‘Grasmere’ was a country estate located near Lexington, Kentucky, belonging to the Warfield family. It was here, on 5 November 1851, that Benjamin Breckinridge Warfield was born.
His mother was Mary Cabell Breckinridge, a descendent of John B. Breckinridge (1760-1806), a United States Senator and Attorney General under President Thomas Jefferson. Her father was the prominent Presbyterian preacher Robert Jefferson Breckinridge (1800-1871), and her brother, John Cabell Breckinridge (1821-1875), was Secretary of War in the Confederate Government.
Benjamin’s father, William Warfield, came from English Puritan stock, his forebears having fled to North America to avoid persecution. The Warfield family, in the person of Bessie Wallis Warfield Simpson (1896-1986), would later plunge the British royal family into its greatest twentieth-century crisis.
B. B. Warfield matriculated at Princeton University in 1868 and graduated in 1871 with highest honours at the age of 19. Raised in a godly Presbyterian home, he showed no early inclination towards what would become his life work.
However, in 1873 he entered Princeton Theological Seminary in New Jersey, graduating in 1876. He served briefly as a supply pastor for Presbyterian churches in Concord, Kentucky, and Dayton, Ohio (having refused a call to the latter).
In August 1876, Warfield married Annie Pierce Kinkead (d. 1915) who also came from an illustrious Kentucky family.
The young couple sailed for Europe, where B. B. studied in Germany with Ernst Luthardt (1823-1902) and Franz Delitzsch (1813-1890), whose theological motto was: ‘to learn new truth through an old way’.
While out on a walk, the Warfields were caught in a violent thunderstorm, which so affected Mrs Warfield that it left her a recluse for the rest of her life. No children were born to the union.
On the return trip to Kentucky, the couple’s luggage was lost in a riot in Pittsburgh, including German theological books for which Warfield had paid $1,000!
He served briefly as assistant pastor of the First Presbyterian Church, Baltimore, Maryland. He resigned to teach New Testament Language and Literature at the Western Theological Seminary of the Presbyterian Church, now part of Pittsburgh Theological Seminary. On 26 April 1879, he was ordained by his home Presbytery of Ebenezer.
Biographer James S. McClanahan writes: ‘The nine years Warfield spent at Western gained him greater reputation as a well-prepared and stimulating instructor, characterized by critical insight, exegetical acumen, and a comprehensive grasp of biblical and theological thought’.1
He was appointed to the Charles Hodge Chair of Exegetical, Didactic, and Polemic Theology at Princeton Seminary in 1887. In this he succeeded A. A. Hodge (1823-1886), who was himself successor to his father Charles Hodge (1797-1878). Warfield remained at Princeton until his death at the age of 69.
Warfield arrived at Princeton Seminary when both its basic outlook and worldwide reputation had been firmly established. Since its founding in 1811, Princeton had become the engine of the ‘Old School’ tendency within American Presbyterianism and far beyond.
The seminary was devoted to an authoritative view of Scripture, in contrast to the emotionalism of the revival movements, the rationalism of the ‘higher’ critics, and the confusions of the emerging cults.
It was also committed to a ‘common sense’ philosophical viewpoint, derived from thinkers such as Thomas Reid (1710-1796), with its evidentialism in apologetics.
The seminary was faithful to the Reformed confessional tradition, seeing no reason to jettison its formulations in a self-professed ‘progressive age’. And, it sought to combine a warm heart with an instructed mind in its conception of the Christian life.
B. B. Warfield sought to work within these parameters; indeed, he embodied them. As his student F. T. McGill wrote: ‘Dr. Warfield possessed the most perfect combination of faculties of mind and heart that I have ever known in any person … the most Christ-like man I have ever known’.2
The seminary’s influence was not just upon its students and, through them, the pulpits of the Presbyterian Church. It extended far and wide through its journal, commonly referred to as The Princeton Review, from its inception in 1825 until it ceased publication in 1930.
Through most of those years, this was the most important theological journal in the world, ranging over a vast range of subjects. Traditional the Princetonians were, but never provincial!
Warfield edited the journal from 1889 to 1921; only Charles Hodge served longer.
B. B. Warfield brought greater exegetical gifts to his dogmatic task than had his predecessors, but that was not all. His father was a notable expert on the science of cattle-breeding and B. B. inherited a great respect for modern science.
John De Witt (1842-1923), Professor of Church History at the Seminary, who had known three other notable systematic theologians of the time (Charles Hodge; W. G. T. Shedd, 1820-1894; and Henry B. Smith, 1815-1877) was ‘not only certain that Warfield knew a great deal more than any one of them, but … disposed to think that he knew more than all three of them put together’.3
In contrast to the Hodges before him, and because of his wife’s condition, Warfield travelled little and was rarely active in denominational activities. When asked to serve on a committee of the General Assembly to revise The Westminster Confession, he declined, believing the effort to be wrong-headed.
Warfield served an uneasy co-editorship of The Presbyterian Review from 1887 to 1889 with Charles A. Briggs (1841-1913), in an unsuccessful attempt to bridge the widening gap between the two sides in the Presbyterian Church.
He wrote a joint article with A. A. Hodge in 1881 on ‘Inspiration’, which drew the attention of many for its erudite and trenchant defence of the inerrancy of Scripture. Warfield went on to write extensively, and his many books continue to be published and translated around the world.
Following his death, many of Warfield’s articles were published by the Oxford University Press in ten volumes (1929-1932) and by the Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Company in five volumes (1948-1958).
