Professor Warfield

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The following letter was sent by Professor Warfield to the Stated Clerk of the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church in the U.S.A., with Warfield declining to serve on the Committee of Revision appointed by the last Assembly. For at least a decade prior, certain elements in the PCUSA had worked to bring about a revision of the Westminster Confession of Faith. Warfield opposed this effort with a number of articles and short works, but in the end. lost this battle. In 1903, the Assembly approved the addition of two chapters to the Confession—a “chapter 34” on the Holy Spirit and a “chapter 35” on “The Love of God and Missions.” The PCA, OPC, RPCNA and most other conservative American Presbyterian denominations have rejected these added chapters, and it is worth noting that the Associate Reformed Presbyterian Synod has this year voted to remove these added chapters from their edition of the Confession.

Princeton, N. J., June 25, 1900.

To the Rev. Dr. William Henry Roberts, D.D., LL.D.,

Stated Clerk of the General Assembly.

My Dear Dr. Roberts :

The intimation you have sent me of my appointment to the committee, authorized by the last General Assembly, “to consider the whole matter of the restatement of the doctrines most surely believed among us,” reached me duly. I am deeply sensible of the honor of such an appointment, and as well of the duty of the servants of the Church to address themselves diligently to the tasks assigned to them by its highest court. Nevertheless, I am constrained to ask to be relieved from this service. There are circumstances arising from illness in my family, and others arising from losses sustained lately in the teaching force of the Seminary in whose immediate service I am employed, which would require me to hesitate to undertake additional labors at this time. But I should not be true to myself did I not say frankly that the decisive reason moving me to request release from service on this committee is an unconquerable unwillingness to be connected with the present agitation for a revision of our creedal formulae in any other manner than that of respectful but earnest protest.

I cannot think that the violent assault upon certain of our confessional statements—statements which are clearly Scriptural and as clearly lie at the centre of our doctrinal system—in which the agitation originated, was a fitting occasion for a movement of this kind, or for any action of the Church except the rebuke of the assailants by the courts to which they were directly amenable. I cannot think the precipitate action of a few presbyteries following these assaults with a request for some review of our confessional position other than unwise. I cannot believe that the Assembly acted with that regard for the peace of the Church and the integrity of its testimony to the truth which is becoming in our highest court, when it paid such heed to these few discordant and, as I must believe, ill-considered overtures that it ignored the eloquent silence of five-sixths of the Presbyteries of the Church and precipitated an agitation as to its doctrinal standards upon the whole Church. My conviction is clear that, in the circumstances, it was rather the duty of the Assembly, in fulfillment of its high function of guardian of the truth professed by this Church, to reaffirm the doctrines that had been assailed; to quiet the disturbance that had been raised; and, by renewed hearty commendation of our Standards to the churches under its care, to strengthen in them a firm and intelligent attachment to these Standards and their forms of sound words. It is greatly to be feared that the effect of its contrary action, by which on so small an occasion it has invited every Presbytery to subject the fundamental law of the Church to searching inquisition, will be to foment carping criticism and discontents if it be not taken in some quarters as a license to unrebuked assaults upon the very bond by which our churches are held together, and on the very substance of the truth delivered into our keeping by the great Head of the Church. It is my hope and prayer that the. Presbyteries may be led by the Divine grace to avert these dangers and to repair the evil already done, by entering an effective protest against this whole movement through a reaffirmation of their hearty loyalty to the system of doctrine brought to such admirable expression in our Standards.

