“Re-Imagining” the Princeton Mind: Postconservative Evangelicalism, Old Princeton, and the Rise of Neo-Fundamentalism -- By: Paul Kjoss Helseth

Journal: Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society
Volume: JETS 45:3 (Sep 2002)
Article: “Re-Imagining” the Princeton Mind: Postconservative Evangelicalism, Old Princeton, and the Rise of Neo-Fundamentalism
Author: Paul Kjoss Helseth


“Re-Imagining” the Princeton Mind:
Postconservative Evangelicalism, Old Princeton,
and the Rise of Neo-Fundamentalism

Paul Kjoss Helseth*

* Paul Kjoss Helseth is assistant professor of Bible and philosophy at Northwestern College, 3003 Snelling Avenue North, St. Paul, MN 55113–1598.

I. Introduction

It has become something of an article of faith in the historiography of American Christianity that the theologians at Old Princeton Seminary were scholastic rationalists whose doctrine of Scripture was shaped by the Scottish Common Sense Realism of the “Didactic Enlightenment” in America.1 “The standard line,” Roger Schultz notes, “is that in battling the skeptics of the Enlightenment, Scottish realists demanded an extreme (and unbiblical) standard of authority and certainty, and that the Princetonians incorporated this rationalistic element in their inerrantist doctrine of scripture.”2 According to the accepted wisdom, then, Old Princeton’s doctrine of inerrancy—the taproot of what is considered to be its rather immodest dogmatism—“is not a Biblical doctrine, but rather a bastard ideology of the Enlightenment”3 that was woven into the fabric of its highly innovative yet thoroughly modern and epistemologically naïve response to “an increasingly secular culture, on the one hand, and a rising liberal Christianity, on the other.”4

1.The postconservative endorsement of the historiographical consensus. While a growing body of scholarship is establishing that Old Princeton’s indebtedness to the naïve realism of the Scottish philosophy is more imagined than real,5 many evangelicals nonetheless endorse the broad outline of the

standard critique.6 Among those who resonate with the historiographical consensus are those ostensibly irenic individuals who presume that the essence of evangelicalism is found not in “propositional truths enshrined in doctrines,” but rather in “a narrative-shaped experience”7 that “is more readily ‘sensed’ than described theologically.”8 Believing that Christianity is primarily a life and only secondarily a doctrine, these evangelicals lament what Gary Dorrien calls “the fundamentalist evangelical establishment[’s]”

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