B. B. Warfield and the Doctrine of Inspiration

Dr. Benjamin Breckenridge Warfield is noted as a conservative Princeton Professor who defended the Biblical doctrine of Biblical inerrancy and inspiration. What is less well known is that the means he chose to defend these doctrines was certainly not orthodox and has had disastrous repercussions on these doctrines in conservative Protestant circles throughout the twentieth century. Those who have followed his thinking have progressively lost any meaningful views of either inerrancy or inspiration.

Essentially what Warfield did was to defend the doctrine of inspiration by using the techniques of higher criticism. His argument basically ran as follows. If we can by rationalistic means (i.e. logic, reason, documented evidence, etc.) demonstrate that the Scriptures are reliable and trustworthy, and if we can show by clear and convincing exegesis that the Bible claims to be inspired, then as a trustworthy book we must accept its claims to be inspired.

In this he departed from the Westminster doctrine of the Scriptures. They held a totally different doctrine. They believed that the authority of the Scriptures was not derived from man and his rationalistic evidences in favor of its trustworthiness, but rather upon the belief that the Scriptures are the very word of God. This is manifest from the following statement of the confession.

The authority of the Holy Scripture, for which it ought to be believed and obeyed, depends not upon the testimony of any man or Church but wholly upon God (who is truth itself), the author thereof, and, therefore, it is to be received because it is the Word of God.

(WCOF, Ch. 1, Sect. 4)

Furthermore the also held a radically different view as to the grounds for the conviction that the Scriptures are the word of God. They did not believe that man’s reason and man’s conclusions with respect to the trustworthiness and reliability of the Biblical record were the basis for any belief in its being inspired and therefore the very word of God. They properly taught that it is by faith, by faith in the Scriptures as the very word of God, that we receive them as the very word of God. And they taught that this faith is not grounded on rationalistic human arguments but on the work of the Holy Spirit in our hearts. This again is manifest from the following statements of the confession.

We may be moved and induced by the testimony of the Church to a high and reverent esteem of the Holy Scripture, and the heavenliness of the matter, the efficacy of the doctrine, the majesty of the style, the consent of all the parts, the scope of the whole (which is to give all glory to God), the full discovery it makes of the only way of man’s salvation, the many other incomparable excellencies, and the entire perfection thereof are arguments whereby it does abundantly evidence itself to be the Word of God; yet, notwithstanding our full persuasion and assurance of the infallible truth and Divine authority thereof, is from the inward work of the Holy Spirit, bearing witness by and with the Word in our hearts.

(WCOF, Ch. 1, Sect. 5)

Warfield’s contrasting position is clearly manifested from the following quotes from an article representing his defense of the doctrine of inspiration. (Note: All the quotations by B. B. Warfield are taken from Part II, Immense Weight Of Evidence For The Biblical Doctrine, of the article, The Real Problem of Inspiration, from The Inspiration and Authority of the Bible, Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Co., 1970, pp. 169-226.)

He starts off his article by plainly stating that “the evidence for the truth of the doctrine of the plenary inspiration of Scripture is just the whole body of evidence which goes to show that the apostles are trustworthy teachers of doctrine.” There is here no reference to faith or to the work of the Spirit but only an appeal to rationalistic “evidence.” To the contrary, he continues, saying…

“The question is not how they teach a doctrine, but do they teach it; and when that question is once settled affirmatively, the weight of evidence that commends this doctrine to us as true is the same in every case; and that is the whole body of evidence which goes to show that the Biblical writers are trustworthy as teachers of doctrine. The Biblical doctrine of inspiration, therefore, has in its favor just this whole weight and amount of evidence. It follows on the one hand that it cannot rationally be rejected save on the ground of evidence which will outweigh the whole body of evidence which goes to authenticate the Biblical writers as trustworthy witnesses to and teachers of doctrine.”

Here Warfield grounds the whole doctrine of inspiration, that is the belief that the Bible is the very word of God on the fact that if men can demonstrate by rational evidence that the Bible is trustworthy in other areas, its claims to be inspired should also be considered trustworthy. In fact he goes so far as to state that,

Inspiration is not the most fundamental of Christian doctrines, nor even the first thing we prove about the Scriptures. It is the last and crowning fact as to the Scriptures. These we first prove authentic, historically credible, generally trustworthy, before we prove them inspired.

