Hearts Aflame

First Stop: Emmaus

One of the loveliest stories in all the Bible has to do with the heart. A couple of dejected, fearful hearts, actually. The risen Jesus encountered two men on the road to Emmaus and asked, “What are y’all talking about?” (quoted straight from the MSV: the Mid-South Version). One of the men, Cleopas, explained to this sudden traveling companion their sadness at the recent loss of the One whom they had hoped would deliver Israel. Their messianic hopes had been crushed. As the story goes, Jesus, the Great Physician, prescribes the right medicine for their slowness of heart—he opens the Old Testament and gives them a course in Christ-centered biblical hermeneutics.

       In a sense, from the Garden of Eden all the way to the village Emmaus, the story of God’s pursuit of the heart of his people through the person and work of Christ is on display. Our first parents ate that which was forbidden, promised that their eyes would be opened, and they would see that they were their own epistemologically self-asserting gods. To be sure, their eyes were opened. But what did they see? Only what pathetic excuses for gods they turned out to be. So began the pursuit of their hearts. God, calling Adam to account, preached the seminal form of the gospel of the Seed who would crush the serpent’s head (Gen 3:15), and clothed them with garments of skin, prefiguring the need for atonement (Gen 3:21). From the earliest pages of the Bible, the story is of Christ.

       Then, having reached the village, and bidding them eat, Jesus, the Last Adam, opened their eyes. And what did they see? What a stunning God the risen Lord turned out to be! “They said to each other, ‘Did not our hearts burn within us while he talked to us on the road, while he opened to us the Scriptures?’” (Luke 24:32).

Second Stop: Theology and the Heart

       Since the Emmaus road, Christian theology has always been about the heart. As Westminster Theological Seminary stands in a historic stream of ministerial training that nurtures the marriage of precision and piety—theological studies and affection for Christ. Augustine set the trajectory of his Confessions this way: “Thou movest us to delight in praising Thee; for Thou hast formed us for Thyself, and our hearts are restless till they find rest in Thee.”1 The deeply held meaning of John Calvin’s famous motto— “My heart I offer to you Lord, promptly and sincerely”— is apparent in the letter he sent from Strasbourg to William Farell in Geneva. At the latter’s urging, the reluctant Reformer agreed to return to Geneva, writing, “When I remember that I am not my own, I offer up my heart presented as a sacrifice to God.”2 In fact, the seal Calvin originally used on his personal letters was simply an image of a hand holding a heart, with no text.3 And this tender surrender of the heart continued all the way through Calvin’s final edition of the Institutes, thus cementing the significance of the heart in Reformed theology, on both sides of the Atlantic.

       Even John Newton’s heart-stirring corpus of letters, Cardiphonia or Utterance of the Heart, would not have been possible without a tradition of Puritans like William Ames, who defined theology in his architectonic Marrow of Theology (1623) this way: “theology is the doctrine of living unto God.” Indeed, this was a sentiment adopted in the developing trans-Atlantic context by none other than Northampton’s Jonathan Edwards—Ames’s Marrow was foundational to his own theological formation. The Christological implications, certainly assumed by Ames, but also explicit in the work of Dutch Reformed theologian, Petrus van Mastricht, also impacted Edwards’s Christology a great deal.

       From the Garden to Emmaus, to Hippo, to Strasbourg, to Northampton, even to a colonial town, Princeton, the Lord pursued restless hearts. In Princeton, a battle was fought for the heart of a new nation. And it is here that I want to focus on the ongoing story of Reformed theology’s commitment to an informed mind and enflamed heart.

“Did not our hearts burn within us while he talked to us on the road, while he opened to us the Scriptures?”

