The Gospel Encapsulated by B.B. Warfield

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Alistair Begg on his radio program Truth For Life recently highlighted a quote by Benjamin Breckinridge Warfield, which he described as “majestic and wonderful.” He added, “this, loved ones, is the gospel.”

It comes from his extended 1920 article on “Miserable-Sinner Christianity” and it is worth meditating upon today, dear reader, just as it was almost a century ago. We have included here a couple of sentences that go beyond what Begg cited on his show. Here he addresses the heart of the gospel, that is, what is the basis of our acceptance before God?

…there is nothing in us or done by us, at any stage of our earthly development, because of which we are acceptable to God. We must always be accepted for Christ’s sake, or we cannot ever be accepted at all. This is not true of us only “when we believe.” It is just as true after we have believed. It will continue to be true as long as we live. Our need of Christ does not cease with our believing; nor does the nature of our relation to Him or to God through Him ever alter, no matter what our attainments in Christian graces or our achievements in Christian behavior may be. It is always on His “blood and righteousness” alone that we can rest. There is never anything that we are or have or do that can take His place, or that can take a place along with Him. We are always unworthy, and all that we have or do of good is always of pure grace.

HT: Carolyn Kelleher

Geerhardus Vos on the need for faithful creeds and confessions

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During the run-up to the 1903 PCUSA revision of the Westminster Confession of Faith, B.B. Warfield wasn’t the only prominent Princetonian expressing concerns about the potential risks to the church. Geerhardus Vos, in an exchange with Abraham Kuyper, the Dutch theologian, during the 1890’s, reveals his opposition to the planned revision.

This exchange — detailed in Danny E. Olinger’s recent biography, Geerhardus Vos: Reformed Biblical Theologican, Confessional Presbyterian (2018), and in James T. Dennison, Jr.’s The Letters of Geerhardus Vos (2006) [both available at our Secondary Sources Bookstore page] — was private, but he also addressed the matter publicly on a few occasions. One was his article on “The Biblical Idea of Preterition” (The Presbyterian, 70, 36 (September 5, 1900): pp. 9-10); another was "The Scriptural Doctrine of the Love of God” (The Presbyterian and Reformed Review, 13, 49 (January 1902): pp. 1-37). In the former article, Vos noted,

One of the gravest symptoms of the revision movement in the Presbyterian Church today consists in the absence of serious appeal to scriptural authority for the changes of confessional statement that are advocated….Consequently there is reason to fear that the spirit in which revision is sought forebodes greater evil to the church than any material modifications of the creed to which revision may lead. Even if the Calvinistic system of doctrine embodied in our standards were seriously mutilated in result of the present movement, so long as the great body of believers feel themselves in conscience bound to yield unquestioning faith to the Bible, there is always hope for a rehabilitation of the principles temporarily abandoned. But when once the sense of allegiance to the Word of God as the only authoritative rule of faith has become weakened, or while still recognized in theory has ceased to be a living force in the minds of believers, then the hope of a return to the truth once forsaken is reduced to a minimum.

See Olinger’s discussion of these articles, ibid., pp. 107-116, for a helpful analysis of the concerns that Vos had.

Furthermore, in 1896, Vos published his handwritten 5-volume Reformed Dogmatics in Dutch. As these volumes have been recently translated (they are not currently on this site), readers will find interesting his remarks from Volume 5, p. 41, on the value of faithful creeds and confessions.

There are many who deny to the church the power and right of making creeds, and think that to do so is in conflict with the sufficiency of Holy Scripture. Hence, too, there are many communions that hold to no confession, such as the Quakers, Darbyists, etc. One should grant that creeds are not absolutely necessary. A church, if one wishes to reason in the abstract, can exist without confessional documents, and has existed without such. These, however, were exceptional situations. It is impossible to guide someone through Scripture in its entirety or to ask him his opinions concerning the whole of Scripture. The essential things must be gathered together in order that the church may show how it understands Scripture in the light of the Spirit. The authority of these creeds is always bound to Scripture; they are susceptible to improvement, but may not be lightly revised, inasmuch as they are not a compendium of theology but the ripe fruits of the spiritual development of the church, sometimes obtained through a long struggle. A true revision does not tear down the old but explains and confirms it and further illumines it in connection with new times and circumstances. But it remains true that the Scripture is the norma normans [norming norm], the confession the norma normata [normed norm].

