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“One Productive Life” – A Short Biography of  B. B. Warfield

Abridged from my Ph.D. dissertation, "The Lion of Princeton"

Princeton College alumni who remembered Benjamin Breckinridge Warfield's student days at Princeton recall that on November 6, 1870, the young Warfield and a certain James Steen, "distinguished themselves by indulging in a little Sunday fight in front of the chapel after Dr. McCosh's afternoon lecture."  Warfield, it seems, "in lieu of taking notes" during Dr. McCosh's lecture, took great delight in sketching an "exceedingly uncomplimentary picture of Steen," which was subsequently circulated among the students (Hugh Thomson Kerr, "Warfield:  The Person Behind the Theology," Annie Kinkead Warfield Lecture for 1982, at Princeton Theological Seminary, ed. William O. Harris, 1995, 21).  The resulting fist-fight between the two young men ultimately didn't amount to much, though years later many still remembered Warfield's nickname earned that Sunday—"the pugilist" (21-22.).

It may be instructive to note that B. B. Warfield's earliest days at Princeton, as well as his last, are characterized by a passionate defense of his personal honor.  Princeton Seminary colleague, Oswald T. Allis, tells the story about Dr. Warfield's encounter with Mrs. Stevenson, the wife of the Seminary President, shortly before Warfield's death and during the height of the controversy at Princeton over an "inclusive" Presbyterian church.  When Mrs. Stevenson and Dr. Warfield passed each other on the walk outside the Seminary, some pleasantries were exchanged, and then Mrs. Stevenson reportedly said to the good doctor, "Oh, Dr. Warfield, I am praying that everything will go harmoniously at the [General] Assembly!"  To which Warfield responded, "Why, Mrs. Stevenson, I am praying that there may be a fight" (O. T. Allis, "Personal Impressions of Dr Warfield," in The Banner of Truth 89, Fall 1971, 10-14).  As Hugh Kerr, formerly Warfield Professor of Theology at Princeton Theological Seminary reflects, "from the very beginning to end, Warfield was a fighter" (Kerr, "Warfield:  The Person Behind the Theology," 22).

B. B. Warfield was not only a fighter, he was also a theological giant, exerting significant influence upon American Presbyterianism for nearly forty-years.  John DeWitt, professor of Church History at Princeton during the Warfield years, told Warfield biographer Samuel Craig, that “he had known intimately the three great Reformed theologians of America of the preceding generation—Charles Hodge, W. G. T. Shedd and Henry B. Smith—and that he was not only certain that Warfield knew a great deal more than any one of them but that he was disposed to think that he knew more than all three of them put together” (Samuel G. Craig, "Benjamin B. Warfield," in B. B. Warfield, Biblical and Theological Studies, P & R,1986, xvii). This was quite an accolade from one (DeWitt) who was himself a man of great scholarship.  Unlike many of today's "specialists," B. B. Warfield was fully qualified to teach any of the major seminary subjects—New Testament, Church History, Systematic or Biblical Theology, and Apologetics (xix.).

One of Warfield's students, and an influential thinker in his own right, J. Gresham Machen, remembers Warfield as follows:  "with all his glaring faults, he was the greatest man I have known" (Ned B. Stonehouse, J. Gresham Machen:  A Biographical Memoir,  Westminster Theological Seminary, 1977, 310).  Even one critical of Warfield's conservatism, such as Hugh Kerr, told his own students a generation later, that while he could not understand Warfield's "theory of the inerrancy of the original autographs," nevertheless, "Dr. Warfield had the finest mind ever to teach at Princeton Seminary" (Recounted in personal correspondence of February 25, 1995, from William O. Harris, Librarian for Archives and Special Collections at Princeton Theological Seminary).          

The biographical details of Warfield's life are well-documented and quite straight-forward.  One of the most interesting of these is found in Kerr’s essay, "Warfield: The Person Behind the Theology."  Personal reflections by Warfield's colleagues are:  Francis L. Patton, "A Memorial Address" in The Princeton Theological Review, Volume XIX, July, 1921, 369-391; Grier, “Benjamin Breckinridge Warfield,"  The Banner of Truth 89, Fall 1971, 3-9; Allis, "Personal Impressions of Dr Warfield."  Warfield's brother, Ethelbert D. Warfield, produced a short biographical essay which appears as "Biographical Sketch of Benjamin Breckinridge Warfield," in B. B. Warfield, Revelation and Inspiration, Baker, 1981, v-ix.  

