Old Princeton: Archibald Alexander and the Unified Soul

Archibald Alexander (1772-1851) was the first and founding professor at Princeton Theological Seminary, which began in 1812. Prior to being appointed to this post Alexander had been president of Hampton-Sydney College in Virginia and he served as pastor of Third Presbyterian Church in Philadelphia. Like his colleague Samuel Miller, Alexander was a prolific writer and many of his publications are still in print or available through electronic media. His writings run the gamut of theological topics but seem to cluster around apologetics, theological anthropology, the role of philosophy in theology, and the importance of the theological seminary for the training of sound ministers and for maintaining orthodoxy within the church.

Alexander had been trained for the ministry by William Graham who was himself educated at the College of New Jersey (now Princeton University) under the tutelage of John Witherspoon. Witherspoon, a Presbyterian minister from Scotland and the only clergyman to serve in the Continental Congress during the American Revolution, was president of the College of New Jersey for many years at a significant time in the early development of the life of the new nation of the United States. Witherspoon is often credited with introducing the philosophy of Scottish Common Sense Realism to Princeton and therefore to the colonies and the burgeoning nation.

Scottish Common Sense Realism (SCSR) was a philosophy which was known for its “faculty psychology” in which the varied powers of the human soul (the intellect, will, and emotions) were often reified so that these discreet powers came to be thought of almost as individual agents within the human soul. For years scholars have argued that this philosophy undermined the orthodoxy of the Calvinism emanating from Princeton. There is no doubt that SCSR was utilized as a tool for assisting the Princeton faculty in studying and explaining the world and human nature. Princeton would not be unique in this. SCSR was in the air in the nation in the late 18th to late 19th century and many theologians of varied traditions drew from its wells.

The question is this: Did Old Princeton undermine its stated commitment to biblical orthodoxy and Westminster Calvinism by utilizing SCSR? Specifically was the doctrine of original sin and total depravity vitiated? This is a complex question, which we ultimately cannot settle here and now. Interestingly enough there has been a veritable revolution in the assessment of Old Princeton and SCSR and especially with regard to total depravity. Did SCSR undermine the doctrine of total depravity, which holds that the fall of Adam brought about the infection of the whole human nature. That is, there is no aspect of our human nature or personality that has not been infected by sin.

One might expect that the Old Princeton professors might have fudged the doctrine of total depravity by suggesting that will might be depraved but not the intellect. This view has been attributed to the Old Princeton theologians. However, a closer look reveals no such denial of total depravity. Archibald Alexander is as good an example as can be examined:

If men are unaffected with the truth known, it must be because they do not know it aright...Did any man ever see an object to be lovely and not feel an emotion corresponding with that quality?  And what unconverted man ever beheld in Christ, as represented in Scripture, the beauty and glory of God?  Hence that doctrine is not true which confines depravity or holiness to the will, and which considers the understanding as a natural and the will as a moral faculty.  The soul is not depraved or holy by departments; the disease affects it, as a soul; and of course all faculties employed in moral exercises must partake of their moral qualities.[1]

Alexander is quite clear here that a person’s ability to know the truth rightly involves the intellect and the will (and emotions). He is affirming that faith involves the unified or whole soul. The intellect, while distinct from the will and emotions, is not to be hermetically compartmentalized from the will and emotions. The fall infected the whole human soul: intellect, will, and emotions. And salvation involves the restoration of each of these powers of the human soul.

Archibald Alexander manifests the fact that at least as far as the doctrine of total depravity, the influence of SCSR was minimized or mitigated by biblical and Reformed commitments. This is more than a mere antiquarian concern. Christians need to understand how our human nature works coming from the hand of God, how it has been infected by the fall, and how it is being restored in redemption as we anticipate freedom from sin and its deleterious effects in the new heavens and new earth.

*Alexander has been the subject of helpful research along with other Old Princeton faculty. James Garretson has authored two volumes on Alexander: Princeton and Preaching: Archibald Alexander and the Christian Ministry and A Scribe Well-Trained: Archibald Alexander and the Life of Piety. An older but still valuable resource is W. Andrew Hoffecker’s Piety and the Princeton Theologians.

[1] Archibald Alexander, Thoughts on Religious Experience (Carlisle, PA:  Banner of Truth Trust, 1989), 63.

Jeffrey C. Waddington (Ph.D., Westminster Theological Seminary) is stated supply at Knox Orthodox Presbyterian Church.  He also serves as a panelist at Christ the Center and East of Eden and is the secretary of the board of the Reformed Forum.  Additionally he serves as an articles editor for the Confessional Presbyterian Journal.

Jeffrey Waddington