Warfield’s Redefinition of Inspiration

Re-post, as previously mentioned….

Redefining a Word

In the late 19th century, Benjamin Warfield of Princeton Theological Seminary changed the focus of theological discussion of inspiration.  Warfield was a great theologian who was contending rightly for the authority and inerrancy of Scripture in the face of heretical challenges.  Unfortunately, in his focus on the theological problem, he effectively redefined theopneustos to what had previously been called “immediate inspiration.”

Warfield’s first major article on inspiration was written jointly with A.A. Hodge in 1881.  In this article Warfield signaled what the rest of his writings on inspiration were going to do, and he was quite clear about it.  He was adopting a narrower definition of inspiration than that which had been used in the past — and narrower than the Scriptural usage.

Defending redefinition:

The history of theology is full of parallel instances, in which terms of the highest import have come to be accepted in a more fixed and narrow sense than they bore at first either in scriptural or early ecclesiastical usage (emphasis mine).

Warfield here puts his readers on notice:  he is not going to be bound by the Scriptural usage in defining terms.  As long as a person is very careful to explain his terms, that is not necessarily wrong — but it is dangerous with a Scriptural term, because it runs the risk of creating confusion over terms as your technical definition and the Scriptural term get mixed up.

Later in that same article (Tractate on Inspiration) he and Hodge wrote:

We have restricted the word “Inspiration” to a narrower sphere than that in which it has been used by many in the past.

Still later:

We do not assert that the common text, but only that the original autographic text, was inspired (emphasis mine).

The redefinition is obvious.  It extended even to using “was,” in contrast to the Scriptural usage “is.”  The Bible says Scripture “is” inspired, but they said it “was” inspired.  “Inspiration” for Warfield and Hodge was redefined from a statement about the origin and nature of the Scriptures to simply a statement about the historical act by which God gave the Scriptures, the act which had previously been called “immediate inspiration.”

Refuting Errors

Without going into great detail, Warfield found this new definition of inspiration useful through the years as he effectively refuted several errors.

  • There were those who advocated the false teaching that theopneustos, instead of signifying “breathed by God,” meant that the Scriptures were breathing God.  In other words, it wasn’t telling us that the Scriptures came from God, but rather that they tell us about God.  Warfield refuted this false teaching.
  • Some had suggested that the Scriptures were a human product which God then “inspired” (breathed divine nature into).  Warfield rightly argued that the Scriptures were a divine product from the very beginning.
  • Some had suggested (and some still do) that the “in-breathing” referred to by inspiration was God breathing into the human authors, so that they were inspired to write.  Warfield rightly refuted this error.

However, the new definition wasn’t really needed to refute these errors — and redefining Scriptural terms so that the meaning does not match Scriptural usage unsurprisingly led to problems.

False Choices

In another article, God-Inspired Scripture, Warfield wrote:

From all points of approach alike we appear to be conducted to the conclusion that it is primarily expressive of the origination of Scripture, not of its nature and much less of its effects…. What it affirms is that the Scriptures owe their origin to an activity of God the Holy Ghost and are in the highest and truest sense His creation. It is on this foundation of Divine origin that all the high attributes of Scripture are built.

When Warfield writes (in the second half of this citation) about the origin of Scripture, he is completely correct.  But his denial that theopneustos refers to the nature and effects of Scripture as well as the origin ignores the context, the connotations of the breath of God, and other evidence as well.

There is no reason to charge Warfield with evil intent.  His zeal for the truth of the Scriptures and the integrity of God is evident in all his writings.  His doctrine of what had previously been known as “immediate inspiration” is masterful.  In refuting a false teaching which minimised divine authorship, he rightly emphasised what theopneustos implies about the origin of Scripture.

He erred, however, in adopting a false choice — a simple error in logic, which is rather surprising in a scholar of his ability.  We do not have to choose between origin, nature, and effect — we can choose two of them, or even all three.  His opponents had created the false choice, saying in error that the word is only referring to effect, and Warfield unfortunately let them frame the terms of the discussion.

