B. B. Warfield – Not a Solitary Theologian

B. B. Warfield – Not a Solitary Theologian

            Due to a need for brevity, many articles on Benjamin Breckinridge Warfield (1851-1921) focus on his theology and his devotion to his wife, whose illness kept the couple close to home. Because of this, he is often seen as a solitary man leading an uneventful life. This view is compounded by the fact that we have a very limited access to his letters (the scholar who holds his correspondence is currently working on a long-due biography).

            In reality, while it’s true that Warfield spent much time at home and in his study, he was deeply invested in the lives of those around him: students, family, and friends.

Young Warfield

            Warfield grew up in a farm near Lexington, Kentucky, learning about his father’s work as cattle raiser, collecting butterflies, moths, and rocks, memorizing the Westminster Catechisms (with Scriptural proofs), complaining about having to study Greek, reading books, and dreaming to become a scientist.  

            At 17 years of age, he began his studies at the College of New Jersey (later known as Princeton University), where he was generally a good student. Like other boys his age, he got into his share of mischief, most famously a fist fight with another student who was offended by an unflattering picture Warfield drew of him during a lecture. This incident, without serious consequences, earned him the nickname of “pugilist.”

            In a 1871 article in the Princeton Alumni Weekly, Warfield described some his experiences at Princeton: his regular visits to the college’s former president John Maclean (with plenty of tea, coriander-seed cookies, and wise advice), the long walks (in rubber boots) through the marshes leading to the college, the social clubs, the uncommercialized sports, the unruly congregation of students at the post-office, and the roasting jokes (then called “rakes”) about the faculty.

            Soon after graduating the same year, Warfield traveled to Europe for further studies at the universities of Edinburgh and Heidelberg – where he acted as referee for the Heidelberg Dueling Corps’ sword fights. He also visited other places, included London, enjoying the city’s operas and theatre plays.

            In the meantime, he reflected about his future. Eventually, he made an unexpected decision: he wanted to become a minister of the gospel. His mother must have taken it as an answer to prayer, because she had always hoped that at least one of her two sons would enter the ministry.

            In 1873, Warfield entered Princeton Theological Seminary, studying under Charles Hodge and his son Caspar Wistar Hodge. Two years later, he was licensed to preach. A sermon he gave on Romans 3:4 in Dayton, Ohio, left such an impression on his hearers (including a local reporter, who reprinted it) that he was extended a call to pastor the church. He declined for health reasons, and traveled back to Europe to study at the University of Leipzig.

            Before leaving, he married a young lady he had known for some time: Annie Pearce Kinkaid, daughter of a prominent attorney. They planned to combine the study trip with their honeymoon, but things took a turn for the worse when Annie was nearly struck by lightning during a walk in the Harz Mountains of Germany. Somehow, this incident affected her nervous system and overall health.

Faithful Friend

            After returning to the States, Warfield worked for some time as writer and editor, first for the same farming newspaper to which his father was a contributor, and later for The Presbyterian Review, together with Charles Hodge’s son Alexander Archibald. Jointly, A.A. Hodge and B.B. Warfield wrote an article entitled “Inspiration,” upholding and explaining the frequently challenged traditional doctrine of the inspiration and authority of the Bible.

            In 1878, Warfield accepted a call to serve as a Professor of New Testament at Western Theological Seminary in Allegheny, Pennsylvania, where he remained for the next nine years, until A. A. Hodge died unexpectedly from complications of a cold, leaving an opening at Princeton for a Professor of Didactic and Polemic Theology. A. A.’s brother Caspar invited Warfield to take the post, which he accepted after some time of prayer.

            After this, Warfield’s activities were mostly in the educational and editorial arena which, then as it is now, was anything but uneventful. Warfield’s enthusiastic defense of Scriptures and of the unadulterated gospel at a time when compromises seemed fair and enlightened is well-known. What may be less known is his involvement in the lives of his students and his love for his friends.

