What a great idea this book is. Wanting to keep up with all things Old Princeton, I scarfed up this little volume as soon as I saw it was released. Taking its place as the newest in the Profiles in Reformed Spirituality series (Joel Beeke and Michael Haykin, eds.) from Reformation Heritage Books, James Garretson’s presentation of Princeton Seminary’s famous founding professor will doubtless enjoy a happy reception by all who read it.
Archibald Alexander had a prized walking stick beautifully carved from whale bone, given to him by one of the chiefs of the Sandwich Islands. When he lay on his deathbed he handed it to Charles Hodge as a symbolic gesture—passing the baton of orthodoxy, as it were. And he instructed Hodge to give it, in turn, to his successor also. Hodge stood outside afterwards weeping as he lamented to his eldest son, named after his dear colleague and friend, “It is all past, the glory of our seminary has departed.” He was mistaken, of course, but such was the esteem in which Alexander was held by the renowned Charles Hodge. (When I was doing research at Princeton I was allowed to hold that walking stick myself—what a wonderful sense of history it was!)
Garretson, an ordained minister in the Presbyterian Church in America and the author of Princeton and Preaching: Archibald Alexander and the Christian Ministry, does an excellent job presenting a brief introduction to Alexander, his life, and his historical significance. This introduction, combined with the “Impressions of Dr. Alexander” in the appendix, provides sufficient information about the man whose writings occupy the bulk of the book. Selected readings from Alexander constitute the book’s 56 brief chapters (184 trade-size paperback pages, total). This taste of Christian biography, along with Alexander’s expositions of various themes related to Christian piety, is good food for the soul indeed.
Written into the “Plan” of Princeton Seminary from the beginning was the goal of producing graduates who were lovers as well as defenders of the truth. Alexander is a good example of this ideal. He was a learned scholar and compassionate pastor deeply affected by the revivals of his earlier years, and these factors combined to make him a model “affectionate” theologian. His is not a shallow or mystical piety but one founded on and fueled by gospel truth. And a deeply devotional piety it is, as these chapters illustrate. They address subjects such as the evidences of true conversion, the nature of genuine religious affections, the role of the Holy Spirit, the Christian’s love for Scripture and truth, prayer, sanctification, perseverance, counsel for various life stages, the piety of young children, love for Christ, and maintaining a “devotional spirit.” These selections reflect the best of Reformed “experimental” piety, promoting the same in the reader—warm, insightful, and useful all.
A few quotes will help provide a sample of what the book offers.
“There are two kinds of religious knowledge, which though intimately connected as cause and effect, may nevertheless be distinguished. These are the knowledge of the truth as it is revealed in the Holy Scriptures, and the impression which that truth makes on the human mind when rightly apprehended.”
“What an adorable being is the Triune God! How gloriously mysterious in his being, attributes, operations, and personal acts! How little are we capable of knowing of this infinite Being. ‘None by searching can find out the Almighty to perfection.’ Where the feelings of the heart are right, the incomprehensible nature of the divine existence causes no obstruction to genuine devotion. Indeed, the soul of man is so constituted as to require an incomprehensible Being as the object of worship. Profound adoration is the very feeling which corresponds with this attribute.”
“As the Word of God furnishes both the motive and the object of all spiritual affections, it cannot but be very dear to the renewed heart, especially as it reveals Christ in all his offices as the Redeemer of his people.”
“All we need is to have the illumination of the Spirit to accompany the reading or preaching of the Word, to cause us to see wonderful things in texts which had often been heard or read without emotion; and in the contemplation of them the mind is filled with unspeakable joy. Now the enlightened soul has no need of arguments to convince it that the Scriptures are indeed the Word of God.”
“Let us esteem it a great privilege to be the redeemed servants of the Lord. It is the highest honor which we can enjoy; and he never requires his servants to be losers by their sacrifices, labors, and privations for his sake. Our highest happiness also is inseparably connected with the performance of this duty. All who forsake God, forsake the fountain of living waters; but they who glorify him shall enjoy him forever.”
“Gratitude is the soul of heart-religion.”
“God can make any means effectual, and among the instituted means for the government of the world, and the preservation and comfort of his people, prayer holds a high place. The objection that God is immutable, and knows what we need, has no more force against prayer than any other means—no more force than if urged against the necessity of cultivating the ground in order to obtain a crop, or receiving food to nourish the body.”
This kind of “practical theology” marks the book throughout. Alexander was recognized in his own lifetime for theological acumen and devotional piety, and some of his works remain classics today. Drawing from Alexander’s works—including The Log College, A Brief Compendium of Bible Truth, Practical Sermons, Practical Truths, and Thoughts on Religious Experience—this little gem is both a wonderful introduction to this renowned Princetonian and a most profitable devotional work in its own right.