Instead of starting with faith in the Scriptures as the very word of God, Warfield wants men to approach the Bible in unbelief and with skepticism. We are to start by examining the Bible in a neutral, impartial way and only after we have ascertained by rationalistic means that it is a reliably and trustworthy document do we then move on to accept its claims of being inspired. He reiterates this in the following passages.

“We do not think that the doctrine of plenary inspiration is the ground of Christian faith, but if it was held and taught by the New Testament writers, we think it an element in the Christian faith; a very important and valuable element; an element that appeals to our acceptance on precisely the same ground as every other element of the faith, viz., on the ground of our recognition of the writers of the New Testament as trustworthy witnesses to doctrine; an element of the Christian faith, therefore, which cannot be rejected without logically undermining our trust in all the other elements of distinctive Christianity by undermining the evidence on which this trust rests. We must indeed prove the authenticity, credibility and general trustworthiness of the New Testament writings before we prove their inspiration.” “And, again, the general trustworthiness of the writers of the New Testament gives us the right and imposes on us the duty of accepting their witness to the relation the Holy Ghost bears to their teaching.” “…but first on the confidence which we have in the writers of the New Testament as doctrinal guides, and ultimately on whatever evidence of whatever kind and force exists to justify that confidence.” “…we approach the study of the so-called ‘phenomena’ of the Scriptures with a very strong presumption that these Scriptures contain no errors, and that any “phenomena” apparently inconsistent with their inerrancy are so in appearance only: a presumption the measure of which is just the whole amount and weight of evidence that the New Testament writers are trustworthy as teachers of doctrine.”

In the above statement Warfield fudges his position somewhat. He is still unwilling to state that we should approach the Bible in faith and in the conviction that it is the very word of God, an inspired, God-breathed book. However, he is willing to suggest that we should approach it with a presumption of “probably” being correct. This presumption is not based on faith or the inward testimony of God’s Spirit, the Spirit of truth, but on the weight of rationalistic evidence that be adduced in favor of the accuracy, and faithfulness of the Biblical record.

“No doubt it is perfectly true and is to be kept in mind that the claim of a writing to be infallible may be mistaken or false. Such a claim has been put forth in behalf of and by other writings besides the Bible, and has been found utterly inconsistent with the observed characteristics of those writings…The test of the truth of the claims of the Bible to be inspired of God through comparison with its contents, characteristics and phenomena, the Bible cannot expect to escape; and the lovers of the Bible will be the last to deny the validity of it. By all means let the doctrine of the Bible be tested by the facts and let the test be made all the more, not the less, stringent and penetrating because of the great issues that hang upon it.”

Here Warfield unmistakably displays his rationalistic approach to the Scriptures and their defense. The Bible is to be treated in a neutral fashion and treated as skeptically as any other book. It is only to be received as trustworthy and accepted as the inspired word of God if it can pass a number of rationalistic tests of human devising that can demonstrate that it is worthy of being believed. Here we come to the real crux of the issue. Here is the Achille’s heel of Warfield’s position. Here he answers the age old question, the question of Pilate when he addressed Christ, “What is truth.” In other words the question of how we ascertain what is truth. The eternal question of by what standard we determine what is truth and what is falsehood. The orthodox and Biblical answer to this question is that the Bible, God’s word, is the standard. We measure all other statements and all other claims by the standard of the Bible. As the Scriptures themselves declare, “Let God be true and every man a liar.” Warfield reverses this doctrine. We measure the claims of the Bible by some other standard, some merely human standard. Any only after God’s word has been approved and found acceptable by some other, and therefore logically higher standard, is it to be received as the word of God. Warfield places God in the dock and his word is put on trial. This is nothing less than the rationalistic techniques of higher criticism being applied to the question of Biblical infallibility. Warfield may come up with the right answer, but the manner that he arrives at it is nothing less than disastrous and is subversive of the very Scriptures that he is pretending to defend. Warfield goes on…

We do not adopt the doctrine of the plenary inspiration of Scripture on sentimental grounds, nor even, as we have already had occasion to remark on a priori or general grounds of whatever kind. We adopt it specifically because it is taught us as truth by Christ and His apostles, in the Scriptural record of their teaching, and the evidence for its truth is, therefore, as we have also already pointed out, precisely that evidence, in weight and amount, which vindicates for us the trustworthiness of Christ and His apostles as teachers of doctrine. Of course, this evidence is not in the strict logical sense “demonstrative”; it is “probable” evidence. It therefore leaves open the metaphysical possibility of its being mistaken. But it may be contended that it is about as great in amount and weight as “probable” evidence can be made, and that the strength of conviction which it is adapted to produce may be and should be practically equal to that produced by demonstration itself.

