Warfield & Inspiration: Scripture's Testimony
Benjamin Breckinridge (B.B.) Warfield was a professor at Princeton Theological Seminary from 1887 to 1921. He was one of the great professors of “Old Princeton” who tackled a number of Biblical and theological issues related to the rise of modernism and liberalism. One of the issues that he regularly wrote on and defended was the inspiration and inerrancy of God’s Word.
For Warfield, the Christian must start with the understanding that God has revealed Himself. If God has revealed Himself, particularly in His Word, then we are beholden to that Word. Thus, Warfield rejected the notion that we could bring our modernist thinking to dictate terms to what Scripture can and cannot be. In fact, one of the hallmarks of Warfield’s articulation of the doctrine of Scripture is to ask the question: What does Scripture say about itself.
For example, he writes, “It is obvious that the primary source of evidence for inspiration, in this exact sense, is the declaration of Scripture itself" (Selected Shorter Writings, vol.2, p.632). Warfield affirms the trustworthiness of Scripture and is not adverse to using “Christian evidences” to display their trustworthiness. But the argument basic to any confessional church doctrine: we have to define and articulate that doctrine the way God Himself does. For Warfield it is not about marshaling a few proof texts but rather bringing the whole force of Scripture to bear when it says things like “God spoke” or “the Scriptures say” (IAB, 118-9). Warfield argues that one cannot take text after text in artificial isolation in order to rationalize it away. He colorfully illustrates what it is like to deny this abundant witness and rationalize it away:
“The effort to explain away the Bible’s witness to its plenary inspiration reminds one of a man standing safely in his laboratory and elaborately expounding—possibly by the aid of diagrams and mathematical formulae—how every stone in an avalanche has a defined pathway that may easily be dodged by one of some presence of mind. We may fancy such an elaborate trifler’s triumph as he would analyze the avalanche into its constituent stones, and demonstrate of stone after stone that its pathway is definite, limited and may be easily avoided. But avalanches, unfortunately, do not come upon us, stone by stone, one at a time, courteously leaving us opportunity to withdraw from the pathway of each in turn: but all at once, in a roaring mass of destruction.” (IAB, 119-20)
To understand what it means for God to reveal Himself, we have to turn to the Scriptures themselves and see what they say. “In the view of the Scriptures, the completely supernatural character of revelation is in no way lessened by the circumstances that it has been given through the instrumentality of men” (IAB, p.86). Warfield stresses that while God uses men, the revelation comes wholly from God (IAB, 90-93, 131-2). It does not take away from the authority of the words communicated. This is not mechanical dictation, in fact, God accommodates His speech to the minds of men (IAB, 93).
Warfield, in various places, argues that Jesus and the Apostle hold the Scriptures as authoritative and trustworthy without error (for example, The Inspiration and Authority of the Bible [IAB], 116-7). For Warfield, since the Scriptures testify concerning themselves that they are the Word of God and both Jesus and the Apostle treat them as such demonstrating their authority, we too must recognize that the Scriptures are inherently trustworthy. The divinity of Scripture “expresses itself in its trustworthiness; and the New Testament writes in all their use of it treat it as what they declare it to be—a God-breathed document, which, because God-breathed it, as through and through trustworthy in all its assertions, authoritative in all its declarations, and down to its particular, the very Word of God” (IAB, 150).
There is much we can learn from Warfield even today. His clear thinking and firm argumentation is an example to us. We can still benefit from his arguments that defend the Biblical doctrine of inspiration and inerrancy. First, we would be wise to listen to his careful exegesis of relevant texts especially as he elucidates what it means that Scripture is “God-breathed.” Second, while some might be tempted to state that Warfield’s argument is circular, Warfield knew that any argument for the authority of Scripture and their inspiration has to come from the Scriptures themselves. This is because only God can tell us what the Scriptures are. He is the highest authority so we have to listen to Him to understand what the Bible is. The place where we listen to Him is the Bible itself.
Tim Bertolet is a graduate of Lancaster Bible College and Westminster Theological Seminary. He is an ordained pastor in the Bible Fellowship Church, currently serving as pastor of Faith Bible Fellowship Church in York, Pa. He is a husband and father of four daughters. You can follow him on Twitter @tim_bertolet.
B.B Warfield, The Inspiration and Authority of the Bible. Phillipsburg, N.J.: Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Company, 1948.
B.B Warfield, Selected Short Writings in Two Volumes. Phillipsburg, N.J.: Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Company, 1970, 1973.