B.B. Warfield: Defender of the Faith
by R.C. Sproul
Twenty-five years ago I gave an address at a college in western Pennsylvania. After the service was completed, an elderly gentleman and his wife approached me and introduced themselves as Mr. and Mrs. Johannes Vos. I was surprised to learn that Dr. Vos was the son of the celebrated biblical theologian Geerhardus Vos who had written a classical work on redemptive history entitled Biblical Theology, which is still widely read in seminaries. During the course of my conversation with them, Dr. Vos related to me an experience he had as a young boy living in Princeton, New Jersey, where his father was teaching on the faculty of Princeton Theological Seminary. This was in the decade of the 1920s, a time in which Princeton Theological Seminary was still in its heyday; it was the time we now refer to as “old Princeton.” Dr. Vos told me of an experience he had in the cold winter of 1921. He saw a man walking down the sidewalk, bundled in a heavy overcoat, wearing a fedora on his head, and around his neck was a heavy scarf. Suddenly, to this young boy’s horror and amazement, as the man walked past his home, he stopped, grasped his chest, slumped, and fell to the sidewalk. Young Johannes Vos stared at this man for a moment, then ran to call to his mother. He watched as the ambulance came and carried the man away. The man who had fallen had suffered a major heart attack, which indeed proved to be fatal. His name was Benjamin Breckinridge Warfield.
I was thunderstruck by this narrative that was told to me by the now elderly Johannes Vos. I felt like I was somehow linked to history by being able to hear a firsthand account through somebody telling me of the last moments of the legendary B.B. Warfield’s life. At the time of his death, Warfield had been on the faculty of Princeton and had distinguished himself as its most brilliant theologian during his tenure.
My first exposure to the writings of B.B. Warfield was somewhat serendipitous. As a young college student, I had the daily dilemma of trying to parlay my meager funds into enough money to sustain myself. I was trying to live on a five-dollar-a-week allowance, out of which had to come the payment of my meals and the nightly ritual of a long distance telephone call to my fiancée. Obviously, even in the 1950s, five dollars did not stretch far enough to provide all of these needs. Therefore, I had to find ways to become semi-entrepreneurial and scrounge up a few extra dollars, so that I could eat and enjoy the conversation with my bride to be. I took up barbering without a license, giving my fellow students haircuts for a dollar to help defray my expenses. But my great break came when one of my professors told me of a new publishing company that was doing business out of a man’s garage in Nutley, New Jersey. It was called the Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Company. The publishing house was looking for student representatives on various campuses to help distribute its products, and my professor asked if I would be interested in such an enterprise. I leapt at the chance, not motivated by any desire to propagate Reformed theology, but merely out of a pure economic motive. Within a few days there arrived at my dormitory a large cardboard box that was so heavy I could hardly lift it. It included all of the then published works of the Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Company. There was a note inside indicating to me that these books were samples that I would have at my disposal, that I might familiarize myself with the works that were published by the company. Included were several of the works of Cornelius Van Til, a couple of volumes that had been published into English by G.C. Berkouwer, along with the complete works of B.B. Warfield.
While I initially had no idea of the wealth of scholarship that was contained in this single box of books, I quickly grasped their significance as I started to read through them to familiarize myself with the content of the products I would be selling on campus for the next couple of years. I had no idea at that time that G.C. Berkouwer, to whom I was first introduced through these books, would be my mentor in graduate school in Holland. Nor did I think that I would ever have the opportunity to meet Cornelius Van Til and exchange ideas and concepts with him while eating cookies on his front porch in eastern Philadelphia near the campus of Westminster Theological Seminary. Though the providence of God was kind to me in allowing me to meet two out of the three of these titans of theology, I knew that the only way I would ever have the opportunity to meet B.B. Warfield was to wait until glory, since he had departed this world before I was born.
When we think of Presbyterian and Reformed theology in the nineteenth century, there are four names that stand out among the rest. In the northern church there was the extremely capable theologian Charles Hodge, who actually had taught Warfield in his undergraduate studies. The southern church was blessed with the work of James Henley Thornwell and Robert Lewis Dabney. Each of these four men had been strongly influenced by the classical Reformed thought of seventeenth-century Geneva, especially through the work of Francis Turretin.
Of the four, I am convinced that Warfield was the most able and the most brilliant. He combined a keen grasp of biblical knowledge along with all of the nuances of systematic theology. Indeed, early in his seminary teaching, he taught at Western Theological Seminary in Pittsburgh, which became perhaps the most liberal seminary among Presbyterian seminaries before it merged in the late 1950s with Pittsburgh-Xenia Seminary to become Pittsburgh Theological Seminary. His distinguished work at Western Seminary led Warfield to be given an invitation to teach at his alma mater Princeton Theological Seminary, where he distinguished himself as a mighty champion of the Reformed faith. He was a contemporary of Abraham Kuyper and Herman Bavinck who were both from the Netherlands. Though he was closely related to those Dutch theologians’ understanding of historic Calvinism, Warfield was more in line with the Scottish Reformed tradition than that of the Dutch. He had what seemed at the time to be a minor disagreement with Abraham Kuyper over the best way to defend Christian truth in the science of apologetics. That difference escalated among some of the students of Warfield and Kuyper. In 1929, Princeton Theological Seminary split, and its greatest thinkers moved to Philadelphia to become Westminster Theological Seminary. Cornelius Van Til, a brilliant young theologian who followed in the footsteps of Kuyper and Bavinck, affirmed a position on apologetics different from B.B. Warfield. One of Van Til’s most able students was John Gerstner. The irony is that though Gerstner was a student directly of Van Til, he came to the conclusion that Warfield was correct in this intramural debate with Kuyper. As a result, Gerstner continued the Warfield tradition, and Van Til continued the tradition of Kuyper. The students of Van Til include men such as John Frame and the late Greg Bahnsen.
As a student of John Gerstner, I was introduced early to Warfield and was convinced of the view of Warfield over Kuyper. To this day, we see these two strands of apologetics competing for acceptance within the Reformed community. It’s only to our detriment that we don’t have in our own day men of the stature of Warfield or Kuyper to carry these issues on. In the meantime, I am profoundly grateful for the legacy that has enriched the whole church as a result of the theological contributions of B.B. Warfield. I believe that Warfield is second only to Jonathan Edwards as America’s greatest theologian.