Historical Theology and B.B. Warfield

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If Nicaea, then why Chalcedon? If the verdicts reached at the Council of Nicaea (325 AD) were so right, then why was Chalcedon (381 AD) necessary?

For students of historical theology, the answer is so obvious we scarcely ask the question. But the need was real. Nicaea got it right, of course, but it did not get it all. The popular but defective teachings of Arius pointed up the need for further definitions of our Christological faith. Hence, Chalcedon, and the Nicaeno-Constantinopolitan creed that we recite today.

This little vignette illustrates the church’s understanding of doctrine as it has developed over the centuries. God had revealed himself supremely and with fulness and finality in his Son (John 1:1–18; Heb.1:1–3), and this deposit of revelation then was given to the church by his apostles once and for all (John 15:26–27; 16:7–15; 2 Thes. 2:15; 1 Tim. 6:20–21; 1 John 1:1–3; Jude 3, etc.). But the church’s collective understanding of this revelation did not immediately come with corresponding completeness. It has taken time—centuries, in fact. Additionally, various departures from apostolic teaching have arisen, each requiring from the church closer definitions of her faith. So we continue to examine the Scriptures to gain an increasingly full and closer understanding of our faith. And doubtless we are not done yet—we have much still to learn.

“Progressive”: A Deceptive Misnomer

Benjamin Breckinridge Warfield (1851–1921), the famous theologian of Old Princeton Seminary, is well known for his landmark exposition and defense of the doctrine of the inspiration of Scripture. The massive body of writings he produced on this subject remains a standard instructive for Christians today. His understanding of historical theology is instructive also. He did not often address the field formally, as such, but his acquaintance with the development of Christian doctrine was obvious and informed his work throughout. For example, his Introduction to Abraham Kuyper’s The Work of the Holy Spirit, provides one illustration of the breadth of his grasp in this area of doctrine.

Warfield was deeply convinced of the authority of revelation given us in the Scriptures, and he was intent to stress its finality, as outlined above. In one of his last published books, he included a sermon on 1 Timothy 6:20 in which he insists that the responsibility of the Christian preacher is emphatically not to come up with anything new. The Christian preacher is under solemn obligation to preserve, defend, and proclaim that which has been committed to our trust from the apostles. Much less are we allowed to introduce anything that contradicts it.

This was in fact the problem Warfield faced in his own day. Critical theories of various kinds were being introduced that were destructive to the historic Christian faith, and under the more positive label “progressive” these teachings were gaining acceptance. Warfield resented the term (progressive) used in this context. He insisted that Christianity is not progressive. Christianity was given its definition at its founding, once for all, and later alterations of that teaching did not mark “progress” in any sense.

“Progressive”: a Growth in Understanding

However, the church’s understanding of her faith does indeed progress, and well it should. He notes examples of this at several points in his writings, perhaps most pointedly in his 1900 article, “The Century’s Progress in Biblical Knowledge.” Here he highlights the early nineteenth-century fear that some Christians had because of the influence of rationalism on Christian theology. Chiefly, he notes how this rationalist assault on the Christian faith had, at the end of the century, resulted in a marvelous increase in biblical knowledge. The assaults had forced Christians to examine their faith more closely, and as a result, their faith had been deepened and strengthened. In this sense, theology (not Christianity) is a progressive science. We must differentiate between inspiration and illumination, and we must not expect that God has given the church all at once a complete understanding of the full and final revelation given.

Speaking more broadly, he notes figures such as Tertullian, Athanasius, Augustine, Anselm, and Calvin as watershed moments in the church’s developing understanding of the faith—the doctrines of the Trinity, the two natures of Christ, sin, atonement, and the Holy Spirit respectively. None of these men, he observed, added anything new. Their names merely mark momentous occasions of theological articulation that proved to be in conformity to the Scriptures and therefore have had lasting influence in the church. We may add Warfield himself to this list, given his unprecedented treatment of the doctrine of inspiration.

Warfield further noted that the church’s developing understanding has followed a logical process. It was necessary first to grasp the more objective aspects of the faith, and later the more subjective aspects. Its doctrine of God was not fully appreciated until the various strands of truth pertaining to the Trinity were articulated, including the doctrine of the two natures of Christ. Attention then fell to the doctrine of sin, man’s need and helplessness. Only then was the church situated to grasp the nature of Christ’s saving work. And only with all this in place could she grasp the more subjective provisions for sin in the work of the Spirit. There was theology proper, Christology, anthropology and hamartiology, then the accomplishing of redemption, and finally the application of it. Each stage made advance in what seems in hindsight to be a predictable process.

And yet in it all, the point of reference was the same: the “deposit” of revelation given to the church once for all from the apostles. Their teaching and writings were “imposed” (Warfield’s term) on the church with apostolic authority and remain her single touchstone of truth.

Conclusion

Two obvious observations stand out from this brief overview. First, as I have emphasized, is the primacy of Scripture as our theological norm. And next is the simple observation regarding the nature of historical theology as a progressive science as Warfield describes it. Our understanding grows. We should not expect that any period of the church’s history said it all. Watershed moments, yes, but completeness of understanding takes time. There was Nicaea, and then there was Chalcedon. And behind both stood the apostles.

Perhaps some contemporary application is in order. Some circles that I have been acquainted with, if I may cautiously point out, seem unwittingly to have elevated the Reformers (and company) to a position beyond what they themselves would have approved: questions of doctrine are “settled” by mere reference to one of these revered luminaries or era documents. In other circles it is the church fathers and the important theology they hammered out that settles debate. In both of these examples—both of whose theological positions I appreciate greatly—biblical exegesis sometimes receives what seems to be only secondary attention. We ought indeed to be eager to look back to important moments of theological advance; to be sure, we ignore such moments to our loss. But we must always be careful to look back further—to that revelation in which our theology is grounded, testing all the findings of historical theology against it.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Author

  • Fred G. Zaspel

    Fred G. Zaspel (Ph.D., Free University of Amsterdam) is one of the pastors of Reformed Baptist Church in Franconia, PA. He is also executive editor of Books At a Glance and an adjunct professor of theology at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. He is the author of several books and articles, including The Theology of B.B. Warfield: A Systematic Summary, and the forthcoming How to Read and Understand the Psalms, co-authored with Bruce Waltke.

Fred G. Zaspel

Fred G. Zaspel

Fred G. Zaspel (Ph.D., Free University of Amsterdam) is one of the pastors of Reformed Baptist Church in Franconia, PA. He is also executive editor of Books At a Glance and an adjunct professor of theology at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. He is the author of several books and articles, including The Theology of B.B. Warfield: A Systematic Summary, and the forthcoming How to Read and Understand the Psalms, co-authored with Bruce Waltke.