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BENJAMIN B. WARFIELD ON NATURAL THEOLOGY

B. B. Warfield was one of the most well-known, and most articulate, defenders of the Inspiration, authority and inerrancy of the Sacred Scriptures of Christianity. Warfield was one of the great Princeton Calvinists, succeeding Dr. A. A. Hodge in the reputable Princeton Chair of Theology in 1886, in which he remained, for 33 years, until his death in 1921. To see the views, on Natural Theology, of two other well-known reformed theologians (Charles Hodge and Augustus H. Strong), follow this link.

Warfield, remaining faithful to true Calvinism, held a coherent and biblical understanding of Natural Theology. We find explicit treatment of Natural Theology in two important articles, “The Idea of Systematic Theology”, and “The Task and Method of Systematic Theology” written, respectively in 1896, and in 1910. The importance of these articles, in the development of Warfield’s understanding of Theology is that the first was written 10 years after accepting the chair of theology at Princeton (which means that we are looking at his mature view of Natural Theology), and the latter was written some 14 years later. His view of Natural Theology does not change in this time span.

In the first article Warfield notes that there are 5 basic domains of Theology, which are used by Systematic Theology to form a complete theological system. (1) “Apologetical Theology prepares the way for all theology by establishing its necessary presuppositions without which no theology is possible – the existence and essential nature of God, the religious nature of man which enables him to receive a revelation from God, the possibility of a revelation and its actual realization in the Scriptures.”[1] (2) “Exegetical Theology receives these inspired writings from the hands of Apologetics, and investigates their meaning.”[2] (3) “Historical Theology investigates the progressive realization of Christianity in the lives, hearts, worship, and thought of men, issuing not only in a body of facts which come into use in the more advanced disciplines.”[3] (4) Biblical Theology has “the task of coordinating the scattered results of continuous exegesis into a concatenated whole, whether with reference to a single book of Scripture or to a body of related books or to the whole Scriptural fabric.”[4] (5) Systematic theology is distinguished from Biblical theology by “the element of all-inclusive systematisation.”[5] Systematics is attained by combining them [the separate dogmatic statements in Scripture] in their due order and proportion as they stand in the various theologies of the Scriptures.”[6] Systematics is “founded on the final and complete results of exegesis as exhibited in Biblical Theology.”[7]

One might think that there is no sign of Natural Theology in this listing, however, to do so would be to misunderstand Warfield. In the very same article, B. B. Warfield explains that there are numerous sources of divine revelation, “God’s revelation of Himself is ‘in divers manners.’”[8] He lists a number of the sources of divine revelation, “Under the broad skirts of the term ‘revelation,’ every method of manifesting Himself which God uses in communicating knowledge of His being and attributes, may find shelter for itself – whether it be through those visible things of nature whereby His invisible things are clearly seen, or through the constitution of the human mind with its causal judgment indelibly stamped upon it, or through that voice of God that we call conscience, which proclaims His moral law within us, or through His providence in which He makes bare His arm for the government of the nations, or through the exercises of His grace, our experience under the tutelage of the Holy Ghost – or whether it be through the open visions of His prophets, the divinely-breathed pages of His written Word, the divine life of the Word Himself.”[9] He then notes that each of these different sources provide reliable knowledge of God, “each of which brings us true knowledge of God, and all of which must be taken account of in building our knowledge into one all-comprehending system.”[10] This all-comprehending system just is Systematic Theology. Therefore, for B. B. Warfield, Natural Theology, which is that knowledge of God that can be known “through those visible things of nature whereby His invisible things are clearly seen, or through the constitution of the human mind with its causal judgment indelibly stamped upon it, or through that voice of God that we call conscience, which proclaims His moral law within us, or through His providence in which He makes bare His arm for the government of the nations, or through the exercises of His grace, our experience under the tutelage of the Holy Ghost”,[11] is a legitimate, necessary, and true part of any Orthodox Christian Systematic Theology.

