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Benjamin B Warfield and the Preservation of Scripture

The careful reader of the Westminster Confession will notice that the preservation of Scripture is not described as “immediate” as was inspiration.  Instead the Confession speaks of God’s “singular care and providence” in the preservation of Scripture.[1]What is more, “for the better preserving” of God’s truth God determined “to commit the same wholly unto writing.”[2]Thus, writing and copyists copying the writings was the means whereby God providentially preserved his truth.

At this point, let us pause and think about a distinction that Warfield is making. According to the Princeton theologian, the Bible is “immediately” inspired but it is “mediately” preserved.  In other words, God chose immediacy when inspiring Scripture and mediacy in its preservation.  To put it another way, God breathed his word out such that men were carried along by the Spirit in their writing but in the preservation and transmission of the text he chose scribes to copy his word from one generation to the next.  God chose to preserve his word mediately.

With that in mind let us think together about what the mediate preservation of a text actually means. Whether you are dealing with Shakespeare’s works or the Bible, the most basic distinction one can make in a discussion regarding the act of copying an original text is one that Warfield makes in two different ways and in two separate works. In his long forgotten manual on textual criticism, An Introduction to the Textual Criticism of the New Testament, Warfield argues for the ipsissima verba or the “very words” of a particular work. According to Warfield, “the text of any work is concisely defined as the ipsissima verba of that work.”[3]

However, soon after Warfield introduced an important distinction. There is a difference “between the text of a document and the text of a work.”[4]Thus, a work can have but one text and “its ipsissima verba are its ipsissima verba, and there is nothing further to say about that.”[5]Nevertheless, a work may exist in several copies and each copy has its own ipsissima verba. In other words, Warfield is making a distinction between the original (“a document”) and the copies of the original (“a work”).

Warfield makes this distinction even clearer in an article he wrote for The Independentin 1893 titled, “The Inerrancy of the Original Autographs.”  There he spoke of the autographic codex and the autographic text.[6]The autographic codex, for example, is the original piece of papyrus on which Paul wrote the letter to the Romans. However, multiple churches cannot all be in possession of one autographic codex or the original letter, so copies or apographs were made. These apographs are not the autographic codex, nor can they be, but they do contain the autographic text.  Perhaps an example might help to clarify.

Warfield illustrates his point using Shakespeare’s Hamlet.  There is but one autographic codex of Shakespeare’s Hamlet, that is, the one that Shakespeare actually penned, the codex that Shakespeare authored. However, since the printing press there are numerous apographs or copies of Shakespeare’s Hamlet. What is more, the printing of many copies also has a way of producing many print errors. Thus, we may no longer have the autographic codex of Hamlet but through the study of the printed copies we are able to reconstruct, that is, eliminate scribal or printer errors and so have the autographic text of Hamlet.

In a way similar, God has preserved his truth.  Yet, the issue of mediate providential preservation raises three crucial questions with which Warfield must deal.  First and often asked is the question, do we have the autographs?  This was the question Dr. Henry Van Dyke was asking in Warfield’s day and it was this question to which Warfield felt obliged to answer in his article “The Inerrancy and the Original Autographs.”  Warfield wrote, “Thus, we have heard a vast deal, of late, of ‘the first manuscripts of the Bible, which no living man has ever seen,’ or ‘Scriptures that have disappeared forever,’ or ‘original autographs which have vanished’” of which men claim to have no knowledge.[7]The liberals of Warfield’s day argued that we do not have the autographs and many conservatives today might agree.

However, Warfield’s response was simple.  If it is the case that we do not possess the autographs, then we have no way of knowing what was actually in the autograph and we have no way of knowing if what we have in our Bibles today approximates what was in the autograph. Thus, we are to be pitied greatly among men. Not surprisingly and in Warfield’s quick witted way he rebukes the critics saying that we must stop speaking “as if it were the autographic codex and not the autographic text that is in question.”[8]Warfield states the case even stronger in his 1894 The Presbyterian Messenger article when he writes, “[it] is as truly heresy to affirm that the inerrant Bible has been lost to men as it is to declare that there never was an inerrant Bible.”[9]Therefore, laments Warfield,

"If our controversial brethren could only disabuse their minds of the phantom of an autographic codex, which their excitement has raised (and which, apart from their excited vision ‘no living man ever seen’) they might possibly see with the Church that the genuine text of Scripture which is ‘by the singular care and providence of God’ still preserved to us, and might agree with the Church that it is to it alone that authority and trustworthiness and utter truthfulness are to be ascribed."[10]

Thus, according to Warfield, we do have the autographic text though we may not have the codex.

