B. B. Warfield and the “Common-Sense” Conception of Theology


Non-biblical philosophies have a way of creeping into even the best Christian writing.  Given the reality of the Fall this is perhaps unavoidable.  Still, Christians should regard it as their duty to their Lord not to be reliant upon any unscriptural underpinnings in their theology.  The Apostle Paul, who knew the philosophers (Acts 17), sees it as one of his obligations to remind believers how they ought to think (e.g. Rom. 12:1-2; Col. 2:8).  Ones ultimate criterion of thought, the most basic appeals to facticity, affect the outworking of ones worldview.  This is to be seen more clearly in some scholars than in others.  Those I have in mind in this piece are men who take a view of the Bible which runs counter to what the Bible itself permits, and whose scriptural vision is duly impaired.

Scripture always and everywhere presents itself as the Word of God.  This is either assumed, as in the opening verses of the Book of Genesis, or it is stated explicitly (e.g. 2 Tim. 3:16).  The Lord Jesus Himself is quite matter-of-fact in the way He assumes the Holy Scriptures to require no other human response but that of belief (e.g. Jn. 5:39-47).  The Bible is self-attesting (Isa. 66:2b).

When once a person has become a Christian he has entered upon a true relationship with the Author of the Word which, by supernatural working, he has believed and by which he has been given light with which to search it and think about it.  He has not acquired saving knowledge by anything within himself.  He has not come to know the Author of life and the Creator of time and space unless he has come to know Him through His Word, and the true significance of the Word.  Saving knowledge opens our eyes to all other knowledge – or at least it should.  Thus, Scripture is seen as the touchstone of all veridical truth.  We begin our knowing anew in light of God’s Word (Psa. 36:9).

Of course, to operate this way one must be like Jesus and the Apostles and accept the outside-Word from God without placing it through the wringer of empiricism.  Faith, for sure, is what brings the testimony of the Spirit with it to give certainty.  But whether faith is present or not does not alter the provenance of the Bible, and thus its ultimate authority or its right to provide the first principles of knowledge.  If “the earth is the Lord’s and the fullness thereof, the world and those who dwell therein” (Psa. 24:1), then a biblical perspective, not just on sin and salvation, but on every other subject under the sun is demanded.  If this is not done the rights of theology will be circumscribed by the creature to the detriment of a proper Christian worldview.

To see how a non-biblical starting point reduces the impact of God’s revelation on the Christian mind, and so on Christian theologizing I will take a look at a theological titan whose first principles kept him from developing such a worldview.

B. B. Warfield’s Common Sense Foundation

When it comes to pointing to theological giants of the past, even those not disposed to favor evangelicalism will not begrudge the name of Benjamin B. Warfield[1] of Princeton as deserving of honorable mention in the annals of American theology.  In both the United States and Great Britain there are few men who command more respect, at least in conservative theological circles.  Most would probably place him just behind Jonathan Edwards as America’s greatest Protestant theologian.  One must have a good reason if one is to disagree with such a man.

Notwithstanding, when it comes to the matter of theological method and presuppositions, it is possible to find fault.  We might approach the subject from several angles.  For example, we might ask the question, “Why did Warfield, in line with so many of his Christian contemporaries like James Orr, or his student J. Gresham Machen, accept theistic evolution as being compatible with the teachings and dictates of the Christian Faith?”  Or we could enquire about Warfield’s resistance to the neo-Calvinist proposals of Abraham Kuyper.[2]

A more basic question still would be to ask about the Princeton man’s approach to First Principles – those foundations upon which he thought every belief must be constructed.  To do this I shall reproduce an illuminating section from Warfield’s essay “Apologetics” in which he provides a convenient summary of his views on the relation of Theology to Science.  Under the sub-heading of “The Conception of Theology as A Science” he writes:

In the presence of Christianity in the world making claim to present a revelation of God adapted to the needs and condition of sinners, and documented in the Scriptures, theology cannot proceed a step until it has examined this claim; and if the claim can be substantiated, this substantiation must form a part of the fundamental department of theology in which are laid the foundations for the systematization of the knowledge of God.  In that case two new topics are added to the subject-matter with which apologetics must constructively deal, Christianity – and the Bible.  It thus lies in the very nature of apologetics as the fundamental department of theology, conceived as the science of God, that it should find its task in establishing the existence of a God who is capable of being known by man and who has made Himself known, not only in nature but in revelations of His grace to lost sinners, documented in the Christian Scriptures.  When apologetics has placed these great facts in our hands – God, religion, revelation, Christianity, the Bible – and not till then are we prepared to go on and explicate the knowledge of God thus brought to us, trace the history of its workings in the world, systematize it, and propagate it in the world.[3] (Emphasis added).

