Thursday, June 25, 2009

Warfield and the phenomena of scripture

On the place of the phenomena of scripture, Warfield seems clearer than Hodge. But before we get to that, let us notice that he wrote:

"The Biblical doctrine of inspiration, therefore, has in its favor just this whole weight and amount of evidence. It follows on the one hand that it cannot rationally be rejected save on the ground of evidence which will outweigh the whole body of evidence which goes to authenticate the Biblical writers as trustworthy witnesses to and teachers of doctrine. And it follows, on the other hand, that if the Biblical doctrine of inspiration is rejected, our freedom from its trammels is bought logically at the somewhat serious cost of discrediting the evidence which goes to show that the Biblical writers are trustworthy as teachers of doctrine. In this sense, the fortunes of distinctive Christianity are bound up with those of the Biblical doctrine of inspiration." (all quotes from his essay, "The Real Problem of Inspiration")

"In this sense, we repeat, the cause of distinctive Christianity is bound up with the cause of the Biblical doctrine of inspiration. We accept Christianity in all its distinctive doctrines on no other ground than the credibility and trustworthiness of the Bible as a guide to truth; and on this same ground we must equally accept its doctrine of inspiration."

Yet he insists:

"The present writer, in order to prevent all misunderstanding, desires to repeat here what he has said on every proper occasion - that he is far from contending that without inspiration there could be no Christianity. "Without any inspiration," he added, when making this affirmation on his induction into the work of teaching the Bible- "without any inspiration we could have had Christianity; yea, and men could still have heard the truth and through it been awakened, and justified, and sanctified, and glorified. The verities of our faith would remain historically proven to us - so bountiful has God been in His fostering care - even had we no Bible; and through those verities, salvation."

These appear (at least at first) to be contradictory, or at the very least in serious tension with each other. One train of thought appears to be that

1) The Bible is trustworthy.
2) The Bible teaches various doctrines.
3) The Bible can be trusted in what doctrines it teaches.
4) Inspiration is a doctrine that the Bible teaches.
5) The Bible can be trusted when it teaches its own inspiration.

In an interesting move, Warfield concludes that 5) cannot be false without out 3) also becoming false. He reasons that if the Bible teaches its own inspiration, but that teaching turns out to be false then it can no long be trusted for what doctrines it teaches. The Bible proves potentially untrustworthy for every other doctrine.

Another train of thought appears to run:

1) The teachings of the Lord and the testimonies of the apostles are trustworthy.
2) The historical witness of the earliest churches passed these teachings along faithfully.
3) The various doctrines passed along in such a faithful manner over time are trustworthy.
4) No inspiration is needed to legitmate the trustworthiness of these teachings.

Warfield insists that these teachings can be accepted as true based on their sources without reference to inspiration. But he he goes on to say that inspiration happens to be one of the doctrines taught by the Lord and the apostles. Therefore, although it is contingently a part of the doctrines that are trustworthy, by the mere fact of being taught at all by the Lord and the apostles, there is nothing different about it that warrants our dismissal of that particular doctrine without also dismissing any number (all?) of other doctrines that have been taught by them.

How do the "phenomena" of scripture play into this picture?

Warfield writes:

"When we approach the Scriptures to ascertain their doctrine of inspiration, we proceed by collecting the whole body of relevant facts. Every claim they make to inspiration is a relevant fact; every statement they make concerning inspiration is a relevant fact; every allusion they make to the subject is a relevant fact; every fact indicative of the attitude they hold towards Scripture is a relevant fact. But the characteristics of their own writings are not facts relevant to the determination of their doctrine. Nor let it be said that we are desirous of determining the true, as distinguished from the Scriptural, doctrine of inspiration otherwise than inductively. We are averse, however, to supposing that in such an inquiry the relevant "phenomena" of Scripture are not first of all and before all the claims of Scripture and second only to them its use of previous Scripture. And we are averse to excluding these primary "phenomena" and building our doctrine solely or mainly upon the characteristics and structure of Scripture, especially as determined by some special school of modern research by critical methods certainly not infallible and to the best of our own judgment not even reasonable. And we are certainly averse to supposing that this induction, if it reaches results not absolutely consentaneous with the teachings of Scripture itself, has done anything other than discredit those teachings, or that in discrediting them, it has escaped discrediting the doctrinal authority of Scripture."

And in response to my last post on Hodge, he might say something like:

"[W]e approach the study of the so-called 'phenomena' of the Scriptures with a very strong presumption that these Scriptures contain no errors, and that any "phenomena" apparently inconsistent with their inerrancy are so in appearance only: a presumption the measure of which is just the whole amount and weight of evidence that the New Testament writers are trustworthy as teachers of doctrine. It seems to be often tacitly assumed that the Biblical doctrine of inspiration cannot be confidently ascertained until all the facts concerning the contents and structure and characteristics of Scripture are fully determined and allowed for. This is obviously fallacious."

Nevertheless, he concedes:

"[T]he assumption that we cannot confidently accept the Biblical doctrine of inspiration as true until criticism and exegesis have said their last word upon the structure, the text, and the characteristics of Scripture, even to the most minute fact, is more plausible. But it is far from obviously true."

He asks readers to consider which approach will ultimately prove more helpful to them:

"If we start from the Scripture doctrine of inspiration, we approach the phenomena with the question whether they will negative this doctrine, and we find none able to stand against it, commended to us as true, as it is, by the vast mass of evidence available to prove the trustworthiness of the Scriptural writers as teachers of doctrine. But if we start simply with a collection of the phenomena, classifying and reasoning from them, whether alone or in conjunction with the Scriptural statements, it may easily happen with us, as it happened with certain of old, that meeting with some things hard to be understood, we may be ignorant and unstable enough to wrest them to our own intellectual destruction, and so approach the Biblical doctrine of inspiration set upon explaining it away."

