Dean Burgon on Bible Preservation

Critics of the Byzantine Text/Textus Receptus or a “preserved text” position can invent some amazing things to discredit and explain away the doctrine of Scripture preservation. One of these is to “disprove” that this doctrine was believed historically. Dean John Burgon was a 19th century defender of the Byzantine Text. Critics will pull out quotes from his writings to prove that he didn’t believe in preservation:

That a perpetual miracle was wrought for their preservation–that copyists were protected against the risk of error, or evil men prevented from adulterating shamefully copies of the Deposit–no one, it is presumed, is so weak as to suppose. (The Traditional Text, pg 11)

On first glance, it would appear from this quote that Burgon did NOT believe in Scripture preservation. However, here he is just defining what preservation is NOT. Putting the quote back into context shows that Burgon did indeed believe in preservation:

The Traditional Text of the Holy Gospels

Before our Lord ascended up to Heaven, He told His disciples that He would send them the Holy Ghost, Who should supply His place and abide with His Church for ever. He added a promise that it should be the office of that inspiring Spirit not only to bring ‘to their remembrance all things whatsoever He had told them [John 16:26]’, but also to ‘guide’ His Church ‘into all the Truth,’ or, ‘the whole Truth [John 14:13]’ … Accordingly, the earliest great achievement of those days was accomplished on giving to the Church the Scriptures of the New Testament, in which authorized teaching was enshrined in written form. And first, out of those many Gospels which incompetent persons had ‘taken in hand’ to write or to compile out of much floating matter of an oral or written nature, He guided them to discern that four were wholly unlike the rest – were the very Word of God.

There exists no reason for supposing that the Divine Agent, who in the first instance thus gave to mankind the Scriptures of Truth, straightway abdicated His office; took no further care of His work; abandoned those precious writings to their fate. That a perpetual miracle was wrought for their preservation–that copyists were protected against the risk of error, or evil men prevented from adulterating shamefully copies of the Deposit–no one, it is presumed, is so weak as to suppose. But it is quite a different thing to claim that all down the ages the sacred writings must needs have been God’s peculiar care; that the Church under Him has watched over them with intelligence and skill; has recognized which copies exhibit a fabricated, which an honesty transcribed text; has generally sanctioned the one, and generally disallowed the other. I am utterly disinclined to believe–so grossly improbable does it seem–that at the end of 1800 years 995 copies out of every thousand, suppose, will prove untrustworthy; and that the one, two three, four or five which remain, whose contents were till yesterday as good as unknown, will be found to have retained the secret of what the Holy Spirit originally inspired. I am utterly unable to believe, in short, that God’s promise has so entirely failed, that at the end of 1800 years much of the text of the Gospel had in point of fact to be picked by a German critic out of a waste-paper basket in the convent of St. Catherine; and that the entire text had to be remodelled (sic) after the pattern set by a couple of copies which had remained in neglect during fifteen centuries, and had probably owed their survival to that neglect; whilst hundreds of others hand been thumbed to pieces, and hand bequeathed their witness to copies made from them.

(The Traditional Text, pg 11,12, emphasis his, underline mine)

The Revision Revised

Burgon asserts scripture preservation in his other works. His Revision Revised has the index entry:“Provision (God’s) for the safety of His Word … 8, 9, 338, 494” (Revision Revised, pg 547).

(1) The provision, then, which the Divine Author of Scripture is found to have made for the preservation in its integrity of His written Word, is of a peculiarly varied and highly complex description. First,–By causing that a vast multiplication of Copies should be required all down the ages,–beginning at the earliest period, and continuing in an ever-increasing ratio until the actual invention of Printing,–He provided the most effectual security imaginable against fraud. True, that millions of the copies so produced have long since perished: but it is nevertheless a plain fact that there survive of the Gospels alone upwards of one thousand copies to the present day.

