Review: Charles Hodge: New Sideold School Presbyterian

by Oct 12, 2012Books, ChurchLife

Charles Hodge: New Sideold School PresbyterianCharles Hodge: New Sideold School Presbyterian by Andrew W. Hoffecker

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Author Andrew Hoffecker said in an interview that his study of Charles Hodge actually arose from reading about fundamentalism. While Hoffecker was a PhD student at Brown University, he came across Ernest R. Sandeen’s The Roots of Fundamentalism (Univ. of Chicago, 1970). Sandeen, Hoffecker says, was the first to treat fundamentalism as a serious theological movement. Sandeen argued that fundamentalism was a union of dispensationalism and (Old) Princetonian theology—a union created by shared opposition to theological liberalism. Sandeen, however, wrote off the Princetonians’ piety. They were, he said, all head and no heart. Hoffecker knew Sandeen’s assessment of the Princetonians was wrong, and he wrote a dissertation to prove it.

Charles Hodge was one of the three major figures covered in that volume, and Hoffecker has returned several decades later to give him a full biographical treatment. This is a biography with a clear thesis relevant to you and me:

Charles Hodge manifested the attributes associated with Calvinistic confessionalism (strong adherence to creedal religion, liturgical forms, and corporate worship) as well as the characteristics of evangelical pietism, moral activism, and individual pious practices. (32)

Hodge’s Piety

Hodge was indeed a pious man from a loving Christian family who himself formed a family legacy. His own son, A.A. Hodge, became another famous Princeton Seminary professor who served the church with his scholarship. Charles Hodge’s piety comes out over and over in Hoffecker’s volume, particularly in the journal entries Hoffecker unearthed. It comes out in quotes like this:

All familiar intercourse with holy things is dangerous. The ministry itself, from its official attention to religious duties and religious truth is perilous. (70)

Hodge was not the modernist rationalist that some postmodern and postconservative theologians have painted him to be. Hodge loved the Lord with heart and mind and knew that only such a love could produce right thinking.

Hodge, like Jonathan Edwards, worked hard at a balance between head and heart, thought and feeling. “For Hodge, the cognitive and affective elements of the Christian faith are necessary, complementary, and never in contradiction.” (227) He sought a similar balance in his assessment of revivalism:

Hodge … affirm[ed] that revivals involving Jonathan Edwards, George Whitefield, Gilbert Tennent, and Samuel Davies had brought great blessings to the church. He rejected, however, the “hurtful error” that “these extraordinary seasons [were] the only means of promoting religion.” … [Hodge added] that the gospel did not advance by “sudden and violent paroxysms of exertion”! Unfortunately, revival excitements offered potentially dramatic and spectacular experiences, which rendered “the ordinary means of grace … insipid or distasteful.” Even ministers fell prey to relying on revivals “so that all other means are lost sight of.” Hodge insisted that the less spectacular and unremarkable means of grace from an external point of view produced far more reliable and lasting work in people’s inner spiritual lives. (164; cf. 202)

Hodge’s Scholarship

Hodge’s primary role in American Christianity was, of course, that of scholar. Hoffecker is willing to mention Hodge’s academic weaknesses (languages being one of them; p. 149; cf. 218f.), but it was his academic strengths that endeared him to the church. It was a great strength of Hodge’s, for example, that he studied in (and survived) Germany. The dangers Hodge saw in the developing German liberalism—dangers that affected, in Hodge’s opinion, even the most evangelical of his friends there—scared him enough that he felt he ought to filter for America the books coming from the Old World. Hodge’s book reviews in his own journal, The Biblical Repertory and Princeton Review, had a helpful impact on the American theological scene. Hodge felt that Christianity ought to impact all of life, so the Review touched on a broad range of topics, including science and economics.

The Review was also Hodge’s venue for careful reports on the debates going on within American Presbyterianism. Hodge lived through a good deal of denominational wrangling, but to use such a word belies the importance of the issues at stake. Piety and doctrine were included in the wrangling, as was the massive issue of slavery. Hoffecker gives all of these a thorough treatment (but nonetheless manages to have fairly concise chapters throughout his volume).

Hodge and My Alma Mater

The thesis of Hodge’s biography is important for my own alma mater (and other sectors of fundamentalism) in 2012, because we very clearly draw from both strains of Christianity mentioned by Earnest Sandeen: dispensationalism and Old Princeton. But Hoffecker shows that it is wrong to say that the former filled our hearts and the latter stuffed our heads. Strong piety (and even the influence of revival) was clearly present in Hodge—and in the Old Princeton he so decisively shaped. And through ties as personal as former Princeton professor Charles Brokenshire—who became a legendary Dean of the School of Religion at Bob Jones University (and even left his name on one of our dorms)—we can trace a direct line to Hodge’s influence on us. Hodge is part of what we are, and he posits a vision of what we can be:

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 … ministry would combine exacting scholarship with traditional orthodoxy and piety. (pp. 71-72)

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