Charles Hodge: The Pride of Princeton
June 19, 2012
W. Andrew Hoffecker, Charles Hodge: The Pride of Princeton (P&R Publishing, 2011), 460pp.
One hardly needs to say that having two biographies on the same historical figure published within the same year (2011) invites comparison between the two works. Of course, an entire review focusing on comparison between W. Andrew Hoffecker's Charles Hodge: The Pride of Princeton (Presbyterian and Reformed Publishers) and Paul C. Gutjahr's Charles Hodge: Guardian of American Orthodoxy (Oxford University Press) would be justified. However, as for us, we will attempt to avoid that approach here, though some comparison will be necessary. (1) Therefore, our approach here will be narrow and limited. First, we will survey some the contents of the book and offer brief critical observations. Due to space constraints, a full survey of the entire biography will be impossible here, and so we will focus on some highlights. We will then conclude with some brief comparisons between the two volumes and a recommendation for those interested in learning more.
One more point needs to be made by way of introduction. I - unlike both Drs. Hoffecker and Gutjahr - am not a historian. My interest in Hodge is as a systematician and churchman. Since I am not trained to evaluate the historical claims, this review will be purposely slanted toward issues surrounding theological and ecclesiological principles.(2) So, with that caveat in mind, let us now turn to a brief survey of the book, and some observations.
Survey and Observations
Hoffecker's thesis in this volume - the thesis that forms the center which holds together all the particulars of Hodge's life and thought - is that the great defender of Reformed orthodoxy was a New Side-Old School Presbyterian (e.g., pp. 32 and 360). As a learned leader of Old School orthodoxy in the Presbyterian church, he also remained sympathetic with the New Side Presbyterianism of his youth. Hoffecker explains:
Hodge had internalized an appreciation of what constituted New Side piety as a way of life - the value of prayer as conversing with God, articulating a sense of dependence on God as a matter of daily experience and a moral consciousness sensitive to the presence of sin. Religion was a matter of life itself in all its aspects. (p. 38)
Of course, he was also quite critical of the excesses of the New Side in his Constitutional History of the Presbyterian Church. Nevertheless, where the revivals of the eighteenth century avoided excess and where personal piety was biblically emphasized, Hodge was in agreement. It is true that Hodge refused to pit a thoughtful, confessional Reformed orthodoxy against a warm, pious, and properly revived Christian life. For the Princeton professor, truth was given by God through his Word. This Word was received by faith through the mind which spurred on religious affections. Those affections then worked themselves out in a life of good works and obedience.
Hodge also would not have been sympathetic with the perennial assertion, found among many Christians today, that real ministry is service to others and not polemical contention for distinct truths of one's particular faith. Once again, Hoffecker explains:
Hodge would not shrug the responsibility for polemically confronting error as he perceived it. Scholarship at Princeton would be scholarship for pastors and thus scholarship that directed the church's ministry...Hodge remained confident that preparation for the Presbyterian ministry would combine exacting scholarship with traditional orthodoxy and piety. (pp. 71-72).
How often today do we hear well-meaning Christians setting "being pastoral" against theological scholarship? Hodge would have none of it. That is not to say, however, that there are not potential traps into which a pastor may fall as he engages in rigorous study and scholarship. It is true that such a pastor can ignore the sheep for his books. Many good men have failed to make the transition from their study to the pulpit and have lost God's people with unexplained technical jargon. Shame on them! But we must not reject the right use of something good on account of its abuse. The minister of the Word of God must be, more than all others in the church, a godly example of what it means to love the Lord our God with our minds as much as with our hearts and strength.
As one reads through the volume, one quickly realizes how much Hodge purposely sought to avoid finding himself on the horns of many dilemmas. In fact, it seems as if Hoffecker has purposely arranged his material in such a way as to highlight this fact. In various chapters, Hoffecker seeks to show how Hodge refused to pit science against religion, or church polity against vitality in the Christian life, or staunch confessionalism against the church's mission of evangelism and outreach. There was no lopsided emphasis in his thought between justification on the one hand, or sanctification on the other. He believed in the redemption of the whole man by the whole Christ. He believed in the whole Gospel in the whole church to and for the whole world. This was a man who eschewed false dichotomies at every turn.
There is one other false dichotomy which Hodge rejected which we ought to highlight here. It is one which we can take to heart today in light of a current debate among Reformed Christians. Hodge did not see any reason to choose between a robust doctrine of the spirituality of the church and the church's right and obligation to speak in the public square. For instance, on the one hand, he opposed temperance movements (pp. 136-137) and the Gardiner Spring resolutions (pp. 319-21), believing that both were misguided attempts at trying to influence the culture and politics. On the other hand, he spoke out (loudly, even if insufficiently) about the issue of slavery (chapter 18). Indeed, Hodge was a public theologian who believed in the spirituality of the church. When it came to issues of supporting the federal government (i.e., the Gardiner Spring resolutions), he urged the church to be silent. But when it came to the matter of slavery, he spoke up without blinking.
Like Hodge, we will find that the line between maintaining the spirituality of the church and speaking in the public square is constantly in need of negotiation and refinement. Also like Hodge, we would do well to avoid extremes. On the one hand, let's not pretend that the Bible has nothing to say to our lives and to the world outside the Lord's Day services. The Bible does speak (in however limited a way) to matters in the common realm which take place Monday through Saturday. On the other hand, let us not think that our speaking or doing in the public realm will be the means of cultural redemption. Hodge knew nothing of this. Cultures are made of people who are sinners. And so, the priority of the church must always reside with its spiritual responsibility to administer the means of grace. If we lose this, we will lose the culture as well.
