Skip to content

“Commemoration of Princeton Seminary (1812-2012)” Greenville Presbyterian Theological Seminary

By Gary Steward and Chris Cooper —

Greenville Presbyterian Theological Seminary hosted its Spring Theology Conference a few weeks ago commemorating the bicentennial of the founding of Princeton Seminary.  The speakers included James Garretson, Andrew Webb, Benjamin Shaw, Paul Helseth, Tony Curto, Nick Willborn, Darryl Hart, Fred Zaspel, Joseph Pipa, and Carl Trueman.  Gary Steward and myself (Chris Cooper) had the joy of attending the conference and would like to take a moment to report back, highlighting some of the excellent papers given. While we wish we could highlight all of them, here are a few we were able to attend.

James Garretson

Dr. James Garretson opened the conference with an introductory lecture on Archibald Alexander and the founding of Princeton Seminary. Garretson’s work on Archibald Alexander has already been made available in his Princeton and Preaching: Archibald Alexander and the Christian Ministry (Banner of Truth, 2005) and A Scribe Well-Trained: Archibald Alexander and the Life of Piety (Reformation Heritage, 2011). Garretson highlighted how Alexander possessed the rare combination of deep piety, extensive scholarship, and powerful abilities as a preacher. Garretson explained how Alexander understood the best of preaching to be the warm-hearted overflow of a full and prepared heart. Such preparation for preaching involves all of life, and the mind and heart should both be continually groomed for such sacred work. Alexander did not use extensive notes in preaching, but believed that careful preparation and lively emotion is the secret for powerful rhetoric and eloquence. A preacher must be possessed by an all-constraining love for Christ, which gives both a sweetness and a power to one’s preaching.
Three new Banner of Truth volumes edited by Dr. Garretson were unveiled at the conference. Pastor-Teachers of Old Princeton: Memorial Addresses for the Faculty of Princeton Theological Seminary, 1812-1921 ($32hc) contains numerous eulogies and memorial addresses that are biographically and spiritually significant, and Princeton and the Work of the Christian Ministry, vols. 1-2 ($59hc) contains numerous lectures and addresses given by the Princeton faculty on the work of the ministry. All three of these volumes contain a number of selections that are being put into print for the first time. Dr. Garretson is also currently working on a book on Samuel Miller. 

Paul Helseth

Dr. Paul Helseth gave an address on “Scripture, Inerrancy, and the Role of Reason” which extended the argument contained in his Right Reason and the Princeton Mind: An Unorthodox Proposal (P&R, 2010). Far from being a mere recapitulation of the material contained in his book, Helseth laid out a substantive and meaty argument against the consensus interpretation of the Princetonians (i.e. their theological method and apologetic were significantly accommodated by Enlightenment rationalism and Scottish Common Sense philosophy) that was built upon recent archival work just completed. Helseth argued that the Princetonians rejected Enlightenment forms of faculty psychology and understood the mind to be fully integrated with the affections and the will. Unregenerate individuals cannot reason “rightly” about spiritual things, and true spiritual knowledge cannot be attained by the intellect alone. A true knowledge of spiritual things entails the affections, for to know Christ rightly is to know him as desirable and glorious. While the Princetonians were not always consistent with themselves, Helseth argued that the Princetonians were “more or less consistent” and that their theology should not be viewed as riddled with intellectualism or rationalism.

Darryl G. Hart

Dr. Darryl G. Hart delivered a lecture entitled, “19th Century Crosscurrents: Hodge, Finney, and Nevin.” Hart argued that, in their response to the threat that Charles G. Finney’s revivalism posed to the Reformed tradition, Charles Hodge and John Williamson Nevin each defended one key aspect of Reformed theology and practice to the exclusion of another. Charles Hodge and the Princetonians in general defended Reformed doctrine against the Pelagianizing tendencies of Finney’s view of moral obligation and free will. Thus, for Hodge, Finney transgressed the Reformed tradition most grievously through doctrinal innovation. Nevin led a school of thought called the Mercersburg Theology and defended Reformed piety against the individualistic piety of revivalism produced outside the church’s catechetical and sacramental nurture. Thus, for Nevin, Finney’s greatest offense lay in revivalism’s tendency to offer salvation and Christian nurture through the drama of revival and outside the creed, clergy, and sacramental rites of Christ’s church. Hart also explained that Hodge’s and Nevin’s different responses to Finney exasperated a growing rift between the Princetonian school and the Mercersburg school. As a result, the Princetonians carried forth the doctrinal legacy of the Reformation, while the Mercersburg theologians upheld the churchly piety of the Reformation. Hart concluded by emphasizing the need for modern Reformed churches to cherish both strands of the Reformed faith—the Reformed doctrine championed by Hodge and the Reformed piety upheld by Nevin.

C. N. Willborn

Dr. C. N. Willborn lectured upon the topic, “Ecclessiology: The Hodge/Thornwell Exchange.” Willborn highlighted the ecclesiological differences between Charles Hodge and Southern Presbyterian stalwart James Henley Thornwell. He explained that they differed on the function of ruling elders, the lawfulness of mission boards overseen by the church, and the legitimacy of Roman Catholic baptism. Hodge, Willborn explained, did not believe that ruling elders had the power to ordain teaching elders, did believe that the church could delegate the task of missions to a board appointed by the church, and did believe that Roman Catholic baptism was a legitimate baptism. Thornwell, on the other hand, argued that ruling elders had the power to ordain teaching elders, that the church did not have the power to delegate the task of missions and evangelism to a mission board, even if appointed by the church, and that Roman Catholic baptism was really no baptism at all. In spite of these key ecclesiological differences, Willborn stressed that Hodge and Thornwell held much more in common than in dispute. Both men were robust, Old School Presbyterians. Both men shared a common approach to theology and were dedicated covenant theologians. Both wanted what is biblical and thus best for the church. For this reason, Willborn concluded with an exhortation to read both Hodge and Thornwell, because those who will do so will become better churchmen, theologians, and pastors as a result. 

Greenville Presbyterian Theological Seminary is to be commended for seeking to revive and embody the commitment to learning and “vital piety” that made Old Princeton great. An MP3 CD of the conference may be ordered for $35. Contact the Presbyterian Bookshop at (864) 322-2717 or email [email protected] for more information.

Also, be sure to keep your eye out in July for an upcoming issue of Credo Magazine called, “Old Princeton.” Contributors will include D. G. Hart, Paul Helseth, Andrew Hoffecker, James Garretson, Fred Zaspel, and many others.

Gary Steward is a PhD candidate in Church History at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, KY. Gary is married to Amy, and they have three children Anne, Katie, and Joshua. Gary is a member of Clifton Baptist Church in Louisville, KY.

Chris Cooper is a PhD candidate in Church History at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, KY. Chris serves as a staff editor for Credo Magazine. Chris is married to Jessica, and they have one son, Will. Chris is a member of Clifton Baptist Church in Louisville, KY.

Back to Top