B. B. Warfield and the “Human Side” of the Bible
Note: This post was originally published as part of Pete Enns' series on Calvinism.
Princeton theologian B. B. Warfield (1851-1921) accepted evolution as giving the proper scientific account of human origins, but he also believed that hearing God’s voice in scripture and the findings of solid scientific work were not at odds. As historians Mark Noll and David Livingston put it,
B. B. Warfield, the ablest modern defender of the theologically conservative doctrine of the inerrancy of the Bible, was also an evolutionist.1
Warfield, however, did not address the matter in as much theological and hermeneutical depth as is needed today, given our growing scientific and archaeological knowledge. In fact, Warfield did not address the latter (to my knowledge) at all. Thus, we should not call upon Warfield, or any other of his contemporaries, to settle the evolution question for us today. The question is whether we see in Warfield (and others) a hermeneutical trajectory for having the needed “Bible in context” discussion today.
In my opinion, there are valuable lessons to be learned here for contemporary Evangelicals.
B. B. Warfield and the “Human Side” of the Bible
The theological reason why Warfield and the other Old Princeton theologians were so open to looking at the Bible in its historical context was because they understood the Bible to be analogous to Christ himself. As Christ was both divine and human, Scripture also has divine and human sides.
Of course, this is only an analogy. No one—least of all Warfield—is claiming that the Bible is “God incarnate” like Christ is. But he is saying that Christ the Word and Scripture the word are both evidence of “God with us” and both have a divine and human “dimension” (if you will forgive the imprecise language here).
The divine and human cannot be separated, either in Christ or in the Bible. Both are what they are. In fact, with Christ, his humanity is essential to who he is. Likewise, the Bible’s “human side” is an essential part of what Scripture is, and recognizing this has practical implications.
In an 1894 essay Warfield put it this way, saying it is fundamental,
that the whole of Scripture is the product of the divine activities which enter it, not by superseding the activities of the human authors, but by working confluently with them, so that the Scriptures are the joint product of divine and human activities, both of which penetrate them at every point, working harmoniously together to the production of a writing which is not divine here and human there, but at once divine and human in every part, every word and every particular.2
Warfield calls this relationship between the divine and human in the Bible “concursus.” He goes on to say:
On this conception, therefore, for the first time full justice is done to both elements of Scripture [human and divine]. Neither is denied because the other is recognized. And neither is limited to certain portions of Scripture so that place may be made for the other. As full justice is done to the human element as is done by those who deny that there is any divine element in the Bible, for of every word in the Bible, it is asserted that it has been conceived in a human mind and written by a human hand. As full justice is done to the divine element as is done by those who deny that there is any human element in the Bible, for of every word in the Bible it is asserted that it is inspired by God, and has been written under the direct and immediate guidance of the Holy Spirit.3
These words were written for a fairly popular readership, not for scholars. Here Warfield had a wonderful opportunity to perhaps mend a fence to protect the sheep against things that were new and might not be understood. But rather he affirmed, positively, and in no uncertain terms, the integral role of the “human element” (as he puts it) of Scripture.
As I said above, Warfield may not have applied this idea as much as we today might have hoped, but he was also keenly aware that concursus has clear practical implications for how we read our Bibles, especially in view of developments in biblical scholarship at his time.
More than an Abstract Idea
In his article cited above, Warfield is clear about the questions he was attempting to answer: “How are the two factors, the divine and the human, to be conceived as related to each other in the act of inspiration? And, how is the Scriptural relationship between the two consequent elements in the product, the divine and human, to be conceived?”
These “how” questions were prompted, according to Warfield, by the reality that,
[r]ecent discussion of the authenticity, authorship, integrity, structure of the several Biblical books, has called men's attention, as possibly it has never before been called, to the human element in the Bible. Even those who were accustomed to look upon their Bible as simply divine, never once thinking of the human agents through whom the divine Spirit spoke, have had their eyes opened to the fact that the Scriptures are human writings, written by men, and bearing the traces of their human origin on their very face. In many minds the [“how”] questions have become quite pressing...
Warfield goes on to say that it is not enough to be content with the “effects of inspiration.” We must also strive to understand how inspiration works (a divine/human concursus). This is not an issue that could be left to the side in Warfield’s day, and certainly not in ours.
One cannot simply appeal to the fact of inspiration to settle disputes about the Bible. One must engage the “nature and mode” of inspiration (as Warfield put it), the fact that Scripture is a divine/human entity. To put this in plain English, according to Warfield, inspiration means the divine and human are working together to produce a product that is of divine authority and bears the indelible marks of its historical context. A proper understanding of inspiration does not marginalize the “human side” but respects it.
Putting it this way does not settle the big interpretive questions, and, as I said, Warfield did not apply this principle as much as we need to today. The principle, however, is not only sound but powerful. What remains for us is honest conversation about how this principle applies to our present challenges concerning evolution.
1. On Warfield and evolution, see Mark A. Noll and David N. Livingston, eds., B. B. Warfield: Evolution, Science, and Scripture (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2000), 14.
2. B. B. Warfield, “The Divine and Human in the Bible,” in Evolution, Scripture, and Science: Selected Writings (ed. M. A. Noll and D. N. Livingstone; Grand Rapids: Baker, 2000) 57. The essay was originally published in the Presbyterian Journal, May 3, 1894.
3. B. B. Warfield, “The Divine and Human in the Bible,” in Selected Shorter Writings of Benjamin B. Warfield (ed. John E . Meeter; Presbyterian and Reformed, 1970), 57.
Pete Enns is a former Senior Fellow of Biblical Studies for The BioLogos Foundation and author of several books and commentaries, including the popular Inspiration and Incarnation: Evangelicals and the Problem of the Old Testament, which looks at three questions raised by biblical scholars that seem to threaten traditional views of Scripture.