William Whitaker, 1547-1595, on Scripture’s Authority

To show the significance of the words “pure Originals,” the writing of a central figure in the formulation of reformation thought is enlisted. William Whitaker (or Whitacre, 1547-1595), Regius Professor of Divinity and Master of St. John’s College in the University of Cambridge wrote a treatise entitled A Disputation of Holy Scripture Against the papists especially Bellarmine and Stapleton.[1] Whitaker’s reputation as a scholar was recognized even by his ecclesiastical nemesis, Bellarmine. It is reported that Bellarmine kept a picture of Whitaker in his study. When asked by other Jesuits why he kept a picture of a heretic in his study he would answer, quod quamvis haereticus erat et adversaries, erat tamen doctus adversaries, that “although he was a heretic, and his adversary, yet he was a learned adversary.”[2]

When engaged in his doctoral research in the unpublished minutes of the Westminster Assembly Dr. Wayne R. Spear tabulated the frequency with which the names of various authors were mentioned in the debates at the Assembly.[3] According to Spear’s findings, Whitaker was cited more times during the formation of the Westminster Confession that any other single author.[4] This finding alone illustrates Whitaker’s service as a bridge of contiguous exegetically informed theology between Calvin and Willet, to the Westminster Confession of Faith (1646) and Francis Turretin (1623-1687).

In his Disputation Whitaker fervently defends the writings of Calvin and utilizes him extensively in some places as the principal basis for his discussion.[5] Whitaker’s congruity with Calvin extended the influence of Calvin’s governance over future theological formulation. Built as it was upon the work of Calvin, even Whitaker’s diction to describe the Protestant view of Scripture was adopted by the Westminster Divines.[6] Not only do his writings bring continuity between Calvin and the Westminster Divines but he also uses language that later Francis Turretin would borrow in his Institutes of Elenctic Theology almost 100 years later.[7] Arguing the question of authority, Whitaker writes,

For we gladly receive the testimony of the church, and admit it is authority; but we affirm that there is a far different, more certain, true, and august testimony than that of the church. The sum of our opinion is, that the scripture is autopistos, that is, hath all its authority and credit from itself; it is to be acknowledged, is to be received…because it comes from God; and that we certainly know that it comes from God, not by the church, but by the Holy Ghost.”[8]

Whitaker held that the Greek edition in his possession “is no other than the inspired archetypical scripture of the new testament, commended by the apostles and evangelists to the Christian church.”[9] Against Jerome’s Latin he argued that “Much more ought the Greek to be concluded authentical, which the churches of the Greeks have always used from the apostles times in the public liturgies, homilies, commentaries, and books,”[10] and “That all these virtues (weightiest, purest, most venerable and impartial) must needs still be greater in the Greek edition, which is that of the apostles and evangelists, and finally, of the Holy Ghost himself.”[11]


[1] William Whitaker, A Disputation of Holy Scripture Against the papists especially Bellarmine and Stapleton, 1588 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1849).

[2] Whitaker, Disputation, 359.

[3] Wayne R. Spear, “William Whitaker and the Westminster Doctrine of Scripture, Reformed Theological Journal 7 (Nov. 1991), 38-48.

[4] Spear, “William Whitaker,” 40.

[5] Whitaker, Disputation, 193, defending Chemnitz’s and Calvin’s objections to the Vulgate. “We proceed to break the force of this portion also of Bellarmine’s defense, and to shew that the Greek original (apografh) in the new testament is purer than the Latin edition;” 293-294, Calvin’s external evidences proving the scriptures to be inspired; 340-351, extensive use of the Institutes 1.7.1-1.7.5; 514, defending Calvin; 619 we find Whitaker’s defense of Chemnitz, Bremtus and Calvin against Bellarmine.

[6] Whitaker, Disputation, 148: “For Authentic scripture must proceed immediately from the Holy Ghost himself; and therefore Paul says that all Scripture is divinely inspired, 2 Tim. Iii. 16;” 296: “We confess that God hath not spoken by himself, but by others…For God inspired the prophets with what they said, and made use of their mouths, tongues, and hands: the Scripture, therefore, is even immediately the voice of God.” See Westminster Confession of Faith, Ch. 1, art. 8, “being immediately inspired by God.”

[7] Francis Turretin, Institutes of Elenctic Theology, ed James T. Dennison, Jr., trans. George Musgrave Giger (Phillipsburg: Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Co., 1992), 71, of the original language copies, autopistian; 126, of versions, autopiston.

[8] Whitaker, Disputation, 279-280.

[9] Whitaker, Disputation, 142. Also see 280: “The state of the controversy, therefore is this: Whether we should believe that these Scriptures which we now have are sacred and canonical merely on account of the church’s testimony or rather on account of the internal persuasion of the Holy Spirit; which, as it makes the Scripture canonical and authentic in itself, makes it also to appear such to us, and without which the testimony of the church is dumb and inefficacious.”

[10] Whitaker, Disputation, 143.

[11] Whitaker, Disputation, 144.

Published by Dr. Peter Van Kleeck, Sr.

Dr. Peter William Van Kleeck, Sr. : B.A., Grand Rapids Baptist College, 1986; M.A.R., Westminster Theological Seminary, 1990; Th.M., Calvin Theological Seminary, 1998; D. Min, Bob Jones University, 2013. Dr. Van Kleeck was formerly the Director of the Institute for Biblical Textual Studies, Grand Rapids, MI, (1990-1994) lecturing, researching and writing in the defense of the Masoretic Hebrew text, Greek Received Text and King James Bible. His published works include, "Fundamentalism’s Folly?: A Bible Version Debate Case Study" (Grand Rapids: Institute for Biblical Textual Studies, 1998); “We have seen the future and we are not in it,” Trinity Review, (Mar. 99); “Andrew Willet (1562-1621: Reformed Interpretation of Scripture,” The Banner of Truth, (Mar. 99); "A Primer for the Public Preaching of the Song of Songs" (Outskirts Press, 2015). Dr. Van Kleeck is the pastor of the Providence Baptist Church in Manassas, VA where he has ministered for the past twenty-one years. He is married to his wife of 43 years, Annette, and has three married sons, one daughter and eighteen grandchildren.

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