B. B. Warfield, the Love of God and the Cross

The Rev. Benjamin Breckinridge Warfield served illustriously as a member of the theological faculty at Princeton for many years. During his great career he wrote often on the subject of the biblical doctrine of the Atonement. In one of these articles he says something which the present Reformed community cannot afford to ignore. The article was entitled, “Modern Theories of the Atonement,” and was re-printed in a volume entitled Studies in Theology (Oxford University Press, 1932, pp. 283–297).

Erroneous, modern views of the Atonement teach, said Warfield, that we are able to get along without “the blood of Christ,” even though “the Scriptures hang the whole atoning fact” upon His sacrifice. He goes on:

“To such a pass have we been brought by the prevailing gospel of the indiscriminate love of God. For it is here that we place our finger on the root of the whole modern assault upon the doctrine of an expiatory atonement. In the attempt to give effect to the conception of indiscriminate and undiscriminating love as the basal fact of religion, the entire Biblical teaching as to atonement has been ruthlessly torn up. If God is love and nothing but love, what possible need can there be of an atonement? Certainly such a God cannot need propitiating. Is not He the All-Father? Is He not yearning for His children with an unconditioned and unconditioning eagerness which excludes all thought of ‘obstacles to forgiveness’? What does He want but—just His children? Our modern theorizers are never weary of ringing the changes on this single fundamental idea. God does not require to be moved to forgiveness; or to be enabled to pardon; or even to be enabled to pardon safely. He raises no question of whether He can pardon, or whether it would be safe for Him to pardon. Such is not the way of love. Love is bold enough to sweep all such chilling questions impatiently out of its path. The whole difficulty is to induce men to permit themselves to be pardoned. God is continually reaching longing arms out of heaven toward men: oh, if men would only let themselves be gathered unto the Father’s eager heart! It is absurd, we are told—nay, wicked blasphemous with awful blasphemy—to speak of propitiating such a God as this, of reconciling Him, of making satisfaction to Him. Love needs no satisfying, reconciling, propitiating; nay, will have nothing to do with such things. Of its very nature it flows out unbought, unpropitiated, instinctively and unconditionally, to its object. And God is Love!

“Well, certainly, God is Love. And we praise Him that we have better authority for telling our souls this glorious truth than the passionate assertion of these somewhat crass theorizers. God is Love! But it does not in the least follow that He is nothing but love. God is Love: but Love is not God and the formula ‘Love’ must therefore ever be inadequate to express God. It may well be—to us sinners, lost in our sin and misery but for it, it must be—the crowning revelation of Christianity that God is love. But it is not from the Christian revelation that we have learned to think of God as nothing but love. That God is the Father of all men in a true and important sense, we should not doubt. But this term ‘All-Father’—it is not from the lips of Hebrew prophet or Christian apostle that we have caught it. And the indiscriminate benevolencism which has taken captive so much of the religious thinking of our time is a conception not native to Christianity, but of distinctly heathen quality. As one reads the pages of popular religious literature, teeming as it is with ill-considered assertions of the general Fatherhood of God, he has an odd feeling of transportation back into the atmosphere of, say, the decadent heathenism of the fourth and fifth centuries, when the gods were dying, and there was left to those who would fain cling to the old ways little beyond a somewhat saddened sense of the benignitas numinis. The benignitas numinis! How studded the pages of those genial old heathen are with the expression; how suffused their repressed life is with the conviction that the kind Deity that dwells above will surely not be hard on men toiling here below! How shocked they are at the stern righteousness of the Christian’s God, who loomed before their startled eyes as He looms before those of the modern poet in no other light than as ‘the hard God that dwelt in Jerusalem’! Surely the Great Divinity is too broadly good to mark the peccadillos of poor puny man; surely they are the objects of His compassionate amusement rather than of His fierce reprobation. Like Omar Khayyam’s poet, they were convinced, before all things, of their Maker that ‘He’s a good fellow and ‘twill all be well.’

“The query cannot help rising to the surface of our minds whether our modern indiscriminate benevolencism goes much deeper than this. Docs all this one-sided proclamation of the universal Fatherhood of God import much more than the heathen benignitas numinis? When we take those blessed words, ‘God is Love,’ upon our lips, are we sure we mean to express much more than that we do not wish to believe that God will hold man to any real account for his sin? Are we, in a word, in these modern days, so much soaring upward toward a more adequate apprehension of the transcendent truth that Cod is love, as passionately protesting against being ourselves branded and dealt with as wrath-deserving sinners? Assuredly it is impossible to put anything like their real content into these great words, ‘God is Love,’ save as they are thrown out against the background of those other conceptions of equal loftiness, ‘God is Light,’ ‘God is Righteousness,’ ‘God is Holiness,’ ‘God is a consuming fire.’ The love of God cannot be apprehended in its length and breadth and height and depth—all of which pass knowledge—save as it is apprehended as the love of a God who turns from the sight of sin with inexpressible abhorrence, and burns against it with unquenchable indignation. The infinitude of His love would be illustrated not by His lavishing of His favor on sinners without requiring an expiation of sin, but by His—through such holiness and through such righteousness as cannot but cry out with infinite abhorrence and indignation—still loving sinners so greatly that He provides a satisfaction for their sin adequate to these tremendous demands. It is the distinguishing characteristic of Christianity, after all, not that it preaches a God of love, but that it preaches a God of conscience.

“A somewhat flippant critic, contemplating the religion of Israel, has told us, as expressive of his admiration for what he found there, that ‘an honest God is the noblest work of man.’* There is a profound truth lurking in the remark. Only it appears that the work were too noble for man; and probably man has never compassed it. A benevolent God, yes: men have framed a benevolent Cod for themselves. But a thoroughly honest God, perhaps never. That has been left for the revelation of God Himself to give us. And this is the really distinguishing characteristic of the God of revelation: He is a thoroughly honest, a thoroughly conscientious God—a God who deals honestly with Himself and us, who deals conscientiously with Himself and us. And a thoroughly conscientious God, we may be sure, is not a God who can deal with sinners as if they were not sinners. In this fact lies, perhaps, the deepest ground of the necessity of an expiatory atonement.

“And it is in this fact also that there lies the deepest ground of the increasing failure of the modern world to appreciate the necessity of an expiatory atonement. Conscientiousness commends itself only to awakened conscience; and in much of recent theologizing conscience does not seem especially active. Nothing, indeed, is more startling in the structure of recent theories of atonement, than the apparently vanishing sense of sin that underlies them. Surely, it is only where the sense of guilt of sin has grown grievously faint, that men can suppose repentance be all that is needed to purge it. Surely it is only where the sense of the power of sin has profoundly decayed, that men can fancy that they can at will cast it off from them in a ‘revolutionary repentance.’ Surely it is only where the sense of the heinousness of sin has practically passed away, that man can imagine that the holy and just God can deal with it lightly. If we have not much to be saved from, why, certainly, a very little atonement will suffice for our needs. It is, after all, only the sinner that requires a Saviour. But if we are sinners, and in proportion as we know ourselves to be sinners, and appreciate what it means to be sinners, we will cry out for that Saviour who only after He was perfected by suffering could become the Author of eternal salvation.”

*Cf. Mr. Edward Day’s “The Social Life of the Hebrews,” 1901, p.207. He is quoting, apparently, the late Mr. Ingersoll.