Sunday 28 January 2007

10 theses on B. B. Warfield

I was very interested by the recent discussion of the “Old Princeton” Calvinists – I had no idea there would be so much interest in these characters! So in the wake of this discussion, I decided to offer these 10 theses on Benjamin Breckinridge Warfield (1851-1921):

1. It is fashionable to disparage B. B. Warfield without having actually read his work.

2. Of all the “Old Princeton” theologians, Warfield was the best: he was a far better theologian than his predecessor Charles Hodge, and an infinitely better theologian than his successor Loraine Boettner.

3. Warfield was not a mere repristinator of Calvinist tradition, but he appropriated the tradition constructively and creatively: for instance, in contrast to classical Calvinist theology, he taught that the great majority of human beings are elected for salvation; and, again in contrast to the tradition, he taught that God is universally and immediately gracious towards those who die in infancy. The fact that Calvinist tradition needed to be much more radically revised is no belittlement of Warfield’s own insights.

4. Warfield was a scholar of broad and diverse learning: before teaching systematic theology at Princeton, he had specialised in both Old Testament and New Testament, and he was widely read in poetry, fiction and drama, and in the scientific research of his day.

5. Warfield was a very fine historian of theology: his historical work on (inter alia) Tertullian, Augustine, Calvin, the Westminster Assembly, Edwards, and Ritschl remains valuable.

6. Unlike most of the other early “fundamentalists,” Warfield took scientific knowledge seriously, and he made an admirable effort to integrate Darwinian evolution with Christian theology.

7. Only a relatively small part of Warfield’s theological work focused on the doctrine of Scripture, and it is regrettable that he has been remembered almost solely for his (deeply flawed) work on revelation and inspiration.

8. Warfield was a great reviewer: the collected edition of his works includes an entire volume (487 pp.) of his critical book reviews, in which he interacts constructively with an impressive range of British, American, German, French and Dutch scholarship.

9. Warfield knew a good book when he saw it: during a visit to Switzerland early in the 20th century, he shrewdly purchased from the Geneva Public Library – for $20! – a lovely first edition of Calvin’s 1536 Institutio (the volume is now held in the Special Collections at Princeton Seminary).

10. Warfield was a good man: throughout his productive career he was quietly serving as a fulltime carer for his disabled wife, Annie.


Michael Westmoreland-White, Ph.D. said...

Fascinating, Ben. I mentioned in that earlier thread that I was guilty of only reading Warfield on Scripture. My impression of the Old Princetonians had been created by reading [shudder!] Charles Hodge, whose scholastic version of Calvinism also supported his championing of slavery (since God's providence places every one already in the station's for which they are best suited!).

michael jensen said...

Thanks for this Ben.

I am reading CD II/2 at the moment, and of course I am struck by KB's (critical) reading of the Calvinist tradition, and of Calvin - and how often that reading is reflected by contributers here.

It is a reading that is attractive to me; but, of course, I am frequently reminded by Calvinists to the right of me that this reading has been challenged latterly by Richard Muller and others. Does Barth's reading withstand these criticisms in your opinion?

W. Travis McMaken said...

Re: #4

BBW's early training was in biology, which led him to interact theologically with Darwin.

Re: #9

The copy of Calvin's 1536 Institutio housed in Princeton Theological Seminary's Special Collections is the only one in the Western Hemisphere.

michael jensen said...

You might have added: that BB Warfield was a distant relative of Mrs Wallis Simpson who become the wife of Edward VIII.

I wonder what her views on Biblical inspiration were?

Guy Davies said...

Good to see an attempt to rehabilitate the much maligned Warfield at F&T.

David W. Congdon said...

Thanks for this, Ben! I am guilty of having read almost nothing at all of BBW, so this is a good reminder that I should become more conversant with those who once taught at the school I now attend.

::aaron g:: said...


Theologically, is the final proposition (‘a good man’) the most prosaic or the most inspiring? Barth and Tillich are infamous for their wandering eyes and groping hands – yet they were brilliant theologians. Or were they? What bearing does lifestyle have upon the significance of one’s work?

Theologically, does being ‘a good man’ matter?

Ben Myers said...

Good point, Aaron. And in any case, as a strict Calvinist, Warfield would have vigorously objected to being called a "good man"!

Anonymous said...

Aaron and Ben.

"You can be a great, original, and profound artist or thinker, and also a complete bastard."

That's Richard Rorty. I think he had Heidegger in mind.

But can one so easily separate the person from the work? You only have to put it that way at least to problematise the issue. Interestingly, Robert Jenson refers to Heidegger as "the twentieth century's greatest and most sinister philosopher", and he suggests a link between his philosophy of being-towards-death and his affair with National Socialism's cult of death. Perhaps if a man is a shit, a pitchfork deftly deployed will inevitably uncover some manure in his oeuvre. And perhaps not! But is it conceivable that a bastard could have produced the Sermon on the Mount? And if it is - if one did - would that change our evaluation of it? Or vice-versa? Perhaps the truly godly don't produce works of art, they rather are works of art. After all, our Lord did not go into print.

Forgive these ramblings of a vexed parson.

Joey said...



michael jensen said...

Well, this is the great temptation of academic theology, isn't it? To separate the person and the work. (Of course, pastors have found ways of doing it too...)

Personally, I think Tillich's lifestyle - which (as I understand) wasn't marked by signs of regret and repentance as I understand Barth's was - was sufficiently awful to make us question the value of his whole theological enterprise. A saintly or godly person does not make a good theologian, necessarily; but a defiantly unrepentant person cannot do good theology...

Anonymous said...

There is a chapter in Philip Sheldrake, Spirituality and Theology: Christian Living and the Doctrine of God (1998) entitled "The Divorce of Spirituality and Theology". There Sheldrake suggests that "True theologians are those who experience the content of their theology", and he writes: "According to the theologian von Balthasar it was only after the epoch of Albert the Great, Thomas Aquinas and Bonaventure towards the end of the thirteenth century that we see 'the disappearance of the "complete" theologian . . . the theologian who is also a saint.'" Sheldrake himself suggests that it was Peter Abelard (1079-1142) who "began to understand theology to be essentially a process of intellectual speculation" divorced from the spiritual formation of the theologian himself.

::aaron g:: said...

“the theologian who is also a saint” sounds similar to Schleiermacher’s “Prince of the Church.” Though for Schleiermacher, a Prince was one who brought theology and ministry together, not necessarily theology and spiritual discipline.

Anonymous said...

I feel compelled to mention that our Lord had a Father, who is the central figure, some argue, of the 4th gospel.
And I agree with those who have said it better than I that there must be a connection between what we are (raised up with Christ, hidden with Christ, who is our life, Colossians 3) and what we do. One may do theology without actually knowing the Theos. Our work undoubtedly will suffer for it.

Unknown said...

Ligonier produced a Tabletalk issue on Warfield in April of '05. The very nature of the magazine does not allow it to be as nuanced or critical as a journal, but it did serve to accentuate both the thought and the life of a highly underrated theologian.

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