Warfield on Revelation


The essay The Biblical Idea of Revelation by the great Princeton theologian, Benjamin Breckinridge Warfield (1851-1921), first appeared in the fourth volume of The International Standard Bible Encyclopaedia, edited by James Orr, in 1915.  At the time, Warfield was without doubt the most significant conservative theologian of his day, a man steeped in the latest biblical and theological scholarship, American, British, and continental, and well-versed in the history of theology.  Due to unfortunate personal circumstances – his wife, who had suffered a terrible breakdown during a thunderstorm on their honeymoon, was virtually housebound and required his constant care and attention – Warfield's academic career was hardly conventional, confined almost entirely to Princeton Theological Seminary and its immediate environs; and his writings were generally short pieces rather than the extended monographs and commentaries so typical of other theological scholars of his generation.  Nevertheless, Warfield made significant contributions to a number of areas of perennial theological interest to evangelicals.  First, his writings on perfectionism constitute one of the most articulate critiques of the Wesleyan and Keswick traditions on holiness; second, his arguments for the cessation of the special gifts of the Holy Spirit remain one of the best conservative attempts to argue the cessationist position, even if many today find them less than convincing; and, thirdly, his articles on scripture and scriptural authority effectively summarised the classic Reformation position on scripture and still form, for many, the starting point for evangelical discussions of biblical authority.  Of this last category of writings, the piece is an important example.

Warfield's Argument

Warfield's treatment of revelation falls into four broad sections: the nature of revelation; the process of revelation; the modes of revelation; and the biblical terminology surrounding revelation.

As to the first, the nature of revelation, Warfield starts his discussion by pointing to the personal presence of God in the Garden of Eden as a basic part of the social structure of the Edenic dispensation. This intimacy was destroyed by sin, but God did not abandon humanity; instead, he continued to intervene in history with a view to bringing humanity to ultimate salvation. This action of God had a profoundly historical dimension, in which God chooses a particular people for himself and through them works for the salvation of all peoples, and for the praise of his glory. This historical line of particularity leading to universality is reflected later in Warfield's argument when he discusses the process of revelation, whereby God reveals himself first to individuals, then to family, a tribe, a nation, a race, and then, in the fullness of time, to the whole world.

Warfield proceeds from this point to distinguish between general revelation, whereby God continually makes himself known to all humanity, and special revelation, by which he makes his saving grace known only to his chosen people. Warfield is not here trying to develop a natural theology which exists somehow independently from God's special revelation; on the contrary, he is trying to do justice to what the Bible itself declares about God's revelation of himself in the world around, in providence, and in nature. The distinction serves to demonstrate God's sovereignty over all creation, and is making an ontological point; it does not demonstrate the possibility of true knowledge of God for the unbeliever, since humanity outside of grace is blind to a general revelation which is insufficient anyway to bring anyone to salvation.

From discussing the nature of revelation, Warfield moves to the process of revelation. Special revelation, he argues, is progressive, and linked to the development of God's kingdom, i.e., the history of God's people, itself. This has led some, he notes, to claim that God's revelation is communicated in deeds, not words. Warfield makes a careful, and important distinction here: God's great redemptive acts constitute his grace, but historical acts in themselves are not self-explanatory; therefore, there is a need for the explanatory word to bring out the saving significance of the act; thus, God's revelatory words are themselves part of his redemptive action, and frequently precede or follow other redemptive deeds in order to prepare the way for them or explain them after the fact. Either way, the words are essential.

From arguing that words are essential in the revelation of God's saving purposes, Warfield then moves to the modes of revelation. Here he introduces three categories in the historical economy which he argues is not hard and fast but is nonetheless helpful in showing how, just as special revelation is itself progressive, so are the modes of that revelation. The three categories are theophany, prophecy, and inspiration. Theophany, Warfield identifies as God's external manifestation, which includes not just miracles but every supernatural intervention of God in the lives of human beings by which a better understanding of God, his grace, and his purposes is given; prophecy, though, he sees as being in essence God's internal suggestion, whether dreams, visions, or 'the prophetic word'; and inspiration involves concursive operation, whereby the Holy Spirit works in, with, and through the will of an individual as to give the resulting composition qualities that are superhuman. While all three modes can be found throughout history, Warfield argues that each one is particularly characteristic of a particular age.  

