Old School Theology

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Old School Presbyterians maintained Calvinist orthodoxy from the 1830s to the 1860s. Princeton theologians Archibald Alexander and Charles Hodge believed that their theology faithfully reflected Reformed beliefs and should be central in American Presbyterianism. They contended that their Calvinism was historically aligned with the Westminster Confession of Faith, John Calvin, Augustine, and the Bible itself. The very term "Old School theology" indicates that its adherents wanted to retain traditional Reformed doctrines. They wanted a "consistent Calvinism" and developed distinct views on confessionalism, revivalism, and church polity. Because of their stand on these issues, the Old School faction expelled the New School from the church in 1837 for having diverged from them.

Believing that doctrinal orthodoxy was of primary importance in Christian faith, Old School men desired a strict confessionalism or subscription to the Westminster Confession. Several New School leaders such as Albert Barnes and Lyman Beecher were accused of holding sub - Calvinist views related to the New Haven theology of Nathaniel W Taylor. Alexander and Hodge answered Taylor in seven articles in the Princeton Review (1830 - 31) by stressing Reformed doctrines such as the imputation of Adam's sin (Adam acted as a representative for all men and his sin was counted against them), Christ's substitutionary atonement, and the regenerating work of the Holy Spirit.

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Many Old School men, including Alexander and Hodge, were greatly influenced by revivals in their younger days and acknowledged a continuing need for revival in the church. But they sharply criticized contemporary revivalists for expressing Taylorite views in their preaching. They condemned emotional excesses and demanded that true revivals be carried out within the church guided by its confessional stance on God's sovereignty and human inability. Charles G Finney's theology and Lectures on Revivals of Religion (1835) were thoroughly criticized. Hodge preferred Horace Bushnell's concept of Christian nurture to revivalism as the primary means of bringing people to faith in Christ.

The Old School party also strongly supported Presbyterian polity as most consistent with a Reformed view of the church. Arguing that church order was a matter of faith, they opposed a plan of union with Congregationalists and claimed that Presbyterian polity provided discipline necessary to prevent errors in doctrine and practice which Congregationalism lacked. They also repudiated the social activism of voluntary societies, preferring that education and mission activities take place within the institutional church, where it also could be guided by the church's confession.

In 1869 New and Old Schools reunited, primarily because during the schism New School theology had become more orthodox.

W A Hoffecker
(Elwell Evangelical Dictionary)

A Alexander, Evidences of the Authenticity, Inspiration and Authority of the Holy Scriptures; S J Baird, A History of the New School; A A Hodge, The Life of Charles Hodge; C Hodge, Systematic Theology; Princeton Review, 1837 - 69.

Lyman Beecher

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Lyman Beecher (1775-1863) was an American Presbyterian clergyman, born in New Haven, Connecticut, and educated at Yale College (now Yale University). He became pastor of the Presbyterian Church at East Hampton, New York, in 1798. At this church, in 1804, he attained national prominence through his brilliant sermon on the death of the American statesman Alexander Hamilton, who was killed in a duel with the American statesman Aaron Burr. Beecher held pastorates successively at Litchfield, Connecticut, and Boston between 1810 and 1832, and during this period he became known as one of the most eloquent preachers of his time. He also was one of the leaders of a Presbyterian faction, called the New School, that opposed the strict doctrine and discipline of the conservative Presbyterians, called the Old School.

In 1832 Beecher was appointed first president of Lane Theological Seminary, near Cincinnati, Ohio, and pastor of the Second Presbyterian Church of Cincinnati. His doctrinal liberalism soon brought him into conflict with his regional superiors. In 1835 he was tried by the presbytery on charges of heresy and hypocrisy, but was acquitted. The Presbyterian Synod, to which the verdict was appealed, sustained his acquittal in the same year. When the schism foreshadowed by the Old School - New School controversy finally developed in 1838, Beecher adhered to the New School. He continued to preach at his Cincinnati church until 1842 and retained the titular presidency of Lane Theological Seminary for the remainder of his life. He was the father of 13 children, among them the noted American writer Harriet Beecher Stowe. All seven of his sons became clergymen. His writings include Collected Works (3 volumes, 1852) and Autobiography and Correspondence (1863).

The individual articles presented here were generally first published in the early 1980s. This subject presentation was first placed on the Internet in May 1997.

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