Benjamin Breckinridge Warfield: One Hundred Years Later

This year is the centennial of B. B. Warfield’s death on February 16, 1921. As the years have passed, interest in his work has varied as succeeding generations rediscovered his writings for theological guidance. But, unfortunately for some Christians today, the doctrinal literature generated by crises of the past is thought to be no longer relevant for the present. If any group within society should respect history, it is Christians because they have benefited from history as God unfolded his redemptive plan through the ages. Another reason Christians should hold history in high regard is because Ecclesiastes says there is nothing new under the sun, and the supposed theological novelty of today certainly has historical precedents. Even though B. B. Warfield has been absent from the body for a century, his works of relevancy then continue to have value now.

       Benjamin Breckinridge was born to William and Mary Cabell Breckinridge Warfield November 5, 1851 at Grasmere near Lexington, Kentucky. William was a prominent owner of short-horn cattle and avid promoter of the breed. Mary’s grandfather was Thomas Jefferson’s attorney general, John Breckinridge, and her grandmother provided the spiritual influence needed as she single-handedly raised her boys after John’s death. Mary’s father was a Presbyterian minister, polemicist, publisher, politician, public education proponent, and seminary professor named Robert J. Breckinridge. The “J,” as would be expected, is for Jefferson. He was known for rhetorical finesse, intellectual acumen, and readiness to confront the opposition. One common trait of Warfield’s maternal ancestors was a readied defense when confronted whether in conversation, by the press, or with physical aggression. Robert Breckinridge left Princeton University in a huff when he was disciplined by the faculty for a brawl with a classmate. Ben’s ancestry would play a part in making him who he would become.

       The affluency of the Breckinridge’s and Warfield’s gave Ben an advantage when it came to education. His early lessons were directed by local instructors, including future college professor of mathematics and astronomy, Lewis G. Barbour, and the classical languages professor, James K. Patterson, who went on to become the first president of the University of Kentucky. Ethelbert Warfield said his brother’s interests were scientific and he enjoyed Audubon’s illustrations, read Darwin’s works, and collected geological and biological specimens. But Warfield was not always a cooperative student. As a boy he planned for a vocation in science and grumbled about studying Greek (likewise disliked by one of Warfield’s future heroes, Augustine). At the age of seventeen, Ben left rugged Kentucky for the more comfortable East to join the sophomore class of Princeton College. After perfect grades in Mathematics and Physics combined with other academic and extra-curricular accomplishments, he graduated with highest honors in 1871. Returning home to plan his next step in life he worked for a year as livestock editor of the Farmers' Home Journal. Despite his hope to return to Princeton for a fellowship in experimental science, his father encouraged him to go to Europe for advanced studies. Warfield accommodated his father’s wishes and set sail for an extended tour that included academic work at the University of Heidelberg. This decision made with counsel from his wise father would prove particularly important for directing Warfield’s future.

       When Benjamin returned to the States he announced, to the amazement of his family, that he believed he was called to be a minister. He had professed faith in Christ when he was sixteen, but everyone thought the route to a profession in science was etched in stone. The Gospel had been the center of home life for the Warfield boys, with Sabbath afternoons employing memorization of the shorter catechism, which upon completion, was followed by the larger catechism with all catechesis accompanied by Bible memorization. He was a child of the Covenant trained up in the way he should go. The obvious choice for theological studies given his Princeton College degree was the village’s nearby Presbyterian seminary where he graduated in 1876. Benjamin married fellow Kentuckian and Presbyterian Annie Pearce Kinkead in August that same year. For their honeymoon as well as Benjamin’s studies in Leipzig, the two sailed for an extended excursion in Europe. Refreshed and bearing trunks of souvenirs—surely including books—the couple returned to the States and settled into life as the Warfields.

“...he believed he was called to be a minister. He had professed faith in Christ when he was sixteen, but everyone thought the route to a profession in science was etched in stone.”

       But what was Warfield to do? He had some brief experiences supplying pulpits, but shepherding a congregation was not the calling best suited to his gifts. A church in Ohio issued him a call but it was turned down. His intellectual abilities combined with his being steeped in the doctrine of the Westminster Standards; fascination in, and acumen with, science and the empirical method; studies in the homeland of higher criticism in Germany; and the Breckinridge proclivity for confronting controversy head-on, united to prepare B. B. Warfield for his calling in theological education and defending the faith, but from where would the opportunity come? Would he be able to return to Princeton?

