The Westminster Doctrine of Inspiration

by B. B. Warfield

"CONTROVERSIALISTS in general," says the late Principal Cunningham, in one of his essays, "have shown an intense and irresistible desire to prove that their peculiar opinions were supported by the Fathers, or by the Reformers, or by the great divines of their own church; and have often exhibited a great want both of wisdom and eandour in the efforts they have made to effect this object." We have earnestly sought to avoid this danger, and to assume a purely historical point of view in our study of the teaching of the British theologians of the Westminster age as to the extent and effect of inspiration. They are certainly entitled to have their opinions accurately represented; and we, on the other hand, would be unwilling to be understood as endorsing their whole teaching. Nevertheless, they appear to us very distinctly to teach both the verbal inspiration of the Scriptures and the inerrancy of the original autographs, and we have, therefore, felt it incumbent upon us to examine the evidence to the contrary which has been presented by Dr. C. A. Briggs in his recent book entitled "Whither?"

Dr. Briggs devotes two sections to the subject of the present paper (pp. 64–68 and 68–73). In the former he presents a catena of six quotations under the caption: "We shall give the opinions of a few Presbyterians of the seventeenth century on this subject, in order to show how far modern divines have departed from the Westminster doctrine of the Bible." It is perhaps not perfectly certain to what immediate antecedent the words "this subject" here refer. But in any event the catena of citations is meant to show that the Scriptures, in the estimation of the Westminster men, are not inspired in their "verbal expression." In the second section, two quotations are given to illustrate the statement that "the Westminster divines did not teach the inerrancy of the original autographs."

We take up the catena on verbal inspiration first; and (on the principle of ex pede Hereulem) we begin with the last quotation. It is from John Ball's Catechism and reads as follows:—

"The testimonie of the Spirit doth not teach or assure us of the Letters, syllables, or severall words of holy Scripture, which are onely as a vessell, to carry and convey that heavenly light unto us, but it doth seale in our hearts the saving truth contained in those sacred writings into what language soever they be translated."

Now, on the assumption that the sole conclusive evidence that the Scriptures are the Word of God, is the Witness of the Holy Spirit in the heart, such a passage as this might seem to assert that only the matter of Scripture is inspired. But though this may be Dr. Briggs' point of view, it is not John Ball's. The very object of the passage quoted, is rather to guard against this overworking of the testimony of the Spirit: it is one of six rules which are given professedly "to prevent mistaking" in the use of this evidence. The immediately succeeding rule warns us that "the Spirit doth not lead them in whom it dwelleth, absolutely and at once into all truth, but into all truth necessary to salvation, and by degrees"; and one of the previous ones warns us not to forget that it is "private, not publique; testifying only to him that is endued therewith." Ball's object, thus, is not to suggest that the Scriptures are not verbally inspired; but to deny that this can be proved by "the testimonie of the Spirit." By other forms of testimony, however (he teaches), it can be proved; and resting upon them as giving a "certainty of the mind," he unhesitatingly teaches verbal inspiration. Let us hear his statement of it:—

"Q. What call you the Word of God?

A. The holy Scripture immediately inspired, which is contained in the Books of the Old and New Testament.

Q. What is it to be immediately inspired?

A. To be immediately inspired is to be as it were breathed, and to come from the Father by the Holy Ghost without all means.

Q. Were the Scriptures thus inspired?

A. Thus the holy Scriptures in the Originals were inspired both for matter and words."

Examination of the other quotations, given in this catena, would lead us to similar results. In the first of them, for example, quoted from Lyford, the writer is not speaking of inspiration at all, but is arguing the widely different question whether the Word of God, that is, as he defines it (p. 46), "the mind and will of God," is so competently conveyed in translations that the unlearned may have in them a divine foundation for faith. But though he holds that "Divine Truth in English is as truly the Word of God, as the same Scripture delivered in the Originall Hebrew or Greek," he feels bound to add: "yet with this difference, that the same is perfectly, immediately and most absolutely in the Originall Hebrew and Greek, in other Translations, as the vessels wherein it is presented to us, and as far forth as they do agree with the Originalls." The difference between the originals and the translations arises from the fact that "the Translators were not assisted immediately by the Holy Ghost," while "such extraordinary assistance is needful to one that shall indite any part of Scripture" (p. 50). With all his tendency to defend the value of translations, therefore, he does not assimilate the inspiration of the originals to the divine element common to the two.

