At War With Warfield – Considerations of an Overstepping Rationality in B.B. Warfield’s Doctrine of Cessationism,

–   At War With Warfield  –

by Matthew Lipscomb


Considerations of an Overstepping Rationality in B.B. Warfield’s Doctrine of Cessationism, in Relation to the Assertion of the Necessary & Balancing Aspects of the Irrational-Numinous, as Found in Rudolf Otto’s Idea of the Holy; with Contextual References to Various Other Religious Thinkers & Theorists.



Few issues present themselves to be as divisive, as the interpretation and manifestations of the ‘gifts of the spirit’ in the modern church reveal themselves to be. Even fewer people serve as such great dividing points, in this controversy-filled crux, as much as does the theology of Benjamin Breckinridge Warfield (1851-1921). His book, Counterfeit Miracles, has for many years been considered the de facto standard defense of cessationist pneumatology – or – the theological stance that the manifestations of the Holy Spirit (as documented in the book of Acts) no longer occur in similar nature today.[1] But did he go too far? Did the theologian often regarded as the ‘last great lion of Princeton’[2] roar too greatly – and maybe even in the wrong direction? Lutheran theologian, Rudolf Otto (1869-1937), in his book, The Idea of the Holy, agued that a balance exists between rationality and the irrational – and – that in a very important sense, they serve to both critically and necessarily balance each other. Otto held to the position that unreasonable or potentially irrational spiritual events are normal to authentic understandings of spiritual realities, and that they can and still do occur[3]– whereas Warfield argued (on the premise of them being irrational)[4] that they no longer did. Did Warfield break this proposed balance and possible even conflate the two? In this paper the author will attempt to determine if Warfield’s cessationism is potentially a conflation and/or improper imposition upon Otto’s understanding of the Numinous: the tremendous, fascinating and fearful mystery of the otherworldly divine operations.


For many years, the ideas of the belief in and practice of the ‘gifts of the spirit’ were linked with the motifs of backward thought and impoverished living. Peter Adair’s 1967 documentary Holy Ghost People,[5] serves as an illustration of just such a proposed illumination of what some would consider the fringe of the continuationist[6] movement: the black and white images of the back-woods, semi-literate West Virginians of Scrabble Creek; handling snakes, ecstatically dancing, and evoking images of someone, somewhere having ‘gone off the rails,’ theologically speaking, ‘a fur piece back.’ Such potentially denigrating stereotypes existed everywhere – even in the big cities, where Pentecostal worship was present; albeit absent the snakes and strychnine. In years past, anyone, anywhere who practiced ‘speaking in tongues,’ or such related practices, were often directly told that they were either channeling demons or were just plain, out-right heretics.[7] However – contra the efforts of many main-line cessationist, warfieldian-influenced denominations – Pentecostalism and it’s modern itineration, the Charismatic movement, both did and have continued to grow and achieve greater middle to upper-class penetration,[8] and have as well made the contribution of many notable Pentecostal scholars.[9] But regardless of their increased popularity and growing academic gravitas – the Pentecostal/Charismatic movements maintain an emphasis on something bigger and beyond themselves – the Holy Spirit: what Otto would potentially consider a very real embodiment of his concept of the Numinous.[10]


In the opening chapter of his book The Idea of the Holy, Rudolf Otto makes the assertion that contrary to a common understanding that “orthodoxy is the mother of rationalism,” it cannot in fact fully do justice to the non-rational component of ‘God-as-He-is,’[11] or – to use the language which Warfield would have been comfortable with – the theologia archtypa.[12] Even though he acknowledges that the rationalist imperative is not an assertion that is without merit, Otto argues for the inclusion of what he refers to as the Numinous: the inexpressible or ineffable aspects of the Divine.[13] His assertion is essentially representational of a tidewater in the theological historicity of the conversation; one that flows back and forth – sometimes from one extreme to the other, and sometimes even suffers from the attempts of others to do away with it altogether. Examples of this attempted removal are varied – and usually related to the area of study for the religious polemicist in question. Examples include the economic reductionism of Karl Marx (1818-1883);[14] who tried to resolve the numinous-spiritual into mere economic forces allegedly only used to oppress the lower classes,[15] and the psychological reductionism of Sigmund Freud (1856-1939);[16] who stated that anybody who was religious was essentially psychologically sick.[17] Other attempts to explain away the existential authenticity of the supernaturality of Otto’s idea of the Numinous include the sociological reductionism of Émile Durkheim[18] (1858-1917) and the related anthropological of E.B. Tylor[19] (1832-1917) & James G. Fraiser[20] (1854-1941). All these interpretive religious/social theorists owe some part of their thinking to Ludwig Feurbach (1804-1872) – who is the father of the statement that “all theology is anthropology;”[21] which is a ways of arguing that anything spiritual always comes back to man in some way.


