Christianity Today named Charles Hodge: Guardian of American Orthodoxy its 2012 “Outstanding Book of the Year in History/Biography.” I can certainly understand why this 383-page work deserved that distinction. The author, Paul C. Gutjahr, a professor at Indiana University, devoted ten years to studying the long life and extensive writings of this great nineteenth-century Presbyterian theologian. His book is a wealth of information on Hodge, Princeton Seminary, Presbyterianism, church history, and nineteenth-century American history, including slavery and the Civil War.
One of the features I appreciated the most about the book was the short, readable chapters. In addition, in the front of the book there are hand-drawn portraits and short write-ups on many of the theologians and key individuals mentioned in the book. I returned to that section often in the course of my reading.
For me, personally, this book had a special interest because of my Presbyterian heritage, my study at Westminster Seminary in Philadelphia, the conservative successor of Princeton, as well as my having lived four years in a New Jersey suburb of Philadelphia, as well as many years in the Southeast. Your background is undoubtedly different than mine, but I still would recommend this work if you’re a student of theology and history.
Gutjahr’s final chapter was especially interesting to me as he showed the ongoing influence that Hodge has on evangelicalism, even among many who have never heard his name. There’s so much more that could be said about this fine work, but to keep my review at a reasonable length I will restrain myself.
I genuinely appreciate Hodge for:
- His high view of the verbal plenary inspiration of Scripture.
- His courageous stand for biblically-based doctrine and against false doctrine.
- The value he placed on personal piety, as well as sound theology.
- His faithful service of the Lord. He taught, preached, and wrote right up to his 80th year when the Lord took him home. Incredibly, he was on the faculty of Princeton Seminary for 56 years – from 1822 to 1878!
- The charitable spirit he showed to Christians from other traditions, though he himself was a strong Calvinist.
- His heart for world missions. His oldest son served as a missionary in India for a time.
- His lifelong learning, not just studying theology, but also languages, politics, science, agriculture, and other disciplines.
- His understanding of the power of the written word. He wrote books and articles about what was important to him all his life, even into his later years.
- His deep love for his wives (his first one died) and family. He made it a point to teach his children the Christian faith and Christian virtues.
- His great appreciation for people, conversation, laughter, and life in general.
I’m by no means a theologian, but please humor me by reading three final thoughts. They’re simply my attempt to reflect a little on what I read in Charles Hodge: Guardian of American Orthodoxy. They’re in no way meant to take away from this outstanding book. As usual, they say more about me than the book:
Charles Hodge spoke and wrote so much against revivals that I personally think he “threw out the baby with the bathwater.” Yes, certainly there have been excesses in the revival movement. And yes, we can’t produce a revival by human efforts. However, God can bring a spiritual reawakening, and He has done so many times over the centuries from as far back as the Old Testament. Often in genuine revivals He has used mighty preachers of the Word. Also, the history of Christian missions shows that spiritual awakenings have been one of the key means God has used to reach groups of people outside the four walls of the Christian church. Missiologists sometimes refer to these as “people movements to Christ.”
Dr. Hodge appeared to have been more critical of his fellow Presbyterians than other Christians, even some who did not adhere to the absolute authority of Scripture. He seemed especially hard on those who did not share with him all the fine points of the Reformed faith. Yes, we can and should respectfully disagree with one another, especially when biblical truth is at stake, but in my opinion we need to guard against a negative spirit toward fellow Bible-believing Christians who are on the “same team” but don’t dot the “i”s and cross the “t”s the same as we do. Jesus prayed for unity among believers (John 17), and Paul reminded us to guard the unity that God has already established in the Body (Ephesians 4:3-6).
In light of the need to defend biblically-based theology from the growing liberal trend in the 19th century, Hodge and his Presbyterian colleagues established scholarly seminaries like Princeton. I’m genuinely thankful for this because we need capable men and women who can interact with liberal Bible scholars and theologians, as well as communicate the Word of God to non-Christian intellectuals. However, as important as it is to have conservative seminaries that focus on scholarship, my personal observation is that such high academic standards for our seminaries have not always served conservative Reformed churches well. First of all, they have not necessarily prevented the spread of liberal theology, even in their own ranks. Secondly, this type of seminary has not always prepared men to spread the gospel and plant churches. Other evangelical denominations and agencies have done better in this regard. We see this among Methodists and Baptists on the frontier in the nineteenth-century United States, as well as among evangelicals, especially Pentecostals, in Third World countries in the twentieth century. The latter have been more open to using a variety of equipping models, besides the highly academic American and European models. In addition, they have been more open to using several different academic levels of theological education depending on the overall educational level of the country or area.