November 6: The Pugilist

We are honored today to draw our text from the opening chapter to Dr. Kim Riddlebarger’s 1997 doctoral dissertation, B.B. Warfield: The Lion of Princeton. Our thanks to Dr. Riddlebarger for granting permission to post this excerpt.

“The Pugilist”

Princeton College alumni who remembered Benjamin Breckinridge Warfield’s student days at Princeton recall that on November 6, 1870, the young Warfield and a certain James Steen, “distinguished themselves by indulging in a little Sunday fight in front of the chapel after Dr. McCosh’s afternoon lecture.” Warfield, it seems, “in lieu of taking notes” during Dr. McCosh’s lecture, took great delight in sketching an “exceedingly uncomplimentary picture of Steen,” which was subsequently circulated among the students.[1]  The resulting fist-fight between the two young men ultimately didn’t amount to much, but it earned Warfield the nickname—”the pugilist.”[2]

B. B. Warfield’s earliest days at Princeton, as well as his last, were characterized by a passionate defense of his personal honor. Princeton Seminary colleague, Oswald T. Allis, tells the story about Dr. Warfield’s encounter with Mrs. Stevenson, the wife of the Seminary President, shortly before Warfield’s death and during the height of the controversy at Princeton over an “inclusive” Presbyterian church. When Mrs. Stevenson and Dr. Warfield passed each other on the walk outside the Seminary, some pleasantries were exchanged, and then Mrs. Stevenson reportedly said to the good doctor, “Oh, Dr. Warfield, I am praying that everything will go harmoniously at the [General] Assembly!” To which Warfield responded,

“Why, Mrs. Stevenson, I am praying that there may be a fight.”[3] As the late Hugh Kerr, formerly Warfield Professor of Theology at Princeton Theological Seminary reflects, “from the very beginning to end, Warfield was a fighter.”[4]  B. B. Warfield was not only a fighter, he was also a theological giant, exerting significant influence upon American Presbyterianism for nearly forty-years. John DeWitt, professor of Church History at Princeton during the Warfield years, told Warfield biographer Samuel Craig, that . . . he had known intimately the three great Reformed theologians of America of the preceding generation—Charles Hodge, W. G. T. Shedd and Henry B. Smith—and that he was not only certain that Warfield knew a great deal more than any one of them but that he was disposed to think that he knew more than all three of them put together.[5]

Unlike many of today’s “specialists,” B. B. Warfield was fully qualified to teach any of the major seminary subjects—New Testament, Church History, Systematic or Biblical Theology, and Apologetics.[6]  One of Warfield’s students, and an influential thinker in his own right, J. Gresham Machen, remembers Warfield as follows: “with all his glaring faults, he was the greatest man I have known.”[7]  Hugh Kerr, though critical of Warfield’s “theory of the inerrancy of the original autographs,” still told his own students a generation later that, “Dr. Warfield had the finest mind ever to teach at Princeton Seminary.”[8]

[1.]  Hugh Thomson Kerr, “Warfield: The Person Behind the Theology,” Annie Kinkead Warfield Lecture
for 1982, at Princeton Theological Seminary, ed. William O. Harris (1995), p. 21.
[2.]  Ibid., pp. 21-22.
[3.]  O. T. Allis, “Personal Impressions of Dr Warfield,” in The Banner of Truth 89 (Fall 1971) pp. 10-14.
[4.]  Kerr, “Warfield: The Person Behind the Theology,” p. 22.
[5.]  Samuel G. Craig, “Benjamin B. Warfield,” in B. B. Warfield, Biblical and Theological Studies. (Philadelphia: Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Company, 1986), p. xvii.
[6]  Ibid., p. xix.
[7]  Ned B. Stonehouse, J. Gresham Machen: A Biographical Memoir (Philadelphia: Westminster Theological Seminary, 1977), p. 310.
[8]  Recounted in personal correspondence of February 25, 1995, from William O. Harris, Librarian for Archives and Special Collections at Princeton Theological Seminary.

Words to Live By:
Beloved, when I gave all diligence to write unto you of the common salvation, it was needful for me to write unto you, and exhort you that ye should earnestly contend for the faith which was once delivered unto the saints.—Jude, verse 3 (KJV)

Fight the good fight of the faith. Take hold of the eternal life to which you were called when you made your good confession in the presence of many witnesses.—1 Timothy 6:12 (KJV)

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