The Warfield Book

I am going to review this book that recently came out. It is a fantastic book that has so many good things in it. Many misperceptions (and there are many!) about Warfield will be swept away in light of the solid scholarship presented here, and the careful reading of original sources.

Bradley Gundlach gives us two solid biographical essays that go a long way towards supplying our complete lack of biography of the Princeton giant (although see Kim Riddlebarger’s excellent thesis The Lion of Princeton). Gundlach gives us a riveting account of Warfield’s maternal ancestry, especially focusing on Robert Breckinridge, Warfield’s grandfather (and whose last name supplies Warfield’s middle name) a fireball debater who had quite the ambivalent relationship with Princeton. Breckinridge was (eventually) an Old School defender whose eloquence could gainsay most listeners. I especially appreciated the description on pp. 20ff of his debating powers in the Presbyterian General Assembly. Breckinridge, however, favored some things that Princeton did not (though his defense of the Old School was highly commendable in the eyes of Princeton). For instance, he favored tent meetings. This polarized him from Charles Hodge, and, as Gundlach puts it, “would years later present to Benjamin Breckinridge Warfield two conflicting models of leadership in the church” (p. 24). I can only give you a taste here of the riches of this article, but it is utterly fascinating. Gundlach not only tells a story well, but teaches us church history in the process.

Gundlach’s other essay in the book relates to us Warfield’s role in the slavery issues surrounding the War Between the States. The irony here is that Warfield’s family was a slave-holding abolitionist family (!). The irony consists in the fact that the Warfields (and Breckinridge!) wanted abolition. However, Warfield (and not Breckinridge) wanted it to happen gradually so as not to thrust freedom on a people who were not wholly prepared for it. This is why they did not immediately free their own slaves. But Warfield wanted eventually a complete desegregation of whites and blacks, arguing that the Scripture provided the basis for his argument. That is the defining characteristic of Warfield’s position on slavery: he wanted the Bible to speak on this issue. This was his criticism of Dabney, Thornwell, and company that they did not base their position on Scripture. I might have appreciated a tad more work in the original sources of Dabney and Thornwell to back up this claim that they did not base their position on Scripture, for there was much argumentation, especially about the book of Philemon, surrounding this issue in the ante-bellum years. However, the article was about Warfield primarily, not about Dabney and Thornwell. One hopes that these two rather lengthy articles will form the basis of a full biography by Gundlach, which will (D.V.) be not far off. He has certainly demonstrated extreme competency in his field to write such a work.

The remainder of the book consists of theological essays. Paul Helseth explodes the myth that Warfield was a rationalist in two essays on Warfield’s thought, one directly addressing the matter, and one relating to the apologetic nature of Christian scholarship in the mind of Warfield. The most important point of these two essays is that Warfield acknowledges the noetic effects of sin on the human mind. This point alone is enough to explode the rationalist myth. However, Helseth strengthens his case considerably by appealing to his solidarity with the Dutch theologians on these points, especially Kuyper (pp. 122ff.). A summary of Helseth’s position can be seen in this quotation: “Warfield was convinced that genuinely Christian scholarship depends on the new birth” (p. 130). Helseth does not ignore the thorny question of Warfield’s views on science (pp. 132-135). I have only one problem with Helseth’s formulations at this point. He seems to assume that science can prove something to be correct when he asks this question: “Does it follow…that Christians should discount scientific findings even if those findings will establish conclusively that an accepted interpretation of Scripture was never truly scriptural-i.e., true- at all?” (p. 133, fn 91). The problem with this is that science cannot prove any of its theories true. Science can prove many theories false. In this sense, we can accept Helseth’s statement. If all he means here is that Galileo can prove that the interpretation of the Bible that says that the earth is the unmovable center of the earth is false, then we can accept this. But I am utterly unconvinced that science can prove any of its theories to be true. Maybe Helseth did not mean to imply that science could. Some clarification would be helpful here. I will finish the rest of the review in another post.