Just recently I had the privilege of participating in a study tour of New England with Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary. While in the area, we visited many Ivy League schools, remembering and reminiscing on their rich Christian heritage. While all the campuses had gravitas, none captured my attention quite like Princeton. There was just something about the atmosphere there.

From Christian Training College to Liberal Arts University

Founded in 1812 as part of Princeton University, Princeton seminary traces its roots to the Great Awakening. Princeton University used to be known as the College of New Jersey, which was chartered by graduates of the Log College, a tiny seminary operated by William Tennant from 1726-1747. The Log College was an evangelical institution committed to raising up ministers who would continue to ignite the New England landscape with the preaching of the New Birth. It was from this legacy that Princeton was born in 1746, as a training for pastors and ministers. Its past leaders include preachers, theologians, and revivalists such as Samuel Davies, Jonathan Edwards, and Samuel Finley.

Princeton does not follow the same legacy of its earliest leaders. Today, it is one of the top universities in the world, devoted to a high-class liberal arts education. The arm of the school still mandated to train men and women for the ministry, Princeton Theological Seminary, likewise does not follow in the same tradition of its founding. Evangelical doctrines such as a high view of scripture, a robust doctrine of depravity, and an emphasis on the need for new birth, widely propagated at Princeton for over a hundred years, are no longer the consensus positions there. This was not always the case. Theological giants such as Charles Hodge and B.B. Warfield led the seminary with strength throughout the 19th century, as other formerly Christian institutions such as Yale[1] and Harvard[2] rapidly fell into theological decline, neglecting the sovereignty of God in salvation, the inerrancy of the Scriptures, and the depravity of man.

At the heart of the debate for orthodoxy at Princeton seminary in the later 19th century was the question of the authority of Scripture. Most of the Old School Princeton academics were not as much concerned in reconciling faith and science (or the theories of evolution), as the other universities were, but rather they believed the real problem was defending the Bible. As historian George Marsden points out, for Princetonians, “remove the authority of the Bible… and everything else in traditional definitions of Christianity, including its plan of salvation and the historical claims on which they rested, would collapse.”[3] In light of this, the Princeton theologians, led by B.B. Warfield (successor to renowned theologian Charles Hodge) made it their absolute mission to defend the Bible as not just true or authoritative on spiritual matters, but as inerrant, without error in all of its claims, including its historical accounts. As theological liberalism eventually won the day at Princeton, J. Gresham Machen, pupil of Warfield and Princeton professor of New Testament from 1906 and 1929, broke away with other faculty members to form Westminster Theological Seminary in 1929.

Lessons Learned

Visiting Princeton is a surreal experience. The glory of the university and seminary, owing to its prestigious heritage, beautiful grounds, and academic rigor, can be felt in the air. Although the seminary operates separate from the university, they share the same grounds. There remains in the spirit of Princeton a feeling of devotion to academic excellence and humble intellectualism. Seemingly gone from both is the evangelical spirit of devotion to Christ and his kingdom that would have swamped Princeton just 150 years ago. The university has long left behind its ecclesiastical heritage, and the seminary has long left behind its evangelical heritage.

Granted, there is a give and take to the decline of the Christian spirit in the great American universities. To them we owe many of the great medical, scientific, and technological discoveries of the 20th century: is that precisely because they ditched their ecclesiastical roots in favor of broadening their pedagogical boarders? If allowed to remain a bastion of Christian orthodoxy, would Princeton have been as influential in producing world leaders, or would it have faded into existence? Either way, we cannot shame Princeton and her colleagues for embracing the way of the future — we can, however, learn from their example.

The cemetery at Princeton includes the graves of prominent theologians like Jonathan Edwards, Charles Hodge, and B.B. Warfield, the “Lion of Princeton.” But these graves do not stick out from the rest. No particular honor is given to the men who fought to keep Princeton and Princeton seminary from neglecting biblical inherency in favor of German liberalism. Only those looking hard and purposefully would ever find the markers for these men. At Princeton, the last line of defense in Ivy League theological higher education, the Old School was forgotten in order to make way for the progressive idealists. Yet the faithful dead still speak.

Faithfulness Does Not Always Equal Success

First, the decline of Princeton shows that faithfulness does not always merit popular results. The story that most Christians would like to hear is that as Hodge, Warfield, and Marsden fought faithfully for orthodoxy, and that their labors were rewarded with victory. This is simply not the case. Princeton is not the same as it was in their day, and some would count that as a failure. Faithfulness just for the sake of victory, however, is not true faithfulness. The true sign of faithful perseverance is endurance to the end, no matter the cost and no matter the result.