This enhancement of translations is carried perhaps a step higher by another of Dr. Briggs' witnesses, Richard Capel. The quotation which is made from him is somewhat spoiled in its effect on the reader by the omission of the italicizing which indicated the words that Capel was borrowing from his opponent. For Capel is here not calmly stating his own view, but controverting another's. He is inveighing against the carelessness of the welfare of human souls, which is shown by those who dwell upon the uncertainties of copies and the fallibilities of scribes and translators, as if the saving Word of God does not persist through all these dangers. It is this mode of procedure which he says "lets in Atheisme like a flood"; the passage quoted by Dr. Briggs being a positing of difficulties which he at once sets himself "to help" by laying down a series of contrary propositions. Accordingly he had said at an earlier point (p. 38):—

"I cannot but confesse that it sometimes makes my heart ake, when I seriously consider what is said, That we cannot assure ourselves that the Hebrew in the Old Testament and the Greek in the New, are the right Hebrew and Greek, any further than our masters and tutors, and the general consent of all the learned in the world do so say, no one dissenting, … all infallibility in matters of this nature having long since left the world.… And to the like purpose is that observation, That the two tables written immediately by Moses and the Prophets, and the Greek copies immediately penned by the Apostolical men are all lost, or not to be made use of, except by a very few. And that we have none in Hebrew or Greek, but what are transcribed. Now transcribers are ordinary men, subject to mistake, may faile, having no erring spirit to hold their hands in writing.

"These be terrible blasts, and do little else when they meet with a weak head and heart, but open the doore to Atheisme and quite to fling off the bridle, which only can hold them and us in the wayes of truth and piety: this is to fill the conceits of men with evil thoughts against the Purity of the Originalls: And if the Fountains run not clear, the Translation cannot be clean."

Capel's purpose, in a word, is not to depreciate the infallibility of the autographs, but to vindicate the general purity of the transmission in copies and translations. The originals were "the dictates of the Spirit," and their writers, being "indued with the infallible Spirit," "might not erre" (cf. Remains, pp. 12, 38, 43, 55). His tendency was not to lower the autographs towards the level of the translations, but to elevate the translations, so far as may be, towards the originals, e.g. claiming for them a kind of secondary (providential) inspiration. Accordingly, although he would confess that the transmitters of Scripture had "no unerring spirit to hold their hands in writing," he yet asserted that God so assisted them "that for the main they should not erre," and "so held the hands and directed the pens of the Translators, that the translations might well be called the Word of God" (p. 31). No student of the history of doctrine need be told that the affinities of this view are with the highest, even the most mechanical theory of inspiration (cf. Ladd, Doctrine of Sacred Scripture, vol. ii., pp. 182 sq.).

Samuel Rutherford, the first writer whom Dr. Briggs quotes to prove that "The Westminster divines did not teach the inerrancy of the original autographs," is an even more extreme representative of the same type of thought that Capel stands for. If the reader will read the long passage quoted from him in "Whither?" with an eye to the italics which mark the phraseology borrowed from John Goodwin whom Rutherford is here refuting, he will not fail to catch a hint of Rutherford's high doctrine. Rutherford here, in a word, is almost bitterly attacking Goodwin's assertions of the fallibility of the transmission of Scripture; over against which he posits an "unerring and indeclinable providence" (p. 370) presiding over it. So far is he from suggesting that the autographs are not inerrant that he is almost ready to assert that all the copies and translations are inerrant too. He evidently feels himself to be making a great concession, and to be almost straining the truth, when he admits that there may be "errours of number, genealogies, etc., of writing in the Scripture as written" [i.e. in the manuscript form] "or printed." Though God has used means which, considered in themselves, are fallible in transmitting the Scriptures, yet he has not left the transmission to their fallibility, but has added an unerring providence, keeping them from slipping. He urges that Goodwin's argument "makes as much against Christ and his Apostles as against us," for they too had but copies of the Old Testament, the scribes and translators of which were "then no more than now, immediately inspired Prophets," and were consequently liable to errors; so that "if ye remove an unerring providence, who doubts but men might adde or subtract and so vitiate the fountaine sense? and omit points, change consonants, which in Hebrew and Greek both might quite alter the sense?" Yet both Christ and the apostles appeal to the Scriptures freely, with such phrases as "as David saith" and the like, staking their trustworthiness on the true transmission. Nor will he allow the argument that it is the inerrancy of the quoters, not of the text quoted, which is our safeguard in such cases. This, he says, presumes "that Christ and his apostles might and did finde errours and misprintings even in written" [i.e. manuscript] "Scripture, which might reduce the Church in after ages to an invincible ignorance in matters of faith, and yet they gave no notice to the Church thereof." To Rutherford, therefore, the whole Scriptures were spoken by the Holy Ghost (pp. 353–354), were all written by God (p. 373), are a more sure word than an immediate oracle from heaven (p. 193), and were written under an influence which secured them from error and mistake (pp. 366, 369, etc.).

