Scriptural Authority in the Theology of B. B. Warfield

Rachel S. Stahle
Wednesday, August 8th 2007
May/Jun 1996

The synthesis of Kantian philosophy with modern scientific reasoning, among other factors, has contributed to the evolution of an historical-critical culture. Housed in virtually all of the world's major universities (and many of the minor ones as well) and possessing a "golden calf" method of biblical evaluation which no one dare challenge, historical criticism itself is a deistic theology which has undermined church and school alike. By imposing humanistic standards upon the Bible, the method instigated by Kant's epistemology and eventually promoted by Bultmann's hermeneutics has transformed the "Queen of the Sciences": modern theology approaches her source and creator, the Bible, with the fundamental assumption that there is no God. Scripture consequently is reduced to a

collection of religious ideas and theological concepts. This renders the living Word a dead letter, as becomes abundantly clear in many pulpits as pastors strive in vain to bring life to now lifeless texts, resorting finally to psychology, sociology, and other 'ism's' in an attempt to infuse texts with new vitality. (1)

Lifeless texts and the trite sermons which often are their products are apt commentaries on the failure of subjectivism to penetrate not only the contemporary scene, but the existential events which are their philosophical goal. When reality is translated into an analogy in which temporal and physical phenomena are devalued for the sake of personalized abstraction, history and the future can only be described as meaningless. Indeed, while historical criticism has sought to blend reason with a positive perspective on the moral evolution of mankind, the method has succeeded only in demonstrating reason's fallibility and moral decline, as the true Gospel is forsaken. Just as with Kant, historical criticism's philosophical dualism fails to bridge the theoretical with the practical. As Peter Stuhlmacher comments,

historical criticism detaches from the present the historical phenomena which it examines, and despite all tradition and the history of their effects, describes them at a historical distance…. Historical Criticism thus distances history from the present and achieves no union of the then and the now. (2)

The most deceptive element of historical criticism, and indeed the most damaging to the modern church, is the assumption that a rational technique which is valid in the sciences is similarly useful in biblical studies. When method is absolutized, it acquires a subjective authority which appears to be objective to the modern mind, encapsulated in individualistic empiricism. As biblical studies have generally become professionalized during this century, theological authority rests now upon the status, tenure, or fame of whichever scholar happens to be making a theological pronouncement. The consistency of his pronouncement with Scripture is hardly considered, except perhaps the degree to which it supports a humanistic interpretation of the Bible. In short, agnostic or deistic principles determine the authority and usefulness of the Scriptures. "Even in its most positive form, Christianity under humanism's influence degenerates into an enlightened religion for passing on humanistic values, reaching its climax in etiquette and morality, science and culture." (3)

When B. B. Warfield succeeded A. A. Hodge in Princeton's chair of didactic and polemic theology in 1887, historical criticism was just becoming prevalent as the method of choice in more liberal theological circles, following the path Baur and Strauss had pioneered at Tübingen. Warfield devoted much of his publishing efforts to a critique of the method and a positive, thorough apology for the authority of Scripture based on its nature as inspired revelation from the living God. Seventy years after his death, Warfield's plea from the past for the truth of an external epistemological standard is more useful and laudable than ever. In scholarship and general culture alike, subjectivism is the operating principle. Therefore, understanding Warfield's theology of inspiration can be a valuable steppingstone for proclaiming the objective truth of the Gospel to those who might prefer their conscience, and not the Bible, to be their guide.

There has been a tendency in theology to regard general revelation and special revelation as being opposite constituents of reality which are at best difficult to describe. For Warfield, however, general and special revelation are mutually dependent components which provide the foundation of a biblical ontology expressed in Scripture through theophany, prophecy, plenary inspiration, and ultimately the incarnation of Christ. The goal of that ontology lies in the expressed will of its Author: to make himself personally known to men, and thereby to offer salvation. "Revelation is, therefore, never an unconscious emanation or an involuntary reflection of God in his works: it is always a conscious, free, intentional making of himself known, a purposed self-expression." (4)

Given its redemptive focus, revelation in its general and specific forms could more accurately be called cosmological and soteriological. Because God does all things perfectly, cosmological revelation is as much an expression and reflection of God as it is soteriological (i.e., saving); however, due to sin, man cannot apart from grace understand or acknowledge God through that general manner alone. In Eden, saving revelation was unnecessary, for the first humans lived in God's presence and knew him far better than our present comprehension. But since the Fall, people are capable merely of knowing his existence and only of worshipping the creature rather than the Creator. Soteriological revelation, and the accompanying grace which is needed (for illumination) by those whom it will save, was necessary to restore the opportunity for communion between God and man.

