Evangelical Library (London) Lecture, 4 June 2001
By Carl Trueman. An address on “The Glory Of Christ: B B Warfield on Jesus of Nazareth”

When B.B. Warfield died eighty years ago, in 1921, J Gresham Machen, his Princeton colleague, commented that old Princeton had indeed passed away with him. It is arguable that this was not much of an exaggeration, such was the stature of a man whose scholarship had been recognised in the award of an honorary degree from the University of Utrecht, who had been on personal terms with such luminaries as Abraham Kuyper and Herman Bavinck, and whose writings, at both popular and academic levels, had influenced a generation of Christians in the church and in the academy. Yet, it is true to say that Warfield is little known today outside of the narrow confines of the evangelical world, that his piety is appreciated far more than his scholarship is understood, and that his wide-ranging theological contributions are not appreciated even by those for whom he symbolises theological orthodoxy. Indeed, when we ask the question, For what is Warfield known today? we are likely to elicit responses which focus on his articulation of biblical inspiration and authority, his arguments for the cessation of the supernatural gifts of the Spirit, or his cautious arguments in favour of theistic evolution. Yet, as even a glance at the ten volume selection of his writings which were published by Oxford University Press in the early part of the twentieth century reveals, his range was much broader than these three narrow foci would suggest. [1]

For example, he also wrote on church history, producing essays on Tertullian, Augustine, and Calvin which still have merit today. He also engaged in extended study and refutation of perfectionism, providing the church with one of the most comprehensive historical and theological analyses of holiness teaching ever produced. In addition, he also found time to write reviews on many of the significant theological books of his time, continental as well as Anglo-American, revealing not only extensive linguistic competence but also a thorough and accurate understanding of the liberal positions which he rejected. Indeed, it is, I suspect, true to say that Warfield read his liberal opponents with more care, courtesy, and all-round theological learning than liberals have, over the years, applied to his own work. To reduce Warfield’s significance to a few doctrinal topics is thus to miss the real greatness of the man whose life was driven far more by a desire to restate the classic Reformed faith in an articulate and intelligent manner than simply to focus on one or two controversial points. [2] Indeed, his greatness is captured neatly in a recent comment from the pen of Mark Noll and David Livingstone:

Even in the long line of outstanding conservative theologians from Old Princeton that stretched from Archibald Alexander…to J Gresham Machen…Warfield stands out. In that distinguished company, he was the most widely read, had the greatest skill in European languages, displayed the most patience in unpacking arguments, and wrote clearly on the widest range of subjects. [3]

Today, therefore, I want to break with the traditional canon of evangelical topics upon which Warfield is consulted and look instead at a handful of writings from his pen devoted to Christology, the person and work of Jesus Christ. In the words of John Murray, ‘There is no subject on which Warfield’s master mind showed its depth and comprehension better than on that of the person and work of Christ.’ [4] And, we might ourselves add, there is no subject which stands more central to Christian orthodoxy than Christology. All great theologians have wrestled with the person and work of Christ, and the greatest theologians are those who have offered the most penetrating insights into precisely this area of doctrine. Thus, if we are to appreciate Warfield’s contribution to the Christian church in all its fulness, we need to develop some comprehension of his work on Christ.

Before looking at Warfield’s writings on Christ, it is, however, necessary to make one or two preliminary observations on the slightly peculiar nature of his scholarly output. As the husband of an invalid and housebound wife, Warfield did not enjoy quite the same freedom with regard to his career as is normal among academics. His domestic duties inevitably meant that, for much of his academic life, he neither travelled much beyond the borders of Princeton nor had the kind of uninterrupted research time necessary for the production of weighty tomes. Thus, the vast majority of his writings are what one might almost call occasional pieces—articles for journals and for encyclopaedias rather than sustained and lengthy monographs. This is not to belittle their learning nor their significance, nor, in some cases their length; but it is to indicate that the reader will look in vain in his books for the kind of classical, all-embracing doctrinal synthesis that is found, say, in that of his Princeton predecessor, Charles Hodge. Warfield addressed specific topics in a thorough fashion; he was not involved in the careful division and arrangement of topics that are demanded by the genre of a comprehensive systematic theology. The result is that the reader who is interested in Warfield’s understanding of Christ is dependent upon the volumes of his works which gather together articles and sermons rather than upon any single systematic treatise.

Given this fact, I shall today focus on just a small number of his Christological pieces, on the basis that the diversity of material on this subject in Warfield’s writings makes it impossible to do justice to all facets of his work in this area. What I want to bring out is the fact that, for Warfield, Christ was glorious and Christology was a glorious subject upon which to reflect. This is simply because, for Warfield, Christ is God manifest in the flesh, the supreme revelation of God to humanity, and the supreme act of God’s love towards a lost and dying world.
Warfield on Incarnation

It almost goes without saying, of course, that Warfield’s Christology makes no attempt to break with the classic tradition of orthodoxy whose basic framework was established by the early church at the Councils of Nicea and Chalcedon. For him, Christ is both fully divine and fully human, consisting of these two natures, unmixed and uncorrupted, within the one person, Jesus of Nazareth. At the end of his article ‘The Person of Christ according to the New Testament’, he quotes the Chalcedonian definition in full, describing it as ‘nothing…but a careful statement in systematic form of the pure teaching of the New Testament’. [5] Thus, Warfield places himself self-consciously within the tradition of the church which, in terms of explicit formulation, stretches back to the third century. He is, in the true sense of the word, a Catholic theologian.