Why did he fall into that logical trap?  Very simply, he had adopted his own redefinition, and was now applying it to the Biblical term.  He began by saying that he was adopting a technical term which was more narrow than Biblical usage, but before long he was arguing (as in this article) that the Biblical usage was identical to his redefined meaning.  It is quite one thing to say, “I’m using it differently from the way the Bible uses it for a specific purpose, and here is what I mean.”  It is quite another when you then start to say that your definition is the same as the Biblical usage.

We understand more of Warfield’s thinking when he says in an article for the International Standard Bible Encyclopedia:

The Biblical writers do not conceive of the Scriptures as a human product breathed into by the Divine Spirit, and thus heightened in its qualities or endowed with new qualities; but as a Divine product produced through the instrumentality of men.

This is very true, but again he constructs a false choice, between the divine origin of the Scriptures and an in-breathing of divine nature.  We can certainly choose both.  Warfield could not because he had adopted his own redefinition.  Thus, I suggest Warfield’s statement should have read something like this:

The Biblical writers conceive of the Scriptures as a divine product breathed into by the Divine Spirit, and thus given living divine qualities; it is a Divine product produced through the instrumentality of men.

We should certainly agree with Warfield when he refutes any ideas of human origin for the Scriptures.  Furthermore, he is correct in asserting elsewhere in this article that the word does not mean that God breathed into the writers.  It is the Scriptures that are theopneustos, not the writers.  But the valuable service he provided in refuting these errors does not logically force us to accept his limited definition of the word.  We should note that again in this citation, Warfield is now directly applying his redefinition of inspiration to “the Biblical writers.”


Again, in his ISBE article on Inspiration:

The Greek term has, however, nothing to say of inspiring or of inspiration: it speaks only of a “spiring” or “spiration.” What it says of Scripture is, not that it is “breathed into by God” or is the product of the Divine “inbreathing” into its human authors, but that it is breathed out by God, “God-breathed,” the product of the creative breath of God.

Warfield here used etymology alone (ignoring other factors such as connotation and context) to say that theopneustos means “spiring” or “spiration”, rather than “inspiration”.  But then, having rejected “inspired” (breathed into) because the etymology doesn’t lead him to that conclusion, he moves from “spiring” to “ex-spired” (breathed out), without any real basis at all — except his own narrow technical definition.

In Warfield’s writings, then, “in-spired” became “ex-spired”, breathed out.  No longer referring to both the divine origin and the divine quality or nature of the Scriptures, he now taught that inspiration meant only the divine origin.  He believed his own redefinition, and began to write that his definition was what the Scriptural writers had in mind.  Certainly, his excellently developed theology of “immediate inspiration” appears to match the Scriptural teaching — about “immediate inspiration.”

However, his definition did not match the Scriptural usage of theopneustos, “given by inspiration of God.”  For Warfield and those who followed his teaching, inspiration no longer applies to Timothy’s (and your) Book-in-hand.  It became entirely a matter of history, relating only to the original autographs:

We do not assert that the common text, but only that the original autographic text, was inspired.

Main article: The Scriptures — Inspired or Expired?

About Jon Gleason

Former Pastor of Free Baptist Church of Glenrothes
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12 Responses to Warfield’s Redefinition of Inspiration

  1. Andy Efting says:


    Do you think theopneustos implies inerrancy? Forgive me if you have answered this in other posts. I just saw this one and thought I’d ask. I think the answer is yes and therefore have a hard time applying the term directly to copies and translations that contain errors.


    • Jon Gleason says:

      Hello, Andy. Good question, and one I don’t think I have answered directly.

      I don’t believe it implies inerrancy as directly as Warfield suggested. I’m unaware of anyone before Warfield built their case for inerrancy directly on theopneustos.

