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Warfields Concept of Theological Development

More than any other time in history, mankind faces a crossroads. One path leads to despair and utter
hopelessness, the other to total extinction. Let us pray we have the wisdom to choose correctly.
~ Woody Allen

What is the value of the ancient system of creeds and confessions to modern Christian
beliefs? What is the value of continuing theological scholarship, especially if it conflicts with
traditional Christian belief? How should old and new beliefs be used to chart a way forward
when Christianity faces a crossroads?
This paper is an attempt to understand how B. B. Warfield answered the above questions,
not least because he was a man frequently involved in theological debates (even a professor of
polemical theology!). Warfield sought to guide theological development as it stood at the
crossroads between historic Christian belief and historical criticism aimed at the very root of
Christianity, as he understood it.
The purpose of this paper then is to assess how B. B. Warfield understood theological
development. The first part of the paper will be taken up by seeking Warfields understanding of
the process of theological development. By looking at a small portion of his writings on the
advance of theological knowledge, his theory should become clear. This theory will then be
examined in his assessment of the development of the doctrine of the Trinity, as an historical
example of theological development. Secondly, and more briefly, this paper will apply
Warfields paradigm for theological development to certain elements in his own life, in order to
determine where, if at all, he fit into the process.

I. Warfields Concept of Theological Development


One of Warfields most explicit statements of this concept is found in his article The
Centurys Progress in Biblical Knowledge.1 In this article Warfield takes as his starting point
the pride expressed by some upon reflection on the development in all fields of biblical
knowledge in the 19th century. Warfield attempts to rein in this pride by pointing out that
theological development is built on, and therefore dependent upon, preceding Christian belief.
Warfield also makes the solemn observation that knowledge increases by the process of
controversy, a judgment perhaps intended to sober the pride of those holding a romantic notion
of progress. Finally, Warfield also briefly notes that theology does not progress towards a final
conclusion, but is handed on from one generation to the next, in order for each generation to
continue adding to the body of understanding.
A. Knowledge Increases by Controversy
One of the keys to B. B. Warfields understanding of the process of theological
development is that knowledge increases by means of controversy.2 Although such a bald
statement of the issue may seem unpalatable, Warfields concept is not as morbid as it might first
appear.
Although such controversies could indeed be bloody, as Warfield states elsewhere when
he compares theological development wrought through martyrdom with that of polemics3, the
examples he gives from the 19th century were all academic or ecclesiastical debates. The
developments in biblical knowledge that he lists include everything from the birth of Biblical

Benjamin B. Warfield, Selected Shorter Writings, ed. John Meeter, 2 vols. (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R
Publishing, 1970, 1973), 2:3-13. (hereafter SSW)
2
Although I doubt that Warfield would say that theological knowledge technically increased, this is the
language which he uses in the article which forms the basis of this section and is thus a useful summary.
See, for instance, SSW, 2:13.
3
Warfield, Christianity the Truth, SSW, 2:213-218.

Theology to historical studies, text criticism, and philological work. How did this great advance
happen? asks Warfield. Fierce controversies have raged throughout [the centurys] whole
length And amid, or rather by means of, all these controversies knowledge has increased.4
Warfield detailed in short how these controversies added to knowledge, for instance, in
the field of New Testament studies. He wrote of the stages through which this new form of
attack on the Christian documents and their contents has passed as Strausss (sic) construction
was superseded by that of Baur; and how Baurs more solidly built edifice has gradually
crumbled until the adherents of the once arrogantly dominant Tubingen School have fallen
into insignificance5 Meanwhile, Warfield summarizes quite positively, in conflict with
these new modes of assault the Biblical learning of our own day has been greatly enriched.6 In
the back and forth disputes of the various schools, Warfield sees that each new criticism,
although not necessarily better than its predecessor, cannot but add some helpful nuance to the
overall structure. Here we meet our second point in Warfields
B. Theology Develops in Continuity with the Preceding Christian Tradition
In his article Recent Reconstructions of Theology7 Warfield notes that most new
theology is but a repackaging of familiar concepts long accepted in one circle or another,
Arminianism (itself a few centuries old) being the most recent example of any true
reconstruction. He then highlights three trends in contemporary theology: a renunciation of
external authority even the Bible, a drift toward natural theology, and a depreciation of Jesus
Christ. The final element is the most striking, and fairly seems to summarize Warfields
insinuation throughout that the contemporary theology is not a reconstruction of Christian

