By Paul Helm–

This post was going to be about B.B.Warfield (and the Princeton theology more generally), on the church and society, on the character and place of natural law, and on the Reformers’ doctrine of the Two Kingdoms, on the Reformed idea of vocation…….but I discovered that there is hardly anything to say. In all of the ten magnificent volumes of Warfield’s writings, for example, there is scarcely a word about ethics or what is these days called ‘social ethics’, much less is there any work on Christianity and culture, or church and state. The two books that collect his shorter writings, except for two short pieces on race, have the same character. Just occasionally a reference to the ‘natural’ turn up, as in the 1915 article ‘God and Human Religion and Morals’.

Such a glaring omission can hardly be explained on the grounds (as it might be these days) that Warfield was a specialist, because he had a great range of interests. It might even be said of him that he did his best to be a specialist on anything he wrote and published on. Warfield was not one to dismiss some area of enquiry on the grounds that ‘this is not my field’. So how do we explain the omission? Machen, who was interested in culture, said of Warfield that ‘with all his glaring faults he was the greatest man I have known’, and perhaps Warfield’s unconcern over the relation of his faith to culture and to social questions, particularly the relations between faith and social life, was one of these glaring faults.

In the case of his predecessor Charles Hodge, his Systematic Theology seems to have been arranged specifically to exclude consideration of such questions. The reader is taken from topics in the application of redemption, ‘sanctification’, to the commandments, to the means of grace, to eschatology. It is true that there is a brief discussion of the civil magistrate in the treatment of the 5th commandment, but that is all. Nothing about life in the world. The index contains references to laws of nature, but none to natural law. The church is regarded as a spiritual kingdom, but the two kingdoms conceptuality of Luther and Calvin is absent. And it was almost inevitable that the thorough thematic survey of Warfield’s writings by Fred Zaspel yields a volume whose contents have very much the shape of Hodge’s Systematic Theology. Small wonder that in his recent Natural Law and the Two Kingdoms, in his treatment of the United States, David VanDrunen moves from New England Theocracy and Virginian Disestablishment (Ch.6) to Cornelius Van Til (Ch.10).

How can this be accounted for? It’s a puzzle. Here I offer two or three suggestions.

Warfield as a seminary professor

Warfield spent the best part of his career at Princeton, and because of his wife’s affliction travelled much less than he might otherwise have done. He had no children. He was never the permanent pastor of a local congregation. Though he kept abreast of theological developments through literature to an amazing extent – as editor, teacher, and especially as author – he was nonetheless an ivory-tower professor in his habits, a seminarian. He was concerned about the church, especially its confessional integrity and purity but (as far as I can tell) never entering into the rough and tumble of church politics. His interventions seem to have been exclusively literary. Nor does he appear to have been involved in the general culture of his day.

The American situation

Warfield died in 1921. It must also be borne in mind that the America of his day was dominantly Protestant Christian, with legislation that reflected that, and a general culture in harmony with this ethos. Warfield’s generation had no first-hand experience with secularism as a cultural and political force, nor with the cultural relativism that shelters under pluralism and freedom of speech. And the consumerism that is regarded as the criterion of the success of and superiority of modern democracies against rule by dictators and warlords, was still in the future. They took for granted that Christian beliefs underpinned American culture.

More than that, Warfield seems to have had no feel for the expressions of religious belief in the pew and on the pavement. Having no children, there was less chance than is usual of being interested in the youth of his day, except those young men studying for the ministry. Not being able to travel much, his commitment to the life of the Seminary seem to have been redoubled in its intensity. Warfield was par excellence a theologians’ theologian. Even his more popular or journalistic articles distil the themes of his academic work. In one of these, ‘Christianity and Our Times’ (1914) he cites evidence why it is that so many people are indifferent to the claims of the Church. What evidence? The writings of D.F. Strauss, Rudolf Eucken, and Ernst Troeltsch. They get the blame.

Fred Zaspel recalls ‘Only three years after Warfield’s death, over 1200 ministers and elders, in the ‘Auburn Affirmation’ formally opposed the right of the General Assembly to affirm such fundamentals as the inerrancy of Scripture, the virgin birth of Christ, his substitutionary atonement and bodily resurrection, and his miracles. Just eight years after his death Princeton Seminary was reorganized under the control of theological forces Warfield opposed all his life. And in just another eight years the denomination itself was firmly entrenched in liberalism’. (573) It may be, as Dr Zaspel affirms, that this is evidence that Warfield was the giant holding back the avalanche. Maybe. More likely it shows that a life of teaching theology, of writing learned theological articles, and of the utmost orthodoxy and presence of a godly example, do not by themselves ensure orthodoxy and spiritual life in the pulpits or in the pews. What is passed over in silence is the fact that many of those ministers must have been educated at Princeton in Warfield’s time. Warfield seems not to have noticed the state of the tide.

‘Things can only Get Better!’