In my own person at least I feel constrained to make this protest and reaffirmation with the utmost emphasis, and I am unwilling to enter into any relations which may seem to any to lessen this emphasis in any degree. I am thoroughly out of sympathy with the whole movement of which the work of this committee is a part. I desire above all things to see the Church pass quietly away from this disturbing agitation concerning its fundamental beliefs, which form the basis of its unity. It is an inexpressible grief to me to see it spending its energies in a vain attempt to lower its testimony to suit the ever changing sentiment of the world about it. I would fain see it, rather, secure in the peaceful possession of its well-assured doctrinal system, and animated by an enthusiastic loyalty to it and to the Standards in which it is expressed with such singular clarity and power, go forth in strength to win the world to the evangelical truth it has drawn from the Scriptures and professed through so many years of struggle and suffering, of progress and triumph. That God may bless the Church through these coming months with a double portion of the knowledge of His truth and of wisdom from on high, and with a double portion of holy courage to believe in its heart and to reassert in the face of whatever unbelief or doubt the whole truth that He has delivered to its keeping, is my constant and fervent prayer.

Will you kindly, my dear Dr. Roberts, communicate to the Moderator of the Assembly this my request to be released from service upon the committee, and make my excuses in whatever manner may be proper.

I am very truly yours,


Words to Live By:
“Hold fast the form of sound words, which thou hast heard of me, in faith and love which is in Christ Jesus. That good thing which was committed unto thee keep by the Holy Ghost which dwelleth in us.” — 2 Timothy 1:13-14, KJV.

Image source: Frontispiece photograph in The Power of God unto Salvation. The Presbyterian Pulpit series, no. vi. Philadelphia: Presbyterian Board of Publication and Sabbath-School Work, 1903.

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WarfieldBB_1903It was on this day, April 20th, in 1880 that the Rev. Dr. Benjamin Breckinridge Warfield, at the age of twenty-nine, was inaugurated as Professor of New Testament Exegesis and Literature at the Western Theological Seminary, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. We take as the text of our post today the introductory part of Warfield’s inaugural lecture. A link follows at the close of this section for those who would like to read the whole of the lecture.

First, Barry Waugh provides us with a fitting introduction, setting the stage for our post today:

“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.”





Fathers and Brothers:

It is without doubt a very wise provision by which, in institutions such as this, an inaugural address is made a part of the ceremony of induction into the professorship. Only by the adoption of some such method could it be possible for you as the guardians of this institution, responsible for the principles here inculcated, to give to each newly-called teacher an opportunity to publicly declare the sense in which he accepts your faith and signs your standards. Eminently desirable at all times, this seems particularly so now, when a certain looseness of belief (inevitable parent of looseness of practice) seems to have invaded portions of the Church of Christ,—not leaving even its ministry unaffected;—when there may be some reason to fear that “enlightened clerical gentlemen may sometimes fail to look upon subscription to creeds as our covenanting forefathers looked upon the act of putting their names to theological documents, and as mercantile gentlemen still look upon the endorsement of bills.”* [*Peter Bayne in The Puritan Revolution.] And how much more forcibly can all this be pled when he who appears before you at your call, is young, untried, and unknown. I wish, therefore, to declare that I sign these standards not as a necessary form which must be submitted to, but gladly and willingly as the expression of a personal and cherished conviction; and, further, that the system taught in these symbols is the system which will be drawn out of the Scriptures in the prosecution of the teaching to which you have called me,—not, indeed, because commencing with that system the Scriptures can be made to teach it, but because commencing with the Scriptures I cannot make them teach anything else.

This much of personal statement I have felt it due both to you and myself to make at the outset; but having done with it, I feel free to turn from all personal concerns.

In casting about for a subject on which I might address you, I have thought I could not do better than to take up one of our precious old doctrines, much attacked of late, and ask the simple question : What seems the result of the attack? The doctrine I have chosen, is that of “Verbal Inspiration.” But for obvious reasons I have been forced to narrow the discussion to a consideration of the inspiration of the New Testament only; and that solely as assaulted in the name of criticism. I wish to ask your attention, then, to a brief attempt to aupply an answer to the question :


