Tag Archives: B.B. Warfield

Warfield: Election is not Fatalism


This coming Sunday afternoon I’ll be preaching on the Reformed doctrine of election.  Unfortunately, I don’t have the opportunity to deal with every possible aspect of this subject, nor can I address every possible objection.  But let me here mention just one thing that I won’t discuss on Sunday and that’s the idea that election is a form of fatalism.  B. B. Warfield had a fairly good illustration of this involving a young Dutch boy:

This little boy’s home was on a dyke in Holland, near a great wind-mill, whose long arms swept so close to the ground as to endanger those who carelessly strayed under them.  But he was very fond of playing precisely under this mill.  His anxious parents had forbidden him to go near it; and, when his stubborn will did not give way, had sought to frighten him away from it by arousing his imagination to the terror of being struck by the arms and carried up into the air to have life beaten out of him by their ceaseless strokes.  One day, heedless of their warning, he strayed again under the dangerous arms, and was soon absorbed in his play there — forgetful of everything but his present pleasures.  Perhaps he was half conscious of a breeze springing up; and somewhere in the depth of his soul, he may have been obscurely aware of the danger with which he had been threatened.  At any rate, suddenly, as he played, he was violently smitten from behind, and found himself swung all at once, with his head downward, up into the air; and then the blows came, swift and hard!  O what a sinking of the heart!  O what a horror of great darkness!  It had come then!  And he was gone!  In his terrified writhing, he twisted himself about and looking up, saw not the immeasurable expanse of the brazen heavens above him, but his father’s face.  At once, he realized, with a great revulsion, that he was not caught in the mill, but was only receiving the threatened punishment of his disobedience.  He melted into tears, not of pain, but of relief and joy.  In that moment, he understood the difference between falling into the grinding power of a machine and into the loving hands of a father.  That is the difference between Fate and Predestination.  And all the language of men cannot tell the immensity of the difference.

(as quoted by Fred Zaspel in The Theology of B. B. Warfield, 209)

Book Review: Seeking a Better Country

Seeking A Better Country: 300 Years of American Presbyterianism, D. G. Hart and John R. Muether, Phillipsburg: P & R Publishing, 2007.  Hardcover, 288 pages, $25.00 US.

Surveys of history have a reputation for being major league snore fests – even for people with an interest in history.  And church history surveys?  The church history survey that can keep one’s attention for its full length is rare.  More often such books are kept on hand as reference tools and seldom read from cover to cover.  Seeking A Better Country is one of those rare, enjoyable church history surveys that is actually readable in its entirety.

The authors are well-known Presbyterian historians; both are members of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church.  Both have numerous volumes to their credit.  Though their allegiance to the OPC is evident in places, they have attempted to avoid a celebratory or triumphalistic approach to telling the story of Presbyterianism in the United States.  Instead, they have provided a sober, critical history that endeavours to promote “self-awareness, discernment, and wisdom.”  This is a laudable goal and one that, in my estimation, has been reached.

Some of the highlights of this story include the struggles between the Old Side and New Side of American Presbyterianism and, later on, between the Old School and New School.  Of particular interest is the role of the Westminster Standards and confessional subscription.  From the very beginning, there was no consensus on whether there should be confessional subscription in the Presbyterian church and, if so, what that should look like.  Also fascinating is the place of revivalism in the history of American Presbyterianism.  The authors tell of the Presbyterian background of Charles Finney and the relationship of revival meetings to the Scottish Presbyterian practice of communion seasons.  Seeking A Better Country powerfully portrays the struggle throughout American Presbyterian history between pietists and confessionalists.

These days the name of Darryl Hart is often associated with a controversy over two-kingdom theology.  “Two-kingdom theology” refers to a position by which the church’s authority is limited to spiritual matters.  The church is called to proclaim the gospel.  The church is not permitted to speak to or get involved with other areas of life, such as politics.  Practically speaking, this means that the church cannot tell its members to vote for one political party as opposed to another.  A careful reading of this volume may help readers to better understand the two-kingdom position.  “The spirituality of the church” has been an emphasis in certain Presbyterian circles for a long time and failure to accept this concept is certainly at the roots of the historical development of churches like the OPC.

One critical remark I want to make has to do with Benjamin B. Warfield’s views of evolution.  Our authors claim that Warfield “warmed up to evolutionary theory.”  He did this by distinguishing the science of evolution from its associated philosophy.  Moreover, Warfield pointed to Calvin as a proponent of “pure evolutionism” (179).  This is not a nuanced presentation of Warfield’s position.  Better on this point is Fred Zaspel’s The Theology of B. B. Warfield.  Zaspel documents Warfield’s “strengthening conviction against evolution.”  Moreover, he elaborates on Warfield’s understanding of Calvin.  Warfield found Calvin to be inadequate and inconsistent.    When it comes to evolution, Warfield was critically agnostic and noncommittal.

Historical awareness is critically important for Christians.  Why?  Because through awareness of history, we see how Christ has been working to gather, defend and preserve his people.  At the same time, we also see how Satan has worked tirelessly to undo Christ’s efforts.  As people with a background in the Reformed churches of the Netherlands, we probably know a little about that history (although even that might be presumptuous to say).  Most likely we know far less about Presbyterian history on our continent.  There are important lessons to be learned and Seeking A Better Country is a well-written and generally reliable guide.

