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A Small Church, But Faithful

Our post today draws from the Rev. Dr. George Hutchinson’s valuable work, The History Behind the Reformed Presbyterian Church, Evangelical Synod (RPCES), pp. 65-70. The RPCES was formed by a merger of the Reformed Presbyterian Church, General Synod (RPCGS) and what was the larger portion of a split of the Bible Presbyterian Church, originally named the Bible Presbyterian Church, Columbus Synod. That latter group held that name from 1956-1961, then renamed itself the Evangelical Presbyterian Church [1961-1965]. The merger of the RPCGS and the EPC then created the RPCES. [Note: In 1983, a new denomination was formed as the Evangelical Presbyterian Church and this group continues to this day, but should not be confused with the former group of the same name.]

 

In the preceding chapter we have seen the rise of Reformed Presbyterianism in Scotland in the seventeenth century together with its exportation to America in the eighteenth. By the first years of the nineteenth century the Reformed Presbyterian Church was firmly planted in American soil. The reconstitution of the Reformed Presbytery in 1798 under the leadership of James McKinney was followed by an outburst of optimistic energy in the Church. “Important additions were soon after made to the ministry, and the Church entered on a career of vigorous labour, crowned by a large measure of progress.‟ As a result of this energy, the official judicial testimony of the American Reformed Presbyterian Church was published in 1807 under the title Reformation Principles Exhibited. Two years later—on May 24, 1809—”All the ministers of the Reformed Presbyterian Church in America, being convened, with ruling Elders delegated from different sessions, did unanimously agree to constitute a Synod.‟ The official name was to be the Synod of the Reformed Presbyterian Church in America.

The Reformed Presbyterian Church in America was well aware of her unique circumstances and opportunities. “God has, in his Providence, presented the human family in this country with a new experiment. The Church, unheeded by the civil powers, is suffered to rise or fall by her own exertions.‟ So wrote Alexander McLeod in Reformation Princi- ples Exhibited. However, what would be the outcome of these unique circumstances? How would the Church respond to these unique opportunities? The Reformed Presbyterian Church looked upon the dawn of the nineteenth century with extreme optimism. Indeed, D. M. Carson entitles this chapter in the history of the Church “The New Optimism.‟ This general attitude is well expressed in the words of James McKinney, uttered in 1797:

“The joint triumphs, of enlightened reason, and true religion, must soon become glorious.‟ Mankind would soon come to recognize the rights of God, and the millennium would be triumphantly ushered in. According to McLeod the Fall of the papal antichrist is fast approaching, and the time is near when the Lord will pour forth his Holy Spirit and the king- doms of this world will become the kingdoms of our Lord and of His Christ (Rev. 11:15). This optimistic spirit was accompanied by the substantial growth of the Church. In 1798 there were two ministers, a few scattered congregations, and some 1000 communicant members. By 1832 there were 36 ministers, 60 organized congregations, and some 5,000 members. The sources of this growth were Covenant children, Reformed Presbyterians from Ireland and Scotland, and converts from other denominations. These converts were looked upon as those who had become dissatisfied with the use of human compositions in singing God‟s praises, the relaxation of church discipline, the prevalence of Hopkinsian and other doctrinal errors, and “the carnal, worldly spirit of professors, in the churches which they left.‟ At the time of the appearance of the second edition of Reformation Principles Exhibited in 1824, it could be exclaimed: “Congregations are springing up in the desert, and the wilderness is becoming a fruitful field.‟ The organization of the Church kept pace with this growth. The number of presbyteries increased. A representative General Synod, to meet every two years, was established in 1823; and by 1832 the General Synod had constituted the Eastern and Western Subordinate Synods for yearly meetings. The Church was zealous for the education of her ministers, and in 1807 drew up a constitution for a theological seminary. This constitution is interesting, not only because it reveals the Church‟s conception of the nature of the ministry and of theological education, but also because it reveals her conception of what constitutes proper qualifications for the ministry. These are in order of importance: first, piety or practical godliness; second, good sense or talents commensurate with the calling; and third, a good theological education. As fund raisers for the seminary put it: “The Millennium is not to be introduced by ignorant enthusiasm. There must be an able ministry.‟ The Church was also conscious of her responsibility in the areas of discipline, evangelism, and doctrine. The Rev. David Graham was deposed from the ministry and excommunicated from the Church for misconduct in 1812. In 1822 Covenanters in New York City founded the American Evangelical Tract Society to disseminate tracts in support of the principles of the Reformation. The ministers of the Synod were on the whole prolific authors. For a small number of men they produced a good deal of published material, much of which concerns doctrinal subjects. They were particularly concerned to defend traditional Calvinism against its modern substitutes. For instance, William Gibson wrote Calvinism vs. Hopkinsianism (1803), and Gilbert McMaster published A Defence of Some Fundamental Doctrines of Christianity (1815)—including in that work the doctrines of the Trinity, the Person of Christ, and the Holy Spirit, the Depravity of Man, and the limited extent of the Atonement. McMaster inquires: What then? Shall men, in things of religion, be in a state of perpetual hostility? Shall the empire of the Prince of Peace never be united? Must each contend for his dogma? The Church of God is indeed lamentably distracted, and in that distraction all parties have a guilty hand. But can the malady be cured by an unprincipled abandonment of fundamental doctrines, merely to obtain a momentary repose from the pains of contest? Such repose would be that of death, to the interests of vital godliness.

It was in this spirit that Alexander McLeod wrote The Life and Power of True Godliness (1816). The position of the ministers of the Church on the matter of political dissent did not preclude their speaking out on political and social issues. McLeod puts it tersely in the first of his series of sermons in defense of the American cause in the War of 1812: “Ministers have the right of discussing from the pulpit those political questions which affect Christian morals.‟ The Church took a particularly strong stand on the slavery question, expressed in McLeod‟s Negro Slavery Unjustifiable (1804); and as early as 1802 we read in the Minutes of the Reformed Presbytery: “It was enacted that no slave- holder should be allowed the communion of the Church.‟

As might be expected, one of the chief topics for discussion was the matter of the application of Christian principles to existing governments. It was chiefly differences in this area that led to the lamentable Disruption of 1833.

Disruption and Recovery
In 1833 the Reformed Presbyterian Church of North America experienced a division which up to the present has been permanent. The majority adhering to the General Synod became known as the New Light General Synod [or officially, the Reformed Presbyterian Church, General Synod], the minority as simply the Old Light Synod. The Disruption of 1833 has its origins in the early years of the nineteenth century. To understand this momentous dispute in the Church it is necessary to mention some of the developments which led up to it. [We plan to address those issues in some future post.]

Hutchinson, George P., The History Behind the Reformed Presbyterian Church, Evangelical Synod. pp. 65-70.

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Sermon At A Service of Installation

greenWH_1856_missionIt was on this day, December 30th, in 1856, that the Rev. Dr. William Henry Green brought a sermon on the occasion of the installation of Rev. Heman R. Timlow, as pastor of the Harris Street Presbyterian Church, Newburyport, Massachusetts. Rev. Timlow had been called to serve this church following the resignation of the Rev. W.W. Eels in March the year prior. All of which is admittedly a rather obscure set of facts and we might honestly wonder why it should merit our attention?