Here Warfield is forced to confess the weakness of his position in defending the inspiration of the Scriptures by natural evidences. He has already ruled out accepting the inspiration on “a priori” grounds, that is he has rejected basing such a doctrine on faith in God and in the Bible as his word. It is now to be based on “probable” evidence that admittedly can never be conclusive or really “demonstrative.” Any conviction of the inspiration of the Bible can only be as strong as the weight of human evidence that can be marshaled in its support. The best that Warfield can deliver is strong presumption, a persuasive probability, that the Bible is inspired. How can this be accepted as a defense of the faith? How can this travesty be accepted as a defense of the Holy Scriptures? Warfield has sold out the faith in attempting to appease rationalistic critics of the Bible by conducting the debate on their unbelieving terms.

“Moreover, as every student of the history of exegesis and criticism knows, they are a progressively vanishing quantity. Those which seemed most obvious and intractable a generation or two ago, remain today as only too readily forgotten warnings against the ineradicable and inordinate dogmatism of the opponents of the inerrancy of the Bible, who over ride continually every canon of historical and critical caution in their eager violence against the doctrine that they assail. What scorn they expressed of “apologists” who doubted whether Luke was certainly in error in assigning a “proconsul” to Cyprus, whether he was in error in making Lysanias a contemporary tetrarch with the Herodian rulers, and the like. How easily that scorn is forgotten as the progress of discovery has one by one vindicated the assertions of the Biblical historians. The matter has come to such a pass, indeed, in the progress of discovery, that there is a sense in which it may be said that the doctrine of the inerrancy of the Bible can now be based, with considerable confidence, on its observed “phenomena.” What marvelous accuracy is characteristic of its historians! Dr. Fisher, in a paper already referred to, invites his readers to read Archibald Forbes’ article in the Nineteenth Century for March, 1892, on “Napoleon the Third at Sedan,” that they may gain some idea of how the truth of history as to the salient facts may be preserved amid “hopeless and bewildering discrepancies in regard to details,” in the reports of the most trustworthy eye witnesses. The article is instructive in this regard. And it is instructive in another regard also. What a contrast exists between this mass of “hopeless and bewildering discrepancies in regard to details,” among the accounts of a single important transaction, written by careful and watchful eye‑witnesses, who were on the ground for the precise purpose of gathering the facts for report, and who were seeking to give an exact and honest account of the events which they witnessed, and the marvelous accuracy of the Biblical writers! If these “hopeless and bewildering discrepancies” are consistent with the honesty and truthfulness and general trustworthiness of the uninspired writers, may it not be argued that the so much greater accuracy attained by the Biblical writers when describing not one event but the history of ages and a history filled with pitfalls for the unwary—has something more than honesty and truthfulness behind it, and warrants the attribution to them of something more than general trustworthiness?”

Here Warfield gets into the nitty-gritty of what his position entails. We are to go to independent standards such as secular history, to determine for instance if Luke is a reliable historian. If the Bible can pass muster fine and well, but if not it should be discarded, just as most men have discarded the Book of Mormon. And here his logic completely breaks down. Having shown how unreliable the record of secular history is he still insists that it be used as the higher standard to test the veracity of inspired historians such as Luke. Warfield then tells us that by leaning on this broken reed of secular history, “the doctrine of the inerrancy of the Bible can now be based, with considerable confidence” on such grounds.

“No single error has as yet been demonstrated to occur in the Scriptures as given by God to His Church. And every critical student knows, as already pointed out, that the progress of investigation has been a continuous process of removing difficulties, until scarcely a shred of the old list of “Biblical Errors” remains to hide the nakedness of this moribund contention. To say that we do not wish to make claims “for which we have only this to urge, that they cannot be absolutely disproved,” is not to the point; what is to the point is to say, that we cannot set aside the presumption arising from the general trustworthiness of Scripture, that its doctrine of inspiration is true, by any array of contra dictory facts, each one of which is fairly disputable. We must have indisputable errors—which are not forthcoming.”

Here Warfield again indisputably states his position. His defense of Biblical inerrancy is based on the fact that unbelieving criticism has not been able to establish one undisputed error in the Scriptures. For Warfield, as long as any alleged errors can be disputed, inerrancy and inspiration are safe. Is this the basis on which Christians want to defend the Bible. Is he really willing to cast away the shield of faith and submit these monumental questions to the results of secular, unbelieving, rationalistic literary criticism? Is he really willing to let unbelief dictate the terms of the debate? It is hard to believe, but his own words clearly convict him.

