Old Princeton: Rightly Reasoning About Warfield

Benjamin Breckinridge Warfield (1851-1921) was professor of Didactic and Polemic theology at Princeton seminary from 1887-1921. Warfield still stands at the center of most of the significant theological controversies marking our day. Yet, despite his voluminous and accessible writings, Warfield is often misunderstood and misrepresented, even by some sympathetic to his general convictions. As the “Lion of Princeton,” he is often thought to embody the fullness of Old Princeton, thus any fruitful appropriation of Old Princeton can likely happen only if we rightly reason about him.

Misrepresentation of him breeds neglect of him, so falsehoods need refuting. Warfield was not an evidentialist as an apologist, nor dependent on Scottish Common Sense Realism, or an Enlightenment view of science for his epistemology. He was not a rationalist who failed to understand sin’s effects on human reasoning. He did not have a “stable” or “static” view of truth, nor use “right reason” to refer to neutral territory where the non-Christian and Christian could meet to discuss their differences. He did not endorse a “fact/value” split. It is misleading to think that his thought failed to “go much beyond the various Protestant confessional standards,” even though he faithfully represented those standards.

As a young boy growing up on a farm and memorizing the Shorter Catechism by six years of age, and the Larger Catechism and its Scripture proofs by the time he was sixteen, Warfield was saturated in the categories and content of the Westminster Confession of Faith (WCF). He believed that the Old and New Testament were the only living and true written word, from the only living and true Triune God. Living meant they were organisms. Warfield repeatedly referred to God’s word, revelation or truth as organisms. The idea that Warfield had a “static” or “stable” view of truth would be comical were it not taken seriously. Warfield’s stress on the organic is perhaps most indicative of how he engaged with, and in some measure reflected, nineteenth-century thought.

According to Warfield, the system of doctrine contained in the WCF was mandated by God’s written word.  He believed that the Triune God created the heavens and the earth, is personally present in his creation, and providentially governing and guiding it for his God-glorifying purpose. Warfield believed that the historical process that marked creation was dependent on and the expression of God’s very being. He believed that God created humans in his image, male and female, possessing knowledge, righteousness and holiness, and with dominion over the creatures. Yet, by sinning against God humans fell out of communion with God, and were corrupted by sin. Sin did not cause humans to become a completely other kind of creature, or place them outside of experiencing God through his creation. Warfield affirmed that sinners are without excuse for their sinfully wrong reasoning and actions based on it, in part, because God is perceived through creation. Denials of this did not constitute eradication of it.

Warfield didn’t accept the rules for reasoning, or the rules for knowledge claims, by those denying the Christian faith for the purpose of commending the Christian faith to them. He rejected that the individual was the supreme authority for knowledge, or that this relativism provided an accurate account of reality. He believed that only by the Holy Spirit regenerating sinners could they possess “right reason,” and thereby rightly interpret reality enough to place their faith in Jesus for salvation. Through “right reason” given by the Holy Spirit, Christians are able to make progress in knowing the Lord Jesus Christ, who is the Creator and Redeemer. Thus, the basis for objectivity was a personal subject—the Triune God. Objectivity and subjectivity in knowledge claims harmonized. One could not rightly interpret reality and engage in accurate science apart from the Holy Spirit’s power controlling one’s reasoning.

For Warfield, all human knowledge and claims to it are theological, organic and historically conditioned. Since humans are historically time and space bound creatures they progressively learn truth, therefore Warfield patiently and persistently argued his positions. Stating that people need to have the Triune God as their ultimate presupposition was not the same as helping people go through the unavoidable historical process of understanding why. He did not merely analyze knowledge from an objective absolute, but understood the latter in relation to an organic historical process. Warfield attempted to help people recognize the rational validity of Christian belief by explaining the doctrines of the Christian faith in the face of their distortion and denials.

David P. Smith, M.Div. (Covenant Seminary), Ph.D. (Trinity Evangelical Divinity School), is Pastor of Covenant Fellowship A.R.P. Church in Greensboro, North Carolina.  

David Smith