If Jonathan Edwards is America’s most important theologian, Charles Hodge is a close second. At least that is the conclusion I reached after spending ten hours per week during seminary reading through Hodge’s essays and articles as a research assistant. Hodge was the premier public intellectual among Christians in America during the 19th century. No one taught more graduate students, and prolific is a poor way to describe his literary output. Raised and catechized as a Presbyterian, the only job he held his entire life (1797 to 1878) was as professor at Princeton Seminary. During his tenure, Princeton Seminary became synonymous with orthodoxy, a reliable source for biblically based thinking on a wide range of issues.
Because of the length of his life and volume of his writing, Hodge defies simple summaries and generalizations. He was a churchman, theologian, exegete, ecumenist, missiologist, apologist, critic, and philosopher. Whether or not you agree with everything he believed and published, his life remains worthy of serious consideration. In his writings you find a brilliant theologian and devout disciple wrestling with what it means for the church to bear witness faithfully in a rapidly changing world. Studying his life and writing has been immensely helpful to my own ministry and understanding of the church. Here are nine observations from Hodge’s life that illustrate his continuing relevance for Christians today.
1. Go deep into the Scriptures. Though Hodge is known by most for this three-volume systematic theology, his first love was biblical studies. He was trained in Hebrew by a rabbi and traveled to study under the leading experts in the Greek language. His career at Princeton started with teaching biblical languages to new seminary students. As B. B. Warfield recalled of his beloved professor, Hodge could easily translate the Greek New Testament without assistance in class while being brought to tears when describing the love of God. Hodge’s theology was born from deep and detailed interaction with the Scriptures. Theological precision results from being continually sharpened by the Bible.
2. Know yourself. Hodge is known by contemporary readers for his dry and analytical style of writing. Whether it appeals to the reader or not, Hodge’s vigorous mind and unique personality come through in his writing. As one historian has observed, even the commentaries he published dealt with the books of the Bible that catered to his analytical bent (Pauline epistles). He left no commentaries on those that tap into the poetic side of the mind (the Gospels and the Psalms). His writings clearly reveal how his mind operated. Moreover, he knew his weaknesses. He never perceived himself as a strong preacher, which kept him from pursuing a pastorate and itinerating. Whenever he discovered an area of weakness academically, he sought to correct it by exposing himself to that area’s leaders, whether they were in New England or Germany. Though Hodge admired his mentor Archibald Alexander and his childhood pastor Ashbel Green, he never tried to imitate their personality or style. God has made each of us unique and speaks through us in unique ways.
3. Keep an eye on cultural and social trends. Before contextualization was popular, Hodge kept his finger on the pulse of American culture. He read the latest thought making its way over from Europe and tried to read popular novels. Hodge was a public theologian. He devoted his intellectual energies to interpreting the Bible, especially as it intersected with movements around the world. As John W. Stewart notes, Hodge has as much in common with Reinhold Niebuhr as he does with Warfield. His interest in trends wasn’t born from a love of novelty but from a desire to understand the peculiarities of the modern world.
4. Stand firm on your principles. Charles Krauth, a Lutheran theologian, once said that “next to having Dr. Hodge on one’s side was the pleasure of having him as an antagonist.” He often argued for unpopular positions among his fellow Presbyterians. He once referred to certain views of his Southern counterpart James Henley Thornwell as “mischievous” and a sermon by Benjamin Morgan Palmer as a “monstrous perversion.” He sparred with his former seminary colleague John Williamson Nevin and unleashed a torrent of criticism on Charles Finney. Though Hodge sought Christian unity, he was committed to his understanding of Scripture, even when it meant controversy or speaking against popular figures.
5. Don’t be afraid of new ideas. Hodge believed all truth is reconcilable because it comes from the same source: God. He didn’t dismiss ideas until he first sought to become acquainted with them. The journal he edited was a “review,” a place where new ideas were examined theologically. He was particularly fond of new discoveries in science and read The Origin of Species three years after it was published. Beyond science, Hodge interacted with new forms of philosophy, models of education, and hot topics on the political front. He believed it was intellectually lazy to simply dismiss an idea rather than analyzing it firsthand.
6. Treasure your family and friends. Hodge was a man of many friends, something his cheerful countenance made easy for him. If ever you became his friend, you remained his friend. He kept in touch with seminary classmates and friends from travels abroad. The collection of his letters includes almost 800 different recipients. Every Thursday evening, Hodge opened his home to friends and professors for vigorous discussion that later came to be known as the “association of gentlemen.” Moreover, Hodge could be found playing croquet in his front yard with family and friends. His study was located in his home on the seminary campus. The office had two doors, an interior one for children and an exterior one for students, neither of whom he turned away. Outside his wife and children, Hodge was close to his brother Hugh, who supplied him with money whenever the seminary could not provide him a paycheck. From reading his letters and journals, you get the impression that Hodge felt deeply privileged for the relationships afforded to him.
7. Extend the boundaries of your fellowship beyond the boundaries of your theology. Though he boasted that he never taught any truth outside the Westminster Confession of Faith, Hodge treated any Christian he met as his sibling in the Lord. Accused of being narrow and rigid in his beliefs, Hodge was anything but narrow in his fellowship. He even considered German theologian Friedrich Schleiermacher, with whom he publicly disagreed on many important points of doctrine, to be numbered among the children of God. His best friend was Bishop John Johns, a leader in the Episcopal Church. Hodge’s catholicity leaks out in a letter he wrote to the pope in 1869. Composed in what would be the last decade of his life, Hodge wrote, “although we cannot return to the fellowship of the Church of Rome, we desire to live in charity with all men. We love all those who love our Lord Jesus Christ in sincerity.”
8. Give yourself to your work wholeheartedly. It would be difficult to accuse Hodge of sloth, at least when it comes to his vocation as professor and writer. Beyond teaching in the classroom, Hodge launched a periodical in 1825 that became known as the Biblical Repertory and Theological Review. The journal was the platform for Hodge and his colleagues to interact with issues both inside and outside the church. Through it, Hodge’s views on theology, politics, and science were distributed far and wide. He served as editor until 1872. On account of his writing, he was respected globally and yet also found time to serve on countless local boards and committees for the Presbyterian Church. Whether writing letters or debating fellow ministers, Hodge poured his energy into his work.
9. Above all, love Jesus Christ. The best kind of theologian is the kneeling kind. Of the many observations students made of their professor, Hodge’s love of Christ is the most common. He was not a cold rationalist. He believed a renewed heart was more important than a renewed mind. Hodge believed “one can ascertain the real faith of people more clearly and uniformly from their hymns and expressions of devotion than from their creeds and theologies.” The goal of theology is the same goal of Scripture, to lead us to greater love of Christ.
For those interested in learning more about Charles Hodge, two recent biographies provide an invaluable contribution in making him accessible to a wide audience. For those unacquainted with Hodge, Paul Gutjahr’s biography, Charles Hodge: Guardian of American Orthodoxy, provides a helpful overview of his life, thought, and influence. Charles Hodge: The Pride of Princeton by Andrew Hoffecker has an excellent analysis of his controversies and connections with Europe.
Hodge was not without his faults and shortcomings. He was opposed to slavery but against immediate emancipation. He limited the role of women to domestic activity. He was raised fatherless and had a strained relationship with his mother, feeling hurt that she never acknowledged his success. Despite his failings, William Shedd was correct in his assessment when he said, “Dr. Hodge has done more for Calvinism than any other man in America.”
Previously in the series on Princeton Seminary at 100: