The Birth of a Vision
Founded at the dawn of Colonial America, Princeton College and Seminary were established to shape the colonial churches, culture, and minds of the New World. To see how far Princeton has drifted from her roots is simply sad and disorienting. While, the Princeton of old has more to offer us than a mere historical footnote, peering at Princeton’s historical roots is much like returning to glance upon one’s childhood home—It is not the same anymore nor will it ever be. Nonetheless, there is great gain in participating in such an exercise for in that place, hearts, minds, and souls were shaped: the world bears their impression to this day.
The Vision Dawning
“There is not a square inch in the whole domain of our human existence over which Christ, who is Sovereign over all, does not cry, Mine!” -Abraham Kuyper (Dutch theologian, historian, and statesman)
During the life of Abraham Kuyper, across the ocean and over 3,000 miles away from his homeland the Netherlands, stood an institution with an unwavering conviction that lived and breathed Kuyper’s exact vision of the world. Every subject and facet of reality, whether it be math, science, language studies, theology, or other, was understood to be owned, upheld, and sustained in and through and for the person of Jesus Christ (Col. 1:15-17). That in Christ is “hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge” (Col. 2:3) and for which Christ territorially screams out, “Mine!”
This Christ-centered bulwark of an institution, Princeton College and Seminary, began with the bold intention of leaving a godly legacy. Before they were gripped by secularism, they were gripped by a much greater power: the Lord Jesus Christ, who is “before all things” and in whom “all things hold together”; A power that “was and is and is to come” and to which “every knee will bow”. Led by Christ, their eternal king and source of power, the early Princetonians greatly impacted eternity. From Princeton’s earnest pursuit of godliness and piety to their fiery zeal for God to be glorified in the redeeming and saving of lost souls around the globe, God greatly used these men. It would be wise for us to learn and glean from their lives.
A Passion for Godliness
While Princeton College was founded in 1746, the need was eventually felt for a seminary that would be distinct from the college. In 1812, this desire was realized with the establishment of Princeton Seminary, whose primary task was training and supplying ministers, teachers, and missionaries for the rapidly growing network of new churches within the American colonies. According to author and Princeton Seminary biographer David B. Calhoun, the seminary was founded with the desire that every student would:
With this as their primary aim, Princeton sought to mold students into godly and pious intellectual forces to be reckoned with. Guiding them was the understanding that Christ is the source and foundation of all reason and truth (John 1:1,14; John 14:6), and therefore, they should seek to be every bit aligned with the person of Jesus Christ. In the same manner, it is also Christ who is “the power of God and the wisdom of God” (1 Cor. 1:24). And it is Christ in whom “are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge” (Col. 2:3). For Princeton, as with classical Christian education in general, wisdom and knowledge cannot be detached from the person and nature of Christ. This reality captivated the minds of the Princeton faculty, students, and graduates, fueling their pursuit for a greater, more accurate understanding of who Christ is, how the world around them reflects or deflects Christ, and how they might win the world for Him.
Schools today compartmentalize subjects and teach them as separate and disconnected. However, Princeton’s classical Christian education taught that each and every subject is interwoven and connected, finding its origin in a common Source and Creator! Therefore, the chief aim of their Christian education was to better know God and make Him known by using the minds God had equipped them with for His glory and honor.
A Plan for Godliness
As Moses (later Joshua) led Israel by example and through rigorous, repetitious instruction, so the founders and professors of Princeton led their young students. These men took great efforts to encourage the students in their godliness and piety toward God, and this is nowhere better evidenced than in the original “Plan” for the seminary.
Once again “Old Princeton”1 biographer, David B Calhoun, further summarizes this desire for us. He writes,
By the end of their time at Princeton Seminary, students would have read many of the devotional and practical Christian classics highly regarded in their time, including works by John Owen, John Bunyan, Samuel Rutherford, John Flavel, and more.
Dr. Archibald Alexander insisted that students should read John Owen’s book on Spiritual Mindedness every year and another professor wrote:
Turning Orthodoxy into Orthopraxy
If one were to resurrect—for his or her own life—this model proposed in Old Princeton’s “Plan” for its seminary students, it would probably look something like this:
- Pray and meditate on God’s Word for some length of time in the morning and night.
- Frequently listen to sermons and sound Biblical teaching. Students of Princeton had the blessing of sound, Biblical lectures throughout the day. Not everyone has this privilege, but godliness should be every Christian’s aim. Try turning on a sermon while you work in your home or when you’re driving to work. For college students, consider utilizing the time walking to and from classes to frequently pray or listen to Biblical teaching rather than music.
- Warm your heart and soul with the works of devotional and practical Christian writers. In this category of writers, I’ve greatly enjoyed missionary biographies (“The Life and Diary of David Brainerd”, Hudson Taylor’s “The Spiritual Secret”, “Borden of Yale”), A.W. Tozer, and also, the Puritan Paperbacks by BannerofTruth which contain abridged and translated works of many of the writers previously mentioned like, John Owen, John Bunyan, and John Flavel.
- Reserve Sundays for primarily meditating on the Word of God throughout the day and consider spending time reading or listening to devotional Christian writers as well.
- Lastly, reserve one day a month for “special prayer” and careful “self-examination”.
Growing in Godliness
This model and guide for growing in godliness and piety towards God were uniquely intended for seminary students (to a lesser extent, Princeton college students), and there is more time and space for such a strict plan in that season of life. I also don’t want to suggest or communicate that Princeton only believed studying God’s Word, prayer, or preaching and teaching was acceptable to God. As if there is some monk-like artificial “Sacred” vs. “Secular” divide in our lives- an example being “we have our devotion in the morning, then we cease our sacred duties and head to work for our necessary secular duties.” Both should be done unto God and are sacred when done so!
All of life–when upright and done unto the glory of God–is sacred and an act of worship. Therefore, the flipping of an egg, the raising of a child, the writing of a paper or reading of a book, and the fellowship of people, should not be considered as “non-sacred” acts, but as deeply sacred acts when performed uprightly and for His glory: “So, whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God” (1 Corinthians 10:31).
Bearing that in mind, our structured and personalized plans for growing in godliness might vary slightly, but the basic means–meditating on God’s Word, prayer, worship, membership in a local Church, etc.–will remain the same. God has given us these things, yet so many believers neglect to use them. Perhaps the rise of rampant anxiety, depression, and mental illness among Christ-followers is the product of a famine of solitude and sanctity. Whether this is true or only partially true, we would be wise to learn from Old Princeton’s commitment to the pursuit of Christ that inflamed such a passion for God’s glory that its impact still reverberates throughout the halls of our modern world. God wants to use us to impact generations of people for their good and His glory, as well. But it must start with a commitment to godliness and the pursuit of Christ. The trumpets of Christ ring forth, will you heed His call?
- “Old Princeton” is a term used to describe Princeton Seminary when they were faithful to Biblical teaching and was probably first coined by Princeton professor, J. Gresham Machen in 1921: https://tabletalkmagazine.com/article/2019/05/remembering-old-princeton/
- PRINCETON SEMINARY VOLUME 1: FAITH & LEARNING, 1812 – 1868