Christian Supernaturalism: 1896 and Today

In September 1896, Benjamin Breckinridge Warfield opened the academic year at Princeton Theological Seminary with an address titled “Christian Supernaturalism.” [1] His intent was to place his finger on the decisive issue of his generation with respect to Christianity and the culture: the secular humanist agenda to impose an anti-supernatural worldview on society. Warfield writes: “To curb the supernatural, yes, that is the labor with which the thinkers of our day have burdened themselves” (p. 28). He pointed out, in contrast, that characteristic of biblical religion: “The supernatural is the very breath of Christianity’s nostrils and an anti-supernaturalic atmosphere is to it the deadliest miasma. An absolutely anti-supernaturalistic Christianity is therefore a contradiction in terms.”
Looking back over the 119 years since Warfield gave that address, we can chart the secularist success precisely in regard to his warning. The 20th century involved the triumphant march of anti-supernaturalism in America and the West. Marching behind its Darwinian phalanx, naturalism claimed the spheres of science, education, law, government, and entertainment. The result is a vast difference between the America of 1900 and of 2000, representing a revolution against divine rule just as sweeping as America’s previous revolution against British rule.
Christians today should connect the cultural shifts of our time to this same historical conflict about which Warfield wrote. First was the theological rift, seen in the Fundamentalist-Modernist controversy of the first half of the twentieth century. Virtually every major Protestant denomination divided over the acceptance or rejection of Jesus’ virgin birth, miracles, and bodily resurrection (i.e., supernaturalism vs. naturalism), with America’s public life aligning with the liberals. By the second half of the twentieth century, the Bible had been sufficiently disarmed to permit a second stage of the revolution, a rebellion against Christian morality. Previous social bans against adultery, cohabitation, divorce, abortion, and even regarding parental authority over children were swept away. As America approached the twenty-first century, the off-shoot was a recasting of social life and the substantial destruction of marriage and the family, resulting in a massive destabilization of our population. The third stage of the secularist revolution is taking place now, a recasting of the human identity itself along pagan lines. Christians are bewildered by the devaluing of human life and the radical assault on biblical (and biological) gender identity. Yet what we face today is merely the next logical extension in a conflict that began in Warfield’s day with the denial of Christian supernaturalism.
Warfield’s lecture noted that the Christian worldview relies on a supernatural conception of the Bible, seeing it not merely as the culture-bound thoughts of men but as the fixed revelation of God’s truth. The importance of this high view of Scripture was clearly understood by courageous and historically-aware twentieth-century Christian leaders. Realizing that the Christian witness, both redemptively and morally, depends on biblical authority, clear thinkers like Carl Henry, Francis Schaeffer, and James Montgomery Boice launched a significant effort to promote and defend the biblical inerrancy. For the past forty years, since the International Council on Biblical Inerrancy and its Chicago Statement in 1978, the dividing line between true and false evangelicals has been biblical inerrancy. Then as now, the Christian church can only oppose the moral chaos of secular unbelief with a Bible that is supernaturally inspired, inerrant, and therefore authoritative.
Warfield gave, if anything, even more emphasis to the supernatural character of creation, as taught in Genesis 1:1, “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.” This verse, the foundation on which the entire biblical worldview stands, notes that the universe has a supernatural rather than merely natural origin. Moreover, it posits that there is a personal Creator, who as the Bible goes on to show, has moral requirements, a sovereign will, and historical purposes. As Warfield notes, it was rebellion against the implications of a personal, sovereign Creator that launched the secular assault against Christian supernaturalism in the first place. “As Christian men, we must at all hazards preserve this super-naturalistic conception of creation,” Warfield opined (p. 34). This insight is just as important for clear-seeing Christians today as is our insistence on Bible inerrancy. An inerrant Bible declares a personal, sovereign Creator, whose fixed will for the creation is the only basis for upholding a fixed and normative order to human life.
The issue of Christian supernaturalism in general, and a supernatural creation in particular, lies just beneath the surface of the gender confusions gaining acceptance and advocacy in our culture today. If there is no personal Creator, and if creation has no normative, fixed rules for human identity, then we are free to construct whatever gender identity our tortured psyches can conceive. Likewise, the only true Christian answer in countering these assaults on the very nature of humanity is that of a creation that answers to a supernatural authority in the person of God. What is the Christian response to attempts to define new and often perverse gender identities? We have one answer only: “God created man in his own image. . . male and female he created them” (Gen. 1:27).
Warfield’s observations regarding the central conflict between supernaturalism and anti-supernaturalism press some significant implications for Christians today. First, can evangelicals fudge on biblical authority when it comes to relationship between men and women, both in the marriage and in the church? The answer is that we must uphold the supernatural authority of the Bible in all that is speaks to directly. Only the Bible as God’s revealed Word can speak credibly against the moral and spiritual idolatry of our time. Second, Warfield would urge us that Christians who wish to accommodate secular cultural by sacrificing the biblical doctrine of creation have in the process disarmed themselves completely in the contest with that culture. There is accumulating evidence of this accommodation, primarily among evangelicals who seek compromise with the culture in order to gain a gospel hearing for salvation in Jesus Christ. The problem is that the very supernaturalism that makes biblical creation offensive to the secularist will make the gospel equally offensive and ridiculous. By sacrificing the decisive issue of Christian supernaturalism at any one point we end up surrendering the entirety of our position and witness.
What would Warfield say to Christians today who propose that we must give in a little in order to gain a gospel hearing from culture? We need not wonder, because Warfield gave his answer almost 120 years ago. Is it acceptable for believers to accommodate the anti-supernatural demands of secular science and culture when it comes to the supernatural basis of creation? Warfield answered, “No, let our answer be: as Christian men, a thousand times, no!” Why must we be so stubbornly militant, at such cultural cost? Because, he noted, to surrender Christian supernaturalism at any point, including creation, is “to eviscerate Christianity of all that makes it a redemptive scheme, of all that has given it power in the earth, [and] of all that has made it a message of hope and joy to lost men” (p. 41).
Over a century ago, Christian thinkers like Warfield were gracious, erudite, and resolutely militant in defending the entirety of the Bible. Two thousand years ago, the apostles were even more militant. Consider Paul’s assessment of the secularist rejection of Christian supernaturalism: “For although they knew God, they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking, and their foolish hearts were darkened” (Rom. 1:21). According to Paul, unbelief wages war against God precisely by denying the supernatural and deifying the natural in an idolatrous replacement of God, the result of which is cultural lunacy. Does this sound familiar? It should, because it is the biblical explanation for the opposition that Christians face in America and the West today. In combatting this rebellion against God, there is perhaps no greater requirement than that Christians heed Warfield’s warning and uphold Christian supernaturalism at every point under contention: creation, Scripture, morality, human identity, and ultimately the decisive issue of divine judgment and gracious salvation. Each of these vital issues is joined together under the supernatural order and rule of God, and for Christians to compromise at any point is to surrender all.

[1] Benjamin B. Warfield, “Christian Supernaturalism,” in The Works of Benjamin B. Warfield, 10 vols. (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1932, reprint 2000), 9:25-46.