Warfield’s life-long ministry was to refute theological liberalism. Among other things, he proved that the concept of the inerrancy of Scripture was not a nineteenth-century invention but orthodox Christian doctrine.
Dismayed by new and subjective trends, even in supposedly orthodox circles, Warfield warned against the counterfeit miracles that marked the church in the twentieth century and the perfectionism that appealed to those with exalted views of human nature. He attempted to refine Calvinism to arrest the advance of these errors.
But, despite his efforts, his time was one of unparalleled theological decline within the Presbyterian Church in the USA. In 1903, the church vitiated its commitment to The Westminster Confession to such an extent that it was possible three years later for the majority of the Arminian Cumberland Presbyterian Church to merge back into it.
Only three years after Warfield’s death, in the ‘Auburn Affirmation’, over 1200 ministers and ruling elders dismissed the miracles and resurrection of Jesus Christ as fanciful relics.
Eight years after his death, the church’s General Assembly reorganized the Board of Princeton Seminary, gutting its orthodoxy.
The reasons for Warfield’s failure to stem the tide are not hard to discern. When the Old School and New School Presbyterians merged in 1869, their differences were papered over, not resolved. Occurring just as German destructive criticism began to infect the churches of North America, this made it almost impossible to protect the theological integrity of the church.
Furthermore, after the calamity of the Great War, the ‘progressive era’ jettisoned anything ‘old’, leaving little place for historic definitions of Christian orthodoxy, whether of the fourth or seventeenth centuries.
But other factors were more under Warfield’s control. For all his theological firmness, he was not immune to the baneful influences of his time.
His ‘common sense’ philosophical views, and his father’s scientific bent, led him to accept Darwinian evolution, as long as God was allowed to shepherd the process along! Charles Hodge had been much more sceptical.
Furthermore, the evidentialism of the seminary, and of its premier theologian, left the solid bulk of unbelieving thought virtually untouched. Nor could it dent the ever-popular Arminian theme of man’s essential goodness.
It fell to J. Gresham Machen (1881-1937), his younger colleague at Princeton, and especially to Cornelius Van Til (1895-1987), to point the way out of Princeton’s philosophical cul-de-sac.
Warfield died on 16 February 1921, three months after Abraham Kuyper (born 1837) and five months before Herman Bavinck (born 1854). The Reformed world had lost its three major figures in a period of barely eight months.
The afternoon of his death, Warfield told his class: ‘The laying down of his life in our stead was a great thing, but the wonder of the text (1 John 3:16) is that he being all that he was, the Lord of glory, laid down his life for us, being what we were, mere creatures of his hand, guilty sinners deserving his wrath’.4
A fitting epitaph for the last of the great Princeton systematic theologians.
The author teaches at the Reformed Presbyterian Theological Seminary, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.
- James S. McClanahan,Benjamin B. Warfield: Historian of Doctrine in Defense of Orthodoxy, 1881-1921, PhD thesis, Union Theological Seminary in Virginia, 1988, p.24.
- Warfield Commemoration Issue, 1921-1971, Banner of Truth, 89 (Feb. 1971) p.18.
- R. W. Cousar, Benjamin Warfield: His Christology and Soteriology, PhD thesis, Edinburgh University, 1954, p.7.
- William Childs Robinson, Our Lord: An Affirmation of the Deity of Christ, Eerdmans, 1949, pp. 123-124.
BOOKS BY B. B. WARFIELD (in chronological order by year of first publication)
Syllabus on the Canon of the New Testament in the Second Century(1881)
The Divine Origin of the Bible (1882)
Syllabus on the Special Introduction to the Catholic Epistles (1883)
An Introduction to the Textual Criticism of the New Testament (1886)
The Idea of Systematic Theology Considered as a Science (1888)
On the Revision of the Confession of Faith (1890)
The Development of the Doctrine of Infant Salvation (1891)
The Gospel of the Incarnation (1893)
The Right of Systematic Theology (1897)
Two Studies in the History of Doctrine (1897)
The Significance of the Westminster Standards as a Creed (1898)
The Making of the Westminster Confession (1901)
Acts and Pastoral Epistles: Timothy, Titus, and Philemon (1902)
The Power of God Unto Salvation (1903)
The Confession of Faith as Revised in 1903 (1903)
Statement and Regulations with Respect to the Curriculum… (1906)
The Lord of Glory (1907)
John Calvin, the Man and His Work (1909)
Calvin as a Theologian and Calvinism To-day (1909)
The Literary History of the Institutes of the Christian Religion by John Calvin (1909)
The Saviour of the World (1914)
The Plan of Salvation (1915)
Faith and Life (1916)
Counterfeit Miracles (1918)
*Revelation and Inspiration (1927)
*Biblical Doctrines (1929)
*Christology and Criticism (1929)
*Studies in Tertullian and Augustine (1930)
*Calvin and Calvinism (1931)
*The Westminster Assembly and Its Work (1931)
*Perfectionism (1931) 2 vols.
*Studies in Theology (1932)
*Critical Reviews (1932)
+The Inspiration and Authority of the Bible (1948)
+The Person and Work of Christ (1950)
+Biblical and Theological Studies (1952)
+Calvin and Augustine (1956)
Biblical Foundations (1958)
Limited Inspiration (1961)
Selected Shorter Writings (1970, 1973) 2 vols.
Evolution, Scripture, and Science (2000)
* = Part of the ten-volume Oxford University Press publication of Warfield’s works.
+ = Part of the five-volume Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Company publication of Warfield’s works
* = Part of the ten-volume Oxford University Press publication of Warfield’s works. + = Part of the five-volume Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Company publication of Warfield’s works