Old Dead Guys Notes #12: Benjamin Breckenridge Warfield and Karl Barth
Notes #12– Benjamin Breckenridge Warfield and Karl Barth
John Wiers, PhD 2020
- These 2 theologians are crucial to distinguishing 2 distinct theologies of the Bible as the Word of God
B. Both of these theologians were responding to the results of the Enlightenment and Liberal approaches to the Bible, such as taught by theologians such as Schleiermacher.
C. Each theologian has had a following in today’s theology. Warfield’s is essentially the theology of most evangelicals on the doctrine of Scripture. Barth started a movement that was known as Neo-Orthodoxy which was rather popular in the 1930s through the 1960s, but has lost some its its popularity today. However, ironically Princeton Theological Seminary, where ironically Warfield taught for the majority of his career, is one key place where Barth’s theology is still encouraged.
- The background.
- The Enlightenment had been an attack on historic, orthodox Christianity of all forms, in the name of “rational” religion.
- Schleiermacher had restructured religion so that the Bible had become merely a record of religious experience rather than a revelation from God.
- This coincided with the rise of an aggressive form of biblical criticism that stemmed from an attitude that the Bible should be treated as “any other book.”
- This became known as Higher Criticism and resulted in an attitude towards the Bible as full of errors, both historical and theological, and it was seen as evolutionary in structure with the earlier portions teaching an extremely primitive form of religion.
- Some of that radical approach towards the Bible led to many speculative theories that argued that even the life of Jesus was primarily mythical.
- This was reflected in the various forms of Liberal theology that followed Schleiermacher. There were a number of varieties, but nearly all accepted at least the majority of the approaches of the Higher Critics.
- The key liberal theologians of the 19th century who followed Schleiermacher were W. Hermann, A. Ritschl, and A. Harnack. Both Warfield and Barth studied with some of these theologians.
- Both of these theologians rejected the approaches towards the Bible of Liberalism, but Warfield was never a follower of Liberal theology while Barth was a Liberal in his early days as a pastor and came to reject it as an optimistic, unworkable theology.
III. B. B. Warfield
- We don’t have much autobiographical material because other than his letters, he wrote very little about himself.
- Once he settled in Princeton, he rarely left because his wife became an invalid. He lived next door to the seminary and spent most of his time at home with his wife when not teaching.
- He wrote over 40 books, most of them of modest length, on a number of key theological topics, but a huge number of articles, book reviews, and booklets. ‘He never wrote a major theology text.
- Shortly after his death, Oxford University Press collected the key writings, into a 10 volume Collected Works edition, but after it went out of print, Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing did a shorter 5 volume edition of much of the same material, along with 2 volumes of shorter writings. The P and R versions are still in print.
- The Oxford edition was reprinted a few years ago and a few of the individual volumes of that edition have also been reprinted, notably by the Banner of Truth Trust.
- Above all, Warfield is THE theologian on the subject of inspiration of the Bible and the volume on that topic is still used in many evangelical seminaries today.
IV. Warfield’s life
- B. B. Warfield was a native of Kentucky and the descendant of a number of notables, including several prominent theologians and a professor at Princeton Seminary, the premier seminary in 19th century America– PTS trained over half of the educated ministers in 19th century US.
- His family tree also included military officers and political figures. His father was a successful cattle breeder and the family was financially comfortable.
- The family was a devout Presbyterian family and young Bennie, as he was called, memorized the Shorter and Larger versions of the Westminster Catechisms and large portions of the Bible.
D. Warfield was a brilliant child, but expressed more interest in science than theology. He had read Darwin as a youth and was very familiar with current scientific thinking.
- Warfield entered Princeton College and was a very fine student, getting high marks in math and science, but also in literature, having some of his poems and literary essays published . He won awards for debate. He was not without his minor troubles– he got into a fist fight with another student white in college and was reprimanded for it.
- After studying briefly overseas at Edinburgh and Heidelberg and a brief job as an editor in Lexington, he made a shift to study theology and entered Princeton Seminary in 1873.
