“Right Reason” and the Princeton Mind: An Unorthodox Proposal

Paul Kjoss Helseth P & R Publishing, Phillipsburg, NJ November 1, 2010
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Helseth is associate professor of Christian thought at Northwestern College in St. Paul, Minnesota. The “orthodox” interpretation of Princeton Theology, to which this book is a response and corrective, is that “while it made a show of orthodoxy, in fact it was built on an accommodation of theology to the epistemological assumptions of an essentially humanistic philosophy” (p. xxii). In the foreword John Woodbridge writes, “He contests the ‘orthodox’ proposal that the Presbyterian professors at Old Princeton Seminary (1812–1929) betrayed traditional Reformed theology by their alleged claim that human reason was in certain significant ways unaffected by the fall. The proposal suggests the Princetonians were prompted to accept this anti-Augustinian teaching owing to the supposed influence of Common Sense Realism and Baconianism in shaping their theology” (p. xii). Helseth explains his thesis as follows: “In response to those who suggest that Old Princeton’s understanding of the theological enterprise was grounded in the accommodation of assumptions that find their genesis in a rather naïve form of Enlightenment rationalism, the following chapters argue that whatever Enlightenment assumptions the Princetonians did embrace altered the form rather than the substance of their theology and that despite what the consensus of critical opinion would have us believe, the religious epistemology of the Princeton theologians was principally informed by anthropological and epistemological assumptions that are consistently Reformed” (p. xxv).

In the first part of this book, the author presents Archibald Alexander, Charles Hodge, B. B. Warfield, and J. Gresham Machen as faithful defenders of Christian orthodoxy and as Reformed biblical interpreters. In the second part Helseth argues that these Princetonian theologians are worthy models for evangelicals today, particularly for conservatives who are looking for a way to ground orthodox doctrine in response to postconservative challengers. He concludes, “Indeed, they sought to discern the difference between truth and error not by appealing to the magisterial conclusions of the rational faculty alone, but by hearing the message of the text with ‘right reason,’ which for them was a biblically informed kind of theological aesthetic that presupposes the work of the Spirit on the whole soul of the believing theologian” (p. 221).

This book presents a helpful corrective to the prevailing misinterpretation of these important evangelical biblical scholars and theologians. The author thus provides support for a theological method that is properly grounded in theological aesthetics, based in biblical exegesis and theological hermeneutics, and that leads to an appropriate dogmatism concerning orthodox doctrine.

—Glenn R. Kreider

October 1, 2011
 

Biblotheca Sacra

This review appeared in the Oct-Dec 2011 vol. 168 no. 4 issue of Biblotheca Sacra, DTS’s quarterly academic journal.

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