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Benjamin Breckinridge Warfield

Category Articles
Date November 7, 2001


Benjamin Breckinridge Warfield was born at ‘Grasmere’ near Lexington, Kentucky, one hundred and fifty years ago this year on 5th November 1851. He died in February 1921 12 weeks after the death of Abraham Kuyper and 22 weeks before the death of Herman Bavinck. The three were devoted friends.

Farming was in Warfield’s blood. He loved horses, admiring the racehorse and studying their blood-lines, but his speciality was short-horn cattle. He maintained his interest in them throughout his life being one of the leading authorities on the breed in the world, writing many articles on that subject in the 1880s in the “National Live Stock Journal”. The articles are found in one of his scrap-books in the Princeton Seminary library.

The Warfield family were notable in America. One distant niece was Wallis Warfield, born in Maryland on June 19 1896. Through her second husband she became Wallis Simpson. Her third husband was the King of England and for her hand in marriage he abdicated and they became the Duke and Duchess of Windsor.

B.B.Warfield married his wife Annie in 1876 and they left for honeymoon in Germany. He was also studying at Leipzig at that time. On a walking trip in the Harz mountains they were overtaken by a terrible thunderstorm. It was a shattering experience for Mrs Warfield from which she never recovered. She was more or less an invalid for the rest of her life. They had no children and Warfield cared for Annie all her days. The students would see them walking slowly together about the Seminary campus. BBW was always gentle and caring with her. He could never leave her for very long. This was one of the reasons he was rarely present at church courts or heard speaking from the floor of his presbytery. He was not outstanding in debate. His time was spent with his beloved Annie.

But he was a champion of confessional Christianity and despised any truce bought at the price of compromise. A lady once met him during the week of the General Assembly. “Dr Warfield, I hear that there is gong to be trouble at the Assembly. Do let us pray for peace.” “I am praying,” replied BBW, “that if they do not do what is right, there may be a mighty battle.” When he and Dr Machen were talking about their denomination at the end of BBW’s life Machen expressed the opinion that there might be a split. “No. You can’t split rotten wood,” said BBW.

When BBW was twenty-one years of age he acknowledged the paramount claims of God upon him and entered Princeton Seminary to train for the ministry. He was taught by Charles Hodge. He lectured for nine years at a Seminary in Pennsylvania, but in 1887 he succeeded A.A.Hodge as a professor of theology at Princeton which post he occupied until his death, that is, for over 33 years. Ten large volumes of his collected writings were published in the 1920s, and two volumes of his shorter writings in the 1960s. All of those books plus volumes of his sermons are in print today and are read more widely than those articles were read during his life-time.

I once had a meal with Dr O.T.Allis and his two daughters in 1963. Dr Allis had entered Princeton in 1902. Warfield had taught him and later Allis became the professor of Old Testament at the Seminary and an academic colleague of Warfield. During the meal I bided my time waiting for the judicious moment of silence. It finally came: “What was it like to study under and teach alongside B.B.Warfield?” I asked. O.T.Allis smiled back at me, “Very interesting,” he said. And that was all! So much for the young investigative journalist. But later Allis did describe Warfield’s method of
teaching: his favourite approach was a kind of quiz, a sort of Socratic dialogue, in which by question and answer he tested the student’s knowledge of the assigned reading and his understanding of it. His style was conversational. Sometimes there was a gleam in his eye and a touch of humour. Once, when a student was trying to explain the doctrine of the Trinity BBW raised an eyebrow and said, “So there are three Gods are there?” The student set out again to explain himself more clearly. One day when BBW was teaching about the miraculous (he was a cessationist concerning the reappearance of apostolic and revelatory gifts) he finally remarked, “Gentleman, I like the supernatural.”

BBW’s handwriting was almost illegible. He once wrote a letter to his colleague Dr Armstrong who was visiting Germany to ask him to look up a book that was not available to him at Princeton, but his handwriting was so bad Dr Armstrong had no idea what book BBW was seeking. Once when he was speaking to the President of Princeton Seminary, the notably short-sighted Dr Patton, a lady came walking towards them. “Should I greet this lady, Warfield?” muttered Patton. “I think you should,” said BBW, “it’s Mrs Patton.”

Warfield preached vividly. He once illustrated the difference between fate and providence telling the story of a little Dutch boy disobeying his father and playing near to a windmill. He went too close and suddenly found himself picked up from the ground hanging upside down and a series of blows were being rained down upon him. What horror, caught into the machine! He was twisted through the air; his end had come. But then he opened his eyes and discovered it was not the sail of the windmill that had taken him up but his own father, and he was receiving the threatened punishment for his own disobedience. He wept, not with the pain but with relief and joy. He learned in that moment the difference between falling into the grinding wheels of a machine and into the loving hands of a father. That is the difference between fate and predestination.

There are no books about BBW. That is a good thing because it drives us to read the man himself. I have never left reading an article of his without the greatest satisfaction. Once a friend of mine was meeting Dr. J.I.Packer at Boston airport. He told Packer that he would like to work on a post-graduate degree. “What subject would you be interested in?” asked Packer. “B.B.Warfield,” my friend replied. “No. It is impossible,” replied Packer instantly. “We have looked at that possibility on many occasions. There is not enough material for a Ph.D.” That may be so, but there is enough writings of Warfield for a man to become familiar with, to his lasting profit. As Dr Martyn Lloyd-Jones wrote of BBW’s writings, “His mind was so clear and his literary style so chaste and lucid that it is a real joy to read his works and one derives pleasure and profit at the same time.”

Some of the material in this article is taken from the Warfield Commemoration issue of The Banner of Truth magazine, number 89 (February 1971).

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