- Princeton was the premier seminary in the US during the 19th century, but unlike some of the other seminaries, under the leadership of Charles Hodge and others, had resisted the liberal trends emanating from Germany.
- Warfield excelled at PTS, studying under Charles Hodge and Hodge’s son, C.W. Hodge, the New Testament professor, and showed a particular interest in biblical studies.
- After graduation, Warfield spent a short stint as a supply preacher and then went Germany for graduate studies in the Bible and theology, studying with some of the leading liberals, but also more conservative German scholars.
- After returning from 2 years of graduate study, he married Anne Kinkead, who was described as brilliant, witty and beautiful. They never had any children, although he was said to be fond of them, and for reasons not clear she became an invalid around 1893.
- When he returned he quickly was offered a position as a professor of New Testament at Western Theological Seminary, a Presbyterian Seminary in Pittsburgh, where he taught until 1887, making a mark during his short career there as a promising young NT scholar.
- He was offered the position as professor of Systematic Theology at Princeton Seminary, after turning down a similar position at what became McCormick Seminary in Chicago, succeeding A. A. Hodge, another of C. Hodge’s sons.
- He continued PTS’s strong critique of theological liberalism and its naturalistic worldview and reinterpretation of traditional theology.
- He remained at Princeton until his death, rarely leaving the town and churning out a torrent of publications, mostly of moderate length. He collapsed with a heart attack while on a walk with fellow prof, G. Vos and lingered a few weeks before another heart attack took his life.
- Although his student and colleague J. Gresham Machen once mentioned that they were all aware of BBW’s faults, Machen never said what they were and all reports of his character were that of a gracious Christian gentleman, tall and a bit portly in bearing, charming and caring towards his students.
V. Warfield’s contribution to theology
- He wrote in several areas, including a still used overview of the doctrine of salvation, a couple of books on Christology a book on Counterfeit Miracles, and numerous essays on Christology, the Trinity, Perfectionistic doctrines of sanctification, and these were all exceedingly capable writings from a traditional Reformed theological perspective
- He also edited the prestigious theological journal that originated from PTS and was said to have read nearly everything that was significant in theology in English, French, German and Dutch all of which he was fluent in.
- What is most known for is his work on the doctrine of scripture, focusing on its inspiration and inerrancy.
- BBW was never afraid of either any theological opponent or of any scholarship and was completely confident that the Bible and the orthodox doctrine derived from it could be defended and ultimately vindicated.
- He insisted that any criticism of the Bible be honest and not driven by a rationalistic worldview and he criticized those assumptions whenever he saw them.
- He was especially critical of the reigning liberal theologian of his day, A. Ritschl– and his student A Harnack–l and their attempts to have a ‘non-doctrinal” theology. BBW said this was impossible. He has been described as the “theological spoiler” in the golden age of theological liberalism
- Warfield argued that debates about the nature of scripture were necessarily tied to the question of the nature of Christ and his authority.
- While he argued that the incarnation was God’s supreme act of revelation, even this could not be understood apart from verbal revelation.
- He argued that it is supremely in the spoken and written word that God makes himself known. In that sense he was clearly a conservative theologian, carrying on the traditional doctrine of the supremacy of the Bible as God’s revelation.
- BBW goes at this from several areas, starting with vigorous historical work to demonstrate that this was indeed the historic position of the church. While some have tried to argue– C. Briggs in the late 19th century and Roger and McKim in the late 20th century — that BBW was incorrect, most serious scholarship has vindicated BBW.
- He tied the issue of authority to Biblical revelation, arguing that it was impossible to claim to accept the authority of Christ while denying the authority of the Bible.
- He argued that the OT notion of prophecy, as one speaking for God, as outlined in Ex. 40 shows that revelation is intrinsically verbal.
- He argued that the NT was the explanatory word about Christ.
- He outlined several approaches to the idea of inspiration and critiqued those that were deficient
- Divine influence similar to that on every person in the world– BBW. said that would leave us with no real word from God
- Partial inspiration– this would leave us guessing what parts are inspired and up to our own rational guesses.
