Princeton Seminary yesterday, and reformed seminaries today...

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My dear brother in Christ, David Wegener, has been a great encouragement to me through the years. Now serving as lecturer at the Theological College of Central Africa under our denomination's mission agency, Mission to the World, I continue to cling to our friendship gaining much from David's knowledge of Scripture and church history.

Occasionally David writes in such a helpful way that I wish others could read him. So this time I wrote and asked his permission to put some of his reflections concerning the decline of Princeton Seminary up on this blog. He kindly agreed.

David Wegener, my brother David Bayly, and I share a growing concern over the weakness of the training offered at reformed seminaries where men from our congregations (and other friends) have taken their Masters of Divinity--what my Dad used to refer to as "the union card" of pastoral ministry.

Our criticisms of these seminaries must be developed more fully (which we hope to do), but it may be summed up by observing that it is almost a basic assumption of the curriculum that a good shepherd will avoid controversy.

Ruminate on that a bit and our good readers will quickly see how very much of faithful pastoral ministry this eliminates. Consider just two of the pastor's duties, preaching and discipline, and it's easy to see the damage the Church will suffer when reformed men trained by these seminaries stand in the pulpit and moderate session meetings having been stripped of their ability to "fight the good fight."

Ironically, though, the conflict stripped from the work of the shepherd is given back to these men in a strictly circumscribed outlet that is safe and culturally approved--the pages of Sports Illustrated. The same shepherds so meticulous in avoiding controversy in their pulpits carefully study the stats of three-hundred pound behemoths who make a living crashing through lines of scrimmage trying to sack quarterbacks.

Making common cause with the cultural forces intent on feminizing the Western World, seminaries today are turning out shepherds quite similar to the castrati who, as late as the twentieth century, sang in the Sistine Chapel Choir in a woman's voice...

Robbed of their manhood by parents who thought castration a small sacrifice to make for their son's financial security, it was not until 1913 that the Sistine Chapel Choir's last castrato, Alessandro Moreschi, retired. (For spectacular recordings of Moreschi's voice, click here. And here's a web page with more than you'll ever want to know about castrati, including additional Moreschi recordings.)

Stanley Hauerwas put it well in a piece published in First Things back in 1996 in which he observed that pastors today refuse to preach "as though we had enemies."

The preacher who does bring himself to acknowledge the existence of enemies and steels himself to contend against them in the pulpit almost always locates those enemies in corporate board rooms, the corridors of Congress, or the halls of secular universities. It's the evil "out there," never "in here." So conflict and judgement are absent from the place they ought to begin--"in the house of God" (1Peter 4:17).

All this as a preface to David Wegener's comments on Princeton's decline. Read on, and be sure not to miss the short statement about the centrality of conflict in the lives of our church fathers taken from the last address given by J. Gresham Machen shortly before his departure from Princeton Seminary in the Princeton Seminary Chapel.

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The Causes of Decline

by David Wegener

What were the causes of the decline of the Presbyterian church and its decision to reorganize Princeton Seminary? David Calhoun's history of the seminary is an excellent work. Several present-day Princetonians even wrote positive blurbs and they are printed on the back of volume two's slip cover. Samuel Hugh Moffet, the Henry W. Luce Professor of Missions Emeritus at Princeton, commented that, "Calhoun has 'the gift' - he makes historical characters spring to life." I couldn't agree more.

Still I wish he had given a more substantive analysis of the reasons why the Presbyterian church and its seminary went bad. He does make clear that the church chose institutional unity over doctrinal integrity. But he doesn't go much deeper. All he has given us is one paragraph, which I quote in full.

The 1920s was a period of siege for the conservatives of Princeton Seminary. Divided from within and attacked from without, they concentrated their energies on fighting to maintain the legacy that they had inherited from Archibald Alexander, Samuel Miller, and Charles Hodge. However, in Old Princeton's desperate struggle, attention to some very good things was lessened. Sturdy biblical exposition, great preaching, and more evangelistic and missionary zeal-along with it stalwart defense of the faith-would have strengthened the Princeton cause. (Vol. II: 397-8.)

