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.

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Posted by 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.

3 Comments

  1. Now I don’t expect theologians to be as good as historians in their particular field, but theologians should know something about history. From what you say, Matt, about Warfield, it appears that he is conveniently dodging the issue of historical criticism that evangelical thinkers have fought so hard for in the past 150 years.

    Also I’m not sure what you mean by your last sentence: “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.” Is the question of historical accuracy not an appropriate question to ask of the Bible? Doesn’t the fact that much of it is written in the historical genre beg that question? Perhaps I’m misunderstanding, but I think the German higher critics were asking legitimate questions (though perhaps their motives were a bit tainted), and the evangelical thinkers of the past such as R.A. Torrey and Bruce Metzger do well to address them head on.

    Finally, your comments in the first paragraph are illuminating. The glory of God’s redemption of His people is that He takes them from awful places they’ve allowed themselves to get into and brings them to places better than they could have imagined. Perhaps analogously, the attack from German higher criticism, though damaging initially, has caused us to get clear on the doctrine of Scripture, which is a great section of theology to think about. Maybe we’ll soon be thanking God for those hard times and the better clarified, robust doctrine of Scripture we possess.

    Thanks for the thoughtful post.

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  2. […] Chicken and egg considered with regards to inspiration and Scripture at Mere Orthodoxy. […]

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  3. Andrew,

    Thanks (as always!) for the stellar feedback. A few clarifications:

    Now I don’t expect theologians to be as good as historians in their particular field, but theologians should know something about history. From what you say, Matt, about Warfield, it appears that he is conveniently dodging the issue of historical criticism that evangelical thinkers have fought so hard for in the past 150 years.

    The problem is due to my presentation, not to Warfield. Warfield isn’t dodging historical criticism–he’s suggesting that it should stay in its place and not ascend to the level of systematic theology. The question of whether the events are true is a valid question, and must be asked. Warfield is in agreement, I think, with those he is criticizing. Where he departs is on the issue of what their particular conclusions entail for the doctrine of inspiration. So some of the German higher critics looked at the “phenomena of Scripture,” saw that it had inconsistencies, and then adjusted their doctrine of inspiration accordingly. Warfield wants to reverse the process–develop the doctrine on what the Bible teaches, and then approach the “phenomena of Scripture” accordingly.

    Also I’m not sure what you mean by your last sentence: “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.” Is the question of historical accuracy not an appropriate question to ask of the Bible? Doesn’t the fact that much of it is written in the historical genre beg that question? Perhaps I’m misunderstanding, but I think the German higher critics were asking legitimate questions (though perhaps their motives were a bit tainted), and the evangelical thinkers of the past such as R.A. Torrey and Bruce Metzger do well to address them head on.

    Again, the problem is my unclarity. Partly, the German higher critics (and I am over-generalizing here) had rejected, say, the possibility of miracles a priori. Consequently, they had to tailor their doctrine of inspiration and see such elements as simply myth or legend or culturally bound stories, rather than the Word of God. Rejecting their project doesn’t entail rejecting the questions of the historicity of Scripture. Warfield isn’t interested in devaluing history–he’s interested in not letting theology be subjugated to other disciplines. While the other disciplines will certainly affect our theology (for instance, if the historians found the body of Jesus), but getting the order appropriate is essential for having the correct cognitive approach to the Scriptures (which his opponents do not have). I think that’s Warfield’s position.

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