- Graded inspiration– some parts are more inspired– same problem as partial
- Plenary or full inspiration– the only truly acceptable orthodox Christian viewpoint.
- Within plenary there could be direct dictation or concursus– God superintending the writings without direct dictation. With only the exception of a few parts of the Bible, BBW opts for the 2nd. It fit very well with his Reformed theology.
- His definition of inspiration was: “a supernatural influence exerted on the sacred writers by the Spirit of God, by virtue of which their writings are given divine trustworthiness.’ He gave this same definition in numerous places in the more than 1500 pages he wrote on the doctrine of scripture.
- Notice that for BBW and all forms of orthodox doctrines of inspiration, it is the text, not the writers that are inspired.
- In other words the Bible is both a thoroughly human and a thoroughly divine book and it was thus both authoritative and without error in its original manuscripts– the autographs.
- He especially develops that argument that the Bible teaches its own inspiration through
phrases as the “oracles of God,’ “it is written,” “Scripture says,” as well as passages that attribute divine qualities to the Bible.
- He does thorough expositions of the key passage of 2 Timothy 3: 16-17 and 2 Peter 1: 21, showing that these are not isolated texts, but capstones of the Bible’s own teachings about itself.
- He develops a thorough exposition of the key Greek word, theopneustos, usually translated as inspired in 2 Tim. 3:16, arguing that this rare word has the meaning of “breathed out’ by God.
- He thoroughly expounds Jesus’ own view of Scripture, showing it to the same as that of historic Christianity and arguing that one can’t claim to bow to authority of Christ and reject the Bible.
- He argues that while inspiration cannot be equated with revelation, it is a mode of revelation and without an inspired Bible we have no sure revelation from God and Christianity’s nature as a redemptive religion is lost and Christ and the apostles have misled us.
- BBW argued that God had providentially prepared the writers for the task of sovereignly being used to write the Bible. He also clarified that inerrancy did not mean that there were no grammatical mistakes in the Bible– there are– nor that there was not some “inexactness of speech” at times. What it did mean was that no demonstrable scientific, historical or theological errors were in the Biblical text and he answered the arguments of the critics point by point..
VI. Karl Barth’s life
- 1886– 1968
B.Karl Barth was the son of a conservative Swiss Reformed New Testament professor, but had a bit of checkered youth– he was the leader of a street gang for a time– one the leaders of a rival gang also became a theology prof.
C. Unlike BBW, when he went to study theology– at Berne, Berlin, Tubingen, and Marburg– he embraced theological liberalism, studying under W Hermann and A Harnack. He adored Herman, a devotee of Schleiermacher.
D. After a brief pastorate in Geneva, he pastored in Safenwil, in German speaking Switzerland, near the German border for 10 years.
E. He found preaching the liberal theology he had been trained with extremely dissatisfying, especially when WW1 broke out and all of his former professors signed an edict praising the German war aims. This disillusioned him tremendously.
F. He also was involved in radical Socialist politics, supporting labor unions, etc. and getting the nickname, the Red Pastor of Safenwil.
G. He devoted himself to the study of the Bible and historic theologians such as Augustine and the Reformers.
H. His 1919 commentary on Paul’s epistle to the Romans “dropped like a bombshell among the playground of the theologians.”
- Although only minimally connected to the text of Romans and heavily connected to the existential philosophy of Soren Kierkegaard– a connection he later disavowed– it stressed historic Christian themes such as human sin and the need for redemption from outside of ourselves.
J. For the rest of his life KB would battle against what he called the anthropological starting point of modern liberal theology and the need of divine grace and revelation from outside of ourselves.
K. He was invited to teach theology at the University of Gottingen, in Germany, where he made his first attempts at writing a major theology text which he later scrapped.
L. He also taught at Munster, Bonn and later back in Switzerland at Basel.
M. While at Bonn, he was the primary author of the Barmen Declaration, critiquing the Nazi, “German Christian” movement and was kicked out of Germany in 1935 for refusing to give the Hitler salute.
