Essay / On This Day

Happy Birthday, B.B. Warfield

Today (Nov. 5) is the day when Benjamin Breckenridge Warfield (1851 – 1921) was born.

The title of “America’s Greatest Theologian” is pretty universally ceded to Jonathan Edwards, and after him there is a tight race for “Second Greatest.” In my opinion, Warfield is a contender for that second slot. He even edges out fellow Princetonian Charles Hodge, though Hodge was more the theologian’s theologian, writing an influential 3-volume Systematic Theology. By contrast, Warfield scattered his work across a stunning range of disciplines, from biblical studies (including text crit) to historical theology. He read everything and reviewed half of it. But he never wrote out his own Warfield-brand systematic theology. That gap, by the way, has recently been filled by Fred Zaspel’s The Theology of B. B. Warfield: A Systematic Summary. At over 600 pages, it looks like Zaspel’s project may put everything you need to know about Warfield’s doctrine in one volume.

But Warfield certainly wrote and published plenty on his own. Though he is not a household word except within the precincts of the Truly Reformed, he is eminently readable. When I assign a Warfield essay to students, I usually make it part of the assignment that they should read the essay twice. This is because students tend to find Warfield too easy and transparent on the first read, and they can’t tell that he’s saying anything worth taking notes on. But on the second read, he opens up and seems to be positively overstuffed with ideas, suggestions, and sagacious judgments. I’ve had the same encounter with Warfield, specifically with his collection on The Authority and Inspiration of Scripture. The first time I read it, I thought, “Duh, what a hard-headed conservative this numbskull is. He clearly hasn’t thought of all the clever things I’ve thought of.” The second time I read it, I could see that he had already thought through everything I had, and more, and was waiting for me at the end of the road where I eventually joined him.

Now when I read Warfield, I skip straight over the “duh” reading and go straight to feeling like everybody in theology must have gotten a lot dumber since 1921, when Warfield died. It is remarkable how much he can say on one page, and how carefully he frames his judgments.

My top three Warfield essays:

The 1915 essay “The Doctrine of the Trinity,” published in James Orr’s International Standard Bible Cyclopedia. Solid gold. A major monograph’s worth of wisdom, in one short article.

Warfield’s chapter in The Fundamentals, circa 1911, on the subject of The Deity of Christ. He went into more satisfying biblical detail elsewhere, but this essay covers the basic doctrine elegantly, and also says wise things about apologetics, theological method, and spirituality.

Our Seminary Curriculum,” a 1909 essay that starts with the question of what kind of training would make for good pastors, but is written so forcefully (“Extremes meet. Pietist and Rationalist have ever hunted in couples and dragged down their quarry together.”) and broad-mindedly that it becomes an important discussion of the reason for the church’s being. It deserves a long quote here.

Warfield entertains the question of whether we couldn’t get more men into the ministry if we eliminated the laborious study of Greek and Hebrew. Sure, he replies. Just lower your view of the ministry far enough. If a minister is just a speech-maker whose job is to entertain, then let him skip the Biblical languages.

But, if the minister is the mouth-piece of the Most High, charged with a message to deliver, to expound and enforce; standing in the name of God before men, to make known to them who and what this God is, and what his purposes of grace are, and what his will for his people — then, the whole aspect of things is changed. Then, it is the prime duty of the minister to know his message; to know the instructions which have been committed to him for the people, and to know them thoroughly; to be prepared to declare them with confidence and with exactness, to commend them with wisdom, and to urge them with force and defend them with skill, and to build men up by means of them into a true knowledge of God and of his will, which will be unassailable in the face of the fiercest assault. No second-hand knowledge of the revelation of God for the salvation of a ruined world can suffice the needs of a ministry whose function it is to convey this revelation to men, commend it to their acceptance and apply it in detail to their needs–to all their needs, from the moment that they are called into participation in the grace of God, until the moment when they stand perfect in God’s sight, built up by his Spirit into new men. For such a ministry as this the most complete knowledge of the wisdom of the world supplies no equipment; the most fervid enthusiasm of service leaves without furnishing. Nothing will suffice for it but to know; to know the Book; to know it at first hand; and to know it through and through.

And what kind of seminary graduate would such a student become? He would be five things:

1. “a sound Biblical critic”;
2. “a defender of the Christian faith”;
3. “an able and sound divine”;
4. “a useful preacher and faithful pastor”; and
5. a man “qualified to exercise discipline and to take part in the government of the Church in all its judicatories.”

That’s the kind of graduate that Warfield’s career of training seminarians was aimed at producing. You can’t go study with Warfield anymore. But you can read his books and essays.

Share this essay [social_share/]