Volume 7 - Issue 2

Dean Burgon and the Bible: an eminent Victorian and the problem of inspiration

By Nigel M. de S. Cameron

The year 1860 was one of ferment and controversy for theology. Hard on the heels of The Origin of Species (in 1859) came a volume destined to make perhaps a greater impact on British Christianity: Essays and Reviews.1 The title sounded harmless enough (it was one given to several volumes of the period), but the content was explosive. It was a manifesto by Anglican clergymen on behalf of the ‘critical’ school of biblical scholarship which, though it had been popular on the Continent for a generation, had up till now been looked on as little short of unbelief by the Christian establishment in Britain. The Essays themselves were a mixture in length, influence and orthodoxy. Legal proceedings started against two of their writers finally, on appeal to the Privy Council, exonerated them: their view of the Bible was now permissible for Anglicans—a decision of some importance for the development of British ‘critical’ scholarship.2

The longest and most devastating chapter was written by Benjamin Jowett, Professor of Greek at Oxford and a New Testament scholar. It was entitled ‘On the Interpretation of Scripture’, and, while rightly pointing out some of the ways in which the Bible had been misused by the church, took this as the ground on which to argue that the only proper way to interpret it was to treat it ‘like any other book’. The phrase was a refrain repeated throughout the lengthy essay, and taken up by scholars on both sides of the debate during the next forty or so years. Although there is a sense in which it is undeniably true, that was not the sense in which Jowett intended it. He used it as a lever with which to try to upset the entire orthodox doctrine of inspiration. In so doing he raised the fundamental issues which we face today, and the immediate response which he elicited from John William Burgon is as relevant now as it was then.

Burgon’s sermons on Inspiration and Interpretation3 were the first, and in many ways the best, reply to Jowett. C. H. Waller, Principal of the London College of Divinity, looked back on his years at Oxford when ‘The Essays and Reviews seemed to question the foundations of everything. The majority of orthodox preachers to whom we listened … seemed like men recently aroused from a sound slumber by a shower of stones.… Only one man in Oxford appeared to understand the exact position, and how to hold his ground. That man was the Reverend John William Burgon, then Fellow of Oriel, and now Dean of Chichester. His “Seven Sermons on Inspiration and Interpretation”, preached in 1860–61, will not soon be forgotten by those who heard them.’4

The volume remains highly readable, and just as Jowett’s essay well states the case for the ‘critical’ view of Scripture, Burgon lays down the lines of orthodox apologetic that have been followed ever since. For one who spoke in the heat of the freshly-opened debate he saw with remarkable clarity the issues at stake. We shall examine his discussion under three heads.

  1. The starting-point

Jowett had argued that the Bible should be interpreted ‘like any other book’,5 and it was at this point of departure that Burgon saw the root of the problem to lie. For Jowett did not mean by that what we might mean:

Approach the volume of Holy Scripture with the same candour, and in the same unprejudiced spirit with which you would approach any other famous book of high antiquity.… Acquaint yourself at least as industriously with its method, and with its principle.… Be truthful, and unprejudiced, and honest, and consistent, and logical, and exact throughout, in your work of interpretation.6

Were that his meaning, Burgon declares, there would be no disagreement. But Jowett ‘shows that his meaning is, Interpret the Bible like any other book, for it is like any other book’.7 He is not prepared to allow an understanding of the inspiration of Scripture to aid his interpretation of it. On the contrary, he maintains that ‘the nature of inspiration can only be known from the examination of Scripture.… To the question, “What is inspiration?” the first answer therefore is, “That idea of Scripture which we gather from the knowledge of it”.’8That is to say, we must study the Bible with no preconception that it is inspired but rather with ‘critical’ tools, and seek to define inspiration only when such ‘critical’ analysis has finished. It is something that ‘criticism’ will discover for us.

Instead of starting with the assumption that the Bible is ‘like any other book’, the Christian, writes Burgon, must start with the contrary assumption, for, if the Bible really is inspired, it is for that reason fundamentally unlike any other book. The ‘critical’ approach, in presuming that the Bible may be interpreted essentially by analogy with other literatures, discounts and removes its distinctive features to make it like them. But the Christian who takes inspiration seriously recognizes that:

if it is inspired, it differs from every other book in kind; stands among Books as the Incarnate word stood among Men—quite alone; notwithstanding that He spoke their language, shared their wants, and accommodated Himself to their manners.9

