Warfield’s Conception of Biblical Infallibility II


Since the church’s doctrine of an infallibly inspired Scripture is taught by the Scriptures themselves,1 the real problem of inspiration becomes that of the credibility of the Bible. This was the conclusion to which Warfield led us in our first article. TIle rejection of the New Testament doctrine of inspiration, therefore, constitutes the rejection of the New Testament writers as reliable guides and teachers of doctrine. Any and every modification of the plain teaching of Scripture to its own inspired nature has resulted in undermining the authority of the Scriptures. Such is the testimony of history. The authority which is not trusted for hard facts is soon no longer trusted when it presents a hard doctrine. “Sooner or later, in greater or less degree, the authority of the Bible in doctrine and life is replaced by or subordinated to that of reason, or of the feelings, or of the ‘Christian consciousness’” ( p. 181).


Warfield goes on, in his chapter on the real problem of inspiration, to indicate the various ways in which men have sought to justify their acceptance of a lower view of Scripture than that held by Christ and the apostles. The first of these seeks to establish a distinction, or opposition, between the teaching of Christ and that of his apostles, rejecting the latter in favor of the former. The view of the apostles is presented as that of contemporary Judaism, from which Christ is supposed to distinguish himself by his divine originality. This view is presented by R. Rothe.

Now it ought to be evident that we have no way of knowing what Christ himself taught without the testimony of the disciples, since Jesus himself left us no doctrinal treatises. But if the apostles’ doctrine is not trustworthy, how can we accept the picture they give of the Christ and how can we believe the words they represent as spoken by our Lord? But more than that, “His credit is involved in their credit. He represents his words on earth as but the foundation of one great temple of doctrine, the edifice of which was to be built up by him through their months, as they spoke moved by His Spirit: and thus He makes himself an accomplice before the fact in all they taught. In proportion as they are discredited as doctrinal guides, in that proportion he is discredited with them” (p. 188). In short. if Christ has referred us to the apostles as true guides and teachers of doctrine, what right have we to make an exception with respect to the primary truth of the authority of the Scriptures? The cry to go back to a Christ of our own fancy from the teachings of the apostles, when he himself points us to them as his authoritative representatives, is pious palaver.


A second attempt to escape the Force of the biblical doctrine of inspiration is well set forth by one James Stewart.2 It attempts to show that the high doctrine of inspiration held by the New Testament writers is “merely a matter of accommodation to the prejudices of the Jews” (p. 189). But this claim cannot be made good, since it is clear from the evidence that the apostles shared the view of their contemporaries. However, this is made the ground, by Stewart, for rejecting the teaching of the apostles and holding that they are authoritative only when they present something different, something new. Warfield calls this the apotheosis, the glorification, of the old Athenian spirit and the new modern spirit, “which has leisure and heart ‘for nothing else but either to tell or hear some new thing” (p. 192). However, this principle has become quite common among those who seek to justify their departure from the New Testament writers with respect to the authority and inspiration of Scripture.

Warfield further points out that since accommodation on the part of the apostles makes their truthfulness suspect, a shift was made by this school of critics to the position that the apostles’ were really ignorant of the new revelation as represented in Christ; they were simply children of their time. That is, their inspiration was not plenary, (full) but only partial—it did not extend to all the matters on which they spoke. Inspiration, according to this view, secured only “the accurate communication of that plan of salvation which they had so profoundly experienced, and which they were commissioned to proclaim” (p. 194).

Actually, then, the accommodation theory is an indictment either against the truthfulness or the knowledge of the apostles, and either of these destroys their value as creditable witnesses to the resurrection. One cannot defend this theory by saying that it was simply a manner of becoming “all things to all men”, as Paul defines his method of approach in preaching the Gospel. “It is one thing to adapt the teaching of truth to the stage of receptivity of the learner; it is another thing to adopt the errors of the time as the very matter to be taught. It is one thing to refrain from unnecessarily arousing the prejudices of the learner, that more ready entrance may be found for the truth; it is another thing to adopt those prejudices as our own, and to inculcate them as the very truths of God. It was one thing for Paul to become ‘all things to all men’ that he might win them for the truth; it was another for Peter to dissemble at Antioch, and so confirm men in their error” (p. 195).

