Charles Hodge and the Method of Systematic Theology: a Corrective

Charles Hodge and the Method of Systematic Theology: a Corrective

In recent times Charles Hodge has come in for a drubbing in connection with his remarks on the nature of what he calls theological science, as these are set out in the first seventeen pages of his Systematic Theology. (See, for example, Nancey Murphy, Beyond Liberalism and Fundamentalism: How Modern and Postmodern Philosophy set the Theological Agenda, (Valley Forge,Pa. Trinity Press International, 1996) p.42-3); Stanley J. Grenz, Renewing the Center: Evangelical Theology in a Post-Theological Era , (Grand Rapids, Baker, 2000 pp.71-3) ; John R. Franke, The Character of Theology: A Postconservative Evangelical Approach. (Baker, 2005, pp. 88-9).

Hodge's advocacy of an 'inductive' method in theology is said to embody all the wrong things. He is accused of being a 'foundationalist', 'positivistic', 'empiricist' and 'individualistic'. These traits are said to reveal him as expressing the mentality of the Enlightenment, 'the assumption of modernity', in his pursuit of objectivity, a mentality perhaps fostered by the influence upon him of one of the most notable figures of the Scottish Enlightenment, Thomas Reid, and perhaps by the dreaded 'Reformed Scholasticism'. By implication, in our postmodern era Hodge's theological method is to be avoided like the plague. Another nail in the coffin of Princeton theology.

The latest of such accusations is in a piece by Professor Kevin J. Vanhoozer, 'On the Very Idea of a Theological System: An Essay in Aid of Triangulating Scripture, Church and World' (in Always Reforming: Explorations in Systematic Theology ed. A.T.B. McGowan (Leicester, England: Apollos, 2006). This is part of a book in which various contemporary theologians of broadly Reformed sympathies sketch out their agendas for reformingtheology (by Scripture, one presumes). When the usual charges are leveled against Hodge, but this time from a highly-regarded theologian in the Reformed family then it's high time to set the record straight.

What Vanhoozer claims

In the course of his advocacy of theology as involving 'thedramatic triangulation' between Scripture, church and world, Professor Vanhoozer has this to say about Hodge:

Hodge's inductive method betrays certain tell-tale marks of its time, though this alone is hardly an argument against it. In particular, the method presupposes a subject-object dichotomy in which the interpreter's mind observes and analyses its object: the facts of the Bible. The direction of theological reasoning is bottom up: from biblical foundations to doctrinal formulation. The location or situation of the interpreter is irrelevant: the glory of the inductive method is that close observation allows the facts to emerge, regardless of who is doing the observing. Second, Hodge works with a dichotomy between fact and theory that has been called in question by philosophers of science who insist that data are always/already 'theory laden'. Third, Hodge's decision to read the Bible as a book of divinely revealed facts predisposes him to focus on the Bible's content and to construe this content as propositional teaching. Such a focus on revealed content runs the risk of neglecting the larger canonical context and literary form of the biblical 'facts', perhaps the inevitable result of biblical empiricism. (pp.136-7)

These sentences also bear certain familiar tell-tale signs, expressed in three charges against Hodge: that he presupposes a 'subject-object dichotomy' in which the mind observes facts (which are in some sense mind-independent), and in which the situation of the interpreter is irrelevant. Anyone can do the observing. Second, that Hodge is said to work with a 'dichotomy' between fact and theory, not taking any account of the theory-ladenness of data. Thirdly, that in virtue of the first and second of these practices Hodge focuses on revealed content of the Bible and is predisposed to construe that content as propositional teaching. The tell-tale signs are unmistakable: 'mind-independent facts', the neglect of 'situation', the focus on facts and propositions.

