Interview with Fred Zaspel
Interview by Matthew Claridge–
A week or so ago, we brought to your attention Fred Zaspel’s upcoming book, Warfield on the Christian Life: Living in Light of the Gospel. To scintillate your mental taste buds some more, Dr. Zaspel was gracious enough to answer a few questions about it. Fred Zaspel previously authored The Theology of B. B. Warfield: A Systematic Summary (Crossway, 2010) and is a regular contributor to Credo Magazine and blog.
Why should 21st century people listen to Warfield’s perspective on “living the Christian life”?
Hebrews 13:7-8 exhorts us to follow the faith and manner of life of our faithful teachers who have gone before us so that the faithfulness of Christ shown to them may be experienced by us also. In the experience of the saints who have gone before us, up to this present day, we can learn, in varying degrees, of course, how we may realize the blessedness and joy of living in and for Christ. This is a large part of the value of the study of Christian history generally. And from all accounts of Warfield – his own writings and correspondence and reports of him from those who knew him – he was a man who modeled well what it is to live as a Christian. The gospel of Christ had gripped him deeply, and he lived and thought and worshiped accordingly. He was a Christian with extraordinary grasp of the gospel, and he really was very much a gospel-oriented Christian. And surely that is of great value to Christians of this and every day.
You note in the book that Warfield’s well known defense of inspiration and inerrancy was underwritten by Warfield’s Christology. What was the vital connection between these two doctrines in both Warfield’s theology and piety?
My point was actually more that Warfield’s own center was not the doctrine of inspiration but the person and work of Christ. This is surprising to many, because he is (rightly) known to us as the theologian who expounded the doctrine of the inspiration of Scripture more and better than any before or since. But the fact is, he was first of all a Christ-centered Christian, and this – the person and work of Christ – was the focus of his life and work.
But the connection you suggest is evident also. Warfield had a wonderful grasp of Christianity as a redemptive religion, and he was able to see a redemptive focus throughout the whole of Christian doctrine. Revelation itself, he emphasized, was a redemptive act: its goal is the restoration of fallen creatures. And Scripture in particular, he often emphasized, is given not just to make us wise, but “to make us wise unto salvation which is in Christ Jesus.” That is, he understood Scripture as having a Christocentric focus and gospel purpose.
And there is more. Denials of Biblical inspiration carry Christological implications. Jesus plainly insisted on the inspiration (and therefore the infallibility) of Scripture. Our denials, then, put us at odds with him. And so Warfield would often warn that it is impossible to have the Jesus of the Bible while rejecting the Bible of Jesus. For him, Lordship had determined this doctrine for us, and to call ourselves Christian we must adhere to all that Christ taught.
Clearly stated truth and doctrine was obviously important for Warfield. In a day when many contemporary theologians are less than enthusiastic about the usefulness or appropriateness of “propositional” truth for the Christian life, has Warfield’s emphasis become passé?
Warfield’s emphasis was considered passé to many in his own day, as it is in ours. But he would argue today as he did then, that revealed truth is the very stuff of the Christian life – that man does not live by bread alone. If we have no doctrine, we have no Christianity. If we have shoddy doctrine, we will have shoddy and shallow Christianity.
Warfield emphasized often that Christianity is a revealed religion and therefore is creedal – it is much more than creedal, but it is at least that. And it is the duty of the theologian and every teacher of Scripture to understand the propositions and the truths – the meaning of the declarations and historical “facts” of God’s interventions for his people – and to expound these truths not only each individually considered but as they are in their intended relation to each other and to the whole of God’s self-revelation. And this precisely so that we may become wise unto salvation, and that we may worship God aright, and that we might trust him and love him more fully, and that we might know the joy of his love and of being his children.
Could you explain what Warfield meant when he said, “without any inspiration we could have had Christianity”? (pg. 49) Is he responding to a misinterpretation of his doctrine of inspiration?
No, his point is a theoretical one – one, by the way, that he and A.A. Hodge made in their famous 1881 article on inspiration. Theoretically speaking, no written revelation from God would be required for God to accomplish the salvation of sinners as he has. He could conceivably designed that the saving message of Christ be communicated orally from one generation to the next, without inspiration. But he is quick to say, in effect, that this is a theoretical debate for the apologists only. The reality is – and he makes this observation himself – we know what happens to a society or people group that has no contact with the Scriptures: it remains lost in utter darkness. And apart from the inspiration of Scripture we would have no touchstone of truth, no way to judge what gospel is true and no way to be certain what God requires of us. Again, Warfield’s point here is a theoretical one that he relegates quickly to discussions that are virtually irrelevant.