N. He has been recognized as the most influential theologian in the 20th century.
VII. Barth’s theology
- Although critiquing theological liberalism, Barth did not return to historic orthodoxy, although he was quite familiar with it.
- The movement he started has been labeled Neo-Orthodoxy.
- B’s own theology is set forth in the massive 14 volume Church Dogmatics, which he never finished. The covers of the German original were white and he called them his “Moby Dick.”
- B developed a radically Christ centered theology, that funneled everything through the person of Christ.
- This meant that for B, revelation was only revelation in Christ and not only, for example, was salvation in Christ, election was in Christ– Christ was the “elect one” for all of the human race.
- There was a clear universalism in his doctrine of all being elect in Christ and B recognized that, but inconsistently denied he was a universalist, although he said universalism could be true.
- His radical transcendence of God– in reaction to the immanence of ‘God in liberal theology– tended to lead him away from the idea that revelation could occur in normal history.
VIII. Barth’s doctrine of Scripture.
- B applied his radical Christ-centered view of revelation to the Bible. Truth from God was always mediated according to KB and it was always found in an encounter with the living Christ.
- Because he was opposed to the anthropological starting point of liberalism, he denied that there was any natural revelation– only Christ was revelation.
- We don’t make our way to God, God makes our way to us– there is no point of contact in us– God must break through to us.
- The Word of God exists in a 3-fold manner for KB: Revealed in Christ written and preached– but he strongly denied the equation of the Bible with the word of God. This would limit the transcendent freedom of God.
- Rather the Bible was the witness to the Word of God in Christ– not a completely objectionable term for orthodox Christians, but objectionable in the way B meant it.
- For B, God’s word is always an act, God sovereignly speaks through the Bible, using the fallible human words of the text to become his Word as it is read and/or preached.
- In other words, in contrast to BBW, the Bible is not inherently God’s word, but becomes so as God uses it to be his word.
- God, not man, decides when it becomes God’s word to us.
- Ultimately KB locates inspiration at the point of when the Bible is read or preached, not when it was written. He basically equated inspiration with the traditional doctrine of divine illumination. The human authors were related to inspiration, but neither they nor the text were inspired at the time of writing. They were commissioned witnesses to Christ.
- It is the work of the HS that makes it the Word of God to us.
- Scripture, thus, only has an indirect and relative authority, as God uses it.
- B spoke of the miracle of inspiration in that God could use fallible human authors, even with errors in their theology, to convey his Word.
- He argued that it was an even greater miracle than an inerrant Bible.
- His extreme reticence to call the Bible Revelation seems to have been linked with his idea that this would mean that revelation would be discernable to human reason, an idea he totally disavowed.
IX. What we can learn from these 2 key theologians
- Karl Barth’s theology is a great improvement over old-fashioned theological liberalism, but his doctrine of scripture is deficient because it fails to escape the subjectivism that he intends it to. We can applaud his critique of liberalism but his theology is still deficient.
- B’s. doctrine of revelation in Christ is correct in what he affirms and a much needed correction to the silence on this biblical truth– John 1 and Hebrews 1– but is one sided.
- B’s view that the Bible was fallible, shows that he hadn’t really thrown off the errors of the Enlightenment. While Reformed theologian Cornelius Van Til Is probably a bit too harsh when he called Barth’s theology, The New Modernism, it ultimately leads most people to throw up their hands at having a sure word from the Bible, in spite of B’s desire for the Bible to do that. Most churches that have tried to use B’s theology as a foundation have seen it tough going to convince people why the Bible should be the instrument for God speaking that KB said it should be. .
- His notion of the Bible as witness and locating inspiration at the point of hearing, doesn’t do justice to the Bible’s own teaching and BBW is sound here while B is not.
- Overall, BBW’s doctrine of Scripture is a model of theological precision for us, but his only weakness is the flip side of KB’s. If B makes all of revelation in Christ, W does lip service to it, but does not do much with that truth in his valiant effort to maintain the priority of Biblical Revelation. The Bible itself speaks more clearly that Jesus is God’s revelation to us, even as the Bible, as inspired revelation, explains the meaning of Christ as divine revelation.