Kim Riddlebarger. The Lion of Princeton: B.B. Warfield as Apologist and Theologian. Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press, 2015. See here to purchase the book.
B.B. Warfield was a theologically conservative professor at Princeton in the late nineteenth-early twentieth centuries. In The Lion of Princeton, Kim Riddlebarger discusses the life and thought of this formidable figure.
The book explores a lot of topics, but the most prominent topic concerns Warfield’s thoughts about the relationship between apologetics and grace. Calvinists believe that a person cannot genuinely come to God without a supernatural act of grace: God unilaterally transforming that person such that the person loves God and righteousness. For Calvinists, people are too sinful to come to God on their own initiative, and that is why an act of transforming grace is necessary. But B.B. Warfield was an advocate of classic apologetics, particularly in his defense the historicity of Jesus’ resurrection. For certain Calvinist critics, classic apologetics presumes that the truth can be ascertained by people on the basis of reason and evidence, which nullifies the importance of transforming grace in enabling people to accept the Gospel. These critics think that the Reformed understanding of conversion and classic apologetics run in different, contrary directions.
Although Warfield was Reformed, he engaged in classic apologetics regarding Jesus’ resurrection, and there are scholars who believe that he was compromising Reformed tenets in so doing. Riddlebarger, however, argues the opposite and presents Warfield as truly Reformed in his thought. For Warfield, God can make use of apologetics in drawing people to Godself. Plus, even if the truth can be ascertained through a consideration of the evidence, God needs to transform people so that they can truly embrace and live that truth. Grace and reason both play a role in conversion, as far as Warfield is concerned.
This looks pretty simple, but the book is still meaty. For example, Riddlebarger talks about how Warfield responded to Lessing’s argument that eternal or general truths cannot be based on the probabilities of history. Lessing’s argument posed a challenge to Warfield’s belief that the truth of Christianity could be supported by a historical defense of Jesus’ resurrection, so Warfield had a lot to say about it.
In addition, there were areas in which it was difficult to see how Warfield’s views on apologetics and grace held together. On the one hand, Warfield seemed to believe that the Gospel itself was rational: Warfield argued that, even if God needs to transform a person for that person to believe a message, the message itself can still be rational, so there is no necessary contradiction between Calvinist views on conversion and classic apologetics. On the other hand, Warfield also appeared to maintain that the contents of God’s revelation themselves could not be ascertained or supported by evidence or reason, for they are beyond human beings. What can be supported by evidence, for Warfield, were the signs that authenticated that the message was from God (i.e., miracles, Jesus’ resurrection), not the contents of God’s revelation itself. Humans can look at themselves and conclude that they are sinners, but they cannot through reason climb to a knowledge and understanding of God’s plan to redeem them: God needs to reveal that to them from above. But God can still authenticate that message through miracles, and that is accessible to human evaluation of historical evidence. Warfield apparently believes that the contents of God’s revelation and the historical signs need to go together: God’s revelation tells us the significance of the historical signs, otherwise the signs would be isolated flukes without much significance by themselves; and yet the signs attest to the truth of the divine revelation, by showing it is from God. Warfield appears to overlap with both presuppositonal and classic apologists, notwithstanding the criticism that presuppositional apologists have made of his work.
Riddlebarger makes other points in this book as well. Riddlebarger argues that Warfield’s thought was heavily influenced by the Scottish Common Sense tradition. The Scottish Common Sense tradition maintained that we should trust our sensory perception of the world because we intuit that as common sense; it contended against the skeptical positions of philosophers like David Hume. As Riddlebarger demonstrates, the concepts of realism (i.e., we can reliably sense, understand, and conceptualize the world), intuition, and induction (we can form conclusions from specific things) that the Scottish Common Sense tradition emphasized played a significant role in Warfield’s thought. They undergirded his focus on history in doing apologetics (which is consistent with realism and induction), as well as his belief that people can intuit basic truths about God (i.e., God’s existence).
Riddlebarger also discusses Warfield’s polemics against revivalism, specifically the belief among certain revivalists that Christians could become morally and spiritually perfect in this life. While Warfield did make contributions to fundamentalism, Warfield also differed from many fundamentalists, in key areas. Riddlebarger also has a chapter about Warfield’s textual criticism of the New Testament, which Warfield taught at Princeton. Warfield believed that the New Testament was inerrant in its original autographs, and that, through textual criticism, we could arrive at a reliable understanding of what those original autographs said. Surprisingly, according to Riddlebarger, Warfield was controversial among conservatives because he acknowledged that parts of Mark 16 were added later to the text and were not part of the original. Riddlebarger also briefly discusses Warfield’s openness to evolution; according to Riddlebarger, Warfield had an interest in biology.
This book is certainly informative, and it makes a contribution to scholarly discussions about Warfield. The book was somewhat scattered, however, and I think it could have defined terms more clearly: induction, deduction, Thomism, etc. A glossary would have been helpful. The last two pages were rather clear, though, and they did a fairly decent job tying things together and making Riddlebarger’s point. Riddlebarger did not talk that much about Warfield’s beliefs on biblical inspiration and inerrancy, which were issues of importance for Warfield. Riddlebarger mentioned those topics, but he did not really explain the nuances of Warfield’s understanding of them. That, in my opinion, is disappointing. The book is still a meaty explanation of Warfield’s thought. A background in philosophy and theology would help a reader appreciate this book and understand more of it; yet, a reader without an extensive background in those things can still learn from this book.
I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher, in exchange for an honest review.