scripture entire, as given out from God, without any loss, is preserved in the Copies of the Originals yet remaining; What varieties there are among the Copies themselves shall be afterwards declared; in them all, we say, is every letter and Tittle of the Word. These Copies we say, are the Rule, standard and touch-stone of all Translations ancient or modern, by which they are in all things to be examined, tried, corrected, amended, and themselves only by themselves.”

John Owen, Of the Divine Original, Authority, Self-Evidencing Light, and Power of the Scriptures, p. 173-174

The great works of antiquity by the hands of mere men may wither and fade like grass, “but the word of our God shall stand for ever” (Isa. 40:8). Yea, though even heaven and earth pass away, one jot or one tittle of God’s Word shall in no wise pass away (Mat. 5:18; 24:35; Lk. 16:17). [7]

[1] Richard Muller, Dictionary of Latin and Greek Theological Terms, p. 61.

[2] Richard Muller, Post Reformation Reformed Dogmatics, vol. 2, ch. 3.2, p. 173.

[3] George Gillespie, Aaron’s Rod Blossoming, Book II, chapter IV, p. 86.

[4] Amandus Polanus, A System of Christian Theology, excerpt from Muller, PRRD, vol. 2, ch. 3.2, p. 173.

[5] Richard Muller, ibid., p. 173.

[6] Thomas Watson similarly writes, “We may know the Scripture to be the Word of God by its miraculous preservation in all ages…The Word of God has never wanted enemies to oppose, and, if possible, to extirpate it….Nor has the church of God, in all revolutions and changes, kept the Scripture that it should not be lost only, but that it should not be depraved. The letter of Scripture has been preserved, without any corruption, in the original tongue.” (Body of Divinity, ch. 2, p. 27).

[7] Francis TurretinInstitutes of Elenctic Theology, vol. 1, p. 96.


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