Hearts Aflame | Part Three

Editor’s Note: Parts 1 & 2 of “Hearts Aflame” appeared in the first two issues of Westminster Magazine. Interested readers can read those parts online at wm.wts.edu before enjoying the conclusion of the story below.

The Tender Lion of Old Princeton

Charles Hodge’s white-hot passion for God’s glory burned ardently, the focused flame of theological exactitude kindling the hearts of his students. This was true of his son, Archibald Alexander Hodge, too, and would find even greater levels of expression in the hands of a blueblood from the Bluegrass State.

     Benjamin Breckinridge Warfield was born in Lexington, KY, on Nov 5, 1851, to a rather prosperous and well-heeled family. His father, William, was a wealthy farmer who served as a Union officer in the Civil War. Young Benjamin enjoyed the privilege of private tutoring, and from his youth was determined to become a scientist, having read Darwin and other scientific literature at an early age. Warfield would enter the orbit of the Princetonians, and our story, by two paths of influence. First, his maternal grandfather had been an Old School Presbyterian minister. Second, after his private education, he matriculated, following the footsteps of Hodge before him, at the College of New Jersey (1868–1871), where he graduated with highest honors. After this he embarked on a year of European travel the following February. It was during this season of his life that he began to sense a call to ministry. This, of course, meant a return to Princeton, NJ, in order to attend the great Presbyterian seminary, where he could study under the elder and younger Hodges.

     Warfield was licensed to preach in May 1875 and provided pulpit supply in Kentucky. He finished his studies at Princeton Theological Seminary, left for Dayton, OH, and was ordained. His ministry at First Presbyterian of Dayton was an answer to the desperate need of that church for a Sunday preacher. Dayton First Presbyterian, albeit of humble beginnings in a log cabin (not the first time a log cabin figured significantly into Presbyterian history), had become a rather prominent church. In fact, its pastor, Phineas Gurley, preached the funeral of none other than Abraham Lincoln. As the years passed, the church eventually went through a tumultuous parting of the ways with one of her ministers, Rev. John McVey, in 1874. The Presbytery found the church to be in error in their handling of the situation and required a statement to that effect be read from the pulpit. The church session responded with an official protest. Needless to say, these were stormy times in the life of this church, as this was followed by two years without a minister. Their reputation in the Presbytery was soiled.

     Stepping up to the plate to fill the pulpit of this now spiritually impoverished congregation was the young B. B. Warfield, with his freshly minted degree from Princeton Theological Seminary. His July 1876 sermon on Romans 3:4, “Let God be true, though every man a liar. . .” was a solid treatment of the sovereignty of God, the inspiration and authority of the Bible, covenant theology, and the nature of the incarnation—all in one! The session and congregation of First Presbyterian of Dayton appreciated the theologically rich sermons of Warfield. They extended a call to him to be their pastor, with an impressive salary of $2,500.00 a year.

"They extended a call to Warfield to be their pastor, with an impressive salary of $2,500.00 a year."

     Sadly, just as his preaching ministry began, Warfield was diagnosed with an undisclosed “disease of the throat.” Whatever the nature of this condition, it resulted in his declining the offer of the pulpit at First Presbyterian of Dayton, as his doctors advised him to refrain from preaching for the sake of his throat.

     Of even more significance in Warfield’s life was his marriage, two weeks after this impressive sermon that resulted in a ministerial call being offered, to the love of his life, Annie Pierce Kinkead. Having declined the offer of staying in Dayton, the newly married Warfields departed for Europe—part honeymoon, part exploration for further study in New Testament. Neither Benjamin nor Annie could have anticipated the tragedy that awaited them. At some point in this European tour, they were caught in a terrible, raging storm. That this thunderstorm occurred about a hundred miles west of Leipzig in the Harz Mountains gives the whole episode something of a Luther-esque flavor (recall his solemn vow to St. Anne that providential July 2, 1505, just outside of Stotternheim). While there is mystery surrounding the nature of the storm and the exact nature of her response—whether emotional, neurological, physical, or all three—Annie Warfield was never to be the same. This shocking event necessitated their immediate return to the States, where Annie remained something of an invalid for the rest of her life, partially paralyzed, and greatly hindered in her physical capacities. This event, perhaps, more than any other, defined Warfield for the rest of his life and ministry. Annie was diagnosed with what was then a rather common diagnosis for women—neurasthenia, which included symptoms of fatigue, depression, and general physical weakness. Sadly, she was fully bedridden the final two years of her life.

