May 11, 2011

Charles Hodge: Guardian of American Orthodoxy

3 Min Read

Charles Hodge stands as one of the most influential giants of American Reformed theology. In his fifty-five years at Princeton Theological Seminary (1822–1878), he taught over three thousand students. Through his magnum opus, his three-volume Systematic Theology, he has taught countless thousands more. Many of today’s leading Reformed theologians count Hodge as one of their major influences. It is surprising therefore, that Paul Gutjahr’s biography is the first modern critical biography of Hodge to appear in print. A work of this kind is long overdue.

Gutjahr wryly comments that one of the things he learned while writing this book was that “if you are going to undertake a biography, pick a subject who dies young.” Hodge lived to the age of eighty. Gutjahr has chosen therefore to divide the major sections of his biography according to decades of the nineteenth century in which Hodge lived. Following three chapters that provide background on the Hodge family, the book begins with Hodge’s student years in the 1810s and then continues through the 1870s. The chapters in each section are relatively brief making this a highly readable book.

The strength of Gutjahr’s work, like that of any good biography, is that it allows us to see Hodge as more than just the author of theological works. We begin to see him as a human being, a product of his times. Hodge was not merely the author of the Systematic Theology. He was a devoted son, a loving husband and father, a faithful friend, and a loyal churchman. In this biography, we are also given great insight into certain aspects of nineteenth-century church history as we view them through the lens of one man’s life during that time.

As thankful as we should be for this work, there are a few weaknesses. In the first place, because Hodge lived such a long life, a biography of only four hundred pages must of necessity deal with many aspects of his life in a rather cursory manner. This necessity is, however, a weakness of the book. The brief chapters, while making for a very readable work, often leave one wanting more detail about specific events, conflicts, and relationships in Hodge’s life. Second, and related to the first issue, is the lack of citation of Hodge’s own writings. In a biography like this, citations from Hodge’s personal letters, for example, would shed invaluable insight into the character of the man.

A third issue I would like to bring to the reader’s attention is Gutjahr’s misleading claim regarding Hodge’s view of inerrancy. On page 275, Gutjahr writes: “It is important to note that while Hodge held the words of scripture to be infallible, he never personally advocated that they were without error in the original manuscripts.” Gutjahr says that the doctrine of inerrancy is something that Hodge “implied but never formally taught.” Gutjahr here seems to be attempting to draw a distinction between the view of Hodge and that of later writers such as B.B. Warfield, but his claim is inaccurate. For proof, I would simply direct readers to Hodge’s article titled “The Inspiration of Holy Scripture, its Nature and Proof” (The Biblical Repertory and Princeton Review, vol. 29, no. 4 [1857], 660–698). Hodge, it is true, most often uses the word “infallible” to describe Scripture, but he defines infallibility as “absolute freedom from error (p. 682). He says that inspiration preserved an author from teaching error (p. 669). He says that “the Bible cannot err” (p. 671).

Fourth, and finally, is a problem that is not the author’s fault. For a volume that costs $74 retail and is published by one of the most respected academic publishers in the world, the number of typos in this book is inexcusable. There are literally dozens in the body of the text and in the footnotes.

In spite of these weaknesses, Gutjahr’s biography of Hodge is a helpful introduction to the life of the one who many called “the Pope of Presbyterianism.”