Born in 1851 near Lexington, Kentucky, Warfield came from good Puritan stock on his father's side and his mother was the daughter of Dr. Robert J. Breckinridge, who in the words of one writer, was "an able Presbyterian Theologian and professor of theology at Danbury (Kentucky) Theological Seminary (1853-69)" (Kerr, "Warfield:  The Person Behind the Theology," 4).   One of Robert's sons, and Warfield's uncle, John Cabell Breckinridge (1821-1875), was a two-term congressman and served as the Vice President of the United States during the Buchanan administration only to become a distinguished general and cabinet member of the Confederate States of America (McClanahan, “Benjamin B. Warfield:  Historian of Doctrine in Defense of Orthodoxy, 1881-1921,” 13).  It is important to point out that Robert Breckinridge remained a staunch supporter of the Union cause despite the efforts of his son, and Warfield himself was quite outspoken in his advocacy of civil rights for African Americans.

Educated by some of the finest tutors available, Reformed piety was also ingrained in the Warfield home at an early age—the Larger and Shorter catechisms, along with the Scripture proofs were memorized by all of the Warfield children.  The Shorter Catechism was memorized by the sixth year (E. D. Warfield, "Biographical Sketch" vi).   At sixteen, the young Kentuckian made profession of faith and joined the Second Presbyterian Church in Lexington, though he probably inherited from his father "a reluctance to speak of spiritual matters."  His mother, on the other hand, often expressed her wishes that "her sons would preach the gospel," (vi-vii)  a dream which would not come true until her oldest son Benjamin, quite surprisingly, changed his vocational plans and announced his intention to enter into the Presbyterian ministry upon his return from Europe in 1872.

Warfield%20--young%20man.gifWhen B. B. Warfield entered Princeton College as a sophomore in 1868, his lengthy connection to that institution was only beginning.  Warfield was not, however, the only new member of the Princeton community that year.  The school's new president, the fatherly Scotsman James McCosh, also undertook his new calling in 1868, and when a number of years later Warfield playfully remarked to McCosh that they both "entered Princeton the same year and that they both had achieved advanced standing," we are told that "McCosh was not amused" (Kerr, "Warfield:  The Person Behind the Theology," 5).

At Princeton College, when he was not drawing caricatures of fellow students, Warfield excelled at mathematics and science and upon graduation in 1871, he decided to pursue further studies at the universities of Edinburgh and Heidelberg.  His younger brother, Ethelbert, remembers that Benjamin's "tastes were strongly scientific.  He collected birds' eggs, butterflies and moths, and geological specimens; studied the fauna and flora of his neighborhood; read Darwin's newly published works with great enthusiasm" (E. D. Warfield, "Biographical Sketch,” vi).  Objecting to studying Greek—since he saw no use for it—he had planned to follow a scientific career.  He made perfect marks in science and mathematics, and "counted Audubon's works on American birds and mammals as his chief treasure" (vi).  

Between the time of his graduation and his departure for Europe, however, Warfield's career took an odd turn, as "he returned to Kentucky, and following in his father's footsteps, began an editorial stint with the Lexington Farmer's Home Journal," a kind of odd foreshadowing of his future career as editor of the Princeton Theological Review (Kerr, "Warfield:  The Person Behind the Theology," 5).  Warfield bibliographers, John E. Meeter and Roger Nicole note that Warfield retained a life long interest in the subject, especially in "short-horn cattle, in the breeding of which Warfield had a great interest" (See John E. Meeter and Roger Nicole, A Bibliography of Benjamin Breckinridge Warfield:  1851-1921, P & R, 1974, iii-iv).  After his father talked him out of taking a fellowship to study experimental science, B. B. Warfield instead went abroad.  In the summer of 1872, his family received the surprising news from Heidelberg via letter, that he had given up his previous career objectives and now intended to enter into the Presbyterian ministry (E. D. Warfield, "Biographical Sketch" vi).

