Monday, August 9, 2010

Were Warfield and Machen Reformed?

The renowned Presbyterian theologians B .B. Warfield (1851-1921) and J. Gresham Machen (1881-1937)--founder of Westminster Seminary and the Orthodox Presbyterian Church-- are frequently called upon in support of non-literal views of Genesis.

For example, R. Scott Clark (Recovering the Reformed Confession, 2008) asserts that Warfield and Machen, among others, did not hold to a literalist position on Genesis 1. Since, according to Dr. Clark, their orthodoxy was never questioned, he argues that Reformed orthodoxy should not exclude non-literal interpretations of Genesis 1.

Similar appeals have been made to bring theistic evolution within the fold of orthodox Calvinism. Thus Mark Noll and David Livingstone (B. B. Warfield: Evolution, Science and Scripture, 2000), document Warfield's theistic evolutionism and conclude:
The possibility of a human evolutionary history combined with a theologically permissible materialism was, to Warfield, entirely consistent with his self-perception as an orthodox Calvinist” (p. 37). 

Also D. G. Hart and John Muether (both OPC ruling elders) contend that Warfield had no difficulty with evolution, as long as it was under God's providence, and excepting the direct creation of Adam's soul and Eve's body ("Inerrancy and Design, Old Princeton and Evolution", Ordained Servant Vol.9 (Jan, 2000): 4-6).

Moreover, they note that Machen concurred with Warfield's take on theistic evolution:
"Machen merely continued in the tradition, denying atheistic explanations, while affirming Warfield’s view".

It is thus not surprising that Machen's (1923) famous book Christianity and Liberalism makes no mention of evolution and that Machen turned down an invitation by William Jennings Bryan to testify against evolution at the famous Scopes trial in 1925.

Hart and Muether seemingly approve of Warfield and Machen's views. They link these to intelligent design and assess,
"they offer a better opportunity for credibly engaging the scientific community and meaningfully defending the truth of Christianity than the one now promoted by scientific creationists."

On the other hand, Gary Johnson ("In Defence of Warfield", The Banner of Truth, Aug-Sept 2009) disputes the claim that Warfield was a theistic evolutionist. He contends that Warfield affirmed the historicity of the Genesis account of creation—particularly the special creation of Adam and Eve-- and repeatedly castigated Darwinism, although Warfield did acknowledge micro-evolution.

Nevertheless, that same article contains a response by Peter Barnes, who writes:
"Throughout his life, Warfield held to the day-age theory regarding the days of Genesis 1, and that left him open to the possibility that part of the evolutionary hypothesis might be acceptable. In 1888, he was prepared to say that the evolutionary theory lacked proof but it remained an ‘open question,’ and even claimed that, apart from Eve’s creation, ‘I do not think there is any general statement in the Bible or any part of the account of creation, either as given in Genesis 1 and 2 or elsewhere alluded to, that need be opposed to evolution.’...

"In short [Warfield stated], ‘there is no necessary antagonism of Christians to evolution, provided that we do not hold to too extreme a form of evolution.’ In 1901, Warfield wrote very critically of evolution, but still concluded that ‘the Christian man has as such no quarrel with evolution when confined to its own sphere as a suggestion account of the method of divine providence.’...

"Mark Noll and David Livingstone overdo the extent to which Warfield was prepared to embrace evolution, but there is enough in Warfield’s writings to warrant the conclusion, in the minds of some of us, that the great man, was in the end rather too concessive."

When explicitly asked about his take on Warfield's evolution, Dr. Clark replied

"’s probably it’s true that Warfield held views that many today might reject...but the question is really what defines “Reformed.” Our confessions don’t speak explicitly to theistic evolution. Perhaps they speak implicitly. When we confess that he was created in righteousness and true holiness that might be taken to imply a rejection but that could, theoretically, be a matter for debate. Please don’t misunderstand. I’m opposed to theistic evolution. I don’t think Scripture permits it and I agree heartily with the points on creation adopted by Synod Escondido in 2001, but let’s say Warfield did hold to it. Does that mistake automatically disqualify him from being Reformed and if so, why?...

"Warfield may have erred on a particular point of exegesis but so long as he affirmed that Adam was created in righteousness and true holiness and that in Adam’s fall we fell into sin and death, I don’t see exactly how teaching that he had evolutionary forebears (which, again, I think is a mistake) makes him “non-Reformed.” We need to be very careful in setting tests for orthodoxy to make sure that they have to do with the substance of our faith and arguing that if one doesn’t agree with me on this point of exegesis (e.g. the length of the creation days) that, ipso facto, he is not Reformed is not a wise test. Denying the two natures of Christ, denying reprobation, denying unconditional election, denying the imputation of Adam’s sin, denying infant baptism, teaching paedocommunion, teaching justification through faith and works, these things are sufficient to make one non-Reformed, at least in certain areas.

