An Interview on B.B. Warfield
Fred Zaspel was kind enough to answer a few questions for me about his new book, The Theology of B.B. Warfield: A Systematic Summary.
How would you rank Warfield among the theological giants of church history?
On one level, I’ve often been amused at this question—it has struck me that students of John Owen rank Owen as first, students of Jonathan Edwards rank Edwards as first, and so on.
I don’t know any theologian of history as well as I know Warfield, and so I suppose my judgment is biased. And certainly there have been others who were more influential than Warfield. But I think it is fair to say that surely the church has witnessed few theologians with both the breadth and the depth of scholarship of Warfield. His learning was simply massive, and this was the reputation he earned even in his own day. John DeWitt, for example, longtime professor of church history at Old Princeton and colleague of Warfield, said that he had been privileged to know personally all of the three great theologians of the past generation—Henry Boynton Smith, Charles Hodge, and William G.T. Shedd—and that he was not only certain that Warfield knew more than any of them but he was disposed to say that Warfield knew more than all of them put together. Warfield was as commanding in textual questions, historical questions, questions of authorship of the Old and New Testament books, higher criticism, et al, as he was in questions of his given domain of theology. Machen remarks that Warfield was so well-read that he had all the literature on every conceivable subject at his fingertips. And so he enthusiastically stood up to check the advance of liberalism on every front. This kind of theologian is rare indeed, and in his own day he was recognized as one uniquely equipped for the task.
Additionally, although we have to admit that he “lost” his case within his own denomination—the PCUSA and Princeton capitulating soon after his death to the liberalism he so vigorously opposed—he is yet known as the man who propelled orthodoxy into the twentieth century. And certainly all sides agree that Warfield remains the high water mark of the doctrine of inspiration. As Augustine is recognized as the theologian of sin and grace, Anselm the theologian of the atonement, and Luther the theologian of justification, so Warfield is the theologian of the doctrine of inspiration. He is worthy of note in many other ways, in my judgment, but this will doubtless remain his legacy, his leading gift to the church.
I suspect that a number of readers who know of Warfield will know almost nothing about Warfield the person. Can you get us a little insight into Warfield the man?
The reports that we have of Warfield the man are unanimous in their praise of his personal godliness and heart for Christ, as well as his exact scholarship. Samuel Craig remarked something to the effect that Warfield’s obvious sense of dependence upon Christ was his leading personal trait. Beyond this, Warfield was a man of quick wit and good humor—he could tease a friend, and he was not above a laughing sarcasm of self-defeating arguments of the liberals. He loved children, carried on extensive correspondence with former students, and gave generously to gospel causes. I think there may have been a degree of intellectual aloofness, owing to his superior learning and obviously brilliant mind. He was an independent thinker. But even so, on a personal level he seems to have been an endearing figure—former colleagues and students alike speak of him in adoring terms.
Warfield seems to have enjoyed a wonderful relationship with his wife, Anne. She was witty and pleasant and seems even his intellectual soul mate. It is well known that she suffered from a nervous disorder of some kind, and in their later years she was a near invalid. Warfield scarcely left home except to teach and preach at the seminary and was otherwise home with her. I have to say, however, that I think some of the legend on this score goes beyond the evidence. It was not their entire married life but only the later years that she was invalid. And I’m sure their hired servants helped significantly in her care. And I have seen no evidence at all that her suffering served to shape, to any extent, Warfield’s understanding that the miraculous gifts were no longer present in the church. But however the legends may exceed the evidence, Warfield clearly loved his wife, delighted in her company, and was loving and faithful to her in every sense.
If you could sum up the essence, the heartbeat, of Warfield’s theology, how would you define it?
Yes, if you may recall, I originally toyed with the idea of titling my book, The Redemptive Religion, because this is how Warfield understood Christianity. He stresses over and again that Christianity is a redemptive religion, that it is a religion specifically for sinners, that at its very heart it was a remedial scheme, and so on. 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.
Was there anything that surprised you in working through all of Warfield’s materials?
I had read Warfield for many years before beginning the more serious work for my book, and already having this broader acquaintance I can’t say there were many surprises. But throughout this research I was struck time and again with the breadth and depth of Warfield’s learning, the penetrating insight of his keen mind, and the deep passion of his heart for Christ. Here was a professional theologian whose heart and mind both were simply enormous. I do hope this comes through in my book.
Beyond this, I suppose I was a bit surprised to learn that the doctrine of inspiration was not the focus of Warfield’s career or literary output. We all know Warfield as the one who articulated this doctrine (inspiration) with more clarity and at more length than any other, and I think we naturally assume that this was his own “center.” But it wasn’t. He was above all else a Christologian. The person and work of Christ forms the greatest segment of his published works, and this was clearly his own center of gravity.
For those who want to read Warfield, what are some works to begin with?
For a broader acquaintance with his works, the best place to begin is the two-volume Selected Shorter Writings. These selections provide a look at Warfield the theologian, the scholar, the preacher, and so on—a really fine collection.
For those less interested in the more academic material, the best place to begin is his Faith and Life—a wonderful collection of sermons preached at Princeton, displaying well Warfield’s gospel-centered heart.
You can also listen to an audio interview with Zaspel about Warfield at Christ the Center (Reformed Forum).