Charles Hodge, the Presbyterian pope (part II)...

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A Review of Paul Gutjahr's Charles Hodge: Guardian of American Orthodoxy.

As a teacher of theology I knew a fair bit about Charles Hodge, generally speaking, but reading Paul Gutjahr's biography gave me an inside view.

I knew Hodge used Turretin's text for his theology courses and didn’t publish his own Systematic Theology until the 1870s. Why did he wait so long? Gutjahr fills in the details. It turns out Princeton Seminary's governing board asked Hodge not to take his three-volume systematic theology into print because they thought it would cause a decline in enrollment if anyone could buy his theology text.

I knew his Systematic Theology was thin on the doctrine of the Church. I didn’t know ...

Hodge had contemplated adding a fourth volume on that doctrine alone, but ultimately decided against it. His many articles on the Church would have to suffice.

I knew Hodge's Commentary on the Epistle to the Romans and have used it in my own study of the epistle. I didn’t know he wrote it to counteract the influence of similar works by Moses Stuart and Albert Barnes, men who were wrong on the doctrine of the imputation of Adam’s sin. Hodge considered this a fundamental doctrine and saw that being wrong here would lead to errors on a host of other doctrines.

I knew Hodge accepted Roman Catholic baptism. I didn’t know how unpopular a view it was. In 1845 the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church passed a motion (169-8) that Roman Catholic baptism was invalid, even though the Roman Catholic Church was a branch of the visible Church. Hodge thought this was a terrible decision and claimed Roman baptism was valid because it held to the Biblical matter, form and intention of the sacrament. He knew the Roman Catholic Church was corrupt and taught false doctrine, but it was still a body of believers that “professed the essential elements of true Christianity” (p. 237).

I knew he wrote on slavery. I didn’t know the particulars of his teaching. He wrote against New School Presbyterians who were increasingly abolitionist and arguing for the emancipation of slaves. Hodge pointed out that the Bible nowhere condemned slavery and nowhere commanded slave-owners to liberate their slaves. Slavery was one possible way that could organize themselves, and though it was not a “desirable institution,” Hodge declared Christians ought not categorically forbid it. He distinguished between slave-holding (which was allowed by Scripture) and slave laws (some of which went against Scripture).

I didn’t know that Hodge was a slave-owner. His home had two slaves, Henrietta and Lena, but he had little exposure to the real life of many slaves in other parts of the country. Hodge was convinced slaves in America were better off than many (free) manual laborers in England. Since “every society limited the freedoms of its members to some extent” (p. 174), Hodge believed the institution of slavery could be used for good. Knowing the institution could not and would not last forever, he favored a gradual emancipation

I knew Hodge was an Old School Presbyterian. New Schoolers were moderate Calvinists (with a few “barely Calvinists”) who favored a looser view of the need for Presbyterians to hold to the Westminster Standards. Hodge believed the two factions needed to separate but he quibbled with the way the Old Schoolers excised the New Schoolers from the church (at the 1837 General Assembly). Ofttimes teachers of theology like to stay above the fray of church politics, so they stick to dropping dispassionate missives from on high. To say that is what Hodge did would be too harsh, but he had tendencies in that direction. In this area his lack of pastoral experience hurt him.

As I read the biography I was struck by the resemblance of the Old School-New School struggle of the mid-19th century with the recent struggles within the PCA over subscription to the Westminster Standards; whether we are "a broadly Reformed church" or simply "a Reformed church."

I knew Hodge wrote against Darwinism, baldly stating “it is atheism.” I didn’t know how closely he read the writings of scientists. He wrote against polygenism, the view that “different variations of humanity had appeared at different times in different parts of the world with defined, immutable core character and physical traits” (p. 326). Hodge’s critical writings against polygenism (favored by some southerners) and the Civil War helped to nudge him closer to the abolitionist camp.

I knew Hodge was a godly man. I didn’t know how truly great and good he was, especially within his family. When his grandson (Hugh Lennox Scott) graduated from West Point in 1876, Hodge gave him a Bible as a graduation present, inscribing it as follows:

Dear Lennie:

  • Never pass a day without reading the Bible and calling upon God in prayer.
  • Learn to pray always. The Lord Jesus is ever near you. It does not take long to say: ‘Lord preserve me; Lord help me; Lord keep me from sin.’ We need to say this a hundred times a day.
  • Never gamble.
  • Never drink intoxicating liquor.
  • Never use profane language.
  • Let no corrupt communication proceed out of your mouth. 
  • Never incur debt.
  • Live peaceable with all men.
  • Never be afraid to confess Christ. 
  • Let your last words every night be: ‘I take Jesus Christ to be my God and Saviour.’
  • May the blessing of God be upon you always and everywhere.

Your loving Grandfather, Charles Hodge, Princeton, Sept. 15, 1876

David Wegener

David is an ordained Teaching Elder (Pastor) in the Central Indiana Presbytery of the Presbyterian Church in America. Formerly serving in theological education in Africa with Mission to the World, he and his wife currently live in their hometown of Bloomington, IN.