Among Presbyterians, the installation of a pastor remains to this day a service carried out in much the same way. So for one, if we were to look for a model for such an occasion, then here is one example. Moreover, we have here a sermon by an admittedly brilliant young man, at a point early in his remarkable career.

There is also the contrast of the youth of Dr. Green [1825-1900], just 31 years old when he served at the installation of this new pastor, compared with the advanced age of Rev. Dana, then near the end of his life yet still faithfully serving the Lord’s people at this installation. Dr. Green came from a long line of Presbyterians, among them, Jonathan Dickinson, first president of the College of New Jersey (later Princeton University). Green had graduated from Princeton Seminary in 1846, was ordained in 1848, and following a brief pastorate in Philadelphia, was installed in 1851 as professor of Biblical and Oriental Literature at the Princeton Theological Seminary. He remained a professor there until his death in 1900.  Rev. Daniel Dana [1771-1859] as noted was near the end of his life, having long served the Presbyterian churches of Newburyport. It was Rev. Dana who had asked Dr. Green to bring the installation sermon on this occasion. Rev. Dana then brought the charge to the pastor. Others serving at this installation included the Rev. John Pike, of Rowley, who brought the charge to the people; and the Rev. A.G. Vermilye, of Newburyport, who extended the right hand of fellowship.

But the primary value of this sermon remains the message itself, as brought by Dr. Green that day. For his message, he chose the text of Luke 4: 18-19 :

The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he hath anointed me to preach the gospel to the poor; he hath sent me to heal the brokenhearted, to preach deliverance to the captives, and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty them that are bruised, to preach the acceptable year of the Lord.”

By the standards of that era, Green’s message is rather brief, taking up just 12-1/2 pages in print. Many of his peers would typically produce similar sermons of twenty pages or more. But length is no judge of quality, and Green is succinct for a purpose, and from a pastoral standpoint, could be seen as a hallmark of his long career at Princeton Seminary, indicative of the heart of his ministry.

The above text, as Dr. Green states in the opening of his sermon, contains an exposition of Christ’s earthly mission. It is the commission which He received from the Father and it is the reason why He was anointed with the Spirit above measure. It comprises the errand upon which He came into the world. And so, to give a glimpse of his sermon, here below are a few choice portions:—

“The mission of the Savior was to preach the Gospel to the poor, to heal the broken hearted, to preach deliverance to the captives and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty them that are bruised, to preach the acceptable year of the Lord. And yet when He ascended to the Father, He left behind Him a world still unreconciled to God, still in its pollution, misery and sin. It was filled still with poor to whom no glad tidings had been carried, with captives whose prison doors were barred as tightly, whose fetters were as galling and whose miserable dungeons were as dark and cheerless as ever; with the broken hearted to whom no voice of the comforter had spoken relief, and with the blind whose sight was as far as ever from being removed. But judge not from this that His errand was was abortive and His work a failure.”

“The work of the world’s recovery was not one begun in a moment and ended in a moment. As there was a protracted period of preparation reaching through many ages and employing various and potent instrumentalities before He came; so there is needed a protracted period for that scheme which He set in operation and which He still conducts and superintends, to work out its expected and certain consummation. The whole might have been accomplished in an instant had the almighty grace of God so chosen; and the moment of Christ’s triumphant resurrection from the grave might have been signalized by the complete ingathering and perfect sanctification of all God’s elect people, by the utter overthrow of Satan’s baleful empire, and by the entire and final banishment from earth of sin and its accursed effects. And so, had God chosen, the world might have been created in a moment, and all its forms of beauty and its innumerable orders of creatures sprung instantaneously into being, instead of being gradually evolved through six successive days. But thus God did not work in creation; nor did He in redemption.”

“To what has been said it may be still further added, that the verses before us are descriptive of the mission of the church of God, as composed of those who have embraced this precious system of saving truth, and stand as its embodiment, its representatives and its champions before the world. . . .Every one who has received the gospel of God’s grace into his soul, is not only one redeemed from the power of the enemy, but one commissioned to ransom others; not only one upon whom the balm of Gilead has begun its work of cure; but a physician, a healer of the hurts and maladies of others; not only a captive loosed from bonds, but set to the work of breaking the chains of those who wear them still. Every Christian is not a mere passive recipient of the truth and of its saving benefits, but in his measure and according to his station, opportunity and ability, he is set for its defence and propagation. He is a light kindled that it may shine—salt put into the mass for the preservation of the whole. The gospel is given to the church of God to spread it and apply it everywhere. . . It is a work of solemn obligation; and to every Christian unemployed in this his bounden duty, comes his Savior’s reproving voice—’why stand ye all the day idle? go, work in my vineyard.’ “

Words to Live By:
The call of the Gospel is a call to real action here and now. Christ saved us that we might bear fruit—that we might live out the life of Christ, by the power of the Holy Spirit, and so be used of Him to draw others into His kingdom. For one, as Dr. Green is careful to point out elsewhere in his sermon,

“. . . there is no warrant for restricting the redeeming virtue of the gospel solely to what is spiritual and eternal, and excluding from the sphere of its potency that which is temporal; or rather since it is expressly declared, that godliness has the promise of the life that now is, as well as of that which is to come,—as the gospel is capable of undoing and was intended to undo all the mischiefs of the fall, and to banish suffering and sorrow from this present world as well as deliver from it in the next, the church is God’s grand engine of philanthropy. There is not a question bearing on man’s amelioration, individual, social or national, in which the church has not an interest, and in whose solution she should not take her share. There is not a cry of distress, that may be suffered to break upon her ear unregarded. She carries in her hand the potent remedy; and she may not, through her culpable inactivity or through her criminal lack of faith in its sovereign efficacy, keep back from suffering men, what Christ has charged her as His almoner with bestowing upon them. She must hold up the gospel which she has received, before the eyes of men, as God’s appointed cure for all the evils that are in the world. Nor may she content herself with the mere propounding of its abstract principles, nor with the diligent application of it to one class of man’s disorders; as though her caring for one part of her commanded work absolved her from the rest,—as though by caring for men’s eternal, she was absolved from all regard for their temporal interests,—as though after proffering eternal salvation to men, she was thenceforward discharged from further care for them, and might shut up her bowels of compassion from her suffering and needy brother. . . . She must not only hold up the gospel in one of its aspects, but hold it up in all,—not only state its principles but search out and exhibit its applications. ” 

 A print copy of the above sermon may be found preserved at the PCA Historical Center. Or more conveniently, it may be found on the Web by clicking here.

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Eighteen Twelve was a Very Good Year

It was clear that something had to be done.  Princeton College was not being the source any longer for Presbyterian ministers, and for that matter, any ministers.  The school had turned into a secular school for careers, like law, politics, and education.

