Theology of B.B. Warfield

Theology of B.B. WarfieldFred G. Zaspel, The Theology of B. B. Warfield: A Systematic Summary (Wheaton: Crossway, 2010); 624 pp. Hdbk.

Slowly but surely historians and theologians are starting to provide a proper assessment of the legacy of Benjamin B. Warfield. In general, the story of Princeton Theological Seminary has been told by writers like David Calhoun and Mark Noll. James Moorhead’s official history provides another major perspective on the Princeton tradition. Work remains to be done in appreciating this hugely influential institution, as well as one of its outstanding representatives. Academic work on Warfield lags behind that on other major characters in the tradition, notably Charles Hodge. For example, the American Reformed Biographies series has published books on Hodge and Cornelius Van Til. Although such a book may be in progress, Warfield is yet to be the subject of a major biography. This deficit is surprising because Warfield was regarded as at least the equal of his 19th century predecessors and peers. His literary output was prodigious. His expertise covered New Testament exegesis and textual criticism, as well as all areas of systematic and historical theology. Other interests included trends in science and evolutionary theories in relation to religion, and an almost obsessive attention to the critical work of German New Testament scholars.

Two or three monographs have recently been published on aspects of Warfield’s theology but Zaspel has provided something else. He gives us a summary of Warfield’s theology as a whole. The account largely avoids any criticism of Warfield’s thinking. This potentially frustrating decision on Zaspel’s part turns out to be a wise one. The value of this book is not simply its gathering Warfield’s theological views into one systematic account of the Christian faith. Zaspel has remained faithful to Warfield’s thought to a remarkable degree. My questions and quibbles on reading Zaspel’s survey were often the same as from reading Warfield directly. Warfield wrote largely through journal articles and book reviews often with polemical intent. He famously declined to write his own dogmatic textbook because of his admiration for Hodge’s Systematic Theology. As far as I remember Warfield’s writings, Zaspel gives attention to topics in proportion to Warfield’s own efforts. So, unintentionally I suspect, Zaspel’s work fairly represents both Warfield’s achievements and shortcomings in terms of theological contribution to understanding the Christian faith.

The chapter on apologetics is a good illustration. Zaspel reminds us that Warfield stressed that Christianity is a revealed religion. This is connected by Zaspel to Warfield’s focus on apologetics as a task that is somehow separate and foundational to the task of theology proper. Apologetics becomes a method that establishes the facts out of which theology can be constructed. “Theology is the science of God, and the science of God has no right to exist until it is first established that God does exist, that he may be known, and that we have a trustworthy means of learning about him. This is the role of apologetics, and it therefore stands first.” Apologetics is about establishing God, religion, revelation, Christianity and the Bible. No small task! Could it be that Warfield’s apologetical method is undermined by such patently unrealistic objectives?

Warfield’s work in areas like New Testament exegesis and Christology constitutes superb apologetical material. Warfield was probably the first, and perhaps the only, Reformed orthodox theologian in his day to recognise and respond in depth to the challenges of the original quest for the historical Jesus. But his views on establishing evidence for Christianity, so somehow proving and convincing people about the certainty of the Christian religion, have been confused because they are, simply, confusing. In the relevant places Zaspel notes how Warfield’s views were misunderstood by Abraham Kuyper, Herman Bavinck, and later Cornelius Van Til.

One small curiosity is that Zaspel does not illustrate an aspect of Warfield’s thinking in establishing the facts of theology. He does point out that textual criticism of the Scriptures was necessary in Warfield’s understanding of the apologetic task. The text of the Bible had to be examined, scrutinised and vindicated. But Zaspel does not report practical outcomes of this position. Warfield was the first Princeton professor to argue against the longer ending of Mark’s Gospel. Warfield really did rewrite and redefine the text of the canon of Scripture, if only in one passage. As early as 1882 Warfield argued that Mark 16:9-20 was not part of God’s written word. Later he referred to the “spurious conclusion of Mark” in an article on baptism published in 1911. Warfield was willing to break with tradition in order to remain true to the findings of modern biblical criticism. The irony of this situation is illustrated by comparing Warfield’s view with the view of one leading textual critic of the later 20th century. Bruce Metzger thought that the original author of Mark’s Gospel did not write chapter 16, verses 9-20, but he regarded the passage as canonical because it was added before the church recognised the Gospel as canonical. Warfield, however, did not rely on such tradition. He really was prepared to wield a textual scalpel in order to purify and establish the true biblical text. Warfield’s quest for such a text can be viewed as part of his work to uphold the truth of historic Christianity.

This book is a fine piece of work, a great contribution to understanding Warfield’s theology. Zaspel provides a wonderful biographical introduction. He covers all the main areas of systematic theology, ending with a helpful reflection on Warfield’s contribution to theology. The longest sections in the book are on Christology and soteriology, which helps to set the historical record straight. Far from being a writer with only one contribution to make, Benjamin B. Warfield was the master of all the parts of Christian theology. Known to most as the theologian of biblical inerrancy this survey will hopefully encourage interested readers to discover Warfield for themselves. For example, to read the two volumes of Warfield sermons, Faith and Life and The Savior of the Word, is at one and the same time an entry level course on classical theology and a delight to the soul.

David Shedden

Liked it? Take a second to support Editor on Patreon!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.