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Benjamin Breckinridge Warfield

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B. B. Warfield

Benjamin Breckinridge (B.B.) Warfield (November 5, 1851 - February 16, 1921) was the principal of Princeton Seminary from 1887 to 1921. Some conservative Presbyterians consider him the last great Princeton theologian before the great split in 1929 that formed Westminster Seminary and the Orthodox Presbyterian Church.

Contents

Early Life

Warfield was born near Lexington, Kentucky on November 5, 1851. His parents were William and Mary Cabell (Breckinridge) Warfield, originally from Virginia and quite wealthy. His maternal grandfather was the Presbyterian preacher Robert Jefferson Breckinridge (1800-1871). His mother was a descendant of John Breckinridge, a former United States Senator and Attorney General. Warfield's uncle was John C. Breckinridge, the fourteenth Vice President of the United States, and a Confederate general in the American Civil War.

Wallis Simpson, who married King Edward VIII of the United Kingdom (and was largely responsible for his abdication of the throne in 1936, was also a distant relative.

Education

Like many children born into a wealthy family, Warfield's childhood education was private. Warfield entered Princeton University in 1868 and graduated in 1871 with high honors. After this he entered Princeton Seminary in 1873, in order to train for Presbyterian ministry. He graduated in 1876.

Ministry

For a short time in 1876 he preached in Presbyterian churches in Concord, Kentucky and Dayton, Ohio as a "supply pastor" - the latter church calling him to be their ordained minister (which he politely refused). In late 1876 Warfield and his new wife moved to Germany where he studied under Ernst Luthardt and Franz Delitzsch. Warfield was the assistant pastor of First Presbyterian Church in Baltimore, Maryland for a short time. Then he became an instructor at Western Theological Seminary, which is now called Pittsburgh Theological Seminary. He was ordained on April 26, 1879.

In 1881 Warfield wrote a joint article with A. A. Hodge on the inspiration of the Bible. It drew attention because of its scholarly and forceful defense of the inerrancy of the Bible. In many of his writings, Warfield attempted to demonstrate that the doctrine of Biblical inerrancy was simply orthodox Christian teaching, and not merely a concept invented in the nineteenth century. His passion was to refute the liberal element within Presbyterianism and within Christianity at large.

Throughout his life, he continued to write books and articles, which are still widely read today.

Marriage

In August of 1876 Warfield married Annie Pierce Kinkead. Soon afterward they visited Germany. During their time there, Annie was struck by lightning and was permanently paralyzed. Benjamin continued to care for her until her death in 1915, managing to fit his work as a theologian with his role as carer. They had no children.

The actual events that led to Annie's paralysis are still unclear. Some believe that she may have suffered some form of mental or psychological disability.

Princeton

In 1887 Warfield was appointed to the Charles Hodge Chair at Princeton Theological Seminary, where he succeeded Hodge's son A. A. Hodge. Warfield remained there until his death.

The Bible

During his tenure, his primary thrust (and that of the seminary) was an authoritative view of the Bible. This view was held in contrast to the emotionalism of the revival movements, the rationalism of higher criticism, and the heterodox teachings of various New religious movements that were emerging. The seminary held fast to the Reformed confessional tradition — that is, it faithfully followed the Westminster Confession of Faith.

Warfield believed that modernist theology was problematic, since it relied upon the thoughts of the Biblical interpreter rather than upon the divine author of Scripture. He therefore preached and believed the doctrine of sola scriptura — that the Bible is God's inspired word and is sufficient for the Christian to live his or her faith.

Much of Warfield's work centered upon the Bible's "inspiration" by God — that while the authors of the Bible were men, the ultimate author was God himself. The growing influence of modernist theology denied that the Bible was inspired, and alternative theories of the origin of the Christian faith were being explored.

Because of the Bible's style of writing, many modernist scholars had pointed out the unquestionably "human" traits of certain Biblical books. Grammatical and linguistic styles were contrasted and compared, which proved beyond doubt that humans wrote the text of the Bible. Unfortunately for Warfield and other conservatives, this then resulted in a belief that the Bible was therefore not written by God at all, but by men. Warfield was instrumental in countering this by arguing that the supernatural work of the Holy Spirit did not lead to a form of "mechanical" inspiration (whereby the human authors merely wrote down what God dictated to them) but one in which the human author's intellect was fully able to express itself liguistically, while at the same time being supervised by the Holy Spirit to ensure its inspiration. This important argument is used by many Reformed and Evangelical Christians today as part of their understanding of what the Bible is.

Studies in Religious Experience

Warfield was a conservative critic of much religious revivalism that was popular in America at the time. He believed that the teachings and experience of this movement were too subjective and therefore too shallow for deep Christian faith.

Such attacks at the time did not go unnoticed, and even today Warfield is criticized by proponents of revivalism in the Pentecostal and Charismatic movements.

Calvinism

Underpinning much of Warfield's theology was his adherence to Calvinism as espoused by the Westminster Confession of Faith. It is sometimes forgotten that, in his battles against Modernism on the one hand, and against revivalism on the other, that he was simply expressing the Reformed faith when applied to certain situations.

It was Warfield's belief that the 16th century Reformers, as well as the 17th century Confessional writers, were merely summarizing the content and application of scripture. New revelations, whether from the minds of celebrated scholars or popular revivalists, were therefore inconsistent with these confessional statements (and therefore inconsistent with Scripture). Throughout his ministry, Warfield contended that modern world events and thinking could never render such confessions obsolete. Such an attitude still prevails today in many Reformed churches and Christians who embrace Calvinism.

Calvinism is just religion in its purity. We have only, therefore, to conceive of religion in its purity, and that is Calvinism. (Selected Shorter Writings, I, p. 389)

Darwinism

Warfield had a unique view of Darwinism for his day. Unlike most people who believe that the Bible is inerrant, he was willing to accept that Darwin’s theory was true, provided that one believe that God was the one who guided the process of natural selection in order to create the various species. This came from his avid interest in amateur science and led to him being both a convinced Calvinist and a convinced theistic Evolutionist. He was thus one of the first theolgians that tried to bridge the gap between Christian faith and emerging secular science.

Church Politics

Unlike his contemporaries at Princeton, and perhaps due to his invalid wife, Warfield never cared much for churchmanship. While he was certainly supportive of political moves within various churches to strengthen and push conservative theology, he was never interested in the actual process itself, preferring to use his work at Princeton to influence future generations of Presbyterian ministers.

References

  • Cousar, R. W., Benjamin Warfield: His Christology and Soteriology, PhD thesis, Edinburgh University, 1954.
  • McClanahan, James S., Benjamin B. Warfield: Historian of Doctrine in Defense of Orthodoxy, 1881-1921, PhD thesis, Union Theological Seminary in Virginia, 1988.
  • Warfield Commemoration Issue, 1921-1971, Banner of Truth, no. 89 (Feb. 1971).

Essays and Sermons by B.B. Warfield

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