by James H. Moorhead
Eerdmans. Grand Rapids. 509 pages
reviewed by Andy Nagal
As a part of Princeton Seminary’s 2012 bicentennial, professor James Moorhead has produced an institutional history that will be of interest not only to PTS graduates, but also to anyone interested in the fascinating story of religion in America, in which the flagship Presbyterian seminary has played a key role.
Like all good history, the story Moorhead tells helps us see both how little and how much has changed over the years. The school has struggled to maintain a balance between vital piety and rigorous learning since its founding, and its attempt to maintain credibility both in the academy and in the church has shaped a complicated self-identity. This challenge is illustrated by questions like: How much should a seminarian study the original biblical languages? And a question posed in 1909: How much of the curriculum should be dedicated to “the practical duties of the Christian minister to the concrete conditions of the present time?” Moorhead deftly demonstrates how the same sorts of questions arise again and again, though shaped differently in different times.
More than 350 of the book’s 509 pages treat the seminary’s first 100 years, when the lions of “Old Princeton,” such as Hodge, Warfield and Machen, defined and defended conservative Presbyterian orthodoxy. Moorhead brings careful nuance to his account of this period — a time revered by many (but generally not, ironically, by today’s mainline Presbyterians), doing so in such a way that helps the modern reader appreciate the reasons why these men figured and figure so prominently as shapers of the American theological landscape. Moorhead positions the seminary as occupying a generally moderate-to-conservative position on the theological spectrum, as well as sensing a responsibility toward the whole church. From the days of Samuel Miller and the Old School/New School controversy to Charles Erdman in the 1920s to Tom Gillespie’s presidency, PTS is depicted as trying to maintain a difficult balance between church and academy, as well as between the theological flanks to the left and right.
Of course, much has indeed changed at Princeton Seminary. John Mackay is a pivotal figure in the direction of the seminary, and Moorhead shows exactly how and why this Scottish missionary’s presidency helped guide the seminary into a global age. As his account reaches the contemporary period, brief portraits of professors lend insight into the changing character of the school, primarily marked by increasing diversity of students and faculty. Moorhead’s account is readable and charitable about an institution that is full of interesting characters and conflict.
Commendably, especially for a celebratory volume, his account also subtly invites the reader to consider what has been lost, what has been gained, and how many things remain the same at a school that holds a cherished place in the hearts of many pastors, in the story of the church in America, and the church universal.
ANDY NAGAL is associate pastor of Neelsville Presbyterian Church in Germantown, Md. He is graduate of Princeton Seminary.