B. B. Warfield also notes, quite rightly, that each of these different sources vary “in the amount of revelation they give, the clearness of their message, the ease and certainty with which they may be interpreted, or the importance of the special truths which they are fitted to convey.”[12] Natural Theology is not as clear as Theology based upon the Christian scriptures, but it provides truths that are necessary, as we shall see, for the accomplishment of Bible-based Revelation.

Does Natural Theology fit into Warfield’s 5 domains of Theology? Yes. For Warfield, “Apologetical Theology prepares the way for all theology by establishing its necessary presuppositions without which no theology is possible – the existence and essential nature of God, the religious nature of man which enables him to receive a revelation from God, the possibility of a revelation and its actual realization in the Scriptures.”[13] In the second article mentioned above, Warfield has this to say, “Whether such a being as God exists needs to be ascertained, and if such a being exists, whether He is knowable; whether such creatures as men are capable of knowing Him, and, if so, what sources of information concerning Him are accessible. This is the task of apologetical theology.”[14] What Warfield describes as Apologetical theology just is Natural Theology.

For Warfield Natural or Apologetical Theology necessarily comes before, and is presupposed by, all the other theologies, including Exegetical, Biblical, Historical, and Systematic. He states, for example, that there are a number of « necessary presuppositions without which no theology is possible – the existence and essential nature of God, the religious nature of man which enables him to receive a revelation from God, the possibility of a revelation and its actual realization in the Scriptures. »[15] As we have just seen, these presuppositions are quite simply the object of study of Natural or Apologetical Theology. Warfield elaborates on this point by noting 3 major presuppositions that are held by those who engage in Exegetical, Biblical, Historical, Practical and Systematic Theology – presuppositions that are established and proved by Natural or Apologetical Theology: “(1) The affirmation that theology is a science presupposes the affirmation that God is, and that He has relation to His creatures.”[16] He shows the importance of this presupposition as follows, “Were there no God, there could be no theology; nor could there be a theology if, though He existed, He existed out of relation with His creatures. The whole body of philosophical apologetics is, therefore, presupposed in and underlies the structure of scientific theology.”[17] The second presupposition is, “(2) The affirmation that theology is a science presupposes the affirmation that man has a religious nature, that is, a nature capable of understanding not only that God is, but also, to some extent, what He is.”[18] The third is, “(3) The affirmation that theology is a science presupposes the affirmation that there are media of communication by which God and divine things are brought before the minds of men, that they may perceive them and, in perceiving, understand them.”[19]

Each of these presuppositions are established and defended by Apologetical or Natural Theology. The above observations show us that Warfield accords an important place in Orthodox Christian Evangelical Systematic Theology for Natural Theology. Indeed, as our final observations have made abundantly clear, for B. B. Warfield, Orthodox Christian Evangelical Systematic Theology is not possible without the Natural Theology.




[1]Benjamin Breckinridge Warfield, “The Idea of Systematic Theology,” in Studies in Theology, vol. 9 of The Works of Benjamin B. Warfield (1932; repr., Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House, 2000), 64.

[2]Ibid.

[3]Ibid.

[4]Ibid., 65.

[5]Ibid., 68.

[6]Ibid., 67.

[7]Ibid., 66.

[8] Ibid., 58.

[9]Ibid., 58-59.

[10]Ibid., 59.

[11]Ibid., 58-59.

[12]Ibid., 60.

[13]Ibid., 64.

[14]Benjamin Breckinridge Warfield, “The Task and Method of Systematic Theology,” in Studies in Theology, vol. 9 of The Works of Benjamin B. Warfield (1932; repr., Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House, 2000), 91.

[15]Benjamin Breckinridge Warfield, “The Idea of Systematic Theology,” in Studies in Theology, vol. 9 of The Works of Benjamin B. Warfield (1932; repr., Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House, 2000), 64.

[16]Ibid., 55.

[17]Ibid.

[18]Ibid.

[19]Ibid.

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