During his thirty-four year reign as the ranking theologian at Princeton Theological Seminary, Benjamin Breckinridge Warfield (1851-1921) exerted tremendous influence upon much of American Presbyterianism. With his lucid pen and his passion to defend the Westminster Standards, there was little doubt about where Warfield stood on most every subject he addressed.
Even some eighty years after his death all one need to do is but mention his name in certain circles and you are sure to get a reaction, pro or con. A number of those who have interacted with Warfield view him as a kind of brilliant but nevertheless obscurantist fundamentalist (cf. James Barr, Beyond Fundamentalism, Westminster, 1984, 141) or a thorough-going rationalist , who supposedly invented the notion of biblical inerrancy (Alister McGrath, A Passion for Truth: The Intellectual Coherence of Evangelicalism, InterVarsity, 1996, 169). When viewed from this perspective, Warfield's most enduring legacy is to be seen in his important but misguided efforts in the heated controversy over the nature of biblical authority that dominated American Presbyterian circles in the latter part of the nineteenth century.
For a number of others, Warfield is viewed as an apologist and polemicist par excellence, who valiantly stood in the breach between the fading memory of Protestant orthodoxy and the rise of Protestant liberalism. But virtually all who have dealt with him agree that B. B. Warfield was a man with whose opinions one must reckon.
In his novel, In the Beauty of the Lilies, one of Pulitzer Prize winning author John Updike's central characters, the agnostic Presbyterian minister Clarence Wilmot, had encountered Dr. Warfield during his student days at Princeton Theological Seminary. Updike characterizes Warfield's classroom demeanor as "erect as a Prussian general, with snowy burnsides—whose Introduction to the Textual Criticism of the New Testament...should have fortified" the struggling Clarence Wilmot, "against [Robert] Ingersoll's easy sneers." Anyone who has seen one of the rather striking photographs of Warfield taken during his latter years at Princeton, and who has read the recollections of his former students about his temperament and presence in the classroom, knows full well that Updike has indeed captured the essence of the man quite accurately. Not everyone sees this portrait of Warfield as flattering, however.
In their influential book, The Authority and Interpretation of the Bible, Jack Rogers and Donald McKim have argued that B. B. Warfield reduced theology to a mere technology and that Warfield's uncritical dependence upon Scottish Common Sense philosophy had moved him outside the mainstream of Reformed orthodoxy (Rogers and McKim, The Authority and Interpretation of the Bible, Harper and Row, 1979, 323-379. Arguing that Warfield defended the faith with "great passion and technical expertise," nevertheless Rogers and McKim conclude that Warfield's efforts in "reinterpreting Calvin in light of Aristotelian assumptions...would have been alien to the Reformer" (333, 348).
Others are even more outspoken in their criticism. James D. G. Dunn, has gone so far as to label Warfield's position on Biblical inspiration and authority "exegetically improbable, hermeneutically defective, theologically dangerous, and educationally disastrous" (Dunn, The Living Word, Fortress, 1988, 107). In one surprising diatribe against the supposed evils of scholastic Protestant theology, another of Warfield's critics goes so far as to contend, "ever since the days of the Princetonians (Warfield, Hodge, Machen, et al.), American non-charismatic evangelicalism has been dominated by Scottish common sense, by post-Enlightenment, left-brain, obsessive compulsive, white males." While we would probably not be surprised at such comments if they came from a representative of a mainline and theologically liberal Protestant seminary, in fact, they come from Daniel B. Wallace, a professor of New Testament at a "fundamentalist" institution, Dallas Theological Seminary (cf. Wallace, "Who's Afraid of the Holy Spirit?" in Christianity Today, September 12, 1994, 38).
Without doubt, the most surprising criticism of Warfield comes from the apologetics department of Westminster Theological Seminary—the very institution founded by "old school" Presbyterian J. Gresham Machen, and Warfield's most prominent protégé. The criticism is surprising for two reasons. The first reason is that in virtually every regard, Westminster Theological Seminary is the heir to the Princeton tradition. So it is somewhat of a surprise that the Westminster tradition would reject the Old Princeton apologetic outright, since many of the founders of that institution learned to defend the faith directly at the feet of Warfield himself. The second surprise, however, is the militancy of Westminster's rejection of Warfield's apologetic.
