The Lion of Princeton

On this date, 91 years ago, a heart attack killed B. B. Warfield at age 69. Though many regard him as the greatest of the old Princeton theologians, he was the last of them.

In Princeton’s library, before a series of lectures on Warfield was about to begin, I was looking at a timeline of portraits. He’s commonly called the “Lion of Princeton,” but looking at pictures towards the end of his life, you could almost pick out a grin behind his beard, as if the fires of orthodoxy brought a warmth to him.

Life Worth Living

Few theologians have been quoted as often as Warfield, yet strangely, not much has been written on his life. Promising projects are in process, but you’ll have to put some effort into finding biographical material on him.

The reason probably is because his life wasn’t very exciting. He rarely traveled and wrote from home, so that he could care for his wife, who was ill and bound to a bed for most of their marriage.

He lived a quiet life and wrote tirelessly.

On Scripture and Polemics

While Warfield lived a quiet life on Princeton’s campus, debates raged over his writings and a whole Presbyterian denomination was coming apart at the seams with the fundamentalism-modernism debate. Though Warfield wrote widely and definitively on a number of subjects such as apologetics, historical theology, New Testament criticism, and christology, he is widely remembered for his work on the authority and inspiration of Scripture. He was famous for using the critical methods of liberal scholars to undermine their own efforts.

The gist of his effort against critical scholars (even in his own denomination) was to show that the Bible, “though written by men and bearing indelibly impresses upon them the marks of their human origin, were written, nevertheless, under such an influence of the Holy Ghost as to be also the words of God, the adequate express of his mind and will.”

His work on Scripture profoundly affected debates in his own day but also in ours, as seen in the wording of the Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy. Abraham Kuyper, Herman Bavinck, and Cornelius Van Til acknowledged Warfield as a major influence, not only in the field of Scripture, but in all realms of theology and life. John Gresham Machen wrote to this mother, just four days after Warfield’s death, “Nearly everything I have done has been done with the inspiring hope that Dr. Warfield would think well of it.”

If You Want to Learn More

I’ve already mentioned that biographical sketches are scarce, but they do exist.

The best book on Warfield’s work is Fred Zaspel’s The Theology of B. B. Warfield. Better than anyone else, Zaspel gives you a sense of Warfield’s greatness and depth of scholarship. Zaspel gives a short biographical sketch at the beginning of his volume.

Gary Johnson has edited a nice little volume, B. B. Warfield: Essays on His Life and Thought. Stephen Nichols’s essay, “Warfield, Machen, and Fundamentalism,” stands out.

To jump right in to primary material, though, I’d begin where he is most famous, Inspiration and Authority of the Bible. Of course, the material relates most directly to debates of his day, but Warfield’s arguments for the infallibility of Scripture and the nature of its inspiration are indispensable for today’s challenges.

However, if you want to read the “quotable” Warfield, read Faith and Life. You can never take the scholar out of Warfield, but he will convince you that Christian theology can never be independent from godliness and biblical spirituality.

My personal favorite is The Person and Work of Christ. It’s my favorite because Warfield doesn’t allow his scholarship to keep him from the occasional discursive on the joy and wonder he finds in his Redeemer.

The above is “The Lion Who Died February 16” by John Starke


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