Warfield, The Centurys Progress in Biblical Knowledge, SSW, 2:13


Ibid., 2:8
6
Ibid., 2:9
7
Warfield, Recent Reconstructions of Theology, SSW, 2:289-299
5

theology, but an entire departure from it. What, after all, is Christian theology without a unique
Christ? theology may remain, but it is no longer a Christian theology; religion may remain,
but it is no longer the Christian religion. In a word, if we are to follow our more recent guides,
we shall inevitably drift toward a purely natural religion.8 Here is the heart of Warfields second
proposition, development in Christian theology is not innovation, it is based on preceding
Christian tradition. Hence, theological reconstruction (such as Arminianism) is possible,
whereas innovation, or worse, discarding the preceding tradition (such as Ritschlianism) is
judged by Warfield as not Christian.
Perhaps the best example of this is found in Warfields three-part series on Tertullian
and the Beginnings of the Doctrine of the Trinity published in 1905-06.9 In this series, Warfield
reevaluates the development of the doctrine of the Trinity in light of the Ritschlian school of
thought, especially Adolf Harnack.
Warfields belief that theological development is based on preceding Christian belief is
seen on two levels in these articles. First, Warfield shows that Tertullian argued with his
opponents for a faith that was dependent on and derived from the existing Christian
interpretation and the Apostolic creed. Secondly, in consequence of this first level, Warfield
took exception to Harnacks understanding of the development of the doctrine of the Trinity
because his explanation made Western Christianity out to be an innovation dependent on Greek
philosophy and one mans invention, but not based on the Apostolic faith. At this second level,

Ibid., 2:294-295
Benjamin B. Warfield, Tertullian and the Beginnings of the Doctrine of the Trinity. First Article, The
Princeton Theological Review 3:4 (October, 1905): 529-557. (hereafter PTR 3:4)
Benjamin B. Warfield, Tertullian and the Beginnings of the Doctrine of the Trinity. Second Article, The
Princeton Theological Review 4:1 (January, 1906): 1-36. (hereafter PTR 4:1)
Benjamin B. Warfield, Tertullian and the Beginnings of the Doctrine of the Trinity. Third Article, The
Princeton Theological Review 4:2 (April, 1906): 145-167. (hereafter PTR 4:2)
9

Warfield did not so much disagree with the historical data presented by Harnack and the
Ritschlians, as with their interpretation of this data. Warfield repeatedly criticizes Harnack
throughout for misunderstanding the import of Tertullians statements and for exaggerating the
difference between Tertullian and the Christian formulations he was heir to.10
Warfield points out in these articles that Tertullian considered innovation to be error.
Tertullian not only puts forward no claim to originality, but actually asserts that his
teaching is the traditional teaching of the Church. As over against the novel character of
the new-fangled teaching of Praxeas, which falls as such under the prescription which
Tertullian was wont to bring against all heresies as innovations and therefore no part of
the original deposit of the faith, he sets his doctrine as a doctrine which had always been
believed.11

As Warfield stated here, to Tertullian innovation was heresy and the opposite of innovation, a
direct dependence on the received tradition of the church, was the mark of truth.
How then, if theology is judged by its faithfulness to the tradition, did Warfield perceive
that development could take place? There are at least three recognizable elements in Warfields
portrayal of the development of the doctrine of the Trinity. First, Warfield identifies the historic
formula of the church. The historic formula is a summary of the faith (a creed or formula).
Secondly, there is an existing body of interpretation of the historic formula.12 Finally, there is
theological innovation which, when introduced, forces the existing interpretation to develop in
order to meet its challenge. The second element will be addressed first here, for ease of
explanation.

10

See, for instance: Warfield, PTR 4:1, 3, 4 n., 5 n., 10, 23, 24, 30; Warfield, PTR 4:2, 147, 161, 162 n.,
not to mention that the entire series of articles is a rebuttal to Warfields perception that Harnack has
overstated the case (Warfield, PTR 3:4, 531.)
11
Warfield, PTR 3:4, 539
12
Warfield explicitly distinguishes these first two categories on PTR 3:4, 548. Additionally, he speaks
about them side-by-side in multiple passages, always treating them as two complementary elements.