Given modern theological misgivings about the language of substance and personhood as inadequate or inappropriate for discussing the identity of Christ, a number of comments are apposite at this point. It is, of course, a truism that the language of Chalcedon, of substance and personhood, is absent from the New Testament, and, of course, no advocate of the Chalcedonian definition would ever have claimed its explicit presence in the text. Warfield’s own view of the Chalcedonian definition is that it functions as a presupposition which makes the teaching of the Bible comprehensible as a single, unified whole. To quote him on this point:

Only on the assumption of this [the Chalcedonian] conception of Our Lord’s person as underlying and determining their presentation, can unity be given to their representations; while, on this supposition, all their representations fall into their places as elements in one consistent whole. [6]

This is an important point which has a general application well beyond its specific concerns. For a start, it flags up Christ’s humanity and divinity as the only means of making coherent sense of the gospel accounts of his life. It is thus not in the first instance an exercise in metaphysical speculation but rather an attempt to think out the necessary presuppositions about his person which make sense of the historical account of his actions and teachings given in the gospels. This is a very important point, particularly at a time when theological diversity is something of a buzzword among biblical scholars. The current trend is, I am sure, intimately connected to the increasing subdisciplinary specialization of higher learning, fuelled in large part by the information revolution; but Warfield is surely correct to point to the presuppositional nature of our theological approach to the Bible. If we go to the Bible without a commitment to the unity of revelation and the coherence of the biblical witness at the level of epistemology, then we will inevitably find ourselves drawing certain conclusions from that, such as the God of the Old Testament is not that of the New or the way of salvation for Paul is not the same as for James. It is perhaps no surprise that the Chalcedonian definition is being called into question by theologians at exactly the same point in time as the fundamental theological unity of the Bible is also being subjected to vigorous assault.

For Warfield, the idea that Christ is one person in two substances is one of the necessary counterparts of his commitment to the unity of scripture’s teaching: in other words, it must be true because it allows the church to make sense of the Bible’s teaching about Christ. The formula itself is not inspired in the way that the Bible is inspired; it is not therefore sacrosanct; one can indeed go to heaven without ever having heard of the definition; but it is nonetheless a necessary presupposition, implicit or otherwise, if the message of the Bible concerning Christ is to be properly and thoroughly understood.

Many will be aware, of course, that the twentieth century saw a sustained and vigorous war waged against the Chalcedonian definition by mainstream theologians. The critique of Chalcedon is nothing novel: it represented in its very formulation the triumph of one theological party over another; and it also gave rise to a series of further Christological questions which many theologians came to conclude were lethal for its viability as an expression of biblical teaching. These questions tended to focus on the alleged failure of the language of the two natures to do justice to the unity of the one person. To put it bluntly, the formula has been seen by many as woefully inadequate or highly problematic when dealing with issues such as the knowledge of the Jesus Christ and his earthly sufferings. Indeed, it is often alleged that the Chalcedonian formula actually generates difficulties with these issues which would not exist if the language of two natures-one person had never been adopted. The specific background of such criticism against which Warfield was working was that of the German liberal schools who, while diverse in many respects, were all working within the anti-metaphysical trajectory of theology after Kant. As such, their attacks on two-nature Christology stand in interesting continuity with those of an earlier anti-metaphysical movement within Protestantism, that of the Socinians of the seventeenth century. Both groups saw the definition as involving the infusion of Greek metaphysics and philosophy into theological discussion, and thus saw the rejection of traditional language about the incarnation as part and parcel of returning to a more pure, more truly biblical, theology. This was a point of which Warfield himself was clearly aware. [7]

Historically, of course, the Chalcedonian definition was formulated by the church in the context of needing to emphasise the unity of the Son with the Father in terms of divinity, while yet also establishing his unity with humanity in the Incarnation. To lose sight of Christ’s unity with the Father would prevent Christ from being a revelation of the Father. Yet, the understanding of incarnation also had to be done in manner which avoided a mixing of the divinity and the humanity. Such a mixing would have produced a Christ who was neither divine nor human in any real sense. Nor could the church define Christ in a way which would lead to a radical separation of the two natures, because this might have undermined the unity and thus the identity of Christ as the one mediator. As such, the final formula agreed upon at Chalcedon was considered to be a superb balancing act, which, while not satisfying everyone in the early church, was generally considered to have avoided both of the lethal pitfalls outlined above.

So important were the truths which this formula expressed to Warfield that he himself was to argue that the current crisis in theology and the church in his day was directly related to the various attacks on the Chalcedonian definition Such attacks, he declared, were simply attacks on the doctrine of Incarnation itself and thus upon the very hinge of Christianity. [8] Its critics, of course, did not see it in quite the same way; they regarded the formula, or at least the way the formula had been generally understood and used, as being inadequate for the task for which it was intended, that of doing justice to the Bible’s own account of Christ. Now, such attacks took various forms, but one consistent pattern of criticism, that the traditional understanding of Incarnation prevents justice being done to the humanity of Christ, found its clearest expression in the varieties of so-called kenotic Christology which were prevalent in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, and against which Warfield argued with some vigour.