       Warfield was first offered a teaching position in Old Testament by Western Theological Seminary in Allegheny, Pennsylvania, but it was turned down because his chief interest was New Testament studies. This is a curious turn of events given his earlier aversion to Greek. When Western’s New Testament professor Samuel T. Lowrie resigned in the fall of 1877, Warfield became instructor the following fall and then professor of New Testament Literature and Exegesis. In his inaugural address he set the course for his work defending the doctrine of Scripture. The question proposed in his discourse was, “Is the Church Doctrine of the Plenary Inspiration of the New Testament Endangered by the Assured Results of Modern Biblical Criticism?” He proceeded to defend God’s revelation against critical academia as fully inspired and faithfully given through the writers of Scripture. Warfield’s knowledge of the New Testament combined with his facility in other disciplines soon led to the recognition of his gifts, receiving a Doctor of Divinity from Princeton College, and increasing connections to Princeton Seminary as exemplified by his contributions to its journal, The Presbyterian Review. Warfield’s heart was in Princeton. Would an opportunity arise to once again walk the floors of Alexander Hall on the seminary campus?

       An opening to teach became available at a high personal cost when his friend and mentor A. A. Hodge died. Warfield accepted appointment to the seminary as Professor of Didactic and Polemic Theology beginning the fall of 1887. During graduation the following spring he combined his love for science as well as his theological calling in his inaugural address, “The Idea of Systematic Theology Considered as a Science.” In his lecture, Warfield alluded to geology, astronomy, biology, railroad construction, chemistry, and the science of aesthetics. For the next thirty-four years he taught at Princeton Seminary, edited the seminary journal, wrote numerous articles, hymns, poetry, more than1200 book reviews, presided over the faculty, was president of the alumni association, and delivered sermons on campus and in local churches. Because of his wife’s infirmity which over the years increasingly debilitated her, he was not highly active in the church judicatories.[1] The Warfield’s lived in the Hodge House on the seminary campus next to Alexander Hall. Annie died November 19, 1915 and her body was interred in the Princeton Cemetery. J. Gresham Machen related to his mother the observation of a friend of his concerning Annie’s death:

"As Mrs. Armstrong said, he has had only two interests in life—his work and Mrs. Warfield, and now that she is gone there may be danger of his using himself up rather quickly. If so, I do not know who is to take his place. I am more and more impressed with him; he is certainly one of the very biggest men in the Church either in this country or in any other."[2]

       It does not appear Warfield used himself up or sunk into depression. As one of “the very biggest men in the Church” he maintained the pace he had shown in previous years until about a year before his death from angina pectoris. During his years teaching at Princeton, he was honored with degrees including the LL.D., which was given by both the College of New Jersey and Davidson College in 1892, the Litt.D. by Lafayette College in 1911, and the S.T.D. by the University of Utrecht in 1913. He was buried next to Annie with both graves covered by matching cross-adorned bronze ledger markers.

        If history and its theological literature have lessons for today, what can be learned from B. B. Warfield’s life and work? His major areas of theological interest were Christology, Calvin and Augustine, the Westminster Standards, perfectionism, Pelagianism, evolution, New Testament, and the doctrine of Scripture. Any one of these emphases could be chosen for application to current and continuing theological issues, but this article will focus on the doctrine of Scripture.

       Warfield is recognized as a defender of the inerrancy of the Bible in its original autographs, but inerrancy is just one characteristic showing the Bible to be the Word of God. This is not to minimize inerrancy but instead point out that for Warfield it is one characteristic among others wrapped up in two main points concerning Scripture—revelation and inspiration. In summarizing Warfield, we might say that Revelation, in particular supernatural revelation, is the body of gracious instructions from God which are authoritative and the only Word of God; inspiration, is “the fundamental quality of the written Scriptures, by virtue of which they are the word of God and are clothed with all the characteristics which properly belong to the word of God.”[3]  His view is consistent with the Westminster Standards to which he subscribed as an ordinand of the Presbyterian Church.

       The Westminster Confession of Faith 1:2 differentiates the apocrypha from the sixty-six-canonical books by stating that the latter “are given by inspiration of God.” The Word of God is inspired. The apocrypha are not the Word of God and therefore are not inspired. Joining inerrancy to the group of inspiration characteristics—infallibility, perfection, and the qualifiers plenary and verbal— Warfield defended them and viewed them as wrapped up with inspiration. Consider an automobile. Automobiles have systems which are necessary for the car to be a car. When an automobile is considered for purchase it is expected that it will have a motor to convert fuel into energy for propulsion, a drive train, brakes, an electrical system, and some type of appropriate cooling equipment for the motor. The car would not be a car without any one of these systems because it must go, stop, have lights and signals, and keep its motor at the appropriate temperature. If inspiration is analogous to the automobile, then inspiration would not be inspiration without its several characteristics just as the car would not be a car without its characteristics.

