We are pleased to announce that the winner of the G. Aiken Taylor Award for 2006-07 is Mr. Drew McGinnis, for his paper "Re-cognizing B.B. Warfield : Subjectivity in the Theologian We Thought We Knew". Mr. McGinnis is a graduate of Covenant Theological Seminary in St. Louis, MO, and plans to enter doctoral studies at Calvin Theological Seminary this fall. A portion of his paper follows. Orders may be placed for the full paper after 1 September 2007, and cost per copy will be $7.50 postpaid. Please make checks payable to the PCA Historical Center and mail orders to PCA Historical Center, 12330 Conway Road, St. Louis, MO 63141.
"Re-cognizing B.B. Warfield : Subjectivity in the Theologian We Thought We Knew,"
by Andrew McGinnis
Benjamin Breckinridge Warfield (1851-1921) was by all accounts the last of the great theologians of the old era of Princeton Seminary. Thus, Princeton professor J. Gresham Machen, upon Warfield’s death in 1921, summed up the great loss sustained by both the seminary and the church at large: “ Princeton will seem to be a very insipid place without him. He was a really great man. There is no one living in the Church capable of occupying one quarter of his place.” There is no doubt that Warfield’s place on the theological landscape was significant and widely influential. Indeed, his shadow is cast over the whole of Reformed theology and, perhaps, the entire subconscious of evangelical theology.
The presence of Warfield’s shadow cannot be denied. The debated point, however, is whether his shadow is a threatening one, a sheltering one, or something in-between. Warfield himself, as the last prominent theologian in his specific Calvinist tradition at Old Princeton, stood in the shadow of Archibald Alexander, Charles Hodge, and A. A. Hodge. More than any of his predecessors though, Warfield blanketed the theological landscape with his enormous corpus of writing. In fact, his essays and books address most of the historical doctrines of the Christian church and every aspect of the theological encyclopedia. Warfield’s productivity and stature make him impossible to ignore, and also an easy target. In the eyes of some of his critics Warfield is a rationalist trapped in an unreflective Enlightenment mindset—a cold objectivist in his frigid study. Such a reading, however, is severely truncated. In reality, there is more to Warfield than many of his readers have noticed, and his shadow is more comforting than some would think.
Much of the misreading—or at least cursory reading—of Warfield centers on a failure to recognize some of the finer nuances of his writings and the particular context and intent of his works. In this essay, I intend to balance our reading of Warfield by illuminating his emphasis on human subjectivity in his doctrine of Scripture and theological method. Furthermore, I will argue that the way we read Warfield governs how we appropriate and respond to his writings. Specifically, our recognition of the genre and context of his writings are essential to understanding him. Thus, I hope to present a perspective that will lead some of today’s theologians to read Warfield in a more profitable and irenic manner.
To begin, we should recognize that the debate over subjective elements in Warfield’s thought is not a new one. With regard to Warfield’s view of apologetics, the knowledge of God, and religious experience, Andrew Hoffecker has done some persuasive and honest analysis. After a survey of some often overlooked writings and sermons, Hoffecker concludes that in Warfield (as in the earlier Princetonians) subjective emphases were “not merely an afterthought” and that a “strong subjective strand of piety” is visible in the Princeton theology.
Hoffecker’s reading of Warfield is opposed by John Vander Stelt, who sees the entire Princeton theology as suffocating under the control of Scottish Common Sense Philosophy. In Vander Stelt’s analysis, “Warfield’s entire framework of thought . . . is unmistakably intellectualistic.” Furthermore, he paints Warfield as hopelessly “uncritical” and “scientistic” in his understanding of truth and Scripture. Thus, Vander Stelt finds little to commend in Warfield’s work. Hoffecker, on the other hand, is more charitable in his portrait of Warfield and Princeton theology, though he does not shy away from leveling necessary criticisms. While Vander Stelt’s critique deserves attention, the polemical nature of his work makes it less fruitful as a starting point for a fresh inquiry. Thus, I will take Hoffecker’s charitable outlook as my starting point here.