I would point in a different direction. Mistakes were made. Good men allowed a church to slip from its control and along with it a seminary that had stood for Biblical and Calvinistic orthodoxy for well over 100 years. Some of the causes of this decline were the result of wrong decisions, some of wrong theology, and some might be called a dark providence of God.

This is an important question. We all support many institutions, whether they be churches, Christian schools, colleges, seminaries, denominations, or mission organizations. And we want to continue our support of these institutions; yet we see many of them go bad over time. We fight for a while, but then it appears too late and the institution has lost its confessional basis, and we have to give it up. Or we choose to remain with a compromised institution. Recognizing the signs of how one institution went bad can help us recognize the signs so that we won't let the same thing happen to those we support.

There was a split in the Presbyterian Church in the 1830s between the Old School and the New School. Ashbel Green defined the two camps as old school and new school in a series of articles written in 1831. The issue dividing the two camps was subscription to the Westminster Confession of Faith, the new school being much more lax on this question. They also had some within their ranks who propounded the New England theology that had troubled the church for some time.

The General Assembly was a see-saw battle between these two schools during the 1830s. The new school controlled the General Assemblies from 1831 to 1834. The old school fought back in 1835, but the new school was dominant the next year. Many old schoolers went to the 1837 General Assembly determined that if the new school won, they would leave the church. But they found they were in the majority and went to work.

They expelled four synods (three in New York and one in northern Ohio) from the church on doctrinal grounds. These four had were strongholds of the new school. By expelling them, the old school had reduced the strength of the new school by one half. At the next year's General Assembly, new school ministers tried to speak right after the opening prayer, but were declared out of order since there was no house as yet to deliberate the question, since the roll had not been called. The next few minutes were chaotic with men shouting and screaming in the aisles. The new schoolers adjourned to another church and organized another Presbyterian denomination. They eventually sued the old school in the secular court system to determine which group would control the funds and institutions of the Presbyterian church. The lower court sided with the new school, but then the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania sided with the old school. Three years later, the new school let things drop.

What part did Princeton play in these debates? Theologically they were firmly old school. But Archibald Alexander, Samuel Miller and Charles Hodge wondered if things had really gotten so bad that the two groups had to go their separate ways. Ultimately, they agreed that things had to go as they did. But they came to this conclusion with reluctance because of their generosity of spirit and desire to work closely with all true believers. But Princeton professors certainly did not take the lead for the old school in these matters. I believe they were nave in this whole matter, at least in this first stage.

Things would have been much better if they had ended here; but they didn't. In 1861, at the beginning of the Civil War, the General Assembly passed resolutions urging all Presbyterians to do everything they could to strengthen and support the federal government. This was too much for the southern presbyteries to take. In the summer and fall of that year forty-seven of them voted to withdraw from the Old School Presbyterian Church. This was a severe blow to the denomination, since the southern churches were staunchly conservative.

After the war and the freeing of slaves, reunion was proposed. But the union proposed wasn't between the northern and southern portions of the Old School Presbyterians; it was between the new school and old school branches of the church in the north. Theologians and church leaders from the new school were now claiming that their group was now much more conservative than it had been twenty years before. Henry B. Smith, a theologian from the New School gave three conditions for a proposed union between the Old and New School Presbyterians in the north: "a spirit of mutual concession, commitment to Presbyterian polity, and acceptance of the Westminster Confession, interpreted in its 'legitimate grammatical and historical sense,' · as 'containing the system of doctrine taught in the Holy Scriptures.'" (Vol. I: 398.)

The Princeton theologians opposed the union. Charles Hodge wrote that the New School church was too tolerant of diversity and their view of subscription was not as strict as it should have been. Smith replied in print that this was simply not true; new schoolers held the same view of subscription as Hodge.

In 1869, the General Assemblies of New School and Old School voted to unite on the basis of a sincere adoption of the Westminster Confession of Faith as containing the system of doctrine contained in the Holy Scriptures. Though it still had to be approved by the presbyteries, this did not present a problem. All the new school presbyteries approved it and 126 out of 129 old school presbyteries did so. The union took place in 1870.