       When Warfield, as a polemicist-apologist, addressed the individual characteristics of inspiration, it was to critically appraise and/or refute the views of others regarding those characteristics. If a New Testament scholar said the Bible is unreliable, Warfield responded: if another theologian said Scripture contained the words of God here and there but not everywhere, he refuted the view; and if another scholar ridiculed inerrancy, Warfield defended it as a characteristic of the inspired Word of God. His doctrine of the Word, as with the Westminster Standards, was built on a theological foundation. How can the Bible not be inerrant, infallible, perfect, and fully and verbally inspired if it is the Word of God? Driving Warfield’s doctrine of Scripture is his understanding of the greatness of God as infinite, eternal, omnipotent, unchangeable, and the God of truth who would not say anything but the truth. But there is another aspect of his work regarding inspiration.

       Warfield was captivated by the Greek word, Theopneustos, which is found in the New Testament only in 2 Timothy 3:16. In his Western Seminary inaugural lecture he held that the word means “God-inspired,” which was the generally held definition. Ten years later in a lengthy article about Theopneustos, Warfield was concerned that Hermann Cremer (following Heinrich Ewald) had, in the most recent edition of his lexicon, changed the translation of Theopneustos from the active work of God expressed by “divinely inspired,” to what Warfield said was a passive sense of “inspiring the readers.” The shift is from what God did to how readers responded. Warfield’s article gave evidence from other lexicons, antiquity, manuscripts, theological writings, and the Bible showing that the historical consensus overwhelmingly supported Theopneustos bearing the meaning of God’s active work through which he inscripturated the Word through its writers.[4]

"What is Theopneustos is  “God-breathed,” …produced by the creative breath of the Almighty. And Scripture is called Theopneustos in order to designate it as “God-breathed,” the product of Divine spiration, the creation of that Spirit who is in all spheres of the Divine activity the executive of the Godhead….It does not express a breathing into the Scriptures by God. But the ordinary conception attached to it, whether among the Fathers or the Dogmaticians, is in general vindicated. What it affirms is that the Scriptures owe their origin to an activity of God the Holy Ghost and are in the highest and truest sense His creation. It is on this foundation of Divine origin that all the high attributes of Scripture are built."[5]

       Note that all “the high attributes [characteristics] of Scripture are built” on the word Theopneustos. The term expresses the intimate relationship between God and the Scriptures as he breathed them forth. This aligns with the historic sense of divinely inspired or God-inspired.

       Warfield’s last work of substance concerning inspiration was for the International Standard Bible Encyclopedia published in 1915. His interests for the remainder of his life focused on sanctification, Christology, communalistic religions, and perfectionism. The article is particularly interesting because it has no mention of inerrancy or the infallibility of Scripture, nor did he mention the plenary or verbal characteristics of the inspired Word. Two things are stressed: The Bible is the word of God (15 times), and it is God-breathed (14 times). Warfield’s study of the meaning of Theopneustos over the years since Cremer’s work yielded a slightly refined definition.

"The Greek term has, however, nothing to say of inspiring or of inspiration: it speaks only of a “spiring” or “spiration.” What it says of Scripture is, not that it is “breathed into by God” or is the product of the Divine “inbreathing” into its human authors, but that it is breathed out by God, “God-breathed,” the product of the creative breath of God. In a word, what is declared by this fundamental passage is simply that the Scriptures are a Divine product, without any indication of how God has operated in producing them. No term could have been chosen, however, which would have more emphatically asserted the Divine production of Scripture than that which is here employed. The “breath of God” is in Scripture just the symbol of His almighty power, the bearer of His creative word."[6]

“The term [Theopneustos] expresses the intimate relationship between God and the Scriptures as he breathed them forth. This aligns with the historic sense of divinely inspired or God-inspired.”