Before we look at these three charges in turn, you'll notice that Professor Vanhoozer says little if anything directly about Hodge's inductive approach to the data of Scripture. Nevertheless, a word or two about this is in order. No doubt it is tautologically true that Hodge was a child of his time, and no doubt he could have benefited from the philosophy of science of children of later times, which claims that scientific theories are falsifiable hypotheses, not inductive generalizations from the data. No doubt Hodge's account of scientific procedure is naively Baconian. No doubt he would have learned things about the philosophy of science from Karl Popper, or N. R. Hanson, or Imre Lakatos, or even (heaven forbid!) from Thomas Kuhn. But this is not, I think, the main point. The main point of Hodge's inductivism is to endorse a method which gives Scripture theological priority, allowing it to address us rather we addressing it. Any method which ensured this would be equally valid.

So we turn to Hodge and his critic. First to revisiting those seventeen pages, and then to looking at Professor Vanhoozer's three charges.

Hodge's seventeen pages

Hodge is concerned to distinguish what he believes to be the correct systematic theological method from two other methods which he calls, somewhat imprecisely as he acknowledges, the 'Speculative' and the 'Mystical'. The speculative method, Hodge says, 'assumes, in an a priori manner, certain principles and from them undertakes to determine what is and what must be. It decides on all truth, or determines on what is true from the laws of the mind, or from axioms involved in the constitution of the thinking principle within us. To this head must be referred all those systems which are founded on any a priori philosophical assumptions' . (p.4) He then proceeds briefly to examine three forms of this Method: Deistic, (the natural religion of Herbert of Cherbury, no doubt), Dogmatic (Hodge cites the method of Anselm's Cur Deus Homo), and the Transcendentalistic (including the romantically-tinged rationalism of the New England, and elsewhere, of Hodge's day, and more widely, Hegelianism). The second main method, the mystical, in its supernatural form holds that the Spirit of God is in direct communion with the soul, granting otherwise unattainable knowledge. Such mysticism is to be distinguished from the internal testimony of the Holy Spirit in his role as illuminator of the Scriptural truths. Mysticism in its natural form appeals to natural religious consciousness.

To these methods, very broadly sketched, Hodge opposes 'the inductive method'. (p.9) This is similar to induction in the natural sciences in assuming the trustworthiness of sense perceptions, of mental operations, and of truths not learned from experience but which are given in our human constitution. By induction the scientist perceives, gathers and combines his facts, taking care as far as possible to collect only the facts and all the facts. From these he deduces certain laws. The Christian theologian proceeds in a parallel way. For him the Bible is the 'store-house of facts' . (p.10) Besides the mental principles used in natural science, the theologian appeals to other naturally-implanted principles. For example, to the essential distinction between right and wrong, that sin deserves punishment, and other similar first truths, 'which God has implanted in the constitution of all moral beings, and which no objective revelation can possibly contradict'. (p.10) Using these principles the Christian theologian must 'ascertain, collect and combine all the facts which God has revealed concerning himself and our relation to Him'. (p.11) The Bible clearly reveals what is otherwise dimly perceived, the character of the external works of God, our own consciousness and the laws of our nature, and our religious experience. Further, 'the Scriptures teach not only the truth, but what are the effects of the truth on the heart and conscience, when applied with saving power by the Holy Ghost'. (p.11)

Like the scientist, the theologian ought to carry out his induction as thoroughly and comprehensively as possible. In theology a partial induction of particulars has led to serious errors. It is a fact, Hodge claims, that the Scriptures attribute omniscience to Christ. 'From this it was inferred by some that He could not have had a finite intelligence, but that the Logos was clothed in Him with a human body with its animal life. But it is also a Scriptural fact that ignorance and intellectual progress, as well as omniscience, are ascribed to our Lord. Both facts, therefore, must be included in our doctrine of his person'. (p.12)

The facts induced must not be willfully denied or carelessly overlooked, or unfairly appreciated. We must be honest here, as the true student of nature is honest in his induction. Even scientific men are sometimes led to suppress or pervert facts which militate against their favorite theories; but the temptation to this form of dishonesty is far less in their case, than in that of the theologian. The truths of religion are far more important than those of natural science. They come home to the heart and conscience. They may alarm the fears or threaten the hopes of men, so that they are under strong temptation to overlook or pervert them.....Science cannot make facts; it must take them as they are. In like manner, if the Bible asserts that Christ's death was a satisfaction to justice, the theologian is not allowed to merge justice into benevolence in order to suit his theory of the atonement. If the Scriptures teach that men are born in sin, we cannot change the nature of sin, and make it a tendency to evil and not really sin, in order to get rid of the difficulty.....We must take the facts of the Bible as they are, and construct our system so as to embrace them all in their integrity. (p.12-13)

