B.B. Warfield: Use of Evidence in Apologetics Not Necessarily Rationalistic

B.B. Warfield has been accused of being influenced by the rationalism of the Enlightenment, mediated by the Scottish Common Sense of Philosophy. It is further claimed that Warfield’s apologetics is premised on a person-neutral view of reason and criteria of truth. This accusation is incorrect. Warfield stresses that evidence by itself is not sufficient to bring a person to faith in Christ. Nevertheless, the presentation of objective evidence and argument is necessary precisely because the work of the Holy Spirit in bringing saving understanding and saving faith includes opening the eyes of the blind to information which is conducive towards faith.

The passages given below confirm that Warfield’s apologetics is cognizant of the noetic effects of sin and as such, saving faith is the gift of God through the Holy Spirit. Warfield’s dialectical balance between evidence and the necessity of the Holy Spirit in bringing faith should give pause to critics who claim that his apologetics is rationalistic.


I. No one is in danger of believing that “the evidences” can produce “faith”: but neither can the presentation of Christ in the gospel produce “faith.” “Faith” is the gift of God. But it does not follow that the “faith” that God gives is not grounded in “the evidences.” Of course it is only the prepared heart that can fitly respond to the force of the “evidences,” or “ receive ” the proclamation : just as it is only the eye that can see, as Dr. Bavinck explains, to which the sun can reveal itself. But this faith that the prepared heart yields,—is it yielded blindly and without reason, or is it yielded rationally and on the ground of sufficient reason? Does God the Holy Spirit work a blind and ungrounded faith in the heart? What is supplied by the Holy Spirit in working faith in the heart surely is not a ready-made faith, rooted in nothing and clinging without reason to its object; nor yet new grounds of belief in the object presented; but just a new power to the heart to respond to the grounds of faith, sufficient in themselves, already present to the mind. Our Reformed fathers did not overlook this: they always posited the presence, in the production of faith, of the “argumentum, propter quod credo” [the argument for what I believe], as well as the “principium seu causa efficiens a quo ad credendum adducor” [the principle or efficient cause by which I am led to believe]. From this point of view, the presence to the mind of the “grounds” of faith is just as essential as the creative operation of the Giver of faith itself.

Perhaps we should say even more. The Holy Spirit does not produce faith without grounds. But the “ground” may and do produce a faith without that specific operation of the Holy Spirit by which alone saving faith can be created in the soul. In saying this we have the fullest support from Dr. Bavinck’s own exposition. He tells us that the rational arguments which are urged in favor of the truth of Christianity are of great use in silencing gainsayers. How can they so operate if they are adapted to produce no conviction in the minds of the gainsayers? He remarks again that these rational arguments can of themselves produce nothing more than “historical faith.” This is true. But then “historical faith” is faith—is a conviction of mind; and it is, as Dr. Bavinck elsewhere fully allows, of no little use in the world. The truth therefore is that rational argumentation does, entirely apart from that specific operation of the Holy Ghost which produces saving faith, ground a genuine exercise of faith. This operation of the Spirit is not necessary then to produce faith, but only to give to a faith which naturally grows out of the proper grounds of faith, that peculiar quality which makes it saving faith.

Perhaps we may make this clear by an illustration drawn from the specific instance of “faith in God.” Even as sinner, man cannot but believe in God; the very Devils believe—and tremble. But as sinner, man cannot have faith in God in the higher sense of humbly trusting in Him. Precisely what sin has done to man is to destroy the root of this trust by altering the relation to God in which man stands. Man as sinner is, of course, just as truly and just as entirely dependent on God as he was in his unfallen state; and because he is self-conscious he remains conscious of this, his relation of dependence on God; so long as he remains human he cannot escape the consciousness of dependence on God. But this consciousness no longer bears the same character as in the unfallen state. In the unfallen state consciousness of dependence on God took the “form” of glad and loving trust. By destroying the natural relation that exists between God and His creature and instituting a new relation—that proper to God and sinner—sin has introduced a new factor into the functioning of all human powers. The sinner instinctively and by his very nature, as he cannot help believing in God, in the intellectual sense, so cannot possibly exercise faith in God in the fiducial sense. On the contrary faith in this sense has been transformed into its opposite—faith has passed into unfaith, trust into distrust. Faith now takes the “form” of fear and despair. The reestablishment of it in the “form” of loving trust cannot be the work of the sinner himself. It can result only from a radical change in the relation of the sinner to God, brought home to the sinner by that creative act of the Holy Ghost which we call the testimonium Spiritus Sancti. Of course this restored “faith of trust” is not precisely the same thing as the “faith of trust” in unfallen man: it differs from that as a forgiven sinner differs from one who has never sinned. But this difference is not the important thing for our present purpose. That is the outstanding fact that “faith in God” is natural to man, belongs to him in all his states alike, and rests throughout them all on its proper grounds. What differs from state to state is the “form” taken by this faith—whether it is “formed” by trust or by fear. It cannot be hopeless, therefore, to produce in the sinner that form of conviction we call faith, by the presentation of the evidence on which it rests. What is hopeless is to produce by this evidence the “form” which faith takes in the regenerated sinner. That comes only by the operation of the Spirit of God. But faith without this is not therefore useless and of little worth.

