Book Review: The Theology of B. B. Warfield: A Systematic Summary
Review of Fred G. Zaspel, The Theology of B. B. Warfield: A Systematic Summary (Crossway, 2010)
Anyone familiar with the life and career of B. B. Warfield, knows that Benjamin Breckinridge Warfield was a very prolific writer. But how prolific was the Lion of Princeton?
According to Hugh T. Kerr, Benjamin B. Warfield Professor of Theology at Princeton Theological Seminary after Warfield’s death:
Of [Warfield’s] printed and published work, there are ten large, and I mean large, volumes of posthumously selected and edited articles known as the Oxford edition as well as two volumes of additional essays put together by John E. Meeter, plus two volumes of handwritten scrapbooks and fifteen volumes of Opuscula (1880-1918), collected and bound by Warfield himself. He also wrote a major work on the textual criticism of the New Testament which went through nine editions, published three volumes of sermons, several commentaries, and a significant investigation of popular religious movements, Counterfeit Miracles. Yet, we are nowhere near the end of the list, for there are literally hundreds of essays, reviews and other miscellanea in dictionaries, encyclopedias, and especially in the three Princeton quarterlies over which he had editorial supervision from 1889 until the day of his death in 1921. We are talking about a theological authorship on the order of Augustine, Aquinas, Luther, Calvin and Barth. (Kerr, “Warfield: The Person Behind the Theology,” 12-13).
Included in this catalogue are many of the more than eight hundred published book reviews, in addition to a number of the sermons that Warfield preached and which were published in various venues. So we can answer the question, “How prolific a writer was Warfield?” by affirming “very prolific!” But even that would be an understatement! In fact, J. Gresham Machen once quipped that Warfield “has done about as much work as ten ordinary men.” No doubt. (Cited in Ned B. Stonehouse, J. Gresham Machen: A Biographical Memoir Philadelphia: Westminster Theological Seminary, 1978, 220).
The sheer volume of Warfield’s published work present a formidable obstacle to anyone who seeks to write about Warfield’s career or theology. Mastering the primary sources in this case is a herculean task in its own right. The sheer scope of this body of work certainly lies behind Mark Noll’s salient observation that “Evangelicals still await a treatment of Old Princeton that is as sophisticated and as refined as the work of the Princetonians was itself” (Mark A. Noll, The Princeton Theology, 43). Not only is Princeton’s theology refined and sophisticated, there is a gigantic amount of it, much of it coming from Warfield.
With the recent publication of a series of essays dealing with Warfield’s life and theology (Gary Johnson, ed., B. B. Warfield: Essays on His Thought and Life, P & R, 2007, along with another volume on Old Princeton (Paul Helseth’s forthcoming Right Reason and the Princeton Mind, P & R), it is fair to say that Noll’s challenge is finally being remedied.
But it falls to Fred Zaspel to have done the most to remedy the lack of a sophisticated treatment of Warfield’s theology. In his recently published volume, The Theology of B. B. Warfield: A Systematic Summary (Crossways, 2010), Zaspel has done what seems impossible to accomplish–he not only has mastered Warfield’s massive body of published work, Zaspel has also given us the one thing Warfield did not leave behind, a systematic compendium of his theology.
Zaspel’s accomplishment is all the more remarkable when we consider that Warfield produced few stand-alone books, but mostly theological essays and lengthy critical reviews in a variety of publications. Not only is there a massive amount of material coming to us from Warfield’s pen, but the scope of Warfield’s efforts is exceptionally far-ranging, including everything from New Testament (textual criticism, canonics, New Testament Introduction and exegesis of particular texts), the nature and authority of Scripture, apologetics and theological prolegomena, various aspects of systematic and biblical theology, church history and historical theology, along with numerous multi-discipline polemical essays in which Warfield seeks to counter the various theological challenges of his day.
As the title of Zaspel’s volume indicates, The Theology of B. B. Warfield is a six-hundred page compendium of Warfield’s theology arranged along the lines of a traditional systematic theology text. This format gives the reader a reliable guide to Warfield’s overall thought, and knowing what ground Warfield covered over the course of his career certainly makes Warfield’s work easier to access and tackle.