Since Warfield was apparently quite reticent to discuss his own spiritual development, we know little of his decision made while in Heidelberg to enter Princeton Seminary to study for the ministry.  The only known autobiographical comment made in this regard is that while in Europe, he "realized the paramount claims of God and religion upon him" (Cited in Grier, "Benjamin Breckinridge Warfield," 4).  Dr. Kerr tells of Warfield's first European trip as one in which Warfield, while in London, "nightly visited the opera, theaters and other evil and pernicious haunts...and when he got to Germany he took great delight in acting as referee to the Heidelberg dueling corps."  Kerr describes Warfield as "a jaunty, carefree youth" (See Kerr, "Warfield:  The Person Behind the Theology," 20-22).  

One can only imagine how all this relates to the young Warfield's sudden desire to enter the Christian ministry.  In a piece written in 1916, recounting his years at Princeton College, Warfield recalls a revival occurring on campus during his junior year.  A number of fellow students during his seminary years were drawn to the ministry as a result (B. B. Warfield, "Personal Recollections of Princeton Undergraduate Life:  IV.  The Coming of Dr. McCosh," in The Princeton Alumni Weekly 16, no. 28, April 19, 1916, 653).    

His brother informs us that this decision came as a complete "surprise to his family and most intimate friends" (E. D. Warfield, "Biographical Sketch” vii).  When he returned to the states in 1873, he enrolled in Princeton Theological Seminary, from which he graduated in May of 1876.  The young Warfield was soon licensed to preach, but he declined to take a call in Dayton, Ohio to pursue further studies in Europe.  Soon after marrying Annie Pearce Kinkead, who was also from noble stock, the newlyweds journeyed to Leipzig.  Miss Kinkead was a descendent of George Rogers Clark, the famous general of the Revolutionary War, known as the "Hannibal of the West" (Kerr, "Warfield:  The Person Behind the Theology," 9).

During their stay in Europe an event occurred that would forever change the Warfield's lives.  While walking together in the Harz mountains, Mr. and Mrs. Warfield were caught in a violent thunderstorm.  Annie Warfield suffered a severe trauma to her nervous system from which she never fully recovered.  She was so severely traumatized that she would spend the rest of her life as an invalid of sorts, becoming increasingly more incapacitated as the years went by.  Her husband was to spend the rest of their lives together giving her "his constant attention and care" until her death in 1915 (Allis, "Personal Impressions of Dr Warfield," 10).  B. B. Warfield could not have foreseen just how constant and difficult a demand this was to become, and how, in the providence of God, this would impact his entire career.

While he was still abroad, Warfield was offered a position on the faculty in Old Testament at Western Theological Seminary, but despite his previous distaste for the study of Greek, he had made New Testament the primary focus of his studies (E. D. Warfield, "Biographical Sketch,” vii).  Upon the completion of his studies, he returned home and took a call to be an assistant pastor at First Presbyterian Church of Baltimore, serving for a brief period, before he accepted a call to Western Theological Seminary, this time as instructor in New Testament.  

Beginning his new labor in September of 1878, he was subsequently ordained and appointed full professor.  By 1880, he had received so much notice through his publications that he was awarded the Doctor of Divinity Degree by the College of New Jersey (E. D. Warfield, "Biographical Sketch," vii).

It was the unexpected death of Warfield's friend, Archibald Alexander Hodge in 1886, that prompted his return to Princeton.  A. A. Hodge, the son of Charles Hodge, had himself become Professor of Systematic Theology at Princeton, occupying the very chair made famous by his father, and whose place he assumed upon his father's death.  Francis Patton remembered the events that transpired this way.  “I remember the shock which passed through this community when word went out that Dr. A. A. Hodge was dead....When the question of his successor arose, our minds turned naturally to Dr. Warfield, then Professor of New Testament Criticism and Exegesis in the Western Theological Seminary, Allegheny, Pennsylvania.  I recall today the delight with which Dr. C. W. Hodge welcomed his former pupil to the chair which his father and brother had successively filled” (Patton, "Benjamin B. Warfield, A Memorial Address," 369-370).  Thus ending a very productive nine-year career in New Testament at Western, Warfield began a tenure at Princeton that was to last another thirty-three years until his own death in February of 1921.