Where, then, do we start? Burgon advances two reasons for the inspiration of Scripture as the starting-point for its study. They both derive from the Bible itself—not from our ‘critical’ analysis of it (expecting to find, and finding, ‘errors’ at every turn), but from what it states about itself. First, it makes direct claims to be inspired, in such texts as 2 Timothy 3:16, ‘All Scripture is inspired by God (theopneustos, “God-breathed”)’; indeed, the New Testament writers in a mass of instances make clear the veneration in which they hold the (Old Testament) Scriptures by the way they use them. But, secondly, the supreme example is that of Jesus Christ, who himself handles the Old Testament and regards it as an inspired narrative. Thus,

The Bible is to be interpreted as no other book is, or can be interpreted; and for the plain reason, that the inspired Writers themselves (our lord Himself at their head!) interpret it after an altogether extraordinary fashion.10

Because of the way in which the Bible speaks about itself, we are in no position to criticize or judge it, but must allow it to be our authority and judge us. ‘The powers of the mind, as well as the affections of the heart, should be prostrated before the Bible.’11

  1. The nature of Scripture

But, the question arises, need that necessarily mean that the Bible is without error? Granted that it is inspired: does it have to be infallible? Burgon laments that, in the writings of many, ‘Inspiration, under a miserable attempt to explain it, is openly explained away’.12

Yet we do not need to assume that inspiration must lead to infallibility. On the one hand, we may observe in detail how the biblical writers use Scripture—the sense that they give to its inspiration. We find that they, and especially the teaching of Jesus Christ in the Gospels, employ the words of the Old Testament without any hesitation, with complete confidence in their veracity. By contrast, any alternative view of the results of inspiration cannot fail to produce difficulties far greater than any faced on the orthodox view. If the Bible is not infallible, if it contains the errors that we find in comparable and purely human books, then where do we stop?

Once admit the principle of fallibility into the inspired Word, and the whole becomes a bruised and rotten reed. If St Paul a little, why not St Paul much? If Moses in some places, why not in many?… It might not trouble you, to find your own familiar friend telling you a lie, every now and then: but I trust this whole congregation will share the preacher’s infirmity, while he confesses that it would trouble him so exceedingly that after one established falsehood, he would feel unable ever to trust that friend implicitly again.13

What Burgon expresses in this homely manner is in fact a strictly logical point, and one of great force. If the Bible is to have religious authority (‘for faith and practice’, as we say), then it must have total authority. If its authority depends at the end of the day on our agreeing that a statement is authentic and not in error, then the seat of authority has shifted from the Bible to its reader. And, furthermore, if it may be in error in some(indeterminate) places, we can never absolutely rely upon it in any particular place. For who is to decide the limits of inspiration, or draw the line where inspiration ceases to ensure reliability? Let us hear Burgon once more:

if … I am asked whether I believe the words of the Bible to be inspired—I answer, To be sure I do—every one of them: and every syllable likewise. Do not you?—Where … do you, in your wisdom, stop? The book, you allow, is inspired. How about the chapters? How about the verses? Do you stop at the verses, and not go on to the words? Or perhaps you enjoy a special tradition on this subject, and hold that Inspiration is a general, vague, kind of thing—here more, there less: strong (to speak plainly) where you make no objection to what is stated—weak, where it runs counter to some fancy of your own.… ‘Here more, there less,’ will not satisfy a parched and weary spirit, athirst for the water of Life, and craving the shadow of the great Rock. What security can you offer me, that the promise which has sustained me so long occurs in the ‘more,’ and not in the ‘less?’ … what proof is there that either of us possesses the Word of god—the authentic utterance of god’s holy spirit—at all?14

These are strong words, and their implication was in Burgon’s day and is now much resented by those who take a lower view of the Bible. But no answer to this problem has emerged. For the Scriptures to have religious authority, it must be total and therefore they must be errorless. As the adage has it of a parallel instance, ‘If Jesus is not Lord of all, He is not Lord at all’. Precisely the same may be said of the Bible.

Indeed the parallel between Jesus Christ and the Bible was taken up by Burgon and the conservatives of a century ago as shedding much light on the nature of Scripture. The Bible, as divine and human, may be understood by analogy with the ‘two natures’ of Christ. It was possible for him to be perfect, sinless, while being fully human: so it is for the Bible to be perfect, without error, and yet a fully human piece of writing. The attempt by some to separate out the divine and human in Scripture (assigning the supposed errors to the ‘human’ side) was inappropriate in just the same way as any attempt to separate the natures of Christ: they are indivisible. How it is that they are united is a mystery, ‘in its way … as much beyond our ken, as the nature of the Union of the Godhead and the Manhood in the one person of christ’.15