Book Review: The Theology of B. B. Warfield

The Theology of B. B. Warfield: A Systematic Summary, Fred G. Zaspel, Wheaton: Crossway, 2010.  Hardcover, 624 pages, $44.00.

Ninety years after his death, Benjamin Breckinridge Warfield continues to be a respected voice in Reformed theology.  Along with Jonathan Edwards, the Hodges, and a few others, Warfield is one of the pre-eminent Reformed theologians in North American church history.  Yet for all his renown, few have given him a careful reading.  Popular ideas persist about what Warfield believed about this or that.  Part of the problem is Warfield himself never systematically laid out his theology in one place.

Fred Zaspel has therefore done us a favour by carefully collating Warfield’s theology into one helpful volume.  After an introduction surveying Warfield’s life and work, Zaspel follows the standard topics of systematic theology and distils Warfield’s thought on each one.  Here and there he also interacts with interpreters, particularly the ones whom Zaspel feels have not done justice to Warfield.

Zaspel himself is a sympathetic interpreter.  A Reformed Baptist pastor in Pennsylvania, he is broadly in agreement with Warfield’s theological bent.  Where he personally might depart from Warfield (regarding infant baptism, for instance), Zaspel remains respectfully silent, just simply laying out the Princeton theologian’s views without comment.  At the end of the volume he does offer some critique, but for the most part he allows Warfield to speak for himself.  That’s not to say the book consists mostly of quotations – most of the time Zaspel summarizes and paraphrases.

The Theology of B. B. Warfield will appeal most to pastors, scholars, seminary students and informed “lay people.”  Like Warfield himself, it is not light and fluffy.  Technical language is used and readers are expected to have an intermediate level of theological knowledge.

There are four areas in the book especially worthy of further comment.  Early on, Zaspel deals with Warfield’s views on apologetics.  He argues that Warfield has been unfairly portrayed by later Reformed apologists such as Cornelius Van Til.  Van Til argued that Warfield did not give adequate expression to the effects of sin upon the unregenerate mind.  Zaspel attempts to defend Warfield against this accusation.  He notes that Warfield did not attribute “right reason” to the unbeliever and spoke repeatedly of the pervasiveness of sin (77-78).  However, Zaspel also states that Warfield maintained that unregenerate man “is able to see the compelling force of ‘right reason.’”  Unfortunately, Zaspel is unable to see that this justifies Van Til’s complaint.  While he adds some useful nuance to Warfield’s views, Zaspel does not succeed in exculpating Warfield on his inconsistencies in apologetics.

Warfield is known as the great defender of biblical inspiration and inerrancy.  Therefore, one would expect a book of this nature to deal with those subjects at length.  Zaspel does not disappoint.  He outlines how contemporaries of Warfield and latter-day interpreters have accused the Princetonian of “rationalistic scholasticism” in his doctrine of the Bible.  He helpfully illustrates how these charges fall well short of the mark.

A third area of interest is Warfield’s thought on evolution.  The claim is often made that Warfield had an appreciation for evolution.  The argument is advanced that if Warfield can be regarded as a great Reformed theologian and he held to evolution, then how can contemporary advocates of evolution be excluded from Reformed churches?  Those making such claims ought to read Zaspel’s careful summary of Warfield’s views and how they developed.  He concludes Warfield could at best be said to have been noncommittal or to be critically agnostic (386-387).  However, Warfield also developed a “strengthening conviction against evolution” (385).

Finally, one of Warfield’s greatest concerns was the influence of perfectionism or Keswick “higher life” spirituality.  In his day there were popular preachers and writers claiming it was possible for Christians to no longer sin in this age.  There were also those who claimed that Christians should not regard themselves as sinners, since they are a “new creation in Christ.”  They denied the biblical teaching that, in this age, we are both justified and sinners (simul iustus et peccator).  These false teachings are still around today.  Today we still need Warfield’s biblical defense against these errors.  Zaspel provides a helpful door.  Warfield approvingly quoted Thomas Adam, “The moment we think we have no sin, we shall desert Christ” (465).

The Theology of B. B. Warfield is a comprehensive guide to the thought of “the Lion of Princeton.”  There’s no question it will be a standard reference for decades to come.  Anyone interested in the development of Reformed theology on our continent needs to have it and read it.

WTJ: Warfield and Inerrancy

The Spring 2010 issue of The Westminster Theological Journal has a number of articles that caught my attention.  One of them is Paul Helm’s “B.B. Warfield’s Path to Inerrancy: An Attempt to Correct Some Serious Misunderstandings.”  Helm is specifically responding to some of the claims about Warfield made by A. T. B. McGowan.  Among those claims:  “The focusing on inerrancy was the result of their adoption in their theology of a quasi-scientific theological method which was ‘rationalist’ in character” (25).  I’m not going to outline Helm’s argument, but here is his conclusion:  McGowan’s “assertion that Warfield’s account of God’s relation to the production of inerrant Scripture is ‘rationalistic’ is without foundation” (41).  Helm does go on to note that Warfield’s account may be problematic insofar as his method results in a “book whose inerrancy is established on inductive grounds,” and is, therefore, “only very probably inerrant” (42).  Worthwhile reading.