(An excerpt from the working draft of my forthcoming ETS paper, "’Final Authoritative Edition’ versus ‘Original Autographs’: Do Protestants Defend the Masoretic Text with ‘Catholic’ Arguments?")
Before examining the problems of the OT canon for Protestants, we need to ask: What are we striving for when we look for a “Protestant canon and text”?
Protestants, more than the other branches of Christianity, need a definite text and canon anchored in the notion of prophetic and apostolic authority. Unlike traditions that believe in a human magisterium vested with authority handed down from Christ himself, Protestants confess sola scriptura, “scripture alone” as the continuously authoritative Word of God from ancient times. Complexities of text and canon don’t pose the same problems of theology and identity for Roman Catholics and Eastern Orthodox, because for those traditions apostolic authority rests in a human individual or a body of church leaders (pope, patriarch, cardinals, bishops). Sometimes Protestants have construed the differences between their conception of canon and Rome’s as being one of community determination versus self-authentication. In the Roman Catholic Church, the pope’s ex cathedra proclamation is the final word on matters of religion. This forms a hedge around the complexities of text and canon that arise from biblical scholarship: even if an earlier version or fragment of a biblical text is discovered, the person in the pew ultimately should trust the apostolic authority claimed by the pope to make a determination as to which is the inspired variant, book, or textual tradition.
Protestants have no magisterium to make these determinations. Apostolic authority is vested in the books that were handed down from the apostles and prophets, not in any living human authoritative body. The Protestant impulse—which was no doubt influenced by the Renaissance cry of “ad fontes”—is to get as close to the original versions of the biblical texts as possible, because our receiving and understanding revelation from God depends upon that precision. For other branches of Christianity, a definite text and canon is a luxury; for Protestants, it is a necessity.
Of course, Protestants have never insisted that possessing the “original autographs” is necessary to know the Word of God. But we need to have something close to them—as close as the art of textual criticism can get us to original autographs. Pastors in the pulpit need to be confident that the Hebrew and Greek texts from which they preach are the actual Word of God (plus or minus an article or vowel-point here and there), and believers in the pew need to be confident that the translations they hold in their hands accurately reflect the original texts. The gospel message itself surely does not hinge on any text-critical decision. But the way that Protestants preach the implications of the gospel message for all aspects of life from scripture —that is, how we actually interpret and apply scripture—is based on a presupposition that the church possesses an accurate text and canon.