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Benjamin Breckinridge Warfield

Category Articles
Date July 30, 2019

Benjamin Breckinridge Warfield was born at ‘Grasmere’ near Lexington, Kentucky, on 5th November, 1851.1 There flowed in his veins the blood of the staunch English Puritans who withstood the oppression of the Stuart kings and the blood of the Ulster-Scotch who first settled in the Cumberland Valley of Pennsylvania and in the up-country of Virginia. His father, William Warfield, a breeder of horses and cattle, could trace his line of descent back to a Richard Warfield who settled in Maryland in the sixteenth century. His mother was Mary Cabell Breckinridge, daughter of a distinguished Presbyterian minister, Professor Robert J. Breckinridge. 2

Benjamin was reared in a household where the Shorter Catechism was normally completed in the sixth year, followed by the memorising of the Scripture proofs and of the Larger Catechism, and of Scripture portions. He attended private schools in Lexington and graduated from the College of New Jersey (now Princeton University) with the highest honours in 1871, when only nineteen years of age. In February 1872 he set out for a period of travel and study in Europe. He spent some time at Edinburgh and Heidelberg. Writing from the latter place in the mid-summer of 1872 he announced his intention of studying for the ministry of the Gospel. He had made a public profession of faith when only sixteen, but had hitherto expressed no serious purpose of studying theology. He had been reared in an atmosphere of vital piety, and his mother had often expressed her hope that her sons would become preachers of the Gospel. Benjamin had, however, inherited from his father a reticence with regard to personal matters. So his decision, announced from Heidelberg, came as a surprise even to his most intimate friends. On his return home he became for a time an editor of the Farmer’s Home, Journal of Lexington. The great divine who was to be so widely known as an editor of con­servative theological journals began his editorial work in another sphere, giving his attention particularly to matters of livestock. It is worth noting, too, that his early bent was for mathematics and physics, in which he obtained perfect marks, and that at one point in his early training he made strenuous objection to the study of Greek, in which he was later to show such proficiency as a teacher. At twenty-one he ‘realised the paramount claims of God and religion upon him’ 3 and therefore in September 1873 entered Princeton Seminary to prepare himself for the ministry of the Word. He graduated in 1876. Among his teachers in the Seminary were Charles Hodge, then in his seventies, and Charles’s son, Caspar Wistar Hodge. After graduation he was for a time stated supply of the First Presbyterian Church of Dayton, Ohio. He received a call to the pastorate of this church in the summer of 1876, but declined it, as he had determined to go abroad for further study. On 3rd August 1876 he was married in Lexington to Annie Pearce Kinkead and soon after sailed for Europe. He studied in Germany at the University of Leipzig (1876-7). Returning home, he served as assistant pastor in the First Presbyterian Church of Baltimore for about a year. In 1878 he was appointed Instructor, and in the following year was installed as Professor, of New Testament Exegesis and Literature in Western Theological Seminary, Allegheny, Pennsylvania. In 1887 he was called to his alma mater, Princeton Theological Seminary, to succeed Dr A. A. Hodge as Charles Hodge Professor of Didactic and Polemic Theology. In delivering the Memorial Address after Dr Warfield’s death, Dr Francis L. Patton recalled ‘the delight with which Dr C. W. Hodge welcomed his former pupil to the chair which his father and his brother [Charles and A. A. Hodge] had successively filled’.4 Many of Warfield’s friends questioned the wisdom of the transfer from the depart­ment of Exegesis to that of Theology, but ‘recalling that Dr Charles Hodge had been first a New Testament student and always a prince of exegetes, he determined to accept the call’. 5 In this historic chair at Princeton he continued teaching till the day of his death in 1921 (i.e., for over 33 years). He was taken suddenly ill on Christmas Eve, 1920. His condition was serious for a time, but his health seemed to improve, and on 16th February 1921 he felt able to resume his teaching in part and met one of his classes in the afternoon. Apparently there were no immediate ill effects from the exertion, but he died at ten o’clock that evening from an acute attack of angina pectoris. A few sharp pangs and he was at rest for ever.