      Theopneustos is explicitly a divine quality of Scripture, with only implicit reference to the act of giving the Scriptures, what the Westminster divines called “immediate inspiration” (I personally prefer “inspired inscripturation” but have mostly used the WCF term since people think they knew more than me, for some reason :)). II Peter 1:20-21 describes the act, but II Timothy 3:16 refers to a resultant quality / nature of the Scriptures.

      Inerrancy results from inspired inscripturation. So does theopneustos. Thus, they both have (and imply) the same source, and that source implies both of them. So there is an indirect implication of inerrancy in theopneustos.

      As to your last sentence, inerrancy and theopneustos are qualities of the words God gave. The words God gave are fully inerrant and fully theopneustos, whether inscribed on an autograph or an apograph (copy) or an Internet site. Only an autograph had the divine guarantee of being a fully accurate record of those words — but the words (and only those words) are inerrant and inspired wherever they reside. A copy is not inerrant, but it may faithfully record inerrant words. Similarly, a copy was not written by inspired inscripturation, but may faithfully record words that are theopneustos.

      Translations are obviously only inerrant and theopneustos to the extent that they reflect the original. To the extent that they do reflect the original, they are divine in nature (theopneustos). This divine nature is living and able to exist in multiple languages (note Romans 16:25-27).

      Warfield made theopneustos to be a narrow, technical term about the act of giving the Scriptures, but in context it is a general pastoral term about the nature and usefulness of Timothy’s “Book in Hand.”

      I greatly appreciate Warfield’s case for inerrancy built on the divine origin of the Scriptures. I merely object to his hijacking of the word theopneustos for that purpose. Everything in the context screams at us that theopneustos is a current “Book in Hand” quality, not a mere historical note. Warfield chose to use a definition that, in his words, was “more fixed and narrow” than Scriptural usage. That’s generally a bad idea.

      I talked more about copies / translations (though I don’t think I mentioned inerrancy) here: https://mindrenewers.com/2011/11/11/given-by-inspiration-theopneustos-context-revisited/

      • Andy Efting says:


        Thanks for the thoughtful reply. The very first theological book I read after my college days, and the one that really got me started building my library and studying theological concepts, was Warfield’s “Inspiration and Authority of the Bible.” Last year I had the opportunity to drive through Princeton on the way home from a vacation and I made a point to stop by the Princeton cemetery just to wander among the graves of several men (including Warfield, Edwards, etc) whose book’s and ministry have meant so much to me. I say all that to say that I really cut my teeth regarding the concept of inspiration on Warfield.

        I have to say, therefore, that I still see theopneustos as primarily referring to origin. In your article you suggest that we can embrace an understanding of theopneustos that includes origin, nature, and effect, but as soon as we include origin I don’t see how to get around the problem of inerrancy that I raised earlier. In your reply to me you say that 2Tim3:16 refers (primarily?) to a quality/nature of Scripture. To be honest, I’ve never really thought about it that way before (perhaps due to Warfield’s influence). My thought has always been that the divine origin, highlighted by being theopneustos, implies a quality, nature, and effect of the originals and to subsequent copies and translations to the extent that they faithfully reproduce the original Scriptures.


      • Jon Gleason says:

        Thanks, Andy. You are correct in inserting “primarily” in my statement as to quality / nature. As I said in my comment, origin / source / act is implied, not explicit, in the word.

        I’ve just re-posted my “Meaning of Theopneustos” article on the main page. I don’t know if you’ve seen it or not — but I’m not pulling this “nature / origin” assertion out of thin air. Context, connotations, historical theology, etc.

        That startling quote from Warfield / Hodge about deviating from Scriptural usage obviously raises the question: well, then, what exactly IS the Scriptural usage? Exegesis precedes theology. We don’t come to a text (II Tim. 3) to ask what it says about our theological problem. We come to it asking what it actually says, and then determine which theological problems it addresses.