At the most one might say that, if Warfield is guilty as charged, then we might say that this view implicitly called into question the Reformed anthropology but I doubt that we should say any more than that."

A few remarks:

1. Dr. Clark's assertion-- that teaching theistic evolution does not make one non-Reformed but teaching paedo-communion does-- seems to me the reductio ad absurdum of Clark's brand of confessionalism. Does Clark really believe that paedo-communion "has to do with the substance of our faith", whereas theistic evolution does not? I believe that Dr Clark seriously underestimates the deeper implications of theistic evolution.

2. Surely, one of the defining features of the Reformed faith is a high view of Scripture (e.g., Belgic Confession: "believing without doubt all things contained in the Bible", "the true church rejects all things contrary to Scripture", etc.). Since theistic evolution contradicts the Bible, the obvious Reformed response must be to uphold Scripture and reject theistic evolution. To the extent that Warfield and Machen did not do so, they were clearly non-Reformed, not just in their anthropology but, more importantly, in their epistemology.

3. The Reformed Confessions do in fact explicitly rule out an evolutionary origin of man. Belgic Confession (14): “We believe that God created man of dust from the ground ..." Also, the Westminster Confession specifies creation "in the space of six days".

4. The United Reformed Church Synod 2001 rejected theistic evolution. This makes Warfield and Machen sufficiently non-Reformed to place them beyond the bounds of URC orthodoxy.

5. Note Peter Barnes' observation (above) that it was Warfield's adherence to non-literal creation days that left him open to evolution. Hardly surprising. Once one has let allegedly scientific arguments convince one to waffle on the creation days, the same considerations, consistently applied, will eventually lead one also to embrace theistic evolution.

Non-literal creation days form an untenable halfway house, as witnessed by the steady progression-- Peter Enns, Tremper Longman, Tim Keller,...--from the framework hypothesis of Westminster Sem. to the theistic evolution of  Biologos blog.

6. In conclusion, one cannot argue that, since Warfield and Machen were orthodox, we should accept all their teaching. I think it fair to say that Warfield and Machen were generally soundly Reformed. They were great theologians from whom there is still much to learn. Nevertheless, regretfully, they did depart from Scripture in their treatment of evolution. Hence some of their teaching is non-Reformed.

The lesson to be learned is that even the greatest theologians can err. Therefore we must carefully test the theological spirits by the standard of God's Word.

The first step in recovering the Reformed confession is to recover a proper respect for the authority of God's revealed Word.


Anonymous said...


I still hold to YEC and the literal count because, for instance, these counts clearly laid out which were in the Mind of God/Jesus:

Luk 22:1 Now the Feast of Unleavened Bread drew near, which is called the Passover.

Luk 22:7 Then came the day of Unleavened Bread, on which the Passover lamb had to be sacrificed.

Luk 22:13 And they went and found it just as he had told them, and they prepared the Passover.
Luk 22:14 And when the hour came, he reclined at table, and the apostles with him.

Luk 22:15 And he said to them, "I have earnestly desired to eat this Passover with you before I suffer.
Luk 22:16 For I tell you I will not eat it until it is fulfilled in the kingdom of God."

To each of those citations, at verses, verse one, "drew near", verse seven, "then came the day", verse fourteen, "the hour", verse sixteen, "is fulfilled", you have an exact representation of One counting "time" in creation.

In this account by Luke it is Christ in the fullness of the Godhead doing this and observing these exact times approaching the day and hour of the Passover; and then prophesying the next time they will and we with them will drink and eat together the Passover meal. It would be inconsistent for God to use double standards in counting, it seems to me, to make those claims plausible as "theistic evolution".

Christ is known to be the Alpha and the Omega. He either is or He is not?

What I believe is going on here, and this claim may come across as harsh, goes to this that Jesus said also, here:

Luk 22:52 Then Jesus said to the chief priests and officers of the temple and elders, who had come out against him, "Have you come out as against a robber, with swords and clubs?
Luk 22:53 When I was with you day after day in the temple, you did not lay hands on me. But this is your hour, and the power of darkness."

Jesus speaking here says "But this is your hour, and the power of darkness" referring to the deeds about to be done to Him by them, who also are just as mindful of the Passover and the coming Sabbath day.

