Old Princeton: Revisiting Old Paths Leads to New Life

Just as it revives the Body of Christ when schooled in the classic theology and pious character of the good old Puritans, so we may be renewed by “going old school” with The Log College.  Considering that the prominent eighteenth century evangelist George Whitfield referred to what would later be Princeton Seminary as the “school of the old prophets”[1], when we listen to its ancient teachers and students our own lives can be reinvigorated with the Lord Jesus Christ of Whom all the prophets speak (Luke 24:27, 44; John 1:45; 5:46).

In his History of the Work of Redemption, Princeton’s third president Jonathan Edwards wrote about “These schools of the prophets being set up by Samuel” in a way he surely would envision for Old Princeton to produce men prepared for the rigors of holy ministry: “those sons of the prophets … continued under tuition in the schools of the prophets; and God commonly, when he called any prophet to the constant exercise of the prophetical office, and to some extraordinary service, took them out of these schools … it was God’s ordinary manner to take his prophets out of these schools; for therein he did but bless his own institution.”[2]

We should pray for seminaries in our generation to be institutions that reflect Old Princeton, the nation’s second oldest seminary.  Theological schools are too often felled by the pressure to reinvent themselves for modernity instead of refurbishing the ageless architecture of eternity.  Sadly, such innovative force is why we speak of “Old” Princeton.

While being interviewed for an oral history video celebrating the bicentennial of my alma mater, our systematic theology professor was asked about what had kept the country’s fifth oldest seminary (for which he had served for more than thirty years) faithful to God’s enduring Word.  On the connection with seminaries staying sound, he answered:

What I have seen operating in seminaries that were once bulwarks of orthodoxy is a hunger to have the approval of the wider scholarly world, and to do that, you have to be doing something new all the time.  We need to keep up to date with what’s happening with scholarship outside of our circles, and we try to do that, but the Athenian disease of wanting always to hear something new[3] and to be highly regarded by professional theologians who do not hold to the Scripture I think is a snare even to seminaries that have been strongly orthodox in the past.  We’ll not get the approval of the unbelieving world if we hold to the offense of the Gospel, [but] we have to stay faithful to the Scripture … to the Gospel.[4]

He also warned us in classroom discussions about the pitfalls of engaging too much with works of modern and liberal theology (as we now see in “New” Princeton) with his cheeky refrain, “If it’s good, it isn’t new; and if it’s new, it isn’t good.”

Step down the well-worn stone stairs of Old Princeton’s deep cellars to taste of the good aged drink.  Dig up the works of its faithful fathers to quench your faith’s thirst for righteousness with fresh springs at the well Lahairoi.  You will be following after the echoes of the Reformation’s, semper reformanda.

Paul wrote in the New Testament, Nevertheless, whereto we have already attained, let us walk by the same rule, let us mind the same thing (Philippians 3:16).  Yet this was nothing new:  Thus saith the LORD, Stand ye in the ways, and see, and ask for the old paths, where is the good way, and walk therein, and ye shall find rest for your souls … (Jeremiah 6:16).

Walking the hallowed halls of Old Princeton may seem too narrow a squeeze for many pastors and theologians these days, but they lead pilgrims to the Ancient of Days Who is the same Way, Truth, and Life yesterday, today, and forever.

[1] Thomas Jefferson Wertenbaker, Princeton, 1746-1896, (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1996) , 11.

[2] Jonathan Edwards, The History of the Work of Redemption (Grand Rapids: Sovereign Grace, date?) , 91.

[3] Acts 17:21: (For all the Athenians and strangers which were there spent their time in nothing else, but either to tell, or to hear some new thing.)

[4] Wayne R. Spear, “RPTS Oral History Video, Pt. 2” (Pittsburgh: Reformed Presbyterian Theological Seminary, 2010) , https://vimeo.com/5823103.

Grant Van Leuven has been feeding the flock at the Puritan Evangelical Church of America in San Diego, CA, since 2010.  He is the adoring husband of Jennifer Van Leuven and a proud father of their four covenant children: Rachel, Olivia, Abraham, and Isaac.  He earned his M.Div. at the Reformed Presbyterian Theological Seminary in Pittsburgh, PA.

Grant Van Leuven