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Benjamin Breckinridge Warfield (1851-1921) was the world’s leading Reformed theologian at the turn of
the 20th century. He was arguably the greatest theologian America has ever produced. In a day when the
historic faith of the church was coming under sustained attack from every quarter of learning, it was B.B.
Warfield of Princeton Seminary, above all others, who stood to meet the challenge.

First Steps

Warfield was born on his father’s cattle-breeding ranch near Lexington, Kentucky, to a family already rich
with heritage. Behind him were early American Puritans, eminent politicians, respected military officers,
educators, ministers, and his own devout parents. His parents were prominent members of Lexington’s
Second Presbyterian Church, where at the age of 16 young “Benny” made public profession of faith in
Christ.

Warfield was educated at home. By the influence of both his studies and the ranch experience, he
developed a deep, life-long interest in science. In fact, he was so certain that he would pursue a career in
science that when it came time to learn Greek he objected. He protested that it would be of no use to him.
But this was a home whose discipline required the children to memorize the Shorter Catechism at a very
young age. In such a home, Warfield’s brother Ethelbert reports, youthful objections mattered little: Benny
learned his Greek. This boy who initially despised Greek would later become one of the leading New
Testament Greek scholars of the era!

The Making of a Scholar

Warfield went on to study science at Princeton University (then named the College of New Jersey). He
graduated with highest honors at the top of his class, with perfect marks in math and science. He then
studied in Europe. But it was while in Europe he determined to return to Princeton, this time to enroll in the
Seminary and prepare for gospel ministry. And in 1873 he began studying under the renowned and now
very elderly Charles Hodge and other giants of Old Princeton.

After graduation Warfield pursued further studies in Europe, and then fulfilled a few brief church interim
positions. In 1878 he began his illustrious academic career teaching New Testament (yes, including
Greek!) at Western Seminary in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. By the age of thirty this young scholar was
already becoming recognized internationally as a  leading voice for the historic Reformed faith. It was not
long before the simple initials “BBW,” printed below an article or book review, would carry great weight
and prestige.

“Lion of Princeton”

Upon the unexpected death of Princeton’s A.A. Hodge, the seminary there found itself in need of a new
professor of systematic theology - “Didactic and Polemic Theology,” as it was called in those days. In late
1886 Warfield received a letter from Caspar Wistar Hodge (1830-91, another son of Charles Hodge),
inviting him to join the Seminary faculty. Everyone knew - and even said at the time - that with the addition
of this young, energetic scholar to their faculty, great things lay ahead for Princeton.

There was perhaps no theologian in the world as deeply and as widely equipped for the theological task
as this “leading ornament” of Princeton’s Theological Seminary. Warfield was well learned in all
departments related to biblical studies - the original languages, Old Testament, New Testament, the new
biblical “criticism,” theology, historical studies, philosophy, science. He  stood out as a giant even in a
Princeton land of giants, and was referred to as the “lion of Princeton.” It was said by those who knew him
that not only did he know more than his great predecessors - he knew more than all of them put together.
His learned grasp was as wide as it was deep, and in his own lifetime he was recognized for it. In all this
God had prepared a spokesman, a defender of the faith who could take all comers.

Defender of the Faith

Darwin was a kind of symbol of the era. Naturalism reigned. The world itself could now be understood
apart from God. Do we really need old doctrines like inspiration and incarnation? Must we really explain
Scripture in terms of the supernatural - an infallible book come from God? And was Jesus actually God
come as man - two natures in one person? Can “enlightened” man really be expected to believe such
things?

Warfield responded with the robust supernaturalism that marks Scripture everywhere. A Jesus who is less
than divine is not suited to be a savior, he insisted. And if the Bible is not inspired of God, as Jesus
himself insisted, then let us quit calling ourselves Christian - we cannot have the Jesus of the Bible and
reject the Bible of Jesus.

In many respects the inspiration of the Scriptures was the issue of the day. And more than any other
before him or since Warfield gave massive exposition and defense of the Scriptures as the very word of
God himself. “What Scripture says, God says” well-summarizes his nearly 1,500 published pages on the
subject. He is in a very real sense the theologian of the doctrine of inspiration, not because he gave the
church anything new but because he stated the doctrine with more precision than any. Indeed, it has been
well said that all discussion on the subject for the century since has been but a footnote to Warfield. It is not
with great exaggeration that this “spoiler of liberalism” is said to have “propelled orthodoxy into the
twentieth century.”

No account of Warfield would be complete without mention that he was not just a great theologian - he was
a theologian whose heart beat hot for Christ. His passion for Christ and the gospel pulses through all his
works. He adored the Lord Jesus Christ, the incarnate Redeemer, and he loved to say so. And he loved to
speak of our utter, helpless need of such a Savior from heaven.

Warfield remained active in teaching and writing up to the very end. He suffered a heart attack on
December 24, 1920, while walking to the home of his friend Geerhardus Vos. He returned to teaching on
February 16, 1921, and died that evening at home. His final lecture was, characteristically, on the
unparalleled, redeeming love of God in Christ.

B.B. Warfield: Lion of Princeton
by Fred G. Zaspel
  (originally published in Glimpses #281, April 2013)