Reviewed by David Smith
Paul Kjoss Helseth’s, “Right Reason” and the Princeton Mind analyzes the view of knowledge articulated and practiced at Old Princeton Seminary (1812-1929) and challenges the prevailing consensus of it in American evangelical historiography. Since some current theological emphases seeking ascendency in American evangelical circles are significantly dependent upon and reacting against this faulty historiography regarding Old Princeton, Helseth seeks not only to set the record straight regarding the Old Princetonian’s epistemology but also to reveal how the latter actually possess the insights regarding how to properly understand and navigate the relationship between objectivity and subjectivity in knowledge claims.
Old Princeton’s View of Knowledge
In the first chapter, Helseth looks at the view of knowledge held and taught by two of the most prominent Old Princetonians: Archibald Alexander and Charles Hodge. He contrasts the erroneous views of the critics of Alexander and Hodge’s epistemology with what they actually believed and taught. In short, he reveals that for Alexander and Hodge human knowledge is religious or theological in character, and their view of the intellect was set within a moral context rather than merely a rational one. They regarded sinners regenerated by the Holy Spirit as having abilities to perceive and understand truth in a way that was in some sense superior to the unregenerate. Thus, contrary to many of their critics, Alexander and Hodge held that theological, moral, and subjective factors in knowledge were unavoidably united to the objective and factual character of human knowledge. For them, the idea of “right reason” meant a soul that had been given the supernatural ability to reason rightly enough to perceive reality accurately enough to identify it according to what it objectively is.
Warfield and “Right Reason”
In chapters two and three Helseth focuses on the most prominent of the late nineteenth-century Princeton theologians, B. B. Warfield. He shows that Warfield’s scholarship perpetuated the same fundamental features present with Alexander and Hodge regarding the subjective, moral and religious nature of knowing. Contrary to many critics, including Cornelius Van Til, “right reason” was not for Warfield the reasoning of the non-Christian or “an appeal ‘to the natural man’s ‘right reason’ to judge the truth of Christianity” (69). Instead, ‘right reason’ is the ability to reason rightly (not perfectly) as a result of the regenerating activity of the Holy Spirit. Warfield’s view of apologetics was united to this doctrine of ‘right reason,’ and in part helps reveal what is “at the heart of the tension between Warfieldians and Kuyperians,” namely, the exact “relationship between regeneration and scholarly activity” (99). Like Warfield who taught him, and was eventually his colleague, J. Gresham Machen maintained this same belief in ‘right reason’ and engaged in the apologetic task that did not make concessions to the norms of truth entrenched in modern culture and enshrined in the majority of Western academia.
Machen and Evidence
Like Alexander, Hodge, and Warfield before him, Machen believed that “‘what the Holy Spirit does in the new birth is not to make a man a Christian regardless of the evidence, but on the contrary to clear away the mists from his eyes and enable him to attend to the evidence” (112). For the Old Princetonians, unlike George Marsden, et al., the spirit of the age or epistemological root by which Western academia operates, is not allowed to decide on “the rules necessary for constructive exchange of ideas in a pluralistic setting” (74). The broader culture’s idolatry is therefore not allowed to “‘desupernaturalize’” (83) the Christian faith as in theological liberalism. Instead, it is challenged with its most basic assumptions or presuppositions by the regenerate using their ‘right reason’ in their use of the evidence that God empirically impresses upon all his creatures. Thus, for the Old Princetonians the ‘right reason’ of the regenerate and the wrong reason of the non-Christian collide in competing and conflicting claims to science or knowledge. Attack and advance, not retreat or acquiescence, are the Christian response to the world’s idolatry.
Old Princeton’s View of Knowledge and Apologetics
Having engaged with the some of the critics of the Old Princetonians and clarified the actual Old Princeton view of knowledge and apologetics, Helseth’s last eighty pages address “‘Right Reason’ and the Postconservative Critique of Conservative Evangelicalism.” In chapter five, “‘Reimagining’ the Princeton Mind,” Helseth assists us in taking the facade off particular aspects of American evangelicalism. He reveals how they are variously indebted to the erroneous view of the Christian faith found in theological liberalism that was critiqued and refuted by Warfield and Machen. In part, Helseth helps us see the ministerial helpful or hurtful role that historiography can play. It is the false narrative regarding the Old Princetonians and their allegedly “propositionalist” view of truth that self-named “post-conservative” evangelicals have believed and leads them to conceive of doctrine in the same “anti-intellectual” and “feminized” way as theological liberals. It seems that the various misrepresentations by Noll, Marsden and yes, even Van Til have, at the very least, helped grease the tracks for some into ideas not so congenial to genuine biblical Christianity.
In the chapter six, “Theological Aesthetics at Old Princeton Seminary,” Helseth argues that the Old Princetonians cannot be regarded as uncompromising fundamentalists because they were not naïve theological realists. The theological methodology and view of doctrine expressed by the Old Princetonians is viewed from some of the work of B. B. Warfield and related to their view of progressive orthodoxy and “system” subscription of the Westminster Standards. In turn, these matters are shown to be related to their view of “right reason” or a sacramental view of reality that Helseth labels a “theological aesthetic.”
There is some repetitiveness that might tire the reader, and the lengthy footnotes can be somewhat of a challenge. It would have perhaps been good for the meat of the footnotes to find their way into the body of the text. But these are largely stylistic quibbles. This is a book that needs to be read by every church pastor and academic and even many lay leaders. We do not access the gospel apart from history and a belief regarding who has both rightly understood it and propagated it in the past. If Helseth is correct, and I believe he is, then a number of entrenched beliefs about the history of American Christianity along with all its attendant doctrinal and ministerial claims, fruit and pitfalls stand in need of serious revision.
Dr. David Smith is pastor of Covenant Fellowship Church in Greensboro, NC.
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Right Reason And The Princeton Mind