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Gutjahr, Paul C. Charles Hodge: Guardian of American Orthodoxy

New York: Oxford University Press, 2011. Hoffecker, W. Andrew Charles Hodge: The Pride of Princeton. Philipsburg, NJ: Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing, 2011.

It must have been slightly disconcerting for Andy Hoffecker, retired professor of church history at Reformed Theological Seminary, Jackson, Mississippi, to discover that his biography of Charles Hodge, on which he had been working for ten years, was not going to be the only one published in 2011. But now that both volumes have appeared they helpfully supplement and complement each other and both make a substantial contribution to our knowledge of this great Reformed theologian. Hoffecker provides the theological ballast that Gutjahr lacks, while Gutjahr gives a thoughtful and well-written analysis as an historian of Charles Hodge in a volume that is beautifully produced.

The interest in Charles Hodge has been comparatively recent. For almost a hundred years, and certainly after the death of the so-called “old Princeton” in 1929, Hodge has been caricatured as a dour and priggish Calvinist. Nothing, of course, could be further from the truth: his grandson, the paleontologist William Berryman Scott, stated that “never, in any part of the world, have I met such a sunny, genial, kindly and tolerant people as my Grandfather and his children.” Only on the bicentenary of his birth, 22 – 24 October 1997, was due recognition given Charles Hodge with a colloquium at Princeton University featuring some outstanding historians, all celebrating his seminal contribution to American Christianity and the brilliance of his mind and writing.

Paul Gutjahr’s volume is a delight. It features a whole gallery of rough sketches of the persona of Charles Hodge’s circle and contemporaries. The pictures, portraits, and lithographs reproduced in the body of the book are stunning. Gutjahr was helped by the fact that Bill Harris, who headed the Luce Research Library at Princeton Seminary and was an inspiration to many of us, not only suggested the writing of this book, but in retirement moved to Indiana, near where Gutjahr teaches. The book involves an impressive amount of research and, as one would expect from a Professor of English, is beautifully written. As one of my faculty friends at Westminster Seminary remarked, “It’s a real page-turner.” As the story of Hodge’s life unfolds one is caught up in the grandeur of his faith, the tragedies that he weathered with a supreme confidence in divine providence, and his breadth of intellect and scholarship.

That said, and to take nothing away from the achievement of this biography, there are definite lacunae. The twenty-second chapter on “The Imputation Controversy” which on occasion dominated Hodge’s theological conversation and formed a disproportionate amount of treatment in his commentary on Romans, in chapter 5, shows a lack of insight characterized by the phrase (citing Taylor) of “Adam’s choice to eat the apple.” Likewise the forty-third chapter, “The Inspiration of Scripture” falters in its comparison between Hodge’s view of the Bible as “infallible” (as in the Westminster Confession) and that of his son and Benjamin Breckinridge Warfield to whom is attributed the concept of inerrancy. As David Kelsey of Yale said at the 1997 colloquium “Hodge’s actual practice of biblical interpretation was deeply informed by and consistent with his theology of the Bible as God’s inerrant word, plenarily and verbally inspired.” (Charles Hodge Revisited, 218)

The other concern that I would have is the way in which Gutjahr speaks of the dependence of Hodge on Scottish Common Sense Realism. A familiar and often repeated assumption about the old Princeton maintained that the theology of the Seminary was shaped by Scottish Common Sense Realism and thus diluted its Calvinism. Gutjahr appears to agree: “Scottish Realism put a tremendous emphasis on humanity’s moral intuition and its ability to detect and be moved by truth. Calvinism, with its doctrine of total depravity, held a much lower view of human moral ability.” (203) He then constructs an unfortunate dichotomy between The Way of Life and his later Systematic Theology. He claims that the one deals with sin in the traditional Reformed way, while the other has a more positive view of the human ability to discover truth. This latter emphasis, Gutjahr claims, was increasingly evident as Hodge aged.

My father, a product of the “Old Princeton”, translated into Chinese Hodge’s The Way of Life to do for the Chinese church what Hodge intended for it: a basic primer for entry into the Christian faith. Hodge’s magisterial Systematic Theology, which shaped theological education for more than half a century across the spectrum of denominations, and was the text originally favoured by the Presbyterian Church in Canada in its theological colleges, assumes on the part of the student an already existing faith that seeks to be further instructed. You cannot say that one is pessimistic, the other optimistic: they are both of a piece.

It is at this point that Hoffecker’s insights are so essential in supplementing Gutjahr. My heavily high-lighted copy of his 1981 Piety and the Princeton Theologians helped me thirty years ago to strike the balance between piety and theology and impacted my own teaching ministry to its great advantage.  His Charles Hodge: The Pride of Princeton takes the argument one step further, balancing Hodge’s Old School orthodoxy with a warm and passionate faith too often identified solely with Finney and the New School. Hodge was initially ambivalent about the division of 1837, as Gutjahr helpfully points out and Hoffecker amplifies with an analysis of the ecclesiastical issues involved. He did not have a concern about slavery, being a slave-owner himself for some years before the Civil War (a strange anomaly here) and was sympathetic to the southern majority in the Old School. At the same time he spoke of the work of the Holy Spirit in bringing life to the church, a view that made him suspect to some who denigrating the place of emotion in the Christian life.

It is in this context that Hodge’s Constitutional History of the Presbyterian Church in the United States of America must be placed. To Hodge, who admitted he was not a church historian, all theological studies were ultimately historical. ”Hodge believed,” Hoffecker asserted, “historical study was essential to defending Reformed dogmas and correctly understanding current controversies.” (191) The chapter about Hodge as “Revisionist Historian” is particularly relevant to an understanding of  the price we pay today for our neglect of church history both in congregations and seminaries.

Charles Hodge was a man for our times. In his closing chapter Hoffecker applies the lessons that Hodge can bring us: “He enabled a church not only to maintain its spiritual footing doctrinally as others sought an innovative Calvinism but also to retain its essential spiritual mission when parties diverted it into a political agenda contrary to the church’s calling.” (359) We are indebted to both men, Paul Gutjahr and Andrew Hoffecker, for their holding up to us the life and teaching of Charles Hodge as a guide for a church that often, especially in Canada, seems in retreat if not in a rout. Orthodoxy, Hodge would say, need not be reactionary and defensive: with him we can indeed engage the culture and challenge its presuppositions in the name of a sovereign Lord.