1. The Existing Body of Interpretation


The existing body of interpretation is the general Christian belief at a given time. It is an
interpretation of the historic formula. The existing body of interpretation is not theology in its
final form (it lacks clarity on certain issues), but it is the commonly held interpretation of the
historic formula extant at the time (although not necessarily the dominant view).
For instance, in Tertullians time, the Logos-speculation (or Logos Christology) was the
existing body of interpretation. It was the traditional interpretation that Tertullian received from
his theological predecessors. The Logos-speculation was the most fully developed understanding
of the Father-Son relationship extant in Tertullians era. However, The Logos-speculation was
an imperfect understanding of the Son in relation to the Father because the Logos-speculation
involved the strongest subordinationism.13 The Logos-speculation therefore left much to be
desired in terms of its grasp of the historic formula (in this case, the Apostles Creed or the Rule
of Faith). Therefore, Tertullian was heir of this whole Logos construction, good and bad, and
he took it over from the Apologists in its entirety14
To summarize, the existing body of interpretation is the received tradition of Christian
belief at a given time, but is always subject to clarification because it still unwittingly embraces
some elements that are not consistent with the historic formula.
2. The Historic Formula
Above the existing body of interpretation stands the historic formula. The historic
formula is a summary statement of the Biblical data, such as the Apostles Creed or another
confession. In Tertullians case, the historic formula to which he and other church fathers felt
obligation was the Rule of Faith. Although there is some confusion about what exactly the
13
14

Warfield, PTR 3:4, 543.


Warfield, PTR 3:4, 544.

Rule of Faith was, Warfield explains It seems clear that the Rule of Faith means the common
fundamental faith of the church, as derived from Scripture and expressed especially in the
Baptismal Creed what we know as The Apostles Creed.15
Warfield expresses the relationship between the historic formula and the existing body of
interpretation in this case, by saying,
There was one thing, in other words, which was more fundamental to Tertullians
thinking than even the Logos Christology. That was the Rule of Faith the immemorial
belief of Christians, grounded in the teaching of the Word of God. he recognized it as
his first duty to preserve it whole and entire.16

The Rule of Faith, or historic formula, was therefore the basis from which the existing body of
interpretation was derived and the standard by which it was judged.
3. Theological Innovation
As stated above, it was an axiom with Tertullian, as with Warfield, that theological
innovation was at least heterodoxy, if not heresy. Orthodoxy was theology that was committed
to the historic formula in line with the received tradition, or the existing body of interpretation.
However, despite Warfields antipathy toward innovation, he still saw a purpose for it in
theological development. As Warfield saw it, innovation forced clarification in an existing body
of interpretation.17 Heresy, or innovation, forces clarification because it identifies a deficiency of
understanding of the historical formula in the existing body of interpretation.18 The deficiency
must then be corrected and thus the existing body of interpretation more clearly interprets the
historical formula after responding to the innovations charges. The problem with innovation,

15

Warfield, PTR 3:4, 548 n.


Warfield, PTR 3:4, 548.
17
eg. Warfield, PTR 4:2, 146.
18
They were in intention, at all events, orthodox; and the failure of their theory to embrace all that
orthodoxy must needs confess was an indication rather of the inadequacy of the theory to which they had
committed their formal thinking, than of any conscious willingness on their part to deny or neglect
essential elements of the truth. (Warfield, PTR 4:1, 15.)
16

however, is that it points out the deficiency in an exaggerated fashion and thus does not do
justice to the historical formula in its own interpretation.
The Monarchians were the innovators in Tertullians day and were the target of his
polemics in Against Praxeas, the document in question in these articles. The Monarchians
challenged the existing body of interpretation (the Logos-speculation) by pointing out that it
actually made God into multiple beings or emanations. The Monarchian doctrine demanded that
there was only one God. The Monarchian doctrine thus fell into the modalistic error, however, it
created pressure on the Logos-speculation to account for the unity of God. Thus Warfield writes
positively of Monarchianism that in the effort to attain clarity concerning the Trinity, in the
providence of God it was given to keep poignantly before the eyes of men the terms of the faith
which were likely to be neglected by the Logos-speculation.19 Monarchianism, although it was
the innovation, had its role to play in theological development.
4. The Three Elements of Theological Development in Action
Warfields main combatant concerning the development of the doctrine of the Trinity,
was Adolf Harnack. Harnack argued that Tertullian was an innovator, creating the doctrine of
the Trinity in discontinuity with the preceding generation of Christian Apologists. Warfield
agreed with Harnack to a point because he recognized Tertullians importance in helping to
advance the development of the doctrine.20 However, Warfield felt the need to dispute with
Harnack because Harnacks conception made the doctrine of the Trinity into an innovation that
was absent in Christianity before Tertullian. This conclusion was unacceptable to Warfield
because he was committed to showing the continuity of the body of interpretation with preceding

19

Warfield, PTR 4:2, 162.


