Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Scripture as the Incarnation of the Holy Spirit? Torrance on Warfield

Since I am doing my current research on T. F. Torrance's doctrine of Scripture and am interested in how it differs from such Reformed perspectives as those held by B. B. Warfield in his accounts of verbal inspiration and inerrancy, I was exceedingly thankful today to be informed by my friend David Gibson that Torrance wrote a review of Warfield's The Inspiration and Authority of the Bible when it was reissued back in 1954 (SJT, Vol. 7, 1954, pp. 104-8). After searching high and low in the library, I eventually found it and had myself a gander.

Torrance's review can be divided into two basic parts which we'll refer to as "pre-scathing" and "scathing" (There is really also a third section in which Torrance comments on Cornelius Van Til's introduction, which I would call "uber-scathing"). In the pre-scathing section Torrance lauds Warfield's "sober and scholarly" contribution to a serious study of the Scripture's teachings about itself. Even here, however, Torrance accuses Warfield of "reading too readily time-conditioned philosophical categories and nuances into NT terms which are actually alien to them." Nevertheless, Torrance gives Warfield praise for the far reaching insight that the word inspiration is not itself exactly biblical in its meaning. The Greek word (theopnuestos) rendered "inspiration" by the KJV should not be understood as something originally human that is subsequently breathed into (in-spired) by God, but as being instead breathed out by God in its entirety. (Torrance and Warfield might have been more pleased with the NIV's rendering, "God-breathed"). Indeed, we must understand God to be sovereign over the production of the Bible so that he does not only move the authors by the Holy Spirit in the moment of writing, but previously guides human history, the history of salvation in Israel and in Jesus Christ, and the lives of the biblical authors themselves right up to the moments of writing and beyond - all under the Holy Spirit's guiding hand.

Torrance cites a metaphor Warfield uses in which one objects that just as light coming through a stained glass window is discolored by the glass, so any word of God that came through a man must be tainted by the mind of that man. Warfield responds that just as the architect of a cathedral designs the stained glass windows to give the incoming light just the effects that they give it, so God has formed the personalities of the biblical writers so that they express His words just the way the do so that they are in fact His chosen words. Up to this point Torrance raises no objection to Warfield's account, but don't hold your breath.

About the midpoint of the review Torrance changes his tone to that of "profound disagreement" by announcing that "It is clear that his whole doctrine of revelation and inspiration is bound up with a philosophical doctrine of predestination, in which Biblical eschatology is ousted for an un-Biblical notion of rational causation." This is a curious feature of Warfield's, and as far as I know virtually all of the old Princeton and Westminster theologians' understanding of biblical inspiration: it totally doesn't work outside of a fully determinist understanding of divine providence. Seeing that Torrance holds strong views of the reality of freedom, not just for humans, but for all of the creation as its contingent orderly structures open up to higher and higher levels of order, its understandable that he would be aghast at the notion of tying biblical authority to a determinist view of the universe.

Torrance also has a problem with how Warfield's understanding of inspiration has God's influence totally overwhelm the affects of sin in the authors' minds as they write. Here we get into the discussion of the analogy between Christ and Scripture. Torrance insists that the Bible's dual nature, that of God's Word and men's words, derives from Christ dual nature as the God-man. The first important thing here is that Christ, though always sinless, nevertheless binds God's eternal holy nature to humanity's fallen sinful nature; Christ takes sinfulness upon himself. In Torrance's view, Warfield just does not take this full reality of Christ's assumption of a sinful human nature seriously because he cannot take the full reality of a human Bible seriously but instead overwhelms the human with the divine in a kind of Apollinarian biblicism.

The second important thing to note here is that there are two important differences between Christ's two natures and the Bible's two natures. The first difference is this: there is a divine drama in the life of Christ in which the eternal holy God takes the sinfulness of humanity into himself by becoming a human, taking on the full curse of sin and death for us and then coming back to life as the first fruits of a new perfected humanity, free from the taint of sin. This divine drama is unrepeatable because it accomplishes once and for all God's eternal plan of redemption. The Bible itself is not like this. Its union of divine and human action cannot repeat Christ's overcoming of sin but is instead a part of the as yet still fallen world. The Bible is God's Word to us, but, Torrance says, "only in conditions of imperfection and limitation, in eschatological suspension." Torrance goes on,
But the miracle is that even now in spite of sin and imperfection and the limitations of a fallen humanity, in spite of the earthen vessel which mediates to us the Word of Life, we are given to hear the living Voice of the Lord Himself, and to see the Light Eternal.
The second difference is that in Christ God and Man are related in a unique way: the Word of God is incarnate. The Bible is not another incarnation. The meaning and authority of Scripture must rest in the one true incarnation of the Word in Christ. But Warfield, as Torrance sees it, will not put Scripture in its proper place subordinate to the incarnate Savior, but instead elevates it alongside of Christ by seeing it as the incarnation of the Holy Spirit:
The basic error that lurks in the scholastic idea of verbal inspiration is that it amounts to an incarnation of the Holy Spirit. It is only strictly christological theology which can obviate that heresy, but Dr. Warfield's theory of inspiration neglects the christological basis of the doctrine of Scripture, and fails therefore to take the measure of both the mystery of revelation and the depth of sin in the human mind.
What do we make of Torrance's treatment of Warfield's doctrine of Scripture?


  1. "Apollinarian biblicism." I like it.

    Very interesting post -- thanks for sharing this find. As much as I like the use to which guys like Peter Enns put the "incarnation" analogy in the doctrine of Scripture, I am exceedingly cautious about it. We might say that Scripture is "human in one sense and divine in another," but in my opinion that is pretty much ALL that we can say. Past this very basic simile, the analogy begins to rapidly break down. God's appropriation of human nature, God's sovereign invasion of human existence, is rather unlike his appropriation of the biblical text in all the really important ways.

    Torrance is absolutely right: For all the honor and respect that is due it, Scripture cannot be elevated to be on par with Jesus Christ.

  2. Thanks Darren. I thought Apollinarian biblicism was a slightly nicer way of putting than just straight Islam.

  3. Or you could've just put it 'Shirk biblicism' ;-) . . . nice, Adam!