For many, the phrase “old Princeton” stirs up images of stodgy professors incessantly discussing theological minutiae and teaching their students to do the same. Though their teaching was theologically and exegetically deep, it was also practical. Archibald Alexander, the founding professor of Princeton Seminary, gave introductory lectures to the student body at the opening of each new academic session. As seen in the following lecture originally delivered in November 1815, Alexander offered 23 principles learned from experience that can prove immensely helpful to seminary graduates and ministers today. It shows the concern of the theologians of old Princeton for some of the more practical aspects of ministry.
This lecture was transcribed from Alexander’s handwriting by Andy Jones, an ordained Presbyterian minister and director of stewardship development at the Chalmers Center for Economic Development at Covenant College.
Theological seminaries, no doubt, afford important facilities to humble and diligent students in making their preparations for the gospel ministry; but it is very possible for a person to enjoy all external advantages with very small improvement. More depends on the student’s character and disposition than on all other things. Hence, we often observe persons whose advantages have been very few far surpassing in vigor of mind and in extent of information, those who privileges have been the greatest. Too much dependence is often placed on teachers, or books, and external advantages. It is not in the power of any set of men, however wise or learned, or of any system of education, however excellent, to raise a man to eminence in knowledge without his own vigorous cooperation. Indeed, the principal advantage professors can be of to students is to warn them of the dangers to which they are exposed and to stimulate them to diligence and exertion. They may give the result of their own experience, both successful and unsuccessful. There is nothing more necessary and useful to a student than judicious practical maxims.
General principles derived from experience cannot but be very useful to those who are commencing a new pursuit. Every person who has traveled a particular road is qualified to give some advice to those who are about to go the same way. The very mistakes into which he has fallen will enable him to warn others of their danger. If we attempt to ascertain why one man so greatly excels another whose natural talents and opportunities of improvement are not inferior we shall find that this, in many cases, is more owing to a judicious and persevering regard to general principles than to any single cause besides. Men are differently constituted, it is true, and this ought to produce some modification of the principles by which they should be regulated; but still, the same general principles which are applicable to one man will not be found unsuitable for another. We ought, in many cases, to bend our nature to a compliance with rules sanctioned by experience where we endeavor to accommodate rules to the supposed peculiarities of our nature.
It is my purpose in this introductory discourse to call your attention to some of these general principles which ought to be kept in view in conducting your theological studies. Although they will not all appear equally obvious, nor should they be reckoned equally important, yet I believe it will be found that they are all founded in experience, and all deserve the attention of the sincere inquirer after truth. My observations shall be conveyed in the form of precepts.
(1) Keep habitually in view the awful importance of the office which you have in view.
(2) Cherish assiduously the sincere and ardent love of truth.
(3) Meditate frequently and profoundly on the imbecility of the human intellect.
(4) Accustom yourselves to such divine direction in every thing and to depend entirely on the divine blessing for success in your studies.
(5) Learn to think for yourselves. Depend rather on your own faculties than on those of other men.
(6) Avoid hasty discussion and premature judgments. Endeavor to get a full view of a subject before you form a decisive opinion.
(7) Avoid of the same time the more dangerous extreme of a skeptical, unsettled state of mind.
(8) Consider always what kind of evidence any particular subject admits of and be satisfied when you have such as the nature of the case requires.
(9) Be not discouraged from aiming at high attainments in literature, by the difficulties which belong to the subjects, or by a sense of the weakness of your own faculties. No man knows how much he can accomplish before the trial. Moderate abilities, by diligence and perseverance, have made astonishing progress. Many things which appear extremely difficult at first become easy by degrees. Those men who have become most eminent in literature have struggled valiantly through the same difficulties which now encompass you.
(10) Lay the foundation deeply and solidly. Be not too hasty in securing the superstructure. Though your progress in this way be slow at first it will become rapid in due time. I mean that you should understand distinctly elementary principles and acquire that knowledge which is necessary as a means of extending your inquiries after truth. A scattered and superficial knowledge of many things serve only to make a man flippant in conversation. Acquire incidentally all you can.
(11) Do not waste your time and strength on studies which are never likely to be profitable but do not hastily conclude that this and that are unimportant.
(12) After having undertaken any important literary pursuit do not relinquish it on account of inconsiderable difficulties. When circumstances imperiously require you to abandon, for the present, any study in which you have had some progress, seize the first favorable opportunity of resuming it.
(13) So regulate your attention to your studies as never to lose any part of learning which you have gained. A little care and diligence will enable you to preserve knowledge once acquired, and whatever is worth gaining is worth preserving. If you should be under a necessity of omitting attention to any branch of learning until you have forgotten it, be not discouraged from attempting to recover it when opportunity offers, for whatever we have ever known is easily secured, however completely it may seem to be obliterated for the present.
(14) Accustom yourselves to meditate on subjects which you wish to investigate in different situations and circumstances. Learn to think and reason closely and correctly when you have no access to books, and no opportunity of committing your thoughts to writing.
(15) But when circumstances will admit, write down your thoughts both for the sake of preserving them; and to assist you in confirming your attention to the subject and of forming more distinct ideas.
(16) When the investigation of some point is your object, think nothing of the language in which you clothe your ideas. Let attention to the style be a matter of subsequent consideration. First, collect your materials, then arrange them to the best advantage, and decorate them with such ornaments as are chaste and becoming.
(17) Animated and candid discussion of subjects in conversation with others engaged in the same course of study is one of the best methods of aiding us in acquiring distinct and perspicuous ideas.
(18) With respect to many parts of knowledge it is sufficient to know where they may be found when needed. That knowledge of books therefore which extends no further than their contents is important.
(19) All pious affections are favorable to the acquisition of real knowledge; and all depraved passions tend to pervert the understanding.
(20) Many physical causes affect the powers of the mind: diseases, watchfulness, fasting, exhilarating and intoxicating substance. Avoid all artificial methods of exciting and raising your minds.
(21) There is reason to believe that although inspiration has long since ceased, yet the Spirit of God does now in various ways guide, assist, and elevate the minds of men. This assistance may therefore be sought and expected, in our studies, and in our public performances. Teachers who depend on this aid are raised to an elevation of thought greatly above that to which they can commonly attain. This to some may appear like enthusiasm but I am not disposed to relinquish any thing which appears to me to be founded in fact and experience for fear of having the sentiment stigmatized with an odious name.
(22) Form habits of diligence in your studies. “Life is short and art is long” is as true now as formerly. Talents without industry are not sufficient. Without diligence, no man can become truly learned. To the theologian it is indispensable both as it relates to his studies and official duties.
(23) Diligence without method will enable us to make but little progress; adopt, therefore, and preserve a regular method in the disposal of your time and distribution of your studies. When you have your time judiciously apportioned you proceed with ease and alacrity like the traveler on a road where the distances are marked and the stages conveniently arranged for his accommodation.
In these hints of advice I subjoin an earnest exhortation that you look well to the spiritual condition of your own souls.
Endeavor to obtain full satisfaction on Scriptural grounds that your piety is genuine. It will be an awful thing to preach to others and then become a castaway yourself. Give all diligence to make your calling and election sure. Endeavor also to grow in grace. Keep up a lively sense of religion in your own hearts and strive to promote lively piety in others. While you await the best gifts, remember that there is a more excellent way. No gifts, no knowledge, no beneficence, will serve us any purpose without charity; that is, without sincere love to God and man.