        Take just about everything Warfield said about inspiration / theopneustos and plug in “immediate inspiration” in its place. You’ll be back in line with Biblical usage, the Westminster divines, the scholastics, etc — historical orthodoxy. Keep your book, it’s really, really good in almost everything it says. 🙂 There’s just this wee definitional problem.

        I’m not sure I understand your problem with inerrancy. The words God gave were given by the moving of the Spirit (history) and are Scripture. Thus, they are (present) theopneustos and inerrant. Nobody is suggesting that copying is identical to inscripturation — but in the words in which a copy is inscribed accurately, those words bear every quality (both theopneustos and inerrancy) and as much authority as the words inscribed on the original.

        Are accurately copied words really less in any way? Here are three (not in doubt by anyone) fully inspired and fully inerrant words: “pas graphe theopneustos….” Can anyone suggest there is error in them, that they are less inerrant on the ‘net than they were on the autograph?

        Warfield’s emphasis taught us to think about pieces of paper. Christ and the apostles spoke about the quality of the words.

  2. Jon,

    What you are dealing with here is really important and, as you know, it does relate to the preservation issue. People want to know which edition of the TR happens to be the perfectly preserved text, as if that is what Scripture teaches about preservation. And if I can’t tell them which one, and instead refer to words, they say I’m dodging or that it’s a cop-out or I’m even being dishonest—that sort of thing. I tell them, no, it’s actually the exegesis of Scripture on preservation, then the historic position on preservation, and there is no movement, it seems, to understand. There is something to protect in the way of a now established position that protects textual criticism, as if that is more important than the teaching of and then historic belief of the Bible. Why would that be?

    Warfield moved everything over to the pieces of paper at the end of the 20th century, I believe, really to make room for textual criticism. He made providential preservation in the WCF mean textual criticism. That’s not what the WCF divines meant, but ‘oh well.’ That’s how it moved to mainstream in evangelicalism and then it became a larger part of fundamentalism because of early faculty at BJU being from Princeton. How Warfield dealt with the meaning of the WCF is how many today interpret the U.S. Constitution, reading into it what you want it to mean, making it a very flexible document.

    I always say something like, He didn’t promise to preserve copies, but He promised to preserve Words. The idea from the other side is that since we don’t have a piece of paper that is a hand-copy from before 1500 with the exact Words, then God didn’t preserve the Words. That’s not what Christians have believed about the doctrine.

    That’s it for now.

    • Jon Gleason says:

      Hi, Kent, thanks for the comment. As I’ve mentioned to you before, I don’t have every answer in regard to preservation.

      But I am persuaded that the Biblical (and historically orthodox) emphasis is not on pieces of paper, but on words. Christ never talked about pieces of paper, and whatever pieces of paper He read from in Nazareth, the inerrant text of Luke 4 tells us He was reading the book of Isaiah. It doesn’t say He was reading a copy that is mostly right — and He Himself called it Scripture, but it wasn’t an autograph.

      I believe II Peter 1 forces us to recognise the words rather than the piece of paper as the locus of inspiration. It says “prophecy of Scripture” so we are talking about the written Word — but it says “holy men spake.” If it said “wrote”, the autographal emphasis could find some comfort, but it says spake. That tells me those words were inspired and inerrant when the prophet spoke them, even if they weren’t yet written. That text was settled, settled and established in Heaven even before it was spoken, but once the words were given, they were given, and had every quality of Scripture. It’s surprising to me that Calvinists such as Warfield have the view they have on this — it doesn’t seem to fit with his emphasis elsewhere on sovereignty. (I heard from a Reformed minister and seminary professor who said that Warfield is excellent on everything — except inspiration. :))

      Jeremiah’s words were theopneustos and inerrant when God put them in his mind, when he spoke them to Baruch, when Baruch inscribed them, when the king burned them, when God called them to his memory again, when he spoke them again to Baruch, and when Baruch re-inscribed them. Those words didn’t lose and regain their character.

