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Warfield tackles two interrelated propositions in his essay. On one hand, he notes the fact of critics of the doctrine of plenary verbal inspiration. He contrasted the critical doctrines with the consistent doctrine of the church in favor of plenary verbal inspiration:

Thus they themselves introduce us to the fact that over against the numberless discordant theories of inspiration which vex our time, there stands a well-defined church-doctrine of inspiration. This church-doctrine of inspiration differs from the theories that would fain supplant it, in that it is not the invention nor the property of an individual, but the settled faith of the universal church of God; (52)

[Page references are to the collected works of Warfield, vol. 1.]

The second proposition — which he develops in three parts– is the church’s doctrine of inspiration: 1) This doctrine goes back to the first history of the church. 2) This doctrine was held by Christ and the apostles. 3) Christianity by its very nature requires an inerrant Bible.

Skeptical Theories:


He places all theories of reduced inspiration under two heads, rational and mystic critiques.

The rationalistic theory attempts to distinguish between the inspired and uninspired sections of Scripture:

chiefly in the three forms which affirm respectively that only the mysteries of the faith are inspired, i. e. things undiscoverable by unaided reason, – that the Bible is inspired only in matters of faith and practice, – and that the Bible is inspired only in its thoughts or concepts, not in its words. (59)

The mystical theory relies completely on unaided reason. A personal intuition (“inspiration”) defines what is inspired:

to the test of which every “external revelation” is to be subjected, and according to the decision of which are the contents of the Bible to be valued. (59)

The Church Doctrine

The Church has held the Bible constitutes the words of God:

What this church-doctrine is, it is scarcely necessary minutely to describe. It will suffice to remind ourselves that it looks upon the Bible as an oracular book, – as the Word of God in such a sense that whatever it says God says, – not a book, then, in which one may, by searching, find some word of God, but a book which may be frankly appealed to at any point with the assurance that whatever it may be found to say, that is the Word of God. (52)

Having stated the doctrine, he demonstrates that the doctrine has been held by Christians from earliest days of the church and has been held by all major branches of Christianity (53-58). The doctrine

is represented rather by the Bengels, who count no labor wasted, in their efforts to distill from the very words of Holy Writ the honey which the Spirit has hidden in them for the comfort and the delight of the saints. (56)

Having established at length that the church has always held this doctrine, Warfield considers the question: Why has the church always held this doctrine?

He answers:

this is the doctrine of inspiration which was held by the writers of the New Testament and by Jesus as reported in the Gospels. (60)

He develops three lines of evidence to support this position. First,

As readers of the New Testament, we know that to the men of the New Testament “the Scriptures” were the Word of God which could not be broken, i. e. whose every word was trustworthy; and that a simple “It is written” was therefore to them the end of all strife (61).

This appears repeatedly in the NT. Jesus merely states “it is written” to respond to Satan (Matt. 4:4). The fact that something was written Scripture made such certain:

36 For these things took place that the Scripture might be fulfilled: “Not one of his bones will be broken.”37 And again another Scripture says, “They will look on him whom they have pierced.” John 19:36-37

John Wenham in his book Christ and the Bible develops this proposition at length with respect to how Jesus understood the Old Testament. John Frame’s review of the book can be found here: http://www.frame-poythress.org/review-of-wenhams-christ-and-the-bible/

Second, Warfield demonstrates that the men alive at the time of Christ would have regarded the Scripture as divinely inspired as in its particular words:

This view, which looked upon the scriptural books as verbally inspired, he adds, was the ruling one in the time of Christ, was shared by all the New Testament men, and by Christ himself, as a pious conception, and was expressly taught by the more scholastic writers among them. It is hardly necessary to prove what is so frankly confessed. (62).

Again we can see throughout the NT. For example, Paul’s argument in Galatians 3:16 hinges upon the distintion between the singular “seed” and the plural “seeds” in Genesis 3:16. The argument of Hebrews 7:3 hinges upon the lack of a genealogy for Melchzidek in Genesis 14.

Third, Warfield notes the position of the Church cannot be avoided as the obvious, original position:

The third reason why it is not necessary to occupy our time with a formal proof that the Bible does teach this doctrine, arises from the circumstance that even those who seek to rid themselves of the pressure of this fact upon them, are observed to be unable to prosecute their argument without an implied admission of it as a fact. (62)

In short, the evidence that Scripture, the writers, and the Church hold and have held to plenary verbal inspiration is inescapable:

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 formulæ – how every stone in an avalanche has a defined pathway and 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 easily be 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 (65-66).

