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Old Princeton (1)

Category Articles
Date May 28, 2013

This is the first part of the 2012 Annual Lecture of the Evangelical Library in London. The second part can be found here. The lecture for 2013 is to be given on Monday June 3rd at 6.30 pm at the Evangelical Library and the subject is ‘The Doctrines of Grace in an Unexpected Place: 19th Century Brethren Soteriology.’ The Lecturer is Mark Stevenson, USA.

I’m very glad to be here this evening. Thank you for your kind invitation. I had hoped to begin by saying ‘Who in their right mind on a beautiful July summer’s evening would set aside time to come and hear a lecture on, essentially 19th century historical theology?’ but you’ve come, nonetheless.

Why would anyone spend time coming to a lecture like this? I suppose some of you are, may be, a little like me – anything historical is of interest in its own right. I’m something of an antiquarian. I love history. I love immersing myself in history. But my hope is that we are here not simply for antiquarian reasons but that we are here to learn, to look back not stay back. The Lord is the living God, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, the God of Jacob. God is not located in the past, he is the God who is, who is with us. And yet not withstanding that we always need to hear the admonition that the Lord gives through the prophet Jeremiah to his people, ‘Stand by the roads, and look, and ask for the ancient paths, where the good way is; and walk in it, and find rest for your souls’ (Jer.6:16) – the old paths were good, not because they were old, but because they were God ordained. It is not merely that the people should look back and long for days that are past – that’s a danger in looking back. We can look back and merely end up bemoaning the present, forgetting that our Father is always at work. One of the most dispiriting features of modern evangelical and even Reformed Christianity is this cramped, defensive, almost defeatist spirit. It’s as if the Lord has left the throne of the cosmos. ‘The Lord reigns, let the nations tremble.’ And so looking back, we are to do so in order that we might be the better equipped to go forward. And that is my hope tonight – that looking back a little, dipping into the lives and the testimonies and the convictions of these old Princetonians, will inspire us, by the grace of God, to seek to emulate those convictions and those concerns in our own days.

Old Princeton

Now I presume that you know that this year is the two hundredth year of the founding of Princeton. I’m often accused in Cambridge of taking too much for granted. But the subject is Old Princeton. Why Old Princeton? Princeton Theological Seminary was founded in 1812. For over a hundred years it was, perhaps, the most famous theological college in the world, standing four-square on the doctrines of the infallibility of Holy Scripture and the truths rediscovered for the church, by the grace and kindness of God, at the time of the 16th century Reformation. It saw itself, self-consciously, as being in the Augustinian-Calvinist tradition. It was creedally and confessionally Presbyterian. It was historically orthodox and it was committed to ‘vital piety’. To all intents and purposes, that Princeton died in 1929. It had actually been dying for some years before that but that was the terminus ad quem, the final death knell of that Princeton, committed to infallibility, the Reformation and ‘vital piety’. In that year the General Assembly of the Northern Presbyterian Church voted to reorganise Princeton Seminary and dramatically signalled its intention by appointing two of the Auburn Affirmation signatories as its trustees. (You need to be careful who you appoint as trustees!) The Auburn Affirmation, you may know, was a response by neo-liberals within the Northern Presbyterian Church that condemned the General Assembly’s response to the controversy arising out of Harry Emerson Fosdick’s May 1922 sermon ‘Shall the Fundamentalists Win?’. And in the wake of the appointment of these two men as trustees, J. Gresham Machen and some colleagues withdrew and set up Westminster Theological Seminary to continue Reformed orthodox theology. The Princeton of today is theologically removed by a diameter from the Princeton that existed, by and large, up until 1929. Hence, ‘Old Princeton’.

So we shall be looking at the theological emphasis of the Princeton founded in 1812, leading up to the 1920s. I have assumed in this lecture that some of you will know a lot, some of you will know a little and some of you, perhaps, will not know very much. So I am hoping there might be something for everyone.


