Is the Spirit of Old Princeton Finally Dead?

Bill Evans head shot

Old Princeton Seminary cast a long shadow. By “Old Princeton,” of course, we mean Princeton Theological Seminary from its founding in 1812 until the reorganization of the Board in 1929 by the General Assembly so as to reflect the theological diversity increasingly present in the Presbyterian Church, USA. This was the school of Archibald Alexander, Charles Hodge, A. A. Hodge, and B. B. Warfield in Systematic Theology, and William Henry Green, Robert Dick Wilson, and J. Gresham Machen in biblical studies. And students flocked to the place. Charles Hodge taught almost three thousand during his decades there. And it wasn’t just Presbyterian students who came—here we think, for example, of the Lutheran Samuel Schmucker, the southern Baptist James Petigru Boyce, and the Dutch Reformed Louis Berkhof, all of whom attended Princeton Seminary before having a decided impact on their own communions.

I will admit to something of a personal interest in all of this. My paternal grandfather was a classmate of J. Gresham Machen, Clarence Macartney, and O. T. Allis, all of whom graduated in 1905. My father graduated from Princeton Seminary in the 1940s, and in the 1980s I attended the seminary that has been most associated with the Old Princeton legacy—Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia.

What was distinctive about Old Princeton?   Some time ago I proposed a typology for understanding how seminaries differ. Seminaries, I suggested, can be categorized in terms of three polarities—graduate school of theology (GST) vs. school for pastors, catechetical vs. critical, and confessional vs. ecumenical.   In terms of this typology, Old Princeton was rather clearly GST/critical/confessional. The required curriculum was extensive and largely academic. In fact, the lack of training offered in practical ministry skills was one of the criticisms of the school in the period leading up to the reorganization. Emblematic of this academic focus was Charles Hodge’s caustic response to the Presbyterian General Assembly’s condemnation of the practice of reading sermons. Hodge wrote, “We hail the increase of this method as proof of the intellectual progress of our church, and as one of the best omens of its true prosperity” (quoted in Lefferts A. Loetscher, Facing the Enlightenment and Pietism [1983], 240).

Another way to look at this question is to focus on key emphases that helped to define the school. Let me suggest three. First, there was a clear sense at Old Princeton of the ultimate unity of knowledge. Faith and reason were distinguished but not radically separated. In short, the Old Princetonians were not fundamentalists in the more recent sense of the term. Science was valued; Charles Hodge famously spoke of theology as a “scientific” discipline, and emphasized what he took to be the methodological continuities between theology and the natural sciences. The Old Princeton theologians were convinced that scientific and historical insights can and should play a role in the interpretation of Scripture. Warfield’s family was involved in cattle breeding, and he thought deeply about the theory of evolution. The Biblical Repertory and Princeton Review published many reviews and articles dealing with topics far afield from theology and biblical studies. In all of this they were confident that a sovereign God is Lord over all inquiry, and that theology and Christian ministry must not be sequestered from the broader context of scholarship and thought.

Second, Old Princeton was a confessional school.  Its professors subscribed ex animo (“from the heart”) to the Westminster Standards, but this confessionalism in practice was rather different than the wooden confessionalism we sometimes encounter today (where the view seems to be that “if it’s in the confession, it is essential”).  Or, to phrase it a bit differently, the Old Princeton theologians knew how to distinguish the essential from the important, and the important from the indifferent. They discerned the primary from the secondary from the tertiary. One tool they used for accomplishing this was the notion of what we might call “consensus Calvinism,” which simultaneously related Calvinism to the broader Christian tradition as the best and most consistent form of Christianity, and viewed the Reformed tradition itself as centered in where the Reformed confessions agree. Warfield’s well-known Schaff-Herzog Encyclopedia article on “Calvinism” is a good example of this approach. In it he described Calvinism simply as the highest form of theism, religion, evangelicalism:

Calvinism is not a specific variety of theism, religion, evangelicalism, set over against other specific varieties, which along with it constitute these several genera, and which possess equal rights of existence with it and make similar claims to perfection, each after its own kind. It differs from them not as one species differs from other species; but as a perfectly developed representative differs from an imperfectly developed representative of the same species. (Warfield, “Calvinism,” in Works, V: 355)

In the same article Warfield appeals beyond the individual peculiarities of particular confessions to the consensus of the confessional tradition as a whole:

Nevertheless, it is precisely the same system of truth which is embodied in all the great historic Reformed confessions; it matters not whether the document emanates from Zurich or Bern or Basel or Geneva, whether it sums up the Swiss development as in the second Helvetic Confession, or publishes the faith of the National Reformed Churches of France, or Scotland, or Holland, or the Palatinate, or Hungary, Poland, Bohemia, or England; or republishes the established Reformed doctrine in opposition to new contradictions, as in the Canons of Dort (in which the entire Reformed world concurred), or the Westminster Confession (to which the whole of Puritan Britain gave its assent), or the Swiss Form of Consent (which represents the mature judgment of Switzerland upon the recently proposed novelties of doctrine). And despite the inevitable variety of individual points of view, as well as the unavoidable differences in ability, learning, grasp, in the multitude of writers who have sought to expound the Reformed faith through these four centuries – and the grave departures from that faith made here and there among them – the great stream of Reformed dogmatics has flowed essentially unsullied, straight from its origin in Zwingli and Calvin to its debouchure, say, in Chalmers and Cunningham and Crawford, in Hodge and Thornwell and Shedd. (Warfield, “Calvinism,” in Works, V: 361-62)

While this historiographical approach to the Reformed tradition sometimes flattened significant differences within that tradition unduly, it also enabled the Princeton theologians to avoid getting caught up in confessional trivia and to speak with confidence and relevance from their confessional standpoint to the broader Christian community.

