This is an interview with Gary Steward, a good friend of mine going all the way back to seminary and author of the just released Princeton Seminary (1812 – 1929): Its Lives and Leaders. I highly commend his book for everyone!
How did you get interested in Old Princeton?
While I was a student at South Dakota State University, I came across a cassette tape of a lecture by Iain Murray, where he commended three particular books by the great Princeton theologians, saying: “if a young man gets hold of those books and they get hold of him, I believe that he’s got something, for life.” To my knowledge, this was the first time I had heard of the Princeton theologians.
A few years later I discovered the wonderful two-volume set of books on Old Princeton by David Calhoun. I found these books to be absolutely thrilling. They opened my eyes to the wonderful world of the Princeton theologians and their rich theology and history.
Why is Old Princeton so important for us today?
The writings the Princeton theologians left us are a treasure trove of rich theology that the evangelical church desperately needs to rediscover today. They are not only intellectually deep but are also clearly presented so that most will find books like A. A. Hodge’s Outlines of Theology to be very accessible. In their theological writings, they provide responses to more liberal varieties of Christianity that are profoundly helpful and enduring for evangelicals today–thinking particularly of Hodge and Warfield’s Inspiration and Machen’s Christianity and Liberalism.
The Princeton theologians also plumbed the depths of religious experience in their writings, seeking to distinguish between God’s common grace, his regenerating special grace, and the varieties of counterfeit grace which have merely emotional or sociological explanations. Archibald Alexander’s Thoughts on Religious Experience is so helpful in this regard.
What made Princeton Seminary such a unique place from its beginning in 1812 to its reorganization in 1929?
The theologians of Old Princeton fused together the rich historical theology of the Reformed tradition together with the Great Awakening’s emphasis on conversion, piety, and religious experience. The brought together what so many have wanted to separate. Not only were they Bible scholars and theologians of the first order, they were also outstanding pastors and teachers as well. In our day, seminaries and graduate schools have tended to value educators who are technical specialists in one isolated field only. Old Princeton reminds us of the value of scholarship that integrates the disciplines, as well as the necessity of integrating of life, thought, and experience as well.
Why do “Christians need history, and Christians need heroes,” as you say in your video?
We live in an age that does not overly value the past. Technology fascinates us, not history. Christians, however, need a living appreciation of the past in order stay grounded and humbled. Christianity is a faith rooted in history, and Christians are instructed in the Bible to: “Remember your leaders, those who spoke to you the word of God. Consider the outcome of their way of life, and imitate their faith” (Heb. 13:7 ESV). History gives us perspective, and it gives us hope for the future as well. It keeps us from being taken captive by fads and can give us real wisdom for the living of our lives.
Christians need heroes well. Heroes can encourage, strength, and inspire us. They can helps us develop steadfastness, courage, and conviction. Some historians are cynics and take a misplaced pleasure in pointing out the flaws of heroes and in tearing down the heroic. I think we can admit that all of our heroes (apart from Christ) are severely flawed, but this does not keep us from the need we have of them. We don’t want to worship our heroes, but we can and should be inspired by the truly heroic and courageous examples we find in others. Look no further than the “Hall of Faith” heroes listed in Hebrews 11 for biblical warrant.
Which Princeton theologian is your favorite?
This is a hard choice. Probably Charles Hodge, with J. W. Alexander being a close second, and Archibald Alexander a close third. Warfield, Miller, and Machen are up there as well!
How did theological education under the Princeton theologians differ from theological education today?
Theological education at Old Princeton was a very personal matter. After its first decade, the total number of Princeton seminary students was between one and two hundred. The professors all lived within a short walk from the main seminary building and were very accessible to their students. Often students would be in the homes of their professors. They would eat together, pray together, worship together, and interact with each other in class.
The classroom experience was very interactive, with students often required to individually recite prepared answers on the theological material they were studying. The classroom interaction and oral exams allowed the professors to adapt their presentation of material to fit each class’s particular needs. A. A Hodge, in particular, seems to have viewed it as his responsibility not only to give theological lectures to his students but to Socratically engage his students and ensure their reception and embrace of orthodox truth.