The reason for this was varied,  Some saw the problem in the new president, Samuel Stanhope Smith.  It wasn’t that he had no qualifications for the presidency.  He himself was a graduate of the college.  He had started what later became Hampden-Sydney College in Virginia.  He had tutored under his father-in-law John Witherspoon as the Vice-President of Princeton, when the latter was unable physically to do it.  So he had all the academic qualifications.

Of more troublesome however were questions about his lack of Calvinistic distinctives.  It seemed that they were in word only as there were suggestions of an emphasis on free will in man plus scientific suggestions in place of supernatural miracles.  Add to that a student rebellion, the trustees were beginning to have questions on his ability to solve these challenges in the right way.

With 400 vacant pulpits in the Presbyterian Church, the sentiment began to build for a separate theological seminary separate from Princeton College as early as 1800.  By 1805 and 1808, each General Assembly was being besieged with calls for more ministers, on the mission field and in the congregations of the land.  An overture to decide what kind of school was sent to the presbyteries.  While hardly overwhelming for any one choice, by 1811, over $14,000 had been raised for the prospective seminary.  Any professor would have to subscribe to the Westminster Standards, and the Form of Government of Presbyterianism.

On August 12, 1812, while the nation was already at war against Great Britain, people packed the town’s Presbyterian Church for the inauguration of Dr. Archibald Alexander as the first professor of Princeton Theological Seminary.   He had been chosen by the General Assembly.  He preached his inaugural sermon for the worshipers, including taking his vows regarding the confessional standards and the Presbyterian form of Government.  The seminary had begun, with three students.  It would soon pick up and begin to send out laborers into the fields, which were white unto harvest.

Words to live by:  Every reader of this historical blog should read the fine summary of Dr. David Calhoun’s two-volume work on Princeton Seminary, published by the Banner of Truth Trust in Carlisle, Pennsylvania.  Filled with persons, places, and events from the founding of the school in 1812 to 1929, this school was the pillar of orthodoxy for the Presbyterian Church.  Thereafter, by the testimony of J. Gresham Machen and other stalwarts, it ceased to be a Reformed and confessionally Biblical seminary. When we forget the past, we lose hope for the present and the future.  When we study the past, we learn how to live in the present and the future.  You will not be able to put down the two books. We promise you that!

Faculty of the Princeton Theological Seminary, 1896: G.T. Purves, J.D. Davis, G. Vos, B.B. Warfield, W.B. Greene, Jr., J.H. Dulles, H.W. Smith, F.L. Patton, W.M. Paxton, C. Martin, W.H. Green, J. De Witt.

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The folllowing brief account of the seventy-sixth annual commencement exercises of Princeton Theological Seminary, in 1888, turns more to a most interesting set of comments about the Rev. Dr. Benjamin Breckinridge Warfield, and is useful in that light alone for the picture it provides of the great Professor.

A Princeton Letter

The seventy-sixth commencement exercises of Princeton Theological Seminary were held on Tuesday, May the eighth. Princeton has prospered this year. Her catalogue records an attendance of 153 students. Some thirty-seven were in the graduating class. Of these, seven are going to the foreign field. Thirty-four are supplied with work, and the rest are not idle from lack of opportunity. The junior class was exceptionally large, containing 58 members.

The venerable Dr. Moffatt has retired after twenty-seven year’s connection with the seminary, and has been elected professor emeritus of history. Rev. Geo. T. Purves, of Pittsburgh, has been elected as his successor.

The college has taken Dr. Francis L. Patton from us to succeed Dr. McCosh. The seminary has lost a David in Dr. Patton, but gained a Solomon in Dr. Warfield, a man of war exchanged for a man of wisdom.

We are proud of Dr. Warfield. He entered upon a most difficult task when he undertook to fill the chair of Polemic and Didactic Theology after Dr. Archibald A. Hodge. He has succeeded. Not in Dr. Hodge’s way, but in his own way. The two men cannot be compared. They were cast in different molds. Their methods are not the same. Our ears are no longer tickled with so many apt illustrations and striking epigrams, but we now receive such clear, clean-cut definition, and patient repetition, that “though fools” we cannot err therein. He is quick in apprehending a question, and never non-plussed, “ready always to give an answer to every man.”

WarfieldBB_1903Dr. Warfield is a thorough scholar, but he is more than a scholar, he is a gentleman. This year the seminary faculty has taken great pains to impress upon the students that a Presbyterian minister should be a gentleman. Our new professor is an ever present example. However great may be the provocation, he ever exhibits the utmost gentleness.

“His heart is as soft as a woman’s. To a worm he would give the path.” Yet with all his delicacy of feeling are coupled the sterling qualities of a true manhood, which command the highest respect and reverence.

When the balmy days of Spring came, Dr. Warfield could often be seen walking with his wife about their little garden.

Now this is a small matter; we often see people walking in their garden and think nothing of it. But such a display of domestic feeling is so unusual in Princeton that the eye of the seminary student cannot but see, and his heart cannot but be affected at the sight.

One cannot but feel that the man who walketh in gardens is near to Him “that dwelleth in gardens.”

It was my intention to say something about the undercurrents of thought and of feeling among the students themselves, but my space being limited I shall reserve that for a future letter.

Wm. E. Bryce
May 18, 1888.
The Church at Work, 2.33 (24 May 1888): 4.

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Excerpted from The Christian Observer 51.14 (3 April 1872): 4.3.

The Semi Centenary of Dr. Hodge.

hodgeCharles_grayThe completion of the fiftieth year of the professorship of Rev. Charles Hodge, D.D., will be celebrated in Princeton, N.J. on Wednesday, the 24th of April. All friends and former students of Princeton Theological Seminary, and the public generally are invited to be present. The exercises will begin at 11 A.M., with an address by the Rev. Joseph T. Dwyer, D.D., of Brooklyn, N.Y. This will be followed by a meeting of the alumni and the organization of an alumni association after which will be an alumni dinner. In the evening a public reception will be given at the house of Dr. Hodge, and the seminary buildings will be illuminated.

The following resolution in relation to this subject was adopted at a meeting of the alumni of the seminary last June:

Resolved, That the proposed celebration of the semi-centennial of Dr. Hodge meets our hearty concurrence, and we cordially unite with the Directors in inviting the friends and former students of the seminary to meet for this purpose in Princeton, on Wednesday, April 24, 1872; and that this invitation be very particularly extended to all our brethren in different Christian denominations, and in every section of our country, as well as in foreign lands, who have received their education where in whole or in part. And we express the earnest hope that the hallowed memories of the past, personal attachments, and local and literary associations with this cherished spot, may be permitted to overcome the long and wide separation of time and place,e and ecclesiastical organization, so that we may all upon this glad occasion gather around the instructor whom we all love and revere, a band of brethren, cemented in Christian love, renewing and pledging a mutual confidence and affection which nothing in the past shall be suffered to dim or to obliterate, and nothing in the future shall be permitted to disturb.