Chapter twenty-six on the Mercersburg theology was also an engaging chapter. Here Hoffecker surveys the debate between Hodge and Nevin on the nature of the presence of Christ at the Lord's Supper. The debate was, to say the least, quite dicey. Part of the reason why is because of Hodge's sympathy with Nevin's concerns about abuses in the revivals of the New Side extremists. Hodge agreed that new measures which replaced the old means of grace of Word and Sacrament were a problem (p. 260). Yet, Hodge's list of theological concerns regarding Nevin's writings was significant. In fact, he could go so far as to conclude that "Nevin departed from the Reformed confessions, adopted the Romantic views of Schleiermacher, and flirted with views long considered heretical." (261). I remain, however, somewhat skeptical of Hoffecker's conclusion that Nevin got the better of Hodge in their debate over the Lord's Supper. It is true that the prevailing opinion among historians is that Nevin was closer to Calvin on the Lord's Supper than was Hodge. It is also claimed that the latter was closer to the memorialist position than to the position of the Genevan Reformer. I remain, however, unconvinced that Hodge was a rather bald memorialist!(3)
So much more can and should be said about the book. But at this rate, the review will turn much longer than you would want to read! So, we end this section here and turn things over to our concluding remarks.
At the outset of this review, I committed to not dwelling on comparisons between this volume and the one by Gutjahr. However, here I think we can say something by way of comparison which will be useful for the reader, especially if the reader is wondering with which biography to begin. It may be that resources are limited - both financial and in terms of time. And here I would like to recommend that the reader, especially the general readership of this website, begin with the Hoffecker volume. It is not because this volume is "better." Both biographies have great strengths; you cannot lose with either. But, for several reasons, I think that Hoffecker's book has some advantages over the Gutjahr volume for the typical reader of Christian biography.
First, the Hoffecker biography is about a Reformed seminary professor written by a Reformed seminary professor. Again, that does not necessarily make it better, but it does read and communicate in such a way that it hits issues with which a Reformed Christian would be interested.
Second, Hoffecker avoids overdoing Scottish Realism in Hodge's thought, thus giving us a more accurate picture of the man as a theologian who was consistently Reformed in his thinking from start to finish.(4) As I point out in my review of Gutjahr's book, I think this feature is overstated, giving a skewed impression of Hodge's thought.
Third, Hoffecker's volume reads more like it was written by an "insider." For this reason, he aims to address the finer theological points in which the Reformed and Presbyterian churchman would be more interested. In fact, we might go so far as to say that this volume reads more like a history of the man's thought, whereas the Gutjahr volume reads more like a history of Hodge's life. There is great overlap, of course, so that distinction is not absolute. But I think it does communicate a general perception I had of the difference between the two works.
Of course, Gutjahr's book has other advantages as well, which are worth enjoying. It is best to read both, and you will benefit immensely if you do. But there is no doubt that the more "in house" treatment is the one given by the book currently being reviewed. But the one thing which any reader of the present book under review should not miss, is the important thesis argued by Professor Hoffecker: there was no conflict in Hodge's mind between Old School Presbyterian principles and the New Side (at its best!) emphasis on the importance of subjective life of the believer. If Hoffecker is correct in his thesis, then Charles Hodge remains a model for the twenty-first century churchman - whether minister, professor, or layman.
Rev. James J. Cassidy is the pastor of Calvary Presbyterian Church (OPC) in Ringoes, NJ and a PhD candidate in systematic theology at Westminster Theological Seminary.
1. I have already reviewed Gutjahr's life of Charles Hodge, and so those interested in comparison can begin their inquiry there. See review of Charles Hodge: Guardian of American Orthodoxy, in The Confessional Presbyterian Journal, 7 (2011): 187-90.
2. Hence, we will be skipping over a lot of material here worth considering from a historical perspective (e.g., the issue of slavery, the civil war, many of the debates at the General Assembly).
3. For instance, statements like the following need to be explained if in fact Hodge was a memorialist: "In the Lord's Supper, therefore, the believer receives Christ. He receives his body and blood...In being thus united to Christ as their common head, believers become one body, in a mystical sense...in the Lord's Supper believers are thus united to Christ and to one another." ST III, 622-3. Furthermore, for Hodge, the presence of Christ at the supper is not imaginary, but it is "in the highest sense real and effective." ST III, 638. Further, while the presence of Christ at the Supper is not carnal, but spiritual, it is nevertheless real and effectual (p. 643). The Supper is a real communion and fellowship with Christ in his body and blood, for it is the divine-human person with whom we have communion (p. 639).
4. See, for instance, Hoffecker's Piety and the Princeton Theologians : Archibald Alexander, Charles Hodge, and Benjamin Warfield (Phillipsburg, NJ: Presbyterian and Reformed, 1981); also Paul Helseth's "Right Reason" and the Princeton Mind : An Unorthodox Proposal, (Phillipsburg, NJ: Presbyterian and Reformed, 2010); and "Carl F, Henry, Old Princeton, and the Right Use of Reason: Continuity or Discontinuity?" WTJ 73 (2011): 293-302. Also, the discussion by Jeffrey C. Waddington in, "On the Shoulders of Giants: Van Til's Appropriation of Warfield and Kuyper," Confessional Presbyterian Journal 7 (2011): 139-146.