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Accommodation and Old Princeton

November 20, 2012

This post is part of a series that Jawbone (specifically Eric) is doing with David of Brick by Brick. There will be posts Monday, Wednesday, and Friday for the two weeks this series is running. Posts will alternate between posts by Eric and posts by David. This is David’s last post and it ends the series.

Even a stone with rugged features and subtle nuances will eventually be worn smooth if left on the bottom of a river for a century or two.  So it often is with complex ideas once they are popularized.  The ideas’ deft nuances and careful qualifications wear off and erode away as they are passed along, dumbed-down, and rolled along through the generations by popular appeal.

Present-day American Evangelicalism owes much of its popular understanding of Scripture to a clutch of theologians and biblical scholars who worked at Princeton Theological Seminary before the turn of the century.  Their formulation of the doctrine of the Bible’s “plenary verbal inspiration,” while quite controversial at the time, has become such a basic assumption in contemporary American Evangelical thought that any suggestion that there might be other ways to understand “inspiration” is typically met with bafflement, incomprehension and outrage.  Indeed, the American Evangelical notion of “inerrancy”–classically formulated in the 1978 Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy–and the entire sectarian academic complex that has grown up around it takes for granted and is built upon the foundational assumption of “plenary verbal inspiration.”

But I would venture that the “Old Princeton” scholars–B.B. Warfield, Charles Hodge, William Henry Green, et al–formulated their doctrine of inspiration with more theological subtlety and historical-critical savvy than most of their modern Evangelical heirs are used to trading in.  Indeed, it may come as a shock to some (particularly some within those strands of Presbyterianism that have practically fetishized the “Old Princetonians”) that Warfield, Hodge and Green articulated and defended a doctrine of both Scripture’s thoroughgoing humanity (as well as thoroughgoing divinity) and limited infallibility (not inerrancy).

B.B. Warfield

First, let’s look at the Old Princetonian notion of the humanity of Scripture.  In 1894 in a short article for the Presbyterian Journal B.B. Warfield wrote:

Recent discussion of the authenticity, authorship, integrity, and 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 open to the fact that the Scriptures are human writings, written by men, and bearing the traces of their human origin on their very face. (“The Divine and Human in the Bible”)

Warfield goes on to critique what he sees as inadequate theories of Biblical inspiration: those which make the Bible solely divine, those with make the Bible solely human, and those which make the Bible partly human and partly divine.  Instead Warfield propounds his theory of concursus:

The fundamental principle of this conception (of concursus) is that the whole of Scripture is the product of 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.  According to this conception, therefore, the whole Bible is recognized as human, the free product of human effort, in every part and word.  And at the same time the whole Bible is recognized as divine, the Word of God, his utterances, of which he is in the truest sense the Author.

So the Old Princetonian notion of plenary verbal inspiration also involved plenary verbal humanity, as well.  Nevertheless, one might expect Warfield to argue that God prevented the Biblical writers from any and all error.  Not so.  Instead Warfield & Co. only argued for the infallibility of the “official teaching” of the Biblical authors, the divinely inspired points they and God concurrently intended to make:

No one is likely to assert infallibility for the apostles in aught else than in their official teaching.  And whatever they may be shown to have held apart from their official teaching, may readily be looked upon with only that respect which we certainly must accord to the opinions of men of such exceptional intellectual and spiritual insight.

“Our views of inspiration must be determined by the phenomena of the Bible as well as from its didactic statements.” ~Charles Hodge

This formulation allows for the interweaving of antiquated ideas and idioms into the very fabric of Sacred Writ without unraveling the Bible’s theological and moral authority.  So, for instance, Warfield says, “A presumption may be held to lie also that [Paul] shared the ordinary opinions of his day in certain matters laying outside the scope of his teachings, as, for example, with reference to the form of the earth, or its relation to the sun; and it is not inconceivable that the form of his language, when incidentally adverting to such matters, might occasionally play into the hands of such a presumption.” (The Inspiration and Authority of the Bible, pp. 196-97)  In other words, it shouldn’t come as a shock if features of Paul’s writings reflect the fallible conceptions of his Second Temple Jewish worldview.  Warfield puts it even more strongly in his book Inspiration which he coauthored with A.A. Hodge:

[The Scriptures] are written in human languages, whose words, inflections, constructions and idioms bear everywhere indelible traces of error.  The record itself furnishes evidence that the writers were in large measure dependent for their knowledge upon sources and methods in themselves fallible, and that their personal knowledge and judgments were in many matters hesitating and defective, or even wrong. (pp. 82)

Nevertheless, for the Old Princetonians this limited fallibility in no way undermines the basic reliability and authority of Scripture.  As Charles Hodge writes:

The errors in matters of fact which skeptics search out bear no proportion to the whole. No sane man would deny that the Parthenon was built of marble, even if here and there a speck of sand-stone should be detected in its structure. Not less unreasonable is it to deny the inspiration of such a book as the Bible, because one sacred writer says that on a given occasion twenty-four thousand, and another says that twenty-three thousand, men were slain. (Systematic Theology I.169-70)

And, indeed, for Warfield at least, the New Testament’s general reliability alone is sufficient to hold up the weight of the Christian faith even without the aid of divine inspirational steroids:

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 general 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.… Inspiration is not the most fundamental of Christian doctrines… (Inspiration and Authority of the Bible, p.210)

In any case, the Old Princetonians’ nuanced handling of the doctrine of Scripture was born out of their commitment to an a posteriori approach to the Bible:

Charles Hodge

Our views of inspiration must be determined by the phenomena of the Bible as well as from its didactic statements. If in fact the sacred writers retain each his own style and mode of thought, then we must renounce any theory which assumes that inspiration obliterates or suppresses all individual peculiarities. (Systematic Theology 1:169-70)

The Old Princetonians understood that framing a doctrine of Scripture that is actually in touch with reality requires more than simply deducing a theory from our theological preconceptions; we must allow our ideas about Scripture to be shaped by the shape the text actually takes, that is, a very human one.

So here we have come back to the notion of divine accommodation, though Warfield and the Hodges did not usually use that word.  These 19th century divines defended the Bible against the acids of Modernism, Anti-Supernaturalism, and Historical-Criticism not by asserting that it was a golden book dropped from Heaven, but a very earthy book that nevertheless bears Heaven’s stamp.  Formally speaking, their conception accords well with those which we have examined thus far: those of the Fathers and of Calvin.  We might hope that American Evangelicalism will recover some of the balance which these giants of the Christian tradition exhibited in generations past as we grapple with the issues of the present and future.

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