Words to Live By:
What made Charles Hodge great? Why is he so well remembered by Presbyterian historians and others? Certainly he was not without his flaws. But what made him great? Was it native intelligence? Was he simply smarter than most others? Or was it his steadfast adherence to the orthodox tenets of the Reformed faith? Clearly that was in his favor. But in the end, it is the Lord who gifts, empowers and uses men and women as He sovereignly moves history ahead according to His great plan. Time and again the Lord raises up the right people at the right time and in the right place to accomplish His will. Our place is to be faithful, doing the will of God as discovered in His Word. If we are to be greatly used in the Lord’s kingdom, He will bring that to pass in His time. We praise God for how He used Hodge, but the glory for all that Hodge accomplished belongs to the Lord and not to Hodge.

 

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hodgeCasparJrDr. Caspar Wistar Hodge, who had served as the Charles Hodge Professor of Systematic Theology in the Princeton Theological Seminary since 1921, died on Friday morning, February 26, 1937, in the Princeton Hospital, of pneumonia. He had been ill for about one week, and died at the age of sixty-six years.

Dr. Hodge was a member of a family closely connected with the Princeton Theological Seminary for more than 100 years. His father, Dr. Caspar Wistar Hodge and his grandfather, Dr. Charles Hodge, as well as his great-uncle, Dr. Archibald Alexander Hodge, had all been members, like himself, of the seminary faculty.

Dr. Hodge was born at Princeton on September 22, 1870. He graduated from Princeton University in 1892, and after further studies received from that school the degree of Ph.D. in 1894. After a year of study abroad at the Universities of Heidelberg and Berlin, he returned to Princeton in 1895, taking the post of instructor in Philosophy in the College. Dr. Hodge remained in that position for two years, going then to Lafayette College as associate professor of Ethics for one year. Thereafter he entered Princeton Seminary to study for the ministry.

Upon graduation from the Seminary in 1901, he was ordained a minister and remained at the Seminary as an instructor in Systematic Theology. After six years he was made assistant professor of Dogmatic Theology, and eight years later professor in the same department, from which he was transferred in 1921 to the Charles Hodge professorship.

Dr. Hodge was well known as a writer on Biblical and theological studies, as a contributor to religious periodicals in America and in Scotland, and as an editor and contributor for several published books.

In 1897, Dr. Hodge married Miss Sarah Henry, of Princeton. He was survived by one daughter, Mrs. Carl H. Ernlund, of Cambridge, Massachusetts, and a sister, Miss Madeline Hodge. Funeral services were held in the Miller Chapel of the Seminary at Princeton on Monday morning, March 1, 1937.

For Further Study:
The Significance of the Reformed Faith Today,” by C. W. Hodge, Jr., is a brilliant analysis of what is termed the new theology, in contrast with the old theology.
[This PDF is a close reproduction of a typescript found among the Papers of Dr. Robert Dick Wilson. The typescript is undated, but Dr. Hodge’s opening comments, particularly his reference to the recent death of Dr. B.B. Warfield, dates the paper to 1921 when Dr. Hodge was installed as Charles Hodge Professor of Systematic Theology.

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WarfieldBB_1903Most of the April, 2005 issue ofTabletalk magazine focused on the life and ministry of Benjamin Breckinridge Warfield, the great Princeton Seminary professor. One of the most remarkable passages in that issue was the following account of the death of Warfield. R.C. Sproul tells the story:

“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 entitled 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 decades 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.”

Above right, Dr. Benjamin B. Warfield at about age 54, circa 1903.

Thus ended the life of one of the greatest minds in Christian history, on February 16, 1921. In his celebrated work on the history of Princeton Seminary, Dr. David Calhoun recounts J. Gresham Machen’s reflection on Warfield’s death:

“In a letter to his mother, Gresham Machen spoke of ‘the great loss which we have just sustained in the death of Dr. Warfield. Princeton will seem to be a very insipid place without him. He was really a great man. There is no one living in the Church capable of occupying one quarter of his place.’ A few days later Machen wrote again:

Dr. Warfield’s funeral took place yesterday afternoon at the First Church of Princeton . . . It seemed to me that the old Princeton—a great institution it was—died when Dr. Warfield was carried out.

I am thankful for that one last conversation I had with Dr. Warfield some weeks ago. He was quite himself that afternoon. And somehow I cannot believe that the faith which he represented will ever really die. In the course of the conversation I expressed my hope that to end the present intolerable condition there might be a great split in the Church, in order to separate the Christians from the anti-Christian propagandists. ‘No,’ he said, ‘you can’t split rotten wood.’ His expectation seemed to be that the organized Church, dominated by naturalism, would become so cold and dead, that people would come to see that spiritual life could be found only outside of it, and that thus there might be a new beginning.

Nearly everything that I have done has been done with the inspiring hope that Dr. Warfield would think well of it . . . I feel very blank without him. . . .He was the greatest man I have known.”

Below: Cemetery marker for the grave site of Dr. B. B. Warfield in the Princeton cemetery. [photograph by Barry Waugh]

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Words to Live By:
Brethren, it is there only also [in Christ our Lord] that our comfort can be found, whether for life or for death. Perhaps even yet we hardly know, as we should know, our need of a saviour. Perhaps we may acknowledge ourselves to be sinners only in languid acquiescence in a current formula. Such a state of self-ignorance cannot, however, last for ever. And some day—probably it has already come to most of ussome day the scales will fall from our eyes, and we shall see ourselves as we really are. Ah, then, we shall have no difficulty in placing ourselves by the apostle’s side, and pronouncing ourselves, in the accents of the deepest conviction, the chief of sinners. And, then, our only comfort for life and death, too, will be in the discovery that Christ Jesus came into the world just to save sinners. We may have long admired Him as a teacher sent from God, and have long sought to serve Him as a King re-ordering the world ; but we shall find in that great day of self-discovery that we have never known Him at all till He has risen upon our soul’s vision as our Priest, making His own body a sacrifice for our sin. For such as we shall then know ourselves to be, it is only as a Saviour from sin that Christ will suffice…”

[excerpted from The Power of God Unto Salvation, by B.B. Warfield (1903), p. 51-52.]

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SpragueWBA Life of Prayer and Practice.

Late in the month of January, 1850, the Rev. William Buell Sprague performed the difficult task of saying goodbye to an old friend, the Rev. Dr. Samuel Miller of Princeton Theological Seminary. Dr. Miller had died early that month, on January 7th, and now it was Sprague’s duty to bring this tribute in praise to God for a life well lived.

Rev. Sprague’s memorial was subsequently published, under the title, A Discourse, Commemorative of the Rev. Samuel Miller, D.D., late Professor in the Theological Seminary at Princeton, delivered in the Second Presbyterian Church, Albany, on Sabbath evening, January 27, 1850 (Albany, Erastus H. Pease & Co., 1850).

Note: I don’t see where Sprague’s discourse can be found on the Web at this time, but if you care to have a copy, please write to me [archivist {AT} pcahistory /DOT/ org].

