B. B. Warfield, 1851–1921

B. B. Warfield, 1851–1921

When Dr. Warfield left teaching at Western seminary it was to return to Princeton Theological Seminary as a professor beginning in the fall semester of 1887. He succeeded Archibald Alexander Hodge as the Charles Hodge Professor of Didactic and Polemic Theology. His inaugural address titled, “The Idea of Systematic Theology Considered as a Science,” was delivered the following May. As he taught theology, he did so using Hodge’s Systematic Theology continuing the tradition at Princeton. Annie lived a homebound life limiting her primarily to the Princeton campus where Benjamin was never too far from home. The Warfields lived in the same campus house occupied by the Charles and Archibald Alexander Hodge families during their years at the seminary. 

As a boy, the interests of B. B. Warfield were aimed at a different vocational target than theology and ministry. Following his birth on November 5, 1851 to William and Mary Cabell Breckinridge Warfield, Benjamin grew up on the family farm named “Grasmere” near Lexington, Kentucky, where his father was a cattle breeder. In 1889, William would publish The Theory and Practice of Cattle Breeding after having experimented in and written about the subject for years in periodicals. William Warfield was a leader in the cattle industry and he had a particular interest in the shorthorn variety. Thus, like many sons who are influenced by their fathers, Benjamin learned from his father’s work as he developed his own interests. Young Benjamin was educated privately by Lewis G. Barbour and James K. Patterson. Barbour wrote some articles for the Southern Presbyterian Review on science and his tutoring Benjamin would have also encouraged the boy in a scientific direction. Ethelbert D. Warfield, Benjamin’s brother, has commented that,

His early tastes were strongly scientific. He collected birds’ eggs, butterflies and moths, and geological specimens; studied the fauna and flora of his neighborhood; read Darwin’s newly published books with enthusiasm; and counted Audubon’s works on American birds and mammals his chief treasure. He was so certain that he was to follow a scientific career that he strenuously objected to studying Greek (vi).

Following the years of private tutorial instruction, Benjamin entered the sophomore class of the Princeton University where he graduated in 1871 with highest honors at only nineteen years of age. He then traveled in Europe beginning in February 1872. After spending some time in Edinburgh and then Heidelberg, he wrote home in mid-summer announcing his intent to enter the ministry. This change in interests and vocational direction came as a surprise to his family. He returned to Kentucky sometime in 1873 and was for a short time the livestock editor of the Farmer’s Home Journal.

Benjamin began preparing for the ministry when he entered Princeton Theological Seminary in the fall of 1873. He was licensed to preach the gospel by Ebenezer Presbytery on May 8, 1875. Following licensure, he briefly tested his ministerial abilities that summer by supplying the Concord Presbyterian Church in Kentucky. Following the completion of his divinity degree in 1876, he supplied the pulpit of the First Presbyterian Church of Dayton, Ohio. At the time of his pulpit supply he married Annie Pearce Kinkead, also from Kentucky, on August 3, 1876. Soon after the wedding, the couple set sail on an extended honeymoon trip to Europe which included studies at Leipzig for the newly-wed husband. While enjoying a walk through the Harz Mountains in northern Germany a severe thunderstorm arose frightening Annie greatly and she never recovered from the trauma. Warfield cared for her for the rest of her life. In 1877, according to Ethelbert Warfield, Benjamin was offered the opportunity to teach Old Testament at Western Seminary, but he turned the offer down because he had turned his study emphasis to the New Testament despite his early aversion to Greek (vii). In November 1877, he began his supply ministry at the First Presbyterian Church of Baltimore, where he continued until the following March.In September of 1878, Benjamin began his career as a theological educator when he became an instructor in New Testament Literature and Exegesis at Western Theological Seminary in Pittsburgh. Western Seminary had been formed by the merger of existing seminaries that included Danville Seminary, which R. J. Breckinridge, Benjamin’s grandfather, had been involved with in its earlier years. The following year he was made professor of the same subject and he continued in that position until 1887. In his inaugural address for Professor of New Testament Exegesis and Literature, April 20, 1880, he set the theme for many of his writing efforts in the succeeding years by defending historic Christianity. The purpose of his lecture was to answer the question, “Is the Church Doctrine of the Plenary Inspiration of the New Testament Endangered by the Assured Results of Modern Biblical Criticism.” Professor Warfield affirmed the inspiration, authority, and reliability of God’s Word in opposition to the critics of his era. He quickly established his academic reputation for thoroughness and defense of the Bible. Many heard of his academic acumen and he was rewarded by eastern academia when his alma mater, Princeton University, honored him with the Doctor of Divinity in 1880.

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