Warfield's herculean literary accomplishments over the course of his career are simply remarkable.  Hugh T. Kerr describes the huge volume of material that Warfield managed to produce through the years: “Of his printed and published work, there are ten large, and I mean large, volumes of posthumously selected and edited articles known as the Oxford edition as well as two volumes of additional essays put together by John E. Meeter, plus two volumes of handwritten scrapbooks and fifteen volumes of Opuscula (1880-1918), collected and bound by Warfield himself.  He also wrote a major work on the textual criticism of the New Testament which went through nine editions, published three volumes of sermons, several commentaries, and a significant investigation of popular religious movements, Counterfeit Miracles.  Yet, we are nowhere near the end of the list, for there are literally hundreds of essays, reviews and other miscellanea in dictionaries, encyclopedias, and especially in the three Princeton quarterlies over which he had editorial supervision from 1889 until the day of his death in 1921.  We are talking about a theological authorship on the order of Augustine, Aquinas, Luther, Calvin and Barth” (Kerr, "Warfield:  The Person Behind the Theology," 12-13).  J. Gresham Machen once noted that Warfield "has done about as much work as ten ordinary men" (Cited in Ned B. Stonehouse, J. Gresham Machen:  A Biographical Memoir, Westminster Theological Seminary, 1978, 220).

It was his tremendous energy which perhaps, more than any other single factor, contributed to Warfield's wide reaching influence.  As Kerr notes, one of Warfield's most important forums was the book review, so often overlooked as an important "bully pulpit."  "Book reviewing is, I think, one of the most important means of theological communication," adds Dr. Kerr, and somehow the Princetonian managed to publish over 780 of them in various publications, of which 318, were "very substantial critical reviews." (14).

Warfield's remarkable literary output is, no doubt, in large measure due to the frail condition of his wife and his amazing devotion to her.  With the pen he was a formidable foe, but as O. T. Allis recalls, "I used to see them walking together and the gentleness of his manner was striking proof of the loving care with which he surrounded her.  They had no children.  During the years spent at Princeton, he rarely if ever was absent for any length of time" (Allis, "Personal Impressions of Dr Warfield," 10).  Machen recalled that Mrs. Warfield was a brilliant woman and that Dr. Warfield would read to her several hours each day.  Machen dimly recalled seeing Mrs. Warfield in her yard a number of years earlier during his own student days, but notes that she had been long since bed-ridden (Stonehouse, J. Gresham Machen, 220).   

According to most accounts, Dr. Warfield almost never ventured away from her side for more than two hours at a time.  In fact, he left the confines of Princeton only one time during a ten-year period, and that for a trip designed to alleviate his wife's suffering which ultimately failed (Bamberg, "Our Image of Warfield Must Go," 229).   As Colin Brown incisively notes, Warfield's lectures on the cessation of the charismata, given at Columbia Theological Seminary in South Carolina shortly after her death, are quite remarkable and demonstrate "a certain poignancy [which] attaches itself to Warfield's work in view of the debilitating illness of his wife throughout their married life" (Colin Brown, Miracles and the Critical Mind, Eerdmans, 1984, 199).  Though Warfield may have been known to many as a tenacious fighter, the compassion he directed toward his wife, Annie Kinkead Warfield, demonstrates a capacity for tenderness and caring that is in its own right quite remarkable.

In the mysterious providence of God, it was the nature of his wife's illness and his devotion to her, that ironically provided the greatest impetus for his massive literary output.  Personally vital and energetic, "he did not allow" his wife's illness "to hinder him in his work.  He was intensely active with voice and pen" (Allis, "Personal Impressions of Dr Warfield," 11).  Thus his creative energies were focused in two directions: his writing and the classroom.  As caretaker for an invalid wife, Warfield spent many hours each day in the confines of his study.  

One friend remembers, “He was pre-eminently a scholar and lived among his books.  With the activities of the church he had little to do.  He seldom preached in neighboring cities, was not prominent in the debates of the General Assembly, was not a member of any of the Boards of our Church, did not serve on committees, and wasted no energy in the pleasant but perhaps unprofitable pastime of after-dinner speaking” (Patton, “Benjamin Breckinridge Warfield, A Memorial Address," 370).

