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The Theology of B.B. Warfield: A Systematic Summary

Since my college days, when I was first introduced to the work of B.B. Warfield, I have had an appreciation for his bold, impassioned defense of Christian orthodoxy.  Like many, I associate Warfield with the doctrine of inspiration, for that was the thorny debate dominated the theological landscape at the turn of the Twentieth Century when the “Lion of Princeton” was most active.  The further I got into ministry, as my theology reformed and I heard more about Warfield, the greater my interest became.  Then, when I heard of his devoted commitment to his invalid wife, Annie Kinkead Warfield, my admiration grew to the point that I had to learn more of this giant of the faith.  For that reason, I was thrilled to see Crossway offer a comprehensive summary of Warfield’s theology:  Fred Zaspel’s The Theology of B.B. Warfield.  I am grateful to have access to this valuable tool.  However broad the readership, I am confident that the motivated seeker will draw much from Zaspel’s offering.

The book is aptly subtitled, A Systematic Summary. What the author has done is mine the vast reserve of Warfield’s published works (Books, articles, journal entries, etc.) and systematize them.  This was not what I initially expected.  My expectation was an edited work of Warfield’s writing, which would have been a great contribution.  This is as good. Maybe better.

The biographical sketch and introduction to “Old Princeton” provides the reader with a helpful cultural and theological context by which to study Warfield’s teaching.  This intro provides the reader with a “peg” on which to hang this admirable theologian, particularly given the rise of liberalism, naturalism and neo-orthodoxy.  Warfield served the church well during those volatile years.

Of course, the primary value of this work (and it’s state purpose) is the categorization of the subject’s writings.  It is an immense undertaking to distill such a massive volume of material into one book, but Zaspel has done so efficiently and with impressive economy of words.

This “Systematic Summary” is thorough in that it covers a broad spectrum of fields, from Apologetics and Anthropology to Pneumatology to Bibliology.  I’m comfortable that in virtually any sphere of Biblical study, were I to ask, “What does B.B. Warfield believe about ________________?”, it will be addressed in some measure here.

For a man linked to academia, I’m encouraged by the devotional warmth of much of Zaspel’s inclusions.  I was pleased at how quotable Warfield is.  Here are a few examples:

On the heart of a minister: “Sometimes we hear it said that ten minutes on your knees will give you a truer, deeper, more operative knowledge of God than ten hours over your books. ‘What!’ is the appropriate response, ‘than ten hours over your books, on your knees?’ Why should you turn from God when you turn to your books, or feel that you must turn from your books in order to turn to God? If learning and devotion are as antagonistic as that, then the intellectual life is in itself accursed, and there can be no question of a religious life for a student, even of theology…Put your heart into your studies; do not merely occupy your mind with them, but put your heart into them.”

A Summary of the Holy Spirit’s work in Salvation from his “Brief and Untechnical Statement of the Reformed Faith: “The Holy Spirit. I believe that the redemption wrought by the Lord Jesus Christ is effectually applied to all His people by the Holy Spirit, who works faith in me and thereby unites me to Christ, renews me in the whole man after the image of God, and enables me more and more to die unto sin and to live unto righteousness; until, this gracious work having been completed in me, I shall be received into glory: in which great hope abiding, I must ever strive to perfect holiness in the fear of God.”

On the glory of the Incarnation: “The glory of the incarnation is that it presents to our adoring gaze not a humanized God or a deified man, but a true God-man – one who is all that God is and at the same time all that man is: one on whose almighty arm we can rest, and to whose human sympathy we can appeal.”

Pithy statements like these make the book a worthy investment for anyone who teaches and loves sound doctrine.  Which leads me to my final point– the value of Zaspel to preachers.

As a teaching elder, I expect to use the book most frequently as a reference tool and I anticipate relying heavily on it.  For instance, if I am studying or teaching on the dual nature of Christ, I can find 8 to 10 pages on the subject (a sub-head under the larger category of Christology) drawn from Warfield’s voluminous writings.  If I am unable to plow through full books on the subject, this tool will provide a succinct, clear discussion of the topic at hand, often with pithy quote from Warfield.  Most citations of any length are indented so it’s easy to reference.  I suggest that the reader mark up the book with notations in the margin, perhaps a “BBW” alongside noteworthy quotes.  This will help them later, when looking for material, to distinguish Zaspel from Warfield.

Since it’s likely that this book’s greatest usefulness and broadest impact will be as a reference tool, I’m pleased that there are ample footnotes and citations.  Of particular value for those who will draw from this material in teaching are the two indices — one general, one Scripture.  I expect to glean much for many years from Warfield, thanks to Zaspel’s massive contribution.  Time well spent.

Charles Simeon’s Encouragement to Sheathe our Daggers

It’s an admirable quality to hold firm, clear convictions in an area, yet remain gracious toward those with whom you differ.

Charles Simeon (1759-1836)

Spirit-wrought humility enables a man to be rigid yet conciliatory, unyielding yet deferential.  That balance can be particularly difficult to maintain in theological disputes.  The issue of God’s sovereignty in election is an oft-discussed and thorny debate.  As an ardent Reformed Baptist myself, I must concede that “our team” has not always carried the doctrines of grace with . . . well, grace.

For that reason, I’m instructed and encouraged by a conversation that occurred in the 18th century between Charles Simeon (a Calvinist) and John Wesley (an Arminian).  Handley Carr Glyn Moule, in his biography of Simeon, includes the following exchange:

Charles Simeon: Sir, I understand that you are called an Arminian; and I have been sometimes called a Calvinist; and therefore I suppose we are to draw daggers.  But before I consent to begin the combat, with your permission I will ask you a few questions.  Pray, Sir, do you feel yourself a depraved creature, so depraved that you would never have thought of turning to God, if God had not first put it in to your heart?

John Wesley: Yes, I do indeed.

Charles Simeon: And do you utterly despair of recommending yourself to God by anything you can do; and look for salvation solely through the blood and righteousness of Christ?

John Wesley: Yes, solely through Christ.

Charles Simeon: But, Sir, supposing you were at first saved by Christ, are you not somehow or other to save yourself afterwards by your own works?

John Wesley: No, I must be saved by Christ from first to last.

John Wesley (1703-1791)

Charles Simeon: Allowing, then, that you were first turned by the grace of God, are you not in some way or other to keep yourself by your own power?

John Wesley: No.

Charles Simeon: What then, are you to be upheld every hour and every moment by God, as much as an infant in its mother’s arms?

John Wesley: Yes, altogether.

Charles Simeon: And is all your hope in the grace and mercy of God to preserve you unto His heavenly kingdom?

John Wesley: Yes, I have no hope but in Him.

Charles Simeon: Then, Sir, with your leave I will put up my dagger again; for this is all my Calvinism; this is my election my justification by faith, my final perseverance: it is in substance all that I hold, and as I hold it; and therefore, if you please, instead of searching out terms and phrases to be a ground of contention between us, we will cordially unite in those things where in we agree.