It ought to be patent to every one that the purpose of the accommodation theory is to separate truth from falsehood by our own reasoning power.


There is a third attempt to escape from the implications of the high view of inspiration taught in Scripture. It is held by those who say that the apostles indeed held this view for themselves as their opinion, but they did not teach it; and, it is said, we are bound not by what they thought, but by what they taught. Dr. Farrar, who held to this view, agrees that Paul shared the views of his contemporaries in the matter of inspiration of Scripture. Yet Farrar tries to drive a wedge between the thing Paul believed and that which he taught. But exactly what is taught in the New Testament? That becomes the crucial question! Is the position of Dr. Farrar tenable that only that is taught which is explicitly and dogmatically stated? Warfield points out that the doctrines taught in a casual manner in the epistles and the truths of the parables of Jesus would thus be lost. This is a form of biblicism that has long been superseded by Reformed exegetes.

This method, too, undennines the authority of the writers of the New Testament as doctrinal guides, since their authority is now reduced to an occasional authority “in explicit, dogmatic statements.” Besides, the question may well be asked how, on the basis of Dr. Farrar’s belief that Paul was a fetish worshipper, who “placed Scripture upon an idol’s pedestal” (p. 200), the “dogmatic statements” of such a man could still be authoritative for us today! The only possibility is that of mechanical dictation, by which the dogmatic statements came quite apart from Paul’s personality and conviction, but this would be abhorrent to Dr. Farrar no less than to Dr. Warfield. But such is the absurdity of the higher critical approach in the matter.




Finally, to justify subscribing to n lower view of Scripture than that which the church holds upon Scriptural authority, some would appeal “to the so-called phenomena of the Scriptures” as a correction of “the doctrine of the Scriptures, with the expectation, apparently, of justifying a modification of tho doctrine taught by the Scriptures by the facts embedded in the Scriptures” (p. 201).

These critics must be distinguished from the foregoing by the fact that they usualJy minimize the Biblical definition of inspiration.3 And the inevitable result of appealing from the doctrines of Scripture to the facts, thereby correcting its teachings, is to pronounce the Scriptures themselves untrustworthy in their doctrinal deliverances. This procedure would be similar to evaluating the biblical doctrine of creation not from the teachings of the Bible itself, but from facts obtained by It scientific study of creation, says Warfield. We are not opposed to the inductive method of gathering all the facts of the Bible on inspiration, “But it is one thing to correct our exegetical processes and so modify our exegetical conclusions in the now light obtained by a. study of the facts, and quite another to modify, by the facts of the structure of Scripture, the Scriptural teaching itself, as exegetically ascertained” (p. 207). Any attempt, therefore, to coordinate the facts of Scripture with the teachings of Scripture in order to ascertain the true doctrine of inspiration, results in modifying the doctrine taught by Scripture and discrediting Scripture as a teacher of doctrine (p. 207).

Warfield concludes that these four methods probably exhaust the ways in which men in his day were seeking to “free themselves from the necessity of following the Scriptural doctrine of inspiration, while yet looking to Scripture as the source of doctrine” (p. 208). He goes on to say that the evidence for the doctrine of inspiration is the same in amount and weight by which we establish other doctrines of Scripture, as for example, the incarnation, the trinity, the deity of Christ, justification by faith, etc. Not that every doctrine is taught with equal clarity and frequency. Some are stated with explicit precision and others are not formulated in Scripture at all, but are taught only in their elements. But whether explicitly or incidentally, frequently or rareIy emphatically or allusively, “when exegesis has once done its work and shown that they are taught by the Biblical writers, all these doctrines stand as supported by the same weight and amount of evidence—the evidence of the trustworthiness of the Biblical writers as teachers of doctrine. We cannot say that we will believe these writers when they assert a doctrine a hundred times and we will not believe them if they assert it only ten times or only once; that we will believe them in the doctrines which they make the main subjects of discourse, but not in those which they refer to incidentally; that we will believe them in those that they teach as conclusions of formal arguments, but not in those which they use as premises wherewith to reach those conclusions…. 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” (p. 209—italics ours).