We present here just a small, but interesting portion of Sprague’s memorial concerning Samuel Miller:—

Dr. Samuel MillerHe possessed, in a high degree, the devotional spirit. No one could hear him pray without being struck with the humble, grateful, child-like temper that marked his supplications. There was a reverent freedom, an elevated fervour, in his approaches to the throne of grace, which showed that he was engaged in his favourite employment; and we felt that the fire which was burning so brightly in the lecture-room or the sanctuary, had been kindled in the closet. It was not necessary that one should be personally acquainted with his private religious habits, to feel perfectly assured that he was eminently a man of prayer; for his public devotional services proved it, as truly as the shining of Moses’ face proved that he had been on the Mount. And what he exemplified so well in his own character, he affectionately and impressively urged upon others, and especially upon his pupils. Many a student can testify that the last interview which his revered professor held with him, previous to his leaving the seminary, was concluded by his offering up a fervent prayer that God’s blessing might attend him in all coming time, and throughout a coming eternity.

Dr. Miller was distinguished by a benevolent spirit, in connection with a well directed Christian activity. I have already said that he possessed a large share of natural benevolence; but I refer here to that higher quality which is one of the fruits of the Spirit, and is habitually controlled and directed by Christian principle; and of this, I may safely say, he was a bright example. He walked constantly in the footsteps of Him who went about doing good. He watched for opportunities to do good; — good to the bodies and souls of men; — good to those near at hand and to those afar off. Without very ample pecuniary means, he was still a liberal contributor to the various objects of Christian benevolence that solicited his aid; and, in some instances, I know that he volunteered the most unexpected and generous benefactions. His benevolence, however, did not reserve itself for signal occasions; but was manifested in his daily intercourse with society and in connexion with all the little affairs of life. Indeed he seemed always to be acting in obedience to the impulses of Christian good will; and if an opportunity presented to confer innocent pleasure, much more substantial benefit, upon any of his fellow creatures, even the humblest, — provided no paramount interest required his attention, he deemed it an occasion not unworthy of his consideration and his efforts.

It was one great advantage that he possessed above many other good men, that his Christian life was ordered with the strictest regard to system. His purposes of good were formed, and his means of accomplishing them arranged, so as to occasion no perplexing interference. You would often find him greatly pressed with engagements which, with his feeble health and advanced age, he scarcely felt adequate to meet; but you would never find him thrown into an inextricable maze and not knowing what to do next, for want of due forethought and calculation. It was surprising to many that he accomplished so much, in various ways, in his last years: the secret of it was that he worked to the full measure of his strength and did everything by rule.

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aubaff_1924The Auburn Affirmation was first issued on December 26, 1923, in response to the action of the 1923 General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church in the U.S.A. It was then published in its first edition in January of 1924. Affixed to that document were the names of 150 pastors and elders within the Presbyterian Church of the U.S.A. A subsequent printing issued on May 5, 1924 contained the final list of signators, numbering 1274 names.

The Affirmation was a thinly veiled attack upon core tenets of the Christian faith. By most accounts the Affirmation was a gauntlet thrown down in response to five fundamentals espoused originally in The Doctrinal Deliverance of 1910, a deliverance which was later reaffirmed by the PCUSA General Assemblies of 1916 and 1923. It was specifically the action of the 1923 Assembly that brought about the reaction that was the Auburn Affirmation.

Among those five key doctrines that the Doctrinal Deliverance sought to protect, the virgin birth of Christ was second on the list:

2. It is an essential doctrine of the Word of God and our Standards, that our Lord Jesus Christ was born of the Virgin Mary. The Shorter Catechism states, Question 22: “Christ, the Son of God, became man, by taking to Himself a true body and a reasonable soul, being conceived by the power of the Holy Ghost, in the womb of the Virgin Mary, and born of her, yet without sin.”

machen02It was this subject that J. Gresham Machen took up in in the December 1924 issue of The Bible Today, the house organ of The National Bible Institute, an evangelical school located in New York City. Given the issues at hand before the Church that year, Machen’s article would have to be considered one of the earliest replies to the Affirmation signatories, though he does not specifically mention the Affirmation by name in this first part of his discussion. And since we only have the first part of this article available to us, we will have to leave it stand at that, until some gracious donor comes forward with other issues of The Bible Today. We’re looking particularly for vol. 19, no. 4, January 1925. From another source we know that part two of this article appeared on pages 111-115 of that issue. (We’re also looking for any other issues of The Bible Today from the years before 1941). 

So, introduction aside, here is the text of “The Virgin Birth” by J. Gresham Machen (1924).

THE BIBLE TO-DAY, 19.3 (December, 1924): 75-79.

The Virgin Birth
By J. Gresham Machen, D.D.,
Assistant Professor of New Testament Literature and Exegesis in Princeton Theological Seminary

An address delivered at a National Bible Institute Bible Conference, New York City.

ACCORDING to the belief of all the historic branches of the Christian Church, Jesus of Nazareth was born without human father, being conceived by the Holy Ghost and born of the Virgin Mary. In the present lecture we shall consider very briefly the origin of this belief. The belief of the Christian Church in the virgin birth of Christ is a fact of history which requires an explanation. And two kinds of explanation are possible. In the first place, the belief may be explained as being based upon fact. It may be held that the Church came to believe in the virgin birth because as a matter of fact Jesus was born of a virgin. Or in the second place it may be held that the belief arose in some other way. The task of the historian is to balance these two kinds of explanation against each other. Is it easier to explain the belief of the Church in the virgin birth on the hypothesis that it originated in fact or on the hypothesis that it arose in some other way?

I. Belief in the Virgin Birth Based on Fact

We shall first examine the former hypothesis—that the belief in the virgin birth is based upon fact. Of course, the most obvious thing to say is that this belief appears in the New Testament in the clearest possible terms. And most of our time will be taken up in examining the New Testament evidence. But before we come to examine the New Testament evidence it may be well to glance at the later Christian literature.

At the close of the second century, when the Christian literature outside of the New Testament becomes abundant, when we have full information about the belief of the Church at Alexandria, in Asia Minor, at Rome and in the West, we find that everywhere the virgin birth was accepted as a matter of course as one of the essential things in the Christian view of Christ. But this same kind of belief appears also at an earlier time; for example in the old Roman baptismal confession which was the basis of our Apostles’ Creed, in Justin Martyr at the middle of the second century, and in Ignatius, bishop of Antioch, at the beginning of the century. There were, it is true, denials of the virgin birth not only by opponents of Christianity but also by some who professed a kind of Christian faith.

But all of these denials look far more as though they were due to philosophical prepossession than to any genuine historical tradition. The plain fact is that the virgin birth appears just as firmly fixed at the beginning of the second century as at the end of it; it is quite impossible to detect any gradual establishment of the doctrine as though it had to make its way against opposition. Particularly the testimony of Ignatius and of the Apostles’ Creed shows not only that the virgin birth was accepted at a very early time, but that it was accepted as a matter of course and as one of the facts singled out for inclusion even in the briefest summaries of the most important things which the Christian needed to know about Christ. Even this evidence from outside the New Testament would suffice to show that a firm belief in the virgin birth existed in the Christian Church well before the close of the first century.

But still more important is the New Testament evidence, and to that evidence we now turn.

