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B. B. WARFIELD'S THEOLOGICAL LEGACY


(an excerpt from my Ph.D. dissertation, The Lion of Princeton).

It is, of course, extremely difficult to estimate with any precision the extent of B. B. Warfield's impact upon subsequent theological developments after his death.  Nevertheless, there are several important indicators that clearly indicate Warfield's powerful and lasting influence upon the American theological scene.  One such indicator is that Warfield himself was responsible for the primary theological training of over 2700 students during his tenure at Princeton (Noll, The Princeton Theology, 19).  Since the classroom was his domain of sorts, his personal influence upon his students was, no doubt, quite significant and certainly lived on for at least one generation subsequent to Warfield's death in 1921.  This particular legacy can be seen most clearly in the work of Warfield's successor of sorts, J. Gresham Machen, and the eventual split in the Presbyterian church leading to the founding of Westminster Theological Seminary.  While Machen was the most notable minister trained by Warfield, nevertheless, his influence upon a whole generation of clergymen trained in his classroom is certainly a significant reason why Warfield’s legacy has survived.

Another factor that is indicative of this legacy can be seen in the simple fact that most of Warfield's books, his collected essays and sermons, have continually remained in print since his death (The details of Warfield bibliography are set out in; Meeter and Nicole, A Bibliography of Benjamin B. Warfield, 1851-1921).  The sheer number of references made by evangelicals in the years after Warfield’s death to his efforts to define and defend the inspiration and authority of the bible, to his attempt to ground the Christian faith upon the objective facts of revelation, and to his incisive criticisms of anti-supernaturalism, rationalism and mysticism of every stripe, simply cannot be counted.  Subsequent evangelical theological reflection has largely been conducted in his shadow, with the  goal of overturning his legacy or perpetuating it.

This is evident in several recent attempts to relate contemporary evangelical theological reflection to broader theological discussion.  For example, both Clark Pinnock and Stanley Grenz repeatedly speak of the need to overturn or otherwise mitigate Warfield's influence upon contemporary evangelical theology (See Clark H. Pinnock, Tracking the Maze:  Finding our Way Through Modern Theology from an Evangelical Perspective, Harper & Row, 1990), and Stanley J. Grenz, Revisioning Evangelical Theology:  A Fresh Agenda for the 21st Century, InterVarsity Press, 1993.  On the other hand, there are evangelicals who see much in Warfield that is useful--see Richard Lints, The Fabric of Theology:  A Prolegomenon to Evangelical Theology, Eerdmans,  1993; J. I. Packer, "Is Systematic Theology a Mirage?  An Introductory Discussion," in Doing Theology in Today's World, Woodbridge and McComiskey, Zondervan, 1991.

Another indicator of the importance of Warfield's legacy can be seen in the fact that he figures quite prominently in several recent treatments of the history and development of American evangelicalism.  According to Mark Noll, Warfield was responsible for the "most learned defense" of biblical inerrancy and his distinctive views on the relationship between creation, providence and evolution, figure quite prominently in the development of a distinctly "evangelical mind" (Mark A. Noll, The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind, Eerdmans, 1994).   George Marsden has evaluated Warfield's influence upon the evangelical movement's attempt to deal with the challenges of modern science (See George M. Marsden, Understanding Fundamentalism and Evangelicalism, Eerdmans, 1991; and The Soul of the American University.  Indeed, the work of Jack Rogers and Donald McKim, The Authority and Interpretation of the Bible, and its pointed criticisms of Warfield's conception of inerrancy, as well as the outcry in response, are all indicative that much of contemporary evangelical theological reflection is still conducted in Warfield's long shadow.

Certainly one of the most visible and contentious debates involving the Warfield legacy is the “Hatfield and McCoy” style dispute within the confessional Reformed tradition over apologetic methodology.  Polarized into two camps, the evidentialists, who claim to self-consciously follow Warfield and Old Princeton (i.e., R. C. Sproul, John Gerstner and Arthur Lindsley, Classical Apologetics: A Rational Defense of the Christian Faith and a Critique of Presuppositional Apologetics, Zondervan, 1984) and the presuppositionalists, who are the followers of Cornelius Van Til of Westminster Theological Seminary and who reject Warfield’s apologetic (See the two volumes by John Frame, Apologetics to the Glory of God:  An Introduction, P&R, 1994; and Cornelius Van Til: An Analysis of His Thought, P & R, 1995.  The debate serves as a continuing point of division within many Reformed circles.  Once again, the name of B. B. Warfield is repeatedly invoked by proponents of both positions, with Warfield’s commitment to, and advocacy of, Scottish Common Sense Realism occupying a major role in the debate.

Perhaps it falls to Dr. Walter Lowrie to most succinctly describe Warfield’s theological legacy.  Notes, Lowrie, “He was Princeton.”  (Cited in R. W. Cousar, “Benjamin B. Warfield: His Christology and Soteriology,” Th.D. Dissertation, University of Edinburgh, 1954, 7).  

Indeed, the very fact that a distinct “Old Princeton”  theological tradition continues to influence so much of contemporary evangelicalism is, in large measure, due to the very productive life of Benjamin Breckinridge Warfield, the “Lion of Princeton.”