The Supernatural Cessationist: a book review

Book Cover I’m no expert on B.B. Warfield. As a student in (un)seminary I read some Warfield-his treatment on inspiration, providence and the nature of theology. I also have read a decent chunk of Counterfeit Miracles. What I do know of Warfield was that he was the end of an era. He was the last defender of a broad consensus in Evangelical theology. As one of ‘Old Princeton,’ in the tradition of men like Archibald Alexander, C.H. Hodge and A.A. Hodge he was one of the great minds of 19th Century Evangelicalism in the Calvinist tradition. He was sholarly and able to pull together various disciplines. Schooled in Scottish Common Sense Realism, he was empirical in his approach and an opponent of the rationalism of higher critical readers of the Bible on the one hand and the emotionalism of much evangelicalism on the other.

But what does Warfield have to teach us about the Christian life? More importantly, what does he have to teach me? Unlike Warfield I am not particularly Calvinist, not as empirical in my theology and not a cessationist. I am a postmodern, charismatic (albeit a cautious one) evangelical. What does Warfield have to teach me?

In Warfield on the Christian Life, part of Crossway’s Theologians on the Christian Life series, Fred Zaspel presents the broad contours of Warfield’s theology with an eye to its practical import. Zaspel is a faithful interpreter of Warfield and the pages of this book are peppered with references and quotes from Warfield’s own works. This book is organized into five sections: part 1 presents Warfield’s personal background. Part 2 gives us a window on Warfield’s basic understanding of the broad contours of the Christian life. In part 3, Zaspel shows us Warfield’s view of our proper orientation and perspective as Christians (as simultaneous sinners and saints, as children of God, resting in divine providence). Part 4 presents the practical implications of Warfield’s theology and his advice on spiritual disciples. Part 5 has Zaspel’s summary reflections on Warfield which form a fitting conclusion to the book.

Zaspel does not address some of the aspects of Warfield’s theology which many contemporary evangelicals might find controversial (i.e. his openness to theistic evolution and his cessationist views do not figure prominently); however, he does a great job of presenting Warfield’s insights into the nature of the Christian life as a supernatural reality. I really appreciated a lot of his theology and frankly, found Zaspel’s presentation inspiring at several points. Here are somethings I really, really liked:

  • Warfield’s refutation of Keswick/Finney style perfectionism. I think he’s spot on and his view of the process of sanctification and our journey towards perfection does justice to human experience and the biblical account.
  • Warfield is an apt defender of classic Evangelicalism and he is always thoughtful and challenging. I appreciated his thoughts on our goals and values, our orientation and our hope as Christians.
  • Warfield’s exortations to imitate Christ and cultivate piety through various disciplines and prayer are an inspiration. He argues that piety is cultivated through learning (especially biblical learning), corporate worship, prayer, meditation and devotional reading.
  • Warfield’s understanding of prayer as having both an objective and subjective basis, and objective and subjective result were instructive to me. I am always critical of authors on prayer who advocate too instrumental of an approach to prayer. In contrast, Warfield says our basis for prayer is Jesus Christ and (subjectively) our faith. The result is Communion with God and (subjectively) our answers to prayer. This approach does not deny that God answers prayer or that faith is important but stresses the real basis and goal of prayer.
  • I love the intellectual rigor Warfield employed. This is not your typical anti-intellectual evangelical fluff. Warfield was thoughtfully engaged with scholarship in his age, while being prayerfully attentive to God in his study.

Of course I don’t agree with Warfield on everything but I found this presentation of his theology instructive and challenging. Zaspel does a good job of synthesizing Warfield and presenting his views in a way that is engaging and understandable. and BB proves a worthy interlocutor for our age. I love the idea for this series and I think that we need to engage some of our great minds of the past. Warfield is a good choice.

Thank you to Crossway books for providing me with a copy of this book in exchange for this review.