The amount of material Zaspel surveys in each section of this volume very accurately reflects the amount of attention that Warfield himself devoted to each of these topics. Among the loci addressed, Zaspel takes up in turn Warfield’s apologetic and theological method (63-108), Warfield’s work regarding the inspiration and authority of the Bible (111-175), as well as Warfield’s treatment of the person and work of Christ (213-324)–an especially important topic in light of Warfield’s efforts to defend the Reformed faith against various elements of critical thought then making its way into American Presbyterianism from Germany.
Zaspel addresses Warfield’s development of the person and work of the Holy Spirit (327-366 ), also an important topic given Warfield’s well-known work dealing with the cessation of the charismata (Counterfeit Miracles). As Zaspel discusses Warfield’s views on sin and anthropology (369-409) he tackles head-on Warfield’s controversial views on evolution, and the age of the earth (more on this to follow). Reflecting Warfield’s emphasis, Zaspel devotes significant space to Warfield’s views on soteriology (vv. 413-510), the largest section of the book. Given the fact that Warfield wrote with less frequency on the subjects of ecclesiology and eschatology, Zaspel’s survey of these topics is quite brief (vv. 513-546). Zaspel’s wraps up with a number of concluding remarks and reflections upon Warfield’s career and theology (vv. 549-577).
For those not familiar with Warfield’s work, or who would simply like to be able to consult the Princetonian on particular issues or specific biblical passages will find Zaspel’s volume very serviceable, well-organized and accessible–the indices are particularly helpful since Warfield’s published works are not indexed in this fashion. This alone makes the volume quite useful and highly recommended.
Those more familiar with Warfield’s efforts (and who are the most likely potential purchasers of a book such as this) will be interested in several topics where Warfield’s views are most controversial. So, it is upon these areas I will concentrate in the balance of this review. These matters of controversy include apologetic methodology and evolution. I will also address Zaspel’s discussion of Warfield’s defense of infant baptism–especially of interest here, given the fact that Dr. Zaspel is a Reformed Baptist pastor, while Warfield was an ardent champion of infant baptism.
We turn now to Zaspel’s treatment of Warfield on apologetics. This is a very helpful section of this volume and should be read carefully by anyone interested in the in-house debate between those who identify themselves as Reformed evidentialists and those who are presuppositionalists. Many of those who have written about Old Princeton in general and on Warfield in particular are convinced that despite Warfield’s militant and sustained defense of the Reformed faith, his allegiance to Scottish Common Sense Philosophy somehow compromised Warfield’s efforts to defend the faith. This criticism is made to one degree or another by such influential thinkers as Cornelius Van Til, John Vander Stelt, Jack Rogers and Donald McKim, Mark Noll, and George Marsden.
As Zaspel points out, Warfield’s views on apologetics are not always accurately assessed within the Reformed tradition. Zaspel notes that Warfield’s “view of apologetics, in the Reformed world at least, was eclipsed by Cornlius Van Til’s presuppositionalism, though Warfield has not been adequately understood on this score” ( 574). This reviewer whole-heartedly concurs with Zaspel’s lament (cf. my own Ph.D. dissertation, The Lion of Princeton, 1997).
Zaspel’s careful survey of Warfield’s views on apologetic method (63-88) goes a long way toward correcting the notion that Warfield was “less” than consistently Reformed when it came to his understanding of the noetic effects of sin, his use of Christian evidences, as well as apologetic methodology in general. Warfield firmly acknowledged the importance of our presuppositions and the role these presuppositions play in the way in which people come to faith (or not–in the case of unbelievers). Warfield devotes much time and energy to discussing first principles, the subjective requirements necessary for faith (regeneration), and the role of the Holy Spirit in bearing witness to the truth of Christian evidences–evidences, by the way, which God himself has provided, leading to Warfield’s stress upon Christianity as the “supernatural” and only “revealed” religion.
Zaspel accurately captures Warfield’s distinctive formulation of the relationship between Christian evidence and faith–only a prepared heart can respond to Christian evidences, and although faith is a gift of God and is the work of the Holy Spirit, because faith has an object (the person and work of Christ) it is not blind and ungrounded faith that God works in our hearts, but faith in an historical Christ (79).