Source: Selected Shorter Writings of Benjamin B. Warfield. Ed., John E. Meeter. 2 vols. (Presbyterian & Reformed 1970, 1973), pp. 114-117.


II. Faith is the act of the mind, and can come into being only by an act of the mind, expressive of its own state. There are two factors in the production of faith. On the one hand, there is the evidence on the ground of which the faith is yielded. On the other hand, there is the subjective condition by virtue of which the evidence can take effect in the appropriate act of faith. There can be no belief, faith without evidence; it is on evidence that the mental exercise which we call belief, faith rests; and this exercise or state of mind cannot exist apart from its ground in evidence. But evidence cannot produce belief, faith, except in a mind open to this evidence, and capable of receiving, weighing, and responding to it. A mathematical demonstration is demonstrative proof of the proposition demonstrated. But even such a demonstration cannot produce conviction in a mind incapable of following the demonstration…Something more, then, is needed to produce belief, faith, besides the evidence which constitutes its ground. The evidence may be objectively sufficient, adequate, overwhelming. The subjective effect of belief, faith is not produced unless this evidence is also adapted to the mind, and to the present state of that mind, which is to be convinced. The mind, itself, therefore—and the varying states of the mind—have their parts to play in the production of belief, faith; and the effect which is so designated is not the mechanical result of the adduction of the evidence. No faith without evidence; but not, no evidence without faith. There may stand in the way of the proper and objectively inevitable effect of the evidence, the subjective nature or condition to which the evidence is addressed. This is the ground of responsibility for belief, faith; it is not merely a question of evidence but of subjectivity; and subjectivity is the other name for personality. Our action under evidence is the touchstone by which is determined what we are. If evidence which is objectively adequate is not subjectively adequate the fault is in us.” [pp. 335-336]

Warfield attributes the fault of unbelief to the sinful heart which is enmity to God and is incapable of the supreme act of trust in God. However, God communicates to sinful man the capacity for faith not in a mechanical manner but through the Holy Spirit work of regeneration.

The mode of the divine giving of faith is represented rather as involving the creation by God the Holy Spirit of a capacity for faith under the evidence submitted. It proceeds by the divine illumination of the understanding, softening of the heart, and quickening of the will, so that the man so affected may freely and must inevitably perceive the force and yield to the compelling power of the evidence of the trustworthiness of Jesus Christ as Saviour submitted to him in the gospel. In one word the capacity for faith and the inevitable emergence in the heart of faith are attributed by the Christian revelation to that great act of God the Holy Spirit which has come in Christian theology to be called by the significant name of Regeneration. [p. 337]

Warfield concludes,

The reëstablishment of this faith in the sinner must be the act not of the sinner himself but of God. This because the sinner has no power to render God gracious, which is the objective root, or to look to God for favor, which is the subjective root of faith in the fiducial sense. Before he can thus believe there must intervene the atoning work of Christ canceling the guilt by which the sinner is kept under the wrath of God, and the recreative work of the Holy Spirit by which the sinner’s heart is renewed in the love of God. There is not required a creation of something entirely new, but only a restoration of an old relation and a renewal therewith of an old disposition. Accordingly, although faith in the renewed man bears a different character from faith in unfallen man, inasmuch as it is trust in God not merely for general goodness but for the specific blessing of salvation—that is to say it is soteriological—it yet remains essentially the same thing as in unfallen man. It is in the one case as in the other just trust—that trust which belongs of nature to man as man in relation to his God. And, therefore, though in renewed man it is a gift of God’s grace, it does not come to him as something alien to his nature. It is beyond the powers of his nature as sinful man; but it is something which belongs to human nature as such, which has been lost through sin and which can be restored only by the power of God. In this sense faith remains natural even in the renewed sinner…Because man is a sinner his faith terminates not immediately on God, but immediately on the mediator, and only through His mediation on God; and it is proximately trust in this mediator for salvation—relief from the guilt and corruption of sin—and only mediately through this relief for other goods. But it makes its way through these intermediating elements to terminate ultimately on God Himself and to rest on Him for all goods. And thus it manifests its fundamental and universal character as trust in God, recognized by the renewed sinner, as by the unfallen creature, as the inexhaustible fountain to His creatures of all blessedness, in whom to live and move and have his being is the creature’s highest felicity.” [pp. 339-340]

Source: B.B. Warfield, “On Faith and its Psychological Aspects,” in The works of B.B. Warfield, vol. 9. Studies in Theology (Baker Reprint, 2003), pp. 335-340.