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Princeton And Preaching

Category Articles
Date January 26, 2006

Princeton and Preaching: Archibald Alexander and the Christian Ministry by James M. Garretson The most recent studies of Princeton Seminary include David C. Calhoun’s two-volume presentation of its history up to 1929, Mark Noll’s study of the influences of common sense realism on both the Princeton Seminary and its neighbor; Princeton University, and Lefferts A. Loetscher’s analysis of the intellectual context in which Archibald Alexander lived and taught. James M. Garretson’s book returns to the subject of Archibald Alexander emphasizing his teaching on preaching and the Christian ministry. This is a timely book in light of the continued debate on what constitutes the best approach to ministerial theological education as the tide ebbs toward a less formal or institutional setting.

Dr. Alexander was selected by the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church to be the Professor of Didactic and Polemic Theology at Princeton Seminary in 1812, and then Samuel Miller became the second half of the faculty the following year as Professor of Ecclesiastical History and Church Government. Perspectives on these two men have tended to see Dr. Miller as the firm doctrinal-confessional subscriptionist, at least partially due to the repeated republication of The Utility and Importance of Creeds and Confessions (1824), while Dr. Alexander has been viewed as concerned with revivals and the internal aspects of the Christian life, which can be traced to the many reprints of his Thoughts on Religious Experience (1841). James M. Garretson’s book shows that such a perception does Archibald Alexander an injustice and does not comprehend the foundational importance of his doctrinal commitment. Some of the works of Professor Alexander that show the intellectual depth and span of his interests include: A Brief Outline of the Evidence of the Christian Revelation (1825), Evidences of the Authenticity, Inspiration and Canonical Authority of the Holy Scriptures (1826), and Outlines of Moral Science (1852). A quick scan of the “Finding Guide for the Archibald Alexander Manuscript Collection” at Princeton reveals an astute, well-read, and intellectually massive capacity for doctrinal intricacies, philosophy, biblical studies, and apologetics. Even though Dr. Alexander received his education in a tutorial situation with William Graham, he saw the need for a well-grounded, biblical and confessional, consistent, disciplined theological education for Presbyterian ministers. For Alexander; a proper education for a minister is necessary because the dead languages are his tools, the use of apologetics requires knowledge, the unlearned need the educated to instruct them, and learning to learn keeps a minister’s teaching fresh and respected (p. 65).

One who desires to study Dr. Alexander must search a large collection of both manuscript and published materials. The archives at Princeton Seminary have twenty-nine boxes of manuscript materials-or about fifteen linear feet of shelf space-composed by the institution’s founding father. Reverend Garretson plumbed the depths of a select number of these boxes, limiting his study primarily to those containing notes and materials from the professor’s lectures in preaching and the pastoral life. His emphasis, per the title of the book, is on Alexander’s instruction on preaching, the interpersonal aspects of the Christian ministry, and the minister’s other areas of life. For the twenty-first-century reader; Garretson’s concern might be dubbed “Practical Theology” a designation that Alexander might find unacceptable due to his belief that the building of piety and practice must rest upon the rock of a doctrinal foundation. Regarding Alexander’s belief in the importance of doctrine, the author concludes that “a proper understanding of theology is essential for effective Christian living. This provides the reason why he considered it essential for the minister to preach frequently and systematically on primary doctrines” (p. 159). One of Garretson’s chief points about Alexander is that he not only taught theology but lived theology: the Christian ministry is doctrine brought to life in practice.

The subject areas addressed by Dr. Garretson extend from the more mundane matters of pastoral life, such as ministerial manners, to the highest task of the minister: preaching the Word of God. Both Alexander and Samuel Miller lived during the Victorian era and were, to some degree, products of their time. Samuel Miller wrote four hundred and seventy detailed pages of ministerial instruction titled Letters on Clerical Manners (1827), which was an antebellum guide for ministerial etiquette. Dr. Alexander also gave his students instruction concerning pastoral practice with his lectures on “Ministerial Manners.” In Dr. Miller’s book, he warned the young minister against spitting tobacco on the carpets of his parishioners and encouraged him to sit erect, his hands in his lap, his back firmly to the slats, and his feet flat on the floor. Alexander; in Garretson’s analysis, was more generally concerned with general good manners and a proper appearance for one who occupied the high office of a minister of the Gospel. Fortunately, much of the pomp and ceremony of Victorian folkways has gone by the wayside, but the modern pastoral student could learn a few things from the first faculty of Princeton about basic courtesy and decency in our less-than-mannered and self-centered twenty-first-century American culture. Other aspects of the minister’s life that Alexander encouraged his students to pursue included: true personal piety, some effort to be clear and pointed in preaching with work at developing clarity and eloquence, recognizing the importance of good health, and speaking with a clear voice without a stammer. For Professor Alexander; the ministry was a dignified and high calling that required the pastor to consider the impression he made-verbally, physically, and empathetically-upon those he encountered in his congregation and the community.

