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Princeton Versus the New Divinity

Rev. Angus Stewart

(Slightly modified from a review first published in the Protestant Reformed Theological Journal)


Princeton Versus the New Divinity
Author: Various
Edinburgh: Banner of Truth Trust, 2001
(Pp. vii + 340)

Princeton Versus the New Divinity is a valuable addition to the literature on "Old" Princeton Theological Seminary in New Jersey, USA. The "Publisher’s Introduction" describes the New Divinity as "a movement in theological thought which had pervasive influence in parts of the United States in the 1830s. While diverse elements went into its composition, its leading ideas were a revision of teaching on the fallen condition of man, the nature of the atonement and the extent to which man is dependent upon the Holy Spirit for regeneration" (vi). Many are aware of Princeton’s opposition to the New Divinity, which arose in New England, and the "New Measures" which were utilised especially by Charles Grandison Finney (1792-1875). But how seriously did the Princeton men evaluate the threat of the New Divinity and Finney. What were the key issues over which swords were crossed? What arguments – historical, theological and Biblical – did they use? Probably the answers that we would give to these questions are derived primarily from the secondary sources. In Princeton Versus the New Divinity, the Banner of Truth Trust has furnished us with the Princeton polemic firsthand by republishing eight of the most significant articles from Princeton Seminary’s Biblical Repertory and Theological Review (renamed Biblical Repertory and Princeton Review in 1837).

Three of the essays are by Archibald Alexander, the seminary’s founding professor (articles 2-4). These treat the kindred subjects of total depravity, original sin, and the inability of the unregenerate to believe on Christ (all of which the New Divinity denied). All these articles approach the topic from a historical perspective considering the views of such men as Pelagius, Augustine, Aquinas, Sohnnius (a sixteenth century Lutheran; 98-114) and Jonathan Edwards.

Charles Hodge weighs in with two essays on regeneration (articles 1 and 5). Both articles criticise sermons by New Divinity men (Samuel H. Cox and Finney, respectively) and include appeals to earlier authors to expose the New Divinity’s specious claim to the authority of orthodox theologians.

The remaining three articles are by less known men. John Woodbridge’s "Sanctification" (article 7) is a superb refutation of the Perfectionism of Finney and Asa Mahan, his fellow professor at Oberlin College. Albert B. Dod’s essay is a lengthy critique of Finney’s Lectures on Revivals of Religion and Sermons on Various Subjects (article 6). The book closes with Thomas Cleland’s "Bodily Effects of Religious Excitement" in which he describes and evaluates the phenomena of swooning and jerking etc. at the camp-meeting revivals in Kentucky (article 8).

The New Divinity men took the classic Free Will position that the "obligation to obey any command supposes the existence of an ability to do the action required" (128). Albert Dod writes, "Mr Finney asserts the perfect, unqualified ability of man to regenerate himself. It is easier, indeed, he says, for him to comply with the commands of God than to reject them. He tells him congregation that they ‘might with much more propriety ask, when the meeting is dismissed, how they should go home, than to ask how they should change their hearts’" (207).

Charles Hodge quotes Finney’s description of regeneration: "I will show what is intended in the command in the text (to make a new heart). It is that a man should change the governing purpose of his life. A man resolves to be a lawyer; then he directs all his plans and efforts to that object, and that for the time is his governing purpose. Afterwards, he may alter his determination and resolve to be a merchant. Now he directs all his efforts to that object, and so has changed his heart, or governing purpose" (159). According to Finney "the simple volition of the sinner’s mind [to turn to God] through the influence of motives … is all that is necessary to make a sinner a Christian" (160).

Hodge’s evaluation is correct: "We believe that the characteristic tendency of this mode of preaching is to keep the Holy Spirit and his influences out of view; and we fear a still more serious objection is that Christ and his cross are practically made of no effect … We maintain that this is another gospel" (166-167). Dod concurs: Finney’s gospel "is evidently another gospel" (203). "Throughout his whole system indeed," Dod continues, "it is painful to see how small a space is allotted the cross of Christ" (205).

Not only did the Princeton men see that the denial of man’s depravity required the denial of the new birth but they also understood the harmony between the theology of the New Divinity and the practice of the New Measures. Dod writes, "… Mr Finney’s mistaken views of the nature of religion lie at the bottom of his measures and have given to them their character and form … these measures, therefore, wherever used, will tend to propagate a false form of religion" (253). After all, if regeneration is merely resolving to be a Christian and directing one’s efforts to that object, then the "anxious seat" is a useful tool to put pressure on sinners to turn to God (232-242).

The Princeton men understood the origin of Oberlin College’s Perfectionism: the New Divinity’s heretical position on man’s Free Will (321). They could also see that it would wreak devastation. Thus Thomas Cleland writes, "Experience has proved that perfectionism peculiarly prepares the ground, where it is cultivated and flourishes, for an abundant crop of infidelity and the most odious forms of delusion and imposture" (319).

Finney, on the other hand, placed great confidence in his message and methods: "If the Church will do all her duty, the millennium may come in this country in three years" (257). The church’s duty included not only supporting Finney’s revivalism but also abstaining from tea, coffee, tobacco and alcohol (263). Finney writes, "I am convinced that the temperance reformation has just begun, and that the total abstinence principle, in regard to a great many other subjects beside alcohol, must prevail before the church can prosper to any considerable extent" (319).

Of these three—the New Divinity, the New Measures, and what we may call the "New Asceticism"—it is the New Measures that must keep in closest step with the times. Finney writes "The object of our new measures is to gain attention, and you must have something new" (224). When Finney’s methods lose their appeal, something else must gain the public’s interest. "And so we shall never want for something new" (224). There is much of this spirit abroad today in the church world.

The New Divinity did not bring in the "millennium." It brought in heresy and all kinds of unbiblical practises and extravagances. It did bring people into the churches but most soon left (257-258) and those who stayed, if they remained under the spell of Finney, only corrupted the churches. Congregations were divided and the Presbyterian Church split in 1838. Yet today many evangelicals around the world laud Finney as a great man of God! Books like Princeton Versus the New Divinity help to set the record straight.

One question kept resurfacing as I read the book: why did the Presbyterian Church not discipline Finney for heresy? Throughout his ministry, Finney ridiculed the Westminster Standards (218) as "the tradition of the elders" and attacked ministers who preached the doctrines of grace (174, 319). Thus Dod speaks of Finney’s "sin of broken vows" (272) and points out his duty to leave the Presbyterian Church (219, 272). Finney must go "out from us," Dod concludes, "for he is not of us" (272). Strong words, but why was Finney not disciplined? Instead of Princeton versus the New Divinity, it should have been the Presbyterian Church versus the New Divinity.