Finally, in Chapter 24 these words from the "angel" and those he spoke to "doing" what he said to do also reinforces for me that this present creation was created during literal 24 hour 6 day periods and a seventh day, count, seeing angels and men think exactly the same when keeping track of years, months, days and hours. The angel is exhorting to remember and there then followed remembering:

Luk 24:6 He is not here, but has risen. Remember how he told you, while he was still in Galilee,
Luk 24:7 that the Son of Man must be delivered into the hands of sinful men and be crucified and on the third day rise."
Luk 24:8 And they remembered his words,
Luk 24:9 and returning from the tomb they told all these things to the eleven and to all the rest.

RubeRad said...

Does Clark really believe that paedo-communion "has to do with the substance of our faith", whereas theistic evolution does not?

I think the answer must be yes.

I believe that Dr Clark seriously underestimates the deeper implications of theistic evolution.

I'm sure Clark is aware of the implications. As you quote, "so long as he affirmed that Adam was created in righteousness and true holiness and that in Adam’s fall we fell into sin and death..." Are there deeper implications than those? A more comprehensive guide to deeper implications can be found in the ordination exam topics on page one of the OPC Report on Creation, which, like Clark, rules out evolution while allowing latitude on the length of creation days:

What does subscription not require? Officers are not required to subscribe to the very words of our standards, but rather must be in essential agreement with each doctrine. This is important to remember especially when considering the words, “in the space of six days.” The meaning of these words is not exhausted merely by observing that “six days are six days,” because this is begging the question. Instead, we believe that the doctrine of six-day creation can be preserved through different permissible understandings of the word, “day.”

high view of Scripture (e.g., Belgic Confession

If you're going to rely on Belgic for epistemology, you should not fail to mention the "first" book of article 2. Although to be fair, that is only discussing "means by which we know God", which is quite different than knowing his creation.

one cannot argue that, since Warfield and Machen were orthodox, we should accept all their teaching.

Amen; and this is true of anybody, of course.

john byl said...

Hi RubeRad

Thanks for your comments.

1. As to the Belgic Confession, its reference to the book of nature (Art.2) does indeed stipulate only that it testifies of God (His power and divinity). But, further, it also states that God makes Himself more fully and clearly known in Scripture. Hence Scripture should interpret our observations.

2. What are the deeper implications of theistic evolution? See my post "The Cost of an Old Earth". Here are a few considerations:

a. It introduces a new epistemology (and hermeneutic) where human reasoning, in the form of scientific theorizing, is placed above Scripture, contra Belgic Confession (Art.7).

b. It challenges the historical reliability of much of Gen.1-11 (e.g., creation, universal flood, Babel)and other portions of Scripture that treat these as historical.

c. It thus denies the clarity, inerrancy and authority of Scripture.

d. It generally denies that Adam was the first man and that he was the ancestor of all humans living today (Contra Heidelberg Cat. Q&A7). (See, for example, the versions suggested by Jitse vanderMeer,Tim Keller, Peter Enns.) Peter Enns and Tremper Longman doubt whether Adam even was an actual historical person.

e. Hence the doctrine of original sin (and thus the atonement) must be revised, since not all men could have inherited original sin from Adam (contra Belgic Confession Art.15, Canons 3-4:2).

f. If Adam was not the first man, human physical suffering and physical death occurred before the Fall and are not a result of sin. Adam’s fall—and the curse on the earth—did not significantly affect the earth, plants, animals, or the human body. These must then be part of God's "very good" creation.

RubeRad said...

1. But knowing about creation is different than knowing the creator; the confession (correctly) insists that special revelation is a fuller, clearer picture of God; but that does not mean that scripture offers a fuller, clearer picture of creation.

2. And Clark, by his quote, insists that these implications of theistic evolution are wrong, and must be resisted. I'm sure Machen & Warfield would be with you down the line as well. Didn't Warfield say something about "not too extreme" a version of evolution or something like that? That would indicate he was also aware of implications. (And it is impossible to believe that he would be unaware of the importance of such fundamental doctrines)

At least you came up with a final answer that Warfield & Machen were Reformed, despite problematic views of creation.

John Vandervliet said...

Dr. Byl:
I have my own personal views regarding some of the things talked about here.

In addition to your comment regarding Art. 2 of the BC, in your response to RubeRad, I would like to add that the "first book" is not to be regarded as saying nothing. It is true that it refers to a testifying of God's power and deity, but it is not asking us to superimpose our beliefs on the facts. Rather the article asserts that the creation itself has testimony which should be superimposed on our beliefs. For Romans 1 asserts that no one has an excuse regarding the testimony of creation to the power and deity of God, and not of some power and deity intrinsic to nature itself. It is a statement about the testimony of creation, just as the second part is a statement about the testimony of the Word of God; both of the about God revealing Himself.

