Volume 24 - Issue 2

On the Shoulder of Giants

By Carl Trueman

One of the great unexpected pleasures of assuming the editorship of Themelios at this point in time has been my inheritance from the previous editor of Peter Heslam’s article on Abraham Kuyper and Benjamin Breckinridge Warfield. These two men, giants in their time, are seldom cited today even among evangelical scholarly circles, and, when they are, it is more often to criticise their views than to learn from them. Yet one can scarcely claim to understand the shape and concerns of evangelical life and thought in the twentieth century without some reference to them—a point which Dr Heslam makes with great clarity in his article. As Dr Heslam devotes most of his attention to Kuyper, it is perhaps worth our while to look briefly at the contribution of B.B. Warfield.

Warfield was a remarkable man. Even with all the gains of evangelical scholarship of the last fifty years, we have no-one like him today in terms of the sweep of his interests and his apparently omnivorous theological mind. The pre-eminent professor of theology at Princeton Theological Seminary after the death of Charles Hodge, his learning was breathtaking. Well-acquainted with the latest theological scholarship, conservative and liberal, in English and in German, his writings covered the whole sweep of the theological encyclopaedia. Most famous now, perhaps, for his views on the cessation of the supernatural gifts and his defence of the classic orthodox position on the nature and authority of Scripture, he also made profound contributions to biblical theology, church history, and contemporary church debates about the Christian life. If evangelicalism has a vision today for a theology which is grounded in expert scholarship, yet which relates to the life of each and every believer, then Warfield must take a large part of the credit for inspiring just such a vision. I am sure that I am not the first, and will certainly not be the last person who first had his mind set on fire for academic theology through reading the works of the Princeton professor.1

In addition, however, and perhaps more significantly, Warfield was also a man with a deep personal commitment to Christ which informed everything he did. It was this desire to serve Christ which motivated all of his theological activity. Week by week, he was concerned not simply to develop a rigorous and scholarly articulation of the historic Christian faith, but also to apply that same faith to the nuts and bolts of everyday life. Indeed, while professor at Princeton, he spent every Sunday afternoon teaching the students about the relevance of theology to Christian experience.2 With a wife who was tragically injured and crippled early on in marriage, Warfield was no stranger himself to suffering and to the reliance upon God which such suffering engenders. It was his own powerful personal experience of Christ’s upholding grace that enabled him to communicate the deeper currents of theology and Christian experience to his students.

It is remarkable, but as I survey the works of Warfield on my shelves, it is difficult to know which have been of more use to me over the years: the works which impart the vision of a profound and scholarly evangelical theology or those which speak of Christian experience. Is that not evidence that Warfield made just the kind of contribution to theology and to church life to which all theological teachers and students should aspire?

Warfield, then, should speak powerfully to us as we set about theological endeavour in our generation. He was not perfect and he made his undoubted mistakes, but he is not, as some might be tempted to feel, an awkward boulder in the way of evangelical theological progress. Rather, he is a giant upon whose shoulders we might do well to stand if we are to see further. The breadth and depth of his scholarship should move us all to yet greater efforts in our attempts to mine the Bible and church history for further insights into the gospel of Jesus Christ; and his passionate commitment to Christ and to daily Christian living should challenge us not to rest on our scholarly laurels, as if university degrees and academic honours were the goal for which we ultimately strive, but to press forward to apply our studies to our relationships both with other people and, supremely, with God himself. Let us look at Warfield and learn from him, bearing in mind his own wise words to his students at Princeton: ‘In your case, there can be no “either-or”, either a student or a man of God. You must be both.’

In this edition we welcome Dr. Carl Trueman as the new Editor of Themelios. Until recently Carl taught on the theology faculty at Nottingham University, and is now a lecturer in historical theology at Aberdeen University. His thesis on the Reformation was published by OUP, and a recent work on John Owen by Paternoster Press. As well as being a frequent conference speaker and teacher on historical theology, Carl claims that he is also an expert in cowboy films of the ‘40s and ‘50s. We welcome Carl and look forward to the growth of Themelios under his direction.

1 For a good introduction to the theology of Warfield, see his Studies in Theology (Banner of Truth).

2 For a selection of these addresses, see his Faith and Life (Banner of Truth).

Carl Trueman

Carl Trueman is academic dean, vice president of academic affairs, and professor of historical theology and church history at Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.