Within the space of nine months the people of the Reformed Faith were bereft of their three greatest leaders. On 12th November 1920 Abraham Kuyper was taken; on 16th February 1921 Benjamin Warfield; and on 29th July 1921 Dr Herman Bavinck. These three were devoted friends. Their parting was for a very brief time; their reunion in glory was speedy Dr Warfield was a prolific writer. He followed in that respect in the steps of his revered master, John Calvin. From 1880, when his first articles appeared in The Presbyterian Review, to the time of his death, when three series of articles on Perfectionism had just begun to appear in three different theological quarterlies, his pen seemed ever busy. In 1889 he succeeded Dr Francis L. Patton on the editorial board of The Presbyterian Review. A year later he became editor-in-chief of its successor, The Presbyterian and Reformed Review, and continued in this office till the end of 1902, when this Review was in turn succeeded by The Princeton Theological Review, to which he was one of the chief contributors. He was the author of some twenty books, besides pamphlets and addresses. He wrote numerous articles for encyclopaedias, journals and newspapers. As provided in his will, his most important articles in journals and encyclopaedias were collected and published. The committee to which he entrusted this task was composed of his brother, Dr Ethelbert D. Warfield, and his colleagues on the faculty of Princeton Seminary, Professors W. P. Armstrong and C. W. Hodge, Junior. These articles thus collected and published formed ten large volumes. It is now fifty years since his death, and it is no small tribute to him that fresh editions of his works are still being issued.

All his writings bear the marks of exact scholarship and wide learning. His special fields of study were New Testament Criticism and Inter­pretation, Patristics, and Theology. He had the sure touch in all these departments. In the field of the history of doctrine he displayed a fine historical sense.6 There was no need in his case, as in Augustine’s, to issue a volume of Retractations.

We have only to glance over his book reviews in The Princeton Theological Review to see something of his wide reading as well as of his marvellous gifts of analysis and discrimination. Error is brought to the touchstone of truth and is dealt with fairly but faithfully. No wonder many lovers of the Reformed Faith over the Christian world looked for each issue of the Princeton Review and read with interest and profit what he had to say on the latest work from the pen of some outstanding scholar of the liberal school. Dr F. L. Patton, referring to him as a speaker, said that ‘his words proceeded out of his mouth as if they walked on velvet’.7 As a writer his style was certainly marked by no great flourishes; it was the servant of his thought; but one virtue it did have — however profound the theme, the meaning was clear.

In the Memorial Address already referred to, Dr F. L. Patton declares ‘If we wish to put a proper estimate upon Dr Warfield’s work, we must fully understand his theological position, and the key to that position is his unfaltering belief in the inspiration of the Old and New Testaments … . His fearless belief was a buttress to men as he stood foursquare to every wind that blows in his unshaken confidence in the oracles of God.’8 He vindicates this belief as to the Scriptures in the articles which have been collected and published in the volume Revelation and Inspiration (now republished under the title The Inspiration and Authority of the Bible). This book is a veritable arsenal of argument to overwhelm the objector and to prove that the historic doctrine of inspiration held by the Christian Church is the doctrine taught in the Scriptures themselves, and in particular by our Lord and his apostles.

In this book there is an article on ‘God-Inspired Scripture’. He admits with characteristic candour that at first he too hastily adopted Dr Cremer’s view (expressed in the article on `Inspiration’ in the second edition of Herzog’s Realencyklopaedie) on the meaning of theopneustos in 2 Tim 3:16, making that word define Scripture, not as to its origin, but as to its effect — not as ‘inspired of God’, but as ‘inspiring its readers’.9 Dr Warfield goes into the matter in his article with his usual thoroughness and proves, with a wealth of reference to classical, post-classical and patristic literature, that the word theopneustos is expressive of the origination of Scripture and not of its effects. Professor James Moffatt in his Hibbert Lectures in 1921 admitted that Warfield proved his case on this point.10

A fine piece of work is his examination of Perfectionism (two volumes) in its origin and growth in Europe and America. One of those with whom he crossed swords on this matter — a speaker and teacher well-known on both sides of the Atlantic — spoke of Warfield as living too much in the white light of reason. It was scarcely a fair comment. Warfield bowed with his whole soul to the Word of his God. His whole spirit panted to be ‘in all its movement’– as he said of Calvin — ‘subjected to God’s government’. The charge brought by his opponent seems to be a con­fession that Warfield had the best of the argument.