It is an interesting indication of the universality of high views of inspiration that John Goodwin, Rutherford's adversary in this treatise, himself held them. So far as the points we are here interested in are concerned, indeed, the dispute was little more than a logomachy, since Rutherford and his friends were constrained to admit (though sometimes grudgingly) that the providential preservation of Scripture is not so perfect but that some errors have found their way into the copies, and that the translations are only in a derived sense the Word of God, and only so far forth as they truly represent the originals; while Goodwin was ready to allow that God's providence is active in preserving the manuscript transmission substantially pure, and that the truth of God is adequately conveyed in any good translation. In Goodwin's reply to his assailants it is made abundantly apparent that he too believed in the inerrancy of the autographs, his objection to calling copies and translations the Word of God, in every sense, turning just on this,—that no one extant copy or translation is errorlessly the Word of God (see The Divine Authority of the Scriptures, pp. 8, 9, 11, 12, 13).

But what about Richard Baxter? Dr. Briggs tells us that he "was the leading Presbyterian of his time," and that "he knew what he was about in his warning" which is quoted as Dr. Briggs' final proof that "the Westminster divines did not teach the inerrancy of the original autographs." But the passage that is quoted has again really nothing to do with the inerrancy of the autographs. It is only one of Baxter's frequently repeated statements of his sound apologetical position as to the relative value of different portions of Scripture and the relative importance of the sense and letter. It is partly on account of his firm grasp and clear expression and defence of this apologetical position, that we think of Baxter as one of the wisest and soundest writers on the subject of Scripture in his day. Despite the fact that he has been frequently misunderstood and misquoted, he did not doubt the verbal inspiration and autographic inerrancy of the Scriptures. It is one thing to refuse to make the verbal inspiration of the Scriptures the ground of all religion, and another thing to deny its reality. Baxter's chief works are accessible to all in Duncan's London edition of 1830, so that we may content ourselves here with the adduction of a passage or two in which he clearly asserts his belief in the inerrancy of the autographs of Scripture.

All that the holy writers have recorded is true (and no falsehood in the Scripture, but what is from the error of scribes and translators)"—Vol. xv. p. 65.

"No error or contradiction is in it, but what is in some copies, by the failure of preservers, transcribers, printers and translators."—Vol. xxi. p. 542.

"If Scripture be so certainly true, then those passages in it that seem to men contradictory, must needs be true: for they do but seem so and are not so indeed."—Vol. xx. p. 27.

"These that affirm that it was but the doctrine of Christianity, that was sealed by the Holy Ghost, and in which they were infallible, but that their writings were in circumstantials and by-passages, and method and words, and other modal respects, imperfect and fallible, as other men's (in a less degree), though they heinously and dangerously err, yet do not destroy or hazard the Christian religion by it."—Vol. xx. p. 95.

"Though the Apostles were directed by the Holy Ghost in speaking and writing the doctrines of Christ, so that we know they performed their part without errors, yet the delivering down of this speech and writing to us, is a human work, to be performed with the assistance of ordinary providence."—Vol. xx. p. 115.

"All the credit of the Gospel and Christian religion doth not lie in the perfect freedom of the Scriptures from all error; but yet we doubt not to prove this their perfection against all the cavils of infidels, though we can prove the truth of religion without it."—Vol. xx. p. 118.

Let these serve as samples.

Probably no one man has a better right to be quoted as an exponent of the doctrine of the Westminster divines as a body, on this subject, than "the Patriarch of Dorchester," John White. He was chosen by them at the outset of their labours to serve as one of the two assessors, whose activity was expected to supplement the little public capacity of Twisse. His book—Directions for the Profitable Reading of the Scriptures (1647)—was introduced to the world by one of the leading Westminster divines, Dr. Thomas Goodwin, in a glowing eulogy. And Baxter (Vol. xxii. p. 335) names it among the works on the divine authority of the Scriptures which he especially recommends to the English reader. It is therefore a truly representative book. And we cannot do better than bring this paper to a close by adducing White's general statement as a fair representation of the prevalent view of his time. He founds his remarks on 2 Pet. 1:20, 21, and writes as follows:—

"The Apostle … describes the kinde of assistance of the Holy Ghost in the delivery of the Scriptures, two ways, First by way of negation, that they were neither of private interpretation, nor came by the wil of man. Secondly, he describes the same assistance affirmatively, testifying that they spake as they were moved by the Holy Ghost.

