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"Right Reason" and the Princeton Mind

Paul Kjoss Helseth, professor of Christian Thought at Northwestern College in St. Paul has just written an insightful, combative, and well researched work about the Old Princetonian theologians and the modern assumption about their theology. The modern thesis concerning these men (Archibald Alexander, Charles Hodge, B.B. Wafield, J. Gresham Machen) is that their theology is basically warmed over rationalism taken from the Scottish Common Sense philosophy movement of the 19th century. Helseth argues in ch. 1 that this interpretation denies the moral nature of the Princetonian thought and also fails to see their religious epistemology with respect to the soul's affective and rational components (5).

Helseth goes on to provide the moral context in which the Princeton theologians wrote about concerning the relationship between spiritual knowledge and speculative knowledge and also the the use of "right reason." "Right reason" for Archibald Alexander "is the work of the Spirit that not only brings the mind into a state in which it can perceive the Word of God.." (36). It is impossible to accuse Alexander and the Princeton theologians of mere radical rationality because of their view of the moral nature of saving faith.

My favorite part of the book deals with the aspect of J. Gresham Machen's writing focusing on the Christians' relationship to the modern culture. Helseth points out that Machen taught that believing scholars should pursue the assimilation of modern learning to Christian truth (111). Why? Because saving faith is based upon the rational appropriation of objective evidence overagainst the the religious experience of modern man (112). Secondly, Machen taught that the modern mind is hostile to "the gospel of Jesus" because their thinking is dominated by ideas that are both anti-supernatural and opposed to the faith (113). Instead, proper assimilation takes place when the gospel of Jesus Christ comes to bear upon every facet of society, every place man is called to work, worship, and gather. The beauty of this analysis of Helseth on Machen is that he is directly connected to the Amsterdam theology of Abraham Kuyper. Rather than be opposed to the Kuyperian spirit of having the gospel being transformative in every "sphere" of life, Machen brought the object of saving faith to bear upon every activity, including academic argument.

The great thing about this book is that it is so well researched that reading the footnotes provide a course in early Princeton theology. Helseth near the end of the book goes onto state how the post-conservative movement in theology has imbibed the same spirit towards our Princeton forebears. They make stinging remarks about the propositional rationality of the Princeton theologians without ever taking the time to read them well. Helseth reminds his readers that to make blanket remarks without taking the time to do proper research into primary source material is detrimental to their positions. Overall, this book was a breath of fresh air for someone who was somewhat familiar with Warfield, Hodge, Alexander, and Machen. This book has defintely given me a push to read more about them and their theology. Thanks to P & R for providing a review copy.


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