Edward F. Hills in his classic defense of the Textus Receptus and his devastating critique of unbelieving textual criticism, “The King James Bible Defended,” warns against taking a rationalistic approach to the Scriptures, such as Warfield has taken above. He demonstrates convincingly that this has always inexorably led to modernism. Instead, he argues that the Bible must be approached in faith and received as the inspired, inerrant word of God before we can begin to deal with its contents.

This was certainly the position of the Apostle Paul. He commands the Lord’s people, “Above all, taking the shield of faith, wherewith ye shall be able to quench all the fiery darts of the wicked.” The vicious attacks of unbelief on the Scriptures are certainly properly termed the fiery darts of the wicked. And how are Christians to defend themselves from such. Are we meet unbelief on its own terms and debate these issues in the context of unbelieving science. Never, Paul says. Instead we are to quench these attacks by the shield of faith. We are to stand fast in our faith in the Scriptures as the inspired word of God and stand unmovable as Satan rages against the word of God. Eve’s experience in the Garden is illustrative of this point. She came under Satanic attack. She fell victim to one of the fiery darts of the wicked. And why did she fall. Exactly, because as Paul stated it, she did not raise the shield of faith. When Satan questioned God’s word saying, “Hath God said…” her reply should have been, “Yes, God has said, and I believe it. Amen!” Instead she took the approach of higher criticism. Instead she took Warfield’s approach. She tested God’s word to see whether it was true or not. She took of the forbidden fruit to see whether God’s word would come to pass or Satan’s. She learned, to her eternal misfortune, and to the misfortune of the entire human race, that to test God’s word in unbelief is to invite disaster. Instead of using rationalistic means to test the veracity of God’s word and of Satan’s lies, she should have answered in faith. How different the history of the human race might have been if Adam and Eve had responded to Satan’s darts with the shield of faith.

Why would a scholar and orthodox believer such as Warfield take such a disastrous position with respect to such a critical issue. The answer most frequently supplied is that it was attempt to reach unbelievers with the truth. The argument goes that it is absurd to reach out to unbelievers with the statement that the Bible is true and ought to be respected and believed and then when answering the question of why we believe it to say “by faith.” They correctly say that the world will scoff at that and consider us religious fools and superstitious religious zealots. So to obtain a hearing for the Bible among the men of the world it is necessary to use arguments that they will respect. They respect logic and reason and with these will compel them to take the Bible seriously. But this position is patently unscriptural. The very Scriptures we are attempting to present to an unbelieving world condemns such an approach. What do the Scriptures say about our approach to the world with God’s truth? To quote the Apostle Paul again, he says “The weapons of our warfare are not carnal, but mighty to the casting down of strongholds.” Warfield’s approach is exactly the opposite of what Paul’s statement requires. Warfield seeks to use carnal weapons to confront a hostile and unbelieving world with the truth of the Scriptures. How do the Scriptures say we are to convert men to the Christian faith? Is it by rationalistic argument in favor of Christianity? Is it by engaging in logical debate with respect to the benefits of the Christian religion? The answer is none of the above. The Scriptures says that “faith,” faith in Christianity, “comes by hearing and hearing by the word of God.” It is by proclaiming the word of God as the word of God that God brings his elect to faith in Christ. The Bible makes it clear that men have hearts of stone. The Scriptures clearly teach that natural man has his understanding darkened and that when he is confronted with inescapable testimony to the existence and goodness of God he suppresses it in unrighteousness. As Paul states it, “the natural does not receive the things of God.” So Warfield’s attempt to convince unbelieving men of the truth of Christianity by rational argument is condemned by the Scriptures themselves. As the Apostle Peter put it the seed by which we are born again is the word of God. It is not the words of men.

However, if Warfield’s approach is fruitless as far as bringing unbelievers to the Christian religion, it has not been without consequences. It is because of his errors with respect to these issues, because of his departures from the Westminster doctrine of the Scriptures, that meaningful belief in the inspiration and inerrancy of the Scriptures has become progressively extinct in many evangelical denominations and especially in professedly conservative seminaries. We will deal with some of these other errors in separate articles. And it is to these errors that we can attribute the appalling lack of confidence in the Scriptures that is so prevalent today in American Evangelicalism.