Lessons from B. B. Warfield’s “The Religious Life of Theological Students”

Benjamin B. Warfield’s famous lecture “The Religious Life of Theological Students” delivered at Princeton Theological Seminary on October 4, 1911 is still very fresh and relevant to theological students in our time.

Warfield’s instructions and cautions appeal to us today as they did to those before us over a century ago. I believe these theological truths will continue to speak to theological students for generations to come. What follows is a perusal of the material with the aim of stressing out some of the lessons he emphasized that speak to the seminarian in the contemporary time.

Warfield on the purpose of going to seminary

Warfield was right in affirming that Seminary helps to prepare the student intellectually since it exists for this very purpose. A man who claims to be called by God for ministry but arrogantly refuses to avail himself for this form of intellectual training obtainable in the Seminary is not ready for the ministry. In the words of Warfield, “a man without learning, no matter with what other gifts he may be endowed, is unfit for its duties.”

It is surprising how many people in our time seem to overlook this warning sounded by Warfield. Today many a preacher claim they have been called by God but at the same time literally resent any suggestion of going to the Seminary to be trained for the purpose of carrying out this task effectively. Some even claim openly and shamelessly that the Seminary is nothing but a cemetery where passion and spiritual vision are destroyed. Such a claim does not only stem from unfounded arrogance and pride, but also ignorance and stupidity.

The danger of knowledge without character

Warfield also observed that intellectual learning alone does not make a minister of the Gospel. A basic criterion for effective ministry is godliness. The man of God must be godly to be able to learn and teach effectively. In his exact words, “But aptness to teach alone does not make a minister; nor is it his primary qualification. It is only one of a long list of requirements which Paul lays down as necessary to meet in him who aspires to this high office. And all the rest concern, not his intellectual, but his spiritual fitness.”

While intellectual knowledge is important for ministry, spiritual character is equally important. Having one without the other is fatal to ministry. For Warfield, “nothing could be more fatal” in ministry “than to set these two things against one another.” Theological students must be well trained intellectually and well nourished spiritually. They must be “good students” and at the same time “men of God.”

There is a certain danger in trying to dichotomize spiritual life and the academic life. Although the two are not the same, they are nevertheless closely linked together that they ought not to be separated. According to Warfield, “Religion does not take a man away from his work; it sends him to his work with an added quality of devotion.” The desire to study must go hand in hand with the desire to grow spiritually. “There is certainly something wrong with the religious life of a theological student who does not study. But it does not quite follow that therefore everything is right with his religious life if he does study,” says Warfield.

“Are you alive to what your privileges are?”

The Seminary student must make every effort to avoid the danger of becoming over-familiar with religious things. Because he is constantly exposed to the things of God, there is a high degree of tendency to trivialize them. This is a great privilege that can be taken for granted.

Warfield asks: “Are you alive to what your privileges are? Are you making full use of them? Are you, by this constant contact with divine things, growing in holiness, becoming every day more and more men of God?” For Warfield, failure to see this as a great privilege and to grow in grace is a sign that the theological student is drifting away and hardening. A serious minded theological student will be diligent in his studies and at the same time committed to grow in grace on daily basis.

Benjamin B. Warfield, The Religious Life of Theological Students. A Lecture Delivered on October 4, 1911 at Princeton Theological Seminary. Published by P&R Publishing, New Jersey.

By Seth Kajang Bature. Seth is a student at Westminster Theological Seminary, PA.

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