Warfield contends that no evidence has been forthcoming to discredit the biblical writers as trustworthy witnesses to and teachers of doctrine. But should such evidence be produced it would not only throw the doctrine of an infallible Scripture into the limbo of discarded dogmas, but with it would go aU the other distinctive doctrines taught by the apostles and by our Lord. “In this sense the fortunes of distinctive Christianity are bound up with those of the Biblical doctrine of inspiration” (p. 210). This is so, not because the Christian system is based upon the doctrine of plenary inspiration, but because the Bible authors would no longer be acceptable as creditable witnesses to and teachers of doctrine. And if we cannot accept without reserve the Bible’s testimony to itself. what point would there be to ascertaining its account of other things?4


In conclusion, then, we approach the facts of the Scriptural revelation with a very strong presumption that Scripture contains no error, and that any phenomena “apparently inconsistent with their inerrancy are so in appearance only” (p. 215). In our ordinary use of Scripture, we yield implicit confidence to its teaching, even though many and serious difficulties still stand in the way of accepting a certain doctrine. Consider the doctrines of incarnation, trinity, and of eternal reprobation. Do they not present many difficulties to rational construction? Do they not raise objections in the natural, human heart? However, we accept them, not because their acceptance is not attended with difficulties, but because we believe the testimony of Scripture to be the very Word of God on these matters. Faith does not rest upon a feeling, is not the result of a logical syllogism, but it is response to divine testimony.5 Surely, we are not going to be rationalists in this one point of our Reformed faith, are we?


However, Christians are not gullible obscurantists. If evidence is available that the church has been wrong throughout the ages, it must be valiantly faced. “If the facts are inconsistent with the doctrine, let us all know it, and know it so clearly that the matter is put beyond doubt. But let us not conceal from ourselves the greatness of the issues involved in the test, lest we approach the test in too light a spirit, and make shipwreck of faith in the trustworthiness of the apostles as teachers of doctrine with the easy indifference of a man who corrects the incidental errors in a piece of gossip” (p. 217).


The church has not adopted the doctrine of Scriptural inspiration and its consequent infallibility on sentimental or a priori grounds, but simply because it is taught in Scripture. If it now appears that certain facts of Scripture seem to be inconsistent with its inerrancy, it is incumbent upon us to scrutinize the evidence for such alleged inconsistency. 6 However, if we cannot harmonize all the seeming discrepancies without straining, let us accept with humility that our “individual fertility in exegetical expedients, our individual insight into exegetical truth, our individual capacity of understanding are not the measure of truth” (p. 209).

A difficulty does not constitute a proved error. “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” (p. 225).

So far this has been an objective presentation of the classic position of the Reformed faith as held at Princeton before its re-organization and its shameful surrender to the Barthians. The problem facing the churches in the present debate ought now to be fairly clear. It is simply whether we can still trust the Bible as our guide in doctrine, as a teacher of truth. If the nineteen centuries of critical activity against the infallible Word were not able to prove any errors in Scripture. it is not likely that now, suddenly, at long last, this painstaking labor of unbelieving scholars has been crowned with success. Let us beware of making sad the heart of the righteous whom the Lord hath not made sad! Let us beware of making reason the final arbiter of truth, instead of trusting him who said “the Scriptures cannot be broken”!

1. For a further discussion on the apostolic claim that their words and writings were inspired, see Appendix in the The Inspiration and Authority of Scripture, pp. 425ff.

2. Cf. Tho Principles of Christianity p. 67.

3. Cf. Marvin R. Vincent, who “tells us ‘Scripture does not define the nature and extent of its own inspiration’” (p. 202).

4. At this point Warfield quotes Dr. Purvis, St. Paul and Inspiration, p. 21.

5. Cf. H.J. Kuiper, Torch and Trumpet, VIII, 9, p. 10, where he quotes a pertinent passage from the inimitable words of Prof. John Murray in The Infallible Word.

6. Next month, D.V., the Rev. Joseph Hill will deal with the alleged discrepancies in the Bible.