Warfield, The Westminster Confession and Doctrinal Disputes

Since this blog has the term “Confessional” within its title and that term has at least in view the Protestant Confessions that came out of the Protestant Reformation, I suppose it is only appropriate that something should be made here of B. B. Warfield (1851-1921). It is safe to say that nearly all the issues that are of concern to pastors, seminary professors and informed lay people in the church in the West today were addressed in some way by Warfield. He was a man of prodigious learning and writing, whose memorization of the Shorter Catechism by the age of 6 and Larger Catechism with Scripture proofs by 16 set the course for his thinking and practice. If there was ever a poster-child for “Train up a child in the way he should go and when he is old he will not depart from it,” it was Warfield.

Everyone thinks in categories and has content that fills those categories. The categories that governed Warfield’s thought and the content that filled those categories were derived from Scripture and expressed in the Westminster Confession of Faith. As a young seminary professor he publically declared his allegiance to the latter because he believed it was the most faithful expression of what the Old and New Testament revealed. For Warfield, devotion to the WCF did not lead him away from the Bible but toward it, and vice versa. Before Warfield became a professor of theology he was a professor in New Testament. In fact, he was so learned in the original languages of Scripture and its content that he was also asked to be a professor of Old Testament before he became a professor of New Testament. It was said of Warfield that he was a walking seminary curriculum. When one reads widely in his works this discovery is made.

Sadly, there are those who have misrepresented his thought. There are a variety of reasons for it. I won’t venture here as to all the reasons why (I’ve addressed it elsewhere.). My concern is not to republish a particular disagreement, but to commend a professor dedicated to the Scriptures and Confession who perhaps can help some of us navigate ministerial difficulties in our day.

Warfield remained consistent in presenting the doctrines of the Christian faith in the categories of creation and providence, but there was a radical union that marked them all. This radical union existed because the act of creating and the act of providence were supernatural acts by the living and only Triune God. Now, with Warfield you get no duplicity of language or deceitfulness of purpose. When I state that Warfield believed that the Triune God’s act of creating and ongoing providence were supernatural this means he believed that the Triune God spoken of in the Old and New Testament brought forth from himself the entire creation spoken of in those same Scriptures and he has been and continues to be personally and powerfully present in his creation to sustain and perfect it.

The two categories of natural and supernatural were united and yet distinct in Warfield’s thought. God remained distinct from, but not separated or disconnected from his creation. The latter is not possible, according to Warfield. The belief regarding the impossibility of the Creator being disconnected from his creation was united to Warfield’s frequent affirmation, whether explicit or implicit, that all life depends on God’s presence and power. Warfield liked the way the apostle Paul stated it as found in Acts 17:28. In God, all people, and truly all creation, lives and moves and has being. When we open the window of that thought and see how Warfield applied it we stand at the opening of what may revolutionize our own thinking.

As a young man growing up in Kentucky during the Civil War era Warfield loved to collect and classify some of God’s littlest creatures. Today, some would say that he grew up in nature or was “in tune” with it; B. B. was into bugs. Since Scripture revealed and the WCF confirmed that the Triune God executed his decrees in his works of creation and providence this is not only what Warfield believed, but also what governed his thought regarding all the doctrines of the Christian faith. Among other things, this meant that the physical creation pulsated with life, and that human thinking was living. As Warfield saw it, Christian doctrine is an organism.

Organic and organism were favorite terms of Warfield’s as he described God’s revelation in God’s acts of creation and providence. Further, there were two sub-categories that were distinct and yet united and classified under the large category of God’s revelation. These two sub-categories could go by the terms natural and supernatural, or general and special, or creational and soteriological. This last term may not be familiar to some. It is a word that refers to “that which pertains to salvation.” To rightly understand Warfield we must recognize that these two sub-categories were united under the larger category of God’s revelation. According to Warfield, these sub-categories should not be played off against each other in any way. They are truly two distinct aspects of one larger living reality. They can only be rightly understood when their organic or living relationship to each other is understood. Scripture reveals the character of their relationship. It is intricate, marvelous, even, at times, mysterious; Christ reveals himself in it. Warfield worked at revealing it. Some of his rather lengthy and scholarly treatments in his Collected Works do this. In his Selected Shorter Writings you will discover some briefer treatments of various doctrines of the Christian faith that will perhaps clarify the lengthier treatments in the Collected Works.

