Review of B.B. Warfield: Essays on His Life and Thought

David Owen Filson Articles

Warfield Review Image.JPGIf you are like me, you have often marveled at the Lion of Princeton, this doyen in multiple fields of theological discipline.  Also, if you are like me, you have wondered at the paucity of literature on this one who has left so rich a legacy in theological exegesis, historical theology, polemics, dogmatics, and even pastoral theology.  Who, but B.B. Warfield could fill this bill?  Therefore, it is with great interest and enthusiasm that we welcome this fine collection of essays, edited by Gary L.W. Johnson.  I am helped by this book, both in terms of tightening my understanding and appreciation of Warfield, in particular, as well as, its exemplary historiography, in general. 

It is fitting that the always warm and winsome Dr. David Calhoun, that great and gracious historian of Old Princeton, gives the foreword.  His brief eloquence, along with Mark Noll's introduction, will remind you why you picked up the book to start with, becoming a major source of encouragement in reading the whole book. 

Warfield, as Calhoun and Noll make clear, centered his theological and exegetical program on his commitment to defining and defending the inspiration and inerrancy of Scripture.  This is inseparable, Noll comments, from his confessional orientation "Even Warfield's defense of biblical inerrancy, which often seems to be undertaken on behalf of a bare notion of biblical veracity, was also a product of his overarching Calvinism.  The point of defending traditional views of the Bible was not so much the Bible itself as what the Bible taught" (p. 10).  This sets the trajectory for the rest of the volume, which is a series of historical analyses of the polemical contexts in which Warfield's epistemology, apologetics, and doctrine of Scripture appear.  This is important, as Johnson notes, "Polemics are essential to the gospel" (p. 198).

Interestingly, the opening chapter erects a crucial backdrop for understanding Warfield's eventual place at Princeton.  In this slice of nineteenth century American Presbyterian history, Bradley J. Gundlach weaves a tight narrative of the well-known Old School/New School controversy, and its impact on the cast of characters significant in Warfield's life.  Gundlach details the pre and post conversion bellicosity of Robert Breckinridge, Warfield's maternal grandfather.  This same brashness and "unsubtle" character, created a years-long rift between Breckinridge and the Princetonians over the tactics of defending Old School principles, which resulted in a number of ecclesiastical pains between the two parties.  Gundlach lays this groundwork and takes us to the student days of B.B. Warfield at Princeton Seminary.  Despite strained relations between his grandfather and the elder Hodge, Warfield came to revere his theology professor.  As successor of the Hodgean legacy, Warfield, "...would graft on the Breckinridge spunk and brilliance the mild manner of Charles Hodge and the calm assurance of Princeton Seminary" (p. 53).

Defining a Warfieldian epistemology that will serve the trajectory of the rest of the volume, Paul Kjoss Helseth seeks to wrest Warfield from the charge of bald rationalism associated with Scottish Realism.  This well-written chapter does not contain all the could be said, for instance, regarding the differences between the apologetics methodologies of Old Princeton and Westminster Seminary apologist, Cornelius Van Til.  With that said, Helseth does a fine job of showing Warfield's commitment to the testimonium internum Spiritus Sancti in the "relationship between the objective and subjective components of Warfield's religious epistemology" (p. 57).  Warfield held to the same Edwardsian refusal to equate a merely speculative knowledge of divine things and a true spiritual understanding possessed only of the regenerate individual.  Helseth insists that Warfield's epistemology, "[clearly standing] within the mainstream of Reformed orthodoxy" (p. 71), far from conceding to Enlightenment epistemic autonomy, actually established the inseparable bond between the moral state of the soul (itself a single unit) and the ability to perceive and rightly understand.  While I am interested in how Helseth would develop Warfield on the relationship between Scripture and the use of "right reason" in the apologetic endeavor, I nonetheless greatly appreciate his balanced and insightful wresting of Warfield from the criticism of "bald rationalism."