The virgin birth is attested in two of the New Testament books, the Gospel according to Matthew and the Gospel according to Luke. The value which will be attributed to this testimony depends of course to a considerable extent upon the view which one holds of each of these two Gospels as a whole. Obviously it will not be possible to discuss these questions here; it would carry us too far afield to discuss the evidence for the early date and high historical value of the two Gospels in which the virgin birth appears. But one remark at least may be made in passing : it may at least be observed that the credit of the great double work, Luke-Acts, has been steadily rising in recent years even in circles which were formerly most hostile. The extraordinary strength of the literary evidence has led even men like Professor von Harnack of Berlin, Professor C. C. Torrey of Yale, and the distinguished historian Professor Eduard Meyer, despite their rejection of the whole supernatural content of the book, to accept the traditional view that Luke-Acts was actually written by Luke the physician, a companion of Paul. It will not be possible here to review that literary evidence in detail; but surely the evidence must be very strong if it has been able to convince even those whose presuppositions render the hypothesis of Lucan authorship so extremely uncomfortable.

But if the Third Gospel was really written by Luke, its testimony as to events in Palestine must surely be received with the greatest possible respect. According to the information derived from the use of the first person plural in the Book of Acts, Luke had been in contact with James, the Lord’s own brother, and with many other members of the primitive Jerusalem Church. Moreover he was in Palestine in A.D. 58 and appears there again two years later; so that presumably he was in the country during the interval. Obviously such a man had the fullest possible opportunity for acquainting himself, not only with events concerning the Gentile mission of Paul but also with events in the life of our Lord in Palestine. It is therefore a matter of no small importance that the virgin birth is narrated in the Third Gospel.

But the virgin birth is not merely narrated in the Third Gospel; it is narrated in a very peculiar part of that Gospel. The first two chapters of the Gospel are possessed of very remarkable literary characteristics. The hand of the author of the whole book has indeed been at work in these chapters, as the elaborate researches of von Harnack and others have clearly shown; but the author’s hand has not been allowed to destroy the underlying literary character of the narrative. And that underlying character is very strongly marked. The truth is that the first two chapters of Luke, with the exception of the typical Greek sentence in Luke 1:1-4, are in spirit and style, as well as in thought, nothing in the world but a bit of the Old Testament embedded in the midst of the New Testament. Nowhere is there a narrative more transparently Jewish and Palestinian than this. It is another question how the Palestinian character of the narrative is to be explained. Some have supposed that Luke used a written Palestinian source, which had already been translated into Greek or which he himself translated; others have supposed that without written sources he has simply caught the truly Semitic flavor of the oral information that came to him in Palestine. At any rate, however the Palestinian character of the narrative is to be explained, that Palestinian character itself is perfectly plain; in the first two chapters of Luke we are evidently dealing with a narrative that came from Palestinian soil.

That fact is of great importance for the question of the virgin birth. It shows that the virgin birth was narrated not merely in Gentile Christian documents but also in the country which was the scene of the narrated event. But there is still another reason why the Palestinian character of the narrative is important. We shall observe in the latter part of the lecture that the great majority of those modern scholars who reject the fact of the virgin birth suppose that the idea of the virgin birth was derived from pagan sources. But if that hypothesis be accepted, the question arises how a pagan idea came to be attested just by the most transparently Jewish and Palestinian portion of the whole New Testament. The Palestinian Judaism of the first century was passionately opposed to pagan influences, especially that loyal type of Palestinian Judaism which appears with such beautiful clearness in Luke 1:2. How could a pagan idea possibly find a place in such a narrative ?

The question is really unanswerable; and in order to attempt to answer it, many modern scholars have had recourse to a truly desperate expedient—they have maintained that the virgin birth was not originally contained in the Palestinian narrative found in the first two chapters of Luke but has been inserted later into that narrative by interpolation. This interpolation theory has been held in two forms. According to the more radical form the virgin birth has been interpolated into the completed Gospel. This hypothesis is opposed by the great weight of manuscript attestation, there being not the slightest evidence among the many hundreds of manuscripts containing the Gospel of Luke that there ever was a form of that Gospel without the verses narrating the virgin birth. A more cautious form of the interpolation theory has therefore sometimes been preferred. According to that more cautious form, although the words attesting the virgin birth formed an original part of the Third Gospel they did not form an original part of the Palestinian source which the author of the Gospel was using in the first two chapters, but were interpolated by the author himself into the source which elsewhere he was closely following.

The Interpolation Theory

What shall be said of this interpolation theory? Very often the best and only refutation of an interpolation theory is the refutation which a distinguished preacher is once said to have applied to theosophy. A lady is reported to have asked the preacher, after one of his lectures, to give her the strongest evidence against theosophy. “Madam,” he replied, “the strongest evidence against theosophy is that there is no evidence in its favor.” Similarly it may be said that the burden of proof is clearly against those who advance an interpolation hypothesis; if no clear evidence can be adduced in its favor the hypothesis must be rejected, and the narrative must be taken as it stands. Even such a consideration alone would be decisive against the interpolation theory regarding the virgin birth in the infancy narrative of the Third Gospel. The advocates of the theory have signally failed to prove their point. The virgin birth is not merely narrated with great clearness in Luke 1:34, 35, but is implied in several other verses; and no reason at all adequate for supposing that these portions of the narrative have been tampered with has yet been adduced. But as a matter of fact we are in the present case by no means limited to such a merely negative method of defense. The truth is that in the present case we can do far more than disprove the arguments for the interpolation hypothesis; we can also actually prove positively that that hypothesis is false. A careful examination shows clearly that the virgin birth, far from being an addition to the narrative in the first chapter of Luke, is the thing for which the whole narrative exists. There is a clear parallelism between the account of the birth of John and that of the birth of Jesus. Even the birth of John was wonderful, since his parents were old. But the birth of Jesus was more wonderful still, and clearly it is the intention of the narrator to show that it was more wonderful. Are we to suppose that while narrating the wonderful birth of John the narrator simply mentioned an ordinary, non-miraculous birth of Jesus? The supposition is quite contrary to the entire manner in which the narrative is constructed. The truth is that if the virgin birth be removed from the first chapter of Luke the whole point is removed, and the narrative becomes quite meaningless. Never was an interpolation hypothesis more clearly false.

But personally I am very glad that the interpolation hypothesis has been proposed, because it indicates the desperate expedients to which those who deny the virgin birth are reduced. The great majority of those who reject the virgin birth of Christ suppose that the idea arose on pagan ground, and admit that other derivations of the idea are inadequate. But in order to hold this view they are simply forced to hold the interpolation theory regarding the first chapter of Luke; for only so can they explain how a pagan idea came to find a place in so transparently Jewish a narrative. But the interpolation theory being demonstrably false, the whole modern way of explaining the idea of the virgin birth of Christ results in signal failure. The naturalistic historians in other words are forced by their theory to hold the interpolation hypothesis; they stake their all upon that hypothesis. But that hypothesis is clearly false; hence the entire construction falls to the ground.