     Warfield left Europe with his new and all-but-helpless bride and returned to what he knew—pulpit supply—at First Presbyterian of Baltimore, until he was eventually ordained by the Ebenezer Presbytery of Kentucky. Rather than taking a call to a church, Warfield accepted the position of Instructor of New Testament at Western Theological Seminary in Pittsburgh, PA in 1878. His interest in New Testament studies grew, and, even as eventual Professor of Dogmatics at Princeton (more in a minute), his systematic and historical theological work was always marked by rigorous exegesis of the text of Scripture and constant reading, writing, and reviewing in New Testament studies. Even his massive emphasis on apologetics was always with an eye toward the historic defense of the authority and credibility of the New Testament. The title of his inaugural address upon promotion to full professor—“Is the Church Doctrine of the Plenary Inspiration of the New Testament Endangered by the Assured Results of Modern Biblical Criticism”—revealed much of the trajectory of the rest of his life, as he diligently defended the inspiration, authority, and inerrancy of Scripture. Distinguishing the Reformed view of inspiration from a mechanical view, Warfield says with forceful eloquence:

It is by no means to be imagined that it is meant to proclaim a mechanical theory of inspiration. The Reformed Churches have never held such a theory: though dishonest, careless, ignorant, or over-eager controverters of its doctrine have often brought the charge. Even those special theologians in whose teeth such an accusation has been oftenest thrown (e. g., Gaussen) are explicit in teaching that the human element is never absent. The Reformed Churches hold, indeed, that every word of the Scriptures, without exception, is the word of God; but, alongside of that, they hold equally explicitly that every word is the word of man. And, therefore, though strong and uncompromising in resisting the attribution to the Scriptures of any failure in absolute truth and infallibility, they are before all others in seeking, and finding, and gazing on in loving rapture the marks of the fervid impetuosity of a Paul—the tender saintliness of a John—the practical genius of a James, in the writings which through them the Holy Ghost has given for our guidance. Though strong and uncompromising in resisting all effort to separate the human and divine, they distance all competitors in giving honor alike to both by proclaiming in one breath that all is divine, and all is human. As Gaussen so well expresses it, “We all hold that every verse, without exception, is from men, and every verse, without exception, is from God. . .every word of the Bible is as really from man as it is from God.”[1]

     As early as this 1880 lecture, we see the intellectual horsepower, muscular prose, and affectional-aesthetic literary style that would mark the whole of his writing ministry. His academic prowess quickly spread and his alma mater. The College of New Jersey awarded him this same year with an Honorary D.D. The following year, The Theological Seminary of the Northwest in Chicago offered Warfield the chair of theology. He would remain at Western, however, until his theological alma mater called upon him to succeed A.A. Hodge at Princeton Theological Seminary in 1887 as the Charles Hodge Professor of Didactic and Polemic Theology. Like his earlier inaugural address at Western, his May 8, 1888, inaugural address at Princeton summarized and prophesied the past, present, and future trajectory of theological method at Old Princeton. Entitled, “The Idea of SystematicTheology Considered as a Science,” this seminal lecture is still required reading for students of Reformed theology to this day.[2] In a sense, one cannot fully appreciate the redemptive-historical, biblico-systematic method we follow at Westminster Theological Seminary apart from understanding Warfield’s method, which carried on the great tradition of Hodge’s own Systematic Theology, as well as Herman Bavinck’s (1854–1921) “genetic-synthetic” approach. While our theological method at Westminster stands on the shoulders of the Old Princeton giants, we do recognize the contextual emphasis on the scientific method of the Old Princetonians, with their appreciation for the Common Sense Realism of philosopher Thomas Reid (1710–1796), and we seek to lay as clear an emphasis as possible on the organic nature of Biblical Theology and the necessity of a covenantal revelational (scriptural) epistemology and methodology in the train of Cornelius Van Til (1895–1987).

"In a sense, one cannot fully appreciate the redemptive-historical, biblico-systematic method we follow at Westminster Theological Seminary apart from understanding Warfield’s method."

