Old Princeton: Archibald Alexander, An Old Model For a New Paradigm
What is a pastor/scholar? That is no mean question. Descriptions range. Some have quipped that the pastor/scholar is an ecclesiastical unicorn! Others grant a rare sighting. Still others think the problem is one of misclassification. The Pastor/scholar is in reality the more common pastor/theologian. Do you ever wonder if we make things a bit more difficult than need requires? Yes, I am in favor of a fine distinction for taxonomy’s sake. Nuance is the staple of good theological discourse. But does the pastor/scholar need a fine distinction or a better description? Allow me to suggest a Lewis-like dictum. For every contemporary book or article that we read on the pastor/scholar we ought to read about a pastor/scholar from the past whose life modeled the very thing current literature is trying to define. May I suggest Archibald Alexander as the first model?
Converted in 1788, to the best of his reckoning, Alexander chose to study for the ministry in 1790. With ten or twelve other students, Alexander sat under the tutelage of William Graham.[i] Those early days provided the essential toolkit Alexander would need to be a pastor/scholar. Graham taught these young men to read and think about theology and philosophy and beyond.
But these students were also taught to put what they learned into practice. The very year Alexander placed himself under Graham, the tutor asked the shy and very shocked young man to exhort the people during worship! To his surprise and the astonishment of the congregation, he spoke with conviction and fluency.[ii] While reading Turretin (in Latin!) Owen, Boston, Edwards, and philosophers like Locke, Alexander learned to preach simple sermons delivered in the language of the people. In fact, Alexander regarded it a compliment when he once heard someone comment on his preaching, “I guess he aint a very larned man.”[iii] How wrong and blessed that man was!
During the years of his pastorate, Alexander preached often, led catechism classes for the youth, and yet still made time to answer Thomas Paine’s Deism. During these years, he developed knowledge of textual criticism, continued to read his Greek Bible, he read one chapter from the Hebrew Bible per day, and read widely.[iv] During his pastorate Alexander acquired a “reputation as a theologian of original and clear views and strict adherence to Reformed tenets.”[v] It is little wonder the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church elected Alexander as the first professor of the Church’s seminary at Princeton.
Despite the fact that Alexander’s education lacked the “rigor and method of the schools” and, by his own admission, there were gaps in his learning he is a wonderful model for the pastor/scholar today.[vi] Yes, some may accuse me of misclassifying. Others will point to the fact that he preached much less as a seminary professor. And still others may want to label him as a popular theologian rather than an academic, at least prior to his Princeton days. And if we are using today’s taxonomy I will have to cry uncle. But I am pleading for something else. I am asking that we look at the description of a man who gave his whole life, both his heart and mind, to furthering the kingdom of His Lord. Perhaps we could put it like this, a pastor/scholar is a lot like preaching, instantly recognizable.
[i] Calhoun, David, Princeton Seminary: Faith and Learning 1812-1868 (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth Trust, 1994), 47.
[ii] Ibid., 48.
[iii] Ibid., 50.
[iv] Ibid., 58.
Jeffrey A. Stivason has been serving the Lord as a minister of the gospel since 1995. He was church planter and now pastor of Grace Reformed Presbyterian Church in Gibsonia, PA. He also holds a Ph.D. in systematic theology from Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia, PA. Jeff is the Managing Editor for Place for Truth.