From these sources we learn both how Vos opposed the movement to amend the Westminster Confession of Faith, which succeeded in its goal in 1903, and why Vos valued sound confessionalism, viewing faithful creeds as a means to aid the church in its affirmation of what Scripture teaches on a systematic basis. It was precisely because of his view that Scripture is the only rule of faith and practice that Vos taught the necessity of creeds as subordinate to Scripture — to guard the exposition of those Scriptures by the church from error — and the danger of revisions when they sprang from preference as opposed to scriptural mandate.

An LCP milestone for B.B. Warfield

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The 1974 Bibliography of Benjamin Breckinridge Warfield, 1851-1921 by John E. Meeter and Roger Nicole identifies 1,574 works - with caveats - by the most prolific of authors - and that is after excluding another 1,070 titles which were deemed too brief to include in their list.

At Log College Press, Samuel Miller was the first of our authors to reach 100 titles available to read online here, but now B.B. Warfield is the second to reach that milestone. Although it is only a fraction of the total works written or published by Warfield, it is a substantial assembly of material for the student of his body of literature, and it continues to grow.

Among the 100+ Warfield works available to read at LCP thus far, one may find:

  • at least 15 separate published compositions, including hymns and poems (for purposes of this count, his 1910 Four Hymns and Some Religious Verses is reckoned as one publication);

  • at least 14 separate published works on aspects of the Scriptures;

  • at least 12 separate published works pertaining to the Westminster Assembly and its Standards;

  • at least 11 sermons (found in his 1893 The Gospel of the Incarnation; and his 1913 The Saviour of the World);

  • at least 8 separate published works on aspects of Christology;

  • at least 5 separate published works relating directly to John Calvin;

  • at least 4 separate published works on systematic theology; and

  • 2 inaugural addresses.

Not included in this list are published writings by Warfield found elsewhere on LCP, such as our Compilations page, such as his “Incarnate Truth” and “The Christian’s Attitude Toward Death” in Princeton Sermons (1893); and “Present Day Attitude to Calvinism in Calvin Memorial Addresses (1909).

Also, take note of the (at least) 9 separate works (including the Meeter/Nicole bibliography referenced above) specifically focused on Warfield available at our Secondary Sources bookstore page (which does not include many other works about Princeton which also contain valuable material by and about him).

There is a rich treasury of Warfield literature to be explored at LCP and it is only growing. Begin by perusing his author page here.

B.B. Warfield on 'Trusting in the Dark'

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That flower that follows the sun, doth so even in cloudy days; when it doth not shine forth, yet it follows the hidden course and motion of it: so the soul that moves after God, keeps that course when he hides his face, is content, yea, is glad at his will in all estates, or conditions, or events. — Robert Leighton, Sermon XXII: The Confidence of Faith, in Whole Works, Vol. 3, p. 347

B.B. Warfield, in Four Hymns, and Some Religious Verses (1910), adapted this famous saying by Archbishop Leighton into a poem of his own.


Said Robert Leighton, holy man,
Intent a flickering faith to fan
Into a steady blaze: —
"Behold yon floweret to the sun,
As he his daily course doth run,
Turn undeclining gaze.

"E'en when the clouds obscure his face,
And only faith discerns the place
Where in the heavens he soars,
This floweret still, with constant eye,
The secret places of the sky
Untiringly explores.