     While the full-bodied Princeton precision of Warfield would find a home at Westminster Theological Seminary, it was no less the inheritor of the full-hearted Princeton piety evident in his inaugural address, The Religious Life of Theological Students, the trajectory of which would blaze a trail through Pine Street in downtown Philadelphia, all the way up to Glenside, PA:

Whatever you may have done in the past, for the future make all your theological studies ‘religious exercises’. This is the great rule for a rich and whole-some religious life in a theological student. Put your heart into your studies: do not merely occupy your mind with them but put your heart into them. They bring you daily and hourly into the very presence of God; his ways, his dealing with men, the infinite majesty of his Being forms their very subject matter. Put the shoes from off your feet in this holy presence![3]

     Warfield continued in his teaching post at Princeton for the rest of his life, but he rarely traveled and was not significantly involved in Presbytery or the affairs of General Assembly. Instead of cultivating what would most certainly have been an international reputation, with all the invitations to lecture at European destinations, Warfield was zealous in his commitment to remain by Annie’s side. Although she visited friends here and there, within walking distance of the seminary, she was more or less confined to the old two-story house to the immediate left of Alexander Hall. Once the house of Charles, then A.A. Hodge, it was now home to Annie and her doting husband, Benjamin. The “Lion of Princeton” was tender, indeed. That he traded travel and international fame for faithfulness as a husband did not deter from his being recognized as an intellectual giant. This lion could also roar! Along with his early Honorary D.D. from the College of New Jersey, Davidson awarded him the LL.D. in 1892, followed by Lafayette College granting him the Litt.D. in 1911, and the S.T.D. by the University of Utrect in 1913.

"That he traded travel and international fame for faithfulness as a husband did not deter from his being recognized as an intellectual giant."

     Ever the tender caretaker of Annie, Warfield never wandered far from campus, but he remained extremely busy, to the point of overworking himself. J. Gresham Machen would pen a letter to his mother, in which he observed that Warfield did the work of “ten ordinary men.” He was a popular, beloved lecturer, and wrote voluminously.

     The vastness of his corpus is difficult to overstate. He was the editor for many years of the Princeton Review, and later, The Presbyterian and Reformed Review (later renamed The Princeton Theological Review), which was a theological journal much like our own Westminster Theological Journal. He was also a serious collector of books—the only owner in America (a point of which he was rather proud) of an original 1536 edition of Calvin’s Institutes of the Christian Religion, which he used in composing his lecture notes on Calvin.

     B.B. Warfield’s heart was yet to sustain two more blows—one emotional, the other physical. On Nov 19, 1915, he said goodbye to Annie. After 39 years of constant, tender watch-care over her every need, he laid her body to rest in Princeton Cemetery of Nassau Street Presbyterian Church. For five more years he threw himself into his work, lecturing and writing at such a pace that those close to the situation feared he might hasten his own death. Adding to the concern was the fact that the Warfields had no children, due to Annie’s lifelong illness. Just a little over five years later, on Christmas Eve 1920, Johannes Vos, son of Warfield’s dear friend, Geerhardus, happened to be looking out the window of their house on Mercer Street, and saw the Great Lion of Princeton collapse on the sidewalk. Warfield had experienced a heart attack. He recovered well enough to teach an afternoon class for the next several weeks. On February 16, 1921, after delivering a lecture from 1 John 3 on the love of God, in which he spoke of the Christ laying down his life for us, just as we should for the brethren (just as Benjamin did for Annie), Warfield assured his students that he believed in the supernatural and closed his lecture. Francis L. Patton (1843–1932), who had served as President of Princeton Theological Seminary (1888–1902), recounted in his memorial address,“The lecture was over; Dr. Warfield returned to his lonely dwelling: there came a few sharp shocks of pain—and he left the work that had been his joy, to be with the Savior whom he loved.”

The Lion’s Legacy

     The day after Warfield was laid to rest, J. Gresham Machen (1881–1937) wrote:

Dr. Warfield’s funeral took place yesterday afternoon at the First Presbyterian Church of Princeton. . . It seemed to me that the old Princeton—a great institution it was—died when Dr. Warfield was carried out. I am thankful for one last conversation I had with Dr. Warfield some weeks ago. He was quite himself that afternoon. And somehow, I cannot believe that the faith which he represented will ever really die. 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.” His expectation seemed to be that the organized Church, dominated by naturalism, would become so cold and dead, that people would come to see that spiritual life could be found only outside of it, and that thus there might be anew beginning. Nearly everything that I have done has been with the inspiring hope that Dr. Warfield would think well of it. . . I feel very blank without him. . . He was the greatest man I have known.[4]

     As Machen mourned the Great Lion of Princeton being laid to rest, he may have had some sense that his life would never be the same. Indeed, the decade before him would be one of such shifting cultural currents and theological controversy. Steeped in the spirituality of his Princeton fathers, Machen carried the torch of an old flame to a new seminary in Philadelphia.