Linked to this view of faithful living and faithful fighting is a high view of the sovereignty of God, something the Princeton theologians possessed in spades. Hear B. B. Warfield:

In the infinite wisdom of the Lord of all the earth, each event falls with exact precision into its proper place in the unfolding of His eternal plan; nothing, however small, however strange, occurs without His ordering, or without its peculiar fitness for its place in the working out of His purpose; and the end of all shall be the manifestation of His glory, and the accumulation of His praise.[4] 

No matter the outcome of the Princetonian’s fight, they knew that if they remained faithful than the end would mean more glory and praise for God. In the end, the men of Princeton who fought for the truth will be rewarded by the sovereign God they put their trust in. This is the example of Christ, who was shown faithful and exalted high by God, after he was willing to make himself low and suffer death and humiliation. The Christian who is ready to remain faithful, no matter the cost, trusting in the sovereign plan of God, follows in the footsteps of their savior.

The Bible is Key

Second, the Old School Princeton theologians show that the Bible is key. Their conviction that the fight for truth stands or falls on the Scripture is a clear example of how to remain rooted in right doctrine. When the authority of the scripture left Princeton, so left the commitment to biblical gospel proclamation. There therefore can be no compromise — the Scripture must be held in highest honor as the inerrant source of divine revelation, the very Word of God, or any church, denomination, organization, institution, pastor, or layman risks losing the only true gospel that can save. Hodge and his successors show again and again that defense of the Scripture is always a worthy task.

This is a lesson that the Southern Baptist Convention, for instance, had to learn the hard way, through a long and hard fought battle. W.A. Criswell’s powerful address to the convention in 1985, at a critical point of the conservative resurgence in the SBC, is well known because it acknowledges this fact. The great mission of the SBC, the very reason for which it was founded, to fulfill the great commission, hinges on a commitment to the authority of the Scriptures. Without a unwavering defense of the Scriptures, Criswell knew that “whether we continue to live or ultimately die lies in our dedication to the infallible Word of God.”[5]

The Past Must Be Revered

Finally, Princeton shows us that we must learn from the past. While visiting Westminster Seminary, I could not help but notice that simply walking the halls was an exercise in remembering the past. Even the short legacy of Westminster has produced faithful and influential teachers like John Murray and Cornelius Van Til, and the seminary takes its legacy seriously. Students are constantly challenged to look back to the Marsden and other past heroes of the faith, not just for academic purposes, but to recognize and seek to replicate their faithfulness. This commitment to the legacy of faithful men of God can keep a whole institution from theological decline, if done correctly. At Princeton, the past can be studied, but it would seem difficult to imitate the legacy of men like Hodge and Barfield when their legacy is no longer revered or followed. A long line of devoted men and women of God are available for the Christian to imitate, inasmuch as they imitated Christ. Neglecting that legacy is opening the door for doctrinal downfall.

Princeton remains a powerful voice in modernity. The sway of the academy has to share space in our century with popular culture, but still it shapes the ideals and philosophies of modern thought. Princeton is a leading influencer in the academy. Looking to Princeton as an example, the Christian individual and the Christian institution can learn that forsaking commitment to the church and to the Scriptures can be beneficial, but it is costly.

We live in a time of doctrinal neglect, a downgrade of biblical theology in both the greater evangelical movement and American Christianity as a whole. Clear lines seem to be drawn, on one side the culturally backward masses of popular evangelical christianity  cling to the past, and on the other the forward thinking of influential liberal theologians lead the “socially conscious Christians”. But there is a middle way. There remains now more than ever a great need for great Christian voices of influence who will remain steadfastly devoted to the Word of God and the teaching found within it. If the flame of the true evangelical spirit of Christianity is to last, if the church is to remain faithful in saving souls, making disciples, and advancing the kingdom of God, then we must stand in the tradition of the Princeton theologians. Even though their mission failed, their legacy did not fail. Their ethos lives on, and their message is clear: an unwavering commitment to biblical faithfulness can and will sustain the proclamation and propagation of the biblical gospel no matter the course of the future.

For the sake of these lessons, a visit to Princeton is time well spent.


[1] See the chapter “Positive Christianity vs. Positivism at Noah Porter’s Yale” in George Marsden, The Soul of the American University (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 1994).

[2]Nowhere was the metamorphosis from old time religious college to modern university more rapid or more dramatic than at Harvard.” Marsden, Soul of the American University, 181.

[3] Ibid., 205.

[4] B.B. Warfield, “Predestination,” from A Dictionary of the Bible, (New York: NY: Charles Scribner), 4: 47-63.

[5]  W.A. Criswell, “Whether We Live or Die”


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