The Theology of B. B. Warfield
A Systematic Summary
Publisher: Crossway Books
Reviewer: Discerning Reader Team
In his preface to The Theology of B. B. Warfield, Fred Zaspel says that his purpose “is not to critique or evaluate but to clarify the views Warfield actually held.” Does he actually accomplish this aim? I say that he does, and it will take a really big book to show otherwise. We might repeat the charge that Warfield’s only interest was to defend inerrancy, or that his theology was disjointed, or that he was a convinced Darwinian before we read Zaspel’s work, but we would have to be sloppy – or stubborn – readers to say so afterward.
At nineteen, Benjamin Warfield graduated first in his class, not from high school, but from Princeton University. After further education, he spent time preaching in Presbyterian churches and teaching at Western Theological Seminary before he began his career at Princeton, where he taught from 1887 to 1921. Warfield is known as one of the last of the great Princeton Theologians, “a towering figure in the counterattack against liberalism.” Even those who disagree with his theology say that he “had the finest mind ever to teach at Princeton Theological Seminary.”
J. Gresham Machen, one of Warfield’s colleagues, said that Warfield “has done about as much work as ten ordinary men.” That’s hard to deny when we consider that Warfield wrote “more than 40 books and booklets, nearly seven hundred periodical articles, more than a thousand book reviews,” and so on. Such a prolific opus is too much for most of us to survey, but no need to worry: Fred Zaspel has done the work for us. Besides the above, Zaspel gleaned from Warfield’s unpublished manuscripts, sermon notes, lecture notes, and even Warfield’s students’ class notes. There is a heap of research packed into these 600 pages and thirteen pages of bibliography and innumerable footnotes to prove it.
Warfield was an apologist. In his day, nearly every historic Christian doctrine was under attack. This he could not ignore: “To be indifferent to doctrine is thus but another way of saying we are indifferent to Christianity.” Most of his work, therefore, is a response to what he saw as a challenge to the gospel, which is why he is distinguished as “the polemic theologian.”
Warfield is best known for his defense of the inspiration and inerrancy of Scripture. These doctrines, Zaspel writes, “were the issues of Warfield’s day.” Warfield saw, rightly, that “Apart from inspiration there is no reference point and therefore no well-grounded reason for the Christian hope or life. Without an inspired Bible the ground for any of Christianity’s teachings is lost.” Since Warfield published over 1,500 pages on the subject, it is only right that Zaspel spends a considerable amount of time on it, too. But the doctrine of Scripture wasn’t Warfield’s only interest. According to Zaspel, it wasn’t even his primary interest:
The person of Christ and his work clearly topped the list of Warfield’s many interests as measured by his literary output and preaching…For Warfield, to maintain vigorously and carefully the doctrine of Christ set forth in Scripture is to preserve Christianity itself…Without question, in the person and work of Christ…we have reached the heart of Benjamin Warfield.
The scope of Warfield’s work is obviously vast. “The theological labors of B. B. Warfield touch virtually every department of biblical and theological studies.” We might say the same for Zaspel’s book.
Zaspel writes for the serious student, so we can’t fault him for using scholarly language. Most readers will benefit from a dictionary; I did, and I was happy to learn that “piacular” means “expiatory.” But an English dictionary will only get you so far. Some of the questions that Zaspel works through revolve around the meaning and use of Greek words. These sections of the book, though few, give the non-Greek speaking audience trouble. Zaspel is also repetitive, which adds to the bulk of this already not-so-slim volume, but that will only be apparent to those who read straight through. When viewed as a reference, the repetition is probably necessary. Overall, Zaspel’s book is accessible to anyone with a serious interest in Warfield or theology. It is well-written, well-edited, and well worth both the money and effort. It’s hard to imagine anyone ever writing a more definitive work on this great theologian.