Finally (at least as far as we are concerned) according to Hodge 'principles are derived from facts, and not impressed upon them'. (p.13)

It is...unscientific for the theologian to assume a theory as to the nature of virtue, of sin, of liberty, or moral obligation, and then explain the facts of Scripture in accordance with his theories. His only proper course is to derive his theory of virtue, of sin, of liberty, of obligation, from the facts of the Bible. He should remember that his business is not to set forth his system of truth (that is of no account), but to ascertain and exhibit what is God's system, which is a matter of the greatest moment.....So long, however, as the binding authority of Scripture is acknowledged, the temptation is very strong, to press the facts of the Bible into accordance with our preconceived theories.....It is the fundamental principle of all sciences, and of theology among the rest, that theory is to be determined by facts, and not facts by theory. (p.14)

Summarizing, two things. The first is to underline the point that in setting out his views Hodge is prescribing a set of ideals, not describing what actually goes on. And it is obvious, in reading his words, dated in certain respects as they must be, that his overriding concern is to preserve and protect the a posteriori character of theology in its relation to Scripture, by being resolutely a posteriori in his construction of Christian doctrine or principle or theory. This is the point of the stress on induction.

Vanhoozer's three charges

Professor Vanhoozer first alleges that Hodge presupposes a subject-object dichotomy in which the mind observes mind-independent facts in which the situation of the interpreter is irrelevant. This is a serious misreading, serious because it confuses two fundamentally different matters. As we have noted, Hodge is not describing what actually goes on in carrying forward the science of theology, but giving his views on what ought to happen. His words are not descriptive, but normative or prescriptive. So of course, as is made obvious by a cursory reading of the material, Hodge insists on the importance of taking into account the situation of the interpreter. He refers to it time and again. Rationalists and dogmatists and mystics bring principles to the interpretation of Scripture which they are unwilling to test by its data. We are all tempted to do this because of the importance of the issues at stake, to pervert or overlook the teaching of Scripture, to 'press the facts of the Scriptures into accordance with our preconceived theories', as he puts it.

It would be easy to show that in every department of theology, - in regard to the nature of God, his relation to the world, the plan of salvation, the person and work of Christ, the nature of sin, the operations of divine grace, men, instead of taking the facts of the Bible, and seeing what principles they imply, what philosophy underlies them, have adopted their philosophy independently of the Bible, to which the facts of the Bible are made to bend. This is utterly unphilosophical. (p.14)

In making these observations (so it seems to me) Hodge is far from being the fuddy duddy that he is nowadays reckoned to be, but instead has his finger firmly on the pulse of things. If by a miracle we could introduce him into contemporary discussions we may imagine him having a word or two to say about the subjectivizing and skeptical consequences of viewing Scripture through the lens of post modernity. What Hodge affirms is that it is possible by careful attention to the data, and by the help of the Holy Spirit, (another vital factor about our situation), to come to a true understanding of the teaching of Scripture even though there is a sense in which the theologian is involved in a never-ending process of revisiting the data.

Whether in these ways Hodge succeeds in avoiding a 'subject-object dichotomy' is not clear, because the term itself is not clear. 'Dichotomy' means 'a sharply defined division'. Is there a sharply defined division between the subject, the human senses and intellect, and the object, the data of Scripture? Don't most of us make such a 'dichotomy'? Aren't most of us guilty of what Hodge is guilty of here? Except in certain forms of idealist thinking the subject and the object are not the same. Is there a 'sharply defined division' between the two, then? 'Division' means........But Hodge can only make the important distinction between the principles that we may wrongly bring to Scripture and the principles which we may rightly take from Scripture, by making a distinction between principles and facts. Any process involving the testing of theories must do the same.

