Charles Hodge: Guardian of American Orthodoxy and The Pride of Princeton

Paul C. Gutjahr, Charles Hodge: Guardian of American Orthodoxy (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2011) Hdbk 528 pp.

Andrew Hoffecker, Charles Hodge: The Pride of Princeton (Phillipsburg, NJ: Presbyterian & Reformed Publications, 2011) Pbk 460 pp.


Charles HodgeAlthough Charles Hodge has been the subject of “considerable specialized research,” historian Mark Noll believes “Paul Gutjahr has now remedied this lack [of general studies] with an unusually capable book that both explains why Hodge’s conservative Calvinism exerted its great influence and why the theologian became a beloved figure to so many (including his foes).” W. Andrew Hoffecker also provided an approach to the life and work of Charles Hodge, differentiated by Noll in its foreword: “The main difference between the two books is that Hoffecker aims his story at those who already have heard about Hodge and who may already be interested to some degree in Reformed and Presbyterian themes of his life, while Gutjahr is writing more for the general student of American history who may know nothing at all about Hodge (12).”

The reviewer recommends that the reader interested in 19th century apologetics consider these two books in the above order as a general and particular “student” of Christian thought during this watershed era. Hodge lived a great part of the century, from 1797 to 1878, as “the guardian of American orthodoxy” (author’s title). Gutjahr’s story is very readable with its short chapters, charts, pictures, and maps. The author gives short biographical information of every key character in Hodge’s life at the beginning, and demonstrates why they are important by the end.

Gutjahr’s panoramic approach explains the context for the theologian’s settled convictions by dividing Hodge’s life into eight chronological parts. The first part covers Hodge’s early life from 1797 to 1810, then each part after covers a decade at a time. Gutjahr shows how the Great Awakening’s influential past, Hodge’s Christian experiences, and key people in Hodge’s life shape him for his calling as a professor of theology thereafter. From Hodge’s early childhood Christian heritage, the reader learns why Hodge values the New Side leaders of the Great Awakening at first (14-15). Gutjahr highlights Hodge’s conversion being consummated after years of parental and pastoral, Christian and Presbyterian, nurture during the 1815 revival Hodge’s last year of college at Princeton (1820s-1870s). This experience would affirm his favorable view that revivals are to be welcomed, but also give him critical discernment to distinguish between true and false revivals a decade or two later (51-52, 164-165).

Hodge is portrayed as a suitable guardian of orthodoxy because of a two-year-trip to study in Germany and France when he was a young professor at Princeton. This prepared him for later apologetic efforts to critically review German Idealism, Transcendentalism, and Mercersburg Theology. Hodge’s active involvement as a churchman throughout the decades of Presbyterian growth and influence and his training of so many of her ministers also elevated him to speak on behalf of Old School Presbyterians debating church polity, voluntary organizations, and slavery. His defence of biblical authority against the early influences of theological liberalism and Darwinism made him a legacy for later conservative Presbyterians after him (365-371, 377-385). In the end, Gutjahr’s Hodge is clearly portrayed as “the guardian of American orthodoxy.”

Although respected Oxford University Press published this longer biography, the reviewer was disappointed by the amount of typos (including the one located within the last sentence of the book). There also mistakes in the author’s research. For example, Columbia Seminary has never been located in Georgia. Rather, it was in South Carolina from 1830 to 1927. Gutjahr appears to have misunderstood Hodge’s doctrine of original sin when he described it as “Adam’s first sinful action” of eating “the apple,” which would make the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil an apple tree.

Charles HodgeWith the bicentennial of the founding of Princeton Theological Seminary this year, W. Andrew Hoffecker wanted Hodge to be known as “the pride of Princeton.” One reason for Hoffecker’s respect for Hodge was his ability to act as both a many-sided Christian, who stayed centered in the conservative Presbyterian tradition. Hoffecker’s Hodge is an influential advocate for both genuine revival and loyalty to the Westminster Confession of Faith; namely, as a “New Side Confessionalist.” Hodge is portrayed as “a man of the center,” who “fashioned a career as professor, scholar, and churchman by attempting to forge a via media between extremes” (359). Hodge appreciates both the early Christian nurture of his Presbyterian mentors and the outpouring of the Holy Spirit in revival when in 1814-1815 at college he was born again. After observing the German theological education dividing the training of scholars from the training of pastors, he rejected the “professional” approach to ministerial training for a combination of both scholarship and piety in one. Hodge teaches his students both his famous systematic theology in the lecture hall and his published Christian “way of life” in Alexander Hall on Sunday afternoons.

Hodge isn’t exactly a man of the center to New School Presbyterians. He was an Old School Presbyterian. He is Old School in polity, not for voluntary societies independent of church authority. Hodge is Old School in theology, and criticizes the New School innovations that deny the traditional Reformed interpretation of Romans, chapter five. He is Old School in Christian nurture, and will not accept that revival alone is necessary for conversions (chapters 16-17).

Although Hodge was Old School, he took middle positions that appeared to upset his Old School party. Hodge promoted the abolition of slavery in the USA, but gradually and without endorsing the radical interpretations of an institution taken for granted in the New Testament. He disagreed on at least three disputes during General Assemblies with the Southern Old School leader, James Henley Thornwell (271-275). As a revisionist of history, Hodge takes a middle road that is more critical of the Adopting Act of 1729, New Side Presbyterians, and revival leaders (Jonathan Edwards and George Whitefield) than his Princeton colleague; namely, Archibald Alexander. Finally, Hodge accepted the baptism of Roman Catholics as legitimate against the judgment of many of his fellow presbyters. In all these attempts to state his position somewhere in the middle, Charles Hodge drew criticisms. Even when Hodge attended an ecumenical effort among Protestants, he is criticized for his Reformed views at the 1873 Evangelical Alliance (333).

Hodge’s greatest apologetic efforts took place when he defended his view of the Lord Supper against Mercersburg Theologian John Williamson Nevin (chapter 26); his view of the Reformation against Anglican’s Oxford movement (chapter 29); his view of Reformed thought against German and American Transcendentalism (chapter 30); his view of history and the development of Christian thought, against Augustus Neander’s; and his view the Bible’s authority and recent scientific theories, against Darwinism (chapter 34).

Hoffecker’s book is highly recommended by the reviewer with only one main criticism. Hodge’s era saw a major shift in the understanding of revivals and spiritual awakenings in which Presbyterians played a major part. Iain Murray’s Revival and Revivalism: The Making and Marring of American Evangelicalism is extremely helpful in clarifying the terminology, leaders, and understandings of this period in America’s religious history. Hoffecker, like Noll and D. G. Hart, have continued to ignore Murray’s contribution by mixing and combining two antithetical Presbyterian views of revival into one view; namely, “revivalism.” By using the term revivalism for both views, readers tend to interpret all revivals as suspect and archaic. Hoffecker’s endnotes on Hart’s work on Nevin, and his appreciation for Richard Robert Osmer’s view of conversion, demonstrate the author’s reluctance to validate early Princeton’s appreciation for Edwards, genuine revivals, and Archibald Alexander’s influence on Hodge’s subsequent views after his revision of American Presbyterian history in relation to revival.


R.D. Smart

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