Old Princeton: Benjamin B. Warfield, Renaissance Man

Benjamin B. Warfield (1851-1921) served as the professor of didactic and polemic theology at Princeton Theological Seminary from 1887-1921. Warfield is known as the “Lion of Princeton” for his defense of Christian supernaturalism and the verities of the faith, which has come to be known “Old Princeton theology.” Like his predecessors and colleagues, Warfield was a prolific author and indicated in his books, articles, and reviews his wide reading and learning. Like Charles Hodge, Warfield began his teaching career in New Testament studies at Western Seminary in the Pittsburgh area before returning to Princeton to take up his duties there.

Warfield indicated an early interest in science on his family farm in Lexington, KY and even published on animal husbandry and arguably embraced some form of evolution at that early stage. This interest in science and evolution would be strengthened when he entered Princeton College at the same time as Scotsman James McCosh as the school’s newest president. McCosh would become well-known as an advocate of a Christian acceptance of evolution and utilization of the philosophy known as Scottish Common Sense Realism. Eventually Warfield would enter Princeton Seminary from which he graduated in 1876.

Surprisingly for some of his friends, Warfield decided to become a minister in the Presbyterian Church in the USA and he would be later ordained and supplied congregations in Kentucky and Ohio. Rather than serve in the pastorate, Warfield pursued a teaching career. He and his wife Anne Kinkead moved to Germany where Warfield he specialized in biblical studies. Returning stateside, Warfield briefly served as an assistant pastor in Baltimore before taking up his call as a professor of New Testament at Western Seminary.

At Western Seminary Warfield published an introduction to textual criticism, the science of determining the original text of the NT from among a plethora of ancient manuscripts with typically minor variations here and there. Eventually Warfield would coauthor an article on the inspiration of the Bible with A. A. Hodge which would lead to an invitation to return to Princeton Seminary to take up his duties in the Charles Hodge chair of theology where Warfield would remain until his death in 1921.

Warfield published on a variety of subjects throughout his teaching and ministerial career. The coauthored article with Hodge on biblical inspiration augured further work on inerrancy for which Warfield is justly famous. But Warfield also wrote on apologetics, philosophy, church history, Calvinism, and penned numerous book reviews. Contemporary readers can gauge the extent of Warfield’s knowledge by reading the many books of his that are still in print including the ten-volume Works of Benjamin B. Warfield, and the two-volume Selected Shorter Writings.

Warfield’s interests and competencies were many and varied and were deep as well as broad. He was a true Renaissance man. He was adept at intelligently interacting with, defending, or explaining various facets of the Christian faith. He wrote sophisticated biblical and theological pieces. He also wrote more popular articles that appeared in periodicals for women and encyclopedias and dictionaries. He did not travel far and wide as his wife was (arguably) an invalid for at least some period of their married life. In addition to his teaching and writing load, he cared for his wife and befriended colleagues such as Geerhardus Vos with whom he would take daily walks around Princeton. Warfield defended to the death the veracity of the Bible and its supernaturalism and the value of the Westminster Standards. Warfield embodied the spirit of Old Princeton and it was a sad day when he passed away. Warfield’s younger colleague J. Gresham Machen put it well in a letter to his mother Minnie after having attended Warfield’s funeral that when Warfield’s body was carried out of the funeral that that symbolized the end to old Princeton. Indeed, that seems to be true.

*Much has been written about Warfield and the Princeton theology. Mark Noll has delved into Princeton with his now classic The Princeton Theology. Gary L. W. Johnson has edited a fine collection of essays, B. B. Warfield: Essays on his Life and Thought. On Warfield, science, and evolution, see Mark Noll and David Livingstone’s Evolution, Science, and Scripture. Fred Zaspel has done the church a service in producing a synthetic reading of Warfield’s theology with his Theology of B. B. Warfield: A Systematic Survey and Warfield on the Christian Life.  Paul Kjoss Helseth has addressed the charge of bald rationalism in the old Princetonians in general and Warfield in particular in “Right Reason” and the Princton Mind and Bradley Gundlach deals with the question of evolution at old Princeton in Process and Providence.  Kim Riddlebarger has addressed Warfield’s apologetics in his Lion of Princeton. Gundlach is currently working on a forthcoming Warfield biography.  Jeffrey Stivason has also written a book on Warfield's view of Inspiration forthcoming with P&R.

Jeffrey C. Waddington (Ph.D., Westminster Theological Seminary) is stated supply at Knox Orthodox Presbyterian Church.  He also serves as a panelist at Christ the Center and East of Eden and is the secretary of the board of the Reformed Forum.  Additionally he serves as an articles editor for the Confessional Presbyterian Journal.

Jeffrey Waddington