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Ordo Inspirat: Warfield on Inspiration

February 20th, 2007 | 2 min read

By Matthew Lee Anderson

Doctrine, it seems, always moves into clarity under duress.  And just as the Christological heresies of the early Church forced the Church to articulate exactly what it thought abou t the person of Jesus Christ, so German higher criticism confronted Protestant Christianity with challenges to its view of Scripture.

Enter B.B. Warfield, with his magesterial Inspiration and Authority of the Bible.  Warfield's work is a penetrating criticism of the German higher critics, and any Christian wanting to develop a doctrine of Scripture should wrestle with his approach.

One of Warfield's main arguments is that the doctrine of Scripture is, in fact, a doctrine.  As such, it is the province of exegesis, rather than historical criticism.  In other words, Warfield plays a territorial game with his opponents, arguing that the project to understand the sources, the history, the authors, etc. of the texts themselves is worthwhile, but not the source of doctrine.  That is for the province of Biblical theology.  "Direct exegesis after all has its rights:  we may seek aid from every quarter in our efforts to perform its processes with precision and obtain its result with purity; but we cannot allow its results to be "modivfied" by extraneous considerations."

In other words, the question of the doctrine of inspiration is not, "What is true about the Bible?" but, "What does the Bible teach?"  In the order of theologizing and understanding Scripture, it is important to move from the latter to the former, as it raises the burden of proof for those who wish to disprove the Scriptures.  Inconsistencies in the text, or other aspects of what some critics called "the phenomena of Scripture" do not merit readjusting the doctrine of inspiration to include them.  Rather, they should be harmonized, or left unharmonized.  Such errors only count as defeaters for verbal plenary inspiration if "it is not only impossible for us to harmonize them, but also unless they are of such a characgter that they are clearly contradictory." 

If Warfield is right, the doctrine of the inspiration of Scripture is a doctrine for theologians to wrangle over, not apologists.

This is, I think, deeply opposed to how most evangelical Christians think about the Scriptures.  For some reason, until reading Warfield I thought that the reliability, the historical accuracy, etc. could be grounded in the doctrine of inspiration.  But Warfield will have nothing of it:

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 trustworhty, before we prove them inspired." 

In approaching the Scriptures, it is crucial to understand the "division of labor."  Historical criticism is for the historians, but doctrinal development is for the theologians.  And while there is clearly overlap in the truth claims, doctrinal claims have precedence.  If Scripture claims to be the Word of God, then it is important to admit it on its own terms, rather than terms of our own choosing.

Matthew Lee Anderson

Matthew Lee Anderson is the Founder and Lead Writer of Mere Orthodoxy. He is the author of Earthen Vessels: Why Our Bodies Matter to our Faith and The End of Our Exploring: A Book about Questioning and the Confidence of Faith. Follow him on Twitter or on Facebook.