Finally, Warfield devotes a number of pages to discussing the Hebrew and Greek terms which the Bible uses in dealing with the various issues surrounding the notion of revelation. This section closes with a brief statement on the significance of the closed canon and the identification of scripture with the word of God.

Warfield on Revelation: Some Contemporary Observations

In introducing the essay for a contemporary audience it seems useful to make one or two comments on the relevance of Warfield's arguments for contemporary evangelicals. Indeed, this might even be considered something of a necessity, given the fact that a number of the positions outlined in this essay are frequently the subject of heavy criticism, not least within the ranks of evangelicalism itself where Warfield is without doubt more often criticised than read or understood.

(I) The Notion of Dictation

First, Warfield's name is inextricably linked with the notion of the dictation theory of inspiration, the name of which automatically summons up images of God the Managing Director speaking directly to a secretary whose job it is merely to record every jot and tittle of what he has to say. Two comments need to be made on this issue. First, in the following essay, the notion of dictation is not explicitly discussed as a characteristic of all the modes of revelation, but only in the context of prophecy. Significantly, however, Warfield uses the term to refer to specific biblical passages where the Lord is clearly described as speaking to people and where there is an obvious analogy with the process of dictation with which we are ourselves familiar; in addition, he also injects some caution by stating that `the question may remain open of the exact processes by which this dictation is accomplished.' He then goes on to emphasise that the use of the one category of prophetic revelation must not be used to exclude a priori the possibility that a variety of means of revelation were used within this single category: one must not identify prophetic inspiration necessarily with a state of ecstasy, the giving of objective speech, or the complete suspension of mental activity. In other words, 'dictation' here is a useful analogy or model, but must not be used as the basis for illegitimate deductions concerning the details of how the prophets received their revelations.

This brings me to the second point concerning dictation: despite his high view of verbal inspiration of the Bible, Warfield and the tradition he represented always rejected the idea that this involved a mechanical view of the production of biblical books. The position is best summarised in a passage from the article which he co-authored with A .A. Hodge in 1888, 'Inspiration':

We believe that the great majority of those who object to the affirmation that inspiration is verbal are impelled thereto by a feeling more or less definite, that the phrase implies that inspiration is, in its essence, a process of verbal dictation, or that, at least in some way, the revelation of the thought or the inspiration of the writer was by means of the control which God exercised over his words.  And there is the more excuse for this misapprehension because of the extreme mechanical conceptions of inspiration maintained by many former advocates of the use of this term `verbal.'  This view, however, we repudiate as earnestly as any of those who object to the language in question.  At the present time, the advocates of the strictest doctrine of inspiration in insisting that it is verbal do not mean that in any way the thoughts were inspired by means of the words, but simply that the divine superintendence, which we call inspiration, extended to the verbal expression of the thoughts of the sacred writers, as well as to the thoughts themselves, and that hence the Bible, considered as a record, an utterance in words of a divine revelation, is the word of God to us.1

In other words, if we choose to apply the word `dictation' or its cognates to Warfield's defence of verbal inspiration, we must do so as part of underscoring the reliability of the finished text not as a statement concerning the actual mechanics of the inspirational process.  

This view is quite consistent with what Warfield says in the essay on revelation. Referring to the inspiration of the prophets, he is careful to stress that his view that prophetic inspiration is analogous to dictation should not be taken as an implicit denial of any mental activity on the part of the prophets in the process; no, their intelligence was the active instrument in the reception of the message; it is simply to deny that the prophets were in any sense co-authors of the divine message in a manner which would have led to a mixture of what God wished to say with what the prophets themselves, in their human autonomy, would like to say. God accommodates himself to the prophet's capacity in that he prepares them for the giving of his message and does not act on them in a way that contradicts their fundamental individuality, but this accommodation is not such a way that the artificial impression is given that the prophet speaks on his own behalf.