The second question has to do with the apographs or the copies; what distinguishes the Bible as we have it from the autographic text?  According to Warfield, “Just scribes’ corruptions and printers’ errors; nothing else.”[11]In Warfield’s humorous way he writes, “What! Are we to believe that no man until our wonderful nineteenth century, ever had acumen enough to detect a printer’s error or to realize that liability of hand-copied manuscripts to occasional corruption?”[12]What is more, “Everybody knows that no book was ever printed, much less hand-copied, into which some errors did not intrude in the process…”[13]

Thus, for Warfield, it was common sense to think that if we have at least two hand-copied texts it would be necessary to engage in the practice of textual criticism or textual reconstruction. To put it differently, mediate preservation does not free the church from her duty of studying the texts but rather requires her to diligently pursue the genuine text of Scripture and free it from apparent discrepancies caused by fallible scribes and printers.[14]

This raises our third question. If the Westminster Confession teaches that the Scriptures have been “by his singular care and providence, kept pure in all ages” then how may we speak of even apparent discrepancies?  First, let us notice how seriously Warfield takes this assertion. He writes,

"It has not been uncommon to say, for example, that all that the Confession means is that the Scriptures have been, in the providence of God, kept ‘measurably pure,’ or, as it is otherwise phrased, ‘adequately pure,’ ‘pure enough to serve the purposes for which they were given.  The Confession, however, does not say ‘measurably pure,’ or ‘adequately pure’; but ‘pure’ without qualification of limitation."[15]

Warfield could not be clearer. What is more, he affirms along with the Confession that the preservation of the Scriptures in their purity is of as vital importance to the Church as their original inspiration.[16]

The natural question is begging to be asked.  How can we affirm their purity and talk about scribal and printer errors?  According to Warfield, this is a red herring. For the Princeton theologian, the Confession does assert the preservation of Scripture in absolute purity, “but it does not assert the “absolute purity” of the ‘seventeenth century editions,’ or of every copy, or of any copy of Scripture.”[17]  Such an assertion is not to be found in the text of the Confession. The Westminster divines “recognized the fallibilities of copyists and typesetters; and they looked for the pure text of Scripture not in one copy, but in all copies.”[18]  Warfield reminds his readers, “’What mistake is in one copy,’ they declared through one of their number, ‘is corrected in another.’”[19] Let us thank God for the perfect preservation of Scripture.

This is an excerpt from a chapter I wrote in Advancing the Vision: Essays in Honor of Jack H. White, 2019.

[1]Westminster Confession of Faith 1.8.

[2]Ibid. 1.1.

[3]Warfield, Benjamin B., An Introduction to the Textual Criticism of the New Testament (London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1886), 1.

[4]Ibid., 2.

[5]Ibid., 2.

[6]Benjamin B. Warfield, Selected Shorter Writings, ed. John E. Meeter (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing, 2005), 2.583.



[9]Ibid., 2.590.

[10]Ibid., 2.584.

[11]Ibid., 2.583.

[12]Ibid., 2.585. It should be noted that Turretin did not deny corruption either. He only denied universal corruption and so too did Warfield. (Cf. Turretin, vol. 1, p. 111).

[13]Ibid., 2.582.


[15]Ibid., 2.591.

[16]Ibid., 2.590.

[17]Ibid., 2.592.



Jeffrey A Stivason

Jeffrey A Stivason

Jeffrey A Stivason (Ph.D. Westminster Theological Seminary) is a pastor (Grace RPC, graceingibsonia.org) and NT professor at RPTS in Pittsburgh, PA. He is also editor at placefortruth.com.

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