"Steeped in the spirituality of his Princeton fathers, Machen carried the torch of an old flame to a new seminary in Philadelphia."

     When the New York Times ran a story: “MACHEN PROPOSES A NEW SEMINARY—Urges Evangelicals to Found School to ‘Continue Old PrincetonTradition’” a small band of Machen’s fellows, such as Oswald T. Allis, John Murray, and Robert Dick Wilson would follow him down southward, down to 1526 Pine Street in Philadelphia, where a house made do for a seminary. If this rings a bell—the doorbell of a little house on Mercer Street in Princeton in particular—it is the sound of God doing great things through small beginnings.

     Although Warfield’s dear friend Geerhardus Vos, preparing for retirement from Princeton, did not make the journey with Machen in body, the spirit of warm-hearted, world-encompassing gospel mission of Old Princeton was alive and well in the new seminary. Another of Machen’s Mighty Men who did make the journey was Vos’s fellow Dutchman, the great apologist Cornelius Van Til (1895–1987). Known for penetrating philosophical prowess, he nonetheless beautifully captured that which set Old Princeton’s heart aflame and kept the fire burning in Philadelphia—namely a vision for a Reformed understanding of the creation-fall-redemption-consummation mission of the resurrected Savior:

Christ walks indeed a cosmic road. Far as the curse is found, so far his grace is given. The Biblical miracles of healing point to the regeneration of all things. The healed souls of men require and will eventually receive healed bodies and a healed environment. Thus, there is unity of concept for those who live by the Scriptural promise of comprehensive, though not universal redemption. While they actually expect Christ to return visible on the clouds of heaven, they thank God for every sunny day. They even thank God for his restraining and supporting general grace by means of which the unbeliever helps to display the majesty and power of God. To the believer the natural or regular with all its complexity always appears as the playground for the process of differentiation which leads ever onward to the fullness of the glory of God.[5]

     Now reunited in the fellowship of the great cloud of witnesses, Machen happily knows that Dr. Warfield “thinks well” of the now 92 years of God’s faithfulness through Westminster Theological Seminary, continuing the “Old Princeton Tradition.” Machen’s stated purpose for the seminary was simple, “Our specialty is found in the Word of God. Specialists in the Bible—that is what Westminster Seminary will endeavor to produce.” May God continue to give grace of his Spirit to fuel the loving devotion of hearts aflame among the staff, faculty, alumni, student body, and churches served by our graduates across the globe. This worldwide-from-Glenside impact is the Lord’s fulfillment of the original intention of Old Princeton’s Plan for the Theological Seminary, which, in the words of its author, Ashbel Green (1762–1848), would provide a “nursery for vital piety, as well as sound theological learning,” with a missionary vision to reach the four corners of the earth. One needs only attend a graduation ceremony at Westminster to witness the nations literally walk across the stage to receive freshly minted diplomas deploying them for trustworthy ministry in a troubled world.

     So, let us pray, and pray some more, that the Lord will fan the flames of legacies of Alexander, Hodge, Warfield, Machen Van Til, and other faithful giants upon whose shoulders we stand. May we gratefully pay forward a debt of love to that nursery of Bible-specializing missionaries, pastors, teachers, professors, counselors, and other servants of Christ’s kingdom, that our tribe would increase and continue to cause the gates of hell to tremble.

[1] B.B. Warfield, ”Is the Church Doctrine of the Plenary Inspiration of the New Testament Endangered by the Assured Results of Modern Biblical Criticism” Accessed Online, 2021. https://www.logcollegepress.com/benjamin-breckinridge-warfield-18511921.

[2] WTS Magazine readers can access a copy of the original publishedform of Warfield’s address, here: https://archive.org/details/inaugurationofre00prin/page/n27/mode/2up.

[3] B.B. Warfield, The Religious Life of Theological Students. Accessedonline, 2021: https://www.logcollegepress.com/benjamin-breckin-ridge-warfield-18511921.

[4] Ned B. Stonehouse, J. Gresham Machen: A Biographical Memoir (Ban-ner of Truth: 1998), 310.

[5] Cornelius Van Til, “Nature and Scripture,” in The Infallible Word: A Symposium by the Members of the Faculty of Westminster Theological Seminary, ed. N. B. Stonehouse and Paul Woolley (1946; repr., Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing, 2002), 271–72.

David Owen Filson is Adjunct Professor of Church History and Director of Alumni Engagement at Westminster Theological Seminary. He is the Pastor of Theology and Discipleship at Christ Presbyterian Church (PCA) in Nashville, TN.

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