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Who was B. B. Warfield?

B. B. Warfield
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Benjamin Breckenridge Warfield (1851—1921) was an American Presbyterian theologian, educator, and apologist. He was regarded as one of the last great defenders of conservative Presbyterian theology before the denomination divided in 1929. As a professor at Princeton Theological Seminary from 1887 until 1921, he upheld the Reformed theological traditions of his predecessors, Charles Hodge and his son Archibald Alexander (A. A.) Hodge. Warfield was an exceptional scholar, author, reviewer, and editor. His works are still widely read among evangelical Christians, primarily because of his vigorous defense of biblical inerrancy.

Benjamin was born into a distinguished family near Lexington, Kentucky. His father, William Warfield, was a wealthy farmer and cattle and horse breeding authority. He also served as a Union officer in the Civil War. His mother, Mary Cabell Breckinridge, was the daughter of Robert Jefferson Breckinridge, a Presbyterian minister, theologian, editor, and politician. Mary’s grandfather was John Breckinridge, an attorney general for Thomas Jefferson and a distant cousin of John C. Breckinridge, the United States vice president under James Buchanan.

After receiving a private education, B. B. Warfield attended Princeton University (then the College of New Jersey), graduating in 1871 as valedictorian at age nineteen. Next, he spent a season touring Europe. By the time Warfield returned to Lexington, his inclination toward a career in science had turned toward the ministry. He worked briefly as the livestock editor of the Farmer’s Home Journal before entering Princeton Theological Seminary in 1873.

Not long after graduating in 1876, Benjamin married Annie Pearce Kinkead, the daughter of a prominent attorney. Soon, the couple sailed for Europe, where Warfield studied New Testament theology and biblical criticism at the University of Leipzig. During the voyage, they encountered a violent storm, and Annie suffered a debilitating trauma that plagued her for the rest of her life. Biographers don’t specify whether her injury was mental or physical, but she remained severely disabled, living as a shut-in. Apart from his duties at Princeton, B. B. Warfield also existed in semi-seclusion, caring for Annie until she died in 1915. The couple remained childless.

After returning to the United States, Warfield served briefly as a supply minister at the First Presbyterian Church in Baltimore, Maryland. In 1878, he accepted a New Testament teaching position at Western Theological Seminary near Pittsburg, Pennsylvania. He was ordained in the Presbyterian ministry in 1879.

In 1881, Warfield and A. A. Hodge (then serving as principal of Princeton Theological Seminary) published a collaborative essay on the inspiration of Scripture in an issue of the Presbyterian Review. The article—noteworthy for its scholarly and compelling defense of the inerrancy of the Bible—attracted significant attention at the time.

In 1887, after the death of Archibald Alexander Hodge, B. B. Warfield succeeded him as Charles Hodge Chair at Princeton Theological Seminary and Professor of Didactic and Polemic Theology. He remained in the position for 34 years, teaching to nearly 3,000 students in his lifetime. Late on the evening of February 16, 1921, B. B. Warfield died in Princeton, New Jersey, after a day of classes.

For 12 years (1890—1902), B. B. Warfield was chief editor of the journal Presbyterian and Reformed Review. He also contributed to its successor, Princeton Theological Review. Theologically, he held firmly to the doctrines of biblical infallibility, original sin, predestination, and limited atonement as outlined in the Westminster Confession of Faith. His writings endeavored to prove through precise and detailed scholarship the authority and inspiration of the Bible—that biblical inerrancy is an essential, orthodox Christian teaching and not an invented concept of the nineteenth-century church. He passionately argued against modernism and liberalism within Presbyterianism and Christianity in general.

Throughout his life, B. B. Warfield wrote biblical, theological, and apologetics books and articles, volumes of sermons, lectures, and reviews, including An Introduction to the Textual Criticism of the New Testament (1886), The Gospel of the Incarnation (1893), The Lord of Glory (1907), and Counterfeit Miracles (1918). Ten volumes of his most worthy articles were collected and published posthumously. These include Revelation and Inspiration (1927), Christology and Criticism (1929), Calvin and Calvinism (1931), Perfectionism (1931—1932), and The Inspiration and Authority of the Bible (1948). Many of B. B. Warfield’s views continue to play a vital role in evangelical circles today.

Here are a few quotes from B. B. Warfield:

“Christ took the Sabbath into the grave with him and brought the Lord’s Day out of the grave with him on the resurrection morn” (Selected Shorter Writings).

“Grace is free sovereign favor to the ill-deserving” (Selected Shorter Writings, Volume 2).

“It is not for Christians to be lukewarm in regard to the investigations and discoveries of the time. Rather, the followers of the Truth Indeed can have no safety, in science or in philosophy, save in the arms of truth. It is for us, therefore, as Christians, to push investigation to the utmost; to be leaders in every science; to stand in the van of criticism; to be the first to catch in every field the voice of the Revealer of truth, who is also our Redeemer” (Jessica Parks, ed., B. B. Warfield: A Guide to His Life and Writings, Faithlife Author Guides, Faithlife, 2017).

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