Gary Steward. Princeton Seminary (1812-1929): Its Leaders’ Lives and Works.
Phillipsburg, NJ: Crossway Books, 2014. 321 pp.
The legacy of Princeton Theological Seminary has been hotly debated over the years yet fascinatingly enough a revival of interests into the theology and professors of Old Princeton has been growing in light of the growth of Calvinistic expressions of the Christian faith. This book tells the story of Old Princeton during the years of 1812 through 1929 by giving the readers a biographical account of theologians that has defined the Seminary. I enjoyed how the book not only gave us the life of these theologians but also each biographical chapter on a theologian is followed by a chapter that takes a closer look at the respective man’s particular theological writing and contribution. This format allows us to get a sense of the “life and doctrine” of Old Princeton. It also helps to advance the author’s thesis that Old Princeton held to two uncompromising conviction: (1) rigorous academic theologizing which is compatible with (2) personal piety and holiness. I think Steward does persuasively makes his case and after reading the book I think it is unfortunate that Old Princeton has become so maligned even among Christian circles.
The first chapter of the book covers the founding of Princeton Seminary. I appreciated the author giving us a larger context of theological education for Pastors prior to the Seminary being formed. Obviously there was a need before the founding of Princeton. I learned from the book that before 1746 ministers had only three options for their education: Harvard, Yale or Europe. It certainly makes one appreciate the contemporary landscape in North America with countless seminary to choose from. I also learned from the first chapter of the book of the Log College that would serve as a model for Princeton Seminary with its emphasis on spiritual experience and intellectual cultivation. At first the Presbyterians founded a college (later Princeton University) but eventually the need for a separate Seminary independent from the college led them to found the Seminary. Early on Princeton Seminary was founded to accomplish the goal of producing men who were capable scholars of the Bible that was able to handle the Scripture in its original languages and faithful to the Westminster Confession of Faith in their application of the Word of God to ethics and apologetics.
The first biographical chapter in the book was on the Seminary’s first full time professor, Archibald Alexander. Alexander was an incredibly intellectually gifted man. In an era in which it was hard to acquire books Alexander was able to purchase the library of a minister from Holland that allowed him to become well acquainted with Dutch Reformed thought, early Patristic, Renaissance philosophers and the history of the larger Protestant theology. With all his contribution in his prime of his life it is amazing to read that he worked hard even towards the end of his life with the last ten years his most productive. The author also examined more closely Archibald Alexander’s work titled Thoughts on Religious Experience which focuses on one’s examination of religious experience to see if its Scriptural and authentic, thus showing how early in the Seminary history Old Princeton faculty was not only about the mind but ministered with nuance sensitivity in taking into account all of man’s faculty.
Other theologians that the book focused on included Samuel Miller (their second professor in the Seminary), Charles Hodge, James and Joseph Alexander (sons of Archibald Alexander), and Archibald Alexander Hodge (son of Charles Hodge and obviously named after Archibald Alexander). I was intrigued to learn that Charles Hodge was the first in the faculty to go to Europe to study abroad. This was in order for Hodge to familiarize himself with the bad theology coming from Liberal scholarship especially from Germany. Of course later other professors from Old Princeton (and at other seminary I would add, including today) would follow suit. I wonder if that was a wise precedence for others to follow since one who is not theologically grounded can come back with dangerous ideas and teachings that can “infect” a good seminary. In the case with Charles Hodge it was beneficial. I was very encouraged with the biographical account of James Alexander who first became a missionary who later on did much work in reaching the urban poor and develop materials for the Sunday School movement. The personality of A.A. Hodge with his ability to effectively popularize Princeton theology and illustrate spiritual truths for people’s understanding was equally encouraging for anyone desireingto follow the model of a “Pastor-Scholar” or “Scholar-Pastor.”
I wished the book would have also given a full chapter each on the life of B.B. Warfield and Machen. Both Warfield and Machen were important figures in the twilight years of Old Princeton but the author lumped the two of them together in a brief sketch in the last chapter of the book.
Another aspect of the book that I appreciate is the historical perspective that one gets to look at the times through the College/Seminary and its faculty. These faculty members lived through some amazing time period of American history. Sometimes they also participated in American history such as Witherspoon, Rush and Stockton of Princeton College who participated with the cause of American Independence and even signed the Declaration of Independence! Yet we also see as a general trajectory a caution among the faculty of the Seminary itself, such as Miller who backed away from the political the older he became, Charles Hodge’s reluctance to fan the flame before the Civil War by even adopting a moderating tone while being against slavery but being cautious towards full abolitionists and Secessionists in the South. Towards the end of the Civil War Charles Hodge did become more vocal about the Union, even seeing the North’s victory a sign of God’s providence. Hodge’s own son also was against slavery but was able to see the difficult question and concern for church entanglement politically with the slave question.
In conclusion I was greatly encouraged and challenged by the book and the examples of the theologians of Old Princeton to be a minister of the Word who continue to strive to grow in intellectual ability in articulating, preaching and defending the faith while also continue to grow in personal holiness. This book would be a great gift to encourage your pastor and also for Seminarians to see their studies with the need to be pastoral. It definitely encouraged my soul as a Pastor. I pray that I can follow in these men’s footstep and be to some degree the kind of men these guys were.
NOTE: This book was provided to me free by P&R Publishing and Net Galley without any obligation for a positive review. All opinions offered above are mine unless otherwise stated or implied.