When a Theological College Goes Wrong

princeton

We turn now to consider the battle for Princeton Seminary and the issue of theological education.  Much of this story from the 1920s will have a poignant ring to it, not only for those involved today at Westminster Seminary (which sadly is experiencing again some internal discord) but also for those who are aware of issues at other theological colleges such as Wycliffe Hall in Oxford or Oak Hill Theological College in London.

Let us start much further back.  In 1813 Samuel Miller moved from a city church to be professor of Ecclesiastical History and Church Government at the recently formed Princeton Seminary.  He had had a tough few years working alongside another man with whom he did not always see eye to eye.  So to prepare himself for a new stage of ministry he had written several resolutions, which included the following:

“III. I will endeavour, by the grace of God, so to conduct myself toward my colleague in the seminary, as never to give the least reasonable ground of offence.  It shall be my aim, by divine help, ever to treat him with the most scrupulous respect and delicacy, and never to wound his feelings, if I know how to avoid it.

IV. … I will, in no case, take offence at his treatment of me.  I have come hither resolving, that whatever may be the sacrifice of my personal feelings – whatever may be the consequence – I will not take offence, unless I am called upon to relinquish truth or duty… I will give up all my own claims, rather than let the cause of Christ suffer by animosity or contest.”[1]

“I will give up all my own claims, rather than let the cause of Christ suffer by animosity or contest.”

These admirable sentiments ensured a good working relationship between Miller and Archibald Alexander from the start.  Apart from the occasional student ‘rebellion’, Princeton Seminary was spared great internal turmoil for most of its history.  The students at nearby Princeton College did occasionally rebel, and on one occasion they nailed up all the entrances to Nassau Hall, together with the doors of their tutors’ rooms.  They rushed to the top floor yelling “Rebellion!  Rebellion!  Fire!  Fire!”, broke all the windows and rang the bell incessantly.[2]  The Seminary, however, was usually much more peaceful, due not only to concord on matters theological and ecclesiastical but also perhaps to the close family ties that existed and developed among the members of the faculty.[3]

Yet in the 1920s this amicability and unity broke down so completely that the General Assembly of 1926 was asked to investigate what was happening at the Seminary.  There was little “delicacy” towards wounded feelings and much bitter animosity and contest as the faculty fought amongst themselves for what Miller had called “truth or duty.”  One man did end up giving up on his own claims as a result of this strife.  J. Gresham Machen, elected as Professor of Apologetics by the Board of Directors was denied the chair by the General Assembly for several years while the investigation was carried out and a report written and endlessly discussed.

1. The Purpose of the Seminary

Things did not look good for Princeton.  A Special Commission of Fifteen had been appointed in 1925 to report on the causes of unrest in the denomination.  It reported that there were five such causes: general intellectual movements, historical differences, diverse attitudes towards questions of polity, theological changes, and misunderstandings.  In its analysis of historical precedent for doctrinal toleration, the report had clear echoes of the Auburn Affirmation: “toleration of diverse doctrinal views for the sake of evangelical unity – not concern for precise orthodoxy – had been the dominant, and successful, tendency in the church” it said.[4]  Only Clarence Macartney stood against the report’s acceptance, which nullified the ‘Deliverances’ of previous assemblies on the ‘fundamentals’ of what was “essential and necessary” to believe and thus enshrined the tolerance of liberals within the Church.  Yet, unsurprisingly, as Robert Churchill wrote, “Once the opponents of historic Christianity gained the upper hand, the plea for tolerance came to a sudden and dramatic end.”[5]

Heated debate within Princeton split the faculty down the middle.  The issue concerned the mission of the Seminary.  Geerhardus Vos, Caspar Hodge, William Greene, Oswald Allis, Robert Wilson, and Machen considered it to be the agent of Old School Presbyterianism, committed to the conservative cause even within a mixed denomination.  They had historical precedent on their side, as well as the Charter of the Seminary.  Moreover, certain donations, including the library and one of the classroom buildings, had been made to the Seminary on condition that it maintained various doctrinal positions as “understood and explained by the… Old School.”[6]  Given that Princeton was “the most heavily endowed theological seminary in the United States”[7] this was not an insubstantial point.  The President, J. Ross Stevenson, and a minority of the faculty (including Charles Erdman) wanted to mainstream Princeton: “my ambition as President of the seminary,” he declared, “is to have it represent the whole Presbyterian Church and not any particular faction of it.”[8]

Yet the disagreements on the faculty were not just about whom Princeton was serving but what they were serving them with.  The original Plan of the Seminary was designed “to form men for the Gospel ministry” through study of the original languages of Scripture, a thorough acquaintance with biblical studies and associated antiquities, geographical, and other historical studies, study of the controversies of the day, study of the Confession and Catechisms, study of history, especially Church History, the reading of “a considerable number of the best practical writers”, the composition of at least two lectures and four “popular sermons”, the study of the duties of pastoral care, and the exercise of church government and discipline.[9]

By the end of the 19th century many seminaries had, however, dropped Hebrew requirements and introduced more electives into their curriculum.[10]  There were complaints that “Seminary authorities… felt that extensive Bible study was unnecessary.  They took the position that all who enrolled for study in the ministry were thoroughly schooled already in the Bible.  This was fallacious.  I, for one, wasn’t… even though my father was a clergyman… The emphasis back in my seminary days was given to Latin, Greek, and Hebrew.”[11]  These were the words of Charles Erdman himself, who interrupted his own studies at Princeton for a year to work with his father in order to acquire a better grasp of the Bible in English.

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This article is an extract from the book Christianity and the Tolerance of Liberalism by Lee Gatiss, available from Latimer Trust. It was originally written in 2006.