For those unfamiliar with Warfield
Fred Zaspel has written a very readable introduction to the theology of Benjamin Breckinridge Warfield (1851-1921). Especially for those who are unfamiliar with the significance of B.B. Warfield’s contribution to today’s church, Warfield on the Christian Life goes a long way in a concise form.
Warfield is known to be one of America’s greatest theologians, probably second to Jonathan Edwards in influence. As one of the “Old Princeton” theologians and a devout Presbyterian, Warfield is noted for his dogmatic defense of the doctrine of inspiration–having taught theology at Princeton Seminary from 1887 until his death in 1921.
Even for myself, having been seminary-trained in the Southern Baptist tradition, Zaspel’s presentation of Warfield’s theological writings was presented in well-written prose. At times, for those sections that are not explicit quotations, I was uncertain if what was written was Zaspel’s personal theological convictions, or if they were Warfield’s. Nevertheless, Zaspel’s condensation of Warfield’s theology on the different topics about the Christian life was especially digestible and enlightening.
The Holy Spirit
I found Zaspel’s section on Warfield’s theology of the Holy Spirit especially helpful (chapter 7). In our day and age where this person of the Trinity has been described as the “forgotten God,” Warfield’s proclamation of the Holy Spirit is most needed. From Warfield, we are taught that we can be conservative theologically, contenders for the inerrant Scriptures and still have a strong dependence on the Holy Spirit.
Zaspel helpful writes of Warfield’s Spirit beliefs in terms of (1) the conviction of the Holy Spirit, (2) the sealing of the Spirit, (3) the Spirit’s testimony in our sonship, (4) the love of the Spirit, (5) the leading of the Spirit, (6) spiritual strengthening, and (7) the Spirit’s help in our praying. I don’t know if you could say that Warfield was “charismatic” in this theology, but you could certainly call him a super-natural cessationist, because it is evident that he has a high regard for the Holy Spirit.
Yet his emphasis on a correct understanding to the Spirit is not at the expense of his doctrine of inspiration: Zaspel grounds every point he makes about Warfield’s beliefs on the Spirit in Scripture. Even by way of example, Warfield shows us that the Spirit-filled Spirit-gifted Christian is a person wholly devoted to God’s Word.
Contra “Higher Life” Teachings
While we may find the recent “gospel-centered” movement to be a new development, Warfield had written and taught much from this perspective even a century ago. We can see this in Chapter 8 where Zaspel shows Warfield’s emphasis of the Christian life as an outworking of the gospel, holiness as an entailment of salvation. Because we have been united with Christ, Warfield aptly contends that it should be an experiential truth–that if we died with Christ, we also rose again with him. Such a resurrection has significant implications for our sanctification.
And so it is most appropriate that Warfield is adamant in writing against the heretical dogmas of the “higher life” teachers (cf. Keswick theology, “victorious life” teachers). My own church upbringing in the Christian and Missionary Alliance was wrought if this very Higher Life teachings–“Let go and let God!” theology–in a very hidden way. How often have we been taught that in our Christian life, all we need to do is “do your best, and God will do the rest!” ? I still know some who teach and proclaim such a thing–that it is possible to not sin on this side of eternity, if only we would surrender all of our life to God!
How could Christians be so skewed in their understanding of Christian life? Warfield would not be fazed by such aberrant teachings: he contended for a robust doctrine of sanctification that is not passive but aggressive, it is initial, progressive and yet also a final sanctification. To Warfield, Christians who’ve reached the “higher life” may be gaining victory of sinning, but they are certainly not gaining victory over sin–the old nature. When a Christian is made righteous, he is no longer under sin’s dominion. Period. There cannot be a Christian with a carnal nature! Zaspel thus writes succinctly,
Against all this Warfield expounds the doctrine of sanctification in terms of every believer’s progressive struggle against sin, a struggle marked, on the one hand, by a radical freedom from sin experienced in conversion and, on the other, by a final perfection in glory. For Warfield sanctification is a progressive experience growing out of an initial transformation of heart and life in regeneration by the Holy Spirit and culminating in the glory of the eschaton, when we will reach our goal, having been made like Christ. […] the believer’s sinfulness is more than matched by the grace of God in Christ and by the creative work of the Holy Spirit (104)
Intimate view into Warfield’s Heart
These are just a couple strengths I found to be personally notable in this short book on B.B. Warfield’s beliefs about the Christian life. As the first book I have read about Warfield and his theology, I was very much helped in gaining a more gospel-centered perspective on my own spiritual pilgrimage.
Zaspel’s summaries gave me an intimate view into Warfield’s heart for his seminary students and for his church, and the larger body of Christ. His love for God and His Word was especially evident, pulsating through every knick and cranny of his life and ministry. One significant part of Warfield’s ministry was his wife, Annie Kinkead. She was apparently at about 17 years into their marriage when she fell sickly ill and became an invalid for the rest of her life and marriage. In this, we find evidence of Warfield’s personal life having been greatly impacted by the gospel of Christ. He is wonderful example of a husband-theologian, and rightfully so:
by all accounts Warfield was a devoted husband in a very happy marriage. The Warfields had no children, and for many years he left his home only for the classroom. He was otherwise home nearly always in the company of his wife. And in the providence of God, without doubt, this contributed to his time in writing so extensively on so many subjects. It was reported by those who knew him that “he has had only two interests in his life–his work, and Mrs. Warfield.” (28-29)
Now that…is a gospel-centered man. I look forward to meeting him in the age to come.
Fred Zaspel. Warfield on the Christian Life: Living in Light of the Gospel. Wheaton: Crossway, 2012. 240 pp. (Available in Paperback or Kindle)
Part of the new Crossway series of books, “Theologians on the Christian Life”.