Without special revelation, general revelation would be for sinful men incomplete and ineffective, and could issue, as in point of fact it had issued wherever it alone has been accessible, only in leaving them without excuse (Rom 1:20). Without general revelation, special revelation would lack that basis in the fundamental knowledge of God as the mighty and wise, righteous and good, maker and ruler of all things, apart from which the further revelation of this great God's interventions in the world for the salvation of sinners could not be either intelligible, credible or operative. (5)

With Christ as its agent of delivery and its central redemptive message, revelation is not merely a communication about salvation through faith; it is also the means of faith, being the dynamic tool which God has chosen to melt granite hearts to repentance and devotion. "Revelation thus appears… not as the mere reflection of the redeeming acts of God in the minds of men, but as a factor in the redeeming works of God, a component part of the series of His redeeming acts, without which that series would be incomplete and so far inoperative for its main end." (6)

Because revelation's source is the living God who has in revelation a real redemptive goal, the knowledge gained from it is not only comparable to other kinds of knowledge in purely earthly matters, but is actually superior, for its acquisition comes entirely as a result of grace. Knowledge of God, being Warfield's definition of faith, is like other knowledge in that it must reflect reality in order to be true. "From the psychological point of view, all knowledge is just an intellectual conviction which has been properly validated and thus raised to a high level of certainty." (7) But faith has the advantage over other forms of knowledge in that its object, perfectly rational and comprehensible revelation, is being sought by a spiritually regenerated mind, enabled by the Spirit to desire God and communion with him. Warfield's emphasis here is that the starting point of faith is a restored intellect, not subjective feelings or autonomous reason. Faith is not a "subjective ground of authority," but rather

Theologically considered as a 'mode of acquisition', it is essentially passivity and receptivity in its purest form. Psychologically considered, it is a form of mental assent to evidence. In neither case can the subject be spoken of as actively participating in the validation of truth. No act of will enters into the validating process. The subject remains at all times the receptive intellect, and personal, volitional response follows the intellectual convincement. (8)

The "evidence" of God's existence has been provided by him more generally in nature and history, and more specifically in the biblically-recorded modes of theophany, prophecy, and plenary inspiration. Warfield defines theophanies as external manifestations, including miracles, which reflect extraordinary, supernatural intervention and communicate God's nature and purposes. (9) Prophecy, including dreams and visions, involves internal suggestions in human instruments of God's will. In prophecy, the human element is entirely passive, receiving divine dictation. (10) Warfield explains, "…He who made the mouth can be with it to teach it what to speak, and announces the precise function of a prophet to be that he is 'a mouth of God,' who speaks not his own but God's words." Prophecies were not objectively contemplated by prophets and then reported, nor "…implanted in the prophets by a process so violent as not only to supersede their mental activity but, for the time being, to annihilate it, [so that] it would be quite clear that they came from a source other than the prophets' own minds." (11) Rather, prophets wholly retained their personalities and intelligence while yet transmitting the divine words.

Inspiration, as the foundation of Warfield's view of authority, deserves the fullest description. It involves God's work through human activity to communicate a distinctively supernatural product. In inspiration, or as Warfield preferred to call it, concursive expiration, mortal authors are sovereignly employed by God, who works

confluently in, with and by them, elevating them, directing them, controlling them, energizing them, so that, as His instruments, they rise above themselves and under His inspiration do His work and reach His aim. The product, therefore, which is attained by their means is His product through them. (12)

Warfield goes to great lengths to defend his view of inspiration against the charge that it, like his ideas about prophecy, actually involves dictation, in which the author is reduced to simply an automaton. Such a charge assumes "…that what is human cannot also be divine, and that wherever the human enters there the divine disappears." (13) The professor argues, though, that inspiration may loosely be compared to the Incarnation, Christ being fully God and fully man.

