Benjamin Breckinridge Warfield was a “classic.” His written works have stood the test of time and have inspired subsequent generations. His life also stands the test of time in the way he kept his priorities: to Christ, to his wife, and to his students at Princeton Theological Seminary. He was a prolific writer and, in terms of brilliance, a giant among the Princeton giants of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. To the frustration of later students of his work, he left no diaries or journals, which a review of his life will give some hints as to why. Before Warfield’s birth on November 5, 1851, in Lexington, Kentucky, the Lord was at work through his family heritage. His mother’s father was Robert Breckinridge, a Presbyterian pastor who founded a theological seminary in Danville, Kentucky. He was moderator of the 1841 General Assembly of the old school Presbyterian Church and an advocate of emancipation for the slaves. He also was temporary chairman of the 1864 Republican Party convention, which re-nominated Abraham Lincoln for president. An uncle, John Breckinridge, was vice president under President James Buchanan. On his father’s side were Puritan ancestors who left England to avoid persecution. His father, William Warfield, owned a large estate of farmland near Lexington, breeding cattle and horses. His parents took Deuteronomy 6:5–9 very seriously. The children memorized the Shorter Catechism at a very young age, along with the Scripture passages. Then they learned the Larger Catechism. Benjamin also was learning from natural revelation, walking through the fields and countryside. His younger brother Ethelbert remembered Benjamin’s scientific interests: “He collected birds’ eggs, butterflies and moths, and geological specimens; studied the fauna and flora of his neighborhood; read Darwin’s newly published works with great enthusiasm and counted Audubon’s works on American birds and mammals his chief treasure.”
At sixteen, Benjamin made a profession of faith in Christ and joined the Second Presbyterian Church in Lexington. He was sent off to the College of New Jersey, later named Princeton University. The faith he learned at home was strengthened there. “It was said in our time that no class in Princeton College ever passed through its four years without experiencing a religious revival,” Warfield later recalled. “Our class formed no exception. Our revival came near the end of our junior year. Scarcely anyone in the class was left ungarnered.”
The revival, in any case, did not drive him in the direction of pastoral ministry or theology. He was an editor of the N__assau Literary Magazine and contributed poetry and essays. He saw no use in studying Greek because he was planning a career in science. With perfect marks in mathematics and physics, he was offered a science fellowship in Europe. But his father encouraged him to turn it down to study more broadly on the continent. Following that direction, within a few months, from Heidelberg, he let his family know that he was giving up the science career for the ministry. That decision surprised his family and friends yet fulfilled his mother’s desires for her son. A friend, Charles Barrett, later asked him what prompted the decision, and Warfield replied: “Because I think that in the work of the ministry I can do the most to repay the Lord for what he has done for me.”
The background in science and nature still came in handy. To illustrate the transmission of the New Testament text, he would compare the different families of New Testament manuscripts with different breeds of cattle. He was the livestock editor of the Farmer’s Home Journal in Lexington for a short time — an interesting kind of training for editing theological journals later in life.
He enrolled in Princeton Theological Seminary, graduating in 1876. Instead of taking a call to a church in Dayton, Ohio, he planned further study in Europe and married Annie Pearce Kinkead, a Lexington descendant of Revolutionary War-hero George Rogers Clark.
They headed to Europe, where they were walking in the mountains one day and got caught in a violent thunderstorm. Mrs. Warfield suffered a trauma to her nervous system and never recovered. Dr. Warfield devoted his life to her care, seldom traveling far from her, following the marriage vows he had taken with her with unusual care and faithfulness. They were never able to have children, and she could never travel or move about very much.
After their return from Europe, Dr. Warfield accepted a call as assistant pastor of the First Presbyterian Church in Baltimore. A short time later he accepted a call to Western Theological Seminary in Allegheny, Pennsylvania, to teach New Testament language and literature.
He lived in a time when the truths of the Bible were under serious challenge at several levels. Robert Ingersoll, an influential Republican, was preaching atheism, prompting Lew Wallace to write the best-selling novel Ben-Hur as an answer. Academically, higher criticism was attacking the authority of the Bible. Warfield stood firmly on the side of the truth of the Scriptures in this contest, not because it was the popular position in the academic world, but out of personal conviction.
In 1886 Archibald Alexander Hodge died unexpectedly, and Warfield was asked to succeed him at Princeton. His responsibilities included teaching classes and editing important theological journals, including what became the Princeton Theological Review. He was a prolific writer, as Hugh T. Kerr noted — ten volumes, along with many other essays and dictionary and encyclopedia entries. “We are talking about a theological authorship on the order of Augustine, Aquinas, Luther, Calvin and Barth,” Kerr wrote.
But he also stayed close to his wife, who was often confined to bed. He seldom was away from her side for more than two hours. He set aside time to read to her every day. His colleague on the faculty, O.T. Allis, remembered: “I used to see them walking together and the gentleness of his manner was striking proof of the loving care with which he surrounded her.”
His care for his wife was part of a pattern of Christian character in Warfield. One of his students, F.T. McGill, summed him up: “Over a long period of years this man stands out in my mind as the most Christ-like man that I have ever known. In spite of his brilliance of mind, there was no spirit of superciliousness, no purpose to offend the dullest pupil, no haughtiness of heart.”
Mrs. Warfield died in 1915, and Dr. Warfield lived until Feb. 16, 1921, dying after teaching a class on 1 John 3 about how Christ had laid down His life for us.
In this sense, Warfield’s life was a classic. He devoted himself to his primary responsibility of care for his wife. He submitted to the trials God had put before him. He poured himself into his work.
J. Gresham Machen, the faculty member of the next generation, said that Warfield both took care of his wife so mercifully and “has done about as much work as ten ordinary men.” In the providence of God, working all things together for good, Warfield was able to use his best skills in the classroom and with his pen.
“He was pre-eminently a scholar and lived among his books,” wrote a Princeton colleague, Francis Patton. “He seldom preached in our neighboring cities, was not prominent in the debates of the General Assembly, was not a member of any of the Boards of our Church, did not serve on committees, and wasted no energy in the pleasant but perhaps unprofitable pastime of after-dinner speaking.”
In another sense, his life was a classic because his works have been so beneficial to subsequent generations.
When the authority of Scripture became an issue among evangelicals in the 1970s, those defending inerrancy turned to Warfield’s book The Inspiration and Authority of Scripture.
In 1932, Dr. Martyn Lloyd-Jones found the newly published ten volumes of Warfield’s works. He felt like Cortez discovering the Pacific Ocean. Lloyd-Jones would become a leading evangelical preacher in London and prolific writer himself. “He reveled in the ten volumes to a degree which he had done with no other modern writer,” comments Lloyd-Jones’ biographer, Iain Murray. “As in the older Reformed authors, here was theology anchored in Scripture, but with an exegetical precision more evident in the older authors, and combined with a devotion which raised the whole above the level of scholarship alone.”
How could a man turn out so much good work and yet tell us so little of himself? One possible hint of a reason can be found in his own book Calvin and Calvinism.
Warfield puzzled over the key to Calvin’s greatness. “No man ever had a profounder sense of God than he; no man ever more unreservedly surrendered himself to the Divine direction,” Warfield wrote. “If there is anything that will make a man great, surely it is placing himself unreservedly at the disposal of God and seeking not only to do nothing but God’s will, but to do all God’s will. That is what Calvin did, and it is because of this that he was great.”
A person so wrapped up in the glory of God, in this manner, is less likely to write or talk about himself. Warfield may have been able to spot this attribute in John Calvin because he shared some of it himself and thus seldom wrote about himself because he was so consumed with the glory of God.