A Review of Once Delivered Forever Established (by Doug Burleson)
Warren Christian Apologetics Center has published a short book by Doug Burleson of Freed-Hardeman University centering on the certainty of the Holy Scriptures. Many publications in churches of Christ have addressed a cultural shift that denies the authoritative nature of Scripture and its truths, and Burleson’s book reaches the reader desiring a more in-depth knowledge of how the Bible was given to us, and how it can be trusted regardless of the snares of those who would undermine its authority. Burleson himself is well-versed in textual criticism and used his expertise to bridge a gap between the academy and church—two institutions which are often at conflict.
When I read a work such as this, I always begin by looking at the work’s bibliography, or in this case, “works consulted.” A bibliography says a lot about the work as a whole because it allows the informed reader to determine if the author wrote having taken into account the various scholars for and against their proposition. Burleson has a nicely robust bibliography that includes a healthy mixture, but because of the nature of his work, there are more authors in his favor than against. Nevertheless, those against his proposition are giants in their circles, and he was sure to include several of them which shows a delicate balance. I would have liked to have seen a few works involved, and I propose these only after having read his work:
Jürgen Becker, Schriftliche und Mündliche Autorität im frühen Christentum (Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2012); Larry W. Hurtado, “Oral Fixation and New Testament Studies? ‘Orality’, ‘Performance’ and Reading Texts in Early Christianity, New Testament Studies 60, no. 3 (July 2014): 321–40; Andreas Köstenberger and Michael J. Kruger, The Heresy of Orthodoxy (Wheaton: Crossway, 2010).
In the beginning, Burleson noted the different voices in this discussion and some of their thoughts. His appraisal of such voices as Ehrman and Enns shows his familiarity with the other side’s argument, and this only enhances his views. The work is undoubtedly a polemic, and throughout it, he notes what is commonly held or said in certain circles, voices his proposal, and spends a great deal of time strengthening his argument.
I commend Burleson’s careful definition of the jargon relative to this topic. He is careful to demonstrate how people can define the same term with differences (e.g., “inerrant”) and how he explains the word so that the reader is aware of his meaning. This is something that not everyone may be aware of but is used to expand the mind of the reader to something beyond the pews and our own vacuum of thinking. He also makes the reader aware of the value of reading extra-biblical literature such as the Apocrypha and Apostolic Fathers. While not inspired themselves, Burleson uses such literature in a way to show the larger picture of the story of the Bible and does so in a way that distinguishes between history and the Inspired.
When speaking about inerrancy, he highlighted that some prefer to not use the term “inerrant’ because of the baggage it carries with it (p. 5). I am one who prefers to not use the word for the very reason he mentions. Burleson also distinguishes between the Bible itself, as the Word of God, and the manuscripts, translations, and scribal traditions of the Bible which some see as one in the same. His explanation may not convince all, but it is a distinction worth noting which is often not made.
I very much appreciated in his discussion on the canon how he included the varying views among writers as to what was canonical. He doesn’t hide from the fact that the canon as we have it was not uniformly accepted by all, but varied. His honesty on this issue is not problematic for one who trusts in the Scriptures but shows that people of faith in centuries past worked through such differences to agree on the canon not because they chose it, but because they recognized the works as inspired by God.
I’m sure Burleson would agree that no man-produced work is without room for improvement, so the critiques that follow here are something ordinary in an academic setting and aren’t meant in a mean-spirited manner, but are constructive. I would hope that he and others who read this do not perceive my remarks as unkind, but useful to the overall project. He has done an excellent job with this work, but there are some more things that I would have liked to have seen where he may have only skimmed the surface.
The author noted the internal drive of the Bible to study the Scriptures (p. 9). However, in an ancient setting, most people were illiterate so it would have been the educated classes such as priests and kings who would have even had a communal or personal copy. His reading of the passages he cited here are read into with a twenty-first-century understanding, but in earlier centuries, people didn’t have their copies of Scripture, and even if everyone did, scholars have estimate fewer than 20% were literate in those times. His point still stands, but highlighting the literacy would have been more faithful to the ancient audiences and recipients of the Scriptures.
I would have liked to have seen more discussion on scribal errors versus the perfection by which God spoke the words of the Bible (cf. p. 24). For many, the Bible we have has come to us through various manuscripts and such errors, which is why folks like Bart Ehrman have been so persuasive to having others doubt the reliability of the Bible. He also noted limitations to oral tradition (p. 40), but he didn’t list any specific limitations. This omission may not have played into the whole of his purpose, but he also didn’t give an argument against it which left the reader wondering what he might have had in mind, which was why I included two works above regarding orality.
One point that jumped out at me was the following statement: “One does not have to assume that Paul was familiar with the Gospel of Luke since it is possible that he was quoting oral tradition here [in 1 Timothy 5:17–18 which quoted Luke 10:7]” (p. 41). Since the Bible attests to Luke being a traveling companion of Paul, why wouldn’t the apostle have been aware of Luke’s gospel? Even church historian Eusebius noted, “It is suggested that Paul was in the habit of referring to Luke’s gospel whenever he said as if writing of some Gospel of his own: ‘According to my gospel’” (Eccl. Hist. 3.4). I wondered why Burleson believed that Paul might not have been acquainted with Luke’s gospel when other sources attest to the contrary. A footnote here would have been helpful to me.
What appears above evaluates the first two essays. The third essay in his work was informative to me because my grasp of textual criticism is elementary. I found the third essay informative and appreciated his engagement with Ehrman’s critique of the Bible very much. The one book that I’ve read that was somewhat helpful in dispelling Ehrman’s views was The Heresy of Orthodoxy, which I suggested above. The fourth essay on translations was also informative though a good deal of the information was previously familiar. While I don’t have any criticism on his final two essays, the third might be a bit too technical for some as it was for me at times, but the last essay was a pleasant read.
When tied all together, this book is a progression from one end of the subject matter to the other. I would encourage this as a personal read, but not a group study. One has to be at a certain level of knowledge before they can digest this information. This isn’t a work suited for the novice but is certainly recommended for preachers, one engaged in graduate biblical studies, as well as one who’s learning is higher than most. If a beginner were to read this, they might be able to pick up helpful information, but this work isn’t on the novice level. It is, however, a pleasant and short read, and sure to be beneficial to the reader who has an interest in such matters.