Saturday, 8 October 2011

Charles Hodge and the Princeton Theology

Ten years in the writing, Paul C. Gutjahr's, Charles Hodge: Guardian of American Orthodoxy (New York: Oxford University Press, 2011) is the first biography of Charles Hodge for over a century. That biography, published by his son A. A. Hodge a couple of years after Hodge's death in 1878, was as hagiographical as you would expect. With the exception of a volume of essays on Hodge a few years ago: John W. Stewart and James H. Moorhead's (eds), Charles Hodge Revisited: A Critical Appraisal of His Life and Work (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2002), there has been little sustained academic interest in Hodge's life and legacy either, despite a fair bit of writing on the legacy of the Princeton theology within American evangelicalism.

Gutjahr's biography is an outstanding book, written with a terrific lightness of touch that makes its almost 400 pages fly by in no time at all. Its also very thorough indeed giving just the right amount of background detail to many of the significant events that occurred both within US history and American evangelical Christianity during Hodge's lifetime. Hodge served as Professor of Didactic Theology at Princeton Seminary, and then Principal from 1851 until 1878. The abiding image of him is that of a towering intellect certainly, but one who took immense pride in his oft-repeated claim that there was nothing new or innovative whatsoever in his theology or in that taught at Princeton during his time at the helm. There's lots here worthy of comment, but I'll limit myself to a few points:

Gutjahr argues that Hodge was thoroughly immersed in both the traditional Calvinism of the Westminster Confession of Faith and Scottish Common Sense Realism. At times he comes close to concluding that his Calvinism was largely understood through the lens of Common Sense philosophy. The Puritan heritage and the Enlightenment bore equally heavily on Hodge.

Hodge was a strict Presbyterian, sometimes known as the 'Pope of Presbyterianism' in the US. But the long hegemony that Presbyterians had enjoyed in certain parts of America was a thing of the past by Hodge's time. The Methodists and the Baptists had long since taken over as the largest Protestant groupings, largely the result of the revivalism of the Second Great Awakening, with its Camp Meetings and ecstatic piety. Hodge has sometimes been read as an opponent of revival, but Gutjahr shows decisively that it was the wilder elements in mid nineteenth century revivalism that he opposed, and particuarly the Arminian theology of many of its main protagonists - Charles Finney being only the best known of course!

Equally interesting is Gutjahr's treatment of Hodge's long engagement with the subject of slavery. Again it has been assumed that Hodge was a supporter of slavery; in reality Hodge was an opponent of those abolitionists who argued that the Bible was anti-slavery. Controversially, he argued that the Bible did not comment on the morality of slavery, it merely took it for granted. Hodge was not necessarily pro-slavery, merely critical of those who were determined to use the Bible in their arguments against it. Gradually, Hodge came to adopt more prominent anti-slavery views particuarly during the Civil War, but he consistently refused to use the Bible to support that position.

Hodge's attitude to the inspiration of the Bible figures prominently in the closing section of the book, particuarly in a final chapter which looks at his legacy. Hodge's defence of the reliability of Scripture was the foundation upon which his successors A. A. Hodge and B. B. Warfield built their defence of biblical innerrancy. Although Hodge did not argue for biblical innerancy as such, Gutjahr argues that he certainly came close to that position, and that it proved to be his biggest long term legacy. In Gutjahr's case, Hodge appears as one of the forerunners of the early twentieth-century Fundamentalists. There's much to commend this view, but Hodge was not a wooden biblical literalist. His disputes with the leading Southern Presbyterian leader Benjamin Morgan Palmer, who certainly was a strict biblical literalist, bear this out. And in his preparedness to adopt a day-age interpretation of the first chapter of Genesis he proved himself much more flexible than many of those who claimed his mantle in later decades.

For me the book was marred slightly by very poor proof reading. There were simply too many typos that slipped by the attention of Oxford University Press's copy editors.

But Gutjahr's biography is an excellent example of how an evangelical (I'm assuming this!) can write a sympathetic biography of a fellow evangelical while still maintaining a critical edge. For me it stands alongside the other outstanding example of such a biography, George Marsden's, Jonathan Edwards: A Life (2004). So while the content is excellent, there's much to learn and emulate here about how to go about writing a biography as well.

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