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Benjamin B. Warfield - Biographical Sketch


      by Samuel G. Craig

      Benjamin Breckinridge Warfield was born at 'Grasmere' near Lexington, Kentucky, November 5, 1851 and died at Princeton, New Jersey, February 17, 1921.

      His progenitors of English and Scotch-Irish origin, on both his paternal and maternal sides, were early settlers in this country who like their descendants took an active and often a leading part in the political, educational and religious problems of the day in which they lived.

      His father, William Warfield, was a well-to-do farmer, owner of a considerable landed estate, who was a widely recognized authority on the breeding of cattle. His mother was the daughter of the Rev. Robert Jefferson Breckinridge, D.D., LL.D., distinguished as a preacher, Moderator of the 1841 General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (Old School Branch), president of Jefferson College in Pennsylvania, president and professor of theology as well as founder of the theological Seminary at Danville, Kentucky, advocate of the emancipation of the slaves and the maintenance of the Union, temporary chairman of the Republican Convention of 1864 which renominated Abraham Lincoln, and most permanently known perhaps as the author of two volumes of systematic theology entitled The Knowledge of God Objectively and Subjectively Considered.

      His early education was received in private schools in nearby Lexington where he was fortunate in having among his teachers Lewis Barbour, afterwards professor of mathematics in Central University, and James K. Patterson, afterwards president of the State College of Kentucky. He entered the College of New Jersey--now Princeton University--as a sophomore and graduated with the highest honors of his class in 1871 at the age of nineteen. He took an active interest in undergraduate activities, won prizes for essay and debate in the American Whig Society and was one of the editors of the Nassau Literary Magazine.

      His early tastes were strongly scientific. He collected bird's eggs, butterflies and moths, and geological specimens; studied the fauna and flora of his neighborhood; read Darwin's newly published books with enthusiasm; and counted Audubon's works on American birds and mammals his chief treasure. He came to Princeton the same year that James McCosh arrived from Scotland to become one of the most famous of its presidents. That Dr. McCosh did not succeed in making him a Darwinian, as in the case of so many of his fellow-students, finds its explanation in the fact, as he himself has told us, that knowing his Origin of Species and The Variations of Animals and Plants Under Domestication 'almost from A to Izzard' he was already a 'Darwinian of the purest water' before coming under McCosh's influence--a position which he later repudiated, not without warrant as even biologists have come more and more to admit. During his college days he took a special interest in mathematics and physics and planned to seek the fellowship in experimental science but was dissuaded from this by his father on the ground that he did not need the money in order to pursue graduate studies and that it would be more profitable for him to spend the time studying in Europe without being bound to any particular course of study.

      His departure for Europe was delayed by family illness with the result that it was not until February 1872 that he embarked. He first went to Edinburgh. After spending some time there he transferred to Heidelberg. Writing from the latter place in the mid-summer of that year he announced his decision to enter the Christian ministry--an announcement that came as a surprise to his family and friends as he had given no previous intimation of a serious intention of studying theology, and was especially pleasing to his mother who had often expressed the hope that her sons would become ministers. We have no knowledge as to when or why he made this decision as, like his father, he was ever reticent with regard to personal matters. It may be added that he had made a public profession of faith and united with the Second Presbyterian Church in Lexington in his sixteenth year.

      He entered Princeton Theological Seminary in 1878 and was graduated with the class of 1876. Licensed to preach by the Presbytery of Ebenezer of Kentucky in 1875, he was stated supply of the Presbyterian Church of Concord, Kentucky, during that summer. During the summer of 1876 he was stated supply of the First Presbyterian Church of Dayton, Ohio. He received a call to become the pastor of the latter church but declined it in order that he might go abroad for further study. On the third of August of that summer he was married to Miss Annie Pearce Kinkead, daughter of a prominent lawyer, and shortly thereafter they sailed for Europe where he studied at Leipsic. In the course of the year he was offered an appointment in the Old Testament Department of Western Theological Seminary in Pittsburgh but declined the offer because the New Testament had now become his main interest--a marked change from the time when as a school boy he strenuously, though unsuccessfully, objected to studying Greek--so his brother Ethelbert has related--on the ground that since he expected to follow a scientific career he would have no need for Greek.