"In the former of these, wherein he expresseth their manner of delivering the Scriptures by way of negation, the Apostle excludes the working of the naturall faculties of man's mind altogether: First, the understanding, when he denies that the Scripture is of any private interpretation, or rather of men's own explication, that is, it was not expressed by the understanding of man, or delivered according to man's judgment, or by his wisdome. So that not only the matter or substance of the truths revealed, but the very forms of expression were not of man's devising, as they are in Preaching, where the matter which men preach is not, or ought not to be the Minister's own, that preacheth, but is the word of truth, 2 Tim. 2, 15, but the tearms, phrases and expressions are his own. Secondly, he saith that it came not by the wil of man, who neither made his own choice of the matters to be handled, nor of the forms and manner of delivery. So that both the understanding and the wil of man, as farre as they were merely naturall, had nothing to doe in this holy work, save onely to understand, and approve that which was dictated by God himselfe, unto those that wrote it from his mouth, or the suggesting of his Spirit.

"Again, the work of the Holy Ghost in the delivery of the Scriptures is set down affirmatively, when the Pen-men of those sacred writings are described to speak as they were moved by the Holy Ghost, a phrase which must be warily understood. For we may not conceive that they were moved in writing these Scriptures, as the pen is moved by the hand that guides it, without understanding what they did: For they not only understood, but willingly consented to what they wrote, and were not like those that pronounced the Devil's oracles, rapt and carried out of themselves by a kinde of extasie, wherein the Devill made use of their tongues and mouths to pronounce that which themselves understood not. But the Apostle's meaning is, that the Spirit of God moved them in this work of writing the Scriptures, not according to nature but above nature shining into their understanding clearly and fully by a heavenly and supernatural light, and carrying and moving their wils thereby with a delight and holy enhancing of that truth revealed, and with a like desire to publish and make known the secrets and counsels of God, revealed unto them, unto the Church.

"Yea beyond all this, the Holy Ghost not only suggested unto them the substance of that doctrine which they were to deliver and leave upon record unto the Church (for so far he usually assists faithful ministers in dispensing of the Word in the course of their Gospel ministry), but besides, has supplied unto them the very phrases, method and whole order of those things that are written in the Scriptures, whereas he leaves ministers in preaching the Word to the choice of their own phrases and expressions, wherein, as also in some particulars which they deliver, they may be mistaken, although in the main fundamentals which they lay before their hearers, and in the general course of the work of their ministry they do not grossly erre. Thus then the Holy Ghost, not only assisted holy men in penning the Scriptures, but in a sort took the work out of their hands, making use of nothing in the men, but of their understandings to receive, and comprehend, their wils to consent unto, and their hands to write down that which they delivered. When we say that the Holy Ghost framed the very phrase and style wherein the Scriptures were written, we mean not that he altered the phrase and manner of speaking, wherewith custome and education had acquainted those that wrote the Scriptures, but rather speaks his own words, as it were in the sounds of their voice, or chooseth out of their words and phrases such as were fit for his own purpose. Thus upon instruments, men play what lesson they please, but the instrument renders the sound of it more harsh or pleasant according to the nature of itself. Thus amongst the Pen-men of Scriptures, we finde that some write in a rude and more unpolished style, as Amos; some in a more elegant phrase, as Isay. Some discover art and learning in their writings, as S. Paul; others write in a more vulgar way, as S. James. And yet with all, the Spirit of God drew their natural style to a higher pitch, in divine expressions, fitted to the subject on hand" (Pp. 59–62).

It is almost pathetic to observe White's efforts to mitigate the effects of his mechanical conception of the mode of inspiration, in the matter of the style of the authors. Others made similar efforts and sometimes with more success. But the time had not yet come when the true synergism of inspiration, by which we may see that every word of Scripture is truly divine and yet every word is as truly human, had become the common property of all. In this, too, therefore, White is a fair exponent of his day, and reminds us anew that so far from denying verbal inspiration and the inerrancy of Scripture, the tendency to error of the times was in the opposite direction; and in the strenuousness of its assertion of the fact of an inspiration which extended to the expression and secured infallibility, it was ever in danger of conceiving its mode in a mechanical way. That this was the ruling attitude of the middle of the seventeenth century among the Continental theologians, whether Reformed or Lutheran, everybody knows. It is clear, from what we have seen, that the English Puritans and Scotch Presbyterians were not an isolated body cut off from the currents of thought of their day; but were in harmony with the best theologizing and highest conceptions of their Continental brethren.

Princeton, N. J.


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