Much of this book deals with Warfield on Scripture.  Two chapters (3&4) approach his doctrine of Scripture, and this lays the groundwork for subsequent chapters that discuss the historical settings of his defense of that doctrine.  Moises Silva's fine chapter treats Warfield's hermeneutic, showing how he was no naïve fundamentalist, but rather a sophisticated exegete, sensitive to the relationship between the divine and human element in Scripture (the next chapter builds on this incarnational character of Scripture).  Silva argues that it is precisely this balance that helped make Warfield, and those who have followed in his steps, staunch defenders of biblical inerrancy, while simultaneously displaying hermeneutical humility.  The Warfieldian tradition does not move from the conviction of inerrancy to a particular interpretation of a passage, but rather because of that conviction of inerrancy, through a dogged commitment to the original languages and exegesis of the text, to hermeneutical interpretation consistent with the conviction of inerrancy.

Raymond D. Cannata builds upon the work of Silva's themes in his chapter, entitled, "Warfield and the Doctrine of Scripture."  Chiding the tendency of some in the evangelical left (I might add, slightly pre-dating similar sentiments of the evangelical emergent) to critique Warfield without reading much of Warfield, Cannata offers a summary of his doctrine of Scripture that serves as a nice warm-up for the person ready to commit to reading Warfield's classic treatments of the doctrine of Scripture.  Warfield taught the inspiration of the original autographs, yet did not use this as a "free pass" to avoid difficult questions. He held that the mode of inspiration took forms consistent with the humanness and personalities of biblical writers rather than mechanical dictation.  He also insisted upon the divine (Holy Spirit illumination) as necessary for the human (modern day reader) when it comes to understanding the Bible.

The latter half of this good book discusses historical settings in which, primarily, the doctrine of Scripture was threatened.  Helseth, as in his earlier essay, offers another chapter seeking to show Warfield's stemming of the Enlightenment tide by subjecting all areas of human learning, investigation, and worldview development to the touchstone of Scripture.  Helseth argues that there are common epistemological assumptions in the thinking of Warfield and Abraham Kuyper prior to the latter's famous Stone Lectures, and that Warfield was truly Edwardsian in that genuine Christian scholarship requires the new birth, apart from which there can be no true understanding of special revelation or that which special revelation (spectacle-like, ala Calvin) explicates in observation of the world around us.  In a statement especially pertinent today, given the number of best sellers at the local bookstore denying Christian truth claims (Dawkins, Hitchens, etc.), Helseth says that Warfield's position on the integration of faith and learning, "encourages Christian scholars to engage the life of the mind with zeal without allowing naturalistic scholarship to define the objective realm around which the merely subjective 'stuff' of religion must orbit" (p. 130). 

In a stirring chapter showing an example of Warfield's commitment to inspired, authoritative Scripture to all areas of human existence, Gundlach details what must be deemed as heroic integrity on the part of the Princetonian in the cause of free slaves.  Warfield, whose family had owned slaves, lamented the worsening race relations Post-Reconstruction, and fought against, not only attempts to defend the slave trade, but segregation after the War.  Warfield's article, A Calm View of the Freedmen's Case (1887) urges the Church to rise to the occasion of evangelizing and aiding freed slaves, whose slavery had left them too demoralized and disadvantaged to handle their newfound freedom.  In his Drawing the Color Line (1888), he argued against racism and segregation within the Church. With excerpts from personal letters and anecdotes from his stance at Princeton on the admission of black students, in one case, even to residence in the dormitory, we see the Lion of Princeton roar.

Stephen J. Nichols offers a fascinating and moving essay on the relationship between mentor and student: Warfield and J. Gresham Machen.  Neither of these stalwarts were naïve fundamentalists, but rather devoted themselves to a broad, rich confessionalism and sophistication in scholarship.  Their view of culture, based on similarities in educational broadness, cultural engagement, travel (before Warfield's lifetime of devoted care for his invalid wife in Princeton), the arts, use of tobacco and alcohol, and approach to theological scholarship were certainly out of step with the fundamentalists of their day.  In terms of scholarship, Warfield, for instance, criticized R.A. Torrey's simplistic proof-texting, in favor of a fuller Biblical-Theological approach to Bible study. Warfield's vast abilities in Systematic Theology, Exegesis, Apologetics, and Historical Theology, and Machen's obvious exegetical prowess, as seen in his The Origin of Paul's Religion (1921), New Testament Greek for Beginners (1923), and The Virgin Birth (1930) evidence their devotion to serious scholarship.  Nichols shows the convergence of Warfield and Machen in polemics, in that while the former is more known for his work on Scripture and the latter for his on Christology, the fact remains that each wrote extensively on both matters.  Nichols gives a skillful overview of their work in these areas.  His paragraphs on Warfield's work on the doctrine of Scripture is quite similar in content to previous chapters.  However, his helpful introduction to Warfield and Machen on Christology made me wish there was a whole chapter devoted to Warfield's Christological writings.  Nichols' final pages detailing Machen's reflections on the death of his mentor left me longing for more.  Very moving, indeed.