       After grappling with and refining his understanding the meaning of Theopneustos for forty years, the issue had been brought to its conclusion. His mature understanding of inspiration took him back to his Sabbath afternoons as a child at Grasmere and catechesis. The Westminster catechisms address the doctrine of Scripture with questions 2-5 in the larger catechism and 2-3 in the shorter catechism. It was the generally accepted view of the Westminster Assembly that Theopneustos meant divinely or God inspired. This is expressed in the Confession’s words “given by inspiration of God.” How do these catechism questions present the doctrine of Scripture? There is no mention of inerrancy, infallibility, perfection, nor plenary or verbal inspiration; the Bible is simply “the word of God.” Catechisms are by nature intended to be clear, simple, and precise expressions of doctrinal truth and “the word of God” was sufficient to express inspiration and its associated characteristics. The Westminster Assembly emphasized that the Word is God’s because of its Revealer and Inspirer. The Larger Catechism answer to question four emphasizes “that the scriptures are the word of God” because they evidence their author by what they do in individuals as they are brought to full conviction of their truth by means of “the Spirit of God bearing witness by and with the scriptures” in their hearts. If one accepts the Bible to be God’s word, then one accepts that it is inspired and delivered by its perfect Author.

       Ever since the temptation in Eden fallen man has incessantly repeated Satan’s question to Eve, “Yeah, hath God said?” Did God speak, and if he did, are you sure about what he said? It worked with Eve and it has been working ever since. While many hold the Bible with high regard as great literature, providing instruction in personal ethics, or as the record of self-sacrificial neighborliness by Jesus, the crucial issue is that it is the Word of God. B. B. Warfield’s great legacy affirmed the Westminster Standards teaching that the Bible is the supernatural and unique revelation of God’s will, and he strengthened the case for its uniqueness with his persistence in refining the meaning of Theopneustos. Also, Warfield is a prime example of the long-term benefits of catechesis and Bible memorization. He was indoctrinated in the best sense of the word with Scripture and the Westminster catechisms.

       Many of B. B. Warfield’s works were collected by Ethelbert and published in ten volumes which have been reprinted. Volume one includes an all too brief biography of Warfield by his brother. Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing also published a two-volume set titled, Benjamin B. Warfield: Selected Shorter Writings, 2001. Turning to titles about Warfield, one recent and comprehensive fine study is Fred G. Zaspel’s The Theology of B. B. Warfield: A Systematic Summary (Crossway, 2010), which includes a nearly four-page listing of Warfield’s works in the bibliography. Zaspel also contributed the article, “B. B. Warfield on Creation and Evolution,” to the Confessional Presbyterian 6, 2010. Gary L. W. Johnson’s collection, B. B. Warfield: Essays on His Life and Thought (P&R, 2007), includes the article “B is for Breckinridge,” by Bradley J. Gundlach, which points out the influence of Warfield’s ancestors upon him, and Johnson’s contribution, “Warfield and C. A. Briggs: Their Polemics and Legacy,” which addresses an important case for the doctrine of Scripture adjudicated at the end of the nineteenth century.  Kim Riddlebarger’s The Lion of Princeton: B.B. Warfield as Apologist and Theologian (Lexham Press, 2015) is also beneficial for understanding Warfield. Finally, Paul Helm’s article, “B. B. Warfield’s Path to Inerrancy: An Attempt to Correct Some Serious Misunderstandings” published in the Westminster Theological Journal 72 (2010): 23-42, shows how Warfield’s work was governed by the rise of Fundamentalism and its emphasis on the characteristics of inspiration as it refined its defense of the Bible.


[1] Annie Pearce Kinkead (Mrs. B. B.) Warfield, 1852-1915,” Banner of Truth 595 (April 2013): 22-26; it is the best information about her and debunks the previously held understanding of her infirmity

[2] Ned B. Stonehouse, J. Gresham Machen: A Biographical Memoir (Willow Grove: The Committee for the Historian of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church, 2004), 186; this edition is repaginated from the Eerdmans of 1954.

[3] “Inspiration,” in A Dictionary of the Bible, John D. Davis, ed., (Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1898).

[4] “God-Inspired Scripture,” The Presbyterian and Reformed Review 11:41 (Jan. 1900): 89-130.

[5] Ibid., 130.

[6] “Inspiration,” International Standard Bible Encyclopedia, vol. 3, Heresy-Naarah, James Orr, ed. (Chicago: The Howard Severance Company), 1915, 1474; the article has over 14,000 words.

Dr. Barry Waugh holds an MDiv and PhD from Westminster Seminary in Philadelphia. He has written articles and reviews for the Westminster Theological Journal and The Confessional Presbyterian.

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