Where do you find evidence of a clear understanding of the progressive character of New Testament biblical theology in the writings of Benjamin Breckenridge Warfield?
Response by OPR
B. B. Warfield (1851-1921) might be called the “last of the greats” of the early days of Princeton Seminary. Many of his penetrating writings have been gathered in a ten-volume set. He began his teaching career as professor of New Testament in Western Theological Seminary in Allegheny, Pennsylvania, which explains why careful exegetical work characterizes his theological writings.
Warfield’s perspective on the nature of biblical theology may be found in his article on “The Idea of Systematic Theology.”1 But his clearest articulation of the progressive character of New Testament biblical theology appears in an obscure “Introductory Note” to John H. Kerr’s An Introduction to the Study of the Books of the New Testament, published in 1892. In this brief eleven-page article, Warfield traces the whole history of the progress of New Testament revelation from James through the earliest writings of Paul, followed by the first gospels: “…and here, at the end of the sixth decade of the century, we may draw a deep line, and say that the Beginnings are over” (p. xiv). Then the “central literary period now emerges into view” (p. xiv). This central period of New Testament production “is followed by a remarkable series of writings which have this common feature,--that they all may be looked upon as the leave-taking of the Apostles from the Church which they have established” (p. xiv). In these books, Paul “busies himself in the Pastoral Epistles, with the organization of the Churches” since questions of organization had become pressing and the time was drawing near when they should be left to self-government without his inspired guidance. At a similar point, “Peter wrote Second Peter in full realization that the putting off of his tabernacle was coming swiftly” (p. xvii). Warfield then places the full corpus of the Apostle John as the final stage of new covenant revelation: “John’s whole body of writings bears witness to a Church long-established, and may be justly looked upon as the farewell of the Apostolate to the Churches they had founded. Hence the Gospel of the Spirit, the final Gospel, and its strengthening accompanying letter” (p. xvii). Then come the “typical messages to the Churches, opening that immortal vision which uncovers to glad eyes the course of the great conflict through time, by which Christ is putting His enemies under his feet, and the glories of the final victory” (p. xvii).
In these few scant pages, the mighty Warfield displays more awareness of the progression of New Testament redemptive revelation than may be found in many current tomes of New Testament biblical theology. Warfield characterizes his article as a “meager hint” of a “sample” of how, “as we study the literary history of the New Testament, we may gain broader and deeper conceptions of God’s method in giving His Word to man, and so also a fuller apprehension of the supreme value of these precious books and their fitness to meet every human need” (p. xvii).
It is indeed true, as Geerhardus Vos later affirmed, that perceiving biblical revelation from the perspective of the progression of redemptive history will greatly enrich the believer’s appreciation of the wonders of God’s grace to a fallen race. From this perspective, much more needs to be done in perceiving the richness of the progression of redemptive revelation across the whole of the writings of the New Testament. 1 Reproduced in Mark A. Noll, The Princeton Theology. 1812-1921 (Phillipsburg: P & R Publishing, 1983), 241-261. See esp. p. 252.