Monday, April 15, 2013

Benjamin B. Warfield

Princeton, New Jersey Visited August 2012

Benjamin Breckenridge Warfield was one of the titans of the Reformed faith at the turn of the 20th Century. In an age where the very essence of Biblical Christianity was being undermined by theological liberalism, "The Lion of Princeton" stood for the historic orthodox doctrine of the Faith with a towering intellect and prodigious commitment to written theological argument.

The young Warfield circa 1864

Benjamin Warfield was born in 1851 in Lexington, Kentucky into the aristocratic Breckenridge clan. Warfield’s maternal grandfather was a professor of theology who was a staunch supporter of the Union cause in the Civil War. His uncle, John Breckenridge was Vice President in the Buchanan administration and became a well regarded general in the Confederate army. Warfield himself was a Unionist committed to the civil rights of African Americans throughout his life. Benjamin was raised in a thoroughly Reformed home and professed saving faith in Christ at sixteen, but did not appear to have much interest in the ministry or theological pursuits early in life.

Warfield attended Princeton College where he excelled in the sciences. Upon graduation he sought to continue study in Europe. It was in Europe that B. B. Warfield "realized the paramount claims of God and religion upon him", and accepted God’s call to preach the Gospel – to the utter surprise of all who knew him. He came back to the United States and enrolled at Princeton Seminary, graduating in 1876.  He was ordained to the ministry in the Presbyterian Church.

The year 1876 was pivotal in Warfield’s life beyond his ordination. In August of that year he married Anne Kinkead. They traveled in Europe for their honeymoon. Hiking in the mountains, they encountered a severe thunderstorm. A lighting strike nearby physically and emotionally traumatized Anne. The effect of this event was to have a lifelong impact on the Warfields. Anne returned to the U.S. in an invalid state and became a virtual recluse for the rest of her life. This tragedy at the beginning of his marriage became the defining reality for B. B. Warfield. For the rest of his life the care of his wife was his highest priority. He left pulpit ministry early for seminary professorship where he could arrange his schedule around her care. From this point on he never traveled or spent more than a couple of hours away from Anne. With the death of the legendary A. A. Hodge, B. B. Warfield returned to his alma mater in 1886 where he took up a life-long professorship in systematic theology.

Providentially, it was a combination of Warfield’s energetic intellectual gifts and his devotion to his wife which led to a ministry of singular significance in the cause of the Gospel. Not noted for his preaching skills, B. B. Warfield devoted himself to writing and publishing theological works that rival Luther and Calvin in scope and volume. It was the self imposed limits on travel and extra-curricular activity that allowed him to give his time to the study and composition of this work. Warfield’s theological output was devoted to articulating classic Reformed theology in an age of modernist thought and liberal attacks on the inerrancy and authority of Scripture. His writings remain remarkably accessible and compelling today. With contemporaries Abraham Kuyper and Herman Bavinck, B. B. Warfield carried the Reformed theology of Calvin, Edwards and Hodge through the modernist movement and sent it into the 20th Century era with compelling intellectual force.

Warfield in his study

Recent Warfield biographer Fred Zaspel was inteviewed by Justin Taylor from the Gospel Coalition on what he learned about Warfield the man.    

This is one of things that attracted me to Warfield—more than most any other I’d read he understands Christianity “whole” and finds Christ crucified at the very center. He sees both the forest and the trees and understands all as pointing to this redemptive center. And for Warfield personally this was no merely academic discovery, but he is himself marked by a keen sense of utter dependence upon Christ, and his own heart beat hot for his glorious Redeemer.

Anne Warfield died in 1915, and B. B. Warfield continued on in his ministry for six more years. They never had any children. Warfield worked hard till the very end. He suffered a minor stroke Christmas Eve, 1920.  Then on a walk across campus in February 1921 he suffered a heart attack from which he would not recover. Benjamin Breckinridge Warfield died on February 16, 1921 ending a 33 year career of scholarship at Princeton Seminary. In a sad irony, Warfield, Bavinck and Kuyper all passed into glory within nine months of each other.

Your blogger with Warfield

Map of Old Princeton Cemetery

Benjamin B. Warfield is buried in Old Princeton Cemetery. It’s actually a bit challenging to find his grave since it is not in the Edwards/Hodge section. I've been there several times, most recently with a group of pastors, theology students and missionaries on a one day tour of Great Awakening sites.  We ended our tour at Princeton Cemetery. 

Tour dudes with the Warfields - Anne Warfield to the left

Here’s a wonderful quote from Warfield that captures the clear Gospel centeredness of all his work.

Our faith itself, though it be the bond of our union with Christ through which we receive all His blessings, is not our saviour. We have but one Saviour; and that one Saviour is Jesus Christ our Lord. Nothing that we are and nothing that we can do enters in the slightest measure into the ground of our acceptance with God. Jesus did it all.