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
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
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
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
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’"
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
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.