Reason and Faith at Early Princeton: Piety and the Knowledge of God, by Owen Anderson. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2014, x + 151 pages, $45.00 Kindle, $67.50 paper.

Reason and Faith in the Theology of Charles Hodge: American Common Sense Realism, by Owen Anderson. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2013, xiv + 137 pages, $42.45 Kindle, $44.68 paper.

Owen Anderson is an accomplished philosopher with an ongoing research agenda that focuses on the religious epistemologies of those who taught at Princeton College and Princeton Theological Seminary from the time of the college’s founding in 1746 to the time of the seminary’s reorganization in 1929. In these volumes, which form the two halves of a single, more comprehensive argument, Anderson advances that agenda by attempting to account for what he regards as the Old Princetonians’ rather tenuous relationship to the Westminster Confession’s doctrine of the knowledge of God. Whereas the Old Princetonians considered themselves to be confessional and were eager to defend orthodox commitments in the theological and philosophical controversies of the eighteenth, nineteenth, and early twentieth centuries, nevertheless the doctrinal integrity of their efforts was undermined, he contends, by their accommodation of epistemological assumptions that led them to conclude—contra the Confession—that “for an entire and clear knowledge” of both God and the highest good, “special revelation alone will suffice” (RFEP, 122).

At the heart of Anderson’s analysis in both volumes is his repeated insistence that even though the Old Princetonians in fact were not committed rationalists, as many commentators would have us believe, nevertheless their doctrine of the knowledge of God was compromised by an “unnoticed” and “undeveloped” dichotomy that subverted their ability not only to respond in an orthodox fashion to the more thoughtful challenges of informed skeptics, but also to sustain an approach to education that was robustly, distinctly, and enduringly Christian (RFEP, 28; RFTCH, 48). On the one hand, the Old Princetonians affirmed “that to bring glory to God means knowing him in all that by which He makes Himself known, in all His works of creation and providence,” but on the other they insisted “that the goal of life is to praise God in heaven while experiencing the beatific vision” (RFEP, 28; cf. RFTCH, 125ff.). The unnoticed “tension” (RFEP, 110; RFTCH, e.g., 5, 39, 126) at the heart of this dichotomy was problematic, Anderson contends, because it opened the door to an otherworldly tendency that, when embraced, encouraged the Old Princetonians not only to set aside the clarity and sufficiency of God’s revelation of himself “through the light of nature (reason), and his works of creation and providence” (RFEP, 110; cf. RFTCH, e.g., 6, 40, 68), but also to insist that “full and clear” (RFEP, 126, 134; RFTCH, 6, 7) knowledge of both God and the highest good is found not through the thoughtful exploration of general revelation, but in “a direct perception of God” (RFEP, 32), the kind of perception that is mediated by Scripture and fully and finally realized only in the new heavens and the new earth. In short, Anderson maintains that Old Princeton’s religious epistemology was less than orthodox because it was grounded in a “truncated” (RFEP, 136) view of knowledge that “minimized” (RFEP, e.g., 20, 32, 35, 41, 110, 136) the role of natural theology in knowing God. In so doing, it allowed more thoughtful skeptics not only to retain an excuse for unbelief, but also “to co-opt the name of reason” for the purpose of advancing relentlessly secular visions of truth, goodness, and beauty (RFEP, 123). This explains why the distinctly Christian commitments of Princeton’s founding fathers were eventually abandoned by their institutional descendants, Anderson contends. To prevent such a tragedy from happening again in other contexts, believing academics must recover a more orthodox—and therefore a more robust—understanding of the role of reason in knowing God in this—and not in the next—world.

While there are many things to commend about Anderson’s spirited defense of the clarity and sufficiency of God’s revelation of himself in the light of nature and in his works of creation and providence, it goes without saying that a number of the more thoughtful readers of Ordained Servant will find themselves wondering if he has fairly represented not just the epistemological commitments of Hodge and his colleagues at Old Princeton, but even more importantly those of the tradition that Hodge and his colleagues claimed to be defending. Were the Old Princetonians really less than orthodox because they insisted that the Bible reveals God more fully and clearly than general revelation? Were they really guilty of undermining the Confession because they were persuaded that the goal of human existence is not found in knowing God “through His works” (RFEP, 110, 127, 131; RFTCH, 118, 126) in this world, but in an immediate perception of God in the world to come? Since Anderson argues forcefully that they were, it may be the case that his volumes need to be thoughtfully considered not just by those who have an enduring interest in the theology and theologians of Old Princeton Seminary, but also by those who have a general and far more basic interest in the epistemological entailments of what the Westminster Confession teaches about the relationship between general and special revelation. Indeed, if Anderson is right and Hodge and his colleagues at Old Princeton really were less than orthodox because they wavered on matters relating to natural theology, then his analysis demands a wide reading precisely because of its wide-ranging and potentially paradigm-shifting implications for all those who are eager to subscribe to the Westminster Standards.

Paul Kjoss Helseth is professor of Christian Thought at the University of Northwestern – St. Paul, St. Paul, Minnesota. Ordained Servant Online, January 2016.

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Ordained Servant: January 2016

Education among the Reformed

Also in this issue

The Good, the Bad, and the Neutral: Calvinism and the School Question

The Testing of God’s Sons by Gregory S. Smith: A Review Article

The Theology of the Westminster Standards by J. V. Fesko: A Review Article

Preaching: Communicating Faith in an Age of Skepticism by Timothy Keller: A Review Article

Old and New Year Ditties

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