Who Was B.B. Warfield? An Interview with Fred G. Zaspel
Fred Zaspel is the author of The Theology of B. B. Warfield: A Systematic Summary (Crossway, 2010). Recently, I had a chance to ask Fred a variety of questions: such as the process that led to the writing of a book on Warfield, the impact of Warfield’s theology on his day, and its continuing impact. And, how Warfield might address some of the theological issues the church faces in the 21st century.
Who was B.B. Warfield, and why is he important?
B.B. Warfield (1851-1921) was professor of theology at old Princeton Seminary (1887-1921). He was internationally recognized as the most broadly equipped and most deeply informed theologian of his day. His career took place in an era of enormous theological change in professing Christendom and in his own Presbyterian church. Essential teachings of the Christian faith held by the church since its beginning were being denied, and he above all others stood against the “liberal” tide at virtually every point of its attempted advance. He more than anyone in the history of the church gave exhaustive definition and defense of the inspiration of Scriptures, and in the century since relatively little of substance has been added to his hundreds of published pages on this basic tenet of the faith. He also provided massive exegetical defense of the person and work of Christ against the various “kenotic” theologians of the day whose de-supernaturalized views of Christ relegated him to mere “godling” status (to borrow Warfield’s description!). Broadly equipped in the original languages and all the tools of the modern criticism and widely read in all the disciplines related to biblical and theological study, both the breadth and the depth of his grasp were unsurpassed. With good reason he has been called the spoiler of liberalism and the man who propelled orthodoxy into the twentieth century.
How did you become interested in Warfield?
During my undergraduate days – back in the 70s! – I worked at a Christian bookstore and became acquainted with Warfield’s works. I read here and there in his Selected Shorter Writings, Faith and Life, the various volumes published by P&R, and I just consumed his insightful The Plan of Salvation. His keen exegetical eye and his profound theological grasp coupled with his deep sense of worshipful dependence on Christ I found very contagious, and over the years I read him further, even if only selectively. Finally when a young pastor friend (Ryan Kelly) urged me to pursue a doctorate, I decided I would but only if the subject was one of truly joyful interest. By then I had long thought that Warfield needed a new hearing, and so he was my first choice. Thankfully, the Free University of Amsterdam agreed.
How many years did it take to read through all of Warfield’s writings? And, How long did it take to write the book?
It’s difficult to say how long it took to read all of Warfield. I read him selectively for many years, and then systematically beginning in 2001. I also had to hunt down all his writings that had never been re-published and were languishing in the library stacks at Princeton in their old journals and such. I also set out to read all that Princeton has of his in their archives – his personal correspondence, written lecture notes, student notes, etc. And all this was over a period of about 9 years. During those years I was pastoring, and things at home were in continual upset because of our daughter’s severe and complicated illness. I’m sure a year or two went by at one point without even a glance at Warfield, and there were other long periods of delay also. At best it was part time. But as I could devote time to a given slice of Warfieldiana I pursued it with complete delight, and as I would complete my reading on a given subject I would write that chapter. I turned in the final manuscript both the Free University and to Crossway in late 2009.
How did you keep track of, and organize all of the notes and quotes from his writings in order to write these books?
This was a complicated process. Not until very late in the work did Logos come out with their Warfield bundle, and so online searches were very limited. From the beginning I had my plan fairly well charted out, and so as I read I grouped all Warfield’s hundreds of articles according to topic (pretty much as my book is laid out now). And I would also make categorized notes in my computer, sometimes just referring me back to a paragraph here or there in an otherwise unrelated Warfield article. Then after reading all of Warfield I would return to read again through his works on a given topic, giving attention also to all the various notes that I had collected, and began the writing process for that chapter. And of course as I wrote each chapter new ideas and material would arise for previous chapters, so I would go back and make additions, etc. It was a very complicated system, but in the end it gave me an acquaintance with Warfield that just could not be had any other way.
You devote a considerable amount of space at the beginning of the book on Warfield’s approach to apologetics. For those unfamiliar with the terminology, what is apologetics? And, because he is often misunderstood, what was Warfield’s understanding of apologetics, both his methodology and what he saw as the task of the apologist?
Apologetics has to do with the “defense” of the faith. It is a branch of theology that usually addresses the unbeliever and especially the critic and/or atheist. Warfield’s distinctive approach here is that he did not view this work so much as defensive as positive and constructive – a task that would be necessary whether or not there were critics and unbelievers. For him it belongs to apologetics to establish the truth of the Christian faith and specifically to establish its foundational elements and structure. And so before we can do theology, we must know there is a God. And then we must know whether he has indeed revealed himself, and if so, whether we are capable of understanding that revelation. All this Warfield saw as the task of apologetics, the findings of which, in turn, enable the theologian to do his work.
In this process Warfield paid much attention to all the various “evidences” for the faith, and because of this he is often misunderstood. Some have said he assumed too much ability on the part of the unregenerate mind, implicitly denying total depravity and the noetic effects of sin. But Warfield made no such elementary mistake. Beginning with every man’s “inexpungeable” awareness of God, due to the imago Dei, he pressed the reality of God’s revelation and the inescapable evidences of it all the while emphasizing that no degree of evidence could make a man a Christian. Not until God “repairs the mind” in regeneration will the real force of such evidences be recognized. But he also insisted that although God gives faith sovereignly he does not create it out of a vacuum. He uses means – the proclamation of the gospel and the pressing of all its evident truth on the conscience of the unbeliever.
But again, to understand Warfield it must be recognized that for him apologetics is first of all a positive and constructive task, necessary just by the nature of the case – to establish first principles on which the Christian faith is built.
