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Ordained Servant Online



Rejoinder to Owen Anderson

Paul Kjoss Helseth

Professor Anderson’s response to my review raises two important questions. The first has to do with the question of whether and to what extent it is possible to be orthodox in principle but not in practice. While it is certainly true that Professor Anderson does not explicitly call the orthodoxy of Hodge and his colleagues at Old Princeton into question, he does so implicitly. The central thrust of his argument is that Princeton’s institutional integrity was finally compromised because the Old Princetonians’ “foundational presuppositions” were “not sufficient to give an account of the Christian claims about redemption,” and they were not sufficient precisely because they were not grounded in a faithful commitment to the full and clear teaching of the Westminster Standards. Indeed, Professor Anderson’s explanation for why Princeton’s “original foundation ... did not last” is that the Old Princetonians failed to “firmly and explicitly set in place” the Standards’ teaching about God’s revelation of himself through “the light of nature” and in all his works “of creation and providence,” and they failed to do so because they had accommodated assumptions that prevented them from bringing the full resources of the Standards to bear upon the “challenges” of their day, resources that would have ensured a more lasting foundation because they would have left unbelievers without an excuse for unbelief.

If this is the case, and if it is indeed true that the Old Princetonians failed to establish a lasting foundation because they had embraced assumptions that were derived from some place other than faithfulness to the full and clear teaching of the Westminster Standards, then how can we avoid the conclusion that for Professor Anderson, the Old Princetonians failed to establish a lasting legacy because they were committed—in practice even if not in principle—to a doctrine of the knowledge of God that was finally grounded in something distinct from the Confession, something that by its very nature would indicate that they were—at least with respect to this critically important doctrine—less than orthodox in the most elementary sense of the term? This is the basic point that I was trying to make, especially in the conclusion of my review, and it is a point that I still think holds at least a little bit of water.

Professor Anderson’s response to my review raises another, perhaps even more foundational question, namely the question of what kinds of presuppositions in fact are sufficient to give “an [adequate] account of the Christian claims about redemption.” According to Professor Anderson, the Old Princetonians failed to provide an adequate basis “for the redemptive claims of special revelation and the need for Christ” because their “foundational presuppositions” discouraged them from offering a rational account of precisely why unbelief “is inexcusable in the face of clear general revelation about the eternal power and divine nature of God.” Indeed, they were not as eager as he thinks consistently orthodox believers would have been “to show that the light of nature, reason, clearly reveals God and leaves no excuse [for unbelief],” and for this reason they more or less conceded “that unbelief has an excuse.” But did the Old Princetonians in fact not provide a sufficient foundation for the claims of special revelation, as Professor Anderson claims, or did they simply not do so in precisely the way that he thinks it can and must be done? Unfortunately, the answer to this question begs a theological discussion that is beyond the scope of this exchange.

Paul Kjoss Helseth is professor of Christian Thought at the University of Northwestern – St. Paul, St. Paul, Minnesota. Ordained Servant Online, June 2016.

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