Review: “Princeton Seminary in American Religion and Culture” (Part I)

9780802867520Courtesy of the folks at Eerdmans, I’ve recently had the privilege of reading James Moorhead’s new book Princeton Seminary in American Religion and Culture.  Princeton Seminary holds a special place in my heart, as I earned both my MDiv and PhD degrees there over the course of nine years.  My doctoral work in the history of American Christianity only increased my excitement for the book.  The fact that Jim Moorhead was a favorite professor and doctoral advisor?  Simply icing on the cake.

There’s a lot to be said about this diligently researched moorhead-198083monograph, and as such I’ll be splitting my review into three parts over the course of the week.  For today, I’d like to think a bit about the central thesis of the book.  As Moorhead describes it, his desire was to discover what the leaders of PTS hoped for the school to accomplish together with “placing the seminary’s vision, and goals within the larger ecology of American religion, culture, and society.” (x)  On both counts he does a masterful job by weaving together the world the seminary made and its relationship to the world around it.  Quite deliberately, Moorhead here looks to George Marsden’s history of Fuller Seminary vis-a-vis American evangelicalism (Reforming Fundamentalism) as he attempts, in some sense, to look at American Christianity through the lens of Princeton Seminary.

As a uniquely national Presbyterian seminary, Princeton from its founding was committed to:

…and emphasis upon religious experience, a faith in solid learning and the Enlightenment, and an optimism that these forces together were improving the human lot. (xx)

Elsewhere Moorhead refers to this ideal as a Common Sense Realism commitment to both “learning and piety.” (63ff) Though clear in the minds of the founders,

the subsequent history of the seminary would in part be a narrative of the way in which these varying commitments played themselves out or how, like the design in a kaleidoscope, they shifted into different patterns.  It would not a trouble-free story, for the various loyalties sometimes fit together awkwardly. (xx)

richard_armstrongIndeed, the entirety of the seminary’s 19th century existence was dominated by maintaining faith and learning as twin paths of truth and orthodoxy.  Yet when faced with the critiques of higher criticism, theological liberalism, and advancing evolutionary theory the seminary convulsed.  By the 1920s the issues of fundamentalism and liberalism, writ large in the societal debate over evolution, sundered Princeton as well.  Yet as Moorhead has shown, this sundering did not negate the school’s commitment to faith and learning.  It simply renegotiated the relationship between the two.  This explains why Barth’s Neo-Orthodoxy found an early home at the school that persists to this day, and also why issues of faith and a specifically Christian spirituality–while sometimes contentious–have nevertheless been a persistent part of the school’s life.

In part, this journey helped me personally connect my experience of Princeton stuarthallin the early 21st century with its storied and Hodge-filled 19th century existence.  Moorhead’s closing quotation of missiologist Andrew Walls, that “we need each other’s vision to correct, enlarge, and focus our own; only together are we complete in Christ” (509) rings true for the diverse new world of Princeton Theological Seminary and the Church it serves as it continues in an historic commitment to piety and learning today.

As a description of the theological, structural, and personal elements that went into making Princeton Seminary what it is, Moorhead has done his school a great service.  By offering this story in a way that connects with the broad stream of Christian faith with American culture he has helpfully informed us all.


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