The Virgin Birth in Matthew

So much then for the account of the virgin birth in Luke. Let us now turn to the Gospel according to Matthew. Here the virgin birth is narrated with a plainness which leaves nothing to be desired. Some men used to say that the first two chapters of the Gospel are a later addition, but this hypothesis has now been almost universally abandoned.

The value of this testimony depends of course upon the view that is held of the Gospel as a whole. But it is generally admitted by scholars of the most diverse points of view that the Gospel was written especially for Jews, and the Jewish character of the infancy narrative in the first two chapters is particularly plain.

If this lecture were being delivered under the conditions that prevailed some years ago it might be thought necessary for us to enter at length into the question of Matthew 1:16. Some time ago the textual question regarding this verse was discussed even in the newspapers and created a good deal of excitement. It was maintained by some persons that an ancient manuscript of the Gospels which was discovered in the monastery of St. Catherine on Mount Sinai provided a testimony against the virgin birth. The manuscript referred to is the so-called Sinaitic Syriac, a manuscript of an ancient translation of the Gospels into the Syriac language. This manuscript is not, as has sometimes been falsely asserted, the most ancient New Testament manuscript; since it is later than the two greatest
manuscripts, the Codex Vaticanus and the Codex Sinaiticus, which also have the inestimable advantage of being manuscripts of the original Greek, not of a mere Syriac translation. But the Sinaitic Syriac is a very ancient manuscript, having been produced at about 400 A.D., and despite the fact that the extravagant claims made for it have now for the most part been abandoned, a few words about it may still be in place.

The Sinaitic Syriac Manuscript

The Sinaitic Syriac has a curious reading at Matthew 1:16. But the importance of this witness must not be exaggerated. In order to accept the witness of the Sinaitic Syriac against all other documents one must suppose (1) that this manuscript has correctly reproduced at the point in question the ancient Syriac translation from which it is descended by a process of transmission, (2) that this ancient Syriac translation (which was probably produced in the latter part of the second century) correctly represented at this point the Greek manuscript from which the translation was made, and (3) that that Greek manuscript correctly represented at this point the autograph of the Gospel from which it was descended by a process of transmission. All of this is exceedingly uncertain in view of the over-whelming mass of evidence on the other side. To accept one witness against all the other witnesses is a very precarious kind of textual criticism where the evidence is so exceedingly abundant as it is in the case of the New Testament.

But as a matter of fact the Sinaitic Syriac does not deny the virgin birth at all. It attests the virgin birth in Matthew 1:18-25 just as clearly as do the other manuscripts, and it implies it even in Matthew 1:16. The reading of the Sinaitic Syriac which has given rise to the discussion is (translated into English by Burkett) as follows : “Jacob begat Joseph. Joseph, to whom was betrothed Mary the virgin, begat Jesus that is called the Messiah.” That would be self-contradictory if the word “begat” meant what it means in English. But as a matter of fact the scribe of the Sinaitic Syriac, if he thought of what he was doing and was not simply making a careless mistake, clearly used the word “begat” in the sense, “had as a legal descendant.” It is interesting to note that Professor F. C. Burkitt, the greatest British authority on the Syriac manuscripts, who certainly is far from being prejudiced in favor of the virgin birth, holds that even if the original text were simply “Joseph begat Jesus” (which as a matter of fact appears in no manuscript) it would be absolutely without significance as a testimony against the virgin birth; for it would only mean that Joseph had Jesus as his legal heir. The author of the First Gospel is interested in two things, in one of them just as much as in the other. He is interested in showing (1) that Jesus was the heir of David through Joseph and (2) that He was a gift of God to the house of David in a more wonderful way than would have been the case if He had been descended from David by ordinary generation.

Thus even if the Sinaitic Syriac did represent the original text, it would not deny the virgin birth. But as a matter of fact it does not represent the original text at all. The original text of Matthew 1:16 is exactly the text that we are familiar with in our Bibles.

Accordingly we have an unequivocal double witness to the virgin birth of Christ in the Gospels of Matthew and of Luke. These two witnesses are clearly independent. If one thing is clear to modern scholars—and to every common-sense reader—it is that Matthew has not used Luke and Luke has not used Matthew. The very difficulty of fitting the two infancy narratives together is, to the believer in the virgin birth, a blessing in disguise; for it demonstrates at least the complete independence of the two accounts. The unanimity of these two independent witnesses constitutes the very strongest possible testimony to the central fact about which they are perfectly and obviously agreed.

But at this point an objection is often made. The rest of the New Testament, we are told, says nothing about the virgin birth; Paul says nothing about it, neither does Mark. Hence the testimony in favor of it is often said to be weak; and men are often impressed with this argument from silence.

Argument from Silence

Now the argument from silence needs to be used with a great deal of caution. The silence of a writer about any detail is without significance unless it has been shown that if the writer in question had known and accepted that detail he would have been obliged to mention it.

But that is just exactly what cannot be shown in the case of the silence about the virgin birth. Paul, for example, does not mention the virgin birth, and much has been made of his silence. “What is good enough for Paul,” we are told in effect, “is good enough for us; if he got along without the virgin birth we can get along without it too.” It is rather surprising, indeed, to find the Modernists of today advancing that particular argument; it is rather surprising to find them laying down the principle that what is good enough for Paul is good enough for them, and that things which are not found in Paul cannot be essential to Christianity. For the center of their religion is found in the ethical teaching of Jesus, especially in the Golden Rule. But where does Paul say anything about the Golden Rule, and where does he quote at any length the ethical teachings of Jesus? We do not mean at all that the silence about such things in the Epistles shows that Paul did not know or care about the words and example of our Lord. On the contrary there are clear intimations that the reason why the Apostle does not tell more about what Jesus did and said in Palestine is not that these things were to him unimportant but that they were so important that instruction about them had been given at the very beginning in the churches and so did not need to be repeated in the Epistles, which are addressed to special needs. And where Paul does give details about Jesus the incidental way in which he does so shows clearly that there is a great deal else which he would have told if he had found occasion. The all-important passage in I Corinthians 15:3-8 provides a striking example. In that passage Paul gives a list of appearances of the risen Christ. He would not have done so if it had not been for the chance (humanly speaking) of certain mis-understandings that had arisen in Corinth. Yet if he had not done so, it is appalling to think of the inferences which would have been drawn from his silence by modern scholars. And yet, even if the occasion for mentioning the list of appearances had not happened to arise in the Epistles it would still have remained true that that list of appearances was one of the absolutely fundamental elements of teaching which Paul gave to the churches at the very beginning.

That example should make us extremely cautious about drawing inferences from the silence of Paul. In the Epistles Paul mentions very few things about the earthly life of Jesus; yet clearly he knew far more than in the Epistles he has found occasion to tell. It does not at all follow therefore that because he does not mention a thing in the Epistles he did not know about it. Hence the fact that he does not mention the virgin birth does not prove that the virgin birth was to him unknown.

Moreover, although Paul does not mention the virgin birth the entire account which he gives of Jesus as an entirely new beginning in humanity, as the second Adam, is profoundly incongruous with the view that makes Jesus the son, by ordinary generation, of Joseph and Mary. The entire Christology of Paul is a powerful witness to the same event that is narrated in Matthew and Luke; the religion of Paul presupposes a Jesus who was conceived by the Holy Ghost and born of the Virgin Mary.