Essentially, Hoffecker’s stated purpose is to “qualify some of the criticisms of Warfield’s intellectualism and lack of emphasis on subjectivity.” As mentioned above, he has done this specifically in the areas of Warfield’s apologetics, doctrine of the knowledge of God, and views on religious experience. However, there is clear evidence of Warfield’s recognition, and even emphasis, upon the role of the believing subject in his view of Scripture and his discussion of theological method.
“Entire Trust”: The Believing Subject and Holy Scripture
In the theological academy, Warfield has long been almost exclusively associated with the doctrine of inerrancy, and he is usually treated in a correspondingly one-dimensional way. As one author has pointed out, a survey of the secondary literature on Warfield shows that scholarly interests are largely limited to his views of Scripture. Granted, such an approach has warrant, for Warfield did spend considerable time and energy defending the Scriptures from critical attacks, and his articulation of inerrancy with A. A. Hodge has been enormously influential. Yet, what scholars find themselves slipping into often is a portrayal of Warfield as a mere objectivist in his defense of the Bible. Such a portrayal reflects a restricted reading of Warfield that takes a few of his statements and universalizes them to summarize his entire corpus.
In truth, Warfield’s defense of plenary inspiration does not begin with a simple appeal to bare historical fact or rational argument. While he is able and willing to reason with his opponents, and while he confidently appeals to the historical verifiability of the Scriptures, Warfield’s doctrine of Scripture does not begin in either of these places. Instead, he argues that one’s recognition of the authority and veracity of the Bible begins with the Christian’s “attitude of entire trust.” This is an undeniably subjective emphasis, and it is explicit in Warfield’s writings.
For example, frequently we see Warfield appealing to the church’s age-old commitment to the trustworthiness of the Scriptures. The “divinity of the Scriptures [i.e. their divine origin] has been the church’s constant and abiding conviction” from the beginning. Thus, he says, “the seeker after the truth in the matter of inspiration of the Bible may well take this church-doctrine as his starting point.” As Christians, Warfield would call us to begin with our heritage, namely the importance that the Bible has always held in the Christian church.
Notice also that this starting point of trust is an important check on the Enlightenment tendency toward individualism and rationalism. Warfield does not begin by asking the individual intellect to capitulate to rational arguments. He does not appeal to autonomous human reason at the outset, and he does not begin by asking the subject to doubt everything. Instead, he calls the Christian to recognize that he or she is a part of a tradition, a body of thinkers and believers across the ages. In so doing, individual Christians are prevented from disconnecting themselves from the church and are asked to embrace their history rather than reject it. This corporate emphasis and embracing of tradition runs counter to the typical Enlightenment mentality, which usually spurned tradition and rejected appeals to history in theological matters. Warfield is not afraid of tradition or history, and he refuses to set them aside as some of his contemporaries did. Rather, he embraces history and affirms the value and, in fact, necessity of doing theology within the church, both past and present.
The most extensive bibliography of Warfield’s published works is: John E. Meeter and Roger Nicole, A Bibliography of Benjamin Breckinridge Warfield: 1851-1921 (Phillipsburg, N.J.: Presbyterian & Reformed, 1974).
W. Andrew Hoffecker, Piety and the Princeton Theologians (Phillipsburg, N.J.: Presbyterian & Reformed, 1981), 95-155; “Benjamin B. Warfield,” in Reformed Theology in America (ed. David F. Wells; Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1985), 60-86.
Warfield wrote some 83 articles on Scripture, inerrancy, inspiration, and the Bible’s authority between the years of 1880 and 1915. See Roger Nicole, “Warfield on Scripture: A Chronological Bibliography,” in Inspiration, by A. A. Hodge and B. B. Warfield (n.p.: Presbyterian Board of Publication, 1881; reprint, Grand Rapids: Baker, 1979), 83-90.