Old Princeton: Benjamin B. Warfield - a Reminder Not to Reinvent the Wheel

It is not uncommon for our church to receive protests for being careful adherents to the historic Westminster Standards; thus, I have developed a confessional apologetic that boils down to these modern proverbs: “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it!”; and, “Don’t try and reinvent the wheel!”

B. B. Warfield is more eloquent on the matter of preserving official ecclesiastical precision:

The railroad is pushed across the continent by the simple process of laying each rail at the end of the line already laid.  The prerequisite of all progress is a clear discrimination which as frankly accepts the limitations set by the truth already discovered, as it rejects the false and the bad.  Construction is not destruction; neither is it the outcome of destruction.[1]

It is dangerous for a church to entrust her keys with novices who have not first passed a basic confessional driver’s test prepared by the fathers of the faith and administered by presently licensed instructors.  Warfield continues:

… the history of progress in every science and no less in theology, is a story of impulses given, corrected, and assimilated.  And when they have been once corrected and assimilated, these truths are to remain accepted … if the temple of God's truth is ever to be completely built, we must not spend our efforts in digging at the foundations which have been securely laid in the distant past, but must rather give our best efforts to rounding the arches, carving the capitals, and fitting in the fretted roof.[2]

Too often churches are marked by the tread of mavericks racing over them along their eclectic joy rides that prove more eccentric than ecclesiastical.  Warfield cautions us to yield to our more trustworthy systematic theology (which the Westminster Standards are):

What if it is not ours to lay foundations?   Let us rejoice that that work has been done!  Happy are we if our God will permit us to bring a single capstone into place.  This fabric is not a house of cards to be built and blown down again a hundred times a day, as the amusement of our idle hours: it is a miracle of art to which all ages and lands bring their varied tribute.[3]

True Christianity is a relay race supported by a trained pit crew that doesn’t get creative with already well-designed tires.  Carl Trueman rightly challenges haphazard novelty:

… do not precipitately abandon creedal formulations which have been tried and tested over centuries by churches all over the world in favor of your own ideas.  On the whole, those who reinvent the wheel invest a lot of time either to come up with something that looks identical to the old design or something that is actually inferior to it … many of us are inclined to believe that if something does not make sense the first time we look at it, it—and not we—must be wrong.  That is not the way the church operates.[4]

A church riding on spare tires finds they can’t carry her long distances; whereas, “… the great creeds of the church are corporate products which … carry the authority of the ages behind them.”[5]  As I serve with full-subscriptionists to the original Westminster Standards, Warfield’s stalwart efforts to put the brakes on updating their early American version is much appreciated, as is Trueman’s warning that, “…the history of confessional revision is not a particularly happy one.  By and large, churches that have engaged in extensive revision of their confessional standards have generally revised them in a direction that has proved in the long term to be inimical to orthodoxy and the health of the church.”[6]

Relying on the cloud of witnesses before them, the Westminster Standards will be responded to by Berean spirits with, "I believe that!"; and, "I couldn't have said it better myself!"

[1] Benjamin Breckenridge Warfield, “The Idea of Systematic Theology”, in The Works of Benjamin B. Warfield, vol. 9: Studies in Theology (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1981) , 76.

[2] Ibid, 76-77.

[3] Ibid, 77.

[4] Carl R. Trueman, The Creedal Imperative (Wheaton, Ill.: Crossway, 2012) , 107, 177.

[5] Ibid, 149, 150.

[6] Ibid, 194.  I also appreciate his earlier notice on page 193: “We should not propose confessional revision unless we believe the confession is actually wrong in some point … any revision to such by one denomination inevitably sets that denomination apart to some extent from others that subscribe to the same standards in their unrevised form.  In this way, revision can actually make the documents less ecumenical.”

Grant Van Leuven has been feeding the flock at the Puritan Evangelical Church of America in San Diego, CA, since 2010.  He is the adoring husband of Jennifer Van Leuven and a proud father of their four covenant children: Rachel, Olivia, Abraham, and Isaac.  He earned his M.Div. at the Reformed Presbyterian Theological Seminary in Pittsburgh, PA.

Grant Van Leuven