Old Princeton: The Legacy of Old Princeton Seminary

The Synod of Dort summed up the soteriology of Calvinism in five points.  In this article I will sum up the legacy of Old Princeton Seminary in six points.

1.  God’s Word is truth.

On the last New Year’s day of his life, Charles Hodge was visited by one of the seminary students, who asked for a motto.  The old man wrote in a firm hand and with large letters, “Thy word is truth.”

Charles Hodge and the other Princeton professors believed that the Bible was the infallible Word of God.  They maintained that the Bible itself claimed that it was completely true, that Jesus believed it to be entirely trustworthy, and that the whole Christian church, until recent times, had held it to be absolutely authoritative.

2.  All truth is God’s truth.

In 1825 Charles Hodge began the Biblical Repertory “to render accessible to American readers some of the fruits of mature learning of English and German scholars.”  Soon the journal included original articles by the Princeton professors and others on a broad range of biblical and theological topics, along with solid contributions on science, philosophy, geography, literature, and history.  About twenty percent of the articles published in the Princeton journal during the heyday of Charles Hodge’s editorship addressed scientific issues.

In a sermon preached to the Princeton students on John 1: 14, Warfield said that Christians must “cultivate an attitude of courage” in pursuit of truth, not leaving the field to unbelievers and enemies of the church.  For over a hundred years the Biblical Repertory and its successors set forth the Princeton call to bring all learning into subjection to Christ so that in all things he might have the preeminence.

3.  The Reformed Faith is a precious gift.

While deriving their theology from an inductive study of the whole Bible, the Princetonians were guided in their work by the mainstream of doctrinal development in the history of the church, particularly as it took the shape of Reformed theology in the sixteenth century and gained classic expression in the Westminster Confession of Faith in the seventeenth century.

B. B. Warfield, who followed Charles Hodge and A. A. Hodge as Princeton’s professor of theology, wrote: “If I were to express in one word” why the Westminster Standards have “proved so perennial a source of strength to generation after generation of Christians” it is “because these precious documents appeal to us as but the embodiment, in fitly chosen language, of the pure gospel of the grace of God.”

4.  Christian truth must be defended at all costs.

The men of Old Princeton took seriously the words of the Westminster Directory of Worship that “in confutation of false doctrines, [the preacher] is neither to raise an old heresy from the grave, nor to mention a blasphemous opinion unnecessarily; but if the people be in danger of an error, he is to confute it soundly, and endeavour to satisfy their judgments and consciences against all objections.”

When I wrote my books on Princeton Seminary I called one chapter “The Duty of Controversy.”  I prefaced that chapter with a quotation from B. B. Warfield, who said, “He that declines controversy ‘on principle,’ or from motives of convenience or prudence, has thereby renounced his confidence in the truth—that truth of which it has been truly said, that it is ‘like a torch; the more it’s shook, [the more] it shines.’”

5.  The Holy Spirit uses Biblical truth and Christian doctrine to shape our lives.

Before the seminary was founded in 1812, John Witherspoon, the sixth president of the College of New Jersey, wrote in the Form of Government of the Presbyterian Church these words: “Truth is in order to goodness, and the great touchstone of truth, its tendency to promote holiness.”

The history of Princeton Seminary underscores this assertion: “Truth is in order to goodness.”  Worship of God in classroom and chapel, the famous Sabbath Afternoon Conference, prayer meetings formal and informal, student fellowship, and contacts with professors in and outside of class all served to create and deepen in the students what the Plan of the Seminary called “a spirit of enlightened devotion and fervent piety.”

6.  Just as Jesus by his sacrifice purchased redemption, we, by ours, must make it known.

My initial interest in the history of Princeton Seminary came from my discovery in the basement of Speer Library many boxes of dusty old records from a student society that began in 1813, the year after the seminary was founded.  It was called the Society of Inquiry on Missions.  For over half a century that society was one of the most powerful forces at work in the seminary.  Students gave papers on missions, corresponded with missionaries and national Christians abroad, and challenged one another to serious response to the Lord’s words “Go and make disciples of all nations.”  The students graduated and went out not only to established pulpits in the United States, but also to frontier posts in the West, to the slaves in the South, to the Indians, and to the uttermost parts of the earth.

Dr. David Calhoun is Emeritus Professor of Church History at Covenant Theological Seminary, St Louis, Missouri. He has taught at Covenant College and Columbia Bible College (now Columbia International University) and served as principal of Jamaica Bible College. Prior to his appointment to Covenant Seminary in 1978, he was the overseas director of Ministries in Action.  He is the author of a two-volume history of Princeton Seminary – Princeton Seminary, Faith & Learning 1812-1868, and The Majestic Testimony 1869-1929.

David Calhoun