A Brief Survey of The Life, Work, and Influence of Charles Hodge

Introduction

Charles Hodge (1797 – 1878) lectured at Princeton Seminary in New Jersey for over 50 years. In that time he influenced over 3000 students [1], and worked to slow the tide of the corrupting New School theology in Presbyterian churches. He also opposed Schleiermacher’s mystical theology and skeptical philosophy. He stressed the need for an inductive approach to theology with the Bible supplying the facts the theologian draws his conclusions from. His commentaries on Romans, 1 & 2 Corinthians, and Ephesians are still in print today, influencing Bible students. This essay will discuss his life, his work, and influence in modern church history.

The Life of Charles Hodge (1797 – 1878)

Charles Hodge was born in Philadelphia on December 27, 1797. His father Hugh, was a graduate of Princeton College who became a surgeon and a business man [2]. Three of Hugh and Mary’s children had died during Philadelphia’s great yellow fever epidemics of 1793 and 1795. Hugh Jr. was born in 1796 and Charles in 1797. The next July, Hugh Hodge died of yellow fever, leaving his widow and two sons in limited circumstances.

Mary Hodge determinedly brought up her two sons. She kept boarders in her home to pay for the boys keep, and took them to the Second Presbyterian church in Philadelphia. She drilled her boys in the Westminster Shorter Catechism, and they attended a weekly Bible study in the study of Dr Ashbel Green, who was the pastor of the Second Presbyterian Church. Mary sent the boys to the classical academy in Somerville, New Jersey, but then moved the family to Princeton in the summer of 1812 to continue their education. She rented a house, this time in Guinea Lane, and kept as boarders seven relatives who were students at Princeton College. Hugh began premedical studies at the college, and after a few months at the town academy, Charles entered the college too.

Hodge claimed there was nothing unusual in his Christian life, except that it started very early,

“As far back as I can remember, I had the habit of thanking God for everything I received, and asking Him for every thing I wanted. If I lost a book or anything of my playthings, I prayed that I might find it. I prayed walking along the streets, in school and out of school, whether playing or studying” [2].

Even though Hodge was a church-goer, he did not make a public confession of Christ until the revival came to the college in the winter of 1814 – 15. On the 13th of January 1815 he joined the Presbyterian Church. Now deeply excited by his faith, Charles wrote to his brother Hugh, urging him to seek, “the one thing needful” [2]. The revival had brought Charles to the point where he decided to commit himself to study for the Christian ministry.

The autumn of 1816 found Charles Hodge at the Seminary in Princeton, where he was to be either student or teacher for almost all of his remaining life. When Hodge graduated in 1819, he placed himself at the disposal of the then seminary Principal Dr Achibald Alexander, who made him a teacher of Greek and Hebrew in 1820 [2]. Charles taught Oriental and Biblical Literature in the seminary from 1822 to 1840, when he became Archibald Alexander’s successor as professor of exegetical and didactic theology, a position he held until his death [3]. In 1825 he started the Biblical Repertory, a journal which was “designed to render accessible to American readers some of the fruits of the mature learning of English and American scholars” [2].

He taught at the Sabbath Afternoon Conference in the seminary, and conducted lectures on Romans and 1 & 2 Corinthians. In 1872 – 73 Hodge published his 3 volume 2000 page systematic theology.

Hodge felt the need for more precise study of the Biblical languages, textual criticism, and exegesis that could only be found in Europe. As a result he spent two years in Europe. Hodge left his wife and two small children to live with his mother and brother in Philadelphia in 1826. In October of that year he sailed from New York for Europe. He studied in Paris, Halle and Berlin, as well as travelling widely. In Paris, Hodge studied French, Arabic and Syriac, and in Halle he studied textual criticism, German and Hebrew. In Berlin Hodge spent much time with Ernst Wilhelm Hengstenberg, who was professor of oriental languages.

