Warfield & Inspiration: Revelation, Inspiration & Scripture

The history of Christian theology could be told from the perspective of how the church’s theological giants have been misunderstood and misrepresented. One theological giant who fits in such a storyline is the Old Princeton scholar B. B. Warfield (1851-1921). Perhaps the central point at which he has been misunderstood and misrepresented is in his stress on the organic nature of Scripture and Christian doctrine.

Warfield believed that Scripture and Christian doctrine are organisms that are only rightly understood in their character, origin, and development when this defining feature is kept in mind.  He used terms like reason, rational, science, constructive, objective, subjective, revelation, historical, theology and doctrine, to name a few, to express living realities. Identifying these realities as organisms, or as part of an organism, was no mere metaphor; he was not simply using “organism” as an illustration. Warfield repeatedly emphasized that because the only true Triune God eternally lives, having life within himself, the Scriptures of the Old and New Testament live, what is objective is subjective, what is subjective is objective, and there are some who reason rightly because Scripture lives in and through them.  

Scripture, according to Warfield, is an organism that produces what is consistent with the kind of organism that it is. Scripture lives because it is God’s word. Yet Scripture is part of a larger organism—God’s revelation. God’s revelation can be classified as two species and these two species can be called general and special, or natural and supernatural, or cosmical and soteriological (pertaining to salvation). Each name can be misleading. We must understand what each name signifies and how the species of revelation relate to each other.

The two species of revelation form one organic whole so that they live complementing and supplementing, not contradicting and contrasting each other. Each species of revelation because it is just that, revelation, produces knowledge in human beings. Special or supernatural revelation is named such, not because general or natural revelation is not special or supernatural in any way, but because the revelation labeled as special, supernatural or soteriological was given by God to address the altered circumstances brought about in creation by sin. Sin deforms the image of God reflected in the human mind and there can be no recovery from this, wrote Warfield, unless God brings this correction. Those who represent Warfield as not understanding the noetic effects of sin (sins effects on the human mind) have not only misread him on this topic, but also have, thereby, misrepresented nearly his entire thought. “Right reason” for Warfield was sinful human reason “righted,” or corrected, by the Holy Spirit, not merely in a moment, but through the historical process of sanctification. 

God has dealt with us according to what he made us individually, and his people corporately, to be. He saves from sin by bringing a revelation that produces an ever more adequate and clear knowledge of himself. By the Spirit of God working in particular men, by what Warfield called “concursive operation,” God produced in and through history his written word. In this, God has not done any violence to his creatures but has worked in and through them in accordance with the nature he gave them. Nor did God do violence to any aspect of creation in bringing about historical events that are organically joined to his deliverance of his written word. In all this we see that Warfield thought according to the categories of creation and providence that he learned in his earliest years through his memorization of the Westminster Confession of Faith’s Shorter and Larger Catechisms.

Because God is truth itself, God cannot err; he cannot lie, and therefore, as originally given, God’s written word is inerrant. Still, the doctrine of the inerrancy of Scripture is actually the fruit of a more fundamental action by God. God’s written word, by the power of the Holy Spirit, produces in some sinners new life by which he gives them right reason, right affections and the ability to choose rightly that which God calls good. According to Warfield, Scripture’s sufficiency to accomplish God’s intended purpose, not its inerrancy, was the most fundamental truth about it in its relation to us as God’s creatures.

Thus, according to Warfield, “special revelation is a historic process, an organic system, a continuous divine activity directed to destroy the power of sin, to the building up of the Kingdom of God, to the restoration of the Cosmos, to the summing up of all things in Christ” (“Christianity and Revelation,” SSW 1:29, italics mine).   

David P. Smith (Ph.D.) is the author of B. B. Warfield's Scientifically Constructive Theological Scholarship (Wipf & Stock) and co author with Ronald Hoch of Old School, New Clothes: The Cultural Blindness of Christian Education Wipf & Stock). David is Pastor of Covenant Fellowship A.R.P. Church in Greensboro, North Carolina.  

David Smith