[T]he Scriptures are the joint product of divine and human activities, both of which penetrate them at every point, working harmoniously together to the production of a writing which is not divine here and human there, but at once divine and human in every part, every word, and every particular…. On the other hand, no quality inconsistent with either divinity or humanity can be found in any portion or element of Scripture. (14)

The analogy of the Incarnation also applies to the infallibility of the Scriptures. Warfield observes that in the Bible,

the human factors have acted as human factors, and have left their mark on the product as such, and yet cannot have fallen into that error which we say it is human to fall into, because they have not acted apart from the Divine factors, by themselves, only under their unerring guidance. (15)

Consequently, the basis of asserting that the Bible is concurrently divine and human is God's transcendence and immanence in all his activity. Even in the prophetical books and specific biblical references to authorship, both the finite and the infinite are mentioned as equally plausible; thus, Scripture itself recognizes their inseparability and together their inspired validity.

It should not be thought, though, that the biblical authors became temporarily superhuman, either, while the Holy Spirit was upon them. Paul's confession in Romans 7 could easily disprove that notion. It can be safely maintained, however, that in his sovereignty God had equipped each writer for the task.

[T]he apostles were not given this supreme authority as legislators to the Church without previous instruction in the mind of Christ, without safeguards thrown about them in the prosecution of their task, without the accompanying guidance of the Holy Spirit. (16)

Warfield's doctrine of inspiration provides the groundwork for the contention that the Bible is an external authority by demonstrating Scripture's divine source and its applicability to earthly needs, not merely for knowledge of God, but for eternal life. Scripture's "authority rests on its divinity and its divinity expresses itself in its trustworthiness…." (17) Even so, Warfield writes, "…the proof of the authority of the Scriptures does not rest on a previous proof of their inspiration. Even an uninspired law is law. But when inspiration has once been shown to be fact, it comes mightily to the reinforcement of their authority." (18)

Acceptance of the Bible as an objective, external authority was not a rational compromise for Warfield, but instead was the key to rational freedom. Building upon faith which by grace accepts and desires knowledge of God, reason is itself transformed to accord with the image of God in the Christian; by accepting God's Word as authority, reason finds its guide and rock. External authority in this case refers not just to an objective standard, but ultimately to the divine; rejection of external authority constitutes a sinful rejection of God's authority in favor of one's own. "Reason in its legitimate role submits to authority and accepts mysteries and even apparent paradoxes by faith when it is convinced on the basis of rational evidence that the authority is valid." (19) Indeed, without external authority, reason is crippled. For Warfield, "…the authority must be infallible or it is not a supernatural authority, and if it is not supernatural authority we are left in the uncertainty of our own relativity, and skepticism must at last reign in the domain of the intellect." (20)

Calvinists have been accused, at times justly, of emphasizing the role of the mind in faith so much that their resultant theology is heavily rationalistic. Warfield maintained that religion and theology must always engage external authority and subsequently reflect it in the intellect and the heart, harmoniously and inseparably; otherwise, religious life is deformed and disjointed. An overemphasis upon authority itself, from Warfield's perspective, leads to traditionalism, as in Catholicism. Abuse of the intellect leads to a rationalism whose creative reconstructions are inevitably based upon, and even legalistically restricted to, empiricism. And dwelling unduly upon the heart leads to a mysticism in which

…neither the objective truth of a revealed word nor adherence to rational thinking is allowed to check the wild dreaming of a soul that fancies itself divine, or the confusion of our weakest sentiments with the strong voice of God…. (21)

Instead, revelation touches and enlightens the mind, and then transforms the will toward godly obedience. "Authority, in the Scriptures, furnishes the matter which is received by the intellect and operates on the heart." (22)