That is Burgon’s response to the charge, as false but as frequent then as it is today, that such a conception of inspiration necessarily involves belief in ‘mechnical dictation’ as its method—an over-riding of the natural faculties of the human authors so as to guarantee the ‘dictated’ result required. In fact no respected scholar of Burgon’s day, or any other day, has held such a theory, and it is not by any means required by an infallible understanding of Scripture. The inspiration of the Bible is but a special case of the doctrine of the providence of God. Burgon exclaims:

I should as soon think of holding a theory of Providence and Freewill, as of holding a theory of Inspiration. I believe in Providence. I know that I am a free agent. And that is enough for me. The case of Inspiration seems strictly parallel. I believe in the Divine origin of the Bible. I see that the writers of the several books wrote like men … (sic) That outer circle of causation which, leaving each individual will entirely free, so controls without coercing, so overrules without occasioning, the actions of men—that all things shall work together for good in the end, and the great designs of God’s Providence find free accomplishment.16

Nothing less than the full involvement of the natural faculties of the human authors is demanded by belief in an infallible Bible.

  1. Dealing with difficulties

Finally, we may glance at the implications Burgon’s view of the nature of Scripture carries for problems which arise in the course of biblical interpretation. Conservative believers are often taunted with this or that ‘difficulty’ arising from the text of Scripture which, it is alleged, will undermine their doctrine of biblical infallibility. Burgon touches on two kinds of problem—historical and moral—and demonstrates that, if approached properly, they need present no obstacle to the man who upholds the orthodox attitude to the Bible. On the contrary, his very method and line of approach take ‘difficulties’ in their stride.

First, as an example of a moral problem, Burgon discusses the story in Judges 5 of the killing of Sisera by Jael. He points out that this is a key narrative, as some of its features particularly outraged mid-Victorian morality: ‘I have heard stronger things said against her (sc. Jael), than against any of the Worthies of old time, who are mentioned with distinct approbation in the Book of Life.’17 Such narratives should be approached mindful that we have only an incomplete account before us, often but the briefest summary of complex historical circumstances. Were full information available, there would be no difficulty. As it is, ‘Scripture is severely brief: takes no pains to conciliate our good opinion: seems to care nothing either for our applause or our censure.’18

From this evident fact Burgon draws a principle—that Scripture is ‘an instrument of man’s probation’; that is to say, our response to it is a test of our faith and an opportunity to deepen it, as all is not made plain and we must interpret it with trust.

As regards this particular account, the approach taken is crucial: if you choose to consider Jael as one who lured a weary and unsuspecting soldier into her tent—shewed him hospitality—and when he was asleep, murdered him in cold blood—you certainly cannot help recoiling from the inspired decision that, ‘Blessed above women shall Jael the wife of Heber the Kenite be’. But I take the liberty of saying that this is quite the wrong way to read her story. You must begin it from the other end.19

This last and apparently unimportant sentence is actually the key to Burgon’s approach to ‘problem passages’, moral and historical. Instead of starting with the ‘problem’ and, because it appears to require it, abandoning the doctrine of Scripture in the light of it, he starts with his prior belief about Scripture (that it is inspired and therefore infallible), and examines the ‘problem’ in the light of that belief. So he begins with the divine commendation of Jael:

GOD pronounces this woman blessed, and distinctly commends her for her deed. From this point you must start; remembering that no action can be immoral which god praises. The Divine sentence, instead of creating a difficulty, is, on the contrary, exactly the thing which removes it. To weigh the story apart from this (which is the prime consideration of all) is like condemning the immorality of an executioner without caring to hear that he is but carrying out the sentence of the Lawgiver.20

Burgon then sketches in the background: the Kenites as the allies and friends of the children of Israel, the promise of deliverance by God, the raising up of Deborah to organize resistance against Jabin, and her prophecy that God would deliver Sisera into the hand of a woman. Seen in that context,

it was not because she was treacherous, or because she was cruel!… most assuredly, had she been either, she would not—she could not, have won praise from god!… O no! It was because she beheld in the slumbering captain at once the enemy of her own afflicted race—and of god’s oppressed people—and above all of god Himself.21

I believe that, instead of suspecting the morality of the Bible in this instance, there is hardly an honest Christian heart among us, but cries out, on the contrary—‘So let all Thine enemies perish, O lord! But let them that love Him be as the sun when he goeth forth in his might.’22

Secondly, we turn to an example of how Burgon deals with historical difficulties. Here we find that he employs the same method, arguing not from the problem to the doctrine of Scripture, but vice versa. Every biblical statement must be treated ‘in exactly the same spirit with which you approach the statement of any man of honour of your acquaintance’.23 That is, the Christian does not jump to the conclusion that there is an error. He allows a presumption of innocence, and endeavours to harmonize and reconcile.