But it was another warfieldian cessationist, J. Gresham Machen, who argued that it was impossible to conflate the natural and the supernatural – and that the two had to be understood to properly be in relation to one another, but also separate in a true Ottoian sense. Machen argued that liberal Christianity was a failure for this express reason – because it had attempted to supplant the ‘irrational history’ – that was supposedly presented in the ontological posit of an implied-to-be supernatural Christ. Machen insisted that without the scriptural supernatural – however irrational it might appear to be to whomever in its presentation – there is no true scriptural history without it; and without a true history – there is no true Gospel.[22] But whether it is traditional liberal thinking or just brute force rationalism, these forces work in a very real sense to “routinize’ the “charisma” of theology and especially it’s component of charismatic-inclined pneumatological doctrine. 


Max Weber (1864-1920) discusses the concept of the routinization of the charisma of theology/spirituality – or how innovation, energy, danger, and unpredictability (ottoian numinosity) serve as a form of life, which, as time progresses, are rendered static, dead, safe and predictable by institutional structure and a formal ecclesiastical establishment responsible for doctrinal formulation and preservation, via what he called “formalistic juristic rationalism.”[23] Weber discusses how the “prophetic” speaks back against these sterilizing, normalizing tendencies.[24] Warfield himself attempted to speak prophetically against the forces of modernity/liberalism in relation to the established understanding of the the bible, spending a large portion of his time defending it’s “inerrancy” against the forces of historical criticism – which he strongly perceived as a great threat to the faith and integrity of the life of the church. Warfield argued for the necessity of an affirmation of plenary inspiration in regards the scriptures, and that it was, in the words of theologian Clark Pinnock, “an essential concomitant of the doctrine of inspiration.”[25]


Sometimes a prophetic voice speaks in terms of a simplicity for the purpose of establishing a means of restoring charisma  – as did Luther with his Theologia Crucis (a theology centered on the cross).[26] Such prophets can speak in a myriad of corrective ways – and not just from an academic standpoint.  Weber argued that prophetic correction/charismatic re-endowment can take place within both ethical (telling) and exemplary (showing) dimensions. Personal experience often carries an important capacity for charisma; such as experiential prayer, or the testimonies of individuals who have spoken fluently in languages that they have never learned.[27] These dynamics fall on the prophetic-exemplary side of charismatic renewal/emphasis.


Warfield may well have served as a prophetic-charismatic agent in terms of his focus on the issue of the inerrancy of scripture; which served well in a prophetic-ethical dimension – but he may well have functioned as an institutional-routinizing agent, in terms of his pneumatology[28] – by express virtue of his marginalization of the prophetic-exemplary dimensions intrinsic to the continuationist pneumatologic interpretation, which stood contra in relation to his own adopted cessationist position. He showed more prophetic function in his telling-ethical, rather then the exemplary-showing/feeling as was actively espoused by the charisma of the Pentecostal advocates of his day. In this sense – it might be argued that he was half-wrong, but also half-right.


If the last lion of Princeton was wrong when it came to a fully integrated prophetic pneumatology- then his penultimate mistake was placing too much emphasis on his own reason. Warfield may have committed the reductionist turn by aligning his theological method too closely with his own anthropology – or his own thinking. Mircea Eliade (1907-1986) argued that religion must be explained on it’s own terms, that life can be changed by the sacramental, and that symbols are essentially the keys. Often these symbols become what he referred to as “heirophanies”[29] – a term used to describe a “sacred appearing.” Eliade argued that historically society has by default always attempted to re-root its self back into the “Eternal” – or what it perceived, as it’s intrinsic spiritual foundations – a religious/societal dynamic he referred to as “the Myth of the Eternal Return.”[30] Eliade believed that this ‘movement’ and the frustrations thereof could be readily witnessed in the dynamics of a culture.  It is in alignment with this assertion, that Ottoian thought represents a rehabilitation of the mystical: a prophetic correction to the formalized, rationalization-centric and intended-to-be-decent, safe, and respectable – if not in anything else then the word secularized – notion of theology. If Warfield’s rationalism is a form of secularist-routinization, then it could be argued that the pentecostal experienced may actually be an archetypically-Hegelian synthesized Eliadian “Eternal Return,” functioning as an extant heirophany, and also arguably, a prophetic-charismatic break with the overly-secularized routinization tendency that modern theology/liberalism represented (and that Warfield, ironically, battled so much against); back to something eternal, wild, otherworldly-foundational and dangerous. As it was then –it is still today; more and more people seek to embrace a foundation that is beyond their own self-acknowledged finitude; echoing in this movement, the steps of the generations of seekers that came long before them.


