Old Princeton: B. B. Warfield, Minister to Children
A minister of the gospel in service to Jesus Christ will necessarily have an interest in children.
All servants who hear their Master say, “Let the children come to me; do not hinder them, for to such belongs the kingdom of God,” will share his great interest in the spiritual needs of little ones.
Such were the interests of B.B. Warfield (1851-1921). Though widely remembered for his forceful defense of the inerrancy of scripture, Warfield should also be remembered for his vigorous protection of the place covenant children have in the kingdom of God.
Convinced the spiritual interests of children needed advocacy in the church, Warfield labored for them in his theological writings, even though he had no children of his own.
In three essays in particular, one can see his ministry to children covered the whole range of their lives, defending the graces of God to them in their birth, their youth and, should providence require it, their early death.
In his 1899 article, “The Polemics of Infant Baptism,” Warfield marshalled formidable exegetical and logical skills to defend the infants of believers as proper subjects of baptism.
The occasion was the publication of Baptist theologian A.H. Strong’s, Systematic Theology (1886). In it Strong presented six reasons why infants of believers must not be considered proper subjects of baptism. Rising to their defense, Warfield countered with exegetical rigor and penetrating logic. In fact, half of Warfield’s success in this essay was revealing the missteps of logic embedded in half of Strong’s most passionately argued points.
I will not rehearse the details, but let the reader understand – indeed see for themselves – that well-meaning arguments built on faulty logic cannot withstand better logic. Warfield did not need to bring a battalion of exegesis against each of Strong’s points when just a troop of logic could dispatch error. The theological student of Warfield learns that theological improvement comes as much from better thinking as it does from better Bible reading.
In 1904 Warfield again came to the defense of covenant children, this time not for the graces of infancy but for the graces youth. In his essay, “The Children in the Hands of the Arminians,” he responds to Charles Rishell’s book, The Child as God’s Child.
Rishell, a professor at Boston University at the time, argued in his book that all children are born into a “safe” state with God. This is how Rishell applied an “unlimited atonement,” where the death of Christ applies to all men, overcoming the guilt and corruption of original sin without any need for repentance and faith. In this Pelagian system a child is not lost and in need of conversion, he is rather born “found” – in a state of grace – only in need of not getting “lost.”
On this faulty foundation Rishell designed a program for the religious training of youth void of calls for repentance, void of calls to trust Christ alone by faith alone. On the contrary he emphasized a host of efforts to keep children in the grace in which they were born.
Warfield calls the whole thing just another version of “autosoteric Christianity,” having more in common with paganism than biblical religion. Warfield argues that Rishell’s scheme fosters the very attitudes that kept the rich young ruler of Luke 18 from seeing the necessity and worth of Christ. Rishell’s man-centered program will raise children who cannot love the Savior but only boast: “Teacher, all these I have kept from my youth.”
After recognizing the value of training a child to bridle the appetites of his flesh and live a clean life, Warfield insists there is a training of much greater worth: “It is much more worth while to train a child to recognize the sinfulness of his heart and the amazing deceit and subtlety of its sinful movements. It is much more worth while to teach him to contemplate with ceaseless wonder the unspeakable love of God in the gift of his only begotten Son as a sacrifice for the sin of the world…. It is much more worth while to implant within his soul a longing for the gift of the Spirit by whom, being born anew, he is led onward in the holy walk with God his Savior.”
A third article where Warfield defends the graces belonging to covenant children is his 1891 pamphlet titled, “The Development of the Doctrine of Infant Salvation.”
This article is too detailed and the topic too tender to justly summarize here. However, I commend it to both pastor and parent. With great care for both the glory of God and the enjoyment of God, Warfield takes up the cause of covenant children who die in infancy. He dispels much confusion and settles us within the safe boundaries of biblical orthodoxy.
B.B. Warfield leaves a bold and courageous trail of ministry on behalf of the church’s children.
John Hartley has been pastor of Apple Valley Presbyterian Church since 2010, having previously been a pastor for 10 years in Vermont. He is a Wisconsin native and a graduate of University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee as well as Dallas Theological Seminary. John lives with his wife Jen and their five children