Warfield on Kenosis

The kenotic theory, or rather theories, of the Incarnation, with which Warfield had to do had arisen in the nineteenth century both in the context of Reformed-Lutheran ecumenism, where it was seen as a means of overcoming the historic differences between the two traditions in the area of Christology, and also as a means of offering potential solutions to some of the questions raised by two-nature Christology. Kenoticism in its broadest outlines is summarised by Louis Berkhof as follows:

[Kenosis] signalized the doctrine that the Logos at the incarnation was denuded of His transitive or of all His attributes, was reduced to a mere potentiality, and then, in union with the human nature, developed again into a divine-human person. [9]

In other words, the kenotic theory was the response of certain theologians to the problems raised by the biblical accounts of, for example, Christ’s growth in knowledge, his apparent ignorance of certain things, and for the general finitude of his earthly existence. While classic Reformed theology had traditionally overcome these issues by focusing on the way in which the communication of properties between the natures took place within the one person, kenoticists rooted the solution in the divestment by the divine nature of its divine properties upon the hypostatic union of the human and the divine within the Incarnation. There was variety among the advocates of kenotic Christology themselves, with some even going as far as to question the usefulness of incarnational language about Christ, given the radical nature of self-abasement to which the Son subjects himself. Names associated with kenotic theory include Thomasius, Delitzsch, Gore and, slightly later, Forsyth and Mackintosh.

Before looking at Warfield’s response, we need to spend a moment or two reflecting upon the attractiveness of such theological proposals. On the surface, kenotic theory offers a solution to the very great mystery that surrounds how the infinite God can come and dwell with humanity. In short, he voluntarily divests himself of many of his divine attributes. This would appear to offer a convenient solution to some of the more complicated questions raised by the traditional understanding, such as why Christ appears to be ignorant of certain information, such as the timing of his second coming. In fact, of course, it merely solves one set of metaphysical questions at the expense of creating a whole new set of the same, such as, Is a God shorn of his attributes still meaningfully ‘God’ in any sense?

Second, kenotic theory seems to offer a way of underscoring important theological points such as the dramatic divine condescension which is involved in the mission of the Son, and the identification of God with men and women in their humanity. These are central biblical concerns, and kenoticists regarded their formulation as being far more capable of doing them justice than the traditional understanding. Nevertheless, advocates of orthodoxy would never have regarded their own position as undermining these emphases and would have argued that the kind of condescension and identity proposed by the kenoticists was ultimately not that proposed by the biblical texts.

This brings us to the third point: while the theological background to kenoticism is undoubtedly important, the doctrine claims its most significant support in the exegesis of Philippians 2:7. At the end of the day, the doctrine stands or falls by whether it makes sense of, or is demanded by, biblical teaching, and the key passage in this context is the passage in Philippians 2 which speaks so movingly of Christ’s condescension in his mission to earth. It is here, therefore, that Warfield chooses to focus his arguments against the kenotic theory.

Warfield’s refutation of such a position has two major pillars. First, he argues that the verb and tense in Phil. 2:6 referring to Christ ‘being God’ does not indicate a state of affairs that held true once and has now come to an end, but something which continues to be the case. Thus, the verse contains no hint of any movement from divinity to non-divinity in the act of Incarnation. [10] Indeed, Warfield neatly summarises this position as follows:

So far is Paul from intimating, therefore, that Our Lord laid aside His Deity in entering upon His life on earth, that he rather asserts that He retained His Deity throughout His life on earth, and in the whole course of His humiliation, up to death itself, was consciously ever exercising self-abnegation, living a life which did not by nature belong to Him, which stood in fact in direct contradiction to the life which was naturally His. [11]

From this statement, he then moves on to discuss the key word in Phil. 2:7: ekenosen. This is translated in the Revised Version as ‘emptied Himself’, a rendering which clearly leaves open the very great possibility of a kenotic Christology. In the Incarnation, Christ can thus be seen to empty Himself of his attributes of deity, the very point which kenotic Christology seeks to establish. Warfield, however, repudiates this as a mistranslation of the verb. He points to the four other occurrences of the verb in the New Testament, indicating that, in each case, the verb is not used in a literal or ontological sense but in the metaphorical sense in the sense of ‘to make of no account’ or ‘to render void’. Thus, the verb here would seem to require a translation not so much of ‘emptied Himself’ as ‘made Himself of no account. [12] Warfield expresses this as follows:

Paul, in a word, says here nothing more than that Our Lord, who did not look with greedy eyes upon Hid estate of equality with God, emptied Himself, if the language may be pardoned, of Himself; that is to say, in precise accordance with the exhortation for the enhancement of which His example is adduced, that He did not look on His own things….He took the ‘form of a servant,’ and so was ‘made in the likeness of men.’ But His doing this showed that He did not set overweening store by His state of equality with God, and did not account Himself the sufficient object of all the efforts. He was not self-regarding: He had regard for others. Thus he becomes our supreme example of self-abnegating conduct. [13]

For Warfield, then, the significance of the Philippians passage lies not so much in what it says about the nature of Christ, but in what it says about how we are to respond to Christ: in his Incarnation, in the humiliation which he undergoes for us and for our salvation, he is the supreme example of how we as Christians are to see ourselves and our status in relation to others. In other words, the passage has ethical considerations as its primary concern; it is not in the first instance a statement about the mechanics of the Incarnation with respect to the relationship between the two natures.