Contrary to what Vanhoozer claims, then, for Hodge it matters a very great deal who is doing the observing. It matters whether or not the observer is a speculator, or a dogmatist, or a mystic, or some of each. The danger of operating with preconceived theories is not a situation which Hodge himself is exempt from, nor (he would say) is anyone else. He is certainly not setting himself up as some kind of paragon. The point is that, according to Hodge, we should strive with might and main for an objectivity based on a thoroughly a posteriori approach to the data of Scripture.

Secondly, Vanhoozer charges that in Hodge's approach there is a dichotomy between fact and theory, for Hodge (it is said) does not take any account of the 'theory-ladenness' of data. Theory-ladenness is, I think, the idea that all factual statements, but particularly those that enter into scientific reasoning, imply some theory or other. 'There is a table over there' is 'laden' with the theory of the spatio-temporal location of middle-sized artifacts. 'I am aware of a red sense datum' is laden with the theory of phenomenalism. 'He has an Oedipus complex' is laden with psychological theory. Some terms, like 'gene' or 'electron' are theory laden. Is Hodge aware of this point? Decidedly so. His Systematic Theology begins 'In every science there are two factors: facts and ideas; or, facts and the mind. Science is more than knowledge. Knowledge is the persuasion of what is true on adequate evidence. But the facts of astronomy, chemistry, or history do not constitute the science of those departments of knowledge. Nor does the mere orderly arrangement of facts amount to science. Historical facts arranged in chronological order, are mere annals......If, therefore, theology be a science, it must include something more than a mere knowledge of facts. It must embrace an exhibition of the internal relation of those facts, one to another, and each to all'. (p.1) And the seventeen pages end with 'It is also assumed (viz. by the inductive method applied to Scripture) that the relation of these Biblical facts to each other, the principles involved in them, are in the facts themselves.....(p.27 emphasis added)

As Hodge proceeds to show, collecting together the facts of Scripture is not like collecting pebbles from a beach and sorting them. For the facts of Scripture are related conceptually or 'internally' related, as he puts it. (p. 1, 2) In a Christian view of Scripture 'God was in Christ reconciling the world unto himself' is consistent with 'God created the heavens and the earth' and 'Our God is a consuming fire', and it is the task of the systematic theologian, as far as he is able, to display this consistency. In other words, unlike pebbles on a beach, the facts of Scripture, expressed in the sentences and clauses of the Bible, have semantic and syntactic meaning. We can draw inferences from them, as Hodge shows from this example: 'It is a fact that the Scriptures attribute omniscience to Christ. From this it was inferred that He could not have had a finite intelligence, but that the Logos was clothed in Him with a human body with its animal life. But it is also a Scriptural fact that ignorance and intellectual progress, as well as omniscience, are ascribed to our Lord. Both facts, therefore, must be included in the doctrine of his person'.(p.12)

It must be remembered that Hodge's remarks about the nature of theological method have to do in particular with systematic theology, building on the results of biblical theology. 'So the Bible contains the truths which the theologian has to collect, authenticate, arrange and exhibit in their internal relation to each other. This constitutes the difference between biblical and systematic theology. The office of the former is to ascertain and state the facts of Scripture. The office of the latter is to take those facts, (viz. the facts ascertained and ordered by the biblical theologian) determine their relation to other cognate truths, as well as to vindicate them and show their harmony and consistency'. (pp.1-2) So the facts to which the systematic theologian attends are already 'laden' with the conclusions of the biblical theologian. It is because of the work of the biblical theologian that Hodge is able to say, 'Although the Scriptures do not contain a system of theology as a whole, we have in the Epistles of the New Testament, portions of that system wrought out to our hands. These are our authority and guide'. (p.3) So it would be a mistake to think that Hodge believes that the Bible is nothing but sets of facts and that all theological reasoning is 'bottom up', as Vanhoozer thinks. (p.136) No, the Bible contains theories too, as the biblical theologian teaches us. The language of the Bible is laden with them. Perhaps Hodge would be inclined to say that in the Bible 'God' is a theory-laden term. 'God was in Christ reconciling the world unto himself': is that not a theory-laden statement? Would Hodge deny it?

