Plundering the Egyptians at Westminster Theological Seminary…

Old Princeton and its successor Westminster Theological Seminary hold a place in the hearts of those who love the doctrines of the infallibility and inerrancy of Scripture. Recently a fascinating study charting the changing face of Old Testament studies at Westminster Seminary was published.  It’s full title is:

Plundering the Egyptians: The Old Testament and Historical Criticism at Westminster Theological Seminary (1929-1998)

The book is split into three main sections covering the figures that the author, John Yeo, sees as the defining characters in the shaping of Old Testament studies at Westminster.  These are in chronological order Robert Dick Wilson, Edward J. Young and Raymond B. Dillard & Tremper Longman III (who are considered together).

The chapter on Wilson is entitled Old Princeton Redivivus – which in itself summarises Wilson’s intention for Old Testament studies at Westminster.  Wilson had been teaching at Princeton Seminary for 29 years prior to the reorganisation of the Seminary to allow for more “enlightened” views to be tolerated.  He, along with J. Gresham Machen and others, left Princeton to found Westminster Theological Seminary – where the flame of Old Princeton could be kept burning.  Wilson was in his early seventies when Westminster was founded but such was his committment to the Word of God that even at this stage of his life he was willing to start over and support the cause of Westminster.  O.T. Allis reflected on this:

“He was already past the age for retirement.  He might have continued teaching for a year or so and then have retired to spend his old age in literary work, with a pension sufficient for his needs and one of the greatest theological libraries in America ready to hand … But he believed that to remain would be to countenance and tacitly approve a reorganisation which he held to be destructive of the Princeton which he loved and where he had laboured for nearly thirty years.”

Wilson died after only one year of service at Westminster Seminary but left a vision for Westminster seminary as an institution of “defenders of the faith”.  Wilson therefore saw himself, and Westminster OT studies in general, continuing in the line of J.A. Alexander, and W.H. Green as upholders of the accuracy and historicity of God’s Word.  Wilson himself personified Old Princeton combining prodigious learning (he was “at home” in 45 languages/dialects) and tenacious committment to defending the inerrancy of Scripture against the assumptions and conclusions of the “higher critics”.  Two particular examples of this defence are highlighted by Yeo:  1) A defence of the Mosaic authorship of the Pentateuch 2) A defense of an early dating of Daniel & therefore the unity of the book.  Wilson did not defend these positions out of ignorance and Yeo outlines at length Wilson’s reasoned arguments for his views.

The chapter on Young is entitled Toeing the Line.  Young is presented as a preserved of the Old Princeton/Westminster tradition he inherited.  Although Young commenced his studies at Westminster he was taught by two faithful students and then colleagues of Wilson, O.T. Allis and Allan MacRae.  Whether through their influence or directly through knowledge of Wilson and his writing’s Young developed a profound respect for Wilson.  Young stated:

“…the Old Testament is capable of scholarly defense and … Robert Dick Wilson was one of its most scholarly defenders … it is on men such as Wilson, men who have not feared hard work, who have not shirked the difficult problems, and who have been willing to join the battle with the enemy that God has built His Church.  May the triune God be praised for having given to His people so great a Warrior as Robert Dick Wilson.”

Young again exemplified the ideal of Old Princeton.  Like Wilson he was a profoundly gifted linguist and a staunch defender of Scripture.  (Young was however, according to Yeo, less harsh in the tone of his polemics than Wilson.)  Young’s views of two critical areas are discussed by Yeo, namely, 1) Young’s defence fo the Mosaic authorship of the Pentateuch 2)  Young’s defence of the unity of Isaiah.  On these points “Young intentionally laboured to carry on the Old Princeton tradition … He consciously identified himself with the procession of scholars that represented this conservative trajectory … in every subject that his predecessors wrote on, Young, in the main held similar stances.”

There are interesting side-trails on Young’s covenant theology & his relationship with Meredith Kline but there is no space to discuss these sections here.

The chapter on Dillard and Longman is entitled A Changing of the Guards and is perhaps the most interesting of the chapters as it documents a “significant shift within the Old Princeton-Westminster trajectory.”  On the authorship of the Pentateuch Longman affirms “essential Mosaic authorship” but allows for significant post-Mosaic insertions and editing such that in the words of T. Desmond Alexander “Moses probably did not compose the Pentateuch as we presently know it.”  Thus Yeo comments “Longman … mediates between the traditional view of Mosaic authorship of the Pentateuch and the historical-critical view which dates each source document … beyond the time of Moses.”  On the authorship of Isaiah Dillard’s acceptance of a least two “authors” of the book (i.e. a denial of the books authorial unity) is documented.  In the words of Yeo “Dillard’s acceptance of the multiple authorship view of Isaiah stands as a substantive modification to the Old Princeton-Westminster trajectory.”  On Daniel, it is noted that Longman was content with an early date but did not rule out a later date and authorship by a “school of disciples” as, for Longman, “the dating of Daniel was no longer a ‘litmus test’ of orthodoxy.”  Yeo notes the fundamental change in posture was that while for earlier Westminster/Old Princeton scholars inspiration lay in the individual prophet/author  for Dillard/Longman inspiration lay in “the entire historical process of inscripturation, composition, and subsequent redactional activity.”  This enabled them to be much more open to acceptance of critical positions while maintaining a doctrine of “inspiration.”  Yeo’s discussion at this point is helpful.  He notes in his conclusion that:

 “They [Dillard/Longman] are no longer in a defensive, apologetic stance as were their forbears who were oriented towards the church, but because of their orientation toward the academy, they considered themselves freed from the constraints of their inherited traditional views and began to look at the biblical evidence in new ways by employing modern critical tools in order to open up the text for investigation.  In analyzing the writings of Dillard and Longman, it is evident that the authority of tradition and Scripture had been, in their minds, trumped by the empirical evidence of the text itself and perhaps by the weight of years of Old Testament scholarship.”

In summary Yeo believes that he has demonstrated that “a paradigmatic shift took place over the course of seventy years of Old Testament scholarship at Westminster Seminary with regard to the use of the method and conclusions of historical criticism.”  Yeo interprets this change to mean that “by the end of the twentieth century, Old Testament studies at Westminster had been altered.  By a gradual yet deliberate process, its scholars ultimately embraced the very form of the methodology that the seminary has been founded to reject … they were no longer opponents, but players in the guild.”  It is important to note in summarising Yeo that anti-supernatural pre-suppositions would not have received any support  at Westminster and that Longman/Dillard would have denied undermining Scripture and would have professed to hold “a high view of Scripture.”

Yeo concludes with the provocative question regarding the current trajectory of evangelical OT studies; “will there be anything truly distinctive about evangelical biblical scholarship in the future?”

For all who are concerned about the doctrine of Scripture in Reformed churches, this book will make an interesting, if somewhat sobering read.  The book is well written, easy to follow and should be of general interest to Evangelicals as the changes at Westminster paralleled similar changes in the Evangelical landscape as a whole.  It is worth braring in mind that the book is history, not polemics, so there is little by way of evaluation of whether the changes were for better or for worse.


PS The only major fault of the book is the placing of footnotes at the end of chapters rather than where they should be, namely, at the foot of the page!  Given the substantive nature of many of the footnotes this makes for an immensely frustrating reading experience at times!  Why, why, why do publishers do that?

PPS The book does not cover recent events in the OT department at Westminster and what that means for the trajectory of OT studies in the Seminary.

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