Tertullian appears, in seeking to do justice to the elements of the doctrine embalmed in the Rule of
Faith, fairly to pass beyond the natural reach of the Logos-speculation and to open the way to a higher
conception. (Warfield, PTR 4:1, 32.)
20

interpretations. If the body of interpretation was entirely reinvented every so often, then
Christianity was not Christianity at all in Warfields evaluation.21
Warfield, therefore, offered a nuanced explanation of theological development, where
Harnack exaggerated the details. Warfield openly acknowledged that the Apologists and other
pre-Tertullian Christians had a deficient interpretation of the doctrine of the Trinity.22 However,
Warfield also pointed out that all of the elements of Tertullians doctrine of the Trinity could be
found in the Apologists and their contemporaries.23 The deficiency in the earlier conceptions of
God, therefore, was that the elements were poorly defined in relation to each other not that they
were absent entirely.24
C. Each Age Contributes to Theological Development, but None Completes it
It follows upon Warfields previous conclusions that while each controversy adds nuance
and clarification to the body of interpretation, no one era can claim to have completed the
progress of theological development. Of his own century, he writes, it has brought no single
branch of Biblical investigation to its definite completion. It has done its part; but it hands on an

21

However, Warfield was committed to a fair reading of history and avoided the dogmatizing error of
reading later doctrinal development back into earlier eras in defense of ones own position. He justly
criticizes Bull for this anachronism, saying: to attempt to interpret the inadequate conceptions of the
earlier thinkers as only somewhat clumsily expressed enunciations of Nicene orthodoxy, is a grave
historical fault. (Warfield, PTR 4:1, 15.)
22
The proper response to Petavius would have been to point out that the literary tradition, running
through Athenagoras, Tatian, Theophilus, Tertullian, Lactantius, together with certain others, such as
Origen, is not to be identified at once with the traditionary teaching of the Church, but represents rather a
literary movement or theological school of thought, which attempted with only partial success a specific
philosophizing of the traditionary faith of the Church. (Warfield, PTR 4:1, 14-15.)
23
there is a large traditional element in Tertullians teaching he betrays no consciousness of
enunciating new conceptions in his development of the doctrine. (Warfield, PTR 4:2, 145.)
while we could from fragments, derived this from one and that from another of the Apologists, piece
together a statement of doctrine which would assimilate itself to Tertullians, we could verify this
statement from no one of the Apologists There are, in other words, hints scattered through the
Apologists that men were already reaching out toward the forms of statement that meet us in Tertullian,
but only in him are these hints brought together. (Warfield, PTR 4:2, 147.)
24
The merit of Tertullian is that his definitions, though still adjusted to the forms of the Logosspeculation, had in them the potency of a better construction (Warfield, PTR 4:2, 166.)

unfinished task to its successor. It is a great thing to say of it, that it hands on all its tasks in
completer shape than it received them.25
II. Warfields Contribution, Where He Fit in the Process of Theological Development
Warfield was himself, by all estimates, a man involved in theological development. His
polemics against Ritschlianism, displayed above, are only one example of the innovation with
which he dealt. His own seminary would be radically reconstructed within a decade of his death
to embrace the theology he opposed. Within his own life he saw similar changes all around him.
One of the more prominent settings in which Warfield was involved in theological
development was in his contribution to the doctrine of inspiration, especially in response to the
theology of Charles Briggs. The similarities between Warfields life and the above suggested
paradigm are numerous, however a few stand out. First, Warfields contribution to the
development of the doctrine of inspiration was worked out in the fires of controversy
surrounding the multiple heresy trials against Briggs. Second, the innovation seen in Briggs
higher critical views pointed out some deficiencies in the existing body of interpretation. In fact,
when Warfield and Hodge articulated a view of inspiration more advanced than the dictation
method (one deficiency pointed out by Briggs), they stirred up considerable opposition from
conservative elements among American Presbyterians as conceding too much to the left.26
Warfield did not retreat from contact with the theological innovations of his own day, but was
committed to understanding the critiques of Harnack, Briggs, and the other challengers to
historic Christianity, in order to answer them and help the historic faith to properly develop.27

25

Warfield, The Centurys Progress in Biblical Knowledge, SSW, 2:13.


