Warfield, Biblical Doctrines and Confessionalism
B.B. Warfield, in his article on “The Biblical Doctrine of the Trinity,” made a significant observation regarding the Scripturally accurate formulation and articulation of biblical doctrines. The locus classicus, and test case for Warfield, was the doctrine of the Trinity. He explained that the historical doctrine of the Trinity “can be spoken of as a Biblical doctrine…on the principle that the sense of Scripture is Scripture.” Warfield explained what he meant by this when he wrote:
The term “Trinity” is not a Biblical term, and we are not using Biblical language when we define what is expressed by it as the doctrine that there is one only and true God, but in the unity of the Godhead there are three coeternal and coequal Persons, the same in substance but distinct in subsistence. A doctrine so defined can be spoken of as a Biblical doctrine only on the principle that the sense of Scripture is Scripture. And the definition of a Biblical doctrine in such unbiblical language can be justified only on the principle that it is better to preserve the truth of Scripture than the words of Scripture. The doctrine of the Trinity lies in Scripture in solution; when it is crystallized from its solvent it does not cease to be Scriptural, but only comes into clearer view. Or, to speak without figure, the doctrine of the Trinity is given to us in Scripture, not in formulated definition, but in fragmentary allusions; when we assembled the disjecta membra into their organic unity, we are not passing from Scripture, but entering more thoroughly into the meaning of Scripture. We may state the doctrine in technical terms, supplied by philosophical reflection; but the doctrine stated is a genuinely Scriptural doctrine.1
Saying that “a doctrine…can be spoken of as a Biblical doctrine…on the principle that the sense of Scripture is Scripture” has massive implications for how we understand historic creeds and confessions. While we recognize that the men who articulated these doctrines were not infallible or inspired (as were the biblical authors when they penned Holy Scripture; see 2 Peter 1:21), we can affirm with Warfield that if a doctrinal formulation is in accord with the Scripture’s teaching on that doctrine then it is the sense of Scripture itself that is being communicated.
More work needs to be done on this subject as some would erroneously elevate the Confessions to a place of parity with Scripture (because they believe that one or more Confessions are completely in accord with Scripture) and others would erroneously diminish the need for or value of Confessions because the Scripture must stand alone as the “supreme judge by which all controversies of religion are to be determined.” After all, even the Westminster Confession of Faith states that “the Old Testament in Hebrew…and the New Testament in Greek…being immediately inspired by God, and, by His singular care and providence, kept pure in all ages, are therefore authentical in all controversies of religion, the Church is finally to appeal unto them” (WCF I. VIII) and “The supreme judge by which all controversies of religion are to be determined, and all decrees of councils, opinions of ancient writers, doctrines of men, and private spirits, are to be examined, and in whose sentence we are to rest, can be no other but the Holy Spirit speaking in the Scripture” (WCF I. X.).
1. B.B. Warfield, “The Biblical Doctrine of the Trinity” in The Works of Benjamin B. Warfield, vol. 2 (Biblical Doctrines).
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This is helpful. I’m teaching through the doctrine of the Trinity at the moment in Sunday School. Very taxing. I will go to Warfield to see what he says. Thanks.
Nick, Warfield is excellent on the Biblical doctrine of the Trinity. He does a great job in that article and others in showing how the whole of the N.T. speaks so casually about the multiplicity of persons in the Godhead. It’s assumed everywhere and comes up all over the place. Warfield was a massive scholar, so thorough, so measured, so, so, wonderful! I hope your readers will read him. He ranks with the very finest theologians America has ever produced.