Warfield: 100 Years Later

On December 24, 1920 Benjamin B. Warfield fell ill after being struck with angina pectoris.  He died on February 16, 1921.  Why should we pause this week to remember a Princeton theologian who has been with the Lord for one hundred years?     Perhaps Isaac Newton’s reason is enough, “If I have seen further it is by standing on the shoulders of giants.”  Warfield was a giant.  Let me remind you of his stature with an example that hits close to home.

By the nineteenth century American theologians and exegetes had done little to stem the influx of Ritschlian theology.  But as Warfield, ever the observer, watched the theological landscape develop he noticed a pattern among his peers and colleagues with regard to the new critical theological views; a pattern that provided the new views with a foothold into the Church’s institutions no matter the denomination.  Warfield identified this pattern as the “Concessive Method.”  

We need not think of Warfield as a prototypical fundamentalist ready to reject scholarship simply because it may pose a challenge.  However, what Warfield did reject, and resoundingly so, was the camouflaging of higher critical methods, smuggling them into the church, and making them the norm of truth rather than the Scriptures; this seemed to be happening in many universities and seminaries scattered throughout the country.[1]  Thus, for Warfield, the Concessive Method adopted by many of the Church’s theologians and pastors to deal with the new theology emerging from German critical methods and presuppositions was actually “a neat device by which one may appear to conquer while really yielding the citadel.”[2]

But how did this happen?  Well, according to Warfield, the concessive method operated on the principle of defending the minimum.[3]  In 1895, Warfield published several articles in The Presbyterian Quarterly documenting the latest phase of rationalism abroad and in the American Church in order to demonstrate what was being defended as minimum ground upon which we might all stand together.  But in order to help his readers understand what is lost by the application of the Concessive Method, Warfield took his example from what was happening with regard to the authority of Scripture.  

Concession begins, says Warfield, by “rejecting the authority of the Bible for minor matters only – in the ‘minima,’ in ‘circumstantials’ and ‘by-passages’ and ‘incidental remarks,’ and the like.”[4]  The next step in the descent is to reject the Bible’s authority for everything except matters of faith and practice.[5]  Then comes unwillingness to bow to all the doctrinal teaching or ethical precepts from Scripture and instead, according to Warfield, we find men who “subject the religious and ethical contents of the Bible to the judgment of their ‘spiritual instinct.’”[6]  Finally, says Warfield, “the circle is completed by setting aside the whole Bible as authority; perchance with the remark…that in the apostolic age men depended on the spirit in his own heart” because, they say, no one ever dreamed of making the Scriptures, and much less the New Testament, the authoritative word of God.[7]

Today the nature of Scripture is once again under assault and those interested in defending the minimum have sought to convince us that in order to be theologically sophisticated and properly nuanced – that is to say, in order to have a place at the table – we must join them in supporting a Concessive Method.  But there is a price to pay for the application of this method.  Warfield would later point out in 1896, “it may not unnaturally happen sometime that the defense of the minimum alone will turn out to be the minimum defense of the Gospel.”[8]  Not surprisingly, this type of concessive thinking will eventually crown enlightened human reason as the final arbiter of truth rather than God’s Word. 

I hope that we may once again find ourselves atop the shoulders of this Southern gentle giant.  Why?  On the day of his Inauguration at Western Theological Seminary in 1880 he understood that he was a young and untried commodity.  So, he began his lecture with an affirmation, “I wish, therefore, to declare that I sign these standards not as a necessary form which must be submitted to, but gladly and willingly as an expression of a personal and cherished conviction.”  Friends, atop Warfield’s shoulders we will begin, not with concession, but with a personal and cherished conviction that the Bible is the very Word of God.

Jeffrey A Stivason (Ph.D. Westminster Theological Seminary) is pastor of Grace Reformed Presbyterian Church in Gibsonia, PA.  He is also Professor of New Testament Studies at the Reformed Presbyterian Theological Seminary in Pittsburgh, PA. Jeff is also an online instructor for Westminster Theological Seminary, Philadelphia, PA. He is the author of From Inscrutability to Concursus (P&R), he has contributed to The Jonathan Edwards Encyclopedia (Eerdmans) and has published academic articles and book reviews in various journals. Jeff is the Senior Editor of Place for Truth (placefortruth.org) an online magazine for the Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals. 

[1] Warfield, Selected Shorter Writings (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R, 2005), 679.

[2] Warfield, Studies in Theology, (Carlisle, PA: Banner of Truth, 1988), 588-589. 

[3] Warfield, Selected Shorter Writings, 2:675.  Warfield also talks about this concessive method as an “eager hospitality.”

[4] Warfield, Studies in Theology, 589.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Warfield, Selected Shorter Writings, 2:678.



Jeffrey Stivason