It is perhaps important at this point to remind ourselves of why the rejection of kenoticism in its various forms is important. To the mind not schooled in the implications of certain theological controversies, Warfield’s concern to reject the kenotic reading of Phil. 2:7 might seem like mere arguing over words. In fact, nothing could be further from the truth. The kenotic theory is dangerously vulnerable on a number of grounds. First, as shown above, the exegetical basis for the notion is extremely slim. Second, the idea that the second person of Trinity can divest himself of his attributes of deity in the Incarnation raises the serious question of whether Jesus Christ of Nazareth can be said to be fully God in any meaningful manner. To say that he is fully God but that he has divested himself of his attributes would seem to require an understanding of deity whereby being and attributes are decisively separable. Warfield does not address this issue in precisely these terms, but it is quite clear from his understanding of Incarnation as revelation that he is well aware of this kind of problem. Referring to the teaching of the Letter to the Colossians, he declares the following:

He who looks upon Jesus Christ sees, no doubt, a body and a man; but he sees the man clothed with the body, so he sees God Himself, in all the fulness of His Deity, clothed with the humanity. Jesus Christ is therefore God ‘manifested in the flesh’ (1 Tim. 3:16), and His appearance on earth is an ‘epiphany’ (2 Tim. 1:10). [14]

For Warfield, then, as for Christian theology in general, the Incarnation is the manifestation, the revelation of God, in the human flesh of Christ. The glory of Christ is that he is God revealed in the flesh, a point which I will argue Later, Warfield develops in a deep and profound manner. This, of course, requires that the fulness of God be indwelling Christ, and this, in turn, strikes at the very heart of the kenotic theory. Put simply, a God divested of his attributes in an incarnation is not a God manifested as God in the flesh. It is a God manifested as something less than God in the flesh. Such an incarnation is therefore no adequate revelation of God. This is one of the amazing facts about Christ: that in him all the fulness of the godhead is seen dwelling in bodily form. Anything less destroys his glory. The kenotic theory therefore offers an inadequate understanding of what the Incarnation is and thus makes the Incarnation a thoroughly inadequate basis for any knowledge of God. If the theory is motivated by a desire to preserve the unity of Christ’s person, or his identification with humanity, it does so only at the incalculably high theological price of separating God as He manifests himself from God as He is in Himself. In other words, the Incarnation is no longer revelation.

It is at this point that I must register my disagreement with the comments on Warfield by John Murray in the review of The Person and Work of Christ which originally appeared in the Westminster Theological Journal and reproduced in volume three of the Collected Writings. [15] In this review, Murray claims to see a discrepancy between Warfield’s rejection of kenoticism in the article cited above and his statements in one of the sermons appended to the essays. Now, before examining Murray’s point, we should note that he sees the conflict not as an act of self-contradiction but as the result of Warfield changing his mind: the article was published in 1915, and Murray postulates that the sermon is of an earlier date, representing therefore an earlier phase in Warfield’s thinking. The sermon certainly was of earlier provenance, appearing in the 1913 volume entitled The Saviour, which was dedicated to the Faculty of Theology at the University of Utrecht in gratitude for the award of an Honorary Doctorate in Theology. [16] Nevertheless, it is my contention that there is no contradiction between the sermon and the article, and that we need not therefore impute a tacit change of mind to Warfield on this issue.

The two offending statements by Warfield read as follows:

It was although He was in the form of God, that Christ Jesus did not consider His being on an equality with God so precious a possession that He could not lay it aside, but rather made no account of Himself. [17]


Did Christ stand upon His unquestioned right of retaining His equality with God? [18]

From these sentences, Murray draws the following conclusion:

[T]he obvious implication …[is] that, in Warfield’s esteem, Christ divested Himself of His equality with God. [19]

Were this the case, then this would reveal that a most significant development in Warfield’s Christology had taken place between 1913 and 1915. Indeed, it would necessitate that he had moved from a kenotic position to a classically orthodox position, and this in itself would raise fascinating questions regarding the influences at work on him and the processes of his thought during this time. Several factors militate against this, however, which I believe decisively demonstrate continuity on this issue in his writings.

First, a general comment: we should note that Warfield’s theology is first and foremost an exegetical theology; that is, it is a theology which seeks to expound scriptural revelation and to relate all of its claims to that revelation. Now this is not to say that his theology was simply the result of expounding biblical texts in some kind of presuppositionless vacuum. Not at all. Warfield came to the scriptures with the presupposition that orthodox Christianity, as expressed in the specific form of the historic Reformed confessions, was true. To say that his theology is first of all exegetical is, however, to make the point that he was willing to run risks with language, so to speak, providing that the choice of language was allowed by scripture. Thus, when it came to the Incarnation, he was unwilling to allow his commitment to the New Testament theme of Christ as God manifest in the flesh and as the one in whom all the fulness of the Godhead dwelt in bodily form, to undermine equally biblical emphases. Far less would he allow the Chalcedonian definition to take on a life of its own and restrict what even the Bible has to say about the Incarnation. Now, we do have to be careful here, particularly at the present time – much rubbish is spouted today about ‘tensions’ and ‘paradoxes’ in the Bible’s teaching which, while sometimes valid, is often an excuse for a lack of hard wrestling with the Bible’s teaching. What I do not wish to imply is that Warfield was willing to offer a position whereby Christ both did and did not divest himself of his divine attributes at one and the same time. Such a ‘paradox’ might appeal, but it is ultimately nonsense. Rather, I wish to make the point that Warfield’s Christology was driven by the need to make sense of the biblical accounts of the person and work of Jesus Christ of Nazareth.

