It is now a century since Charles Hodge’s Systematic Theology first appeared (1873–4). His study was part of an unseasonal blooming in Calvinistic theology, a blooming that also included the theologies of Strong, Shedd, and Smith. It appeared when Calvinism was entering the late autumn of its fortunes in American church life and when evangelicalism was about to gird itself for the conflict that, within sixty years, would leave it largely separated from the denominational mainstream. Hodge’s Systematic Theology is in large measure a summary of nineteenth-century evangelical faith, especially on its Calvinistic side, but was also a determining factor in the emergence of twentieth-century fundamentalism, at least in its early phase. Some have said that Hodge lies buried in these three stout volumes. They are wrong. It would be difficult to overestimate the influence that this study has had and continues to have in forming evangelical beliefs.

The ongoing influence of this great Princeton theologian is surprising. First, ours is not an age that takes kindly to verbose theologians. It is a time of Reader’s Digest, of summaries and précis, of instant communication, quick knowledge, speed reading. In such a time the demands that Hodge makes on the reader appear almost indecent.

Second, Hodge wrote for a church whose theological literacy was probably higher than ours. In his day, over a quarter of all journals and newspapers published in the land were religious, and by and large the level of discussion was high. Ordinary church members, less distracted than we are today, were able to enter into discussions, even on knotty Christian problems, with a fair amount of knowledge. Mark Twain noted this in describing Huck Finn’s experience of some “ornery preaching” one Sunday morning that brought forth its expected result afterwards—a long, animated discussion about faith, works, free will, and “preforeordestination.”

Hodge is not alone in refusing to die; there are other theological authors whose works continue to be reprinted. But a hundred years after the publication of his Systematic Theology is a good time to try to find the secrets of its longevity.

Charles Hodge was born into a pious family whose ancestral roots reached into both English and Irish soil. He was taught the catechism by Ashbel Green, whom he would encounter again as a teacher at Princeton College. He seems to have been one of those remarkable children who, even if they see and hear evil, apparently do very little of it. There were, of course, some moments of indiscretion, one of which Hodge recounted in this way:

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I cannot recollect that I ever uttered a profane word, except once. It was when I was thirteen or fourteen years old. I was walking with my brother, and struck my foot against a stone, and said: “D—n it.” My brother was shocked, and exclaimed: “Why, Charles!!” … I am thankful that no similar experience ever occurred to me. A. A. Hodge, The Life of Charles Hodge [New York, 1880, p. 13].

One is reminded of Philip Spener, the father of German Pietism, who was once asked if he had ever been a bad boy. No, replied Spener, he had not—except once. As a child he had decided to go to a dance, but no sooner had he arrived at the hall than his conscience began to accuse him so loudly that he fled, never to visit such a place of conviviality again!

Hodge’s education was unusual for its thoroughness and its Presbyterian emphasis. He went from small schools to Princeton Academy, Princeton College, and the newly founded Princeton Theological Seminary. A few years after he had begun his teaching career, in 1826 and 1827, he went to Germany for the finishing touches.

Before the nineteenth century, theological education had been carried out either under private tutors or in the colleges. In 1807, however, Andover Theological Seminary was founded. Five years later, in 1812, Princeton Theological Seminary was begun with Archibald Alexander as its first professor. One day, as Alexander was walking around the college, he came upon Hodge and heard the young student struggling with the pronunciation of a Greek word. With friendship and fatherly advice, Alexander drew him into the circle of ministerial students at the seminary. Hodge then studied there under the guidance of his mentor, and in 1822, following the earlier appointments of Alexander and Samuel Miller, he became Princeton’s third professor.

Others, of course, such as B. B. Warfield, would be added to the faculty and would through their achievements make Princeton a center of influence. Yet Hodge early became the spokesman for “Princeton theology,” its most characteristic and perhaps formidable representative. He taught there from 1822 almost to his death in 1878, except for the two years abroad. The celebration of the fiftieth anniversary of his professorship in 1872 was without precedent in American academic life. Even the town shops in Princeton closed on the day set aside to honor this aged patriarch, guide, and teacher of more than three thousand ministerial students.

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As a Princeton professor Hodge became involved in the ecclesiastical and theological disputes that agitated Presbyterianism throughout the nineteenth century. There had always been two distinct mentalities, tendencies, or streams in American Presbyterianism, and these were always threatening to diverge. The one tended to be more objective, to favor theological precision and centralized church authority. This came to be known as the “Old School.” The other tendency, the “New School,” was more concerned with spontaneity, cultural relationship (sometimes at the price of compromise), and theological flexibility. The “Old School” was located mainly in Pennsylvania and the South, the “New School” in New York and the Midwest.