Now, these principles are fully admitted in daily life. If your friend comes to you with ever so improbable a tale, the last thing which enters into your mind is to disbelieve him. Is he in earnest? Yes, on his honour. Is he sure he is not mistaken? That very doubt of yours requires an apology: but your friend says—‘I am as sure as I am of my existence’.… ‘It must be so then,’ you exclaim, ‘though I cannotunderstand it.’

He continues:

You are requested to observe—for really you must admit—that any possible solution of a difficulty, however improbable it may seem, any possible explanation of the story of a competent witness, is enough logically and morally to exempt a man from the imputation of an incorrect statement.24

To illustrate his point, Burgon tells of a court case in Australia that turns on a question of time. Three witnesses each say that they have seen a certain man outside each of three different Oxford churches when they heard the clock strike one. The judge is compelled to conclude that, while the men’s testimony is generally reliable, it is not quite accurate: ‘Whereas you and I know perfectly that the three clocks in question were, till lately, kept five minutes apart.’25

Our ignorance of the detailed circumstances of the biblical history must ever be borne in mind as we face difficulties in the text, and when set in the context of our confidence in Scripture (which rests on other grounds) places alleged ‘difficulties’ in perspective. This is a methodological principle, implicit in many conservative scholars but carefully explicated here by Burgon, moving from the doctrine of inspiration to the interpretation of the text and problems it contains. It stands as a counterpoise to the method of the ‘critics’, who built their reconstructions around such ‘problems’ and sought to define inspiration only in terms of their results. By contrast, the conservative method, rooted in the Bible’s own understanding of itself and the church’s historic doctrine, seeks to make adequate sense of the phenomena of the text as they stand. This high view of the Bible is not open to the self-contradiction of rival views of its authority. On the contrary, it is consistent and well able, systematically, to cope with objections and difficulties raised in its path.

In conclusion, let us hear the famous conclusion of Burgon’s sermon on 2 Timothy 3:16:

THE BIBLE is none other than the voice of Him that sitteth upon the Throne! Every Book of it—every Chapter of it—every verse of it—every word of it—every syllable of it … is the direct utterance of the Most High! Pasa graphē Theopneustos. Well spake the holy ghost, by the mouth of the many blessed Men who wrote it. The Bible is none other than the Word of GOD: not some part of it, more, some part of it, less: but all alike, the utterance of Him who sitteth upon the Throne—absolute—faultless—unerring—supreme!26

1 Essays and Reviews (London, 1860).

2 The word ‘critical’ is used here, as it tended to be in the debates later nineteenth century, to describe the school of thought which sought to analyse the Pentateuch and other biblical books into their constituent parts, and whose origins were in Germany. At the root of this thinking was a bias against the supernatural in religion which undermined its claims to be ‘objective’. In fact ‘conservative’ scholars generally claimed that they were being truly critical, and that the so-called ‘Higher Critics’ were not.

3 J. W. Burgon, Inspiration and Interpretation: seven sermons preached before the University of Oxford … being an answer to the volume entitled ‘Essays and Reviews’ (Oxford and London, 1861).

4 C. H. Waller, The Authoritative Inspiration of Holy Scripture, as distinct from the inspiration of its human authors, acknowledged by our Lord Jesus Christ (London, 1887), pp. 7, 8.

5 Essays and Reviews, p. 377.

6 Burgon, op. cit., p. cxli.

7 Ibid., p. cxlii.

8 Essays and Reviews, p. 347.

9 Burgon, op. cit., p. cl.

10 Ibid., p. clxiii. For a recent re-statement of the argument from Jesus’ view of the Old Testament, v. J. W. Wenham, Christ and the Bible (London: Inter-Varsity Press, 1972).

11 Burgon, op. cit., p. 122.

12 Ibid., p. 7.

13 Ibid., p. 74.

14 Ibid., p. 75.

15 Ibid., p. 6.

16 Ibid., p. 116.

17 Ibid., p. 223.

18 Ibid., pp. 222–223.

19 Ibid., p. 223. Our emphasis.

20 Ibid., pp. 223–234.

21 Ibid., p. 226.

22 Ibid., p. 230.

23 Ibid., p. 63.

24 Ibid., p. 64.

25 Ibid., p. 65.

26 Ibid., p. 89.

Nigel M. de S. Cameron

Deerfield, Illinois