Thus unencumbered by administrative and ecclesiastical duties, Warfield was free to do his fighting, pen in hand.  Francis Patton describes Warfield's pen as more of a sword than a battle-axe.  "His writings impress me," notes Patton, "as the fluent, easy, offhand expression of himself.  He wrote with a running pen, in simple unaffected English, but with graceful diction, and only a moderate display of documented erudition" (371).   Dr. Kerr adds, "it must be said that he knew how to construct lucid, direct sentences, and that his meaning was always clear.  He is not an easy writer to read, for he makes us work as he thinks.  It is often slow going, not designed for those who would read as they run” (Kerr, "Warfield:  The Person Behind the Theology," 17).

While the book review is a significant place to mold opinion, so is the classroom.  Warfield left quite a mark upon his students.  "There was something remarkable in his voice.  It had the liquid softness of the South rather than the metallic reason," of the North.  "He kept the calm level of deliberate speech, and his words proceeded out of his mouth as if they walked on velvet" (Patton, "Benjamin Breckinridge Warfield, A Memorial Address," 370).   A former student, and later a colleague on the Princeton faculty, O. T. Allis, remembers Warfield's classroom as "his domain, and his desk as his throne" (Allis, "Personal Impressions of Dr Warfield," 10).     

Years later, Allis could clearly recall what transpired in the classroom: “His favorite method of teaching was the quiz, a kind of Socratic dialogue, in which by question and answer he tested the student's knowledge of the assigned reading and his understanding of it.  His aim was to open the eyes of the student to the wealth of meaning in the subject under discussion.  His style was conversational.  He did not pound the desk or try to browbeat the student but to help him, even if in doing so he exposed the sometimes blissful and abysmal ignorance of his respondent.  Sometimes there was a gleam in his eyes and a touch of humor in his voice.  I remember once, when a student was explaining to Dr Warfield the doctrine of the Trinity and speaking of the three persons of the Godhead, he failed to make the proper distinction; and Dr Warfield said, `So there are three Gods, are there?'  The student hastened to retrieve the error.  Once when the subject dealt with or involved the miraculous, and the questions and answers indicated some confusion or doubt, Dr Warfield remarked, `Gentlemen, I like the supernatural.'  He said it, I think with a twinkle in his eye, and this obiter dictum impressed itself on my memory more than anything else in the discussion.  When he had finished quizzing a student he would say, `Is there any question you would like to ask'?  If, as usual, there was not, he would turn to his class and ask, `Has anyone else a question?'  Then he would call up the next student on his list” (Allis, "Personal Impressions of Dr Warfield," 11)

Warfield's reputation as a formidable presence in the classroom was such that some years later, Donald Grey Barnhouse, himself a former Princeton Seminary student and a strong and combative personality and leader of the fundamentalist wing of the Presbyterian church, was remembered by his colleagues as one of the few students who dared "argue in class with the scholarly Benjamin B. Warfield" (C. Allyn Russell, "Donald Grey Barnhouse:  Fundamentalist Who Changed," Journal of Presbyterian History, Volume 59, 1981, 35).   Though apparently not mean or vindictive to his students, 2750 of whom, received their primary theological education from Dr. Warfield. there is little doubt that B. B. Warfield had an intimidating presence in the classroom. (Mark A. Noll, The Princeton Theology:  1812-1921, Baker, 1983, 19)

"My last glimpse of Dr. Warfield was on a mid-February afternoon fifty years ago," remembers O. T. Allis.  On Christmas eve of 1920, "Dr. Warfield had suffered a heart attack and had been ill for some weeks.  That afternoon I saw him walking slowly across the campus to meet his class....But he overtaxed his strength, had a severe relapse and passed away during the night" (Allis, "Personal Impressions of Dr Warfield, " 14).   

It was the end of an era.  Abraham Kuyper, the great Dutch theologian had died on November 12th 1920, Warfield died February 16th, 1921, followed by another great Dutch theologian, Herman Bavinck on July 29th of that same year.  "Within the space of nine months the people of the Reformed faith were bereft of their three greatest leaders....These three were devoted friends.  Their parting was for a very brief time; their reunion in glory was speedy" (Grier, "Benjamin Breckinridge Warfield," 4).  With the death of Kuyper and Warfield, and with the current travail in the Presbyterian church, it was no wonder that J. Gresham Machen so deeply lamented Warfield's death.  "It seemed to me that the old Princeton—a great institution it was—died when Dr. Warfield was carried out" (Stonehouse, J. Gresham Machen, 310).   

Machen was, perhaps, more of a prophet than he knew.

 

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