Second, in reference to Machen and Warfield, it is one thing to delve into the direct and indirect statements they made about evolution, it is wholly another to suppose that these men would change their view on Scripture and how to interpret it. They were much clearer in their day about keeping a strict differentiation between adiaphora and doctrine.
Whatever their view of evolution, they still maintained a strict view of the Bible.
Which brings up a third point, namely that of how our view of science has changed since the time of Machen and Warfield. The word "science" would mean something different to them. In their time the term 'science' was used more strictly, to refer to things proven true. We still use the term "scientific fact" as if equivalent to "the gospel truth". That is, the term was used to more specifically to refer to truths or facts that were "beyond any doubt".
In our day the term "scientific fact" can now also refer to "probabilistic confidence", which equates for many to "beyond reasonable doubt".

In other words, science despairs of finding absolute proofs in the area of physics and biology. The idea of absolute proof has been superceded by the idea of probabilistic confidence.

The fact that some deduce from this that "probabilistic confidence" equates to "beyond reasonable doubt" begs the question about what constitutes being reasonable. To me that's quite a jump in logic, but apparently not for others.

This is an approach to science which followed the positivistic ideologies of the last Century, after Machen and Warfield, but before most of us. Machen and Warfield, and my science teacher in high school too, would have shivered at the thought. Even Newton's laws were never laws which could never be broken or amended or corrected. Science is always critiquing its own conclusions, suggesting other ideas or alternative theories. Science knew its limits in their day.

John Vandervliet said...


Whatever these men may have believed about evolution cannot relate 1 to 1 with our modern ideas about evolution. They would see evolution as theory and not strictly science, while it seems that a great deal of people have made the "reasonable" jump in logic to regard evolution as science, by today's standards. The idea of "scientific fact" would place evolution on different sides when comparing Machen and Warfield to today's views.

And lastly, the discussion about the relation of evolution to the Bible is not just a debate about evolution, but also about the Bible. And I would say it is more about the Bible. It is not ours to interpret it as we see fit. It is incumbent upon us to interpret the Bible for what it says.

Both sides of the debate can agree with this one point: the six day view is a literal interpretation. That means that it is the only interpretation of all the ones up for discussion which relies solely upon the Word of God, without man imposing his "interpretation" on it. It cannot be both literal and imposed by man: it can only be one or the other. The idea of a regular day is suggested by Scripture itself, as witnessed by the fact of everyone calling it the literal view.

For modern science to have any impact upon the interpreting of Scripture it must have absolute proof to do so, nothing less. Facts from science have to come equally from God for it to coincide with the Bible's own meaning. That calls for absolute proof: the unity of truth holds that only truth may be one with truth. Therefore a science which has settled for "probabilistic confidence" is still far from impacting the interpretation of Scripture, however probabilistic.

To impose the modern theory of Evolution upon the Bible does not elevate Evolution so much as it would devalue the Bible for me. If the Bible has to change with our culture, with our convictions, with our "advancing knowledge", then its authority will always be less than adequate for me, and I would have no certainty at all anymore. I would have to settle for "it is true because I believe it", and lose my conviction of "I believe because it is true."

John Vandervliet

john byl said...

Hi John

Thanks for your comments. I concur with much of what you say.

However, I can’t quite agree with your assertion that Machen and Warfield did not allow their views on evolution or science to affect their strict view of the Bible, and that they clearly separated adiaphora and doctrine.

I grant that Warfield did not consider evolution to be scientifically proven (for an easily accessible account of Warfield’s views on science see

Nevertheless, Warfield’s concessions to the science of his day did in fact affect his view of the Bible. Scientific considerations led Warfield to modify his interpretation of Gen. 1 (day-age notion of the creation days, to allow for an earth perhaps 40 million years old) and Gen.5 & 11 (Warfield postulated gaps in the genealogies to stretch these to whatever age—-perhaps 40,000 years--science had proven). It is also clear that Warfield had no problem re-interpreting Gen.1-3 to accommodate an evolved Adam.

Warfield may have mistakenly considered these to be mere adiaphora. Yet, strictly speaking, adiaphora are those things upon which the Bible is indifferent or silent—not those inconvenient Biblical facts that we want to ignore. Further, the details of Gen.1-11 are in fact closely related to substantial doctrinal matters, such as creation-fall-restoration, original sin, and atonement.

Thus I concluded that Warfield and Machen were mostly Reformed, but not consistently so when it came to questions of origins.

RubeRad said...

