The Death of B.B. Warfield

In a letter to his mother, Gresham Machen spoke of ‘the great loss which we have just sustained in the death of Dr. Warfield’ February 16, 1921.

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.’

 

Most of the April, 2005 issue of Tabletalk 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.”

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.”

Wayne Sparkman is the Director of the Historical Center of the Presbyterian Church in America in St. Louis, MO. This article is used with permission.