Third Stop: Old Princeton

       Our next stop is at a yellow house. It looks like many other 18th century homes in the area. This house, declared a National Landmark in 1971, sits on the edge of the property of Princeton University, facing Nassau Street. This is the President’s House, but not because George Washington briefly called it home (which he did), but because this house was home to the early presidents of the College of New Jersey. The relationship between this house, old Princeton Seminary, and Westminster Theological Seminary is not only geographical and institutional, it, is theological too, as the College’s third President, Jonathan Edwards lived there for a brief period. Edwards’s massive corpus of sermons, treatises, letters, and other papers reveal that, at its center, his affectional theology was a theology of the heart wherein the things of God become for believers, “the cream of all their pleasures.”4

       Continuing our tour of old Princeton, we travel down Mercer Street to another significant house, less imposing than the President’s house, at what is now Princeton University. The story of our occupant begins with two Presbyterian ministers, Ashbel Green (1762– 1848), and Samuel Miller (1769–1850), who had, by the early 1800s, become convinced of the need for a seminary that would focus exclusively on the preparation of ministerial candidates in ways that the College of New Jersey was not designed or equipped to do. They envisioned their seminary as a destination for college graduates, ensuring that Presbyterian ministers were as well educated as possible before they met the growing demand for ministers in Post-Revolutionary America. At the core of their plan was a desire to recapture the heart and fire of the experiential Calvinism of the old Log College, where William Tennent had tutored Presbyterian ministerial candidates from 1727 to his death in 1746.

       During this period, two significant events occurred. In 1805, Harvard appointed a Unitarian to the chair of its divinity department. In response, New England Congregationalists formed Andover- Newton Theological Seminary in Andover, MA by1808. That same year, at the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church, Philadelphia pastor Archibald Alexander (1772–1851) preached a sermon calling upon the denomination to establish seminaries that would keep its pulpits well-stocked. By 1811, at the behest of the typically Presbyterian course of overtures and committees, the General Assembly approved The Plan for a Theological Seminary, as a “Nursery of vital piety, as well as of sound theological learning.” It was, in many ways, the renewal of that seedbed of precision and piety that had been sown in the old Log College almost a century prior. An arrangement was reached with the College, such that the two institutions would be separate but cooperative.

       Alexander’s sermon proved something of a self-fulfilling prophecy. In 1812, the General Assembly approved a board of directors who knew exactly who they wanted to be the seminary’s president. The Philadelphia preacher had preached himself into a new job! Ruddy in appearance, and ready of heart, Alexander moved his family to Princeton and assumed the task of planting a seminary.

       On July 29, 1812, Alexander, his wife, and four children moved into this modest house on Mercer Street.5 He was inaugurated President of Princeton Theological Seminary the next month. In this house— “not very large or commodious” as Alexander described its suitableness for a seminary—Princeton Theological Seminary began its first day of class. The new President/Professor had three students. Six more came the following spring. Five more joined in the summer of 1813. This house was classroom, library, administrative office, student cafeteria and chapel. The students took their meals with the Alexanders and were, by everyone’s estimation, family. As students quickly learned, doing life with Professor Alexander only added further seminary training to their seminary training, and not only in learning theology from his lectern, but from Professor Alexander’s heart. Alexander dearly held together precision and piety.

       Jonathan Edwards, who had lived just up the street a little over half a century earlier, preached a sermon in Northampton, entitled “The Importance and Advantage of a Thorough Knowledge of Divine Truth,” in which he recalled reading Petrus van Mastricht’s definition of theology as “the doctrine of living unto God by Christ.”6 —a definition also rooted in Edwards’s readings of Petrus Ramus, William Ames, William Perkins, and others. Alexander, known for his heart-felt, affective preaching during Sunday evening worship services, was in good company with his fellow Princetonian. He delivered riveting sermons week after week. People from all over the area, as far as Philadelphia, would make their way to hear him preach. It became more than this little house could hold. So, Alexander moved the chapel of Princeton Theological Seminary to a new temporary location in Nassau Hall.