‘I really believe that the world, on the whole, is getting better, and that the cause of Christ is on the advance. Yet at times I am somewhat startled at the decay of faith, or the prevalence of broad-churchism among all denominations and skepticism among men of the world.’ That was Charles Hodge, writing in 1874 to his life-long friend John Johns, at that time an Episcopalian bishop. I think it is fair to say that Warfield shared this outlook. Yet it is one thing to have the convictions of a post-millenarian, another to be believe (as he seems to have) that at that time, his time, the church was on a trajectory that would uninterruptedly lead to the latter day glory before Christ’s second coming. Things can only get better. Warfield held the view that the Christian is a microcosm of the world. As the Christian grows in grace, and will presently enjoy the sinless bliss of heaven, so the church, from small beginnings, will eventually Christianize the globe. The days of the ‘little flock’ the ‘remnant of grace’ are being left permanently behind.

Despite the fact that he offered the opinion that he was living in the early days of the church, Warfield viewed the future through this ‘postmillennial haze’ even while doubting that there was to be a literal millennium. It may also be that without realizing it, Warfield’s thought about the progress of the church reflected and was reflected by the growing buoyancy, strength and success of the United States in the decades towards the end of the 19th century and those of the early 20th century. The progress of the nation was fuelled by the progress of the church. It seems that the most he can countenance in his fellow-Americans by way of a negative reaction to the Gospel is indifference, as in ‘Christianity and Our Times’ (1914).

And most surprisingly, there is nothing in his writings that reveals concern about the First World War and the devastation, the gassings, the loss of the lives of tens of thousands, and the social dislocation that it brought about. Machen’s sympathies, if they were with anyone, were with the German side. But neither he nor Warfield had any heart for visible concern for the impact of the War on the church. It is as if for all his fierce, life-long polemic against a purely ethical Christianity, Warfield nevertheless was as complacent as the liberals were when it comes to society, and the place and fate of the church within it.

So he wrote of ‘the universal Christianization of the world, – at least, the nominal conversion of all the Gentiles and the real salvation of all the Jews’, hand in hand with which is the growing influence of the Bible. He wrote in 1915 that ‘It is the greatest unifying force in the world, binding all the peoples together as the people of the book. Consider how the Bible, as it becomes the book of people after people, assimilates the peoples to one another in modes of expression, thought, conception, feeling, until they are virtually moulded into one people, of common heart and mind’.

Warfield was at work until the day of his death in 1921 and the output of dogmatic articles continued unabated through the war years and beyond – but not a word about the war itself or its aftermath.

The Upshot

So natural law and the two kingdoms from Warfield, then, and no social analysis. In the void that this left, besides this generally complacent attitude to the society around him, he seems to have developed a good deal of sympathy with the neo-Calvinist stress on common grace, and with Kuyper’s general political outlook. He published Bavinck’s paper, ‘Calvin and Common Grace’ in the Princeton Theological Journal (1909). As Peter Heslam has pointed out (Creating A Christian World View, 253-4 ) some of Warfield’s language in his 1908 encyclopedia article on ‘Calvinism’ is taken almost word for word from Kuyper. Compare Kuyper’s ‘Calvinism is rooted in a form of religion which was peculiarly its own, and from this specific religious consciousness are developed first a peculiar theology, then a special church-order, and then a given form for political and social life’ to Warfield’s ‘For the roots of Calvinism are planted in a specific religious attitude, out of which is unfolded first a particular theology, from which springs on one hand a special church organization, and on the other a social order, involving a given political arrangement.’ It is not hard to imagine which book Warfield had open on his desk as he wrote these words, words that incidentally have a surprisingly Schleiermachian ring.

Two final points. While a reappraisal of Warfield’s views on the noetic effects of sin seems to show Kuyper and he closer together, Warfield seems to move closer to Kuyper and Bavinck in his own life time. That’s the first thing. The second thing is this: that if I am right about Warfield’s disinterest in anything non-theological, (and bearing in mind that he was the author of one of the Fundamentals), it is small wonder if fundamentalists continue to see Warfield as their own champion.

All this provides us with a puzzle, or series of puzzles, on which as far as I know no-one has attempted to throw any light.

Paul Helm was educated at Worcester College, Oxford, and was for many years a member of the Philosophy Department of the University of Liverpool. From 1993-2000 he was the Professor of the History and Philosophy of Religion, King’s College, London. In 2001 he was appointed J.I. Packer Chair of Philosophical Theology at Regent College, Vancouver. He is presently a Teaching Fellow there. Helm is the author of numerous journal articles and books. Some of his most well-know books include Calvin and the Calvinists, Faith and Reason, The Trustworthiness of God, The Providence of God, Eternal God, The Secret Providence of God, The Trustworthiness of God (with Carl Trueman), John Calvin’s Ideas, Calvin at the Centre, and Calvin: A Guide for the Perplexed. 

Photo: A vision of the Millennium by Francis Crospey