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Warfield and His Alleged Philosophical Commitments (Fred Zaspel)

For decades now it has been increasingly common to read 1) that Warfield was committed to the philosophical outlook known as Scottish Common Sense Realism and that, 2) it was this philosophical per-commitment that shaped his theological conclusions, at least in part. In particular his high doctrine of inspiration (inerrancy) is said to be due to this philosophical outlook.

This understanding of Warfield quickly gained near canonical status, and any who have doubted it were made to feel that all the evidence was against them. Early in my own Warfield studies I encountered this in books and dissertations so much that, even though after reading Warfield myself I couldn’t see it, I about decided that it was my own ignorance of things philosophical that made me miss it. But the theory has such obvious problems that I finally became convinced that my initial impressions, after reading Warfield, were in fact right. It was not within the scope of my topic to treat at length, but in footnote 2 on page 64 of my The Theology of B.B. Warfield I call attention to the question and offer a brief corrective. I do hope Warfield will consider this sufficient amends and forgive me for doubting him. 🙂

Curiously, in 1912 Francis L. Patton, past president of the College of New Jersey (now Princeton University) and then president of Princeton Seminary, made some remarks that speak directly to this issue. These remarks, it seems, have been completely overlooked in the discussion — at least I have never seen them cited or referred to in any way. In one of the proceedings of the Seminary’s festive Centennial Celebration, Patton remarked briefly, in almost a “by the way” manner, that although the Scottish Common Sense philosophy was taught at the college, it was never a significant factor in the theological endeavors of the seminary. Curiously, this remark is preserved for us in a book edited by Warfield, along with William Park Armstrong and Harold Robinson, The Centennial Celebration of the Theological Seminary of the Presbyterian Church in the United States. What is interesting, and significant, about this remark is that the Scottish Common Sense Philosophy was no issue at the time. Patton could never have been aware of the criticism that would come in this connection, beginning more than five decades later, and so he had no particular axe to grind. But merely as an observation of fact, he asserts that the Scottish philosophy taught at the college “was not a large factor in our theology” at the seminary (p.348).

There is much more to the discussion, of course. But this curious yet (as far as I can tell) universally overlooked factor deserves notice.

I wrote this blog a couple years ago and then forgot all about it. Just coming across it again today I thought I should at last allow it the light of day. My intention then was to make the point in connection with two books, then new, that speak to the broader issue and are important to any who are interested in this discussion. First is Paul Hesleth’s Right Reason and the Princeton Mind: An Unorthodox Proposal. And the second is David Smith’s B.B. Warfield’s Scientifically Constructive Theological Scholarship. Smith’s book is the published version of his PhD dissertation done under the supervision of John Woodbridge at TEDS. Helseth’s is the culmination of years of thinking and publishing on the subject. Both seek to explain Warfield’s thinking on its own terms, and in doing so both disabuse us of the notion of a “rationalistic” Warfield. Both are important contributions, and I regret that I am so late in mentioning them here. But the books are of course still available and, I trust, making a difference.

Here is my endorsement for Smith’s work:

 For too long scholars have advanced the mistaken notion that Warfield’s theology and/or theological method resulted from his previous commitments to Scottish Common Sense Realism. Thanks to David Smith’s work, we may now pronounce that thesis dead. David provides the most thorough analysis of Warfield’s theological methodology available, and I doubt his dismantling of the supposed SCSR connection will ever be answered. He has read Warfield well, and he has set the record straight. Many thanks!

And here is my endorsement for Helseth’s work:

 This book is overdue. The apologetic task as understood by the Old Princetonians is too often mischaracterized and too seldom investigated with thoroughness and care. Helseth has read the primary sources more thoroughly and more carefully and has provided a needed corrective. His Right Reason deserves a wide hearing and will serve well toward a more accurate understanding of the Princetonians’ robust doctrine of man and sin and corresponding apologetic outlook. Heartily recommended.

These are important books, and I hope with them that scholarly treatments of Warfield will take him more seriously, read him more carefully, explain him in less “rationalistic” and philosophical terms, and recognize that the supposed reliance of Warfield’s theology on Scottish Common Sense Realism is more imagined than real and certainly of no shaping significance.

[Editor’s note: see our interview with Dr. Helseth on his book in our August 2012 issue of Credo Magazine]

Fred Zaspel (Ph.D., Free University of Amsterdam) is pastor at the Reformed Baptist Church of Franconia, PA. He is also Professor of Systematic Theology at Calvary Baptist Seminary in Lansdale, PA. He is the author of The Theology of B.B. Warfield: A Systematic Summary  and Warfield on the Christian Life: Living in Light of the Gospel.


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