Warfield & Inspiration: The Authority of the Bible

The Bible is the Word of God in such a way that when the Bible speaks, God speaks. – B.B. Warfield

But know this first of all, that no prophecy of Scripture is a matter of one’s own interpretation, for no prophecy was ever made by an act of human will, but men moved by the Holy Spirit spoke from God. 2 Peter 1:20-21, NASB

B.B. Warfield, Principal of Princeton Theological Seminary at the turn of the 20th century, is well-known for his work defending the divine inspiration of Scripture. During his time at Princeton Seminary, a debate was raging over the authority of the Bible. Were the words of Scripture actually God's words, or were they merely the words of men with a “divine element” mixed in?

In the late 1700s and throughout the 1800s, a particular school of thought had developed regarding how to interpret the Bible. This view, often called higher criticism, developed through the work of various German theologians such as Friedrich Schleiermacher, David Friedrich Strauss, and Ludwig Feuerbach.[1] In their study of Scripture, those who followed a higher criticism approach attempted to verify the historical accuracy of the Bible's description of events.

The text of the Bible was treated like any other historical, ancient text and subject to independent verification. The goal was to understand the original meaning of the text to the original audience and to weed out any later additions to the original accounts. In this way, the scholars believed they could arrive at the nuggets of truth that had been buried in the embellished versions. Generally, all miraculous elements were deemed later additions and not historically accurate.

Notably, the theologians who developed higher criticism denied the divine inspiration of the Scriptures.  According to them, the Bible was written and edited by men and reflected the same errors and mistakes of any ancient text. Some of the more common conclusions that scholars of higher criticism reached include that Moses was not the author of the Pentateuch. Rather, the first five books of the Bible were pieced together from four much later sources known as the J.E.D.P. (Jahwist, Elohist, Deuteronomy, and Priestly sources).[2]

Genesis 1 and 2 are considered to be an example of two different sources' accounts of creation that have been stitched together. Other common conclusions regarding Scripture include that David did not write the Psalms, Solomon did not write Ecclesiastes, Isaiah is the work of several men including Isaiah and a “Deutero-Isaiah”, and Daniel was not written by Daniel.[3]

In the New Testament, many attempts have been made with higher criticism to separate the Jesus as presented in Scripture from the Jesus who actually existed in history. Several books have been written on “finding the historical Jesus.” Typically Jesus's moral teachings are considered to have originated with him, but the miracles are considered either to have rational or natural explanations or to have been fabricated.

According to these scholars, the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke are preferred over the Gospel of John as being more historical. Mark is reputed to be the source material for most of Matthew and Luke. A lost source material containing sayings of Jesus, known as “Q,” is assumed to have been the basis for the parts of Matthew and Luke not included in Mark.[4]

It was these common views of Scripture and of Jesus that B.B. Warfield was confronting when he defended the inspiration and inerrancy of the Bible. Contrary to the beliefs of higher criticism, Warfield taught that all of Scripture was inspired by God, not in the sense of God dictating to or possessing the human body that then channeled God's words. Instead Warfield taught that “every word indited under the analogous influence of inspiration was at one and the same time the consciously self-chosen word of the writer and the divinely-inspired word of the Spirit.”[5]

B.B. Warfield was right about the stakes involved in the authority of Scripture. To abandon divine inspiration is to abandon Christ and the apostles:

If criticism has made such discoveries as to necessitate the abandonment of the doctrine of           plenary inspiration, it is not enough to say that we are compelled to abandon only a "particular       theory of inspiration..." We must go on to say that that "particular theory of inspiration" is the         theory of the apostles and of the Lord, and that in abandoning it we are abandoning them.[6]

Rachel Miller is News Editor for the Aquila Report. She has a BA in History from Texas A&M University. She is a member of a PCA church in the Houston area and the homeschooling mother of three boys.

[1]    “Biblical criticism,” accessed July 24, 2017, https://www.theopedia.com/biblical-criticism.

[2]    “JEDP,” accessed July 24, 2017, https://www.theopedia.com/jedp-theory.

[3]    Canon Dyson Hague, “The History of the Higher Critcism,” accessed July 24, 2017, https://www.blueletterbible.org/Comm/torrey_ra/fundamentals/01.cfm.

[4]    Robert W. Funk, The Five Gospels (Farmington: Polebridge Press, 1993), 2-5.

[5]    “Inspiration and Criticism,” accessed July 24, 2017, https://www.monergism.com/inspiration-and-criticism.

[6]    B.B. Warfield, “The Real Problem of Inspiration,” Presbyterian and Reformed Review (April 1893).


Rachel Miller