"Look up, my soul! What can this be
But Nature's parable to thee?
Look up, with courage bright!
The clouds press on thee, dense and black,
Thy Sun shines ever at their back —
Look up and see His light

The College Writings of B.B. Warfield

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B.B. Warfield studied at the College of New Jersey (Princeton) from 1868 to 1871. It was while he was a student that the man who would become so prolific a writer published his first material in The Nassau Literary Magazine.

In 1870 a poem appeared written by Warfield, based on 1 Maccabees 9:1-21, titled “The Jewish Thermopylae.”

During his senior year, various works by Warfield were published, both in The Nassau Literary Magazine and The Nassau Herald. In February 1871, in the former publication, he published a poem, “The Taking of the Suburbs,” as well as an essay titled “Milton’s Satan.”

In April 1871, he published 1) an essay on “Woman’s Mission,” 2) another essay about the “Poetic Genius of Poe” (this was signed N.E.D. - representing the last letter of the name Benjamin Breckinridge Warfield), 3) a brief poem beginning with the first line “Despise not the wrinkles of age,” and 4) an “Olla-podrida,” a “miscellany” or “literary bouquet,” which includes a poem called “A Serenade.”

An issue of The Nassau Herald, published on Class Day, June 26, 1871 by the graduating senior class of Princeton, includes an editorial by Warfield.

Each of these publications is identified as Warfield’s by John E. Meeter and Roger Nicole in A Bibliography of Benjamin Breckinridge Warfield, 1851-1921, p. 9. Together, it is believed that they constitute his earliest published writings, five of which are poems. As you read them remember that they are the works of a 19 or 20 year-old young man who would go on to become one of America’s greatest theologians. It noteworthy to ponder also that approximately four decades later, he published Four Hymns, and Some Religious Verse (1910). From his youth to his old age, Warfield was not only a student and then teacher of theology, but also a poet.

The graveyard of worthy words, per B.B. Warfield

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What B.B. Warfield had to say about words that were being drained of their meaning in an article that he wrote for The Princeton Theological Review just over a century ago in April 1916 (“Redeemer” and “Redemption”) seems as if it could be equally applicable to the situation we find in today’s society.

It is sad to witness the death of any worthy thing, — even of a worthy word. And worthy words do die, like any other worthy thing — if we do not take care of them. How many worthy words have already died under our very eyes, because we did not take care of them! Tennyson calls our attention to one of them. “The grand old name of gentleman,” he sings, “defamed by every charlatan, and soil’d with all ignoble use.” If you persist in calling people who are not gentlemen by the name of gentlemen, you do not make them gentlemen by so calling them, but you end by making the word gentleman mean that kind of people. The religious terrain is full of the graves of good words which have died from lack of care — they stand as close in it as do the graves today in the flats of Flanders or among the hills of northern France. And these good words are still dying all around us. There is that good word “Evangelical.” It is certainly moribund, if not already dead. Nobody any longer seems to know what it means. Even our Dictionaries no longer know….the official name of the Protestant Church in a large part of Germany is “The Evangelical Church.” When this name was first acquired by that church it had a perfectly defined meaning, and described the church as that kind of church. But having been once identified as that kind of church, it has drifted with it into the bog. The habit of calling “Evangelical” everything which was from time to time characteristic of that church or which any strong party in that church wished to make characteristic of it — has ended in robbing the term of all meaning. Along a somewhat different pathway we have arrived at the same state of affairs in America. Does anybody in the world know what “Evangelical” means, in our current religious speech? The other day, a professedly evangelical pastor, serving a church which is certainly committed by its formularies to an evangelical confession, having occasion to report in one of our newspapers on a religious meeting composed practically entirely of Unitarians and Jews, remarked with enthusiasm upon the deeply evangelical character of its spirit and utterances.