So besides facts, Scripture also provides us with portions of systematic theology. This is why Vanhoozer is inaccurate in supposing that Hodge makes a principled distinction between the facts of the Bible and the systems that theologians devise. (p.156) The Bible already contains valid samples of such a system, according to Hodge. 'It is no less unscientific for the theologian to assume a theory as to the nature of virtue, of sin, of liberty, of moral obligation, and then explain the facts of Scripture in accordance with his theories. His only proper course is to derive his theory of virtue, of sin, of liberty, of obligation, from the facts of the Bible'. (p.13) The theologian is the focus of the influence of competing theories. Those he brings to the Bible, so distorting it, and those he obtains from the Bible after proper induction, involving inquiring into, summarizing and connecting up its teaching. Unsurprisingly, systematic theology 'is not an easy task'. (p.2) The idea that Hodge plays down or dismisses theories, and allows that anyone can be a systematic theologian simply by assembling the facts of Scripture, without courting the danger of having those facts distorted by false theories, is a major misunderstanding.

(Incidentally, an amusing piece of evidence that Professor Vanhoozer may be carrying his anti-Hodge protest to excess can be found on p. 168 of his paper. There he writes, 'In Bavinck's words, directed largely against Hodge: "Scripture does not give us data to interpret; it is itself the interpretation of reality, the shaper of a distinctive worldview"', citing Reformed Dogmatics I. p.354. But the words cited (whatever exactly they mean) are not Bavinck's but are taken from the synopsis of Chapter 12 of the English translation of Reformed Dogmatics and are written by the editor, Professor John Bolt, who nowhere there mentions Hodge.)

Finally, Vanhoozer claims that in virtue of the first and second of these practices Hodge is predisposed to construe the content of the Bible as propositional teaching. Well, Hodge certainly does construe the content of the Bible as propositional teaching, though interestingly enough an induction of the seventeen pages shows that the word 'proposition' is never used there. However, Hodge refers to 'the truths' of the Bible, and 'the facts of Scripture', and I suppose that he would not deny that these truths and facts are expressed, or are expressible, in propositions. 'God was in Christ reconciling the world unto himself' is (Hodge would say), a fact, a true proposition, a truth. Whether asserting such things 'runs the risk of neglecting the larger canonical context and literary form of the biblical "facts", perhaps the inevitable result of biblical empiricism', as Vanhoozer claims, (p. 137) is hard to tell. Perhaps it does run this risk. And perhaps not. I rather fancy that Hodge was appraised of the different literary forms of the Scripture, capable of distinguishing parables, narratives and wisdom literature, and the literal from the metaphorical. As we've already noted, he believes that the Epistles of the New Testament are unique among the other books of the Bible in providing for us fragments of systematic theology.

If behind the dislike of 'propositional theology' there lurks the fear of equating 'propositional' with dry, detached truths located in a dry, detached theological system, then Hodge's words may also allay such fears. At two places in the seventeen pages Hodge notes that the Bible contains not only doctrines, or theories, or principles, or truths, but also states 'what are the effects of the truth on the heart and conscience, when applied with saving power by the Holy Ghost....The Bible gives us not only the facts concerning God, and Christ, ourselves, and our relations to our Maker and Redeemer, but also records the legitimate effects of those truths on the minds of believers'. (p.11,16) So whatever defects 'propositional theology' might nowadays be thought to have, one cannot, I think, reasonably charge Charles Hodge with being dry or detached in his appreciation of revealed truth.


Unfortunately, Professor Vanhoozer's negative comments about Charles Hodge's systematic theological method are not novel. They are part of the retail trade of disparagement of Hodge and Princeton theology occurring more generally within current evangelical and Reformed theologizing. But that does not excuse their inadequacy. The comments are inaccurate at numerous points and unbecoming a serious scholar. Vanhoozer is of course fully entitled to develop his novel view of systematic theology as 'theodrama', a triangulation of Scripture, church and world, but it is wrong to use a distorted and partial account of Charles Hodge's theological method to aid himself in that task. Hodge is not an untouchable icon: he shared in our common infirmities. But he is entitled to have his views fairly presented .