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Reformed Literature

Charles Hodge - The Pride of Princeton

W. Andrew Hoffecker

Available on Amazon and from a variety of Reformed Bookshops

I was drawn to this book as soon as I heard of its publication. I have been an avid reader of each of the books that P&R have placed in their American Reformed Biographies series.

Charles Hodge is one of those names that really does not need an introduction, his 3 volumes of Systematic Theology are still in print along with many others of his books. His surname, ‘Hodge’, along with that of ‘Alexander’ became synonymous with Princeton Seminary in its best days. The quality of the teaching being delivered at Princeton was acknowledged by his contemporaries in Scotland. The story is told of a student of William Cunningham who went to ask the Free Church Professor, if a year that he intend to spend at Princeton would count towards his degree. He became alarmed as Cunningham sat in evident thought and was then relieved as he said, ‘it would certainly count, however he was unsure as to whether it should be as one year, or two!’.

Biographies of Charles Hodge have the appearance of becoming like public transportation in the UK. We have waited since 1880 for a second biography (the first was written by his son, A. A. Hodge) and now in 2011, we have been blessed by not one biography, but two. In early 2011, Paul Gutjahr published through OUP ‘Charles Hodge: Guardian of American Orthodoxy’ and by the end of the year we have this second book by W. Andrew Hoffecker. Both of these books are written by authors who are sympathetic to Charles Hodge and present his witness from different perspectives.

I am delighted that American Reformed Biographies continue to be published by P&R although, it is a matter of profound sadness that this volume is only available as a paperback. Apparently, the sales of the previous volumes have made it difficult to continue the series as hardbacks. I beg you to address this! The way to help is to go out and buy the book! If this review doesn’t convince you of the worthiness of the project, then look at the other reviews on Dabney, Boyce, Nevin and Van Til. As if this was no enough, the rumour on the web has a future set of lives for both Vos and Warfield, which if they are true would be fantastic additions to the series.

This year, 2012 marks the bi-centennial celebration of Princeton Seminary so it is rather fitting that books like this are being published. The biographer presents Hodge as a multi-facetted person, it is easy with our lense of  history to see him as purely a systematic theologian (and sadly, these are not very popular in many Christian circles), or as a stout conservative Calvinist (and again these are hardly the most popular version of systematic theologians) but the book also shows him as the simple Christian believer, the warm hearted writer of the evangelical book ‘Way of Life’ and the personal friend of various German mediating theologians, such as Tholuck and Neander.

While he always sought to defend the Calvinist perspective on Biblical truth, he was not above making some surprising judgements. Hodge didn’t place ruling and teaching elders as sharing the same office as Presbyters, this was rightly opposed by Southerners like Breckenridge and Thornwell. Hodge thought that the German schools were superior in training young children in ‘knowledge and religion’ to those in the USA. He says each class of schools used appropriate texts to set forth scriptural history, doctrines and morals. Adding that ‘so thoroughly is this system carried through in Prussia, that I never met a boy selling matches in the street (and I made several experiments) who could not answer any common questions on the historical parts of the Old and New Testament’. Hodge condemned ‘drunkenness’ as a ‘soul-destroying sin’ but opposed the prevailing trend towards ‘temperance societies’. He argued that the moderate use of alcohol was not sinful, despite the fact that he did not drink himself and strongly encouraged his children not to imbibe. He took a strong line on paedo-baptism, he argued that the children of church members ought to be baptised and that all baptised persons are members of the church and subject to its discipline. Hodge came from the North and was vigorous in his criticism of Southern slave laws and yet at the same time he took a similar line to that which would be later adopted by John Murray (i.e. that slavery was morally permissible but that it was a lower form of civilisation and that Biblical principles would eventually lead to its abolition).  He later opposed Spring’s proposals equating the resolution to one that would require the singing of the ‘Star Spangled banner’ at the Lords Supper!

While I might be inclined to disagree with Hodge, who argued that Roman Catholic baptism was valid. It is impossible to deny the strength in his argument when he was that ‘Calvin, Luther, and all other men of that generation, as well as thousands of others have lived and died unbaptised’ because they did not renounce their baptism as infants and become rebaptised. I do disagree with him when he responds to Pope Pius IX invitation to send delegates to the Vatican Council when he acknowledges the Roman Catholic body as a ‘visible church’ even though he was strongly opposed to ecumenical cooperation with it.

Despite all these complexities, the book drew me to Hodge and I felt a real degree of affection towards him. His father died at an early age and he says that his debt to his mother was ‘beyond estimate’. ‘To our mother, my brother and myself, under God owe absolutely everything. To us she devoted her life. For us she prayed, laboured and suffered.’ He speaks of the training that she gave them as religious and that she carefully drilled them in the Westminster Catechism. For Mrs Hodge the attendance of her sons at weekly worship was nonnegotiable.

Hodge viewed his conversion not as a spontaneous, stand-alone beginning to his Christian faith but as the culmination of nurture that began with his tutelage as a child. His faith was reinforced through instruction, encouragement and the support of his family and church environment. It was more of a capstone event than an initiation into a life radically different from his upbringing.

Sadly, there is not the space in this review to write about the divisions between Old School and New School. His views on Christian Education or the distinct stand that he took against Nevin and Mercersberg Theology (interesting that Nevin and Hodge are now in the same series).

This is a balanced biography that is a great read. I would strongly encourage you to buy it!