This approach has been particularly influential in the United States.[4] Here, at least since the Enlightenment it has been normal in conservative circles to hold that for Theology to be categorized as “science” it must adopt the same inductive approach which, say, astronomy (Warfield’s example), or biology does.  This means that for any Christian doctrine to be accepted – even by Christians – it must first pass the test of empirical and rational validity.  The task that Warfield, in line with all Christian evidentialists, sets apologetics is nothing short of the prior vindication of the legitimacy of rational discourse about “God, religion, revelation, Christianity, the Bible.”  Unless these categories can pass the acid tests of inductive reasoning they cannot be regarded as true.  In similar vein Warfield’s illustrious predecessor Charles Hodge declared, “The Bible is to the theologian what nature is to the man of science.”[5] Warfield stated further that, “Like all other sciences…theology, for its very existence as a science, presupposes the objective reality of the subject-matter with which it deals…”[6]

He then lists those presuppositions, seemingly unaware of the fact that in granting a priori the evidentiary neutrality and “thereness” of the “facts” he was handing the infidels all they could wish for in their determination to rid Evangelical Theology of this scientific status and thus to eject it from the Academy.  This is seen again in the following statement printed in 1911: “The question of the antiquity of man is accordingly a purely scientific one, in which the theologian as such has no concern.  As an interested spectator, however, he looks on as the various schools of scientific speculation debate the question among themselves…”[7]

What do we read here if not a Christian segregating his faith from the pursuits of secular science?  Where is the Christian worldview?  What is this naiveté that treats the findings of secularist scientists so unpretentious?

The answer, as many have pointed out, is the old Princetonian commitment to the philosophy of Common Sense which was brought over from Scotland by John Witherspoon and accepted by his students as the basic foundation for knowledge and certainty.  One of these students was William Graham the teacher of Archibald Alexander the teacher of Charles Hodge.  By the first half of the 19th century this Scottish Common Sense philosophy (SCS) had permeated the thinking of most American intellectuals, Protestant evangelicals foremost.[8] Grounded upon the inductive method of Sir Francis Bacon, its teachings were fairly straightforward.  SCS held to a naïve kind of epistemological realism in which the connection between the knower and the object of knowledge in the world was the way Everyman experiences it.  Thus, all that was to be achieved was an independent and unprejudiced examination of “the facts.”[9] Or as Thomas Reid said in reply to Hume’s skepticism, “reality is how we perceive it.”  As George Marsden and others have demonstrated, this common sense appeal to what “all men know” was where Warfield would have us ground our theology.[10]

But if everybody shares this “common sense” then whether they be saved or lost, the honest conclusions of scholars must be accepted wherever they are published.  Thus, Warfield’s willingness to hand over the science of human paleontology to “experts” and accept their empirical findings as an interested onlooker.

Compare Warfield’s words with this paragraph by the greatest English Puritan theologian, John Owen:

What concern can there be, then, between the wisdom of God and any conceivable human scholarly discipline?  The former has been revealed to us by the Holy Spirit, the latter synthesized by a multitude of earthly methods.  Therefore, if you will consider the origin, the subject-matter, the purpose, the methods of learning and teaching, in short, the whole concept and purpose of theology, it will be at once evident that it simply cannot be numbered in any manner among the sciences, be they practical or speculative; nor can it suffer itself to be bound by their methodology and rules.  Indeed, the very terms “method” or “technique,” etc., which are quite proper to the sciences, can have no validity here, where we are to deal with God’s will as revealed in the Scriptures.[11]