      If only autographa are inspired and inerrant, then what is the autograph of the Ten Commandments? Is it the first set of tablets, the second, or the first copy of Exodus 20? And what is the inspired autograph of Proverbs 25, the writings of Solomon or the copying work of the scribes of Hezekiah? These questions are extremely easy to answer if we say that it is the words that are theopneustos and inerrant. They aren’t so straightforward if it is the pieces of paper that bear those qualities.

      I don’t know Warfield’s motivation. I read his writings and I see a desire to uphold a high view of God, so I’m slow to impugn his motives. I think his defense of inerrancy is actually quite valuable in many respects, but I do think he has a definitional problem with inspiration that does, as you say, also have significant ramifications for preservation.

      As usual, I’m rambling….

  3. Andy Efting says:


    I wish I had more time to interact on this because it is an area that I have a lot of interest. I was wondering if you are aware of any journal articles or such that you could point me to that critique Warfield along the same lines you do.


    • Jon Gleason says:

      Andy, here’s one, Edward Goodrick in JETS (Journal of Evangelical Theological Society). http://www.etsjets.org/files/JETS-PDFs/25/25-4/25-4-pp479-487_JETS.pdf. He’s approaching it largely on contextual issues, and says the context just doesn’t fit what Warfield has done with theopneustos.

      Arthur Pink clearly held a different view from Warfield in how he saw theopneustos. For Warfield, it was ex-spired, breathed out. Pink clearly disagreed: http://gracegems.org/Pink/divine_inspiration.htm. He seems to be focusing more on the connotations of the breath of God, and on the “breathed-into” indicating a continuing quality. Thus, he talks about the Scriptures being a living Book. Notable quote:
      ‘The Scriptures, then, are the living Word of the living God. Observe carefully how our opening passage expresses it, “All Scripture IS given by inspiration of God,” not “all Scripture was given by inspiration of God,” as man would have expressed it. The Holy Scriptures not only were “inspired of God,” but they are so now. ‘

      Pink doesn’t mention Warfield by name, but what he is saying is directly opposed to the last two quotes I’ve given from Warfield above. Was he intending to refute Warfield? I don’t know.

      Bahnsen gets somewhat self-contradictory: http://www.cmfnow.com/articles/pt006.htm

      In that article, he says this, to which I say, “Amen!” 🙂
      ‘According to II Timothy 3:16, “every scripture (or, every individual scriptural passage) is God-breathed.” Theopneustos is specifically a direct predicate of the written Scriptures (not of the process by which Scripture comes into being, as the impression created by the King James Version might indicate) which affirms the quality of divinity in them. ‘

      Notice he is saying that it is NOT the process but the quality. That’s contra Warfield.

      ‘When Paul writes that “all scripture is God-breathed” he is asserting in part that “there are God-breathed manuscripts.” After further consideration it should be clear also that the statement “there are God-breathed manuscripts” should be taken to mean that there are manuscripts the very words of which are God-breathed. That is, the precise referent of “God-breathed” is the words of certain manuscripts. Actually it should be said that the words in their given syntactical relations are designated as “God-breathed” so as not to give the impression that we are simply referring to a “sacred vocabulary list.” So the word-groups (this phrase will be used throughout to denote the text of a piece of literature in the strict sense of words in their given relations) of particular manuscripts, as opposed to the particular parchment and ink, are predicated as “God-breathed.” It would be confused to speak of “this parchment” or “this ink” as inspired or God-breathed, for how can a parchment sheet and volume of ink be exhaled by God?’

      This is good stuff. It’s the words, not the paper. Very clear thinking on this part of it. And Bahnsen again:
      ‘Since it is not the particular piece of parchment that is to be taken as God-breathed (excluding any fetishism), the word-group that is to be considered and responded to as divine utterance could appear on any number of parchments. If manuscript No. 1 reading “W,O,R,D,S” is inspired, so is manuscript No. 2 reading ‘”W,O,R,D,S.”’

