Remembering B. B. Warfield

by Fred G. Zaspel

At important moments in the history of the church, God in kind providence has raised up men to give voice to His Word. And so there is Augustine, the theologian of sin and grace. He did not invent these doctrines, of course. But in his battle with Pelagius he gave them such clear and cogent articulation that forever since he has been recognized as the one who gave these doctrines to us. He was the high water mark. So also there is Anselm, the theologian of the doctrine of the atonement. And there is Luther, the theologian of justification. And Calvin, the theologian of the Holy Spirit.

In this sense exactly Benjamin Breckinridge Warfield of Old Princeton is the theologian of the doctrine of inspiration. Those who hold to the historic doctrine today add very little to what Warfield said a hundred years ago. So also any who reject that doctrine must contend with Warfield before their work is complete. He was the theologian of inspiration. This was his gift, in God’s kind providence, to the modern church.

But all this, accurate as it certainly is, could skew our understanding of Warfield just a bit, for it does not provide anything close to an adequate representation of him. Moreover, in Warfield’s own mind and heart, this (inspiration) is not what he was all about. To be sure, inspiration was in large measure the issue of the day, and Warfield was the man God raised up to speak to that issue. But it might be surprising for some to learn that judged in terms of literary output and of his own self-conscious interests, B.B. Warfield was first and foremost a Christologian. In his own heart of hearts he saw himself as a fallen sinner rescued by a divine Redeemer, and this — the person and work of Christ — is where we find the heartbeat of this great Princetonian. And as he did with the doctrine of inspiration, so also Warfield provided for the church a massive exegetical grounding for the great truths of Christ’s two natures, his redemptive work, and so on. Indeed, it was to this end — God’s redemptive revelation in Christ — that Warfield understood the doctrine of inspiration as so very vital.

But the breadth and depth Warfield’s grasp was greater still. It would be difficult to find in the history of American theology a theologian who displayed a theological scholarship equal to that of Warfield. And certainly even in his own day — a day marked by increasingly determined and scornful unbelief — he was recognized as a giant, and he eagerly took all comers and stepped forward to defend the church’s historic faith against all its various attacks. Commanding the highest respect from all quarters he was eminently equipped to argue the case for Biblical truth on any ground — exegetical, theological, historical, and philosophical — confident and never fearing in the slightest that God’s truth could ever be overthrown. It has been said with only slight exaggeration that it was B. B. Warfield who catapulted the orthodox Reformed faith into the twentieth century.

Finally, as I have already alluded, Warfield’s heart beat hot for Christ. His passion for Christ and the gospel pulses prominently throughout the many thousands of pages of his works. He adored the Lord Jesus Christ, the incarnate Redeemer, and he loved to say so. And he loved to speak of our utter, helpless need of such a Savior from heaven. He was a “polemic” theologian, yes. And his polemics were powerful, supremely informed, insightful, and unrelenting, devouring the enemies of truth on all fronts. But it was a polemic driven by a deep heart of love for and devotion to Christ. He was in fact the ideal of Old Princeton — the highest and best of informed scholarship matched by a humble piety and fervent love for Christ.

Today marks the 158th birthday of B.B. Warfield (Nov. 5, 1851 – Feb. 16, 1921). An outstanding gift of Christ to his church Warfield was indeed. May his example inspire us to a similar confidence in God’s infallible Word and a similar heartfelt dependence upon our great Redeemer from heaven.