Old Princeton and the Puritans

By: Dale M. Coulter
Friday, May 28th, 2010

I just recently started going through William B. Evans Imputation and Impartation: Union with Christ in American Reformed Theology. The book is a provocative exploration of the kind of Reformed theology called Federalism that was developed at Old Princeton, especially Charles Hodge. Federalism derives from the Latin term for covenant (foedus), and thus Evans traces the emergence of a particular stream of Reformed thought that used the idea of covenant to separate justification and sanctification and to overemphasize legal metaphors in salvation. Thus the kind of union that became important in this scheme was a legal union that existed completely outside of the believer and this union was completely separate from the spiritual union occurring in sanctification.

In his attack of both Puritan revivalism and the Mercersburg theology of John Nevin and the famous church historian, Philip Schaff, Charles Hodge was to push Federalism to the point that forensic justification and legal union became the dominant ways to describe the Reformed position. Evans thinks, and I agree, that this would have disastrous effects on Reformed theology in America. It is in contrast to the Puritan vision of an experimental piety grounded upon and flowing from a spiritual union with Christ. Once again, we see that Old Princeton, and its successor Westminster, through the continuing influence of their writings would redefine Reformed theology in such a way that it could not be compatible with the revivalist stream of evangelicalism.

Rather than attempt to summarize all that Evans does in this work, I thought I would offer some of his concluding observations on Charles Hodge.

  • On original sin:  Hodge “reframed the doctrine [of original sin] in consistently extrinsic and legal terms, so that imputation stood as a reality more or less independent of other factors.  . . .guilt was redefined solely as reatus peonae, or ‘liability to punishment,’ and inherent moral corruption was viewed as a penal result of that imputation” (236).
  • On salvation and the order of salvation (ordo salutis): justification is “carefully abstracted from sanctification in the order. . . . Furthermore, justification is framed in what Hodge viewed as purely forensic terms, that is, as the satisfaction of reatus poenae, or the legal liability to punishment. For Hodge, the death of Christ does not at all atone for the demerit or reatus culpae of sin” (236). In other words, humans are not guilty because they have an inherited sinful condition (the view of Augustine and Calvin), but purely because of a legal liability to punishment by virtue of a legal union with Adam. The death of Christ deals with this legal liability not the actual demerit emerging from a sinful condition.
  • On union with Christ: “Hodge continues the traditional federal bifurcation of union with Christ into. . .legal/federal and spiritual/vital–which correspond to justification and sanctification. Thus the essential unity of salvation in spiritual union with Christ is effaced. Furthermore, there is a consistent polemic against any notion of real union with the incarnate humanity of Christ, and the humanity of Christ is not a material factor for Hodge in the application of salvation to the believer” (236).

One can see in these quotations the foundation for all the hostility to revivalism, the charismatic, and Wesleyanism present in Warfield and the Westminster vision.

The Puritan Vision

As I have attempted to argue, the Puritan vision, which no doubt was influenced by Martin Bucer’s presence at Cambridge University since Cambridge became the intellectual center of Puritanism in the late 1500s and 1600s, is quite different. In his Conscience with the Power and Cases Thereof, the Puritan William Ames suggests that when conscience approves an action the first affection to emerge is joy, followed immediately by confidence. Hmm. . .confidence, that same affection that is part of fiducia (confident trust). Ames argues that humans are moved toward God as their ultimate good through the affections. They are central to his own understanding of Christianity and union with Christ. Or, what about Richard Sibbes, whom Evans quotes as saying, “What makes us, in the midst of all worldly discontentments, to think all dung and dross in comparison to Christ, but this sickness of love to Christ. If our love be in such a degree as it makes us sick of it, it makes us not to hear what we hear, not to see what we see, not to regard what is present. The soul is in a kind of ecstasy; it is carried so strongly, and taken up with things of heaven.” Through the affections, the Puritans saw believers as being swept away in a love affair with Christ. There is no divorce between theology and piety here because the more one studies the Lover of one’s soul, the more one is caught up in the divine embrace. Through Word and Spirit, the believer is swept up into the communion of love that is central to the divine dance of the Triune life of God.

As part of what I anticipate will be my final post on this matter, I wish to suggest that there is indeed a struggle for the soul of Reformed theology in America. The Old Princeton/Westminster stream with its desire to push all things legal and forensic is competing with other streams and the emphasis on union with Christ. Those in the Reformed camp should think through these positions carefully because where one lands has all kinds of theological implications for the relationship to evangelicalism and the revivalist tradition, the role of the charismatic, the positive or negative appraisal of spiritual experience, and even ecumenical discussions.  To that end, I recommend Evans’ work.

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Dale M. Coulter
This entry was posted by on Friday, May 28th, 2010 at 6:52 am and is filed under Church History, Renewal Studies, Spiritual Formation, Theology. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. Both comments and pings are currently closed.

2 Responses to “Old Princeton and the Puritans”

  1. Bob Withers says:

    I want to thank you again for this series of posts – it brought into focus and helped define “disconnects” I’ve experienced in the Reformed stream and it provided me with paradigms in which to hopefully engage others. Great job!