Science and philosophy, particularly here regarding the topics of historical criticism, have since Copernicus and Descartes joined to forge a double-edged sword which mortifies the modern mind: beliefs must be objectively proved, but nothing can be proven beyond doubt. Theories about everything from the composition of asteroids to the function of neural synapses must be wholly rational; they must also, though, be capable of some experimental proof, or be rejected as superfluous or meaningless. This irresolvable conundrum, a direct result of subjectivism, has one awful effect: that the modern mind, confined by this Cartesian/rational mode, has a strikingly restricted capacity to think abstractly, and has no reason to do so, given that the product of any such thought would only be victim to nihilism.

Herein lies the great opportunity for modern Christianity: to show our need for Scriptural authority by critiquing the consequences of our rebellion against it. Warfield's battle was basically only against the higher critics of his day; presently, the subjectivism to which higher criticism has greatly contributed has spread to permeate all of Western culture. If Warfield is correct, it may even be said that in all religions and philosophies which reject Christ, subjectivism has prevailed. But in no other era of modern history has such a blatant rejection of biblical authority and Christian norms come from within the church community itself, or had so powerful a grip on common culture and scholarly thought. Biblical authority must not only be defended but actively promoted in opposition to those who assert that man self-legislates truth through his own motivation, as if truth would not exist if humanity were not there to create or to judge it. As we have seen in the doctrine of inspiration, certainly the human factor in knowledge is important; but it must always be submissive to the living God and his Word.

1 [ Back ] Eta Linnemann, Historical Criticism of the Bible: Methodology or Ideology? (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1990), 85.
2 [ Back ] Peter Stuhlmacher, Historical Criticism and Theological Interpretation of Scripture, Roy A. Harrisville, trans. (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1977), 62.
3 [ Back ] Linnemann, Quoting Kurt Dietrich Schmidt in Kirchengeschichte (Fourth Ed., 1963), 269.
4 [ Back ] Benjamin B. Warfield, "Christianity and Revelation", in Selected Shorter Writings of Benjamin B. Warfield, Vol. I., John E. Meeter, ed. (Nutley, NJ: Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Co., 1973), 26.
5 [ Back ] Benjamin B. Warfield, Biblical Foundations (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1958), 15.
6 [ Back ] Ibid., 20.
7 [ Back ] Clyde Norman Kraus, The Principle of Authority in the Theology of B. B. Warfield, William Adams Brown and Gerald Birney Smith (Diss., Duke University, 1981), 127.
8 [ Back ] Ibid., 133.
9 [ Back ] As mentioned previously, the consummate mode of divine revelation is the incarnation of Christ. Warfield does not explicitly discuss the incarnation as such in any of his writings on revelation, presumably leaving that topic to be subsumed in an exposition of soteriology.
10 [ Back ] Warfield, "The Biblical Idea of Revelation," in Foundations, 27.
11 [ Back ] Ibid., 29.
12 [ Back ] Ibid., 35.
13 [ Back ] Warfield, "The Divine and Human in the Bible," in Selected Shorter Writings of Benjamin B. Warfield, Vol. II, John E. Meeter, ed. (Nutley, NJ: Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Co., 1973), 545.
14 [ Back ] Ibid., 547.
15 [ Back ] Warfield, "The Biblical Idea of Inspiration," in Selected Shorter Writings, Vol. I, 74-5.
16 [ Back ] Warfield, "The Authority and Inspiration of the Scriptures," in Selected Shorter Writings, Vol. II, 539.
17 [ Back ] Warfield, Foundations, 62.
18 [ Back ] Warfield, "The Authority and Inspiration of the Scriptures," in Selected Shorter Writings, Vol. II, 540.
19 [ Back ] Kraus, 232.
20 [ Back ] Ibid., 239.
21 [ Back ] Warfield, "The Authority and Inspiration of the Scriptures," in Selected Shorter Writings, Vol. II, 540.
22 [ Back ] Ibid., 671.
Wednesday, August 8th 2007

“Modern Reformation has championed confessional Reformation theology in an anti-confessional and anti-theological age.”

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