The second point to make, and the one which counts decisively against John Murray’s interpretation of Warfield, is that precisely the same language to which Murray objected in the sermon is actually used in the article to which he is referring. I quote the relevant passage at length:

His earthly life is…distinctly represented as a humiliation. Though even on earth He is one with the Father, yet he ‘descended’ to earth; He had come out from the Father and out of God; a glory had been left behind which was yet to be returned to, and His sojourn on earth was therefore to that extent an obscuration of His proper glory. There was a sense, then, in which, because He had ‘descended,’ He was no longer equal with the Father….because of the humiliation of His present condition, and in so far as this humiliation involved entrance into a status lower than that which belonged to Him by nature. [20]

Given all that is said elsewhere in this article, this humiliation is clearly no divestment of divine attributes in a sense which somehow separated Christ from God or made him less than God in the Incarnation. Rather, it is to be understood in line with classic Reformed orthodoxy on the Incarnation in terms of the voluntary functional subordination of the Son to the Father in the economy of salvation, and of the assumption of human nature, involving as this did exposure to human limitations such as hunger, thirst and physical tiredness. If Warfield had exhibited the same nervousness about the language of humiliation which John Murray’s comments betray, it is arguable he could not have stood so solidly within the Reformed tradition on this issue, nor done subsequent justice to the biblical teaching about Christ’s humanity and its relationship to his divine nature.

This brings us neatly to the next point I wish to make about Warfield, and that is his usefulness as a theologian who reflected in great depth upon the significance of Christ’s humanity. If he rejected the various kenotic theories as inadequate, this was not at the expense of playing-down or marginalising Christ’s humanity. Rather, he stands out within the Reformed tradition as one who expended an exceptional amount of energy reflecting upon Christ’s humanity, something which no doubt derived from his desire to be first and foremost an exegetical theologian who wished to do justice to the gospel accounts of Christ. It is perhaps arguable that, in terms of biblical texts, evangelical Protestantism has focused largely upon the letters of Paul and not so much upon the historical narratives of the Gospels. This kind of theological culture can sometimes give the impression that the death and resurrection of Christ are the only significant things in his ministry and, if we are honest, can perhaps leave many believers unsure as to why exactly we have four gospels, when the letters of Paul and the Gospel of John seem to provide us with all the theology that we need. The gospels give us some heart-warming anecdotes, but are they really important? Such a culture, betrays, I think, a failure to reflect properly upon Christ’s humanity, and in this context, the work of Warfield is most instructive.

The Humanity of Christ

It is the motif of humiliation noted above, with its counterpart of exaltation, which is crucial to reformed understandings of Christ’s person. As we might therefore expect, this lies at the heart of Warfield’s own ability to do full justice to the humanity of Christ. It developed within Reformed theology as a means of expressing the dynamic nature of Christ’s life on earth and, therefore, as a way of expressing the importance not simply of his death and resurrection but of his whole life as a revelation of God’s grace and as constitutive of the way of salvation. Summarising the Reformed tradition on this issue, Louis Berkhof divides humiliation into two components, self-emptying and then voluntary subjection to the law, and five stages, incarnation, suffering, death, burial, and descent into Hell. Christ’s exaltation thus begins with the resurrection. [21] The strength of this theological structure is both its sensitivity to the historical movement involved in Christ’s saving work, and in the convenient way in which it allows for careful emphasis to be placed upon the fact that Christ is God manifest in the flesh, that is, God made present in humanity under the conditions of space and time.

From the very early days of the Christian church, the attack on the reality of Christ’s humanity had been a central concern. Various early heresies exhibited docetic tendencies—that is, the idea that Christ’s humanity was a mere appearance, something which merely ‘seemed’ to be real human flesh and bone. The church responded by vigorously asserting the reality of Christ’s humanity and, in one of the earliest traditional statements of Christian faith, the so-called ‘Rule of Faith’ much was made of the need to maintain the reality of Christ’s historical, physical person. Indeed, it was the early church father, Gregory of Nazianzus, who put the issue with force and clarity: what was not assumed was not redeemed. The implication is obvious: if Christ did not assume humanity, then humanity has not been saved.

Having said all this, I suspect that many of us are probably much more comfortable and clear about the implications of Christ’s divinity than we are with those of his humanity. Even John Murray, it would seem, was uneasy with Warfield’s robust language regarding Christ’s humiliation, and yet Warfield stood clearly within the trajectory of expression stemming from the Bible’s own words and thoroughly approved of by the majority Reformed tradition. Nevertheless, there is something in this blunt talk of humiliation, of subordination, and of limitation which leaves us fearful for the integrity of Christ’s divinity.

The most brilliant and extended treatment which Warfield gives to Christ’s humanity is the remarkable essay, ‘The Emotional Life of Our Lord’. [22] Warfield starts the essay with a comment that is so straightforward and yet absolutely explosive in its implications: ‘It belongs to the truth of our Lord’s humanity, that he was subject to all sinless human emotions.’ [23] Such a comment serves as an immediate warning to any who might disparage the importance of the topic or shy away from discussion in this area out of some specious modesty. Warfield’s point is simple: the existence of Christ as a human being means that he is fully human in every sense of the word; and that means that we must understand him as an emotional being, albeit without sin. By implication, to do anything less is to be guilty of an incipient docetism which threatens the very reality of the Incarnation.

