The Princeton Mind in the Modern World and the Common Sense of J. Gresham Machen -- By: Darryl G. Hart

Journal: Westminster Theological Journal
Volume: WTJ 46:1 (Spring 1984)
Article: The Princeton Mind in the Modern World and the Common Sense of J. Gresham Machen
Author: Darryl G. Hart

The Princeton Mind in the Modern World
and the Common Sense of J. Gresham Machen

Darryl G. Hart

In his appraisal of Schleiermacher’s response to “What is Christianity?” Charles Hodge wrote that every theology is in one sense a form of philosophy. “To understand any theological system we must understand the philosophy that underlies it and gives it its peculiar form.”1 It is uncertain whether Hodge would have applied this statement to his own theology and that of his associates at Princeton for when reading the writings of the Princeton theologians it seems that they considered themselves objective and neutral. In other words, Hodge and his theological heirs gave the impression that they were free from philosophical bias. This alleged neutrality, however, resulted as much from Princeton’s philosophical tendencies as from any sort of self-delusion.

The philosophical commitments that gave the Princeton theology its “peculiar form” were the principles of Scottish Common Sense Realism.2 Sydney Ahlstrom and others have shown that Princeton was not unique in its adherence to the philosophy of Common Sense.3 The spell of Common Sense also lured Unitarians at Harvard and moderate Calvinists at Yale. Scottish Realism was the philosophy of Victorian America.

Princeton’s uniqueness stems, however, from its persistent use of Common Sense even after this philosophy had fallen from grace in the latter part of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. J. Gresham Machen, who expired the last official gasp of the Princeton theology,4 serves as a prime example of Princeton’s reliance upon Common Sense. As George Marsden and Grant Wacker have demonstrated, in his day Machen was a fossil from the middle of the nineteenth century.5 At a time when historicism informed the presuppositions of academia, Machen constantly appealed to the dictates of Common Sense.

Most assessments of Princeton have viewed its allegiance to Common Sense as either incompatible with its commitment to Reformed theology or naive. According to Ahlstrom, the price Princeton paid for aligning itself so closely with Scottish Realism was that it lost its “Reformation bearings,” its Augustinian brand of piety suffered, and the belief that Christianity had a proclamation to declare lost its vitality. “Doctrine became less a living language of piety than a complex burden to be borne.”6 Marsden has made the point that b...

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