By Jim Sawyer
During my seminary career, although I majored in New Testament, I spent much time studying, particularly Historical Theology, and more particularly Reformed Theology in America. (In fact I went on to do my Ph.D. in Historical Theology.) Although I studied at Dallas Seminary, considered the bastion of Dispensationalism I did not buy wholly into the system. Instead I fell in love with the Princetonians: Charles Hodge, A.A. Hodge and particularly B.B. Warfield of whom it has been said had the theological mind of a Charles Hodge and a Wm. G.T. Shedd rolled into one. It is also said that after Jonathan Edwards, Warfield was the greatest theological mind ever produced in America. Warfield particularly had a razor-sharp mind and studied the positions of his theological opponents so he knew what they believed better than they did. As a result he could spot weaknesses in his opponents’ positions a mile (or more) away. He did not resort to name-calling, nor did he twist his opponents positions when involved in argument. Rather like Irenaeus the great second century opponent of Gnosticism thought the best way to discredit an opponent’s position was to give it a full exposition, working out the hidden assumptions and propositions. When this was done the opponent’s position would fall under its own weight, as discredited. I loved the logic and the clear thinking and the closely integrated system. In short it was supremely rational. The Princetonians also had a reputation for a warm personal piety (See Andrew Hoffecker, Piety and the Princeton Theologians).
Twenty-five years ago, when I was just starting my career as a Professor of Theology and I was doing research for my Ph.D. dissertation I traveled to New York City to read the Briggs Papers housed in the Library of Union Theological Seminary across the street from Colombia University at Broadway and 122nd I spent two weeks pouring over Briggs’ personal correspondence. Charles A. Briggs was Warfield’s great theological opponent in the 1880’s and 90’s with whom he battled over the question of biblical inerrancy. During my research, I discovered a darker side to the Princetonian tradition. That darker side involved an absolute devotion to the Westminster Confession as the pinnacle of theological achievement that could never be improved upon. Charles Hodge boasted that a new idea never arose at Princeton. Warfield, although a much better theologian than Hodge never wrote a systematic theology because he believed that his mentor’s Systematic Theology could not be improved upon. They adopted a mentality which Briggs labeled orthodoxism “Orthodoxism assumes to know the truth and is unwilling to learn; it is haughty and arrogant, assuming the divine prerogatives of infallibility and inerrancy; it hates all truth that is unfamiliar to it, and persecutes it to the uttermost.” St., near Harlem.
I also discovered a deep dichotomy between the head and the heart. Charles Hodge, as representative of the Princetonian position, displayed a great antipathy for any emphasis on the subjective nature of Christianity. At one point he stated: “The idea that Christianity is a form of feeling, a life, and not a system of doctrines is contrary to the faith of all Christians. Christianity always has a creed. A man who believes certain doctrines is a Christian.” (Biblical Repertory and Princeton Review 29:693.) This stress on the objective nature of the Faith has led to the charge that Princeton was rationalistic in its approach to Christianity. Numerous historians and theologians have contended that the Princetonians compartmentalized faith and life. For example, C. R. Jeschke states of the Princetonians:
The strict compartmentalization of formal theology and the life of piety that came to prevail at Princeton reflected in part the growing irrelevance of traditional modes of thought and inherited statements of faith for the needs of the church in a rapidly changing world. The fact that Hodge and his colleagues, like most of their contemporaries, were unaware of the sickness in the theological body, only permitted the condition to worsen, and heightened the reaction of the patient to the cure, when its true condition was finally diagnosed. (“The Briggs Case”, p. 56.)
Back to my discoveries in the Briggs papers, it was here that I saw the practical outworking of the Princetonian position. Briggs’ uncle, Marvin Briggs who had studied at Princeton Seminary had been soured on the whole mindset that surrounded the Princetonian pre-commitment to the Westminster Confession. While studying in Germany he writes to Marvin, “I have one course . . . on Systematic Theology which seems to be your detestation. However the subject is treated differently from what you had at Princeton. Prof. Dorner goes back to the Bible as his first step . . .” (B. T. 1:27). Several months later he wrote: “It is unfortunate for you that you were educated at Princeton where there is an incarnation of doctrine and everything is looked on from that standpoint. Here in Germany . . . everything is looked upon from a scriptural standpoint. The only difficulty is there is too little reverence for Scripture as the Word of God and too great an exaltation of human reason as arbiter over it” (B.T. 1:42. Underscoring original, italics added). Later in the same letter he characterized Princeton’s system as “pernicious.”
I also discovered that while the Princeton theologians themselves were able to maintain a warm personal piety with their commitment to the system, the graduates of Princeton were not. it is not too much to say that many even among the Old School read only the theological material of the Princetonians. This fact contributed to a cold creedal orthodoxy among a significant contingent of the Old School with its stress on pure doctrine. Even the great Greek grammarian Basil L. Gildersleeve, himself a Princeton graduate, decried the “baleful influence of Princeton” stating that there was from there “very little hope of a generous vivifying force” (Letter from Gildersleeve to Charles Augustus Briggs, Briggs Transcripts, 5.470 (Twelve ledger books hand-copied by Emilie Grace Briggs comprising a transcription of Charles Briggs’ personal correspondence, Union Theological Seminary Library). Many letters from Princeton grads were in Briggs’ correspondence. What comes through the written lines is a cold rational commitment to truth which touched the head but bounced off the heart.
Why is this important for us today? Because we see the same spirit within the academic wing of evangelicalism. We see theology that has reduced the truth of God to timeless abstract propositions. A theology that puffs up the knower with pride that he or she is committed to the truth, and even reduces love as another proposition to be parroted rather than a relationship to be experienced.