Friday, May 26, 2017

A worthwhile project?

Search The Scriptures:

William Whitaker’s, Disputation on Holy Scripture

Anglican Evangelical The Revd Canon Chancellor Prebendary Dr William Whitaker (1548–1595), Regius Professor of Divinity and Master of St John's College, Cambridge, was a leading theologian. He showed his ability by translating The Book of Common Prayer into Greek. Whitaker’s work was discussed on seven occasions at the Westminster Assembly[1]. Though he missed out on a bishopric, The Dictionary of National Biography says: “No English divine of the sixteenth century surpassed Whitaker in the estimation of his contemporaries. Churton justly styles him 'the pride and ornament of Cambridge.'”[2]

William Whitaker’s A Disputation on Holy Scripture Against the Papists, Especially Bellarmine and Stapleton[3] is a classic of its kind, which is readily and economically available in English. It is framed as an exposition of Christ’s prophetic office from John 5:39, which Whitaker takes as a command to search the Scriptures[4]. On page 704, Whitaker will say: “we have come to the close of our controversy, and suppose that, in what hath been said, we have sufficiently explained that sentence of scripture which we laid down at the commencement as our text”. It is not likely that he has left the average reader wanting more.

I do not claim it should be your go to book on the doctrine of Scripture[5]. In my view, Warfield and others have improved on the Reformed doctrine of Scripture they received from the tradition without fundamentally departing from it[6].

Whitaker’s Disputation is very much of its time in both content and style. The structure sometimes leads to unnecessary repetition and makes things hard to find as Whitaker divides up refuting his opponents’ views and stating his positive case, and so on. It is not exactly encouraging when the translator (in his preface) feels the need to warn the reader about the author's tedious prolixity! Perhaps I might give a flavour of something of the style by this quotation from p348, Question 3, Argument 15: "As to [my opponent Stapleton's] first equivocation, I return a fourfold answer."  

But I think the treatise is of more than historical interest and possibly worth persevering with. It contains much that is interesting[7] and useful. It would have been of most benefit to the openminded late 16th Century Papist, or an evangelical having to do with one, but a 21st Century evangelical could no doubt profit from wrestling with it. You will have to search for the gems. Most of us are probably already persuaded, for example, that the original Hebrew and Greek manuscripts are preferable to the Latin Vulgate and will not need 100 pages of demonstration of the fact[8]. Here I have attempted to extract, organise and summarise the most useful and interesting bits of its 700+ pages (where possible in his own words) for today’s evangelical, offering some comment and criticism in places. In particular, Whitaker gives further explication and argumentation for a Reformed understanding of Scripture such as that found in the Westminster Standards, particularly against what he would call Roman errors. He makes considerable, careful and thorough use of a wide range of Biblical texts and is also a useful source for Patristic quotations which he thought supported his case, or at least, did not carry the day for his opponents.

[1] Chad Van Dixhoorn (ed.), The Minutes and Papers of the Westminster Assembly 1643-1652 (Oxford University Press, 2012) Vol 2: 120 n, 227, 273f, 613
Vol 3: 312, 317, 320f
[2] Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900, Volume 61 Whitaker, William (1548-1595) by James Bass Mullinger This version is in the public domain and is available at:,_William_(1548-1595)_(DNB00)
[3] (Latin original 1588; The Parker Society Edition, Translated and Edited by William Fitzgerlad, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, MDCCCXLIX = 1849) Forgotten Books Reprinting, London, 2015. Amongst Whitaker’s other works it is relevant to note here De Authoritate Scripture written in reply to Stapleton (1594)
[4] It is debatable whether the text should be read as an imperative or an indicative.
[5] This should probably be Tim Ward’s Words of Life
[6] I attempted to summarise Warfield’s doctrine of Scripture in ‘What the Bible Says, God Says:  B. B. Warfield’s Doctrine of Scripture’ Ecclesia Reformanda 1.2 (2009): 183-210 available at
[7] For example, Whitaker notes that a number of the church fathers said that there are 22 Old Testament books, corresponding to the number of letters in the Hebrew alphabet, pp57-60; 64-65. p112). He also thinks that Hebrew is the most ancient of all languages having been spoken by all those who lived before Babel citing Augustine City of God Lib. Xvi. c. 11. Also Jerome on Zephaniah 3, also Epistle 142. He suggests that 2 Peter 3:15 ("our brother Paul has written to you") might require us to think that Paul wrote Hebrews, as 1 Peter 1 and 2 (see 2 Peter 3:1) seem to be written to Hebrews. He adds: "This, however, I leave to the judgement of the reader, without determining anything absolutely one way or another." (p107)
[8] The Council of Trent makes this pretty extraordinary claim for the Latin Vulgate: "Moreover, the same sacred and holy Synod,--considering that no small utility may accrue to the Church of God, if it be made known which out of all the Latin editions, now in circulation, of the sacred books, is to be held as authentic,--ordains and declares, that the said old and vulgate edition, which, by the lengthened usage of so many years, has been approved of in the Church, be, in public lectures, disputations, sermons and expositions, held as authentic; and that no one is to dare, or presume to reject it under any pretext whatever." (Session 4) As Tony Lane points out, Pope Pius XII's Divino afflante Spiritu (1943) talks of the duty of exegetes to make use of the Hebrew and Greek: "The original text... having been written by the inspired author himself, has more authority and greater weight than even the very best translation, whether ancient or modern" (section 16). It is said that Trent's declarations about the Vulgate apply "only to the Latin Church and to the public use of the same Scriptures." Lane summarises: "The Vulgate is "free from any error whatsoever in matters of faith and morals" and so can be safely used for teaching and preaching. But when it comes to establishing the correct text of Scripture it is the original Hebrew and Greek that is normative." ('Roman Catholic Views of Biblical Authority from the Late Nineteenth Century to the Present' in Carson, The Enduring Authority of the Christian Scriptures, p299)
By the time of Vatican II's Dei verbum (1965) "the Vulgate is listed as one of a number of ancient translations to be held in honor. Vernacular translations should be made from the original texts." (Lane, p311)

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