      Following his return to America, late in the summer of 1877, he became assistant pastor of the First Presbyterian Church of Baltimore but resigned this position after a short period to accept another call from Western Theological Seminary--this time as instructor in New Testament Language and Literature. Going there in September 1878 as an instructor he was appointed professor the following year. It was not until then (1879) that he was ordained as a minister of the Presbyterian Church in the United States of America.

      He remained at Western Theological Seminary for nine years during which he won a reputation as a teacher and Biblical exegete rarely attained by so young a man. He was then forced to make a difficult decision by the fact that following the death of Archibald Alexander Hodge he received a call from Princeton Theological Seminary to occupy the chair of Systematic Theology made famous by Charles Hodge. In view of the exceptional gifts as an exegete he had displayed and the promise they offered for the future along that line, many of his wisest friends and well-wishers questioned the wisdom of his accepting this new call. Years afterwards, if our memory serves us right, William Robertson Nicoll, the distinguished editor of The British Weekly, expressed the opinion in that publication that it was a thousand pities that Warfield did not continue to make the New Testament his chief field of study in the belief that such were his qualifications as an exegete that had he done so he might have ranked with Meyer and others as a New Testament commentator. It must have been a difficult decision for him to make. Doubtless he was influenced, as his brother Ethelbert has intimated, by the fact that Charles Hodge, his revered teacher, had begun his career as a theological professor as a student and exegete of the New Testament. Be that as it may, the years spent at Western Theological Seminary were not wasted years from the standpoint of the more than thirty-three years spent at Princeton. Rather they were years of training and preparation apart from which he might not have become the distinctly Biblical theologian he became by way of eminence among recent theologians. It may be added that in 1881 he had declined a call to occupy the Chair of Theology at the Theological Seminary of the Northwest at Chicago--now McCormick Theological Seminary.

      Warfield was a volummous writer During his lifetime he published the following volumes Introduction to the Textual Criticism of the New Testament (1886); The Gospel of the Incarnation (1893); Two Studies in the History of Doctrine (1893); The Right of Systematic Theology (1897); The Significance of the Westminster Standards (1898); Acts and the Pastoral Epistles (1902); The Power of God Unto Salvation (1903); The Lord of Glory (1907); Calvin as a Theologian and Calvinism Today (1909); Hymns and Religious Verse (1910); The Saviour of the World (1915); The Plan of Salvation (1915); Faith and Life (1916); and Counterfeit Miracles (1918). The bulk of his writings, however, made their first appearance in Bible dictionaries, encyclopedias and theological magazines, especially the Presbyterian and Reformed Review and its successor the Princeton Theological Review. Following his death, sufficient of this material to make ten large volumes was selected by his literary executors, Ethelbert D. Warfield, William Park Armstrong and Caspar Wistar Hodge, and published by the Oxford University Press....

      Warfield received the degree of Doctor of Divinity in 1880 and that of Doctor of Laws in 1892 from the College of New Jersey; that of Doctor of Laws from Davidson College in 1892; that of Doctor of Letters from Lafayette College in 1911; and that of Sacrae Theologiae Doctor from the University of Utrecht in 1913.