But we need not stop with “Evangelical.” Take an even greater word. Does the word “Christianity” bear a definite meaning? Men are debating on all sides of us what Christianity really is. Auguste Sabatier makes it out to be just altruism; Josiah Royce identifies it with the sentiment of loyalty; D.C. Macintosh explains it as nothing but morality. We hear of Christianity without dogma, Christianity without miracle, Christianity without Christ. Since, however, Christianity is a historical religion, an undogmatic Christianity would be an absurdity; since it is through and through a supernatural religion, a non-miraculous Christianity would be a contradiction; since it is Christianity, a Christless Christianity would be — well, let us say lamely (but with a lameness which has perhaps it own emphasis), a misnomer. People set upon calling unchristian things Christian are simply washing all meaning out of the name. If everything that is called Christianity in these days is Christianity, then there is no such thing as Christianity. A name applied indiscriminately to everything, designates nothing.

B.B. Warfield and J.G. Vos on the Language of Christianity

“No one will doubt that Christians of today must state their beliefs in terms of modern thought. Every age has a language of its own and can speak no other. Mischief only comes when, instead of stating Christian beliefs in terms of modern thought, and effort is made, rather, to state modern thought in terms of Christian belief.” — B.B. Warfield, Review of Foundations: A Statement of Christian Belief in Terms of Modern Thought, by Seven Oxford Men, in Critical ReviewsThe Works of Benjamin Breckinridge Warfield (1932; reprint, Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker, 1991), 10:322

“The Bible is bent or distorted when it is interpreted in terms of some system of non-biblical thought. The late Dr. Benjamin B. Warfield, one of America’s most distinguished theological scholars, said that there can be no objection to stating Christianity in terms of modern thought. Every age, said Dr. Warfield, speaks a language of its own and can speak no other. Mischief only comes, he added, when under the guise of re-stating Christianity in terms of modern thought what is actually done is to state modern thought in terms of Christian belief. In other words, when under the guise of up-dating the form, what actually happens is that the content has been tamped with, then the Bible and its teachings have been bent or distorted.” — Johannes Geerhardus Vos, “Bible Breaking, Bible Bending, and Bible Believing,” in John H. White, ed., The Book of Books: Essays on the Scriptures in Honor of Johannes G. Vos (1978), p. 6

B. B. Warfield's "Nutshell" Argument for Infant Baptism

Today, November 5, 2018, is the 167th anniversary of the birth of Benjamin Breckinridge Warfield, the masterful theologian of Princeton Theological Seminary. In honor of his birth we offer this gem of a quote on the topic of infant baptism, taken from his article, “The Polemics of Infant Baptism,” found in Volume 9 of his Works, pp. 389-408 (this article was originally printed in The Presbyterian Quarterly, Volume 13, 1899, pp. 313-334).

Having rightly asserted, “According as is our doctrine of the Church, so will be our doctrine of the Subjects of Baptism” (9:389), Warfield summarizes the Presbyterian position in this way:

So long as it remains true that Paul represents the Church of the Living God to be one, founded on one covenant (which the law could not set aside) from Abraham to today, so long it remains true that the promise is to us and our children and that the members of the visible Church consist of believers and their children - all of whom have a right to all the ordinances of the visible Church, each in its appointed season. The argument in a nutshell is simply this: God established His Church in the days of Abraham and put children into it. They must remain there until He puts them out. He has nowhere put them out. They are still then members of His Church and as such entitled to its ordinance. Among these ordinances is baptism, which standing in similar place in the New Dispensation to circumcision in the Old, is like it to be given to children.

And we might rightly append, “Q. E. D.”

What is Grace? A concise answer by A.A. Hodge & B.B. Warfield

Johnson’s Universal Cyclopedia contains an article on “Calvinism” originally written jointly by A.A. Hodge and B.B. Warfield, and later revised by Warfield, which also appears in Warfield’s Selected Shorter Writings, Vol. 2. In this article the concept of grace is defined simply and concisely.