A full discursive analysis of these questions – given the space allowed here – is genuinely impossible. Only a precursory contestation can be made – and even that, in a somewhat tangential manner, considering the scope of the issue and all it’s ramifications and implications. When all is said and done – it may prove impossible to adequately adjudicate the lines of reason, non-reason and the amorphous regions in between. As Paul Tillich notes in his book The Protestant Era, it is a central thesis to Protestantism itself that “no individual and no human group can claim a divine dignity…for its doctrine.”[31] Because of this, Tillich argues that good theology (orthodoxy) and it’s attendant good practice thereof (orthopraxy) is always intrinsically rooted in the ultimate responsibility of the individual, and not in any established ecclesiastical structure – appropriately echoing Weber in his “thesis” of an inwardly-manifest pietism, functioning from an expressly-individualistic emphasis, as being the driving force behind the early machineries of European commerce and capitalism.[32] One must “decide for himself whether a doctrine is true or not, whether a prophet is a true or a false prophet, whether a power is demonic or divine.” 


It is easily arguable that Warfield was as reductionistic in his pneumatological formulation as his ideological adversaries both before and after him were. It can also be shown that by nature of a potential marginalization of any Ottoian numinosity, he haphazardly routinized charisma in a weberian-sense with a “formalistic juristic rationalization”[33] run amok, and that he may have resultantly only theologically inhabited only one sphere of the prophetic task. The supreme irony may lie with the fact that such a theologian – with a sincere and uncompromising view of Christ, Scripture and the necessity for a critical, life-endowing vibrancy thereof and thereby as he possessed – may have in fact been flippantly dismissive of the proper soteriological dynamics behind a real-world Eliadian prophetic-hierophany and a pnematological movement mirroring the concept and dynamics of “The Eternal Return.”


It is possible the B.B. Warfield would agree to at least this much: that doctrines must constantly be thought of in terms of what we think they are and what is actually present in the actual mind and heart of God – because as a good Princetonian theologian – he would have recognized the difference between the theologia archtypa and theologica ectype; “the knowledge of God which he has of himself” and the knowledge of God “which he has made available via revelation to humanity.”[34] And so both he and we should ask the same question: ‘how good is our copy?” Have we managed to bridge the “vast epistemic gulf”[35] between God and man in some way that is at least in part sufficient for the task we have committed ourselves to? And this is, of all things, a question that necessarily must – in true ottoian fasion – be left open and unanswered in our minds – truly numinous – for generations of theologians and believers to come.










Adair, Peter. “Holy Ghost People, 1967”. Internet Movie Database. 11/20/2009 <;.


Chrisope, Terry A. Towards a Sure Faith, J. Gresham Machen and the Dilemma of Biblical Criticism. Ross-shire, Great Britian: Christian Focus Publications, 2000.


Chung, Sung Wook. Alister E. McGrath & Evangelical Theology – A Dynamic Engagement. Glascow, Great Britain: Paternoster Press & Baker Acedemic, 2003.


Cross, Terry L., and Emerson B. Powery. The Spirit and the Mind – Essays in Informed Pentecostalism, To Honor Dr. N. Bowdle, Presented on his 65th Birthday. Lanham, ML: University Press of America, Inc., 2000.


Feurerbach, Ludwig. “Feuerbach, Essence of Christianity, Preface to the Second Edition”. Marxists Internet Archive. 11/20/2009 <;.


Grenz, Stanley J. Renewing the Center – Evangelical Theology in a Post-Theological Era. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2000.


Johnson, Gary L. W., and Ronald N. Gleason. Reforming or Conforming – Post-Conservative Evangelicals and the Emerging Church. Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2008.


Lipscomb, Byron & Linda. Personal interview. 20 November 2009.


Otto, Rudolf. The Idea of the Holy. New York,  NY: Oxford University Press, 1958.


Pals, Daniel L. Eight Theories of Religion. New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2006.


Pals, Daniel L. Introducing Religion, Readings from the Classic Theorists. New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2009.


Poloma, Margaret. “Charisma and Institution: The Assemblies of God”. Christian Century Foundation. 11/20/2009 <;.


Riddlebarger, Kim. “Riddleblog – B. B. Warfield — The Lion of Princeton”. The Riddleblog, Devoted to Reformed Theology & Eschatology. 11/20/2009 <;.