In the early part of the century the “Old School,” led by Princeton Seminary, undoubtedly had the upper hand whenever matters of dispute reached the General Assembly. During the middle years, between 1837 and 1869, the two parties were divided into separate denominations, each one claiming to be the authentic voice and continuation of Presbyterianism. Princeton’s ascendancy diminished as time passed, and in the years following denominational reunion the seminary fought some tenacious battles. The tension between the two schools was given scandalously tangible realization in a series of public heresy trials and disciplinary actions: David Swing (1874), William McCune (1877), Charles A. Briggs (1891), Henry Preserved Smith (1892), Harry Emerson Fosdick (1924), J. Gresham Machen (1935).

Although Hodge’s best-known writing is his Systematic Theology, his reputation and influence were not built on that. He was over seventy before he began writing it. We need to look elsewhere to find the reasons for his extraordinary theological influence. In doing so, we are led first to his many journal essays.

In 1825 Hodge began a theological quarterly entitled The Biblical Repertory, devoted mainly to reprinting European biblical scholarship. It was not entirely successful so in 1829 it was reorganized as The Biblical Repertory and Theological Review. Hodge edited it for the next forty years, and in 1871, the British Quarterly Review went so far as to say that it had become “the greatest purely theological Review that has ever been published in the English tongue.”

As editor, Hodge wrote approximately one hundred and forty essays for the journal. Here one sees him not so much developing his ideas as applying them. Nathaniel Taylor of Yale, Moses Stuart of Andover, Finney of Oberlin, and Bushnell at Hartford were all taken to task for their departures, small or great, from historic faith. Yet unflinching as he was in his views, Hodge rarely ever lost sight of issues in the heat of personal debate. When he locked horns with an opponent, it was invariably because he believed his adversary was in error, never because he merely disliked him. In these encounters one sees the ideas of Princeton theology assuming a remarkable clarity and power; these, in fact, are among the qualities that made it so influential. In addition to these essays, Hodge also wrote commentaries on Romans, the Corinthians correspondence, and Ephesians as well as a massive study of Presbyterian history, a critique of Darwinism, and some lesser studies. His Systematic Theology was a crowning touch to this literary activity. Begun in 1867 and completed in 1872, it is an entirely fresh recasting of his thinking on matters theological and fills more than two thousand pages.

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these two angels of the End,

James Davenport & Benjamin Pomeroy,

came pretending visions,

as two witnesses to condemn

the “blind & dead” ministers hereabouts;

“a multitude flock’d after,”

singing in streets & lanes

and the like unruly actions.

We heard them shout

of the hell-flames licking our cheeks

& shudderd.

Also, they made holocaust

of books of heresy (such sermons

as the unconverted preach);

& stripping in a most public place,

then made a promiscuous heap

of “Cloaks, Petty Coats and Breeches,”

to burn those idols of thread

“thereby stumbling the Minds of many.”

Their bodies being arrested

yet they made a mock at our laws

and government, speaking

of the sudden dissolution in flame

and, as false Elijahs, calling

fire down to consume the sheriff.

No fire has yet fallen

thru their empty words

& Mr. Davenport lately abjures

his former works of madness.

Now those voices of shout & singing

from hedges and fields

beyond our meeting-house

are silent; & we await the fall

of fire on our quiet altar

to illumine our reasonable religion.

YRS &c.,



What kind of theology is it? Why has it survived the corrosive passage of time, defied our predilection for quick, easy knowledge, and overcome our impatience with verbose writers? To answer these questions we need to understand what distinguishes Hodge from other theologians.

In an age neurotically absorbed in self-images (see, for example, Erving Goffman’s The Presentation of the Self in Everyday Life), theologians would not go far wrong if they collectively hired a good PR man. For many people, a theologian is someone who troubles the Church, someone who speaks with a false air of authority because he claims access to higher and more reliable knowledge than the laity, and someone who has the irritating habit of working in a cloud of technical and incomprehensible verbiage.

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This is not what Hodge was like. Instead, we find in his work an almost classic realization of the kneeling, as opposed to sitting, theologian. He had seen the grace and glory of God, and in his Systematic Theology he turns to the world to explain his vision. When he writes, he writes clearly; what he writes has that extraordinary and elusive ability of reproducing in the reader the sense of worship that was its own original inspiration. Here is no armchair theologian, but one who has felt the deep imprint of divine truth in his own inner life and whose sole desire, as a result, is to let God be God over all that he thinks, does, and writes. What Hodge writes, therefore, has a purpose seldom found in contemporary theological writing, whose jargon and complexity are lost on all but an initiated elite.

Why is so much technical theology still being written today? Judging from the reams of complex linguistic and historical data issuing from the university presses, one might well conclude that an omnivorous army of scholars is poised nearby, eager to consume every newly discovered verbal form. It is not so. One does not have to be overly cynical to agree with Hexter that these presses have gone into high production to advance not so much the world of learning as the private careers of the learned. Every ambitious scholar wants to be able to demonstrate in print his mastery of this whole world of strange equations and forgotten languages. Professional mobility upward (promotion) and sideward (a better job) depends on what and how much such a person has published.

