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Princeton and Preaching

Category Articles
Date January 10, 2005

The name ‘Alexander’ is virtually synonymous with the story of the first one hundred years of Princeton Theological Seminary in New Jersey, and is woven deeply into the tapestry of its origin, development, and justly-deserved international fame.

Many Christians first encounter the name without recognizing it. At the end of Paul Gerhardt’s hymn (based on words of Bernard of Clairvaux), ‘O sacred Head, once wounded’ appears the note: ‘Translator: James ‘W’. Alexander’. The name recurs in a more familiar person, Archibald Alexander Hodge. The connecting link is the subject of this fine study: Archibald Alexander, father of James and the one for whom Charles Hodge later named his son. Alexander was the first Professor of Princeton Seminary, and an individual to whom the Seminary and the Christian church owed an incalculable debt.

At the height of Princeton’s powers its influence was felt throughout the United States and indeed, through its graduates, virtually to the ends of the earth. The story of the Seminary has been well documented in David Calhoun’s magisterial two-volume study covering the years 1812-1929 (published by the Banner of Truth). Professor Calhoun’s work whets the appetite to learn more about the learned and godly faculty who left such a deep impression on a century of church life.

Archibald Alexander ranks first and foremost among them. But apart from his son’s biography, The Life of Archibald Alexander (1854) and Lefferts A. Loetscher’s 1983 study Facing the Enlightenment and Pietism, relatively little attention has been paid to him. For that reason alone, this full length study by Dr James M. Garretson is to be warmly welcomed. Moreover its focus is on the heartbeat of Alexander’s major life work, and the reason for the Seminary’s very existence: the work of the Christian ministry and preparation for its central task of expounding the Scriptures. Not only Alexander’s published work but also his manuscript archives have been researched in order to provide us with this rich, satisfying, and also very practical work. The subject matter and quality of this book are its own recommendation.

This may well be a first introduction to Alexander for some readers. The opening biographical chapter will therefore be particularly welcomed as it traces his early life and ministry and the four decades of his devoted service to Princeton. I have always found the account of his spiritual beginnings particularly moving – including the influence of his minister the Rev. William Graham. But particularly poignant is the story of his days as a young family tutor, reading from the writings of the great Puritan John Flavel to the elderly Mrs. Tyler and discovering his heart overpowered by Flavel’s exposition of Revelation 3:20 (in Volume 4, published by the Banner of Truth). To read then of the influence of a pious millwright on this future prince in the church is to be reminded that behind every publicly fruitful Christian there stands the fellowship of more private saints whose significant faithfulness only the Day will declare.

Archibald Alexander was pre-eminently marked by deep spiritual wisdom. His work abounds in the kind of spiritual insight that is possessed only by those who have excelled in the theological trivium of Scriptural understanding, a thorough grasp of the whole body of divinity, and knowledge of the human heart. Having been introduced to this, readers may well want to obtain a copy of Alexander’s book Thoughts on Religious Experience (Banner of Truth) to await them on completion of this one!

Dr. Garretson well collates much of Alexander’s best counsel on the work of the ministry and helps us to see its relevance. Here topics as diverse as the minister’s use of the voice, eloquence, the emotions, the minister’s general behaviour, extemporaneous preaching, even sleep habits, are covered in a helpful and stimulating way. Particularly impressive is Alexander’s conviction that ‘every minister should leave his own impress on what he delivers’.

Alexander practised what he preached. Indeed the distinctiveness of his own preaching style – contemporaries viewed it as somewhat conversational – surprised many new hearers to whom he was known only by his considerable pulpit reputation. In fact Archibald Alexander’s gifts and graces were well disciplined and not in any way distorted by his public service. His preaching, in both style and substance, was simply the overflow of his ordinary conversation. What made him such an outstanding preacher was the godliness and wisdom of his regular speech.

In this context, his views on extemporaneous preaching are particularly interesting (although he and Charles Hodge did not see eye to eye here). Alexander makes some very thought-provoking observations. For example: (i) The use of the imagination is essential to all good preaching if it is to ‘get inside’ the mind and memory, heart and conscience of hearers. (ii) Thoughts are more important than words in our preparation. Of course we need to remember that Alexander’s was a much more literate age than ours is, and it could be assumed that those he taught had read much and developed a vocabulary that enabled them extemporaneously to express thoughts in words. But the point is nevertheless well-taken, and surely wise. Ability in using many words, even in an eloquent fashion, is not the same thing as clear and pointed exposition of Scripture which carries weighty thought with it.

This and much more besides awaits the reader of Dr Garretson’s work. A satisfying meal lies ahead. Its contents are nutritious, and it has been carefully prepared. It should not only nourish and strengthen, but also give pleasure. It represents extensive research and writing on the part of the author. His account of Alexander’s life, example and wisdom should serve well to encourage and strengthen biblical roots and spiritual wisdom in ministers of the gospel.

[This article is the Foreword to Princeton and Preaching: Archibald Alexander and theChristian Ministry by James M. Garretson (ISBN 0 85151 893 2, 304 pp., clothbound) tobe published shortly by the Trust.]

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