January 27: William Henry Green [1825-1900]

This day in Presbyterian history :

Birth of William Henry Green

William Henry Green was born on the twenty-seventh day of January, 1825; born into a family which possessed traditions and ideals, born an heir to definite high opportunities of life, and born a child of the covenant. Though his family had ancestral ties to Princeton, William was sent to the classical school in Easton, and from there he entered Lafayette College at the age of sixteen. “He was a sunny-faced, bright-eyed, pure-minded boy in college, and led a blameless and winsome life.” By the time he was twenty, he had settled on serious study of theology. Upon graduation from seminary, he was invited to assist in teaching and spent the next two years teaching Hebrew grammar, before answering a call to pastor the Central Presbyterian Church in Philadelphia, 1849-1851.

That pastorate was terminated in 1851 when the General Assembly elected him to the chair of Biblical and Oriental Literature in the Theological Seminary at Princeton, when he was but twenty-six years old. He began those labors on August 28th of that year and continued there until his death in 1900. Once during his Princeton career he prayerfully considered leaving for missions work in India. Some fourteen years later he also declined to serve as president of the College of New Jersey (later Princeton University). He remained where he was needed.

When he began his work as Professor of Biblical and Oriental Literature, his faculty colleagues were Archibald Alexander, Charles Hodge and Joseph Addison Alexander. Dr. Samuel Miller had died the year before, in 1850, and Dr. Archibald Alexander was soon called home to glory on October 22, 1851, three weeks after Professor Green’s inauguration. “In outward appearance he was tall, straight, strongly knit, energetic; with brown hair, firm mouth, piercing blue eyes that looked out from under heavy brows; dignified in manner, reserved, modest, at times almost to diffidence, earnest, reverent, and without self-seeking; thorough in his own work and rigorous in the recitation room, meeting his classes with unfailing regularity, going straight from the lecture-room to the study, evidently swayed by the sense of duty. These characteristics, apart from the external change seen in growing grayness of the hair, whitening of the beard and stoop of the shoulders due to advancing age and years of study, marked him to the end.”

Professor Green brought to the study of Biblical literature a sincere faith in the Scriptures as the infallible Word of God. He came to the work of criticism “convinced by the most abundant evidence that these Scriptures are the infallible Word of God.” We are not left in the dark as to the nature of that “abundant evidence.”  It was the common evidence which has convinced the Church: the claim of the Scriptures themselves to have divine authority, the heavenliness of their matter, the efficacy of their doctrine, their adaptation exactly to meet the needs of sinful men, the fulfillment of their prophecies, the constant appeal of prophets and apostles to historic objective revelations of Almighty God as the basis of their work, the attributes of Christ, and the persuasion which the Holy Spirit produces in the heart that the Scriptures are divinely true. These considerations and others of like character constituted the abundant evidence.

Shortly after Professor Green had entered upon his work, the first low mutterings of a coming debate regarding the origin of the Old Testament were heard. The storm burst in its full fury toward the end of the 1870’s. The new theory let loose at that time could not maintain itself without first ridding itself of much of this “abundant evidence;” and when Dr. Green saw that it required, to quote his own pregnant statement, “a new doctrine of the province of reason, a new doctrine of inspiration, a new doctrine of the evidential value of miracles, a new doctrine of the fulfillment of prophecy, a new doctrine of the infallibility of the Bible,” he saw that the new theory bears on its face the marks of desperation. He suspected that its principles are wrong or its methods perverted. And he said in his own modest way : “There can be no impropriety in subjecting novelties to careful scrutiny, before we adopt conclusions at war with our most cherished convictions and with what we hold to be well-established truths.”

To a large body of earnest scholars, Dr. Green has done yet more than vindicate the scholarliness of conservative criticism.  In their opinion, after they have weighed all the evidence adduced by both parties to the controversy, he has demonstrated in general and along certain lines in particular, that the Bible’s own account of itself satisfies the actual phenomena involved better, to say the least, than does any other theory, with less constraint upon text and exegesis and the acknowledged course of Hebrew history; that it is further supported by unbroken and unanimous testimony reaching back from Christ and His apostles into the earliest literature, and that it and it alone requires no rejection and no minimizing of well-ascertained truths.

Not long after Dr. Green’s death, a pastor of wide experience, a close friend of Dr. Green’s for more than fifty years, said of him, “A more humble and holy-hearted man I never knew.” Side by side with this tribute to his humility and holiness of heart there comes to mind another characteristic of Dr. Green : his sense of sin and his apprehension of the grace and amazing love of God in Christ…It was this that made him frequently rise very early in the morning that he might enjoy a season of undisturbed communion with God. It was this that sent him daily to the Scriptures for devotional reading, outside of his professional work. (He once alluded to his practice of reading the Book of Psalms through devotionally, generally once a month.) It was this that sank personal ambition and made him labor for the glory of God alone. It was this that made him feel his own need for that system of theology, known as Calvinistic, Augustinian, Pauline, which he found in the Bible. It was this that added such strength to his intellectual faith in the fact of a supernatural revelation.

Words to Live By: It was also said of Dr. Green that “He rose to the dignity of the great issues at stake, and conducted his debate with truth and honor. He was a disciple of the Lord Jesus Christ, who, when He was reviled, reviled not again.” Speaking of Dr. Green, “The pure-minded boy had become a man advanced in years, and he was still the simple-hearted child of God. He was an Israelite indeed, in whom was no guile.”

We live in an age when truth is under assault from all sides, and must be defended. Yet we can and must stand for truth in a way that observes and honors the Lord of all truth. The Lord’s work must be done in the Lord’s way. At best we are only sinful witnesses to His truth, and so we speak with humility and in love, remembering all the while that God alone is Judge. He will uphold His truth. His Word will not fail.

Through the Scriptures:  Job 38 – 42

Through the Standards: Predestination to be handled with care

WCF 3:8
“The doctrine of this high mystery of predestination is to be handled with special prudence and care, that men, attending the will of God revealed in His Word, and yielding obedience thereunto, may, from the certainty of their effectual vocation, be assured of their eternal election.  So shall this doctrine afford matter of praise, reverence, and admiration of God; and of humility, diligence, and abundant consolation to all that sincerely obey the Gospel.”

For further reading:
Celebration of the fiftieth anniversary of the appointment of Professor William Henry Green as an instructor in Princeton Theological Seminary

Sources: Photograph from The Life and Work of William Henry Green : A Memorial Address, by John D. Davis. Princeton, NJ: Princeton Theological Seminary, 1900. Image scanned by the staff of the PCA Historical Center. Biographical text freely adapted from this same address by Dr. Davis.

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