Having surveyed the evidence Warfield comes to the obvious conclusion:

No, the issue is not, What does the Bible teach? but, Is what the Bible teaches true? (64)

Warfield then moves on to the third and final element of his argument: Christianity requires an inspired Bible. He grounds this argument in the proposition that Christianity in the end is a supernatural, revealed religion:

We cannot raise the question whether God has given us an absolutely trustworthy record of the supernatural facts and teachings of Christianity, before we are assured that there are supernatural facts and teachings to be recorded. The fact that Christianity is a supernatural religion and the nature of Christianity as a supernatural religion, are matters of history; and are independent of any, and of every, theory of inspiration (67).

Christianity cannot be reduced to historical (or other rational) investigation. First, who could possibly undertake such a perfect examination. Positions held by Warfield at the time of publication are no longer held by academics today. Second, much of constitutes the necessary elements of Christianity cannot be determined by historical examination. Third, why should a Christian disregard the position of Christ and his apostles?

Warfield clarifies the Christian’s relationship to the critic:

Much less can she be shaken from this instinctive conviction by the representations of individual thinkers who go yet a step further, and, refusing to pin their faith either to the Bible or to history, affirm that “the essence of Christianity” is securely intrenched in the subjective feelings of man, (69)

In short, why should a Christian give such weight to some 19th century university professor’s opinion of what is true or not? Why should one pin his faith on the opinion of a dead professor?

The Christian’s position is a position of faith and submission to the authority of Christ:

Adolphe Monod gives voice to no more than the common Christian conviction, when he declares that, “If faith has not for its basis a testimony of God to which we must submit, as to an authority exterior to our personal judgment, and independent of it, then faith is no faith” (70).

I recall a quote by Rorty wherein he rejected a human bend to a “nonhuman” authority. Indeed, those who reject the Christian think themselves safely beyond all serious trouble with belief or reality. Yet, such thinking merely reveals who has actually thought very little:

But, it may be said, there are difficulties in the way. Of course there are. There are difficulties in the way of believing anything. There are difficulties in the way of believing that God is, or that Jesus Christ is God’s Son who came into the world to save sinners. There are difficulties in the way of believing that we ourselves really exist, or that anything has real existence besides ourselves. When men give their undivided attention to these difficulties, they may become, and they have become, so perplexed in mind, that they have felt unable to believe that God is, or that they themselves exist, or that there is any external world without themselves. It would be a strange thing if it might not so fare with plenary inspiration also. Difficulties? Of course there are difficulties. It is nothing to the purpose to point out this fact. (73-74)

Moreover, it is nothing to argue that Christian reasoning is circular:

In my view, circular argument of a sort is inevitable when one is arguing on behalf of an absolute authority. This is true of Christian as well as non-Christian arguments. One cannot abandon one’s basic authority in the course of arguing for it! The problems created by this circularity can be mitigated by bringing in data from various different sources; but they cannot be totally avoided. (John Frame’s review of Wenham, cited above).

When it comes to Christianity, there can be resort to rational argument and history to support the circle. Yet such testimony is insufficient to bring faith and conviction. It is the testimony of the Scripture itself which secures faith:

Such a Word of God, each one of us knows he needs, – not a Word of God that speaks to us only through the medium of our fellow-men, men of like passions and weaknesses with ourselves, so that we have to feel our way back to God’s word through the church, through tradition, or through the apostles, standing between us and God; but a Word of God in which God speaks directly to each of our souls. Such a Word of God, Christ and his apostles offer us, when they give us the Scriptures, not as man’s report to us of what God says, but as the very Word of God itself, spoken by God himself through human lips and pens. Of such a precious possession, given to her by such hands, the church will not lightly permit herself to be deprived. Thus the church’s sense of her need of an absolutely infallible Bible, has co-operated with her reverence for the teaching of the Bible to keep her true, in all ages, to the Bible doctrine of plenary inspiration.

….not as a book in which, by searching, we may find God and perchance somewhat of God’s will: but as the very Word of God, instinct with divine life from the “In the beginning” of Genesis to the “Amen” of the Apocalypse, – breathed into by God, and breathing out God to every devout reader. (71).

Originally published in Biblotheca Sacra, 51, 1894, pp. 614-660.