Warfield’s Conception of Biblical Infallibility I*

Since this collected works of Benjamin Warfield are not readily accessible to all of our Reformed people, it is a pleasure to announce the appearance of a new anthology, or selections, of Warfield’s most famous theological studies under the title: Biblical Foundations. In this volume the erstwhile professor of polemical theology at Princeton is presented in all the breadth of his immense scholarship, and it gives us a true gauge of the depth of his profound apprehension of biblical truth.

Although none of the subjects included in this book have lost their contemporaneity, or up-to-dateness, this review will concentrate itself on the chapter that deals with the biblical doctrine of inspiration. This is in line with the policy of our editorial committee, which had decided to treat this subject rather extensively during 1959. The fact that this doctrine is being re-examined in the most orthodox circles in the land lends a peculiar relevance and fitness to the discussion.1 However, I shall not confine myself to this one essay of Warfield, but rather feel free to quote the author from whatever one of his works the materials may suit my purpose.


Inspiration is defined as “a supernatural influence exerted on the sacred writers by the Spirit of God, by virtue of which their writings arc given a Divine trustworthiness” (p. 44). Again, “Inspiration is that extraordinary, supernatural influence (or, passively, the result of it), exerted by the Holy Ghost on the writers of our Sacred Books, by which their words were rendered also the words of God, and, therefore, perfectly infallible.” 2

The extraordinary, supernatural influence of the Holy Spirit upon the writers of Scripture was such that the words written under his guidance are the words of God, ‘“by which is meant to be affirmed an absolute infallibility (as alone fitted to divine words), admitting no degrees whatever—extending to the very word, and to all the words, so that every part of Holy Writ is thus held alike infallibly true in all its statements, of whatever kind.”

The definition purposely avoids any description of the mode, or manner, of inspiration, since that is admittedly a mystery; and, it is so framed as to distinguish it from revelation, because inspiration deals with the written communication of truth to men and not the revealing of these truths by God to certain individuals. On the other hand, there is no intimation here of a mechanical theory of inspiration, for the Reformed churches never subscribed to it,3 Neither is the doctrine itself any more mysterious than that of regeneration, by which the renewed creature in loving faith acts spontaneously yet divinely activated. “Once grasp this idea, and how impossible is it to separate in any measure the human and divine. It is all human, every word, and divine. The human characteristics are to be noted and exhibited; the divine perfection and infallibility, no less” (p. 422).



This, then, says Warfield, is the doctrine of the Reformed churches, and it has been characteristic of God’s people from the very founding of the church. Origen, e.g., asserts that the Holy Spirit was the co-worker of the Evangelists, so that lapse of memory, error or falsehood was impossible. To the same intent, one could cite Polycarp and Irenaeus (Ibid. p. 108). Augustine also firmly believed that not one of the authors of the canonical Scriptures had erred in anything, in writing (Idem).4 Luther not only adopts the words of Augustine as his own but declares that “the whole Scriptures are to be ascribed to the Holy Ghost, and therefore cannot err” (Idem, p. 108). Calvin also demanded that “whatever is propounded in Scriptures without exception; shall be humbly received by us with the same reverence which we give to God, ‘because they have emanated from him alone, and are mixed with nothing human’” (p. 109).


This doctrine of the divine trustworthiness of the Scripture has been formally expressed in the church’s creeds. Warfield finds traces of this as far back as the formulas which underlie the Apostolic Creed. The Catholic Church believes the canonical books of the Bible to be without admixture of error because they have been written by the Holy Ghost (p. 111). The Reformed creeds grow progressively more explicit on this matter, until we find in the Westminster Confession, “the most complete, the most admirable, the most perfect statement of the essential Christian doctrine of Holy Scripture which has ever been formed by man. Here the vital faith of the church is brought to full expression; the Scriptures are declared to be the Word of God in such a sense that God is their author, and they, because immediately inspired by God, are of infallible truth and divine authority, and are to be believed to be true by the Christian man, in whatsoever is revealed in them, for the authority of God himself speaking therein” (p. 111). Hence any seeming depreciation of Scripture was already unpopular in Tertullian’s day, and, “at no age has it been possible for men to express without rebuke the faintest doubt as to the absolute trustworthiness of its least declaration” (p. 112). The only two movements that have tended to lower the church’s conception of the inspiration and authority of Scripture are those of Rationalism and Mysticism, which we cannot now discuss particularly.5