Owen’s concern was that theology would be illegitimately treated as a class subject like English Grammar or Mathematics, and not like the revelation of the Creator which it is.[12] It would be wisdom in us today if we were to keep the ontological status of special revelation before us at all times.  For men like Owen, theology, which involves the logical arrangement of revelation, cannot be seen for what it actually is unless it is viewed with the eyes of faith.[13]

This delivering up of whole chunks of knowledge by the Princetonians to secularism is what has contributed to the demise of a Christian voice in the University.[14] In speaking of Charles Hodge (but applying it equally to Warfield), George Marsden concluded,

Hodge and his evidentialist counterparts claimed to start with a neutral objective epistemology that could be shared by all persons of common sense.  Such a view worked well enough so long as there was a general consensus in the culture on certain metaphysical issues.  Through the first half of the nineteenth century substantial elements of metaphysical assumptions of the Christian worldview survived.  People generally assumed, for instance, that God, other spiritual beings, and normative moral principles were realities that were proper objects of human inquiry and knowledge.  When this consensus disappeared, the proponents of a neutral and objective epistemology [like Hodge and Warfield] had little grounds for rebuttal.  The question became, ‘Were such areas [i.e. God and the supernatural] proper areas for scientific inquiry and knowledge?’[15]

The Princeton men, for all their greatness, had tried to erect the truth of God upon a neutral common sense inductive foundation instead of a revelational one.[16] When the world moved on and embraced evolution theory, psychoanalysis, sociology, the new physics, logical positivism, and language philosophy there was no more patience with evangelical systematic theology, which was relegated to another sphere by a secularism that had all the arms at its disposal to rid itself of common sense naiveté.  Ironically Warfield’s faulty epistemological foundation for theology and apologetics, which is still shared by a majority of evangelicals[17], has made it easy for the modern world to shove theology into the sphere of “value” as opposed to “fact.”

[1] In choosing to single out Warfield I wish it to be known that nothing I say in this essay calls into question his immense contributions in exegetical and historical theology.  When he was doing theology he was far better than his first principles (the same is true of Hodge).  But because Warfield made statements which so plainly show the dangers of adopting a non-biblical epistemology I have made him the focus of my criticism.

[2] See Abraham Kuyper, Lectures on Calvinism, (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1931, 1994).

[3] Benjamin B. Warfield, “Apologetics,” in Studies In Theology, Works IX, (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1932, 2003), 12.

[4] George Marsden, “The Collapse of American Evangelical Academia,” in Alvin Plantinga and Nicholas Wolterstorff, eds., Faith and Rationality, (Notre Dame, Ind: Univ. of Notre Dame Press, 1991), 252.

[5] Charles Hodge, Systematic Theology, (n.p., Hendricksen, 2003 reprint), 1:10.

[6] Warfield, “The Idea of Systematic Theology,” in Studies in Theology, 55.

[7] Warfield, “On The Antiquity and The Unity of The Human Race,” – Ibid, 245.

[8] George M. Marsden. Fundamentalism and American Culture: The Shaping of Twentieth-Century Evangelicalism 1870-1925. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1980), 14-15.

[9] Reformed Theology in America: A History of Its Modern Development, David F. Wells, editor, (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1997), 82-83.

[10] See especially Marsden, “The Collapse of American Evangelical Academia,” 253.

[11] John Owen, Biblical Theology, (Pittsburgh, PA: Soli Deo Gloria Publications, 1994, [1661]), 9.

[12] One can see the same concern in D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones’ address given at the opening of London Theological Seminary, entitled, “A Protestant Evangelical College,” reprinted in, idem., Knowing The Times, (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth Trust, 1989).

[13] This concern comes out many times in Owen’s writings.  Another good example is the sixth chapter of  his, The Reason of Faith, in Owen’s Works VI, 82-100.

[14] So argues Marsden in his essay.

[15] Marsden, “The Collapse of American Evangelical Academia,” 246.

[16] Charles Hodge stated, “As science, concerned with the facts of nature, has its several departments, as Mathematics, Chemistry, Astronomy, etc., so Theology having the facts of Scripture for its subject, has its distinct and natural departments.” – Systematic Theology, 1.31-32.

[17] Sad to relate, many evangelicals, Reformed or otherwise, will still not accept the doctrine of the self-attestation of Scripture.


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