Friday, June 04, 2010

Richard Capel and the Special Providential Preservation of Scripture

Richard Capel (1586-1656) was a significant and very learned writer who has been called a "living library." This was first said of him in the memoir written by his friend Valentine Marshall. Marshall wrote that Capel ‘was a very living Library, a full store-house of all kinde of good Literature no lesse than a little University’ (Marshall, ‘To the reader’). Samuel Clarke in Lives of Thirty-Two English Divines, p. 311 also wrote:

He [Richard Capel] was a living library, a full storehouse of all good literature, a judicious preacher, and a sound orthodox divine.

Capel was also a Fellow of Magdalen College, where he tutored the poet George Herbert and William Pemble (whose works Capel later edited) amongst others. Richard Sibbes commended him in a preface to the book of as 'this godly Minister (my Christian friend) … [who] besides faithfulnesse, and fruitfulnesse in his ministry, hath beene a good proficient in the schoole of temptation himself’. When the sabbath-breaking Book of Sports was reissued in 1633 by Charles I, Capel declined to read it in his church and, voluntarily resigning his rectory, obtained from the bishop of Gloucester a licence to practise medicine. He settled at Pitchcombe, near Stroud. He is frequently mentioned as a Westminster Divine which is certainly true in the sense that he was nominated to the Westminster Assembly although there has been debate as to whether he ever took up his seat.

Richard Capel has some notable writings in relation to Scripture and its translation and special providential preservation. Capel's views point to the puritan consensus which produced with complete unanimity the chapter on the Holy Scriptures in the Westminster Confession of Faith. Capel's attitude to Scripture is best illustrated by the following quotation. "As faith worketh by love unto God, so it worketh by love unto his word. Love me, love my word: love a king, love his laws. So it did on David; so it should do on us: "O how love I thy law!" saith David. "O how love I thy law!" should every one of us say; not only because it is a good law, but chiefly because it is God's law".

Capel provides an important defence of the translation of Scripture into the languages of the world and states: “Translations are commanded by God, as Ordinance and constitution of Heaven itself”. Capel agrees with the Westminster Confession's ultimate appeal to the original languages of Scripture, the Confession states that "the Church is finally to appeal unto them" the original language texts preserved by Special providence. Capel points out that we do not believe that translations themselves are incapable of error so as to be our final appeal. "The translators and transcribers might err, being not...indued with that infallible spirit in translating, or transcribing. The Scriptures in their translated copies are not free from all possible corruptions."

Capel also points out that while we do not have the original autographs of the pen-men of Scripture and cannot we assert that every copyist was miraculously preserved from error, we should not therefore conclude that we cannot be certain of the true text. He alludes to a consensus then current, expressed in the Westminster Confession, that "The Old Testament in Hebrew...and the New Testament in Greek...being immediately inspired by God, and by His singular care and providence kept pure in all ages, are therefore authentical". Capel writes:

[W]e have the Copies in both languages [Hebrew and Greek], which Copies vary not from Primitive writings in any matter which may stumble any. This concernes onely the learned, and they know that by consent of all parties, the most learned on all sides among Christians do shake hands in this, that God by his providence hath preserved them uncorrupt. . . . As God committed the Hebrew text of the Old Testament to the Jewes, and did and doth move their hearts to keep it untainted to this day: So I dare lay it on the same God, that he in his providence is so with the Church of the Gentiles, that they have and do preserve the Greek Text uncorrupt, and clear: As for some scrapes by Transcribers, that comes to no more, than to censure a book to be corrupt, because of some scrapes in the printing, and ‘tis certain, that what mistake is in one print, is corrected in another.

It is not about holding up one particular manuscript as uncorrupt but rather the text as witnessed to by the majority of manuscripts. "To make one Copy a standard for all others, in which no mistake in the least can be found, he cannot, no Copy can plead this privilege since the first autographs were in being.” He asserts that we it is not just a matter of being able to say that "all saving fundamental truth is contained in the Original Copies, but that all revealed truth is still remaining entire".

There is a danger in using the fact of some errors in manuscripts and the loss of the original manuscripts to seek to deny special providential preservation. Capel rejects such claims as "terrible blasts, and do little else when they meet with a weak head and heart, but open the doore to Atheisme and quite to fling off the bridle, which onely can hold them and us in the wayes of truth and piety: this is to fill the conceits of men with evil thoughts against the Purity of the Originals: And if the Fountains run not clear, the Translation cannot be clean.” This is why this is such an important doctrine because the effects of not believing it

The publication of Capel's writing on this subject coincides with the year of publication for John Owen's work on providential preservation also. It is difficult to know whether Owen benefited from Capel's work but they certainly concurred. Owen writes in "Of the Divine Original, Authority, Self-Evidencing Light, and Power of the Scriptures; With an answer to that inquiry How we know the Scriptures to be the Word of God": "The sum of what I am pleading for, as to the particular head to be vindicated, is, That as the Scriptures of the Old and New Testament were immediately and entirely given out by God himself, his mind being in them represented unto us without the least interveniency of such mediums and ways as were capable of giving change or alteration to the least iota or syllable; so, by his good and merciful providential dispensation, in his love to his word and church, his whole word, as first given out by him, is preserved unto us entire in the original languages; where, shining in its own beauty and lustre (as also in all translations, so far as they faithfully represent the originals), it manifests and evidences unto the consciences of men, without other foreign help or assistance, its divine original and authority".

Owen agrees with Capel that the idea that Scripture is no more preserved by special providence than any other book leads to atheism, because it overthrows the supernatural character of the Scriptures. "It can, then, with no colour of probability be asserted … 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". On the critical view: "There is nothing left unto men but to choose whether they will be Papists or Atheists". When supernatural revelation is undermined in these ways "we shall quickly see what banks are cut, to let in a flood of atheism upon the face of the earth". This has been proved not only in the experience of critics who have become atheists, but in history. Owen was right to view the emergence of biblical criticism with the greatest alarm because it has led to the Englightenment rejection of the supernatural character of the Scriptures with historical criticism, liberal theology and atheism in various forms.