Cornelius Van Til, who attended Princeton several years after Warfield's death in 1921, and who was a student at Princeton during the Machen years, made no uncertain sound regarding his rejection of the apologetic methodology of Warfield, choosing instead to opt for a modified version of the apologetics of Dutch theologian Abraham Kuyper (Cornelius Van Til, The Defense of the Faith (Baker, 1967, 265). For Van Til, Warfield's apologetic represented an unfortunate capitulation to an incipient Thomism and Arminian principles, supposedly typical of "non-Reformed" attempts to defend the faith which exalt nature over grace and reason over revelation. While I agree with much of Van Til's effort to challenge the assumptions of unbelieving thought, I regard this assertion as rhetorical flourish, and not entirely accurate.
B. B. Warfield's legacy is not always regarded with disdain. Leon Morris, himself a man of great exegetical skill, called Warfield a "great exegete" whose opinions on an exegetical matter must be carefully evaluated (Leon Morris, The First and Second Epistle to the Thessalonians, The New International Commentary on the New Testament, Eerdmans, 1964, 226). Hugh T. Kerr, who served as Warfield Professor at Princeton, and was no champion of Warfield's doctrine of biblical inerrancy, nevertheless stated that "Dr. Warfield had the finest mind ever to teach at Princeton Theological Seminary" (Recounted in personal correspondence of February 25, 1995, from William O. Harris, Librarian for Archives and Special Collections at Princeton Theological Seminary).
It is not an insignificant point to take note of the fact that Warfield's own contemporaries and colleagues generally held him in highest regard. He was seen as a fearless defender of Reformed orthodoxy, pious and devout, and a formidable presence in his classroom (See Oswald T. Allis, "Personal Impressions of Dr Warfield," in The Banner of Truth 89, Fall 1971).
The obvious difficulty facing the contemporary interpreter of Warfield, then, is that they must navigate between the perilous shoals of strongly held and diametrically opposed interpretations of Princeton Theological Seminary generally, and B. B. Warfield in particular.
Of late there has been a "Warfield renaissance" of sorts. The publication of a fine anthology and critical introduction to the Princeton theology, edited by noted American church historian Mark A. Noll (Noll, ed., The Princeton Theology, 1812-1921, Baker, 1983), along with the publication of a useful treatment of Warfield and the other major Princetonians in David Wells' Reformed Theology in America, (David F. Wells, ed., Reformed Theology in America: A History of its Modern Development, Eerdmans, 1985) is indicative of the continuing interest in his theological and historical legacy. Gary L. W. Johnson’s recent volume on Warfield includes several outstanding essays–most notably two pieces by Brand Gundlach, dealing with the biographical details of Warfield’s paternal (Breckenridge) history, and Warfield’s very progressive views on the plight of African-Americans after the failure of reconstruction. Also not to be missed is Paul Helseth’s essay on Warfield’s view of reason. More information on this volume can be found here.
Despite all of the interest in his life and work, in many ways Warfield's views are often misunderstood, misinterpreted or otherwise misrepresented. It is Noll who correctly laments, "Evangelicals still await a treatment of Old Princeton that is as sophisticated and as refined as the work of the Princetonians was itself" (Noll, The Princeton Theology, 43). While I humbly make no such claim, there is no doubt that Mark Noll has identified the great need for further investigation into the multi-faceted theological and historical dimensions of this extremely influential theological institution.
What follows is taken from my doctoral dissertation which investigates the theological, apologetical and polemical methodology of perhaps the key figure of the Princeton tradition, Benjamin Breckinridge Warfield, given the title "the Lion of Princeton," by George M. Marsden. Throughout, it was my aim to evaluate the epistemological and methodological foundations of Princeton Theological Seminary, specifically Scottish Common Sense Realism. The impact that this intellectual child of the Scottish Enlightenment had upon Princeton Theological Seminary, and especially upon the work of James McCosh, who was named Princeton college's president the same year that Warfield entered as a student (1868) is well-documented. Many of the specific ways in which this influence is seen in Warfield's own work have yet to be fully developed, however.