It is perhaps indicative of precisely this tendency in Reformed thought—or, perhaps, more charitably, of a zeal to protect Christ’s divinity—that there is very little reflection upon Christ’s emotional life within the tradition. Indeed, this article of Warfield would appear to be the only substantial piece devoted exclusively to this theme available in the literature. Louis Berkhof, while not being a great constructive theologian, is nevertheless an excellent summariser of the tradition. His Systematic Theology is therefore a relatively reliable guide to the emphases and concerns of Reformed thinking. On this issue of Christ’s emotional life, with the exception of the inevitable short section on Christ’s sufferings, has nothing to say. Yet this is surely a most serious theological lacuna: if Christ is truly human, then that requires that he had an emotional life; if the biblical accounts of Christ are accurate, they require that he had an emotional life; and if the Reformed faith is to paint a fully orbed picture of Christ, it must give due attention to this area.

Warfield prefaces his analysis of Christ’s emotions by pointing out that we cannot presuppose in advance that all emotions ascribed to Christ are to be ascribed simply to his human nature. Warfield allows that this may be the case, but will not go so far as to say that it must be so. Instead, he proposes his essay simply as a clarification of which emotions are ascribed by the gospel narratives to Christ’s person, in the hope that others will develop the argument further (a hope which seems, at the present time, to have remained unfulfilled). [24]

The emotions which Warfield sees ascribed to Christ are as follows: compassion, love, anger, sorrow, joy, anguish, and indignation. What is so striking about this approach of Warfield is the way in which it anchors our understanding of these emotions in a firmly concrete setting. Abstraction has been a constant temptation for theologians over the years, whereby a particular concept takes on a life of its own and comes to exert a decisive influence over the way in which the Bible is understood. Thus, notions of wrath or love are divorced from their setting in the biblical materials, distorted, and then read back into the Bible in a manner which damages its message. We can all probably think of examples. Holiness is a classic, where, many time over the centuries it has become identified with certain cultural peculiarities rather than with the biblical notion of exclusive devotion or separation to a particular object. Thus, in the Middle Ages, holiness became identified with a particular kind of contemplative existence set within the context of a celibate life. Then, in later Protestantism, holiness cam to be identified with abstention from various things, whether tobacco, alcohol, or the theatre. Now, do not misinterpret me here: I am arguing neither for nor against the appropriateness of these particular examples; all I wish to point out is that the abstraction of concepts such as holiness from their place in the biblical narrative leads to distorted and reductionist understandings of what these terms mean.

Protestantism was, at its very inception, a revolt against precisely this kind of theological abstraction. In his famous ‘theology of the cross’, Martin Luther argued that the problem with medieval theology had been that it had taken notions of, say, love, power, and holiness from the world around it and had imposed them upon the Bible. For Luther, this was simply idolatry. Against this, Luther argued that if we wished to know how these terms applied to God, then we had to look to where God had revealed their meaning. In other words, if we want to know what God is like, then we must look to where God has revealed himself. For Luther, this revelation was on the cross: thus, God’s power was revealed not in some superhuman strength but in his weakness; his love through making himself despised; and his holiness through being outwardly cursed and abandoned.

Now, many of us today would hesitate to go all the way with Luther’s theology of the cross for a variety of reasons; but the basic principle, that God is who he has revealed himself to be and not who we necessarily expect him to be, is good and sound. It is in this context that Warfield’s approach to the emotional life of Christ is so useful.

Let us take, for example, the issue of divine anger. There are, of course, many today who disparage the notion of divine anger. Some do so from an avowedly liberal attitude to the biblical text, wherein the anger of God is seen as a reflection of certain cultural or psychological influences on the writers and as having no real reference to any God ‘out there’ so to speak. There are, however, many who claim to take the biblical record seriously who doubt that the language of wrath and anger is meant to be taken in any literal or personal sense but is rather to be seen as a metaphorical reference to the impersonal though unfortunate results of sin. Thus, if we play with fire, we inevitably get burned – nothing personal, so to speak, merely the necessary consequence of ignoring the maker’s instructions.

I would suggest at this point that an examination of wrath and anger in terms of Christology might well offer a rather different picture of divine wrath. Let me quote a couple of passages from Warfield. The first refers to the cleansing of the Temple;

Perhaps in no incidents recorded in the Gospels is the action of our Lord’s indignation more vividly displayed than in the accounts of the cleansings of the Temple. In closing the account which he gives of the earlier of these, John tells us that ‘his disciples remembered that it was written, The zeal of thine house shall eat me up’ (Jn 2:17). The word here employed—‘‘zeal’—may mean nothing more than ‘ardor’; but this ardor may burn with hot indignation,—we read of a ‘zeal of fire which shall devour the adversaries’ (Heb. 10:27). And it seems to be this hot indignation at the pollution of the house of God—this ‘burning jealousy for the holiness of the house of God’—which it connotes in our present passage…. The form in which it here breaks forth is that of indignant anger towards those who defile God’s house with trafficking, and it thus presents us with one of the most striking manifestations of the anger of Jesus. [25]

The most obvious point to make about Warfield’s comment is that he has himself picked up on the most glaringly obvious point of the original biblical account: Christ’s anger or indignation in this context is personal and active. We are not dealing here with the impersonal and mechanistic outworking of the moral laws of the universe; no—we are dealing with a God who is outraged at the wicked actions of certain of his creatures, and who takes positive action in response to this sin. Word studies, clever exegesis of various ‘wrath’ passages, and philosophical reflection may well be used in an attempt to sidestep the traditional church teaching on divine wrath, but the cleansing of the Temple provides us with an actual incident which makes such manoeuvres somewhat less than convincing. Here is God manifest in the flesh actually expressing anger against those who buy and sell in the house of the Lord. This is real personal anger which finds its outworking in real personal action on the part of Christ. And when all is said and done, Christian theology is rooted not in metaphysical abstractions but in the revelation of God. It is here that Warfield’s focus on Christ as fully incarnate and thus as an emotional being, is so useful in the struggle for biblical orthodoxy because it takes the notion of the wrath of God and makes it a personal category, linking it to the action of a real person in space-time history.

