Reforming Old Princeton: Understanding How Theology Proper Should Govern Apologetics | Dewey Dovel

by | Jan 10, 2023 | Apologetics, Systematic Theology

An Introduction to the Series

In the history of American Christendom, there has not been a theological institution more prestigious than “Old Princeton” (1812-1929).[1] Throughout the nineteenth and early twentieth century, Princeton Seminary was regarded as the center of American evangelicalism and in many ways, it stood at the center of America itself during its preliminary years of existence.[2] In his biographical work on Old Princeton, David B. Calhoun notes that “Princeton Theological Seminary represented a coherent, continual effort to teach and practice what the Princetonians believed was historic Reformed Christianity.”[3] In doing so, Old Princeton was firmly entrenched in its commitment to safeguard and champion the theology, piety, and practice articulated in the Westminster Standards. 

The legacy of Old Princeton’s thirty-one professors from 1812-1929 epitomizes a faculty that was gripped by the calling God had placed upon their lives. At every point in their efforts to train men for pastoral ministry, the Princetonian staff earnestly desired to teach and live in such a way that was in keeping with their lofty convictions about the triune God.[4] This was not merely a coalition of professional theologians who sought to engage in biblical speculation within an ivory tower.[5] Instead, the bedrock of Old Princeton was fundamentally centered upon training men to faithfully proclaim the Gospel of Jesus Christ and the full counsel of God’s Word.[6] Contemporary Christian leaders, local churches, and theological institutions would certainly do well to learn from the example that was modeled at this distinguished center of higher education during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

Nevertheless, despite the many glories of Old Princeton, there were still noticeable characteristics of the seminary that had ample room for reform. In recent decades, there has been a resurgence of interest in the history and theology of Old Princeton, resulting in a heightened awareness of the seminary’s strengths and weaknesses.[7] For the purposes of this series, special attention will be given to evaluating one of the most overlooked weaknesses exhibited by the faculty of Old Princeton. Namely, the collective failure to consistently apply a distinctively Reformed doctrine of God, at every point, to the discipline of apologetics.[8] This thesis will be substantiated by examining three key pieces of historical evidence.

First, it will be demonstrated that despite the faculty of Old Princeton’s adherence to the theology proper of the Westminster Standards, and recognition that God is the necessary precondition for man to have intelligible experience in reality, the Princetonian theologians effectively undermined these convictions through the advocation of a classical approach to apologetics.[9] Secondly, this series will provide samples from key faculty members of Old Princeton to demonstrate the incongruence between their doctrine of God and their method to defending Christian theism. Thirdly, the apologetic methodology of Cornelius Van Til will be introduced as an example of how a Reformed doctrine of God is consistently applied, at every point, to the discipline of defending the faith. After each of these three points of evidence have been reviewed, the series will conclude with a charge for Christians, laity and clergymen respectively, to pursue consistency in allowing their apologetic methodology to be governed by the doctrine of God that is confessed within the bounds of Reformed orthodoxy.


[1]           Ian Hamilton, “Old Princeton (1),” October 21, 2014, accessed December 21, 2020, https://banneroftruth.org/us/resources/articles/2013/old-princeton-1/.

[2]           David B. Calhoun, Princeton Seminary: Volume 1 (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth Trust, 1994), xxii.

[3]           Calhoun, Princeton Seminary: Volume 1, xxiv.

[4]           Ibid, 9.

[5]           Ibid, 5.

[6]           James M. Garretson, Princeton and Preaching: Archibald Alexander and the Christian Ministry (Carlisle, PA: Banner of Truth Trust, 2005), xviii.

[7]           Mark A. Noll, The Princeton Theology: 1812-1921: Scripture, Science, and Theological Method from Archibald Alexander to Benjamin Breckinridge Warfield (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House, 1983), 11.

[8]           The word “apologetics” is derived from the Greek word apologia. It is used throughout Scripture to describe making a reasoned statement, argument or defense of something or someone. In the context of this series, and in terms of how the word is ordinarily used by contemporary Christians, “apologetics” will be used to describe the act of making a reasoned defense for the Christian faith (1 Pet. 3:15).

[9]           Until the development of Cornelius Van Til’s Presuppositionalism, Classical and Evidential apologetics were (and remain) two of the most prominent apologetic methodologies utilized by Christians to defend their faith. In his book, Mapping Apologetics: Comparing Contemporary Approaches (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, An Imprint of InterVarsity Press, 2015), Brian Morley provides well-rounded definitions of both of these respective approaches. Classical apologetics “advocates a two-step process [in defending the Christian faith]: first prove theism, then prove Christianity… Classical apologists do not see the need to presuppose the truth of Christianity in order to make sense out of the world, have meaning to history and science, or even communicate” (Pages 185, 187). It was the Classical apologetic methodology that undergirded Old Princeton’s approach to defending the Christian faith. Whereas there are some commonalities between Presuppositionalism and Classical apologetics, Evidential apologetics is entirely antithetical to the Presuppositional approach. Evidential apologists believe “that we can approach facts objectively, without bias toward one interpretation, and to some extent, the facts will point us to the proper interpretation” (Morley, Page 292). Despite Van Til’s insistence that historical evidence can play a helpful role in the defense of Christianity, the Evidentialist’s appeal to epistemological neutrality in the evaluation of historical evidence signifies the complete incompatibility between the Evidential and Presuppositional apologetic methodologies. Moreover, the Classical apologist’s conviction that the Christian worldview does not need to be presupposed at every point in human experience to make sense of reality highlights a stark contrast to the method that Van Til would develop during his tenure at Westminster Theological Seminary (1929-1975).

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“This view … could allow for the ‘man of lawlessness’ to be the Roman Catholic church in its exaltation of the Pope, the bishop of Rome, to the position of vicar of Christ, asserting his infallibility ex cathedra, his granting of dispensations, and proclaiming of the meritorious status of pilgrimages, the doctrine of transubstantiation and the continual sacrifice of Christ.”

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