The last full chapter of this volume of essays on Warfield comes from the pen of Gary Johnson.  He writes of the polemics of Warfield and Charles Briggs.  The latter was virulently opposed to the doctrine of inerrancy.  Johnson states that this was Warfield's most important polemical involvement of his lifetime (pp. 198-99).  Citing various acidic passages and hotly uncharitable rhetoric against men he claimed to hold in highest esteem, such as the elder and younger Hodge, Warfield, Patton, and his own colleague at Union, W.G.T. Shedd, Johnson paints a picture of an unrestrained man, who claimed to uphold the Westminster Standards, whereas the inerrancy of a Warfield only served to obstruct.  He held forth higher criticism and his own form of Biblical Theology as a way beyond the antiquated, traditional Systematic and Dogmatic Theology of the tradition of Turretine, Hodge, Warfield, etc. 

Johnson contrasts the gentlemanly polemical approach of Warfield in a survey of his critiques of various books, all the way to his relatively intensified responses to fundamentalism, Higher Life, and other things immediately impacting Christian experience.  Johnson writes to show the legacy of the polemics of Briggs and Warfield for today.  He draws connections between Briggs and the Briggs-like tendencies of recent theologians' criticism of propositional truth, traditional Systematics as mere Scholastic residual (which, I might add, risks misrepresenting both Scholasticism and Systematics in favor of nebulous concepts, such as "Reformed Catholicity.")  This latter is not so much an effort to show how the Reformers were self-consciously carrying forward the best of universal Christian faith and practice, but rather a tacit downplaying of Reformed creedal and confessional distinctives.  Johnson's wide-ranging and hard-hitting chapter draws connections between Briggs and a host of contemporary situations within Reformed circles that seem to parrot Briggsian sentiments, such as New Perspectives, various shades of Federal Vision thought, and the fashionable cry against Reformed Scholasticism in the vein of Turretine, Owen, Westminster, all of whom, it is suggested, are at variance with Calvin, himself.  Of Johnson's various connections, much more could be said and studied, but I for one, believe he is doing right by the namesake of the book he has edited.

This helpful book is completed by a chapter, Warfield and the Briggs Trial: A Bibliography.  Here, Barry Baugh has done considerable spadework, which could serve someone interested in researching and writing on the matter.  Following a brief introduction to the debate, he provides several pages of helpfully annotated bibliography.  While reading a bibliography may not be the first chapter to which one will turn, I found these listings very telling, especially one in which Briggs complained that his generation was being led by "dogmaticians, ecclesiastics, and traditionalists" (p. 254).  I can only say that for then, as well as today, if those dogmaticians, ecclesiastics, and traditionalists are of the Warfieldian stripe, then lead on!

I have been helped, encouraged, and challenged by this excellent volume.  Be forewarned, this is sturdy reading, but good for the soul.  Happy we would be if it served as the basis for yet another gathering of essays focusing on themes from Warfield's exegetical work on the person and work of Christ, his impressive treatments of Historical Theology (one thinks of Augustine, Tertullian, Calvin, Westminster, Edwards, etc.), or his forays into the pressing practical doctrines related to Christian experience in his day.  Warfield once told the students of Princeton that when they were engaged in their theological studies, they should remove the shoes from their feet, for they stood on holy ground.  To seminary students, pastors, church workers, and interested layfolk, I say take the shoes from your feet and read.


David Owen Filson, Ph.D. Candidate, Westminster Theological Seminary, Philadelphia, PA