Grace is free sovereign favor to the ill-deserving. It is the motive of redemption in the mind of God. It is exercised in the sacrifice of his Son, in the free justification of the believing sinner on the ground of that Son’s vicarious obedience and sufferings, and in the total change wrought in that sinner’s moral character and actions by the energy of the Holy Ghost. While the word grace applies equally to the objective change in relations and the subjective change of character, it is used in this connection to designate the energy of the Holy Ghost whereby the moral nature of the human soul is renewed, and the soul, thus renewed, is enabled to act in compliance with the will of God.

The word grace has been at the heart of many theological controversies, but here the concept is laid before us clearly, and, thus simply defined, is worthy of our thankful meditation.

The Providence of God is Our Consolation

Some words of wisdom from two Princeton men on how a right understanding of and faith in the Providence of God is a great comfort to us amidst the troubles and trials of our daily pilgrimage in this earth.

“A firm faith in the universal providence of God is the solution of all earthy troubles. It is almost equally true that a clear and full apprehension of the universal providence of God is the solution of most theological problems.” — B.B. Warfield, “God’s Providence Over All” in Selected Shorter Writings of Benjamin B. Warfield, Vol. 1, p. 111


”Men are prone to think of God, says the excellent Melancthon, as of a shipbuilder, who, when he has completed his vessel, launches and leaves it. In opposition to this error of the Epicureans and Stoics, we are to be reminded that God never abandons his work, but is as much with it the last day as the first. This governing presence of God with all his creatures and all their actions, is called Providence, from a Latin word which means to see beforehand….

The view which we here take of Providence, regards the universe of mind and matter, not as a machine, wound up and left to run its career of centuries, without the Maker’s care, but as requiring and receiving at every moment his mighty influence, a stream of power perpetually proceeding from the Godhead. The very essence of God is, therefore, everlastingly present with every atom and every spirit. This is exactly accordant to those places in Scripture where God is spoken of as the universal cause, and is said to do those things which are done, secondarily, by creatures. Ps. 104:8, 30. And to this is referred the supporting of life in the most insignificant birds. Matt. 10:29. Enough has been said in regard to this primary acting of divine Providence, in preserving all things. How God does this it would be madness for us to inquire. The simplicity of the divine acts causes them to elude our faculties. He wills it, and that is enough; just as at the beginning he willed creation. What we chiefly need is to bear this in mind, with daily faith, awe, and thankfulness. Such is God’s preserving of the creature, as a part of Providence….

It is our privilege, not only to hope in Providence, with regard to the lesser affairs of life, but to recognize it — to see God’s hand in our daily walk, with wonder and love. ‘They that observe providences, shall have providences to observe.’ The simple faith of the patriarchs saw God’s hand in every thing that befell them; and so might we. I appeal to aged and observant Christians, whether the happiest persons they ever knew, have not been those who were most ready to eye God in all the events of life: in health and sickness, in business, and in family occurrences. Let us hope in Providence. Let us hope mightily. ‘But I will hope continually, and will yet praise thee more and more.’ Do days look dark? O remember, every cloud is governed by the God of truth and the God of power. The house in which you dwell is not without a master.” — James Waddel Alexander, “The Providence of God a Ground of Consolation” in Consolation, pp. 37, 40-41, 54-55

Has God Given Rules for the Government of His Church and for Worship?

B.B. Warfield addresses a fundamental question about whether God has given rules for how His church is to governed and how He is to be approached in worship in an address titled "The Mystery of Godliness" in Faith and Life, pp. 375-378. Taking I Tim. 8:16 for his text ("And without controversy great is the mystery of godliness"), Warfield responds to the idea that God has given no such direction. 

It is of the more importance that we should note this, that there is a disposition abroad to treat all matters of the ordering of public worship and even of the organization of the Church as of little importance. We even hear it said about us with wearisome iteration that the New Testament has no rules to give, no specific laws to lay down, in such matters. Matters of church government and modes of worship, we are told, are merely external things, of no sort of significance; and the Church has been left free to find its own best modes of organization and worship, varying, doubtless, in the passage of time and in the Church's own pas sage from people to people of diverse characters and predilections. No countenance is lent to such sentiments by the passage before us; or, indeed, by these Pastoral Epistles, the very place of which in the Canon is a standing rebuke to them; or, in fine, by anything in the New Testament. 