            Far from being a loner, Warfield stayed active in his church and community, and Annie did the same as long as her health allowed it. She liked helping at special events and riding her carriage around town. Warfield’s life was also enriched by a group of close friends, such as former classmates George Tybout Purves and John Fox, and especially his close neighbors: Geerhardus and Catherine Vos. Warfield and Purves didn’t always agree on everything, but they respected each other, and Warfield worked hard to bring him to Princeton as professor of New Testament Studies after Caspar Hodge’s death.

            Geerhardus Vos and Warfield engaged in frequent noon-time walks, usually with one of Vos’s dogs. Both Annie and Warfield became very close to the Vosses, and shared in their sorrows and joys.

            In 1903, when the Vosses welcomed to the world Johannes, their first child after nine years of marriage, the Warfields joined them in the celebration, bringing a silver collapsible drinking cup as present. Later, when the Vosses’ daughter Marianne became sick with scarlet fever, Warfield went hunting for quails and took them to her house so she could benefit from their highly digestible meat.

Loving Professor

            Warfield was also close to his students and involved in their lives. Convinced that all humans are equal in God’s sight, Warfield supported a policy of full integration in the school, in spite of strong opposition from many who had not yet accepted the abolition of slavery and everything it entailed. In fact, Warfield went beyond the new implementations. He believed that Christians had an obligation not only to free the slaves and preach the gospel to them, but also to give them a good education and the tools they needed to rise in society.

            Warfield and Annie kept a record of the students’ birthdays so they could extend their wishes each time. His lectures and sermons reveal a deep concern for the students’ wellbeing and for their training as pastors or – generally speaking – godly men.

            One sermon in particular, “Imitating the Incarnation,” is a good illustration of Warfield’s Christ-like love for others. Those who think of Warfield as a semi-recluse, confined to his home and his library, will be surprised to hear him exhort his students to live “not away from but into the midst of men. Wherever men suffer, there will we be to comfort. Wherever men strive, there will we be to help. Wherever men fail, there will be we to uplift. Wherever men succeed, there will we be to rejoice.”[1]

            These were not empty words. Only someone who has poured his life into others can explain the true meaning of self-sacrifice as “absorption” into the lives of others. “It means forgetfulness of self in others. It means entering into every man’s hopes and fears, longings and despairs: it means many-sidedness of spirit, multiform activity, multiplicity of sympathies. It means richness of development. It means not that we should live one life, but a thousand lives – binding ourselves to a thousand souls by the filaments of so loving a sympathy that their lives become ours. It means that all the experiences of men shall smite our souls and shall beat and batter these stubborn hearts of ours into fitness for their heavenly home.”

Warfield’s Last Years

            Warfield reached his heavenly home on February 16, 1921, after a heart attack. It was the second attack in two months. The first was on Christmas Eve, while he walked home from the seminary. At that time, the oldest Vos child, Johannes, saw him collapsing and told Catherine, who called an ambulance.

            Warfield recovered, so much that on February 16 he felt strong enough to teach an afternoon class. He lectured from 1 John 3 on the love of God in Christ, particularly verse 16: “Hereby perceive we the love of God, because he laid down his life for us: and we ought to lay down our lives for the brethren.” He pointed his students to the marvel of Christ’s sacrifice – Christ being “the Lord of glory,” we being “guilty sinners deserving his wrath.” He explained how this thought deepens “our wonder at His grace and our wish to glorify His name.”[2]

            Warfield’s last years at Princeton had been marked by many sorrows – mainly the death of his wife in 1913 and the seminary’s attempts to compromise some central Christian beliefs. But God’s grace, love, and glory remained foremost in his thoughts and continue to impress those who read his works.


[1] From The Savior of the World (reprint: Banner of Truth, 1991), p. 247-70; reprinted in The Person and Work of Christ (P&R, 1950, 1980), p. 575. Read the whole sermon here https://media.thegospelcoalition.org/static-blogs/justin-taylor/files/2010/09/Warfield-Imitating-the-Incarnation2.pdf

[2] Quoted in “This Day in Presbyterian History – February 16,” http://www.thisday.pcahistory.org/2019/02/february-16-6/


Simonetta Carr