Reversing the Gospel: Warfield on Race and Racism

By Peter Somers Heslam
Editors’ note: 

This excerpt is from Themelios 43.1. The new April 2018 issue has 168 pages of editorials, articles, and book reviews. It is freely available in three formats: (1) PDF, (2) web version, and (3) Logos Bible Software.

Are we today to reverse the inspired declaration that in Christ Jesus there cannot be Greek and Jew, circumcision and uncircumcision, barbarian, Scythian, bondman, freeman? (B. B. Warfield, 1887)

Benjamin Breckinridge Warfield (1851–1921) of Old Princeton earned international reputation as the vigorous defender of the historic Christian faith—particularly in its Reformed expression—and it was in the traditional categories of biblical and theological studies that his publishing energies were almost exclusively spent. Social causes crop up only very seldom in his works, but one social cause stands out as one holding his particular interest: the cause of the American blacks. His literary output here was not extensive, to be sure, but it was pointed, revealing a deep sense of urgency about the issue. And though Warfield seldom became involved in any organized efforts outside the seminary, this was the exception—and this even though the position he took was unpopular (to say the least!) both in society and in the church, and even in his own Princeton Seminary. To Warfield, the “wicked caste” society that America then was constituted a moral and theological evil that, if not reversed, would bring only further harm to our nation.

The theological foundation of Warfield’s opposition to racism was two-fold: (1) the unity of the human race created in Adam in God’s image, and (2) the unifying entailments of the gospel of Christ.

In his 1911 “On the Antiquity and Unity of the Human Race” Warfield famously argued that the age of humanity is not a biblical question. The Bible doesn’t speak to the matter, he argued, and thus it is a question of no theological interest. We may take interest on scientific grounds, but not on biblical grounds. However, the unity of the human race, by contrast, is indeed a theological question and a very important one at that.

The unity of humanity was, in fact, commonly acknowledged by all sides in Warfield’s day. Evolution had removed the motive for denying a common origin to humanity and “rendered it natural to look upon the differences which exist among the various types of man as differentiations of a common stock.” He notes that in the past there were various opposing theories, such as co-Adamitism and Pre-Adamitism. And he notes that some early evolutionists had suggested multiple times and places of human origins. Racial pride continued to exist, to be sure, but virtually all sides acknowledged a unity to all humanity that is evident physically as well as psychologically (speech, common traditions, etc.). There were various factors employed in accounting for this unity, but the fact of a common humanity no longer required defense.

The importance of the unity of humanity, for Warfield, could scarcely be overstated, both biblically and theologically.

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