Tillich, Paul. The Protestant Era. Chicago, IL: Pheonix Books, The University of Chicago Press, 1973.


Warfield, Benjamin B. Counterfeit Miracles. New York,  NY: Charles Scibner’s Sons, 1918.


[1] B.B. Warfield, Counterfeit Miracles, pgs. 52, 55, and 59.

[3] Rudolf Otto, The Idea of the Holy, pg. 3.

[4] Warfield quotes Adolf Harnack – “Feuilltonists in monk’s clothings’ made romances and novels out of the real and the invented experiences of the penitents, and the ancient world delighted itself with this preciosity of renunciation.”  B.B. Warfield, Counterfeit Miracles, pg 63. Counterfeit Miracles can be downloaded from Google Books, [].

[5] The Holy Ghost People, _

[6] ‘Continuationism’ represents the theological antithesis of Cessationism, as espoused by pentecostal & charismatic practioners & adherents.

[7] From an interview with Byron and Linda Lipscomb regarding persecution of Pentecostals in Cleveland, Ohio in the 1940-1970’s. Persecution and condemnation from the pulpits of mainline denominations was wide spread and to be expected.

[8] Charisma and Institution: The Assemblies of God, by Margart Poloma, professor of sociology, University of Akron in Ohio, [].

[9] Terry L. Cross and Emerson B. Powery, The Spirit and the Mind – Essays in Informed Pentecostalism, To Honor Dr. N. Bowdle, Presented on his 65th Birthday.

[10] Rudolf Otto, The Idea of the Holy, pgs. 12-13.

[11] Rudolf Otto, The Idea of the Holy, pg. 3.

[12] See footnote #32.

[13] Rudolf Otto, The Idea of the Holy, pg. 6.

[14] Daniel L. Pals, Eight Theories of Religion, pg. 135.

[15] Daniel L. Pals, Eight Theories of Religion, pg. 134.

[16] Daniel L. Pals, Eight Theories of Religion, pg. 77.

[17] Daniel L. Pals, Eight Theories of Religion, pg. 77.

[18] Daniel L. Pals, Eight Theories of Religion, pg. 113.

[19] Daniel L. Pals, Eight Theories of Religion, pg. 24.

[20] Daniel L. Pals, Eight Theories of Religion, pg. 32.

[21] “Thus in the first part I show that the true sense of Theology is Anthropology…” from the preface to the second edition of Essence of Christianity, Ludwig Feuerbach. Available online at [].

[22] Terry A. Chrisope, Towards a Sure Faith, J. Gresham Machen and the Dilemma of Biblical Criticism, 1881-1915, pg. 149.

[23] Daniel L. Pals, Introducing Religion, pg. 266.

[24] Daniel L. Pals, Eight Theories of Religion, pg. 166.

[25] Stanley J. Grenz, Renewing the Center – Evangelical Theology in a Post-Theological Era, pg. 138.

[26] Alister E. McGrath & Evangelical Theology – A Dynamic Engagement, pg.7.

[27] From an interview with Byron and Linda Lipscomb regarding persecution of Pentecostals in Cleveland, Ohio in the 1940-1970’s. The story is related of Peggy McConnell, who was recalled to have appeared to have sung the song Amazing Grace in a distinctly separate tongue & diction from her own. Peggy McConnell was noted to have had only an 12th grade education and at that time, no formal training or inadvertent exposure to other languages. She was confirmed to often apparently ‘sing in other languages’ on many different occasions, and in such a way that many “seasoned” pentecostals/charismatics were on many occasions distinctly awed.

[28] Theological term related to doctrines and practices regarding the Holy Spirit.

[29] An appearance of the sacred within the ways and means of life. It is derived from the Greek words hieros and phainein meaning “sacred appearance”). Daniel L. Pals, Eight Theories of Religion, pg. 197.

[30] Daniel L. Pals, Eight Theories of Religion, pgs. 213-220.

[31] Paul Tillich, The Protestant Era, pg. 227.

[32] Daniel L. Pals, Eight Theories of Religion, pg. 166.

[33] Daniel L. Pals, Introducing Religion, pg. 266. Daniel L. Pals, Eight Theories of Religion, pg. 201.

[34] From the chapter “Right Reason” and Theological Aesthetics at Old Princeton Seminary from Reforming or Conforming – Post-Conservative Evangelicals and the Emerging Church, pg. 137.

[35] From the chapter “Right Reason” and Theological Aesthetics at Old Princeton Seminary from Reforming or Conforming – Post-Conservative Evangelicals and the Emerging Church, pg. 137.


About hollerscholar

I'm a theology & philosophy student, writer, web developer, and medical laboratory professional.
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