25 June 2017

Princeton Seminary: Twenty Years of Reflection

If you've never been to Princeton, New Jersey I highly recommend it. It's a fascinating place filled with history and character. There's much to see and yet the real thrill is to just walk around, enjoy the streets and wander the magnificent old buildings of one of the most renowned of the Ivy League schools.


I first visited in 1997 and relatively fresh from two years in Europe I was impressed. Frankly there's no comparison to what you'll find across the Atlantic but for the United States, the grand old buildings of Princeton are remarkable. It rekindled a feeling for me that I appreciated even if it was a little disappointing when compared to what I experienced in places like Italy and England.
And while I appreciated the town and campus in 1997, what really interested me was the seminary. Founded in 1812 the seminary is not connected to the prestigious university. Nevertheless its campus is located only a few blocks from the university centre and seems to be a continuation of the Ivy League school and the town in general. It certainly shares the Ivy League ethos. Visiting the seminary was for me something of a pilgrimage. At the time I was steeped in Reformed doctrine and it was a thrill to see the houses where the Hodges lived and to wander the campus where so many Reformed and Presbyterian figures of renown had once studied and lectured.
The cemetery was nothing short of thrilling. To visit the graves of the Hodges, BB Warfield, Jonathan Edwards, Samuel Miller and even John Witherspoon was moving to say the least.
Of course throw in Edward's grandson Aaron Burr, the grave of Grover Cleveland, Gödel and others, the cemetery is a place of wonder and reflection. The famed diplomat George Kennan was still alive when I visited in 1997 (and again in 2002) but I made a point of visiting his grave during this last trip. I'm not a fan of Kennan but he was an interesting person. Right or wrong he was a giant in terms of Cold War policy.
It is this last trip, earlier this year that occasions this piece. My perspective was very different. As mentioned I visited once more in 2002. I wanted to show the town to my wife and it was on that trip we also visited nearby Bethlehem PA. On the 1997 trip I was with friends and we also visited the sites of the Log College, downtown Philadelphia and Westminster Seminary... the Confessional successor school founded by J Gresham Machen in the 1920s. Princeton Seminary had gone liberal and the conservatives made their exodus, only a few of them remaining into the 1940s as the school slipped into the apostasy that so dominates it today.
In 1997 I was on a pilgrimage. In 2002 I was on a pleasant visit with my wife (with young children in tow). In 2017 I returned with my wife, teenage children and a very different perspective.
This time I wandered the campus and looked at the grand old buildings and pondered what the Ivy League represents. Again the seminary is not connected to the University and yet they share the same culture, ethos and represent the same forces in society. The seminary is today no longer of great significance to the wider culture and yet a century ago that was not the case. Today more people are likely to visit Einstein's nearby house than care about the halls that once hosted visiting lecturers such as Kuyper and Barth.
In terms of ethos, the seminary represents (and certainly represented) the same sort of respectability, status and power that are at the heart of what the Ivy League is all about. The seminary employs the same imagery and certainly its history is intertwined with is nearby academic cousin.
It's funny, but for Confessional Presbyterians of our day, the trip to Princeton is painful and a source of profound emotion. Granted it's not on the level of a Greek visiting the Hagia Sophia in Istanbul but there are parallels.
In 1997 I shared the feelings of lamentation. As a Reformed partisan I wanted to storm Alexander Hall and kick out the infidel theological liberals that had appropriated it. There's a great bitterness. "This was ours! All this 'glory' and honour, all this tradition and history was ours. And these insurgents captured it and took it away!"
While the theological liberals are indeed the enemies of Christ the lamentation I felt in 1997 was quite gone by my 2017 return. Frankly the Confessionalist loss struck me as fitting, a case of just desserts, even poetic.
I wasn't angry or emotional but I felt a sort of cold reflection. If there was disgust, perhaps it was with myself and how I as a young Christian thought about these questions.
Standing in front of Charles Hodge's house I couldn't help but think of his approach to Systematic Theology and his struggles to combat Darwinism. While the latter was indeed admirable and right, his unwitting embrace of Enlightenment categories had all but fettered his own hands. I see him as a tragic figure, trying to hold something together and yet incapable, not even fully understanding what is happening.
When I think of his son AA Hodge I cannot help but recall the rationalist nature of his theology and the great lack of wisdom and insight with regard to society and Christianity. An advocate of what I would identify as imperialist missionary work and the kind of Sacralist doctrine at odds with the New Testament, AA Hodge is a breath of fresh air to Dominionists and the Theonomists who still haunt the halls of American Presbyterianism. At one time his name was hallowed to me. Today, even though a volume or two of his writings remain on my shelf, he is not one that I would esteem.
Of course BB Warfield was the 'Lion of Princeton', the great defender of Calvinistic Orthodoxy in the late 19th and early 20th century. An author of many fine works Warfield was nevertheless inept when it came to defending Scripture in the face of Modernism. This statement will astonish many for they view him as 'the great defender' of Scripture in the face of Modernism. But they say this failing to understand his capitulation and compromise. Unwittingly, Warfield laid the groundwork for today's Evangelical laxity with regard to Scripture and the collapse of Biblical authority.
