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B. B. Warfield on Inerrancy

By Fred Zaspel

The Significance of Warfield

The doctrine of the inerrancy of Scripture is so closely linked to the name of Benjamin Breckinridge Warfield (1851-1921) that they sometimes seem nearly synonymous. This is not because Warfield originated the doctrine, of course, although some have mistakenly charged him with that. Inerrancy and Warfield belong together, rather, simply because it was Warfield who gave this doctrine its fullest statement and most thorough defense.

At various points in the history of the church God has raised up a man to speak to the specific needs of the hour. And so there is Augustine, the theologian of sin and grace. He did not originate the doctrine, but his exposition of this doctrine was a watershed moment in the church’s understanding of it. Likewise there is Anselm, the theologian of the atonement — the one who spelled out so clearly the substitutionary nature of Christ’s death as a penal satisfaction for sin. Similarly there is Luther, the theologian of justification by faith. And so on. It is in this sense that B.B. Warfield is the theologian of inspiration and inerrancy.

The exposition and defense of this doctrine that Warfield gave was a milestone in the history of the church. As Warfield himself demonstrated at great length, his teaching was nothing other than the understanding concerning Scripture the church has always held. But no one before him had mounted such a massive argument in its defense or provided such an extensive exegetical ground for it. Indeed, in all the discussion on inspiration since, very little has been added to what Warfield said a century ago. And all sides recognize that whether in agreement with Warfield’s position or not, we have not completed our study of the doctrine until we have studied Warfield carefully.

For his own part, the inspiration of Scripture was not Warfield’s “center.” Nor was it the area of Christian doctrine that occupied most of his attention. The person and work of Christ was clearly his center of gravity and the single largest division of his literary output. And Warfield stood to answer the advances of the “new theology” at every point. But the inspiration and origin of Scripture was in many ways the defining issue of the day, and Warfield was the one God raised up to speak to the issue. He is the theologian of inspiration.

Historical Setting

Warfield’s career took place in the hey-day of theological liberalism, a movement born in Germany and marked chiefly by rationalism and naturalism — that is, a rejection of external authority and supernaturalism. The various “critical” methods of approach to Scripture had taken deep root, calling into question the historical reliability of Scripture and, therefore, its divine origin. Thousands of American theological students of the day (Warfield among them) spent time in German universities, in turn, “imported” this new brand of “Christianity” to America.

In 1880 the opposing forces within the Presbyterian Church, best represented by Union Theological Seminary and Princeton Theological Seminary, joined in the creation of the Presbyterian Review, edited jointly by Charles A. Briggs (1841-1913) and Archibald Alexander Hodge (1823-1886). It was a marriage that could never last, but before the divorce Briggs and Hodge published a series of eight articles addressing the new issue of Biblical criticism, four from each viewpoint. The first of these was the landmark “Inspiration” (1881) by Warfield and A. A. Hodge. The two parties become increasingly defined both within the denomination and in the larger “Christian” scene, and eventually Briggs was suspended from Presbyterian ministry, and Union Theological Seminary left with him. Warfield played no small role in holding back the advance of the new views in the Presbyterian Church, but within a few years of his death his arguments had failed to hold sway.

This was the larger religious scene when Warfield embarked on his theological career, and from the outset his commitment to the veracity of Scripture and utter confidence in its complete reliability was firm and pronounced. Interestingly, the earliest sample of Warfield’s theology we possess is given to sounding this theme that in so many ways marked his career. In an 1876 sermon transcribed and published in the newspaper the twenty-five year old seminary graduate took his text from Romans 3:4 — “Let God be true and every man a liar.” It was a topical sermon that expresses an utter confidence in God’s written Word and this in the face of the various objections, criticisms, and problems that have been brought against it.

In 1880 Warfield chose for his inaugural lecture at Western Seminary the topic “Inspiration and Criticism.” Lamenting the contemporary doctrinal defection even within his own denomination he labors to demonstrate that the attacks against Scripture have yet to prove anything against it. Then came his famous 1881 “Inspiration,” co-authored with A.A. Hodge, a work that gained him wide recognition and established a course that would mark his life and career forever, culminating in perhaps 1,500 published pages devoted to the theme and a body of material that stands still today as the high-watermark in the exposition of this doctrine. . . .


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The October issue, “The Living Word,” is now available!

Is Scripture inspired by God or is it merely the work of man? Peter writes, “For no prophecy was ever produced by the will of man, but men spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit” (2 Pet 1:21). The October issue of Credo seeks to affirm the inspiration and inerrancy of Scripture as doctrines that are faithful to the testimony of Scripture itself. Contributors include: Gregg Allison, John Frame, Timothy George, Fred Zaspel, Michael A.G. Haykin, Tim Challies, Matthew Barrett, Thomas Schreiner, Tony Merida, Owen Strachan, J. V. Fesko, Robert Saucy, and many others.

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