Warfield then raises the question how to account for the origin and persistence of the church’s high doctrine of inspiration. The answer is simple. This high view of the matter was held by Jesus and the writers of the New Testament, and, since they were deemed credible teachers of doctrine, their testimony was accepted as trustworthy. In the chapter on the biblical idea of inspiration, Warfield proceeds to examine the evidence.6

The Scriptures are, according to Paul, God-breathed, but not a product of divine “inbreathing.” They are the product of the creative breath of God and therefore are a divine product. The classic passage is II Timothy 3:16: “Every Scripture is inspired of God and is profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, for instruction which is in righteousness.” This has often been mistranslated, notably in certain inversions. Now, the breath of Jehovah signifies divine power (cf. Psalm 33:6), hence Paul asserts with all the energy at his disposal, “that Scripture is the product of a specifically divine operation” (p. 45).

Next, Warfield adduces II Peter 1:19–21, w hi ch demonstrates that “the prophetic word” is more sure than the testimony of eye-witnesses, since it came “not by the will of man,” and is not the result of human investigations into the nature of things. But only men spake as they were “borne along by the Holy Spirit.” Here we see that Scripture, although it is from God, is produced by human instrumentality. However, it must be emphasized that they produced a divine work, since they were borne, carried along, by the Holy Spirit.

Now, the supreme trustworthiness of the Scriptures, thus produced, is demonstrated by Christ in his defense against the accusation of blasphemy, (John 10:34, 35: “Jesus answered them, Is it not written in your law, I said, Ye are gods? If he called them gods, unto whom the Word of God came (and the scripture cannot be broken), say ye of him, whom the Father sanctified and sent into the world, Thou blasphemest; because I said, I am the Son of God?”). Christ here presents the Scripture as law, as having final authority, although these words are not found in the book of the law, but in the book of Psalms (82:6). Thereby Christ ascribed legal authority to Scripture in its entirety, using it as a unit, a practice in which Paul followed our Lord. However, what he intimates in his appeal to the valid authority of what is written, is also expressed in the most absolute terms, “and the Scripture cannot be broken.” That is to say, it is impossible to annul or deny the Word of God written. This constitutes “the strongest possible assertion of the indefectible authority of Scripture” (p. 52), since Christ here is in the fullest agreement with his opponents, to whom the authority of Scripture extended to “its most incidental clauses as well as to its most fundamental principles, and to the very form of expression.”

As a further evidence of Christ’s attitude toward Scripture, Warfield notes his customary citation of it by the formula, “It is written”. With this sword he withstood the blandishments of Satan at the beginning of his ministry. He used it to instruct and reprimand his disciples both before and after his passion. By means of it he routed his enemies when they tried to ensnare him (Matthew 21:16; Mark 12:24).

Furthermore, our Lord refers to the words of Scripture as the very words of God, even though they do not record the sayings of God in their historical setting. This is explicable only “on the hypothesis that all Scripture is a declaration of God” (p. 55). Paul follows this procedure, quoting Adam’s words and those of Moses as the very words of God (I Corinthians 6:16). Christ, then presents Scripture as an authoritative document, because of the “ascription of it to God as its Author” (Idem). This was its presentation by our Lord, not by way of accommodation to contemporary error, but as the God-man, who was the faithful witness and the true prophet, even in his humiliation. And after the resurrection, in the state of exaltation, his view of the written Word of God did not change (Luke 24:25, 46).

The vivid sense of all the New Testament writers of the divine origin of Scripture is further expressed by simply citing Scripture by the verb, saith, without an expressed subject. Analogies for such usage are found among the Pythagoreans, Platonists and Aristotelians, who used to adduce their respective masters’ teachings under this form. So also the New Testament writers, with their vivid sense of the divine origin of tho Scriptures, sometimes did not say whose word they quoted, when “that lay beyond question in every mind” (p. 61). Paul (Galatians 3:16) even argues from the grammatical form of “the word which God is recorded as having spoken to Abraham.” Likewise Christ hangs “an argument on the very words of Scripture (John 10:34); elsewhere his reasoning depends on the particular tense (Matthew 22:32) or word (Matthew 22:43) used in Scripture.”


