Right Reason and the Princeton Mind: An Unorthodox Proposal

October 17, 2011 — 2 Comments


The subtitle of Paul Kjoss Helseth’s book has a hint of irony to it. On the one hand, his proposal concerning the giants of Old Princeton (Archibald Alexander, Charles Hodge, B. B. Warfield, and J. Gresham Machen) may be “unorthodox” because it cuts against the consensus. On the other hand, his proposal demonstrates that they were in fact very orthodox and stood square in the stream of sound Reformed thought and doctrine. In the end, Helseth hopes to vindicate the Princeton mind from inaccurate criticisms.

Helseth is Associate Professor of Christian Thought at Northwestern University and this appears to be his first book (he co-edited and contributed to others). Not to be taken lightly, “Right Reason” appears to be the culmination of years of careful research and first rate scholarship. The footnotes alone could make another book. At nearly every turn, Helseth outfoxes  the typical consensus concerning the Old Princeton theologians in presenting a his own compelling proposal.

In case you were wondering, the typical consensus is that the Old Princeton theologians were tainted in their thinking by too much Scottish Common Sense Realism as well as elements of Enlightenment philosophy. Even authors who should have known better, particularly Greg Bahnsen and Cornelius Van Til, misinterpret the Old Princeton mind and give post-conservative evangelicals reasons to suppose modern Reformed theology is based on capitulations to modernity. Helseth on the other hand remains unconvinced, and presents his case, which he says is

a needed corrective to a historiographical consensus that is itself grounded in a tendentious reading of the Princeton theologians, a reading that more and more scholars are recognizing is far too eager to view the Princetonians against the backdrop of Scottish Common Sense Realism and far too reluctant to consider the paradigm-shifting implications of Old Princeton’s holistic epistemology (p. xvi)

I’ll come back to the sprawling nature of that sentence, but suffice it to say, Helseth is engaging in a superb work of corrective historiography. “Right Reason” is split into two parts. The first part is comprised of four chapters and examines the underlying epistemological assumptions of the four pillars of Old Princeton: Archibald Alexander, Charles Hodge, B. B. Warfield, and J. Gresham Machen. Chapter one is focused primarily on Alexander and Hodge and seeks to outline the epistemological context for Old Princeton’s compatibility with the Reformed tradition (p. xxx). Chapter two and three focus on Warfield, and demonstrate that the “intellectualism” of Old Princeton was primarily moral in its orientation rather than a bald rationalism. Chapter four then focuses on Machen and his critique of liberalism for its moral deficiencies rather than again, just faulting it philosophically. All in all, the ground covered in these chapters is extensive and no stone is left unturned in the quest to demonstrate the Reformed orthodoxy of the Old Princeton greats.

In the second part of the book, Helseth presents two final chapters that focus primarily on the relevance of his proposal for some modern discussions. The primary thrust of both chapters five and six is to show that post-conservative evangelicalism’s critique of conservative evangelicalism “fails for the same reason that the standard critique of Old Princeton fails; it misconstrues the nature of Old Princeton’s understanding of ‘right reason’ and then repudiates the conservative approach to theology on the basis of that misconstrual” (p. xxxii). In this way, Helseth wraps up the book by showing a key area where the misunderstanding of how the Old Princeton theologians really thought is affecting a current debate within evangelicalism. Robert Webber, a well-known theologian, is the foil for much of the space in these final thoughts.

Content-wise, this book is exceptional. If you pick up a copy, you would probably surmise that from the many glowing reviews from well respected theologians that adorn the back cover and first few pages. Helseth is relentlessly thorough in his uncovering of the true thinking of the Old Princeton minds. In this way, “Right Reason” is not only a wealth of knowledge on Alexander, Hodge, Warfield, and Machen, but is a watershed in scholarship concerning that period in American Reformed thought. If you are particularly interested in Reformed theology, but have reservations about the Princetonians, then this book can help free you from unnecessary concern about the orthodoxy of their thought. For me, I had gleaned a skeptic picture of Warfield and Hodge from reading Van Til, and now I need to go back and examine some of what Van Til said in light of Helseth’s timely research.

While the content of the writing is excellent, the style may deter many readers who would otherwise be interested in this book. It reads much like a dissertation does, with a plethora of footnotes in every chapter and paragraphs that at times contain multiple quotations patched together into a single thought. However, having myself read a few dissertations and theses in the last few years, I felt that this book even its academic nature just wasn’t very well written. If I could target one complaint, it would be that the book contains far too many run-on sentences. There are numerous places where Helseth says “In short,” only to then introduce a summary sentence that is a paragraph long. Nothing wrong with paragraph long sentences, but let’s introduce them with “in sum,” rather than “in short.”

To give an example of how much of the book flows, consider this sentence, first as it stands in Helseth’s book, and then second, how it might be revised for a better flow:

To vastly oversimplify the matter, while modernists are convinced that objective truth can be known only when “personal and subjective factors… [are] eliminated from the knowing process,” and while postmodernists are convinced that objective truth cannot be known precisely because personal and subjective factors are an essential component of each and every attempt to know, advocates of “right reason” recognize that although knowing does in fact involve the kinds of personal and subjective factors that many modernist naively presume have little if anything to do with our attempts to know, this does not mean that a more or less objective apprehension of reality is beyond our reach (p. 197).

Or much better put:

To vastly oversimplify the matter, whilemodernists are convinced that objective truth can be known only when “personal and subjective factors… [are] eliminated from the knowing process.” and whilePostmodernists are convinced that objective truth cannot be known precisely because personal and subjective factors are an essential component of each and every attempt to know. Advocates of “right reason” recognize that although knowing does in fact involve the kinds of personal and subjective factors that many modernist naively presume have little if anything to do with our attempts to know, this does not mean that a more or less objective apprehension of reality is beyond our reach.

The first sentence is a pretty fair representation of how much of Helseth’s book flows. It is very easy to get lost in the middle of a dependent clause and lose the overall point he is trying to make. In others places he overly summarizes his point before moving on. Typically, this happens when he is making several co-ordinated points. Before moving to point number two, Helseth will provide a lengthy summarization of the first point, which you just read a few minutes prior and do not need to summarized for you again so soon. This may be an advantage to readers who move through this book in short bursts separately by long gaps of time. But for readers who attempt a read through in a few sittings, it is somewhat of a nuisance and could have cleared space in the book for of the discussions in the footnotes to make the main text.

To frame this positively, Helseth’s book is extremely thorough both in his research and in his argumentation. What it is not, is concise. A re-edited second edition of this book that merely targets cleaning up the prose would probably allow this book to reach a much wider audience. Whether or not that takes place, this book is still an extremely valuable resource to Reformed thinkers and is worth wrestling with in order to better understand the true nature of the Old Princeton mind.

Paul Kjoss Helseth, “Right Reason” and the Princeton Mind: An Unorthodox Proposal. Philipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing, 2010. 304 pp. Paperback, $21.99.

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Thanks to P&R Publishing for the review copy!


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I'm an avid reader, musician, and high school Bible teacher living in central Florida. I have many paperback books and our house smells of rich glade air freshners. If you want to know more, then let's connect!

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