The book is primarily concerned with preaching and the training of ministers for their callings. Alexander believed it essential that students understand the proper relationship between the law and the gospel. A foundational aspect of this relationship involved understanding the desperate condition of man since Adam’s failure to keep the covenant of works; man’s condition of sin and misery was due to breaking the covenant of works, and the only relief for his predicament would come by redemption through the covenant of grace. For Alexander; without the covenant of works, the doctrines of the Fall and of original sin could not be properly understood. The law of God pierces the sinner’s heart and condemns the hearer; but the mercy of God in the covenant of grace presents Christ as the one and only resolution to the Fall. As Alexander expressed it, “Men are all naturally egotists, and it requires much teaching to bring them off from their attachment to the Covenant of Works” (p. 162). Man wants to offer his works, whether partially or totally, for salvation, but it is the task of the preacher to strip his listeners of self-confidence and show them their need for grace. The foundation of biblical gospel truth for Archibald Alexander was the sovereign application of Christ’s redeeming work in the covenant of grace, which resurrects the believer out of the spiritual death caused by failure to keep the covenant of works.

Reading some of the excerpts selected by Garretson from Alexander’s notes and lectures, one is impressed by the Princeton father’s command of the English language. If the language of Alexander’s lectures was this refined, what would it have been like to hear him preach sermons? This question is answered primarily by the impressions of Charles Hodge regarding his mentor’s method and delivery, James W. Alexander’s perspective on his father’s preaching, along with reference to some of Alexander’s published sermons. The author’s analysis of his subject’s own preaching could have been enhanced by considering some of the many manuscript sermons available in the Alexander manuscript collection. Charles Hodge described his mentor’s delivery as captive to his mood and far from following a blueprint, but Garretson tells the reader that Alexander’s physical style changed over the years and at times he was described as stiff in his manner and he failed to make eye contact. Even though reading Alexander’s sermons is a beneficial enterprise, he believed that published sermons-sermons only for reading-were not really sermons in the full sense of the term. Further; in contrast with Charles Hodge, Alexander thought the reading of a sermon in the pulpit was “a poor and last result” (p. 88). Even though Dr. Alexander’s written works, whether sermon or other composition, read well, he believed that a sermon was not a sermon, in the fullest sense of the word, unless the uniqueness and holiness of the worship situation were recognized; the sermon is the sum of all its parts, the words, their delivery, the place, and he must ground his proclamation on the rock of doctrinal accuracy.

In the book’s introduction, the author proposes to accomplish two purposes with his work, “first, to enable church historians and students of American history to better understand the significant role that ministerial training played in shaping the ethos of American church history and, second, to assist pastors and preachers in their ministry and care of the people of God” (p. xix). He contributes to the fulfillment of the second purpose with a short conclusion concerning how contemporary theological instruction can be enhanced by the example of Archibald Alexander’s teaching and ministry. Garretson believes that much of theological education develops from exemplary piety that of the faculty and the students, and further; that the principles of rhetoric need to be encouraged today to assist the young minister in his proclamation of the Bible. Archibald Alexander influenced American Presbyterian preaching and ministry in his own era, and his teaching established a Christian ministerial tradition that would endure at Princeton Theological Seminary for years to come.

Barry Waugh
Simpsonville, South Carolina, USA
The Westminster Theological Journal, Vol. 67, No.2 Fall 2005 by permission.


This book (ISBN 085151 8931) retails for $26.99 (US), £16.75 (UK and ROW) and can be purchased from the Banner of Truth website (go to the book catalogue).

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