Warfield concludes that Christ and the sacred writers, to whom we owe the New Testament, held the Scriptures to be a divine book throughout, “created by the divine energy and speaking in their every part with divine authority directly to the heart of the readers…” However, “it would be inexact to say that they recognize a human element in Scripture: they do not parcel Scripture out, assigning portions of it, or elements in it, respectively to God and man. In their view the whole of Scripture in all its parts and in all its elements, down to the least minutiae. (the smallest details-K.) in form of expression as well as in substance of teaching, is from God; but the whole of it has been given by God through the instrumentality of men. There is. therefore, in their view, not, indeed, a human element or ingredient in Scripture, and much less human divisions or sections of Scripture, but a human side or aspect to Scripture; and they do not fail to give full recognition to this human side or aspect” (p. 62).

This human aspect is far too mysterious and complicated than to be described adequately by the term “dictation”. On the other hand, “the control of the Holy Spirit was too complete and pervasive to permit the human qualities of the secondary authors in any way to condition the purity of the product as the Word of God” (p. 65). Warfield rejects with vigor the common idea “that the human characteristics of the writers must, and in point of fact do, condition and qualify the writings produced by them” (p.67). For this would imply that men can not reproduce the Word of God in its purity. This puts a limitation upon God, and, by comparison with other divine acts in creation and redemption, denies his sovereignty and his power. For we must remember that the God of Scripture is the God of providence and grace as well as the God of revelation and inspiration.


Up to this point I have presented (although in greatly attenuated form ) Warfield’s argument that the church’s doctrine of an infallibly inspired Scripture is the teaching of the Scriptures themselves. If the doctrine, therefore, is to be assailed on critical grounds. it must be proved that the church was wrong in its exegesis of biblical data; that the whole mass of evidence—internal and external, objective and subjective, historical and philosophical, human and divine which goes to show that the Biblical writers are trustworthy as doctrinal guides.”7 must be overthrown. “In any case,” says Warfield, “any objections brought against the doctrine from other spheres of inquiry are inoperative; it being a settled logical principle that so long as the proper evidence by which a proposition is established remains unrefuted, all so-called objections brought against it pass out of the category of objections to its truth into the category of difficulties to be adjusted to it.”


Warfield admits that if a fair criticism establishes that the biblical writers did not teach the doctrine of the infallible inspiration of Scripture, then the doctrine must be given tip. On the other hand. if this doctrine is that of Scripture itself, then the conflict is no longer with ‘the traditional theory of inspiration’, “but with the credibility of the Bible” (p. 176).

As we have already abundantly demonstrated, the church’s doctrine of inspiration (namely, “that the Spirit’s superintendence extends to the choice of the words by the human authors [verbal inspiration], and preserves its product from everything inconsistent with a divine authorship”)8 was that of Christ and the apostles. To this the critics themselves agree.9 The doctrine of verbal inspiration, then, is based on the exegetical fact that both Christ and his apostles held this high doctrine of Scripture.

The real problem of inspiration, according to Warfield, is that if criticism has made discoveries which necessitate giving up the doctrine of inspiration it involves giving up Christ and his apostles as doctrinal guides. In that sense at least the critics are right that if their theories were true, a whole new theology would be in the offing and a reconstruction of creeds and worship imminent. But this calls for another article.

*Biblical Foundations, by B.B. Warfield, Wm. B. Eerdmans, Grand Rapids, Michigan, 1958. 350 pp. $5.00.

1. See Torch and Trumpet, VIII, 8 (Jan. 1959), p. 5.

2. The Inspiration and Authority of the Bible (Philadelphia, 1949), p. 420.

3. Ibid. p. 421, where Warfield defends Guassen against “dishonest, careless, ignorant or overeager controverters.”

4. Cf. David W. Kerr, “Augustine of Hippo,” Inspiration and Interpretation (Grand Rapids, 1957), p. 73, “One corollary of inspiration is inerrancy. To this Augustine subscribed in the boldest fashion,” saying that he believes, “most firmly that no one of those authors has erred in any respect in writing.”

5. For a discussion of infallibility in the other Reformed Creeds see article by the Rev. H.J. Kuiper in the March issue of Torch and Trumpet.

6. Biblical Foundations, pp. 43–78.

7. At this point I switch to the Chapter, The Real Problem of Inspiration in the larger work listed above.

8. Ibid., p. 173, the footnote in Warfield’s text rejects the representation that those who hold to verbal inspiration teach “dictation” as the mode of inspiration.

9. Warfield mentions Pfleiderer, Tholuck, Prof. Stapfer of Paris and R. Rothe among others.