Warfield believed that God revealed by his act of creating and revealed himself in the creation. God then revealed himself further in providentially preserving and governing all the life he created. Of course, humans are creatures, created in God’s image in knowledge, righteousness and holiness and with dominion over the other creatures. This means that humans, as male and female, were rather unique among God’s creatures; humans are revelation and they receive God’s revelation.

Humans, as male and female, are in a covenant relationship with the Creator, a covenant of life or works (WCF, SC A. # 12 & Ch. 7, par. 2). This meant that they were given the duty and privilege to receive God’s revelation in order to extend God’s rule within the creation by their own obedience to God. Of course, Scripture teaches, the WCF confirms and Warfield believed that our first parents fell from the estate or condition in which they were created by sinning against God. In this sin they did not become some other creature; they did not stop being human. They “fell from their original righteousness and communion with God” (WCF 6.2), their “nature” was “corrupted” but it was not changed into something different than what it was, and it was obviously not obliterated; it was different only in that it was corrupted or damaged by sin. God’s one covenant was damaged but not obliterated; the covenant of life or works was restored and rescued through the covenant of grace. “There are not therefore two covenants of grace, differing in substance, but one and the same, under various dispensations” (WCF 7.6).

As Warfield saw it, since God has revealed himself as infinite, eternal and unchangeable it is not just that right thinking about him must be conditioned and controlled by this truth, but rather that God’s creation is, in actuality, revealing these truths. All human history is revealing these truths. The history of the Church as part of the broader history of the creation is revealing these truths. All this revelation is living because it is God’s. The ideas of progress and process marked Warfield’s words and thoughts about God’s revelation, redemption and human history. This was not progress and process that was merely produced by the physical universe; it was progress and process brought and governed by the personal Triune God.

All humans, even those not regenerated by the Holy Spirit have some true knowledge of these truths. Sinful and un-regenerated humans do not stop being human, and thereby they cannot fail to be and receive God’s revelation. Even the regenerated children of God continue in this life to be marked by this same “corruption of nature” even though it is “through Christ, pardoned, and mortified,” that is, forgiven and gradually diminished (WCF 6.5).

In all these (and several other) doctrinal affirmations Warfield embraced and explained the comprehensive organic union that marks God’s creation and Christian doctrine, even as there were distinctions that held within the various aspects that comprised their organic union. It was like a bug that is a living organism but is made of several interrelated parts. But the bug can and should be regarded as an aspect of a larger living organism. Creation and the biblical doctrine of creation loomed large for Warfield.

All non-Christian thinking fails in various ways to embrace and understand the creational character of reality as that term creational is governed by Scripture’s content. Non-Christian thinking fails to maintain proper distinctions between realities and to understand their organic union. It either dissolves the realities into each other into a radical oneness (what is called a radical monism) or it disconnects the realities so that in the person’s thinking the realities have no real meaningful relationship. These non-Christian ways of thinking are on abundant display in Greek philosophical thought hundreds of years before Jesus and have continued to be repackaged and regurgitated through the last two millenniums. They are on abundant display in Western culture.

Warfield understood this history, but he learned it after he had memorized the Shorter and Larger Catechisms, and been brought up learning and loving the Bible. Throughout his ministerial service he was willing to point out various ways in which confessing Christians failed to have their thinking conditioned by the doctrine of creation as revealed by Scripture. It is also correct to say that to the degree that one does not have their thinking conditioned by the doctrine of creation as revealed by Scripture then to that degree one may find it difficult to follow Warfield’s line of thought. Perhaps this helps explain why some, even some who have been heralded as champions of the Reformed faith for the past several decades, and who may to some degree be, have misunderstood and misrepresented Warfield. We would do well to read him. Read carefully, slowly. If you are like me, you will have to, but it may pay a rich and eternal reward.

P. S. For the best “one-stop” shopping treatment of Warfield read Fred G. Zaspel’s The Theology of B. B. Warfield (Crossway, 2010). My own book B. B. Warfield’s Scientifically Constructive Theological Scholarship (Pickwick, 2011) is part of the Evangelical Theological Society Monograph series and narrows the focus on Warfield to his view of apologetics and its relationship to his scholarship. I also go into greater detail regarding the history of the interpretation of Warfield. Fred’s book is broader in scope and is a wonderful guide as one seeks to read Warfield.

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