Review: Inspiration and Authority of the Bible

B.B. Warfield, The Inspiration and Authority of the Bible (Phillipsburg: Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Company, 1948), pp. 446.

The contemporary church takes much for granted and often gets into trouble for it.  Churches today proudly sing of the “Godhead Three-in-one,” not realizing that their theology of the Trinity was forged through fire by Athanasius, Basil the Great, and others.  Forgetting the fires of the past, some modern scholars set aside historical theology and dangerously go their own way.  Sometimes they lead Christians astray.  So today we owe a special debt to church historians who carefully listen to our dead friends and remind us of their relevance.  In a day when Jesus’ divinity, the Bible’s authority, and justification by faith are challenged from within mainstream Christianity, it is crucial to hear these older voices calling us back to biblical Christianity.

inspirationOne of these older voices is Benjamin Warfield, professor of theology at Princeton Theological Seminary from 1887 to 1921.  He was most known for his passionate defense of biblical inerrancy, though his broader impact on contemporary evangelicalism is also significant.  Not only did he train over 2700 seminary students, including J. Gresham Machen, but his writings have stood the test of time.  Conservative evangelical scholars find much in Warfield that is useful today, while liberal scholars have attempted to upend his present influence.  His voice is still strong and true, and we would be wise to carefully listen to him.


Warfield’s Inspiration and Authority of the Bible is not a book that he set out to write from beginning to end.  Instead, it is a collection of articles that Warfield formerly wrote for various bible encyclopedias and theological journals.  In this way, the book is really seven reflections under the umbrella of biblical inerrancy.  After Cornelius Van Til’s extensive introduction, Warfield covers the biblical ideas of revelation and inspiration and explores specific biblical terms about revelation (e.g. “God-inspired”).

Inspiration and Authority continues with a sweeping look at God’s revelation in history, rooting the Bible in God’s overarching story.  Christianity is a “revealed religion” in opposition to other religions which are “products…the art and device of man” (72).  The Bible itself is one of God’s redemptive acts (81), necessary because general revelation (God’s speech through creation; cf. Ps 19) is inadequate for salvation (73).

According to Warfield, revelation in Scripture is defined as God’s acts plus their meaning, carried out in three overlapping stages: theophany; prophecy; and inspiration.  Theophanies were “external manifestations” or “naked messages of God,” such as miracles and direct words from God (e.g. God’s conversation with Moses through the burning bush).  Prophecies were God’s communication given internally to particular men, through visions, dreams, and words.  Prophets had no part in creating the message; they were only reporters (88-89), like Isaiah or Amos.  Inspiration was revelation mediated by the Spirit through human personality and history.  This is illustrated by the Psalms, the epistle to the Romans, or John’s Gospel.

Warfield’s first chapter concludes with a beautiful reflection on Jesus Christ as the culmination of God’s revelation.  He masterfully writes:

As in His person, in which dwells all the fullness of the Godhead bodily, He rises above all classification and is sui generis; so the revelation accumulated in Him stands outside all the divers portions and divers manners in which otherwise revelation has been given and sums up in itself all that has been or can be made known of God and of His redemption.  He does not so much make a revelation of God as Himself is the revelation of God; He does not merely disclose God’s purpose of redemption, He is unto us wisdom from God, and righteousness and sanctification and redemption (96).

Warfield then contends that the traditional view of inspiration is the biblical view of inspiration.  He explains that a strong church doctrine of inspiration exists, a “settled faith of the universal church of God” (106).  This church doctrine would claim that whatever the Bible says, God says.  And this view was presupposed by the early church fathers and the Reformers in their doctrinal creeds (e.g. Nicene, Westminster Confession).

Examining the scriptures also produces the same doctrine.  In one of the strongest chapters of the book (“The Real Problem of Inspiration”), Warfield shows how abandoning the doctrine of inspiration means abandoning the authority of Jesus and the Apostles.  Jesus and the Apostles consistently viewed Old Testament scripture as God’s very words.  If we discard their view on inspiration, we also unravel their authority to teach on every other subject.  All Bible doctrines, including the doctrine of inspiration, are formed by careful exegesis and depend on the authority of Biblical writers.  Warfield astutely asks:  “If we do not accept [the Bible’s] account of itself, why should we care to ascertain its accounts of other things?” (209)

Not only does Warfield tackle the big picture issues of the Bible, he also ventures into exegesis and word studies.  In a lengthy exposition of 2 Timothy 3:16, Warfield explains how the Holy Spirit inspired men to write God’s words.  He shows how God’s role in scripture-writing is primary, though the human element is present and uncoerced.  He discusses the Holy Spirit’s “preparation” of the Biblical writers (shaping their ancestry, historical situation, education etc.) so that writing Scripture is a natural outcome (155-157).

The last few chapters are the densest and most demanding for the reader.  Warfield, the thorough investigator, does meticulous word studies on “Scripture,” “God-Inspired Scripture,” “It says,” “Scripture says,” “God says,” and “the Oracles of God.”  These studies further establish his doctrine of the Bible.  For example, he concludes that the use of “Scripture” in the New Testament was an inheritance, not an invention (229).  The idea of “Sacred Scripture” was handed down to Christianity from Judaism, not created by the New Testament writers.

In the longest chapter of the book, Warfield argues against Hermann Cremer’s attempt to recalibrate 2 Timothy 3:16’s use of “inspiration” as “inspiring the reader” (active sense) instead of the traditional “inspired of God” (passive sense).  To accomplish this, he launches a fifty page defense of the traditional usage, tracing the Greek word in several works contemporaneous to the New Testament. He concludes that the word bears “a uniformly passive significance rooted in the idea of the creative breath of God” (275).

Evaluation and Significance

It’s not difficult to see why Warfield’s tome is a classic.  His doctrine is not developed mechanically or purely academically; rather it is formed within God’s overarching story which makes it compelling and interesting.  His arguments are clear and winsome.  His exegesis is judicious and thorough.  While I may not recommend his word study chapters to any old Joe, I would highly recommend the first four chapters to every Christian interested in learning about inspiration.

Before concluding, I want to share a few weaknesses of this book.  Surprisingly, Warfield hardly touches on the formation of the New Testament canon.  In a book about the Bible’s authority, you would think that at least one tangent would be dedicated to this.  Inspiration and Authority also lacks coherence, because it is a collection of Warfield’s previously written articles.  As a result, sometimes the book was unnecessarily repetitive.  To get the most out of Warfield’s word study chapters, the reader should know Greek, Hebrew, Latin, and German.  And most of us don’t.

Despite these small weaknesses, I warmly recommend Warfield’s classic – perhaps in small doses – to those eager to know why the Bible is authoritative.  Warfield is a voice we cannot forget, and his Inspiration and Authority is perhaps where we hear him the loudest.

This is the kind of book that is difficult to immediately apply because Warfield’s ideas are so heavy and vast.  Perhaps the first “application” is to sit back and be in awe of our God, because He has carefully constructed and preserved the Bible for our eternal well being.  As Warfield discusses the progression from general to special revelation, he leads us to praise the God who prepared Israel and sent the Messiah:

By slow steps and gradual stages God at once works out His saving purpose and molds the world for its reception, choosing a people for Himself and training them through long and weary ages, until at last when the fullness of time has come, He bares His arm and sends out the proclamation of His great salvation to all the earth (76).