The same rules apply for the third form of revelation, inspiration, which Warfield here characterises as `concursive operation'. Unlike the prophetic mode, this involves the whole of the individual's personality and is thus less obviously `external' to its human agent. Indeed, it may well employ all manner of human activity as the means to its goal – historical research, logic, ethical reflection etc – but the whole is superintended by the Holy Spirit and the results, whether history, psalms, epistles etc, are absolutely reliable, are the word of God, just as the utterances of the prophets. Verbal inspiration, therefore, based upon verbal revelation, does not depend upon, nor indeed imply, a mechanical theory of dictation.

(II) Propositional Revelation

Even within the evangelical camp, at least considered in its widest sense, the whole notion of propositional revelation has come under heavy fire in recent years, from both those who have drunk deep at the wells of neo-orthodoxy, with its actualisation of revelation, and those who wish to bring modern hermeneutical insights about how texts are read to bear upon the process of divine communication. To deal in detail with all the criticism would take far too long, but, to an extent, a number of these criticisms are built upon misconceptions of precisely what propositional revelation is.  

Warfield himself does not, as far as I can see, use the term, though in many minds it is so inextricably related to the notion of verbal inspiration as to be synonymous with it. Certainly, Warfield places great emphasis on verbal inspiration, but a number of qualifications, frequently missed in critiques of the Warfield tradition, need to be made at this point.

First, as is clear from the following article, Warfield does not reduce God's revelation of himself either to words on the pages of the Bible, or to the transmission of information. Indeed, he clearly sees the revelation of God as taking place in nature, in theophanies, in great saving deeds and, supremely, in the person of the Lord Jesus Christ himself. His is not a reductionist understanding of God's revelation but a rather extensive and rich one, embracing a variety of forms and culminating in Christ himself. What he refuses to do is to exclude the verbal from the notion of revelation; as such, it is arguable that his understanding of revelation, far from being too narrow and flat, is in fact broader than that of many of his modern critics, who would seek to exclude, or dramatically qualify, the status of the words of the Bible as revelation from God.

Second, Warfield's understanding of verbal revelation is not designed to reduce revelation to information but to make the point that God's deeds in history are not self-explanatory. Saving acts require a context if their significance is to be understood. This is obvious from the Bible itself: when the Passover is celebrated, and the children ask what it means, their parents are to tell them about the slavery in Egypt, the plague on the firstborn, and the exodus. The action here is made meaningful by the narrative which, presumably, was communicated in words rather than acted out as a mime. This is substantially Warfield's point when he states that 'the series of redemptive acts of God has not been left to explain itself, but the explanatory word has been added to it.' This is entirely consistent with the emphasis in the Reformation where, for example, Luther and Calvin repudiated the medieval idea of the Latin mass in large part because the action of the mass could not be understood unless a comprehensible linguistic context was provided in which the promissory significance of the sacrament could be understood by the congregation. Verbal inspiration is, for Warfield, the bedrock upon which understanding God's saving acts, and thus upon which faith itself, is built.

In closing, it is worth observing that perhaps at this point, with his emphasis upon the need to set God's deeds within some (verbal) narrative structure reflecting the history of redemption, that Warfield is not so far from some modern trajectories in theology as some may think. For Warfield, God is the God of mighty deeds, and yet those mighty deeds can only be understood properly, and the God they reveal can only be known and trusted, when they are spoken of, narrated, explained. The great narrative of God's historical acts of redemption is thus the key to faith; and it is here that Warfield's doctrine of verbal revelation becomes so important – not as an autonomous piece of rhetoric, but as the one definitive account and authoritative explanation of God's saving actions. The question we should all ask, therefore is, Can the unique, definitive and authoritative nature of this narrative be safeguarded by any view of the Bible which takes a lesser view of its inspiration, its words, and its status as revelation than that of Warfield?

Picture of Carl Trueman

Carl Trueman

Carl R. Trueman is Paul Woolley Professor of Church History at Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia, PA, USA.
Picture of Carl Trueman

Carl Trueman

Carl R. Trueman is Paul Woolley Professor of Church History at Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia, PA, USA.