The reason why others buy books that are so self-serving is probably found in the nature of our acquisitive society. Books are often bought, not to be read, but to be collected and then dispensed with as are all other commodities in an economy geared to obsolescence and waste. Therefore when we ask what connection there is between the thunderous outpouring of theological writings today and the business of finding God, of learning how to evaluate life on the same terms and in the same way as he does, we must be prepared for some disappointing answers.

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For Hodge, writing theology was not merely a professional duty or a way to make money; it was a sacred task whose central purpose was to enlarge the reader’s understanding of the God of whom Scripture speaks. That, more than anything else, explains why his writing has survived. On his fiftieth anniversary as a professor, Hodge recalled some words that his German friend Neander had written on a gift and that he had adopted as a motto: “Nothing in ourself, all things in the Lord; whom alone to serve is a glory and joy.”

Hodge’s Systematic is a simplification of François Turrettini’s Institutio Theologiae Elencticae, a two-thousand-page classic that was the standard theological text at Princeton for generations. Seminarians were expected to memorize it at the rate of twenty to forty pages per day, working from the Latin. They must have breathed a sigh of relief when the venerable professor finally agreed to replace it with a text of his own in English! Both theologies are arranged topically, but the multitude of divisions in Turrettini is simplified and reduced to four in Hodge: God, man, salvation and “end things.” The division between topics is not always clean. For example, the person of Christ appears in one place and his divinity in another. There are some surprising omissions, too, such as a discussion of the doctrine of the Church, which Hodge would have been eminently qualified to provide.

Yet a kind of self-evident logic knits together the entire three volumes. Rarely does it seem that these volumes are made up of separate essays that have been bound together. Hodge had an extraordinary knack for seeing how aspects of biblical truth relate to one another, how, in fact, they constitute a many-sided whole without ever being swallowed up by that whole. And nowhere does one ever find even the suggestion that something is to be accepted because Hodge says so.

If Charles Hodge’s theology is vulnerable to criticism it is probably in two quite unexpected areas. First, C. P. Krauth, the Lutheran dogmatician, observed that as a Calvinistic divine, Hodge built on only a part of his heritage. He restricted his attention almost wholly to the scholastic Calvinists of the seventeenth century instead of viewing the whole tradition from Calvin to his own day. Charles Briggs even accused him of having deviated from the standards of the Westminster Confession because of his love of these scholastics. More telling than this, however, has been the observation that Hodge (and the Westminster Confession also) went beyond Calvin without satisfactorily explaining why it was necessary to do so.

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Others, however, have focused on a different area of weakness. Why was Hodge able to do his work in blithe disregard for the revolutionary developments that had followed the work of both Spinoza and Kant? Horace Bushnell was able to brush aside Princetonian orthodoxy as being antediluvian precisely because it was pre-Kantian in its outlook. Actually, Hodge and his colleagues felt untroubled by Kant because they thought he had been satisfactorily answered by the “Common Sense” Realism of Hamilton, Reid, and Stewart. Obviously others were not so easily convinced that Kant could be ignored. From an apologetical viewpoint, a weakness in Hodge’s theology would seem to be his apparent lack of interest in such philosophical matters. Nevertheless, he still towered over his contemporaries; he towers over ours, a man of fine theological sense, a gifted expositor of Scripture, and a man whose transparent piety was always a striking and sometimes disturbing reminder of the One whom he served.

Why haven’t there been more Charles Hodges during the intervening century? Perhaps the question is unfair, for genius is notable first of all for being rare. Had there been many others of comparable stature and achievements in the recent past, Hodge might even have been forgotten. Nevertheless, in taking another look at the Systematic Theology we are forced to wonder why it remains one of the landmarks on the evangelical scene. What has been going on in the evangelical church in the last hundred years that makes this theology so unusual?

Perhaps we have gone beyond that age of theology-making of which Hodge is so excellent an example. Perhaps the never-ending literary output of biblical scholars today makes it well nigh impossible that anyone will master this world of learning adequately enough to do for us, in a post-Kantian and post-Christian world, what Hodge did for his. Perhaps what we need now is apologetic rather than systematic studies, since so many of the truths that Hodge took for granted are no longer self-evident and have first to be established.

But the small amount of serious theological writing that evangelicals have produced, especially in this century, is not fully explained by any of these reasons. What has been lost is the desire to write great theology. It is a loss that must be debited to the accounts of both the Church at large and its teaching institutions. Both have been willing to live with smaller horizons than in the past; indeed, each has imprisoned the other within its own confined expectations. The fact that Hodge’s Systematic Theology continues to be printed and read suggests, however, that these self-imposed barriers are not always seen as normative or as desirable. And where such a realization lives, there is always the possibility that a fresh flowering of evangelical theology, in its best and most life-giving form, might again appear as suddenly and unexpectedly as it sometimes has in the past.

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