At the very out-set, that our inquiry may not be a mere beating of the air, we must briefly, indeed, but clearly, state what we mean by the Church Doctrine. For, unhappily, there are almost as many theories of inspiration held by individuals as there are possible states imaginable between the slightest and the greatests influence God could exercise on man. It is with the traditional doctrine of the Reformed Churches, however, that we are concerned; and that we understand to be simply this :—Inspiration is that extraordinary supernatural influence (or, passively, the result of it,) exerted by the Holy Ghost on the writers of the Sacred Books, by which their words were rendered also the words of God, and, therefore, perfectly infallible. In this definition, it is to be noted: 1st, That this influence is a supernatural one—something different from the inspiration of the poet or man of genius. Luke’s accuracy is not left by it with only the safeguards which “the diligent and accurate Suetonius” had. 2d. That it is an extraordinary influence—something different from the ordinary action of the Spirit in the conversion and sanctifying guidance of believers. Paul had some more prevalent safeguard against false-teaching than Luther or even the saintly Rutherford. 3d. That it is such an influence as makes the words written under its guidance, the words of God; by which is meant to be affirmed an absolute infallibility (as alone fitted to divine words), admitting no degrees whatever—extending to the very word, and to all the words. So that every part of Holy Writ is thus held alike infallibly true in all its statements, of whatever kind.

Fencing around and explaining this definition, it is to be remarked further:

1st. That it purposely declares nothing as to the mode of inspiration. The Reformed Churches admit that this is inscrutable. They content themselves with defining carefully and holding fast the effects of the divine influence, leaving the mode of divine action by which it is brought about draped in mystery.

2d. It is purposely so framed as to distinguish it from revelation;—seeing that it has to do with the communication of truth not its acquirement.

3d. It is by no means to be imagined that it is meant to proclaim a mechanical theory of inspiration. The Reformed Churches have never held such a theory* [*See Dr. C. Hodge’s Systematic Theology, pFW `57, volume I]; though dishonest, careless, ignorant or over-eager controverters of its doctrine have often brought the charge. Even those special theologians in whose teeth such an accusation has been oftenest thrown (e.g., Gaussen) are explicit in teaching that the human element is never absent. The Reformed Churches hold, indeed, that every word of the Scriptures, without exception, is the word of God; but, alongside of that, they hold equally explicitly that every word is the word of man. And, therefore, though strong and uncompromising in resisting the attribution to the Scriptures of any failure in absolute truth and infallibility, they are before all others in seeking, and finding, and gazing on in loving rapture, the marks of the fervid impetuosity of a Paul—the tender saintliness of a John—the practical genius of a James, in the writings which through them the Holy Ghost has given for our guidance. Though strong and uncompromising in resisting all efforts to separate the human and divine, they distance all competitors in giving honor alike to both by proclaiming in one breath that all is divine and all is human. As Gaussen so well expresses it, “We all hold that every verse, without exception, is from men, and every verse, without exception, is from God;” “every word of the Bible is as really from man as it is from God.”

4th. Nor is this a mysterious doctrine—except, indeed, in the sense in which everything supernatural is mysterious. We are not dealing in puzzles, but in the plainest factcs of spiritual experience. How close, indeed, is the analogy here with all that we know of the Spirit’s action in other spheres! Just as the first act of loving faith by which the regenerated soul flows out of itself to its Saviour, is at once the consciously-chosen act of that soul and the direct work of the Holy Ghost; so, every word indited under the analogous influence of inspiration was at one and the same time the consciously self-chosen word of the writer and the divinely-inspired word of the Spirit. I cannot help thinking that it is through failure to note and assimilate this fact, that the doctrine of verbal inspiration is so summarily set aside and so unthinkingly inveighed against by divines otherwise cautious and reverent. Once grasp this idea, and how impossible is it to separate in any measure the human and divine. It is all human—every word, and all divine. The human characteristics are to be noted and exhibited; the divine perfection and infallibility, no less.

This, then, is what we understand by the church doctrine:—a doctrine which claims that by a special, supernatural, extraordinary influence of the Holy Ghost, the sacred writers have been guided in their writing in such a way, as while their humanity was not superseded, it was yet so dominated that their words became at the same time the words of God, and thus, in every case and all alike, absolutely infallible.


— We will close there before Professor Warfield begins to get into the heart of his discourse. If you would like to read the whole of his inaugural discourse, click here.

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