Lest, however, this be seen as generating a picture of God as hard and unyielding, albeit personal and active, it is worth quoting a second passage from Warfield’s article, this time focusing on Christ’s anger outside of the tomb of Lazarus:

Inextinguishable fury seizes him…It is death that is the object of his wrath, and behind death him who has the power of death, and whom he has come into the world to destroy. Tears of sympathy may fill his eyes, but this is incidental. His soul is held by rage: and he advances to the tomb, in Calvin’s words again, ‘as a champion who prepares for conflict.’ The raising of Lazarus thus becomes, not an isolated marvel, but—as indeed it is presented throughout the whole narrative… a decisive instance and open symbol of Jesus’ conquest of death and hell. What John does for us in this particular statement is to uncover to us the heart of Jesus, as he wins for us our salvation. Not in cold unconcern, but in flaming wrath against the foe, Jesus smites in our behalf. He has not only saved us from the evils which oppress us; he has felt for and with us in our oppression, and under the impulse of these feelings has wrought our redemption. [26]

The passage is powerful indeed, for it allows Warfield to bring out the anger and the fury which Christ feels when confronted with the outrageous wages of sin, and allows us to see that salvation is not simply some abstract metaphysical concept but goes to the very heart of God’s being. Salvation is the result of God’s compassion for sinners and his anger at the impact of sin. As he cleared the Temple of those who had changed the house of God into a market-place, so he fights against sin as that which has marred his creation and turned it into a nightmare – and he does this with an anger and a fury that befits the Lord of the universe.

The drama of these two incidents brings home the nature of God’s anger against sin in a far more rich and striking way than any abstracted talk of God’s wrath might do; and Warfield’s concern to do justice to the fact of the Incarnation, to Christ as God manifest in the flesh, allows him to bring out this truth with force. If the evangelical world can often seem to be polarised between an attitude to God’s wrath which virtually disposes of the idea and one which makes it so overwhelming and awesome that it seems impossible to square with any meaningful notion of God’s love, then I would suggest that further reflection upon the lines laid down by Warfield in his discussion of Christ’s emotions might well bear significant fruit.

One final example can be offered to help to reinforce this point: Warfield’s comments on Christ’s compassionate cries over Jerusalem. This is precisely the kind of text where one might expect a theologian to address the knotty issues of the relationship between Christ’s divine and human natures; but Warfield does not do so, preferring to see the passage not as a problem for Christology but as a deep revelation of the heart of God as he manifested himself in Christ. Listen to what he says:

We may…place the loud wailing over Jerusalem and the deep sighing over the Pharisees’ determined opposition side by side as exhibitions of the profound pain given to our Lord’s sympathetic heart, by those whose persistent rejection of him required at his hands his sternest reprobation. He ‘sighed from the bottom of his heart’ when he declared, ‘There shall be no sign given to this generation’; he wailed aloud when he announced, ‘The days shall upon thee when thine enemies shall dash thee to the ground.’ It hurt Jesus to hand over even hardened sinners to their doom. It hurt Jesus,—because Jesus’ prime characteristic was love, and love is the foundation of compassion. [27]

Here again we see Warfield using the historical account of Jesus Christ of Nazareth to bring depth and substance to a divine attribute, namely, that of compassion. We could spend hours discussing the definition of compassion, of elaborating on what it may or may not involve—but here, by going straight to a concrete act of the real person, Jesus Christ of Nazareth, the full glory of God’s compassion for humanity is brought out in startling relief. Here we see God weeping over the lost; here we see God saddened by the plight of sinful humanity; here we see God’s heart broken by the stubbornness of a world that has gone to the bad.

This brings us back, of course, to the problem with kenotic Christology. If God divests himself of his attributes in the incarnation, if we have in Jesus of Nazareth God reduced and hidden in the flesh rather than manifest in the flesh, then these acts of Christ do not really give us insight into the psychology and thoughts of God at all. The anger might be the result of God having cast off his ability to control himself; the weeping at Lazarus’s tomb might be the shocked response of one who was unaware of the enormity of sin and the scale of the task which he faced; and the cries over Jerusalem might say more about Christ’s self-imposed impotence in the face of sin than about his deep-seated compassion for even the most hardened sinners. It is only by his firm commitment to the Christology of Chalcedon and his refusal to go down the seductive but ultimately self-defeating path of kenoticism that allows Warfield to mine the full riches of the New Testament portrait of Christ. I end this section with a passage from another essay by Warfield which brings this point home:

The Jesus of the New Testament is not fundamentally man, however divinely gifted: he is God tabernacling for a while among men, with heaven lying about Him not merely in His infancy, but throughout the days of His flesh. [28]

Building on the Foundation

Where, then, does all this fairly abstruse and sophisticated theology lead? What, in modern parlance, is the cash-value of what Warfield has to say? There are many points I could make here, but I close with just two.

