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Committee on Christian Education Feature

New Books on Old Princeton

D. G. Hart and John R. Muether

To mark Princeton Theological Seminary’s centennial in 1912, the school’s faculty contributed to a fairly nondescript volume of essays. It included “Jesus and Paul,” by J. Gresham Machen, “The Eschatological Aspect of the Pauline Conception of the Spirit,” by Geerhardus Vos, and “On the Emotional Life of Our Lord,” by Benjamin B. Warfield. But without an introduction, preface, or acknowledgments, readers would have needed to know the seminary’s history to recognize the book’s significance. The seminary made up for the lack of fanfare with another volume. The Centennial Celebration of the Theological Seminary of the Presbyterian Church included hundreds of congratulatory addresses from leaders of schools and churches located around the world, from Burma to Hungary.

If Princeton’s centennial could set off this kind of fanfare, what of its bicentennial? Surely the founding of Princeton would not generate festivities in 2012 like those in 2009 celebrating the five hundredth anniversary of John Calvin’s birth, an occasion that launched international conferences, various biographies, and many more collections of essays. Even so, Princeton marked a turning point in American Presbyterianism. The institution not only addressed a serious shortage of ministers, but also defined American Presbyterianism’s theological identity. Eighteenth-century Presbyterian theology on both sides of the Atlantic had been a work in progress. Ecclesiastical moderates in Scotland resisted difficult parts of Reformed orthodoxy, Irish Presbyterians played second fiddle to the Anglican establishment, and American colonists were simply struggling to found a Reformed communion. But by 1812 Presbyterians possessed sufficient resources to found a seminary. Princeton’s combination of Reformed orthodoxy and experimental Calvinism set the standard for conservative Presbyterians in the United States. In fact, it is hard to imagine the existence of the OPC or the PCA without “Old Princeton”—a phrase that refers to the seminary prior to the reorganization of 1929 that prompted J. Gresham Machen to found Westminster Seminary.

This year, bicentennial celebrations for Princeton took two forms. The first was the academic conference. The conservatives who organized the two-day conference at Greenville Presbyterian Theological Seminary featured addresses before audiences in the hundreds. In contrast, Princeton Seminary’s own conference drew audiences that rarely topped sixty persons who listened to talks on topics that in some instances were tangential to the seminary.

The Princeton anniversary also yielded a handful of books. Again, the differences between conservative and mainline Presbyterians are unmistakable. For mainline Presbyterians, Old Princeton marks a bygone era before the school adjusted to modern times. This is one theme of James Moorhead’s forthcoming Princeton Seminary in American Religion and Culture (Eerdmans, $60). Moorhead arranges the narrative around the theme of theological education’s aims and purposes. As a result, when he arrives at the presidency of James Mackay in 1937 (the first new president after the reorganization), Moorhead notes Mackay’s preservation of the seminary’s heritage—training pastors, theology’s centrality, and the importance of piety. In Moorhead’s words, for Mackay the question was whether Princeton’s heritage would become “fossilized” or “enriched.” One underdeveloped theme in the book is confessional subscription, a matter that animated Old Princeton as an Old School institution and that prompted Machen’s critique of liberal Protestantism. Without attending to subscription, Moorhead has an easier time seeing continuity before and after 1929.

From conservative hands have come two new anthologies in 2012, both edited by James M. Garretson. Princeton and the Work of Christian Ministry (Banner of Truth, 2 vols., $59) is a collection of over seventy shorter writings from Old Princeton luminaries, a rich sampling that ranges from the charming (“The Use and Abuse of Books,” by Archibald Alexander) to the profound (Warfield’s inaugural address on the “Idea of Systematic Theology Considered as a Science”). Together, these pieces exhibit Princeton’s commitment to training Presbyterian ministers and testify to the enduring wisdom of the faculty’s reflections for students and pastors. Garretson’s companion work, Pastor-Teachers of Old Princeton (Banner of Truth, $32), contains funeral sermons, memorial addresses, and other articles. The inclusion of less familiar figures, such as Henry A. Boardman, Alexander T. McGill, James C. Moffat, William Henry Green, and William M. Paxton, is especially useful.

Of course, Charles Hodge and B. B. Warfield command pride of place in considerations of Old Princeton, and 2011 marked the publication of two new biographies of Charles Hodge, both of which are reviewed in this issue. Not to be overlooked is the republication of A. A. Hodge’s tribute to his father, The Life of Charles Hodge (Banner of Truth, $32).

The Reformed world owes a debt of gratitude to Fred G. Zaspel (pastor of Reformed Baptist Church of Franconia, Pennsylvania) for his recent studies of Warfield. In his Theology of B. B. Warfield (Crossway, 2010, $40), Zaspel assembles Warfield’s occasional writings into a thematic arrangement that is suggestive of the systematic theology that Warfield never wrote.

More recently Zaspel penned the first in a new Crossway series on “Theologians on the Christian Life.” In Warfield on the Christian Life: Living in the Light of the Gospel (2012, $17.99), Zaspel dubs the Lion of Princeton a “Christologian,” a term that underscores how the person and work of Christ informed Warfield’s teaching. The “dones” of Christ (i.e., the indicatives) inform the duty of the Christian (the imperatives). Contrary to the standard caricatures of Old Princeton, Warfield was a theologian of the heart who expanded our understanding of the Holy Spirit, even while critiquing perfectionism and counterfeit claims of the miraculous. While acknowledging Warfield’s high regard for the Westminster Confession, Zaspel overlooks Warfield’s polemics regarding confessional revision in the Presbyterian Church. Thus he underestimates, not unlike Moorhead, the importance of confessional subscription.

Zaspel claims that interest in Warfield is higher now than it was in his own lifetime, evidence for which is found in Paul K. Helseth’s Right Reason and the Princeton Mind: An Unorthodox Proposal (P&R, 2010, $21.99). Challenging the prevailing notion that Alexander, Hodge, and Warfield championed an antiquated approach to faith and reason, Helseth denies that Old Princeton was captive to common sense philosophy. He proposes instead that Princeton’s “ministerial use” of reason was more consistent with the broader Reformed tradition than interpreters have appreciated.

Two hundred years after its founding, Old Princeton still generates new books. Far from being fossilized in the past, it is a heritage that continues to enrich confessional Presbyterianism.

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