On the matter of evolution, Zaspel likewise advances our understanding and evaluation of Warfield’s supposed openness to certain forms of theistic evolution. Zaspel notes that “Warfield often stated that it may be possible to hold to biblical Christianity and some form of evolution, but he complained that evolutionism had become more a philosophy than a science, a philosophy that was presuppositionally antisupernaturalistic and explained the whole of existence in specifically naturalistic terms. [For Warfield] this would never do” (370).
Zaspel directs us to Warfield’s classroom lectures on the subject (used throughout Warfield’s career) in which Warfield argues that while some sort of theory of evolution, compatible with theism and divine providence, may in fact be the case, the ultimate determination of the matter awaits a final verdict, so that any position one takes on the subject must remain at the level of an hypothesis only (376). Later in his career, Warfield stated that it was not a matter of whether or not evolution was consistent with theism, but whether or not evolution was consistent with Scripture (379).
Furthermore, while Warfield believed that the age of the earth was a scientific question, and not a biblical matter, he was adamant that the Bible clearly teaches the unity of the human race, and therefore both the biological and federal headship of Adam (387-394).
Zaspel rightly concludes that those who see Warfield later on in his career as a thorough-going champion of theistic evolution, have not have assessed Warfield accurately (380-387). Here too, Zaspel’s discussion is wise, measured and well-informed given his grasp of the whole body of Warfield’s published work, including both the Princetonians’s classroom lectures, and published essays.
The last matter to be addressed in this review is Zaspel’s treatment of Warfield’s understanding and defense of infant baptism (515-526). On this point, Dr. Zaspel is to be commended for striving mightily to get Warfield right, even though he personally disagrees with Warfield’s conclusion. Zaspel points out that Warfield rejected baptismal regeneration (516), and affirms that the Princetonian saw baptism as a “visible monument of the covenant.” In baptism, the benefits of the covenant are sealed unto believers and their children (517).
Zaspel, however, finds what he considers to be an inconsistency in Warfield’s various assertions about baptism–in one place Warfield affirms that the children of Christians are presumably saved, while in another place, he affirms that children still still need to be saved, and finally, in another place that many baptized Christian children may actually be lost and not be saved (529). While I would love to take up this matter and reply, this is not the place nor the point. I say this because even after noting the perceived inconsistency he sees in Warfield’s work, Dr. Zaspel charitably strives to give Warfield the benefit of the doubt, noting “because of the covenant promise” children of believers are presumed to be Christians (530).
I do have one brief quibble with Dr. Zaspel’s treatment of Warfield on infant baptism. When setting forth the key points in Warfield’ essay “The Polemics of Infant Baptism,” I find it rather interesting that Dr. Zaspel does not mention what is perhaps Dr. Warfield’s most salient point in his polemic–one which comes at the beginning of that essay, namely contention that all Christians, even Baptists, must baptize on the presumption that a person’s profession of faith is genuine. According to Warfield,
All baptism is inevitably administered on the basis not of knowledge but of presumption. And if we must baptize on presumption, the whole principle is yielded; and it would seem that we must baptize all whom we may fairly presume to be members of Christ's body. In this state of the case, it is surely impracticable to assert that there can be but one ground on which a fair presumption of inclusion in Christ's body can be erected, namely, personal profession of faith. Assuredly a human profession is no more solid basis to build upon than a divine promise. So soon, therefore, as it is fairly apprehended that we baptize on presumption and not on knowledge, it is inevitable that we shall baptize all those for whom we may, on any grounds, fairly cherish a good presumption that they belong to God's people—and this surely includes the infant children of believers, concerning the favor of God to whom there exist many precious promises on which pious parents, Baptists as fully as others, rest in devout faith [B. B. Warfield, “The Polemics of Infant Baptism,” in Studies in Theology, 390].
I would have liked to see this point included in Zaspel’s discussion, but alas, I digress.
In conclusion, let me say that Fred Zaspel has done a great service to Christ’s church by giving us a most important and most useful volume, one which should be found on the bookshelf and in the iPad (it is also available as a eBook) of anyone who is interested in Reformed theology, the history of Old Princeton, and the work of B. B. Warfield.
Thank you Dr. Zaspel, for writing the book I wish I could have written! This volume is highly recommended.