B.B. Warfield: Defender of the Faith

B.B. Warfield: Defender of the Faith

Twenty-five years ago I gave an address at a college in western Pennsylvania. After the service was completed, an elderly gentleman and his wife approached me and introduced themselves as Mr. and Mrs. Johannes Vos. I was surprised to learn that Dr. Vos was the son of the celebrated biblical theologian Geerhardus Vos who had written a classical work on redemptive history titled Biblical Theology, which is still widely read in seminaries. During the course of my conversation with them, Dr. Vos related to me an experience he had as a young boy living in Princeton, New Jersey, where his father was teaching on the faculty of Princeton Theological Seminary. This was in the decade of the 1920s, a time in which Princeton Theological Seminary was still in its heyday; it was the time we now refer to as “old Princeton.” Dr. Vos told me of an experience he had in the cold winter of 1921. He saw a man walking down the sidewalk, bundled in a heavy overcoat, wearing a fedora on his head, and around his neck was a heavy scarf. Suddenly, to this young boy’s horror and amazement, as the man walked past his home, he stopped, grasped his chest, slumped, and fell to the sidewalk. Young Johannes Vos stared at this man for a moment, then ran to call to his mother. He watched as the ambulance came and carried the man away. The man who had fallen had suffered a major heart attack, which indeed proved to be fatal. His name was Benjamin Breckinridge Warfield.

I was thunderstruck by this narrative that was told to me by the now elderly Johannes Vos. I felt like I was somehow linked to history by being able to hear a firsthand account through somebody telling me of the last moments of the legendary B.B. Warfield’s life. At the time of his death, Warfield had been on the faculty of Princeton and had distinguished himself as its most brilliant theologian during his tenure.

My first exposure to the writings of B.B. Warfield was somewhat serendipitous. As a young college student, I had the daily dilemma of trying to parlay my meager funds into enough money to sustain myself. I was trying to live on a five-dollar-a-week allowance, out of which had to come the payment of my meals and the nightly ritual of a long distance telephone call to my fiancée. Obviously, even in the 1950s, five dollars did not stretch far enough to provide all of these needs. Therefore, I had to find ways to become semi-entrepreneurial and scrounge up a few extra dollars, so that I could eat and enjoy the conversation with my bride to be. I took up barbering without a license, giving my fellow students haircuts for a dollar to help defray my expenses. But my great break came when one of my professors told me of a new publishing company that was doing business out of a man’s garage in Nutley, New Jersey. It was called the Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Company. The publishing house was looking for student representatives on various campuses to help distribute its products, and my professor asked if I would be interested in such an enterprise. I leapt at the chance, not motivated by any desire to propagate Reformed theology, but merely out of a pure economic motive. Within a few days there arrived at my dormitory a large cardboard box that was so heavy I could hardly lift it. It included all of the then published works of the Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Company. There was a note inside indicating to me that these books were samples that I would have at my disposal, that I might familiarize myself with the works that were published by the company. Included were several of the works of Cornelius Van Til, a couple of volumes that had been published into English by G.C. Berkouwer, along with the complete works of B.B. Warfield.

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