In 1822 Charles married Sarah Bache, who he had known for nine years. They had first met when she was a boarder at his mother’s house in Philadelphia. During his time as a seminary student, Charles often wrote to Sarah, often deploring the fact that religion had been neglected in their earlier conversation and correspondance2. Through Charles writings to her, Sarah came to Christ in 1820. In the three years following their marriage, the Hodges had three children. Charles had a deep concern and warmth for his family. During family prayer times, Charles’ son, Archibald, could say that his father prayed,

“with such soul felt tenderness, that however bad we were our hearts all melted at his touch.” [4]

Hodge’s tenderness for his family is also seen in the modifications he made to his study. There were two doors in Hodge’s study at home. One came in from the seminary and was used by students. The other came in from the house. To this latter door, Hodge removed the latch and put springs on to enable even the youngest member of the family to have access to him [4].

Sarah’s death in 1845 hit Charles very hard indeed. Upon hearing the report of her death on Christmas day, Hodge wrote in his record book,

“Blest saint; companion of my boyhood – my first and only love – my most devoted wife – mother of my children – all sacred memories cluster around you; and all who knew you pronounce you blessed. May the God of infinite mercy send the Holy Spirit to take in this family your place, and be the instructor, guide and comforter of your household and bring all your children to a life of devotion to the Lord Jesus” [4].

He began numbering the Sundays after her death, “First Sunday”, “Second Sunday” etc. This continued for 132 weeks. For the nine years following her death he placed a thick black line beside the date of December 25th. Yet Hodge continued on usefully serving his Lord until his death in 1878.

The Works of Charles Hodge

Hodge lectured to over 3000 ministerial students, wrote commentaries on Romans, 1 & 2 Corinthians and Ephesians, published a systematic theology and contributed to the Biblical Repertory. Through his articles in the Biblical Repertory he defended orthodox Calvinism, and attacked the revivalism of Charles Finney. As well as this he wrote on church politics and contemporary affairs, including a discussion of the Civil War and an attack on Darwinism3. Some of these issues will now be discussed in turn.

Hodge’s Systematic Theology (1872 – 1873)

Hodge was inductive in his theology. The Bible provided the facts from which he drew his systematic theology. He criticised the speculative and mystic approaches. The speculative approach assumes certain principles and from them deduces what must be. There are three approaches to speculative theology: deistic, dogmatic and transcendental [4]. Deistic speculative theologians deny any source of knowledge of divine things outside of nature or the mind, rejecting supernatural revelation. Dogmatists allow supernatural revelation, but only in the form of a philosophical system. In this framework rationalistic evidence and knowledge take priority over scripture and faith [4]. Transcendentalists assume no form of divine revelation, but assume truth can be found in man. These three speculative systems are worlds apart from the divinely revealed truth we have in the scriptures.

Hodge defines mysticism as having two types, supernatural and natural. Supernatural mysticism is God revealing himself directly to the individual. The Holy Spirit does indeed work upon the believer, illuminating their mind so that they have a knowledge of the truths objectively revealed in the scriptures4. Once mystics claim that the Spirit is revealing new truths not in the scriptures, then they are no longer Christian mystics. The second form of mysticism has man’s own religious consciousness as the source of religious knowledge. Christ affects peoples’ feelings, and these feelings are studied to learn about Christ. Hodge points out that Biblical authority is lost in this system. Christianity is no longer about doctrine, but instead it is about subjective feelings. Schleiermacher, who Hodge heard when he visited Germany, was a mystic [4].

Hodge was firmly inductive, and yet at the same time knew that doctrine does affect the feelings. The feelings are effected in a way consistent with the doctrine, and so in his systematic theology he appeals to Christian hymns as well as scripture. He does this knowing that true hymns express emotion consistent with doctrine [4].

Hodges Opposition to Revivalism

Hodge went beyond his predecessor, Archibald Alexander, in the depth of his criticism of the excesses in revivals4. He used three tests when evaluating revivals. Firstly were the central truths of the Christian faith being preached, secondly he admitted there could be a variety of emotions in revival, and thirdly the lasting effect on the individuals [4]. Hodge was very critical of Jonathan Edwards, for allowing what Hodge believed was emotional excesses. Whitfield also came in for criticism, as his extremely vivid descriptions of hell and the future judgment, in Hodges view, helped to produce spurious emotional effects that could be confused with true conversion [4]. Finally Hodge saw no evidence in the scripture for extreme emotions or hysterical behaviour.