It might be helpful at the outset to respond briefly to the prevailing criticism of Old Princeton theology that has been consistently levelled against it not just by liberals on the outside but by evangelical scholars who look at Old Princeton and make this searing criticism – that Old Princeton used the philosophical rationale of the Age of Reason in its exposition of biblical theology. That is, that Old Princeton was rationalist – that is what people like Mark Noll and others are saying – and sought to persuade an unbelieving world of biblical truth by the use of ‘right reason’. Old Princeton, so the criticism maintains, was overly dominated by an ‘evidentialist apologetic’. Now, while there is a measure of truth in that criticism, when a little truth becomes an all-embracing paradigm, it skews everything else out of focus. This criticism essentially fails to understand the ‘subjective apologetic’ that undergirded Old Princeton’s ‘evidentialist apologetic’. Let me explain what I mean. Old Princeton theologians acknowledged that the Christian religion is ‘founded on faith,’ that was a sine qua non, it was a given. But they also insisted that the faith on which the Christian religion is founded ‘does not destroy or demand the destruction of reason, but’, says Charles Hodge, ‘elevates or perfects it’. (It is like Herman Bavinck – grace does not destroy nature but purifies and restores nature to its divine original.) Listen to Charles Hodge, ‘A Christian introduced by the Spirit (notice the supernaturalism – that is the dominant subjective apologetic of Princeton) into the glorious temple of truth, may well be blinded by excess of light, but he can still clasp in his arms the great pillars of the faith.’1 Old Princeton was persuaded that the ability to reason ‘rightly’ involved the ‘whole soul’ and had to do, therefore, with objective as well as subjective factors.

So Old Princeton’s theology was a ‘blend of reasoning and piety, of evidentialism and fideism, of defence and proclamation’. Now there is no doubt that Old Princeton would have benefited from the influence of a time-travelling Cornelius Van Til! If Van Til could have borrowed Dr Who’s TARDIS he would have been a great asset helping the Princetonians to a more pre-suppositional approach. That is not to say that they were not foundationally or fundamentally pre-suppositional in their approach. They were. The living God was their ultimate pre-supposition. God’s revelation in his Word by his Spirit and ultimately through the incarnation of his Son undergirded everything else that Princeton sought to teach.

Nonetheless, Old Princeton’s theology and theological method is essentially and ultimately consonant with that of the magisterial Reformers and their spiritual heirs the Puritans. Of course, there are differences; they lived in different times. Essentially, however, they were one. Probably no one more than Charles Hodge came to epitomise what has been called ‘Old Princeton’. He was an unapologetic Christian in an age of increasing scepticism. He was an unashamed confessional Calvinist in an age of doctrinal indifferentism. He defended the integrity and infallibility of the Bible as if his very life depended on it (because he believed it did!). Something of the measure of the man, and the essence of the Princeton tradition, is seen in his address to James McCosh when he was installed as president of Princeton College in 1868. Speaking for the College trustees, Hodge expressed what we might call the Princeton pulse beat: ‘We would in a single word state what it is we desire. It is that true religion here may be dominant; that a pure gospel may be preached, and taught, and lived; that the students should be made to feel that the eternal is infinitely more important than the temporal, the heavenly than the earthly’.That is the pulse beat as we shall see in a moment.

Hodge, and Old Princeton with him, lived in an age of intellectual, social and political ferment. When Hodge was born at the end of the 18th century, the remarkable decades from 1730-1750 were a distant memory. In 1805, can you credit, Unitarians captured the chair of theology at Harvard, and at Yale students were addressing one another as Robespierre and Voltaire! Into such an age Princeton was raised up by God to stand in the gap and help equip the church to ‘contend for the faith once for all delivered to the saints.’


  1. Charles Hodge, ‘Reid’s Collected Writings,’ Biblical Repertory & Princeton Review Vol. 32, No. 3 (1860), p. 510.

Ian Hamilton is the pastor of Cambridge Presbyterian Church.

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