In this regard it is important to investigate Warfield's early career as professor of New Testament at Western Theological Seminary, where a number of Warfield's theological and apologetic methodological emphases began to crystallize. Though virtually overlooked until recently, it is here where we find one of Warfield's most unique apologetic emphases, the utilization of the critical tools associated with emerging science textual criticism to establish the autographic text of Scripture undergirding his doctrine of biblical inerrancy.
It is also important to consider Warfield’s evidential apologetic (not to be confused with "classical apologetics"), his subjective-objective epistemological formulation, his doctrine of the witness of the Holy Spirit, and his understanding of apologetics as the prolegomena to theology. In Warfield’s estimation it is apologetics that lays the foundation for any subsequent theological development. It is also important to take notice of Warfield's apparent disinterest in classical theological argumentation in favor of Christian evidences focusing upon a defense of special revelation, especially so when it is all too common for Warfield's critics to describe him as something of a Thomist. How are we to respond when several of Warfield's critics variously lament his insistence upon near mathematical epistemological certitude on the one hand, while on the other hand, a number of others reject his method since it supposedly compromises the faith because it is based upon probabilistic argumentation?
Although Warfield did not produce his own systematic theology, Warfield produced several important essays on the task, nature and right of systematic theology, carefully building upon his prior apologetically and polemically oriented work in the field of New Testament. Warfield clearly sees himself standing in the long line of Reformed scholastic theologians, defending variously the idea and the right of systematic theology in the face of challenges to its validity and utility.
Since B. B. Warfield served for over thirty years as professor of didactic and polemical theology, and produced literally hundreds of important book reviews and significant journal articles dealing with the controversies of his day, it is also important to evaluate Warfield's application of his methodology in particular polemical contexts. Here we will consider his response to Arminian dogmaticians such as John Miley, as well as his rather harsh treatment of several of the leaders of the emerging fundamentalist movement, such as R. A. Torrey and L. S. Chafer. In addition, it is important in this regard to evaluate Warfield's response to the two perceived evils which Princeton theologians had universally condemned, rationalism and mysticism. It is important to evaluate Warfield’s response to several of the works by English mystic, Evelyn Underhill, as well as briefly survey Warfield’s critique of rationalism, especially what he described as the “Ritschlite” variety then beginning to make significant inroads into Protestant circles.
We will also evaluate the treatment given Warfield in contemporary Reformed historiography and acknowledges the significant advances made in this regard, as well as offering a case for a re-evaluation of Warfield's apologetic within the broader context of the on-going debate in the nineteenth century within the Reformed tradition about the nature and scope of natural theology, as well as the role given to evidences in the defense of Christian supernaturalism and biblical authority. In this regard I will contend that charges of innovation on Warfield’s part are unfounded as Warfield clearly stands within a broad and well-established Reformed apologetic tradition.
It is my hope that these posts will serve, in part, to clarify some of the confusion that surrounds Warfield’s apologetic, theological and polemical efforts. Given the vast divergence of opinion among the various interpreters of Warfield and Old Princeton, one might think that the problem stems from unclarity and confusion on Warfield’s part. But, as I hope to demonstrate, Warfield’s methodology remains remarkably consistent over the course of his career and his arguments are clearly and cogently framed throughout.
The difference of opinion about him, no doubt, lies in the fact that he was eminently clear, and thus, it is the unpopular nature of his views on inerrancy, the relationship between faith and reason and the role that he assigned to Christian evidences, that more likely is the source of the confusion.
Despite the divergent comments of his interpreters, B. B. Warfield is clear. He defines his terms in great detail and consistency, states his views clearly and compellingly, and is willing to challenge all comers. It is no wonder, then, that those who consider themselves his theological heirs would revere his memory. On the other hand, those who bear the brunt of his pointed criticism will, quite likely, find much of his work distasteful, his legacy troubling and nothing more than a failed attempt to derail theological progress.
All of this does indicate that it is indeed a good time for a fresh look at the apologetic, theological methodology and polemical efforts of the “Lion of Princeton.”