      Perhaps no better description of Warfield as a man and as a writer has been made, or could be made, than that given by Francis Landey Patton, president of Princeton Theological Seminary and ex-president of Princeton University, in the Memorial Address he delivered by invitation of the Faculty of Princeton Theological Seminary in the First Presbyterian Church of Princeton, May 2, 1921. 'Dr. Warfield,' he said, 'was a most imposing figure. Tall, erect, with finely moulded features and singular grace and courtesy of demeanor, he bore the marks of a gentleman to his fingertips. There was something remarkable about his voice. It had the liquid softness of the South rather than the metallic resonance which we look for in those who breathe the crisp air of a northern climate. His public utterance took the form of a conversational tone, and his sentences often closed with the suggestion of a rising inflection, as if he invited a hospitable reception from his hearers. He lacked the clarion tones of impassioned oratory, but oratory of this kind was not natural to him. He kept the calm level of deliberate speech, and his words proceeded out of his mouth as if they walked on velvet. But public speaking was not his chosen form of self-expression. He was pre-eminently a scholar and lived among his books. With the activities of the Church he had comparatively little to do. He seldom preached in our neighboring cities, was not prominent in debates of the General Assembly, was not a member of any of the Boards of our Church, did not serve on committees, and wasted no energy in the pleasant but perhaps unprofitable pastime of after-dinner speaking. As was to be expected, therefore, he was too much of a recluse to be what is known as a popular man. His public was small, but it covered a wide area and he reached it with his pen. Through the pages of the Presbyterian and Reformed Review and later of the Princeton Theological Review, he was speaking regularly to men who waited eagerly to see what he had to say concerning the latest book on New Testament Criticism or the most recent phase of theological opinion. It is difficult, of course, to estimate the influence he exerted in this way, but geographically speaking it was widely extended, and I may be pardoned perhaps for saying somewhat extravagantly that his line has gone out into all the earth and his words to the end of the world. His writings impress me as the fluent, easy, offhand expression of himself. He wrote with a running pen, in simple, unaffected English, but with graceful diction, and only a moderate display of documented erudition. His weapon in controversy was the sword and not the battle-axe. His gleaming blade had a keen edge, but the quarte and tierce of logical encounter went on without loss of temper or lapse of good behaviour. His mental machinery was in constant use. It never rusted and was always ready for the work it had to do. Something is undoubtedly lost in the transfer of thought to the printed page. We see it through a glass darkly--darkly, sometimes because we look through a cloudy medium, and sometimes the prismatic colors of the lens have a confusing effect upon our vision. But Dr. Warfield's style was the servant of his thoughts and expressed them accurately and clearly. He made no phrases, pointed no epigrams, did not have the habit of putting his own image and superscription on some common coin of speech and sending it forth as his seal and sign--manual of originality.'

      What most impresses the student of Warfield's writings--apart from his deeply religious spirit, his sense of complete dependence on God for all things including especially his sense of indebtedness as a lost sinner to His free grace--is the breadth of his learning and the exactness of his scholarship. Caspar Wistar Hodge, his immediate successor at Princeton Seminary and long his associate, in his Inaugural Address after referring to the illustrious men who had given the institution fame throughout the world for sound learning and true piety, such as Archibald Alexander, Charles Hodge and Archibald Alexander Hodge, spoke of Warfield as 'excelling them all in erudition.' John DeWitt, long the professor of Church History in Princeton Seminary and himself a man of no mean scholarship, once told the writer that he had known intimately the three great Reformed theologians of America of the preceding generation-- Charles Hodge, W.G.T. Shedd and Henry B. Smith--and that he was not only certain that Warfield knew a great deal more than any one of them but that he was disposed to think that he knew more than all three of them put together. A less sympathetic writer, Otto A. Piper, professor of New Testament Literature and Exegesis at Princeton Seminary, has written: 'Aided by an indefatigable study of the New Testament Criticism and interpretation, patristics, church history and Reformed theology and familiar with all that had been written in foreign languages, he expounded in innumerable articles the truths of the Bible and, based on the Bible, those of the Westminster Confession.' The wide range of Warfield's scholarship is intimated even if not fully indicated by Dr. Piper. To do that it is necessary to direct attention to the fact that to a degree that has rarely if ever been equaled, at least in America, Warfield made the whole field of theology--exegetical, historical, doctrinal, polemical and apologetical--the object of thorough-going study. It is safe to say that he was qualified to occupy with rare distinction any of the principal chairs of theological instruction, so that he was one of the few professors who, no matter what the question put to him might be, rarely if ever needed to side-step it by saying that it did not belong to his department. There have been few if any who have had less need to fear the taunt: 'If I knew as little as you do, I too might believe as you do.' Moreover, as his brother Ethelbert has pointed out, he 'read widely over a wide range of general literature, including poetry, fiction and drama and often drew illustrations from the most unexpected sources.' Those who refer to him as a 'fundamentalist' (he was in the broad sense in that he held that Christianity has a specific content of its own, factual, doctrinal and ethical, that was given it once and for all by Christ and His apostles and that Christianity exists in the world today only to the extent to which that content is confessed by word and deed), not in order to stress the genuineness of his Christianity but rather in order to disparage him as a scholar, only advertise, in the words of Patton, their 'ignorance of his exact scholarship, wide learning, varied writings, and the masterly way in which he did his work.'

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