Warfield is clearly much more aggressive in his writing here than Hodge, pushing readers toward making a definite decision. He is forthright enough to admit that his own decision has already been made and that any "phenomena" under consideration has to be of such force (which it will obviously never be) that it must overwhelm his confidence already granted to scripture.

Yet the concession Warfield makes is the same that Hodge makes, indeed everyone has to make it during the course of trying to do theology. Warfield's concession lies at the very construction of the doctrine of inspiration. In a bold rhetorical move, Warfield defers to his detractors to define biblical inspiration for him:

"In the circumstances, however, we may venture to dispense with an argument drawn up from our own point of view, and content ourselves with an extract from the brief statement of the grounds of his decision given by another of those critical scholars who do not believe the doctrine of plenary inspiration, but yet find themselves constrained to allow that it is the doctrine of the New Testament writers."

And so he defers to a Richard Rothe who writes:

"We find in the New Testament authors the same theoretical view of the Old Testament and the same practice as to its use, as among the Jews of the time in general, although at the same time in the handling of the same conceptions and principles on both sides, the whole difference between the new Christian spirit and that of contemporary Judaism appears in sharp distinctness...The whole style and method of their treatment of the Old Testament text manifestly presupposes in them this view of this matter, which was at the time the usual one in the Jewish schools..."

Yet for all Warfield's polemical attempts to obscure the fact, he finds himself in the same place that Hodge was in: having to be informed by "the usage of antiquity, sacred and profane, and...the doctrine which the sacred writers and the men of their generation are known to have entertained on the subject.”

Although he more consciously guards himself against the need to ask some of the questions I wanted to ask Hodge in the previous post, recent developments in the study of second temple Judaism have forced some questions upon us with much more urgency than would have been the case during the time when Warfield was writing:

What was the understanding of inspiration had by the "men of their generation" (Hodge's phrase)? What were their expectations of scripture? What does it mean for scripture that the NT writers had much the same view of things as any other religious person of their time?

For there is now the consideration that "inspiration," now more acutely identified as the common assumption of the cultural milieu within which scripture was originally produced, may be what some of the apostles, or perhaps the Lord, really believed but not actually what scripture is teaching. This is a point of contention that might be said to be "new" to more recent generations (over against that of Warfield's), given the discovery of the DSS, for example. Warfield's language opens itself to precisely this kind of observation:

"It is based on the exegetical fact that our Lord and His apostles held this doctrine of Scripture, and everywhere deal with the Scriptures of the Old Testament in accordance with it, as the very Word of God, even in their narrative parts. This is a commonplace of exegetical science, the common possession of the critical schools of the left and of the right, a prominent and unmistakable deliverance of Biblical Theology."

The biblical writers may have held some dictation theory of inspiration, for example, but does that mean that they taught it? If they did teach it, a comparison with scripture's phenomena would cause us to modify scripture's teaching...

And if there is some diversity among the biblical tradents over how to conceive of inspiration, perhaps that means it is up to us to fill in the details as to how best describe inspiration. Here then there is room for some differences of opinion. By parity of reasoning, one might observe that there surely appear to be some minor (and some major) differences of opinion in the other doctrines that are taught in scripture. Why should this one (inspiration) be any different from the others (a variation of Warfield's own argument)?

As for the deductive arguments made by Warfield, some progressives might find themselves open to it, but again there is the very important matter of pinning down what "inspiration" means in the first place. Is there some equivocation with the term "inspiration" between assertions 4) and 5)? And what is the difference between being "believed" by the writers in question and being "taught"? What if the language of "incidental error" proves more helpful to some today?

The last thing I have time to say here (although I'm so busy right now I probably ended up spending more time on these last two posts than I have spent on this blog over the past few months combined!) is that Warfield's presumption in scripture's favor is not going to be as strong in every believer as Warfiled seems to suppose. Although he protests to the contrary, it can be difficult to tell whether Warfield's presumption is concomitant with his inductive efforts or whether it precedes it or whether it proceeds from it. Either way, I don't think it is realistic to suppose that this presumption in favor of scripture's inerrancy is going overtake every Christian in the same way that it apparently did Warfield. Warfield mentions that the probability is so high for him that the scriptures are inerrant that the probability counts for him as equivalent to demonstration. But this is going to differ from believer to believer. No doubt that Warfield's essay is extremely well-written, but I think it ultimately boils down to a pragmatic argument and the effectiveness of such arguments often depend on a number of factors, not least a host of cultural and psychological factors that may or may not effect every believer in their very constitution as historically-situated humans.

At the very least, I wish all inerrantists would follow Warfield and go out of their way to clarify:

"Let it not be said that thus we found the whole Christian system upon the doctrine of plenary inspiration. We found the whole Christian system on the doctrine of plenary inspiration as little as we found it upon the doctrine of angelic existences. Were there no such thing as inspiration, Christianity would be true, and all its essential doctrines would be credibly witnessed to us in the generally trustworthy reports of the teaching of our Lord and of His authoritative agents in founding the Church, preserved in the writings of the apostles and their first followers, and in the historical witness of the living Church...We are in entire sympathy in this matter, therefore, with the protest which Dr. Marcus Dods raised in his famous address at the meeting of the Alliance of the Reformed Churches at London, against representing that 'the infallibility of the Bible is the ground of the whole Christian faith.' We judge with him that it is very important indeed that such a misapprehension, if it is anywhere current, should be corrected. What we are at present arguing is something entirely different from such an overstrained view of the importance of inspiration to the very existence of Christian faith, and something which has no connection with it."

Phenomena or no, this latter matter is definitely something that needs to be made more clear to all believers.