I cannot lay all the blame on Warfield. That would be unfair. But his doctrine of inerrancy as opposed to the older concept of infallibility did much harm. The Bible was taken away from the Church and handed to the academy and confidence in Scripture as a supernatural providentially preserved Word of God was replaced by a scholarly reconstruction, subjected to the justifications and deductions of men, even unbelievers at that! The Evangelical disaster with regard to the text of Scripture can be traced back (at least in good part) to Warfield.
Princeton, so hampered by faulty philosophically dependent Evidentialist Apologetics proved weak and began to collapse in the face of Higher Criticism and the Scientific Revolution. Warfield was himself weak on the question of evolution.
Though not buried there I could not help but think of J Gresham Machen, the founder of Westminster Seminary and the figure most associated with the genesis of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church (OPC). I was once a member of that denomination and would certainly never have anything to do with it again. That said, I cannot but to a certain extent admire Machen and (to a degree) those that went with him. His work on Christianity and Liberalism still holds a place of honour on the shelf. Though authored almost a century ago, the fundamental issues have not changed in the least. It is still a relevant and worthwhile book.
As I walked through the campus I thought about Machen and his new dissenting seminary. What a change! Abandoning the halls of ivy they were forced to meet in cramped offices located in downtown Philadelphia. I'm sure it gave those early professors a sense of excitement and adventure. Their futures were no longer solid and certain. And yet with the thrill of their new doctrinally sound settings, they must have also felt a sense of disappointment... especially when they thought of men like Geerhardus Vos who remained behind. What had they done? The worldly glory, status and respect had departed. To this very day, Princetonians of the mainline PCUSA make a face when I mention Machen's name. He is a source of scorn and disdain.
Does this not demonstrate the Machen faction's great integrity and fidelity? In a sense it does but on the other hand the fact that they were all but driven to abandoning the ivy-halls points to something else. The move to Philadelphia humbled them to be sure, but why? Why was the move viewed as a loss? I've always heard a great deal about this, lecturers and authors talking about their great fall and humbling, always cast in a sense of lamentation and regret. I felt it once myself and quite keenly in 1997.
In their hearts they wanted to be part of that Princeton scene. This is what I found to be problematic in 2017 and why I no longer feel sorry for any of them. Princeton's problems are not represented in merely the takeover by the liberals or the defective theology of its 19th century leaders. Rather one of the most essential problems is found in simply walking the campus, looking at the buildings and understanding what it all means in terms of the culture and the Church's relationship to it. Looking at the campus I cannot but think they were doomed from the moment it was built. The Princeton project (as it were) lost its way and became a worldly institution. And thus it's no great shock that the world took it over. It's almost a parable for modern Evangelical and Dominionist attempts to capture and appropriate the culture. They should visit the whited sepulchres of Princeton Seminary and find out what happens. You can build fine buildings with manicured grounds and many a historical plaque... but in the end it's all simply obscuring the spiritual degeneracy at work in its poisoned heart.
In 1997 my eyes were blind to the power that Princeton University (and Seminary) represents. I was still too caught up in grand buildings, ivy covered halls and cloister-like porticoes. I was deceived by romantic and erroneous views of history.
Perhaps by 2017 some might say I was scared, hardened and cynical. They might have a point. I have no love for Presbyterianism. Instead of former and tarnished glory I see entitlement, corruption and hubris. Men I once viewed as heroes I now see as apologists for the system who in their ivory tower weakness were exposed as wanting. They were not giants at all. They're not men to be elevated. In some cases they are worthy of pity. Their system was a veneer that once compromised quickly crumbled into the dust.
The faithful confessionalists fled that burning Troy and like Aeneas sought to build a new one. Did they learn the true lesson of Old Princeton? I think they learned something from it but for the most part I would answer in the negative.
Eighty years later they've built new institutions, not in old hallowed halls of stone and ivy but in shiny modern buildings, appropriately in the suburbs. No longer wed to old money and power they now represent the Middle and Upper Middle Classes of which their congregations are mostly comprised. Ironically, though they have been humbled and have lost a great deal of influence and respect... the values have not changed.
I doubt I'll visit Princeton again. I am content with what I've seen. I have found great satisfaction in revisiting old travels after years of reflection. I don't think Princeton has much more to offer me.
I am very thankful I was able to bring my kids. As historically minded and aware teenagers they greatly appreciated the visit. We hit some of the other sites as well. There's the nearby Revolutionary War battlefield, Einstein's house and more. The trip fit in nicely with some other things we wanted to see in the greater area.

It was nice to walk the streets, eat some good food and drink real coffee which is unavailable in rural Appalachia. I am very glad I got to visit Princeton again, not just for my kids, but for me. I was struck by how different it all looked now versus my first visit some twenty years ago. But it has lost its charms and I can now cross it off the list. If I'm nearby I'll stop in but I doubt I'll make a point of it. There are other things to see.