Another fine piece of work is his Counterfeit Miracles, published in 1918. This deals with extra-Biblical religious thaumaturgy from early Christian times down to recent days. The faith-cures of the Church of Rome and of modern movements are examined. The facts are marshalled and thoroughly sifted, and the whole examination is well-documented. Dr Louis M. Sweet in the Biblical Review tells of his unbounded delight in the reading of this book which he describes as ‘a thorough-going review of extra-Biblical, religious thaumaturgy’. Dr Sweet says: ‘This whole subject needed exploration by a competent student, with adequate historical apparatus and with sufficiently critical mind to sift the evidence and to undertake the careful and judicious discrimination which is the first condition of dealing with problems so varied and complex. Dr Warfield has done his work thoroughly and well. Every minister, teacher and intelligent Christian layman with a sense of contemporary needs and dangers should not only read the discussion, but become acquainted with the literature to which reference is made.’

Warfield delivered five lectures at the Princeton Summer School of Theology in June 1914 and these were issued in book form the following year under the title The Plan of Salvation. The theme lay near to his heart. He delights to emphasize that ‘it is God alone who saves, and that, in every element of the saving process’. Not all his fellow-Calvinists will agree with him when he says that ‘when Christ comes again, it will be to a fully saved world’. His view might ‘possibly’ be put in this way — ‘the Scriptures teach an eschatological universalism, not an each-and-every universalism’.11 He held the view of Charles Hodge who ‘wrote in pencil with trembling lines on one of his “Conference Papers”, not long before his end, that he believed that the vast majority of the human race were to share the beatitudes and glories of his Lord’s redemption’.12

His literary labours were not only many but varied. One of his earliest works was on textual criticism (first published in 1886 and often reprinted). He wrote a volume of hymns and religious verses. Three fine volumes of sermons are specially worthy of mention — The Power of God unto Salvation (1903), The Saviour of the World (1914), and Faith and Life (1916). These sermons warm the hearts of lovers of the Reformed Faith.

It has been said of him that he was ‘a dogmatic rather than a systematic theologian, and was less interested in the system of doctrine than in the doctrines of the system’.13 Certainly, though he wrote much, he did not attempt to write a Systematic Theology. Perhaps this was because of his reverence and esteem for the work of his master, Charles Hodge, which he used as a text-book in his classroom. Possibly he differed from Hodge on points. Prince of exegetes though Charles Hodge was esteemed to be, the younger man was the abler exegete of the two. But he felt that Hodge’s Systematic Theology rightly held the field and needed no replacing. His attitude might be summed up in the words: ‘Give me the master.’ If he wrote no such work, at any rate when someone in the same succession sets himself to build the temple of theology, stones and pillars from the Warfield quarry will be found most useful in the structure. One has only to glance at the works of Professor J. Gresham Machen or Dr Loraine Boettner to see how often Warfield’s work is put to use.

Warfield was no doubt best known as a leader and defender of the cause of orthodoxy. Professor R. H. Nichols of Auburn Seminary says of him in the article in the Dictionary of American Biography: ‘He was deeply persuaded of the truth of the doctrine of original sin. At Princeton he continued without concessions the theological traditions established by the Hodges.’ A convinced and enthusiastic Calvinist, he was profoundly convinced that in the Westminster Standards ‘we possess the most complete, the most fully elaborated and carefully guarded, the most perfect, and the most vital expression that has ever been framed by the hand of man, of all that enters into evangelical religion, and of all that must be safeguarded if evangelical religion is to persist in the world’.14 He did not like the amendments and additions to the Confession made by the Presbyterian Church in U.S.A. in 1903. He held that these changes marred the work of the Westminster divines. He opposed their intro­duction in articles and pamphlets, but he wielded his pen in vain.

He was not much heard in the courts of the Church to which he belonged; he was not outstanding in debate; he did not excel as a pulpit orator or platform speaker. His forte was in the classroom or with the pen of a ready writer. He was often called upon to engage in controversy for the faith and he was certainly not the man to shirk the fray. Not his to seek peace at the expense of truth! The following story was told of him. A prominent lady of Princeton met him during the sessions of a General Assembly and said: ‘Dr Warfield, I hear there is going to be trouble at the Assembly. Do let us pray for peace.’ ‘I am praying,’ replied Dr Warfield, ‘that if they do not do what is right, there may be a mighty battle.’

He was a doughty warrior, but he was also the perfect knight. The editor of The British Weekly described him as ‘a man of great personal charm’.

When Dr C. W. Hodge, Jr., was inducted to the chair of Theology vacant through Warfield’s death, he referred to Dr Archibald Alexander, the Seminary’s first professor, and to his own grandfather and uncle (Charles and A. A. Hodge) and went on to say that Warfield excelled them all in erudition and that he was ‘one of the greatest men who has ever taught in this institution’.