I am personally concerned about the rising influence of charismatic teaching within the Reformed community. For example, Mark Driscoll recently stated in a Q and A [see editor's note below] that cessationist views rose with Warfield’s writings, stating that because Warfield’s views of the authority and inerrancy of Scripture allowed for no continuing prophetic revelation, that led to “rationalism, Deism, and Unitarianism”, put simply, enlightenment views. How would Warfield respond to that charge? That you either accept the miraculous sign gifts as operative today, in the same way they were in the apostolic period (ie: Charismatic movement), or you accept cessationism and then “God doesn’t do miracles and Jesus is dead.” (Driscoll’s words). How would Warfield respond to these statements?
[Editors Note: You can watch the video Q and A between Mark Driscoll and Douglas Wilson here, and Driscoll's strange claims to unbiblical, extra-biblical visions, that necessitated the Q and A, here. Dr. Zaspel hasn't seen either of these videos, as noted below. I simply post them as reference points for anyone reading this interview.]
First, I’m not aware of the context of your Driscoll quote, and so I am probably missing something. But enlightenment rationalism, Deism, and Unitarianism were around long before Warfield. And at this point in studies of Old Princeton Warfield has long since been cleared of the charge of rationalism. No one can read Warfield and say that.
It is certainly true that Warfield’s Counterfeit Miracles had massive influence on Evangelical thinking for the past century, but I think it would be mistaken to attribute his (or the succeeding) cessationism to his doctrine of inspiration and authority of Scripture. He did not accept that the “sign” gifts were permanently given to the church. He held that they were “signs” of the apostles and therefore bound to that age. But more broadly at the bottom of all his work is his emphatic insistence on the supernatural character of Christianity. For him everything about our faith is supernatural, from its inception onwards. Indeed, for him every Christian is by the very nature of the case a walking miracle. And he expressly argued for the continuance of miracles – that God still heals, for example. But this for him is very different from saying that God still gives the gift of healing. Again, I don’t know the context of the Driscoll quote, but I think Warfield would scoff at the “if God doesn’t do miracles then Jesus is dead” kind of argument. “Gentlemen, I love the supernatural,” he used to say to his students. His entire theological polemic stemmed from his deep commitment to Christian supernaturalism. And even in his Counterfeit Miracles he affirms plainly that God is still the God of the miraculous. The question at issue is merely if the miraculous gifts are still given. And he argues emphatically that they are not.
Because Warfield wrote against higher life, Keswick views of sanctification, could you briefly outline for us Warfield’s understanding of progressive sanctification or growth in the Christian life?
Warfield’s understanding of progressive sanctification is generally the same that you will find in the standard Reformed works. He does not speak of “definitive” sanctification as Murray did, but he did emphasize the same point – that every Christian has by definition experienced a break from sin’s previous reign and that he is therefore free to follow Christ and pursue godliness. As over against the perfectionist and higher life views he insisted that progress in godliness was gradual, progressive, and requiring of the struggle that the New Testament characterizes as a race to be run or a battle to be fought. Freed from sin’s grip by Christ and “led” by the Spirit of God we are empowered to press on in our struggle against sin and for perfection.
Two further points should be emphasized. First, for Warfield it is primarily by a growing acquaintance with gospel truth that we are increasingly strengthened in our Christian walk and brought to deeper communion with the Triune God. His “Christian life” is one thoroughly fueled by gospel considerations. He is not afraid to emphasize imperatives – “we must do this or that” – but this is always grounded in the indicatives of the gospel – what we are in Christ. A gospel-centeredness is clearly Warfield’s approach to sanctification and Christian living. Second, Warfield emphasizes everywhere that the Christian is encouraged in this pursuit by the reminder of certain success – “faithful is he who calls you who also will do it.” Everywhere Warfield revels in the fact that this struggle against sin and for holiness is borne up by the hope given us in Christ – that one day we will be with him, and we will be like him.
What do think Warfield would consider the greatest strength of the church in the 21st century? (particularly, in the Reformed community)? Greatest weakness?
The continued rise in interest in the doctrines of grace and the growing awareness that Christianity is necessarily gospel-centered would certainly be a source of delight to his passionate Christ-centered and dependent heart. In his day these were on the wane even in his own Presbyterian church, and the attention of the broader Evangelicalism and Fundamentalism, though it was committed to the defense of Christian fundamentals, had largely lost this awareness. As he stated it, “In proportion as the grace of the saving God in Christ Jesus is obscured or passes into the background, in that proportion does Christianity slip from our grasp.” But again, still today, I think he would judge the broader “Christian” community as having lost this center – and this would be its weakest point.
Beyond that he would of course also be unhappy with the lack of commitment to Biblical inerrancy among professing Evangelicals today. For him it was a given that if Scripture is indeed the word of God himself, then it is necessarily without error and speaks with absolute authority at every point. And with this, he would complain of the lack of confidence in God’s Word generally, and the frequent preference for each new fad. “We cannot do without the Scriptures; having them we need no other guide. We need this light to light our pathway; having it we may well dispense with any other.”
I understand you have another book on Warfield coming out. What is the book about and when will it be available?
Yes, Crossway has launched a new series entitled Theologians on the Christian Life, edited by Justin Taylor and Steve Nichols. There will be Augustine, Calvin, Luther, Owen, and others “on the Christian life.” It promises to be a great series. Mine is B.B. Warfield on the Christian Life: Living in Light of the Gospel. You can see it here
This will be much smaller than my first Warfield title and much more “popular” in nature. In it I skim the cream of the cream of Warfield to show his own understanding of the Christian life as one lived “in light of the gospel.” I’m eager for it to come out, and I pray it will be an encouragement to many as it has been to me. It is due out in February.
Thanks, Fred, for graciously taking time out of your busy schedule for this interview!