Third, the Old Princeton theologians coupled a high view of the divine authority of Scripture with a keen desire to do justice to the human dimension of the Bible. While Old Princeton is rightly associated with the notion of inerrancy in the original autographs (though, as Randall Balmer demonstrated decades ago, they did not invent it and were in fact reflecting an evangelical consensus), their view was nuanced.  Holy Scripture is without error in all its “affirmations”; that is to say, in all that it teaches. As Warfield and A. A. Hodge carefully put it in their famous article “Inspiration,”

It must be remembered that it is not claimed that the Scripture, any more than their authors, are omniscient. The information they convey is in the form of human thought, and limited on all sides. They were not designed to teach philosophy, science, or human history as such. They were not designed to furnish an infallible system of speculative theology. They are written in human languages, whose words, inflection, constructions, and idioms bear everywhere indelible traces of human error. The record itself furnishes evidence that the writers were in large measure dependent for their knowledge upon sources and methods in themselves fallible, and that their personal knowledge and judgments were in many matters hesitating and defective, or even wrong.   Nevertheless, the historical faith of the church has always been that all the affirmations of Scripture of all kinds, whether of spiritual doctrine or duty, or of physical or historical fact, or of psychological or philosophical principle, are without any error when the ipsissima verba of the original autographs are ascertained in their natural and intended sense. There is a vast difference between exactness of statement, which includes an exhaustive rendering of details, an absolute literalness, which the Scriptures never profess, and accuracy, on the other hand, which secures a correct statement of facts or principles intended to be affirmed. (A. A. Hodge and B. B. Warfield, “Inspiration,” in Mark A. Noll, ed., , 229-30)

Thus the Old Princetonians coupled an emphasis on the divine authority and reliability of Scripture with a keen desire to interpret  Scripture carefully and in its cultural and historical context. Unlike many conservative Reformed people today (for whom literal six-day creationism, for example, has become a touchstone of orthodoxy), Charles Hodge saw no problem with the ancient Israelite author depicting the firmament in Genesis 1 as a solid dome (see his Systematic Theology, I: 569-570).  He and his colleagues were not literal six-day young-earth creationists, and they realized that the scientific evidence for an old earth was substantial. Princeton Old Testament scholar William Henry Green’s article on the genealogies of the Old Testament demonstrated that a literalistic reading of the genealogies (upon which the young-earth position depends) involves insuperable difficulties. He rightly concluded that the genealogies were simply not intended to provide the basis for a scientific chronology, and that interpretations based on such an erroneous expectation were unsound (see his “Primeval Chronology,” Bibliotheca Sacra [April 1890]: 285-303). A bit later, Warfield would write, “The question of the antiquity of man is accordingly a purely scientific one, in which the theologian as such has no concern” (“The Antiquity and Unity of the Human Race,” in Studies in Theology [1932], 245).

The Old Princeton theologians also took the dual authorship of Scripture seriously. They viewed the unity of the Testaments as a function of their divine authorship rather than of what the human authors may have known, and they insisted that God used the human authors “according to their nature,” that is, in accordance with their human limitations (Hodge, Systematic Theology, I: 157).  Warfield wrote: “The Old Testament may be likened to a chamber richly furnished but dimly lighted; the introduction of light brings into it nothing which was not in it before; but it brings out into clearer view much of what is in it but was only dimly or even not at all perceived before” (“The Biblical Doctrine of the Trinity,” in Works, II: 141).

But how the times have changed! The “graduate school of theology” model of seminary education has fallen on hard times in the conservative Reformed world, and many seminaries in that orbit now identify as professional schools for pastors (a move consistent with the thoroughly insidious notion that ministers are “professionals” like lawyers and accountants).  There is no longer a conservative Evangelical seminary with anything approaching the intellectual reputation and clout of Old Princeton, and the life of the church has suffered accordingly.

With this decline in intellectual attainment the concern for the ultimate unity of all knowledge as God’s truth has largely evaporated in conservative Reformed circles.   This is a day of small things intellectually, as a selection of ideas thought to be crucial for resistance against a hostile secular culture are defended with tenacity, but with little effort to integrate the whole spectrum of truth.

Moreover, a healthy confessionalism that safeguards and champions the great truths of the Reformed tradition has been replaced in too many conservative circles by confessional hairsplitting that elevates relatively minor matters to ultimate importance.

Finally, while many conservative Reformed people are zealous to defend the authority of the Bible, often they do not do so with the care and nuance we see at Old Princeton. In particular, the challenges of interpretation and doing justice to the human dimension Scripture often get short shrift. This latter phenomenon is now especially evident at Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia, long thought to be the guardian of Old Princeton’s legacy.  Now those who seek to understand the Old Testament in light of its ancient Near Eastern cultural background and who think that the Old Testament writers were not always aware of the christological meanings that New Testament authors discerned in their texts are apparently no longer welcome (see here and here and here), and another prominent biblical scholar there now teaches that we should just give up on trying to understand what an individual human author of Scripture may have intended. All this, we must recognize, stands in stark contrast to the Old Princeton tradition.

And so we return to the question in the title of this post: Is the spirit of Old Princeton finally dead? To this we must answer with a qualified “yes.” To be sure, elements of the Old Princeton legacy persist at a number of evangelical seminaries, but the total package—that breathtaking combination of wide-ranging scholarly attainment, healthy confessionalism, and a balanced view of the nature and authority of Scripture—is hard to find. Two prominent evangelical seminaries—Westminster and Fuller—were founded with the express intention of continuing the Old Princeton tradition, but both have moved away from it (albeit in very different ways).   Perhaps the death of the Old Princeton approach was inevitable, but I can say with confidence that the life of the church has not been enriched by its demise.

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