One of the many thousands who felt indebted to Warfield was Dr J. Gresham Machen. Of all the teachers at Princeton it was he who left the deepest and most lasting impression on Machen. This influence was not felt so much as a student nor in Machen’s early years as an Instructor in the Seminary. Evidence of it can indeed be seen as early as 1909, the year of the 400th anniversary celebration of Calvin’s birth. Machen wrote to his mother of Warfield’s address on ‘The Theology of John Calvin’ as ‘the feature’ of the Celebration at Princeton. In this address Warfield spoke of the vision of God in His Majesty as ‘lying at the foundation of the entirety of Calvinistic thinking’. It was through Warfield that Machen came to see that a broadly based evangelicalism was not enough — it was the full-orbed Reformed faith which alone was consistent Biblical Christianity and consistent evangelicalism.

Warfield saw the drift which had set in at Princeton — the drift which was eventually to destroy the witness of the Seminary which had stood for over a century as a bastion of the faith. Dr Machen tells of an extra­ordinary conversation which he had with Warfield shortly before the latter’s death: ‘In the course of the conversation I expressed my hope that to end the present intolerable condition there might be a great split in the Church, in order to separate the Christians from the anti-Christian propagandists. “No”, he said, “you can’t split rotten wood”.’ He had small hope for the major denominations of the time. (Stonehouse’s Biography of Machen, p. 310).

He was the most able and learned defender of orthodox Calvinism in the English-speaking world in his generation. His scholarship and worth were recognised, and honours came to him from far and near. Among other tributes he received the degree of D.D. from his alma mater, Princeton College, in 1880, the LL.D. from the same institution in 1892, and the degree of S.T.D. from the University of Utrecht, Holland, in 1913. He was appointed Lecturer on the Smyth Foundation at Columbia Theological Seminary, South Carolina, 1917-18.

His predecessors in the Chair of Theology at Princeton were great men of God — Archibald Alexander, Charles Hodge and A. A. Hodge. He was thought worthy to follow in that goodly succession and he did not fail in the trust reposed in him.

Dr R. H. Nichols in the Dictionary of American Biography refers to him as ‘a vivacious teacher, expert in hand-to-hand argument’, and adds, ‘he moulded many students for a generation’. Yes, and he continues to play a part in moulding many students of theology still. ‘He, being dead, yet speaketh.’

This article was first published in the February 1971 edition of the Banner of Truth magazine.


  1. Biographical material relating to Dr Warfield is very scanty. For this sketch of his life reference has been made to very brief notices in the following: The Dictionary of American Biography; Who Was Who in America; Princeton Theological Review, vol. xix. (1921), No. 2; Revelation and Inspiration (Biographical Sketch by Ethelbert D. Warfield).
  2. R. J. Breckinridge studied at Princeton (1831-32); was pastor of the Second Church, Baltimore (1832-45); moderator of the General Assembly (1841); president of Jefferson College, Pa. (1845-47); pastor of the First Church, Lexington, Kentucky (1847-53); professor of theology at Danville Seminary, Kentucky (1853-69). A staunch Old School theologian, he took part by voice and pen in all the great current discussions of his day.
  3. Quoted from article on B. B. Warfield in The Expositor (vol. xxiv, p. 26) by Dr J. R. Mackay. This article is largely a Bibliography.
  4. Princeton Theological Review, vol. xix (1921), No. 3, p. 370.
  5. Revelation and Inspiration, p. viii.
  6. This may be seen in his volumes on Tertullian and Augustine, Calvin and Calvinism, and The Westminster Assembly and its Work. Dr J. Gresham Machen spoke of Warfield as ‘one of the greatest masters in the field of the history of doctrine’ (The Christian View of Man, p. 273).
  7. Princeton Theological Review, vol. xix, No. 3, p. 370.
  8. Ibid, p. 372.
  9. Revelation and Inspiration,pp. 231ff.; Inspiration and Authority of the Bible, pp. 245ff.
  10. The Approach to the New Testament, by James Moffatt (footnote on p. 72).
  11. The Plan of Salvation, second edition, pp. 127-33.
  12. Life of Charles Hodge, by his son, A. A. Hodge, p. 532.
  13. Memorial Address by Dr F. L. Patton in Princeton Theological Review, vol. xix, No. 3, p. 386.
  14. The Significance of the Westminster Standards (New York, 1898), p. 2; see also pp. 26, 34, 36.

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