(2) Next Versions. The necessity of translating the Scriptures into divers languages for the use of different branches of the early Church, procured that many an authentic record has been preserved of the New Testament as it existed in the first few centuries of the Christian era. Thus, the Peschito Syriac and the old Latin version are believed to have been executed in the IInd century. “It is no stretch of imagination” (wrote Bp. Ellicott in 1870,) “to suppose that portions of the Peshito might have been in the hands of S. John, or that the Old Latin represented the current views of the Roman Christians of the IInd century.” The two Egyptian translations are referred to the IIIrd and IVth. The Vulgate (or revised Latin) and the Gothic are also claimed for the IVth: the Armenian, and possibly the AEthiopic, belong to the Vth.

(3) Lastly, the requirements of assailants and apologists alike, the business of Commentators, the needs of controversialists and teachers in every age, have resulted in a vast accumulation of additional evidence, of which it is scarcely possible to over-estimate the importance. For in this way it has come to pass that every famous Doctor of the Church in turn has quoted more or less largely from the sacred writings, and thus has borne testimony to the contents of the codices with which he was individually familiar. Patristic Citations accordingly are a third mighty safeguard of the integrity of the deposit. (Revision Revised, 8-9, emphasis his, underline mine)

“For, let the ample and highly complex provision which Divine Wisdom hath made for the effectual conservation of that crowning master-piece of His own creative skill,–The Written Word,–be duly considered; and surely a recoil is inevitable from the strange perversity which in these last days would shut us up within the limits of a very few documents to the neglect of all the rest,–as though a revelation from Heaven had proclaimed that the Truth is to be found exclusively in them. The good Providence of the Author of Scripture is discovered to have furnished His household, the Church, with (speaking roughly) 1000 copies of the Gospels:–with twenty Versions–two of which go back to the beginning of Christianity: and with the writings of a host of ancient Fathers.” (Quoted in Revision Revised, p 338, emphasis his, underline mine)

Behold then the provision which The Author of Scripture has made for the effectual conservation in its integrity of this portion of His written Word! Upwards of eighteen hundred years have run their course since the Holy Ghost by His servant, Paul, rehearsed the ‘mystery of Godliness;’ declaring this to be the great foundation-fact,–namely, that ‘God was manifest in the flesh.’ And lo, out of two hundred and fifty-four copies of S. Paul’s Epistles no less that two hundred and fifty-two are discovered to have preserved that expression. Such ‘Consent’ amounts to Unanimity; and, (as I explained at pp 454-5,) unanimity in this subject-matter, is conclusive. (Revision Revised, pg 494, emphasis his, underline mine)

The Causes of Corruption of the Traditional Text

Not that we would imply that permanent mischief has resulted to the Deposit from the vagaries of individuals in the earliest age. The Divine Author of Scripture hath abundantly provided for the safety of His Word written. In the multitude of copies,–in Lectionaries,–in Versions,–in citations by the Fathers, a sufficient safeguard against error hath been erected. (Causes of Corruption, pg 98)

Burgon explains how varying manuscripts are a proof of preservation, not a testimony against preservation:

Witnesses of different kinds; from different countries; speaking different tongues:–witnesses who can never have met, and between whom it is incredible that there should exist collusion of any kind:–such witnesses deserve to be listened to most respectfully. Indeed, when witnesses of so varied a sort agree in large numbers, they must needs be accounted worthy of even implicit confidence … Variety it is which imparts virtue to mere Number, prevents the witness-box from being filled with packed deponents, ensures genuine testimony. False witness is thus detected and condemned, because it agrees not with the rest …

It is precisely this consideration which constrains us to pay supreme attention to the combined testimony of the Unicials and of the whole body of the Cursive Copies. They are (a) dotted over at least 1000 years: (b) they evidently belong to so many divers countries,–Greece, Constantinople, Asia Minor, Palestine, Syria, Alexandria, and other parts of Africa, not to say Sicily, Southern Italy, Gaul, England, and Ireland: (c) they exhibit so many strange characteristics and peculiar sympathies: (d) they so clearly represent countless families of MSS., being in no single instance absolutely identical in their text, and certainly not being copies of any other Codex in existence,–that their unanimous decision I hold to be an absolutely irrefragable (sic) evidence of the Truth. (Traditional Text, pg 50-51)

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