Our post today was written some years ago for the PCA Historical Center by guest author Barry Waugh. Today is the anniversary date of Dr. Warfield’s inaugural address at the Western Theological Seminary of Pittsburgh, PA, upon his installation as Professor of New Testament Exegesis and Literature.
Benjamin Breckinridge Warfield was born to William and Mary Cabell Breckinridge Warfield in the rolling bluegrass country of Lexington, Kentucky, on November 5, 1851. His father bred cattle and horses and was a descendant of Richard Warfield, who lived and prospered in Maryland in the seventeenth century. William also served as a Union officer during the Civil War. Benjamin enjoyed both the finances and heritage of the Breckinridges of Kentucky, along with the prosperity and ancestry of the Warfields. His mother’s father was the minister Robert Jefferson Breckinridge, who was a leader of the Old School Presbyterians, an author, a prominent Kentucky educational administrator, a periodical editor, and a politician. The Warfields financial prosperity enabled them to have Benjamin educated through private tutoring provided by Lewis G. Barbour, who became a professor of mathematics at Central University, and James K. Patterson, who became president of the State College of Kentucky. L. G. Barbour wrote some articles for the Southern Presbyterian Review on scientific subjects and his own scientific interests may have encouraged Benjamin in a scientific direction. Ethelbert D. Warfield, Benjamin’s brother, has commented that:
His early tastes were strongly scientific. He collected birds’ eggs, butterflies and moths, and geological specimens; studied the fauna and flora of his neighborhood; read Darwin’s newly published books with enthusiasm; and counted Audubon’s works on American birds and mammals his chief treasure. He was so certain that he was to follow a scientific career that he strenuously objected to studying Greek.
Following the years of private tutorial instruction, Benjamin entered the sophomore class of the College of New Jersey (Princeton University) in 1868 and was graduated from there in 1871 with highest honors at only nineteen years of age. Having concluded his college years, he then traveled in Europe beginning in February of 1872 following a delayed departure due to illness in his family. After spending some time in Edinburgh and then Heidelberg, he wrote home in mid-summer announcing his intent to enter the ministry. This change in vocational direction came as quite a surprise to his family. He returned to Kentucky from Europe sometime in 1873 and was for a short time the livestock editor of the Farmer’s Home Journal.
Benjamin pursued his theological education in preparation for the ministry by entering Princeton Theological Seminary in September of 1873. He was licensed to preach the gospel by Ebenezer Presbytery on May 8, 1875. Following licensure, he tested his ministerial abilities by supplying the Concord Presbyterian Church in Kentucky from June through August of 1875. After he received his divinity degree in 1876, he supplied the First Presbyterian Church of Dayton, Ohio, and while he was in Dayton, he married Annie Pearce Kinkead, the daughter of a prominent attorney, on August 3, 1876. Soon after he married Annie, the couple set sail on an extended study trip in Europe for the winter of 1876-1877. It was sometime during this voyage that the newly weds went through a great storm and Annie suffered an injury that debilitated her for the rest of her life; the biographers differ as to whether the injury was emotional, physical, or a combination of the two. Sometime during 1877, according to Ethelbert Warfield, Benjamin was offered the opportunity to teach Old Testament at Western Seminary, but he turned the position down because he had turned his study emphasis to the New Testament despite his early aversion to Greek (vii). In November 1877, he began his supply ministry at the First Presbyterian Church of Baltimore, where he continued until the following March. He returned to Kentucky and was ordained as an evangelist by Ebenezer Presbytery on April 26, 1879.
In September of 1878, Benjamin began his career as a theological educator when he became an instructor in New Testament Literature and Exegesis at Western Theological Seminary in Pittsburgh. Western Seminary had been formed by the merger of existing seminaries including Danville Seminary, which R. J. Breckinridge, Benjamin’s grandfather, had been involved in founding. The following year he was made professor of the same subject and he continued in that position until 1887. In his inaugural address for Professor of New Testament Exegesis and Literature, April 20, 1880, he set the theme for many of his writing efforts in the succeeding years by defending historic Christianity. The purpose of his lecture* was to answer the question, “Is the Church Doctrine of the Plenary Inspiration of the New Testament Endangered by the Assured Results of Modern Biblical Criticism.” Professor Warfield affirmed the inspiration, authority and reliability of God’s Word in opposition to the critics of his era. He quickly established his academic reputation for thoroughness and defense of the Bible. Many heard of his academic acumen and his scholarship was awarded by eastern academia when his alma mater, the College of New Jersey, awarded him an honorary D. D. in 1880.
[*Warfield’s inaugural lecture can be found under the title “Inspiration and Criticism,” published in the volume Revelation and Inspiration. (Oxford University Press, 1927): 395-425. In the P&R reprint (1948), the lecture is included as Appendix 2, pp. 419-442.]
According to Samuel Craig, Dr. Warfield was offered the Chair of Theology at the Theological Seminary of the Northwest in Chicago in 1881, but he did not end his service at Western until he went to teach at Princeton Theological Seminary beginning the fall semester of 1887. He succeeded Archibald Alexander Hodge as the Charles Hodge Professor of Didactic and Polemic Theology. His inaugural address, delivered May 8, 1888, was titled “The Idea of Systematic Theology Considered as a Science.” As he taught theology, he did so using Hodge’s Systematic Theology and continued the Hodge tradition. The constant care Annie required and the duties associated with teaching at Princeton, resulted in a limited involvement in presbytery, synod, and general assembly. Annie lived a homebound life limiting herself primarily to the Princeton campus where Benjamin was never-too-far from home. The Warfields lived in the same campus home where Charles and Archibald Alexander Hodge lived during their years at Princeton.