On the contrary, you will observe, Paul's point of view is precisely the opposite one. He takes his start from the inestimable importance of the Gospel. Thence he argues to the importance of the Church which has been established in the world, so to speak, as the organ of the Gospel — the pillar and buttress on which its purity and its completeness rest. Thence again he argues to the proper organization and ordering of the Church that it may properly perform its high functions. And, accordingly, he gives minute prescriptions for the proper organization and ordering of the Church — prescribing the offices that it should have and the proper men for these offices, and descending even into the details of the public services. His position, compressed into a nutshell, is simply this: the function of the Church as guardian of the truth, that glorious truth which is the Gospel, is so high and important that it cannot be left to accident or to human caprice how this Church should be organized and its work ordered. Accordingly, he, the inspired Apostle — "an Apostle of Christ Jesus according to the commandment of God our Saviour and Christ, our Hope" — has prescribed in great detail, touching both organization and order, how it is necessary that men should conduct themselves in the household of God — which is nothing other than the Church of the Living God, the pillar and ground of the truth. In other words, it is God's Church, not man's, and God has created and now sustains it for a function; and He has not neglected to order it for the best performance of this function.

To imagine that it is of little importance how the Church shall be organized and ordered, then, is manifestly to contradict the Apostle. To con tend that no organization is prescribed for it is to deny the total validity of the minute directions laid down in these epistles. Nay, this whole point of view is as irrational as it is unbiblical. One might as well say that it makes no difference how a machine is put together — how, for example, a typewriter is disposed in its several parts, — because, forsooth, the typewriter does not exist for itself, but for the manuscript which is produced by or rather through it. Of course the Church does not exist for itself — that is, for the beauty of its organization, the symmetry of its parts, the majesty of its services; it exists for its "product" and for the "truth" which has been committed to it and of which it is the support and stay in the world. But just on that account, not less but more, is it necessary that it be properly organized and equipped and administered — that it may function properly. Beware how you tamper with any machine, lest you mar or destroy its product; beware how you tamper with or are indifferent to the Divine organization and ordering of the Church, lest you thereby mar its efficiency or destroy its power, as the pillar and ground of the truth. Surely you can trust God to know how it is best to organize His Church so that it may perform its functions in the world. And surely you must assert that His ordering of the Church, which is His, is necessary if not for the "esse," certainly for the "bene esse" of the Church.

Cane of Orthodoxy

Missionaries from Princeton were actively working in Hawaii in the early 19th century. A chief of the Sandwich Islands (as Hawaii was then known) sent a gift to Princeton, a cane or walking-stick carved from whalebone, by way of one of those missionaries in the 1820's with instructions to "present it to your chief," that is, Dr. Archibald Alexander. 

It was a treasured memento, which Alexander, on his death bed, bequeathed to Dr. Charles Hodge, who recorded the event afterwards thus: "He then, with a smile, handed me a white bone walking-stick, carved and presented to him by one of the chiefs of the Sandwich islands, and said, 'You must leave this to your successor in office, that it may be handed down as a kind of symbol of orthodoxy'" (J.W. Alexander, Life of Archibald Alexander, pp. 605-606).

The cane was passed "metaphorically" to A.A. Hodge by Charles and the Princeton trustees in 1878 when A.A. Hodge was appointed as his father's successor. It was again "symbolically" passed on to B.B. Warfield upon the death of A.A. Hodge in 1886 (Paul C. Gutjahr, Charles Hodge: Guardian of American Orthodoxy, pp. 378-380).

Today the cane resides in the Special Collections Department of the Princeton Theological Seminary library as a "kind of symbol of orthodoxy."