      Amen. Theopneustos is a quality of the words, even if they are on more than one copy. It is only logical. If manuscript No. 1 is inspired and manuscript No. 2 says the same thing, it also is inspired. Bahnsen is correct.

      And then elsewhere, he tells us that only the autographs are inspired. At which point I scratch my head and say, “Huh?” I think he was so influenced by Warfield and the prevailing theological winds since Warfield/Hodge that he sometimes spoke the way they did and sometimes he spoke logically.

      But he’s trying to deal with the fact that mistakes in copying happened. I understand that. What he should have said is that the autographs were the only individual copies that had a divine guarantee of perfectly recording the inspired words. That would be logically consistent with his excellent earlier statement on the fact that inspiration is a quality that can exist in words on more than one manuscript.

      So anyway, that’s three sources, Pink (not really a journal article), Goodrick (who directly critiques Warfield), and Bahnsen, who is inconsistent but says some things which are entirely in line with what I’m saying and directly opposed to some of Warfield’s statements.

      Goodrick is probably the most useful because he tackles the only text in which theopneustos appears exegetically, and Warfield / Hodge admitted they were deviating from Biblical usage. I was unaware of Goodrick’s work when I came to my initial conclusions on this topic some years ago, but in general I think he’s handled that text very well.

      There may be others, but I don’t have much time to devote to theological journals. I wouldn’t expect to find a lot. This thing of pastoring, working a job, and now blogging as well kind of ties me up. 🙂 I’ve got a source I can contact who might know of some others.

  4. Redickle says:

    Thou hast claimed:
    “Warfield here puts his readers on notice: he is not going to be bound by the Scriptural usage in defining terms. ”

    Inspiration is not a Bible term, so far as I know; just an English mistranslation of theopneustos.

    • Jon Gleason says:

      Perhaps you would do better to deal with the substance of the matter. Warfield and Hodge titled their work “Tractate on Inspiration.” And there is abundant evidence that the historical rendering of the word is better than recent innovations in translating it.

  5. Redickle says:

    Has the writer read the Greek?
    He saith, “The Bible says Scripture “is” inspired”
    There is no word for IS in the text at all. Pasa graphē theopnestos = All scripture [is? was?] having been God-breathed. The verbal adjective ending in (s)tos means, “having been X-ed”], referring to something done in the past.

    • Jon Gleason says:

      The “is” has been properly supplied by translators, as is somewhat standard with Greek. No Greek scholars of substance argue for “was” here.

      A.T. Robertson wrote, “There is no copula (estin) in the Greek and so one has to insert it either before the kai or after it. If before, as is more natural, then the meaning is: “All scripture (or every scripture) is inspired of God and profitable.” In this form there is a definite assertion of inspiration. That can be true also of the second way, making “inspired of God” descriptive of “every scripture,” and putting estin (is) after kai: “All scripture (or every scripture), inspired of God, is also profitable.””

      Either way, he supplies “is.” I obviously don’t know who you are, 🙂 but I suspect A.T. Robertson knew more Greek than either of us. And of course, he is not alone. C.H. Lenski does the same. “Wherever the copula is placed, the thought is that, because the Scripture is God-inspired, therefore it is profitable for all that is said.” Warfield himself wrote, “In the primary passage, in which we are told that ‘every’ or ‘all Scripture’ is ‘God-breathed’….” Even Warfield supplied “is” except when he confused himself with his own redefinition.

      You are correct that it “is having been X-ed,” however. The grammatical construction tells of a continuing condition resulting from past action. It is logically parallel to the force of the perfect tense in a verb.

      I recognise that what I am writing is a paradigm shift for those who have cut their theological teeth on Warfield, but he and Hodge were pretty explicit about their intent. And you would be very hard pressed to find anyone before Warfield who defined theopneustos the way he did. That should give pause.

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