Hodges Defense of Orthodox Calvinism

Perhaps Hodge’s greatest influence came through his defense of orthodox Calvinism. David F. Wells describes the state of American Christianity in Hodges day1. Two main factors were corroding American society, decline in evangelical religion, and a rise in the two heresies of Unitarianism and Liberalism. The effects of the age of Enlightenment were being felt, emptying the churches. As people rejected Biblical Christianity, the inevitable decline in public morality followed. Various societies were organised to promote irreligious thought, such as the “First Society of Free Thinkers”, founded in Boston in 1831.

Unitarianism was emerging in 1815 in America1. Its influence grew through men like William Channing, who in 1819 systematically laid out what Unitarians believed, in his ordination sermon. In the heart of Unitarian Boston, Lyman Beecher preached a true gospel. Not knocking down the Unitarians, simply preaching the true gospel, he saw many converted1. Nathaniel Taylor, Professor of Theology at Yale, tried to defend orthodox faith by changing his form of Calvinism, to one “easier” defend. He softened his view of the depravity of man, and produced a system Hodge found indistinguishable from Pelagianism. Beecher began to side more with Taylor, and then the theologians took more or less denominational lines. Hodge was representative of the Old School theology held by many Presbyterian churches, while Taylor developed the New School theology mainly held in Congregational churches.

Hodge saw the emerging New School philosophy as another example of the conflict between two theological systems that had existed in Christianity for centuries. One system stressed the sovereignty of God in salvation, while the other asserted the rights of human nature1. In 1820 Taylor launched an attack on Unitarianism, but with the double purpose of making known his new theology. The Unitarians rejoiced, believing that Taylor thought orthodox Calvanism indefensible.

Another bone of contention between Hodge and New School theologians was the imputed sin from Adam’s transgression. Charles Hodge maintained that the individual had the imputed guilt from Adam and the guilt from their sinful nature. Taylor held that it was only a person’s own sin which could be placed against them, i.e. the sin from their own sinful nature. Wells discusses the details of this controversy at some length [1].

Hodge’s Influence

Hodge’s influence in his defence of orthodox Calvinism is described by Wells:

“It was Hodge’s calling to live in a time of extraordinary intellectual transformation in the nation, a time when many of its structures and institutions were in disarray, and when the church itself was in some disorder and perplexity. The church stood at a crossroads, and Hodge pulled mightily in one direction while Taylor, aided by the changing climate in the country, pulled equally insistently in the other. They were both victorious. Hodge succeeded in exercising the New School cancer from Presbyterian church life, but Taylor succeeded in opening the door to theological views that would soon spread far and wide and be the ruin of evangelical faith, Reformed and Arminian. Taylor was the stepping stone to the next generation’s Liberalism, and that in turn would produce the counter-movement of Fundamentalism. How very different American church life might have been if Hodge had prevailed in expunging Taylorism not only from Presbyterian circles but also from Protestantism in general! As it was, he slowed the inevitable march towards a theology resonant with human self-confidence, as was the culture, but he could not halt it.”[1].

Conclusions

Hodge was a man who was aware of the threats faced by the church in his day, and someone who could mount a defense against those threats. Princeton Seminary has been established in 1812 to supply men for the pulpits of Presbyterian churches. Hodge lectured to over 3000 ministerial students, faithfully defending the faith against attack. The fruit of his labours was a high degree of orthodoxy kept in Presbyterian churches while many Congregational churches lapsed first into error, and then into heresy.


[1] Reformed Theology in America, A History of Its Modern Development, David F. Wells, Eerdmans

[2] Princeton Seminary, Faith and Learning, David B. Calhoun, Banner of Truth

[3] Entry Under Charles Hodge, in The Evangelical Dictionary of Theology, Walter A. Elwell.

[4] Piety and the Princeton Theologians, W. Andrew Hoffecker, Presbyterian and Reformed

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