26 April 2012

Warfield on textual evidence for inspiration as an avalanche

by Dan Phillips

I'm reading through John Frame's Doctrine of the Word of God, and his Appendix F pointed me to a useful (and uncharacteristically humorous) illustration given by the great B. B. Warfield in his own great work, The Inspiration and Authority of the Bible, from which I'll break up a portion of a massive paragraph.

After examining a number of passages that attest to Scripture's inspiration and authority, Warfield says:
But no grosser misconception could be conceived than that the Scriptures bear witness to their own plenary inspiration in these outstanding texts alone. These are but the culminating passages of a pervasive testimony to the divine character of Scripture, which fills the whole New Testament; and which includes not only such direct assertions of divinity and infallibility for Scripture as these, but, along with them, an endless variety of expressions of confidence in, and phenomena of use of, Scripture which are irresistible in their teaching when it is once fairly apprehended.

The induction must be broad enough to embrace, and give their full weight to, a great variety of such facts as these: the lofty titles which are given to Scripture, and by which it is cited, such as “Scripture,” “the Scriptures,” even that almost awful title, “the Oracles of God”; the significant formulæ by which it is quoted, “It is written,” “It is spoken,” “It says,” “God says”; such modes of adducing it as betray that to the writer “Scripture says” is equivalent to “God says,” and even its narrative parts are conceived as direct utterances of God; the attribution to Scripture, as such, of divine qualities and acts, as in such phrases as “the Scriptures foresaw”; the ascription of the Scriptures, in whole or in their several parts as occasionally adduced, to the Holy Spirit as their author, while the human writers are treated as merely his media of expression; the reverence and trust shown, and the significance and authority ascribed, to the very words of Scripture; and the general attitude of entire subjection to every declaration of Scripture of whatever kind, which characterizes every line of the New Testament.

The effort to explain away the Bible’s witness to its plenary inspiration reminds one of a man standing safely in his laboratory and elaborately expounding—possibly by the aid of diagrams and mathematical formulæ—how every stone in an avalanche has a defined pathway and may easily be dodged by one of some presence of mind. We may fancy such an elaborate trifler’s triumph as he would analyze the avalanche into its constituent stones, and demonstrate of stone after stone that its pathway is definite, limited, and may easily be avoided. But avalanches, unfortunately, do not come upon us, stone by stone, one at a time, courteously leaving us opportunity to withdraw from the pathway of each in turn: but all at once, in a roaring mass of destruction. Just so we may explain away a text or two which teach plenary inspiration, to our own closet satisfaction, dealing with them each without reference to its relation to the others: but these texts of ours, again, unfortunately do not come upon us in this artificial isolation; neither are they few in number. There are scores, hundreds, of them: and they come bursting upon us in one solid mass. Explain them away? We should have to explain away the whole New Testament. What a pity it is that we cannot see and feel the avalanche of texts beneath which we may lie hopelessly buried, as clearly as we may see and feel an avalanche of stones!

Warfield, B. B. (2008). The Works of Benjamin B. Warfield, Volume 1: Revelation and Inspiration (65–66). Bellingham, WA: Logos Research Systems, Inc.
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Manfred said...

I like geology and love the Word of God. Really enjoy Warfield's emphatic stance on the plenary inspiration thereof. Many thanks for posting this. I will be more careful when I see signs of falling rock.

will said...

Hi Dan and other readers:

A question which I would appreciate an opinion on. I hold to the concept as regards Christian faith, practice and theology that in essential things we should have unity, in non-essential things we should have liberty, and in all things we should have love.

Is belief in the verbal, plenary inspiration of scripture as opposed to non-verbal, plenary inspiration (ie the belief that the bible is conceptually inerrant but not every word)an essential element of Christian faith?

I have had interesting discussions on this topic over the years.


Aaron Snell said...


Hmm. How do you get inerrant concepts without inerrant words? In other words, can you give an example where the words themselves contain error but the concepts those same words convey are inerrant? How does that actually work?

ad nauseum said...

Its like having a perfect car that runs great, but you cant be sure that its tires are all the right size, or even on the car. The ideas are at odds, somethings gotta give.

Carl C. said...


Essential, IMHO. If words are expected to carry weight in achieving clear communication, how much more must we expect every word of God's self-revelation to be consistent with his own nature?

Numbers 23:19: “God is not a man, that He should lie, nor a son of man, that He should repent. Has He said, and will He not do? Or has He spoken, and will He not make it good?”

One small example: in Galatians 3:16 Paul honed in on the importance of a singular word (seed) as opposed to plural (seeds) in the promises God made to Abraham and his offspring.

The moment we allow for wavering on the point of verbal plenary inspiration, we also allow for man to set himself up as the arbiter of what is true and not, and even what is essential and not. I maintain that opening this Pandora's box cannot lead to anything that will ultimately be glorifying to God.

The T4G
Innerancy Panel hit on a few key points in this area, including some brief historical highlights and response to modern criticism. I believe it's Simon Gathercole who made needed reference to Jesus' own declarations from John 10:35 and John 17:17. I thoroughly enjoyed this panel and look forward to reading a few of the books recommended, esp. Packer's "Fundamentalism and the Word of God".

will said...

Aaron et al
I hold to the verbal, plenary inspiration of scritpture. The non-verbal, plenary position is one of many progressive approaches to bible to account for what is believed to be historical error or other errors in the text. Charles Ryrie in his Basic Theology has this to say about the idea of “concept inspiration”: "Some are willing to acknowledge that the concepts of the Bible are inspired but not the words. Supposedly this allows for an authoritative conceptual message to have been given, but using words that can in some instances be erroneous."

The real point of my post was to engage in the quesion of how essential is it to hold to the verbal plenary view. Essential in this context means something that is so fundamental to our faith that agreement must be reached or one of the parties salvation is in question.

Kerry James Allen said...

"It is not the thoughts of the prophet which have been inspired of God so much as their words; for frequently they were moved to speak prophecies which were quite beyond their own understanding: in fact, my brethren, are not all the mysteries of the faith above human thought?" Spurgeon

Manfred said...

Good quote from Spurgeon - reminding us that is was the Text that God inspired, not the human authors. To God be all praise and honor and glory!

Stephen said...

Will, I'm a novice but I would say that if it were theoretically possible to truly believe in some kind of concept-plenary inspiration but not our modern definition of inerrancy, then I likely would not question one's salvation. However, it appears to be the case that once the 'battle for the bible' (as the SBC put it) is lost, then it is only a matter of time before other doctrines start to fall. Verbal plenary inspiration may not be the biggest pillar of the faith, but it is a pillar nonetheless and without it Christianity will not stand.