The doctrine of sanctification was a subject Warfield spilled a lot of ink over. Why is that?
The Kewicks held their annual conferences in Princeton for a few years, late in Warfield’s life, and his concern for how much they got wrong in their perfectionist and/or deeper life type of teaching drove him to publish over a thousand pages in which he analyzes and critiques it in all its various expressions. He believed that “higher life” types had truncated the Biblical teaching regarding the Christian experience, confusing many issues and twisting many more.
Outside of this Warfield did not write in detail of the doctrine of sanctification, per se, but he addressed matters of holiness and devout Christian experience often. For him, holiness is just salvation from sin and, therefore, essential to the gospel and gospel experience.
How significant was Warfield’s defense of “initial sanctification” for his overall critique of higher life or Keswick theology?
Warfield did not use the precise language of “initial” or “definitive” sanctification, but he wrote of the concept often. And for him this was the death knell of higher life teachings which taught that a person may be justified yet remain under the dominion of sin – until a later sanctification or a later “letting go” or “surrendering to God,” and so on. Warfield found this intolerable, and he devoted many pages to this point. Freedom from the grip of sin, he insisted, is the promised experience of every person in Christ.
For people in the pew, it’s often difficult to distinguish the idea of “let go and let God” from “being led by the Spirit” for our sanctification. Its seems like a subtle distinction. How does Warfield clarify this for people?
Warfield makes much of this. According to the higher life teachers we cannot attain victory over sin – only God can, through us. And so we must “let go and let him” do it. Surrender to God is the key – or resting in God to do this for us, or trusting him to do this for us, and so on. But Warfield argues that all this is not as God-oriented as it may seem, for despite claims to the contrary, the whole matter of sanctification, according to this teaching, rests finally on our own “letting” or “surrendering” or “trusting” or whatever. Only God can do this, but he can only do it as long as we are letting him. Moreover, at the end of the day this has not brought the Christian to victory over sin but only to victory over sinning. There is no real transformation of the person himself. And all this is made the worse with the accompanying teaching of the Christian’s supposed “two natures” – there is no sanctification of the person himself, only success of one nature over another. And this, in turn, makes us wonder who the Christian is – the old or the new nature? And for that matter, who sins? It must be the old nature! But then who repents of that sin? Surely only the new nature would, but then why should it repent – it did not sin!
Warfield finds all this very confusing, and some of his sharpest sarcasm comes out in these contexts.
By contrast, the “leading” of the Spirit (Rom. 8:14) is the work of the Spirit of God in every believer in which he (the Holy Spirit) weans us away from sin as he cultivates holiness of heart and life. This is the progressive experience of every Christian. He does not do this apart from our cooperation – he “leads” us, Warfield reminds us; he does not “carry” us. He leads us down a path that we must walk, but walk it we will, because he leads us.
In the end, there must be faith and surrender. But there is acknowledged and intentional effort on our part also. And the focus is significantly different. It is because God is already at work in us that we give ourselves to efforts in godliness (Phil. 2:12-13). Because he is at work in us to this end, as he promised, we give ourselves diligently to it also.
In the popular imagination, predestination continues to conjure up images of impersonal fate and puppet strings. I thought Warfield’s approach was refreshing. Could you tease out how Warfield integrated the doctrine of predestination with “living in light of the gospel”?
As you say, fate is impersonal. Predestination and providence are grounded in and guided by love. In love God determined to save us, and in love he guides all things to the achieving of his purpose for us. Providence, the outworking of divine predestination, is the loving work of God our Father, carrying out his eternal good purpose for us. Belonging to him we may trust always in his good care, a care driven always by his love for us. Warfield tells a wonderful story to illustrate this point, but our readers will have to read the book to find it!
If Warfield were alive today, what do you think he would have to say about the “lordship salvation” vs. “free grace” controversy?
Warfield believed deeply that the salvation that God has promised has to do with both our standing and our experience. And so I think he would say, simply, that those who say a person can be saved without a fundamental change of heart and life misunderstand what salvation is.