Carl R. Trueman, The Wages of Spin: Critical Writings on Historic & Contemporary Evangelicalism
(Fearn: Mentor, 2007), 87.
27
Stephen J. Nichols, The Vital Processes of Controversy: Warfield, Machen, and Fundamentalism
in B. B. Warfield: Essays on His Life and Thought, ed. Gary L. W. Johnson (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R
Publishing, 2007), 179.
26

For instance, contrary to the Fundamentalists of his day, Warfield conceded some points to
textual criticism which were quite progressive and ultimately correct, although they won him
contempt among conservatives of his own day.28
Finally, in accordance with the above paradigm, Warfield saw that his highest
commitment was to the historic formula, in his case, the Westminster Standards. In an address
given on the 250th anniversary of the completion of the Westminster Standards, he went so far as
to compare the Westminster Standards with the ancient creeds.
So long, then, as the leavens of sacerdotalism and humanitarianismof externality in
religion and of dependence on fleshremain, in one form or another, the most dangerous
perils to which the gospel is exposed (and it would seem as if this must be as long as
human nature endures), so long the statement given the gospel of grace in the
Westminster Standards must remain the ultimate scientific enunciation of the principles
of evangelical religion. In the same sense in which the Nicene and Athanasian creeds
attained the final expression of the doctrine of the Trinity, and the Chalcedonian
definition the final expression of the doctrine of the Person of Christ, the Westminster
Standards attained the final expression of the elements of evangelical religion.29

This language is clearly reminiscent of his explanation of the role that the Rule of Faith played in
the lives of Tertullian and his contemporaries. Warfield plainly stated this as he signed the
Westminster Standards in his inauguration at Western Seminary. In a speech delivered on that
occasion he contrasted himself with the enlightened clerical gentlemen who sometimes fail to
look upon subscription to creeds as our covenanting forefathers looked upon the act of putting
their names to theological documents saying, 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 conviction30

28

Nichols, The Vital Processes of Controversy, 185.


Benjamin B. Warfield, The Significance of the Westminster Standards as a Creed (New York: Charles
Scribners Sons, 1898), 24.
30
Benjamin B. Warfield, Inaugural Address in Discourses Occasioned by the Inauguration of Benjamin
B. Warfield, D. D. to the Chair of New Testament Exegesis and Literature in Western Theological
Seminary, (Pittsburgh: Nevin Brothers, 1880), 17.
29

III. Conclusion
B. B. Warfield was a man committed to the existing body of interpretation expressed in
scholastic Reformed theology, which was derived from the historic formulae and creeds, most
fully developed in the Westminster Standards. B. B. Warfield was also a man committed to
development in theology, who was not afraid of the theological innovations of his own day, but
studied them closely in order to better articulate the historic Christian faith.

Bibliography
Johnson, Gary L. W., ed. B. B. Warfield: Essays on His Life and Thought. Phillipsburg, NJ:
P&R Publishing, 2007.
Trueman, Carl R. The Wages of Spin: Critical Writings on Historic & Contemporary
Evangelicalism. Fearn: Mentor, 2007.
Warfield, Benjamin B. Inaugural Address in Discourses Occasioned by the Inauguration of
Benjamin B. Warfield, D. D. to the Chair of New Testament Exegesis and Literature in
Western Theological Seminary, 17-46. Pittsburgh: Nevin Brothers, 1880.
Warfield, Benjamin B. Selected Shorter Writings. Edited by John Meeter, 2 vols. Phillipsburg,
NJ: P&R Publishing, 1970, 1973.
Warfield, Benjamin B. The Significance of the Westminster Standards as a Creed. New York:
Charles Scribners Sons, 1898.
Warfield, Benjamin B. Tertullian and the Beginnings of the Doctrine of the Trinity. The
Princeton Theological Review 3:4 (October, 1905): 529-557.
Warfield, Benjamin B. Tertullian and the Beginnings of the Doctrine of the Trinity. The
Princeton Theological Review 4:1 (January, 1906): 1-36.
Warfield, Benjamin B. Tertullian and the Beginnings of the Doctrine of the Trinity. The
Princeton Theological Review 4:2 (April, 1906): 145-167.