First, Warfield clearly shows that a commitment, a true, thoughtful commitment, to the traditional understanding of Christ as God manifested in the flesh should make all of our theology, and thus all of our lives, Christ-centred. By realising that Christ is not simply an instrument by which God achieves his salvific purposes but is himself God manifest in the flesh, a revelation of the deepest, innermost being of God himself, then our knowledge of who God is and of how he thinks should be revolutionised. Too often, I suspect, we think of God in abstract terms; too often we perhaps reduce him to a set of laws or some impersonal principle which controls the universe. But he is not like that. He is a person and he has feelings of love towards his creatures and anger towards sin. This is not to reject the orthodox notions of his immutability; it is simply to draw out the revelation of God in Christ. Preachers should not be frightened of teaching their people that God is a person with feelings, for to neglect this is to neglect a central part of the Bible’s own teaching and to deny revelatory value to the Incarnation. As Warfield himself declares:

We have a God who is capable of self-sacrifice for us. It was although he was in the form of God, that Christ Jesus did not consider his being on an equality with God so precious a possession that he could not lay it aside, but rather made no account of himself. It was our God who so loved us that he gave himself for us. Now, herein is a wonderful thing. Men tell us that God is, by the very necessity of his nature, incapable of passion, incapable of being moved by inducements from without; that he dwells in holy calm and unchangeable blessedness, untouched by human sufferings or human sorrows…Let us bless God that it is not true. God can feel; God does love. We have scriptural warrant for believing, as it has been perhaps somewhat inadequately but not misleadingly phrased, that moral heroism has a place within the sphere of the divine nature. [29]

The second application is the value of the Incarnation as a pattern of service. The Reformed world today is one of power struggles, where factions vie with each other for control of institutions, of pulpits, of printing presses. Yet Warfield callus us back to the Incarnation as an example that undermines all of our petty pride and scheming. Because Christ ids God manifest in the flesh, we are, says, Warfield, called upon to imitate him. Now, this imitation is clearly not absolute: Christ is unique in that he is God; we, as mere humans and humans alone, cannot imitate the Incarnation in the profoundest sense of the word. But the condescension involved in the Incarnation, the self-denial, the love, the sacrifice, the willingness to give oneself for the benefit of another, these are all elements that we are commanded to imitate. It is in this self-denial that the Christian finds himself living out the true Christian life, and it is perhaps fitting that we close this lecture by allowing Warfield again to speak for himself. His ethic is no sterile moralism; rather, it is an ethic which rises as a command from out of his understanding of Christ as God Incarnate, manifests itself in love to others, and flows back to Christ as the grateful response of redeemed humanity to the God who saves:

Only, when we humbly walk this path, seeking truly in it not our own things but those of others, we shall find the promise true, that he who loses his life shall find it. Only, when, like Christ, and in loving obedience to his call and example, we take no account of ourselves but freely give ourselves to others, we shall find, each in his measure, the saying true of himself also: ‘Wherefore also God hath highly exalted him’. The path of self-sacrifice is the path to glory. [30]

[1] The Works of B B Warfield (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2000). This is a reprint of the ten volume edition published by Oxford University Press.

[2] Cf. the comment of Mark Noll of David Livingstone: ‘[A]lthough several of Warfield’s positions continue to exert considerable influence among theological conservatives, the defence of Calvinism that loomed so large in his own work receives far less attention today.’ ‘Introduction’ in B B Warfield, Evolution, Science, and Scripture: Selected Writings, edited by Mark A Noll and David N Livingstone (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2000), p. 19.

[3] Evolution, Science, and Scripture, pp. 17-18.

[4] John Murray, Collected Writings, 4 vols (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 1976-83), 3, p. 359.

[5] B B Warfield, The Person and Work of Christ, ed. Samuel G Craig (Philadelphia: Presbyterian and Reformed, 1950), pp. 37-70. The quotation is from p. 70.

[6] Person and Work, p. 58.

[7] Warfield himself explicitly addresses this in his article ‘The “Two Natures” and Recent Christological Speculation’ in The Person and Work of Christ, pp. 211-62.

[8] The Person and Work of Christ, p. 211.

[9] Systematic Theology (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 1958), p. 327.

[10] The Person and Work of Christ, pp. 40-41.

[11] The Person and Work of Christ, p. 41.

[12] The Person and Work of Christ, p. 42.

[13] The Person and Work of Christ, pp. 42-43.

[14] The Person and Work of Christ, p. 46.

[15] Collected Writings 3, pp. 358-61.

[16] The Saviour has been reprinted by Banner of Truth.

[17] The original is found in The Person and Work of Christ, p. 570.

[18] The Person and Work of Christ, p. 572.

[19] Collected Writings 3, p. 360.

[20] The Person and Work of Christ, p. 61.

[21] Berkhof, p. 332.

[22] The Person and Work of Christ, pp. 93-145.

[23] The Person and Work of Christ, p. 93.

[24] The Person and Work of Christ, pp. 94-96.

[25] The Person and Work of Christ, p. 121.

[26] The Person and Work of Christ, p. 117.

[27] The Person and Work of Christ, p. 101.

[28] Works, 3, p. 163.

[29] The Saviour, pp. 261-62.

[30] The Saviour, p. 270.