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Book Review: “Right Reason” and the Princeton Mind by Paul Helseth
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Book Review: “Right Reason” and the Princeton Mind by Paul Helseth

Paul K. Helseth, Right Reason and the Princeton Mind: An Unorthodox Proposal (Phillipsburg: P & R, 2010). Paper. 304pp. $21.99.

In my pre-Reformed days at Calvin College, I noticed something unusual in the arguments of those who would assail the full authority of Scripture—they would attack Old Princeton. I knew nothing of Old Princeton. What did they expect me to do? “Oh no, don’t attack Old Princeton—this is between you and me. Leave the lady out of it!”

Over time, I came to realize why such attacks were made without prompting, and why the book “Right Reason” and the Princeton Mind by Paul Kjoss Helseth is so valuable. Namely, if Old Princeton is treated as something foreign to Reformed Christianity, then that chain between the Reformation and today’s Reformed churches will be severed.

It is the old, false dichotomy between Calvin and the Calvinists. If a scholar does not like the dogmatic tone of Reformed theology, he tries to prove that the Reformed scholastics perverted rather than conserved the Reformation. If he does not like a doctrine like biblical inerrancy, he tries to prove that Old Princeton was worse than those dastardly scholastics.

In order to avoid such a severing of the Reformed tradition, Helseth goes straight to the sources in pitting the Old Princeton theologians against their historical revisionists. Using the words of Alexander, Hodge, Warfield, and Machen, he proves quite convincingly that they fit firmly within the Reformed tradition, rather than the tradition of Enlightenment-based rationalism.

Specifically, the charge often leveled against Old Princeton is that “they were purveyors of a theology that had been bastardized by… ‘the Enlightenment’s one-sided emphasis on reason.’” The evidence against Old Princeton was found in “their emphasis on ‘science,’ ‘facts,’ and the primacy of the intellect in faith” (4).

Helseth counters with his explanation of Old Princeton’s use of “right reason” as a moral concept rather than merely rational (xxx). In other words, they did not think that one could fully ascertain truth on their own through rational proofs, but only by a regenerated heart. In fact, much of this book consists of quotes by the Old Princeton theologians on the essential role of the Spirit in implanting, in the words of Warfield, “a spiritual sense in the soul by which God is recognized in His Word” (64).

One cannot come away from this book without being impressed by the almost-devotional examinations of the role of the Holy Spirit in enabling sinners to ascertain truth. Warfield once called John Calvin the theologian of the Holy Spirit. Helseth shows that Warfield and the other Princeton theologians stand admirably in that tradition.

The problem for Old Princeton is that they—against the accusations made by their critics—stood squarely against the spirit of their age. “Indeed,” writes Helseth, “they are committed to a view of moral and religious truth that stands in self-conscious opposition to those cultural forces that reduce moral and religious truth claims to little more than expressions of the subjective preferences of those who hold them, and thus their views on such matters are nothing if not out of step with the spirit of the age” (xxxiii).

In an age in which religious truth claims had been decimated by Kant and was being eroded under the weight of American pragmatism, the Old Princeton theologians took a stand for the Christian’s ability to know truth. This unspectacular claim was likely what earned them the rationalist label because it was only the scientists who could reasonably deal in truth. Thus, they must have been accommodating the Reformed tradition to science.

Ultimately, much of the criticism of Old Princeton can be reduced to presuppositions. Many critics presupposed that religion wasn’t rational; Old Princeton presupposed the opposite; thus, they had to be rationalists. In essence, Helseth proves that Old Princeton stood steadfast in their Calvinistic convictions against the spirit of the age, while their critics misunderstood them because of their own captivity to that spirit.

Despite such implications, Helseth is exceedingly generous to his opponents and avoids imputing malevolent motives to them. In many ways, this book is written for those critics in an attempt to renew debate on their long-assumed proposition about Old Princeton.

His arguments aside, Helseth’s work provides several more gifts for Christians in general and Reformed Christians in particular. By dealing extensively with the original sources, readers are given an opportunity to reflect on the importance of the intellect in the Christian faith. Just as useful—they are given the opportunity to reflect on the subjective work of the Spirit through the precise and pious quotes of theologians who were supposedly rationalists.

In addition, Helseth is liberal in his use of footnotes throughout the book, which provide further thought on the Christian faith for the devotionally-minded reader and ample citations for the scholarly-minded. As a result, this book should prove edifying and stimulating to believers from all walks of life.

Helseth has done his part to consecrate the culture, to use Machen’s words, by making this compelling case. Let us hope that the critics recognize the simple profundity of his logic and grant Old Princeton its rightful place as the conservator of historic Calvinism. And let us hope that Christians—buffeted by wolves within the church as well as without—are able to find unashamed solace in these great fathers of the faith.

Stephen Roberts

MDiv Graduate