How do you know that Warfield and/or Machen failed to hold back the dam of implications, and verged into error on "substantial doctrinal matters, such as creation-fall-restoration, original sin, and atonement."

You quote Warfield as saying "there is no necessary antagonism of Christians to evolution, provided that we do not hold to too extreme a form of evolution," which implies to me that he understood that there are doctrinal lines that a theory of evolution may not cross. Does there exist any specific evidence that, for instance, Warfield denied the necessity of a particular Adam for orthodox doctrines of Fall, Original Sin, Atonement, etc.?

john byl said...


I am not claiming that Warfield and Machen erred on substantial doctrinal matters: I don't believe they did.

My point is that they did, however, concede too much to naturalist science. Others, following through on the logical implications of this, have in fact erred on substantial issues.

JohnV said...

Dr. Byl:

I own a book by Warfield consisting of meditations given for students who met in his home. There are some curiosities in these meditations which raise my eyebrows a bit. So what you say about him is not all that surprising to me.

I'm not trying to say something about Warfield or Machen going beyond my very limited understanding of these men. I've used some of their material during my ordeal in the OPC, so I am familiar with some of their work. Or at least I was some years ago.

What you say may well be true. But I think that my point had more to do with the fallacy of trotting out these men as if they would vote in favour of this or that. They were men, and if they were around today they would make up their own minds.

My point was that as the phrase "scientific fact" and "the gospel truth" were equivalent terms in their day, just as they are about the same today, in their day it meant something different to them than it does to people today. In other words "the gospel truth" for them is not the same idea as "the gospel truth" for many today. But especially "scientific fact" did not mean the same for them as it means to many today.

The RA reasoning goes something like this, briefly: the word "day" means 24 hr. periods to some, and longer periods to others; both are equally superimposed upon the text by men. So if a 24 hr. day is deemed Reformed then why not longer periods also?

Or one could put it this way: the evidence for evolutionistic origins is sufficient to convince us, and therefore sufficient to be offered as a presupposition to interpreting the Bible.

Without making any judgment about Warfield or Machen, I am suggesting that both these men lived in a time when academic standards would have refused this kind of logic, or at least balked at it.

I would add that these men did not have the benefit of seeing some of the results of their conjectures about evolution. To give an idea, in the CRC in '62 a fourteen year old in the CRC had more familiarity with the Heidelberg Catechism than Calvin Seminary graduates did thirty years later. Adopting their creation report in the late '80's was not part of a Reforming process, but was rather part of their dismooring from Reformed standards. That is, neither 14 year olds nor seminary students have turned back to the Heidelberg Catechism for teaching with the earnestness which comes from reforming. The result of this "better" exegesis of Genesis was from deeper appreciation of the Reformed Confessional Standards.

Don't you think that Warfield and Machen would have noticed this trend, as distinct from those of our day who have not noticed it?

That's more the point I was making.


JohnV said...

Excuse me: In the second to last paragraph it should have read, "The result of the "better" exegesis of Genesis was NOT from a deeper appreciation of the Reformed Confessional Standards. JohnV

Anonymous said...

Great thoughts Dr. Byl!

I'm really enjoying your blog, now that I have discovered it. It's humbling to see how so many great men of the past didn't have all their theological ducks lined up. It's such a typical occurance in our day (and in all days before our day) to uncritically accept whatever our evangelical celebrities say, which subtley undermines the authority of scripture.

If John Piper or John MacArthur or Tim Keller or whoever teaches something, we don't ever lose our duty to faithfully check what they say against the scripture. The scriptures alone are the scriptures...even the mighty Westminster Confession can and does err.

Also, I loved the poke on how paedo-communion is of "substance of our faith" where as theistic evolution is not. I've recently been amazed at how many folks attach their own confessional doctrines to core doctrine in order to turn their hobby horse into a golden calf.

If being reformed doesn't necessitate believing in biblical creationism, then being reformed doesn't necessitate other things that have been associated with reformed theology: covenant theology, amillenialism, paedo-communion, presuppositional apologetics, etc.

Anonymous said...

Thank you for your reminder that Warfield and Machen were too much influenced by the science of their time. I am reading (and gaining much benefit I might add) Patrick Fairbairn's Typology of Scripture and ran into exactly the same problem. That does mean however that we also need to be as aware of the influence of the science of our day when it comes to our own interpretation of Scripture.

What we do not recognize may still influence us so it is our responsibility to make our presuppositions more a part of our awareness. Again thank you, I am glad my friend pointed me to your website. I will add a link to your blog on my Reformed Sentinel blog as well.

Hone Phillips