“Congeniality” Of Mind At Old Princeton Seminary: Warfieldians And Kuyperians Reconsidered -- By: Paul Kjoss Helseth

Journal: Westminster Theological Journal
Volume: WTJ 77:1 (Spring 2015)
Article: “Congeniality” Of Mind At Old Princeton Seminary: Warfieldians And Kuyperians Reconsidered
Author: Paul Kjoss Helseth


“Congeniality” Of Mind At Old Princeton Seminary: Warfieldians And Kuyperians Reconsidered

Paul Kjoss Helseth

Paul Kjoss Helseth is Professor of Christian Thought at the University of Northwestern, St. Paul in St. Paul, Minn.

I. Introduction: The Collapse Of American Evangelical Academia

In a fascinating essay that attempts to account for “the collapse of American evangelical academia” in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, George Marsden argues that American evangelicals were displaced from “the main currents of American academic life” because “they did not closely examine or challenge the speculative basis on which the modern scientific revolution was built.”1 Evangelicals in Victorian America were remarkably confident “that objective scientific inquiry could only confirm Christian truth,” Marsden contends, but at the same time they were blissfully unaware that the understanding of science they had embraced was freighted with assumptions that were “potentially hostile to the Christian religion.”2 The problem with American Evangelicalism’s “love affair” with Enlightenment science “was not any explicit commitment to the ‘Enlightenment’ as such,” Marsden makes clear in a related essay, “but rather a dedication to the general philosophical basis that had undergirded the empirically based rationality so confidently proclaimed by most eighteenth-century thinkers.”3 According to Marsden, American Evangelicalism’s “implicit trust in empiricism” was not grounded in a faithful appropriation of the central assumptions of the Christian tradition, but in philosophical assumptions that encouraged American evangelicals to naïvely imagine that science is a “neutral” enterprise, and that “Christians and non-Christians stood on the same footing” in almost all areas of academic

inquiry, including the study of theology.4 Finding God-honoring truth wherever it may be found, they confidently yet credulously concluded, “was essentially an objective process of discovering the [relevant] facts,” and facts—according to the “Baconian principles of objectivity” they had embraced—would be interpreted in basically the same sense by all who were willing to take a careful look at the evidence.5 In short, American evangelical academics in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries set themselves up for a “spectacular intellectual defeat”

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