There is no question that the reunion of Old School and New School churches brought about a doctrinally weakened Presbyterian church. This was to prove fatal in years to come. It did not take long to become evident that many who were now in the church did not hold to the Westminster Confession of Faith as Princeton and the Old School had done in the past. Other factors also led to the decline.

I would consider Princeton's stance on evolution to be an example of wrong theology that led to a weakened position in opposing modernism. Charles Hodge at first came out firmly against Darwinian evolution. Over time, his stance appears to have softened. His opposition was not as firm as it had been at first. B.B. Warfield came to Princeton as a student as a convinced Darwinian and remained such for all of his life and long teaching career. It became difficult to oppose modernism when they had made such a concession to its theology at this crucial point.

John DeWitt, Princton's church historian, said he had known the three greatest Reformed theologians of the previous generation (Charles Hodge, William Shedd and Henry B. Smith), and that he was not only convinced that Warfield knew more than any of them, but that he knew more than all three put together. Yet because of the illness of Mrs. Warfield, her husband was prevented from active involvement in the affairs of the church. Calhoun's work has convinced me that Warfield was a man of discernment (something that is not always true of men of great learning). He knew the enemy of modernism he was facing and he could have been a valuable ally at Presbytery and General Assembly meetings for the conservative cause. But he was providentially hindered from such involvement. This was an unfortunate loss for the conservative side.

There was the crucial issue of leadership. When J. Ross Stevenson was elected president of Princeton Seminary, a crucial battle was lost. Allegedly, he was a man of conservative belief; but this was joined with a spirit of tolerance that proved decisive. He felt the Presbyterian church and Princeton Seminary should be tolerant of men with whom they disagreed.

Others on the faculty agreed with him, most notably Charles Erdman. Erdman's background was very conservative. He attended Union Seminary in New York and was ordained in the New School Presbyterian church. He pastored several churches, notably Moody's church in Chicago, helped found Moody Bible Institute and spoke at Prophecy conferences. He became Machen's strongest opponent on the faculty. Other than President Stevenson, he was the only outspoken opponent of the conservative cause on the faculty.

Part of his objection to Machen seems almost to be an issue of personality: he abhorred controversy and unpleasantness. Many men who claimed to be conservative in theology shared this disposition. They did not like disagreements and seemed to wonder why we all can't just get along. Such conservatives characterized Machen as harsh and intolerant. Men like this are the greatest foe.

I have spoken of this way of looking at things as almost an issue of personality. But is it? Surely some of us are more comfortable with raised voices and tension and disagreement than others. "If you can't speak the truth in love, don't speak it at all," might be their motto. And they might characterize any sharp disagreement as showing forth a lack of love. Those who hold to this viewpoint need to hear the words of Machen in his last address at Princeton Seminary Chapel. He spoke on 1 Timothy 6:12, "Fight the good fight of faith."

Tertullian fought a mighty battle against Marcion; Athanasius fought against the Arians; Augustine fought against Pelagius; and as for Luther, he fought a brave battle against kings and princes and popes for the liberty of the people of God. Luther was a great fighter; and we love him for it. So was Calvin; so were John Knox and all the rest. It is impossible to be a true soldier of Jesus Christ and not fight.

I've sometimes wondered why some men remained at Princeton Seminary and did not join Machen and Wilson and Allis and Van Til at Westminster. Geerhardus Vos, William Park Armstrong and Caspar Wistar Hodge were all clearly conservative and agreed with Machen and his action. Why didn't they join him? According to Calhoun, Vos suffered from ill health (he retired three years later) and Armstrong from financial problems. And Hodge wanted to maintain his family's tradition at Princeton. Armstrong's wife spoke of the difficulty of teaching at one seminary (Princeton), yet praying for another to prosper (Westminster). John Murray would assist Hodge at Princeton for one year, but joined the men at Westminster in 1930. Although this is harsh, but I can't resist reminding us of the proverb, "all that evil needs to triumph is for good men to do nothing."

(David Wegener may be contacted here.)