The silence of Mark is of just as little importance as the silence of Paul. The Gospel according to Mark seems to have been pre-eminently the missionary gospel; it was not intended to give all the facts about Jesus, but simply those which needed to be given first to those who had not already been won to Christ. Reading the Second Gospel, you stand in astonishment like those who were in the synagogue at Capernaum in the scene described in the first chapter. You see the wonderful works of Jesus; you stand afar off looking at Him; you are not introduced to Him with the intimacy of detail which one finds in Matthew and Luke. The fact that Mark does not narrate the virgin birth does not prove that he does not believe in the virgin birth or that it is to him less important than other facts; but shows merely that the narration of the birth of Jesus in any form is quite contrary to the plan of his Gospel, which begins with the public ministry. The most important things that need to be said are not always the first things; and Mark is concerned with the first things that would make an impression even upon those who had not already been won to Christ.

The New Testament does indeed imply that the contemporaries of Jesus in Palestine were unaware of the story of the virgin birth, and perhaps it also “makes probable that the virgin birth formed no part of the earliest missionary preaching of the apostles in Jerusalem. But all that is just what would be expected even if the virgin birth was a fact. The virgin birth was a holy mystery which was capable of the grossest misunderstanding; certainly it would not be spoken of by a person like Mary whose meditative character is so delicately and so vividly depicted in the first two chapters of Luke. It would not be spoken of to the hostile multitude, and least of all would it be spoken of to the brothers of Jesus. Also it would certainly not be mentioned in the earliest public missionary preaching before the crowds in Jerusalem. Only at some time after the resurrection, when the miracle of the virgin birth had at last been vindicated by the resurrection and exaltation of Jesus would Mary breathe the mystery of Jesus’ birth to sympathetic ears. Hence it found its way into the wonderful narrative preserved by Luke and from there into the hearts of Christians of all the ages.

Such is the course of events which would be expected if the virgin birth was a fact. And the attestation of the event in the New Testament is just exactly what is suited to these antecedent probabilities. The attestation in the very nature of the case could not be equal to that of an event like the resurrection, of which there were many eye-witnesses; but it is just what it would naturally be if the event really occurred in the manner in which it is said to have occurred in Matthew and Luke.

But the full force of the New Testament evidence can be appreciated only if the accounts are allowed to speak for themselves. These narratives are wonderfully self-evidencing; they certainly do not read as though they are based on fiction; and they are profoundly congruous with that entire account of Jesus without” which the origin of the Christian religion is an insoluble puzzle.

(To be continued – that is, if we can locate that next issue from 1925!)

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We are honored today to draw our text from the opening chapter to Dr. Kim Riddlebarger’s 1997 doctoral dissertation, B.B. Warfield: The Lion of Princeton. Our thanks to Dr. Riddlebarger for granting permission to post this excerpt.

“The Pugilist”

Princeton College alumni who remembered Benjamin Breckinridge Warfield’s student days at Princeton recall that on November 6, 1870, the young Warfield and a certain James Steen, “distinguished themselves by indulging in a little Sunday fight in front of the chapel after Dr. McCosh’s afternoon lecture.” Warfield, it seems, “in lieu of taking notes” during Dr. McCosh’s lecture, took great delight in sketching an “exceedingly uncomplimentary picture of Steen,” which was subsequently circulated among the students.[1]  The resulting fist-fight between the two young men ultimately didn’t amount to much, but it earned Warfield the nickname—”the pugilist.”[2]

B. B. Warfield’s earliest days at Princeton, as well as his last, were characterized by a passionate defense of his personal honor. Princeton Seminary colleague, Oswald T. Allis, tells the story about Dr. Warfield’s encounter with Mrs. Stevenson, the wife of the Seminary President, shortly before Warfield’s death and during the height of the controversy at Princeton over an “inclusive” Presbyterian church. When Mrs. Stevenson and Dr. Warfield passed each other on the walk outside the Seminary, some pleasantries were exchanged, and then Mrs. Stevenson reportedly said to the good doctor, “Oh, Dr. Warfield, I am praying that everything will go harmoniously at the [General] Assembly!” To which Warfield responded,

“Why, Mrs. Stevenson, I am praying that there may be a fight.”[3] As the late Hugh Kerr, formerly Warfield Professor of Theology at Princeton Theological Seminary reflects, “from the very beginning to end, Warfield was a fighter.”[4]  B. B. Warfield was not only a fighter, he was also a theological giant, exerting significant influence upon American Presbyterianism for nearly forty-years. John DeWitt, professor of Church History at Princeton during the Warfield years, told Warfield biographer Samuel Craig, that . . . he had known intimately the three great Reformed theologians of America of the preceding generation—Charles Hodge, W. G. T. Shedd and Henry B. Smith—and that he was not only certain that Warfield knew a great deal more than any one of them but that he was disposed to think that he knew more than all three of them put together.[5]

Unlike many of today’s “specialists,” B. B. Warfield was fully qualified to teach any of the major seminary subjects—New Testament, Church History, Systematic or Biblical Theology, and Apologetics.[6]  One of Warfield’s students, and an influential thinker in his own right, J. Gresham Machen, remembers Warfield as follows: “with all his glaring faults, he was the greatest man I have known.”[7]  Hugh Kerr, though critical of Warfield’s “theory of the inerrancy of the original autographs,” still told his own students a generation later that, “Dr. Warfield had the finest mind ever to teach at Princeton Seminary.”[8]

[1.]  Hugh Thomson Kerr, “Warfield: The Person Behind the Theology,” Annie Kinkead Warfield Lecture
for 1982, at Princeton Theological Seminary, ed. William O. Harris (1995), p. 21.
[2.]  Ibid., pp. 21-22.
[3.]  O. T. Allis, “Personal Impressions of Dr Warfield,” in The Banner of Truth 89 (Fall 1971) pp. 10-14.
[4.]  Kerr, “Warfield: The Person Behind the Theology,” p. 22.
[5.]  Samuel G. Craig, “Benjamin B. Warfield,” in B. B. Warfield, Biblical and Theological Studies. (Philadelphia: Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Company, 1986), p. xvii.
[6]  Ibid., p. xix.
[7]  Ned B. Stonehouse, J. Gresham Machen: A Biographical Memoir (Philadelphia: Westminster Theological Seminary, 1977), p. 310.
[8]  Recounted in personal correspondence of February 25, 1995, from William O. Harris, Librarian for Archives and Special Collections at Princeton Theological Seminary.

Words to Live By:
Beloved, when I gave all diligence to write unto you of the common salvation, it was needful for me to write unto you, and exhort you that ye should earnestly contend for the faith which was once delivered unto the saints.—Jude, verse 3 (KJV)

Fight the good fight of the faith. Take hold of the eternal life to which you were called when you made your good confession in the presence of many witnesses.—1 Timothy 6:12 (KJV)

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