B.B. Warfield and The Trinity

ISBEThe International Standard Bible Encyclopedia includes an article by Benjamin B. Warfield on the Trinity. This article can also be obtained in other printed texts by B.B. Warfield. You can also click here to read this work online. Warfield notes:

”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 un-Biblical 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 assemble 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)

Note the parts I have emphasized. First, Warfield suggests that it is better to “preserve the truth of Scripture than the words of Scripture”. Is this bad logic? For example, how do we know the “truth of Scripture” if we do not examine or exegete the “words of Scripture”?

Second, the Trinity is “given to us…in fragmentary allusions”. There is then no real formulaic doctrine of the Trinity in the pages of the New Testament. Even the early salutations like 1 Corinthians 13:14 are not characteristic of a Trinitarian formula, i.e. Father, Son and Holy Spirit. The order is varied or a member of the Trinity is left out. The words of Scripture do not teach a Trinity. It must be presupposed.

Third, Warfield also says we are “entering more thoroughly into the meaning of Scripture” when we come to the Trinity. In my opinion he is referring to the interpretation of Scripture that comes to a belief in the Trinity. Ones hermeneutic or interpretation of a Scripture has definitely been varied throughout history. Everyone has presuppositions, no matter if we acknowledge them or not, but it is the words of Scripture that should inform the meaning found in Scripture. As we have noted the Trinity is not in the words of Scripture.

Trinitarianism is a doctrine that was and is being hammered out well beyond the dates of our canon of Scripture. It was not until the Athanasian Creed that we see some coherent formulation of the Trinity. Typically non-Trinitarian groups, such as Unitarians, Arians, Monarchians have always viewed the earliest forms of Christianity as being non-Trinitarian. They also agree that the Trinity is a later dogma and philosophical reflection upon the text of Scripture itself. Non-Trinitarians are very diverse, since some reject the divinity of Jesus and others exalt the deity of Jesus to its rightful place.

Lastly, he also suggests that “we may state the doctrine in technical terms, supplied by philosophical reflection; but the doctrine stated is a genuinely Scriptural doctrine.” He is saying that we must use technical or non-Biblical terms which are supplied by philosophical reflection. This might be true to an extent but it is clear that Trinitarianism is a product of tradition and creeds. Ironically, Oneness scholars have been saying something similar for many years.

JN Anderson

1. International Standard Bible Encyclopaedia, Electronic Database Copyright © 1996, 2003, 2006 by Biblesoft, Inc. All rights reserved.


Pastor Jack said...

You have cited statements from the article mentioned above in your post as if they were authored by James Orr. They were not. Orr is the general editor of the International Standard Bible Encyclopedia, but he was not the author of this article. Care must be taken to distinguish editors from authors in multi-author publications and revised editions. The article was in fact authored by Benjamin B. Warfield, and this explains why it was then subsequently reprinted in several of his works as follows:

Benjamin B. Warfield, "Trinity", in International Standard Bible Encyclopedia, gen. ed. J. Orr (Chicago: The Howard-Severance Co., 1915), 5:3012-3022. This article from ISBE was later reprinted in Warfield's Biblical Doctrines (New York: Oxford, 1929), pp. 133-172; Biblical and Theological Studies (Philadelphia: Presbyterian and Reformed, 1952), pp. 22-59; and Biblical Foundations (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1958), pp. 79-116. Warfield's Biblical Doctrines was included as Volume 2 of the 10 volume set printed by Oxford (1927-1932), and reprinted by Baker (1981). Baker also did another reprint of this set in 2003. Warfield's article is available on A Puritan's Mind at http://www.apuritansmind.com/the-christian-walk/the-biblical-doctrine-of-the-trinity-by-dr-benjamin-b-warfield/ [accessed 22 MAR 2012].

Note: Beware of doing to Warfield what you would not want someone to do to your own writings, and would especially not want them to do to the Scriptures, i.e., using quotes in isolation from their context. It would be good for your readers to study the entire article which is readily available, as indicated above.

JN Anderson said...

Pastor Jack, thank you for your insights. I had recognized this a few months ago but had forgotten to make the changes you suggest. When possible please look over the changes I've made to adequately express authorship.

Pastor Jack said...

Glad to help. I commend you for making these editorial changes, and for doing so as quickly as you did! Well done!

Adversus Trinitas

"...unless you believe that I am he you will die in your sins." (John 8:24 ESV)