The Reorganization of Princeton Theological Seminary Reconsidered -- By: Ronald T. Clutter

Journal: Grace Theological Journal
Volume: GTJ 07:2 (Fall 1986)
Article: The Reorganization of Princeton Theological Seminary Reconsidered
Author: Ronald T. Clutter

The Reorganization of
Princeton Theological Seminary Reconsidered

Ronald T. Clutter

The reorganization of Princeton Theological Seminary, leading to the withdrawal of J. Gresham Machen, Oswald T. Allis, Cornelius Van Til, and Robert Dick Wilson, is identified often as a triumph of modernism in its conflict with fundamentalism in the churches in the 1920s. However, a consideration of the situation at Princeton and of the events which took place within and outside the institution leads to a different conclusion.

The controversy at Princeton involved evangelical Presbyterians, all claiming loyalty to the tradition of the seminary. The conflict arose due to competing philosophies of seminary education and differing solutions for dealing with liberalism in the denomination. In this confrontation, pitting one evangelical faction against another, Princeton Seminary suffered privately and publicly. The denomination was called upon to assist in resolving the problem. The solution enacted by the denomination resulted in the departure from the seminary of some of the most capable defenders of the evangelical faith.

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At the centennial celebration of Princeton Theological Seminary in 1912, institution president, Francis Landey Patton, declared that “the theological position of Princeton Seminary has remained unchanged.”1 At the sesquicentennial celebration, Hugh T. Kerr stated: “It is no secret that many contemporary professors at the seminary feel completely out of touch theologically with their predecessors of a generation or more ago on such issues as Biblical criticism, apologetics, the sacraments, and the interpretation of the Westminster

Confession of Faith.”2 The events which paved the way for this significant and precipitous theological shift are the focus of this study.

The historical background of these events is very familiar. The fundamentalist-modernist controversy was at full intensity. The Presbyterian Church in the U.S.A. was particularly involved in the conflict through its affirmation of the five “essential and necessary articles”3 declared by the General Assemblies of 1910, 1916, and 1923. A response to the 1923 statement was printed and is known as the “Auburn Affirmation,” a document which served as a challenge to the General Assembly regarding the prerogative of that body to impose doctrinal interpretation upon the church. To this challenge were affixed the signatures of nearly 1300 ministers.

In the midst ...

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