The excellent reputation of Whitaker as a debater and the quality of his Disputations is difficult to deny. Disputations has been "shown by Dr. Wayne Spear to be an important source for the theology of the [Westminster Confession of Faith], particularly the chapter on Holy Scripture."2 Furthermore, even Whitaker's theological enemies considered him to be a formidable, even respectable opponent (emphasis and repetition of "I have" in original):
[Whitaker's books] gained for him in his life-time a high character, not only with friends, but with enemies also. 'I have,' says the writer of his life, in Lupton's Protestant Divines, 'I have heard it confessed of English Papists themselves, which have been in Italy with [Cardinal and apologist] Bellarmine himself, that he procured the true portraiture and effigies of this Whitaker to be brought to him, which he kept in his study. For he privately admired this man for his singular learning and ingenuity; and being asked of some of his friends, Jesuits, why he would have the picture of that heretic in his presence? he would answer, Quod quamvis haereticus erat et adversarius, erat tamen doctus adversarius: that, 'although he was a heretic, and his adversary, yet he was a learned adversary'3
This "singular learning and ingenuity" shines forth throughout the text. Whitaker has incisive analytical skills; his application of razor-sharp logic is demonstrated both in his ability to properly represent his opponents' arguments and in his ability to refute them. He also employs sound reasoning in selecting the strongest forms of his opponents' arguments to refute, having no interest in refuting weak versions and claiming an empty rhetorical victory.
Perhaps the most remarkable features of Disputations is its timelessness. A brief scan of Rowland Ward's summary4 of the various arguments in Disputations shows its relevance to modern disputes with Roman Catholic apologists:
a. whether or not we should believe the Scripture is canonical solely because of the authority of the church rather than the internal testimony of the Spirit
b. there are obscure places in Scripture, but Scripture is sufficiently clear on the main matters related to salvation, whereas Rome wants to exaggerate the obscurities of the Scriptures so as to keep them from the common people
c. Rome claims interpretation of Scripture is the privilege of the church and that the true interpretation agrees with "the fathers"; we say that an external persuasion arises from Scripture itself but that full assurance comes through the Holy Spirit as the supreme interpreter. The means to be used: Prayer, knowledge of the original texts, nature of the language being expounded, context, comparing the obscure with the plainer passages, comparison with other passages, the analogy of faith, reference to the more skilled
d. whether the books of the OT and NT are a complete and perfect rule of faith or whether unwritten traditions are necessary as well
e. all things necessary to faith and morals may be collected or inferred from Scripture, but Rome denies this
f. the number of canonical books, the claims of the Apocrypha considered and shown to be without canonicity in the strict sense
g. Rome sets up the Latin Vulgate as the authentic version whereas the Protestants affirm the Hebrew and Greek originals
Most of these topics will be covered in the series. Since Whitaker in each topic interacts with multiple arguments, and levels multiple counterarguments of his own, there will be plenty of material to draw from. (I will do my best to make one post a week.)
If you would like to read and search it for yourself, the full English translation of Disputations can be found here.
I've also been informed by John Bugay that Green Baggins will soon discuss and analyze the content of Disputations.
1. A very short biography of Whitaker can be found in the preface to his Disputations.
2. David Coffin, Jr., "The Teaching of the Westminster Confession on the Cessation of Special Revelation," http://www.newhopefairfax.org/files/coffinconfessiononcessation.pdf (accessed May 19, 2010). In his footnotes, Coffin cites a chapter from To Glorify and Enjoy God. A Commemoration of the 350th Anniversary of the Westminster Assembly (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 1994). I had hoped to verify the citation before this post, but I was unable. However, the dust jacket of my version of Disputations asserts the same relationship between chapter one of the WCF and Whitaker's work.
3. William Fitzgerald, introduction to Disputations on Holy Scripture, by William Whitaker (Cambridge: Parker Society, 1894; reprint, Orlando: Soli Deo Gloria Publications, 2005), x.
4. Ibid., iii-vi. For the sake of brevity, this list is not given in exact form. Neither is it strictly in the same order.