       As the founding President and Professor of Theology, Alexander established the precedent of precision and piety that tethered old Princeton to Calvin’s resistance to overly speculative theological methodology and paved the way for Westminster Theological Seminary’s unwavering commitment to a “radically non-speculative” theological method. Alexander, as Andrew Hoffecker writes, distinguished two characteristics of fundamental doctrines: 1. “That the denial of them destroys the system. 2. That the knowledge of them is essential to piety.”7 In a stirring summary of Alexander’s commitment to the hearts aflame approach to seminary education, Hoffecker continues:

       "The sermon best illustrating Alexander’s preaching on experience is on Colossians 1:27, “Christ in you the hope of glory.” The biblical passage admits of a certain mystical element, and the meaning of “being in Christ” or “abiding in him” is only fully apprehended in the experience of it. The union of the believer and Christ is “intimate, spiritual, mystical, and indissoluble.” This union result sin communion with Christ “such as that which is experienced in the living human body, between the head and the members, which are so united, as to be animated with one common principle of life.” Union with Christ does not result from orthodox opinions alone, which can be likened to a speculative knowledge. This knowledge is “correct as far as it goes,” but it fails to reach that knowledge resulting from seeing “the King in his beauty.” Those who have experienced this vision sense the barrenness of mere speculation. The true believer embraces Christ “by the full consent of the will, and supreme attachment of the affections.” Alexander even goes to the extent of saying that “it is peculiarly and eminently in the affections that Christ dwells. Here is his throne in the human heart. Here he reigns as King, and he must have no rival.”8

Fourth Stop: The Philadelphian

       One young Philadelphian, enrolled as a freshman at the College in 1812, never missed an opportunity to sit under the kind of preaching that enflamed his heart. This young man would later recall his “memorable days” of sitting under Alexander’s preaching in Nassau (after the little house on Mercer St. had been outgrown):

       Dr. Alexander soon began to preach regularly every Sunday evening, at first in the junior recitation room, the southern half of the basement of the Old Library building, (now Treasurer’s Office), which is still standing. That room is to this day sacred in the eyes of the old students of the College. It was then, and for forty years afterwards, the birthplace of many souls We were thus brought under the influence of a man, who, as an ‘experimental’ preacher was unequalled and unapproached. It was said of him, that while most other ministers preached about religion, he preached religion.

       Alexander’s impression on this college freshman is central to the story, not only of old Princeton, but a little seminary about an hour’s drive south of Princeton that would eventually seek to bear the mantle of orthodoxy and orthopraxy, precision and piety.

       In part two of Hearts Aflame, we will continue the story of the mysterious young Philadelphian, and this fire for faith that burned hot at old Princeton. It was a fire that burned in sermons and systematic theology lectures—a fire that continues to kindle a flame in the hearts of students training for ministry at Westminster, where the risen Jesus continues to cause hearts to burn, where the Christ-centered Scriptures are meticulously studied, where specialists in the Bible are shepherded, where the call to theological precision and pastoral piety is an offering of our hearts promptly and sincerely, that fans the flame from Geneva to Glenside, to every tribe, tongue, and nation.

1 Augustine, “Confessions” in The Basic Writings of Saint Augustine, 2 Vols., Whitney Oates, ed. (New York, Random House Publishers, 1948, rprt., Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House, 1992), 3.

2 John Calvin, Letters of John Calvin, ed. Jules Bonnet, 1858, vol.1, p. 99.

3 Cf. Marcel Cadix, “Le calvinisme et l’expérience religieuse”, in Société de l’histoire du protestantisme français, 84 (1935) p.172.

4 Jonathan Edwards, The Works of Jonathan Edwards, Vol. 2: Religious Affections, John E. Smith, ed. (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1959), 249–50).

5 The house was relocated in 1893 from 29 Mercer Street to its current stand at 134. This house was one of around 200 that were relocated, as that end of Mercer and Nassau Streets was undergoing development.

6 Jonathan Edwards, “The Importance and Advantage of a Thorough Knowledge of Divine Truth,” Sermon on Heb. 5:12, in Works of Jonathan Edwards, 22:86.

7 Andrew Hoffecker, Piety and the Princeton Theologians, (Phillipsburg, NJ: Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing, 1981), 33.

8 Ibid., 34.

David Owen Filson is Adjunct Professor of Church History and Director of Alumni Engagement at Westminster Theological Seminary. He is the Pastor of Theology and Discipleship at Christ Presbyterian Church (PCA) in Nashville, TN.

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