Monday, February 10, 2014

Charles Hodge: Pride of Princeton by W. Andrew Hoffecker

Charles Hodge: Pride of Princeton,
by W. Andrew Hoffecker, P&R, 460pp, 2011

I'm sure that as a church history boffin, Andrew Hoffecker knows his stuff. But I think he's written the wrong biography. Or at lest P&R has made a colossal publishing error and put the incorrect cover on the Professor's book. Why do I say that? Because the 'Charles Hodge' who emerges from these pages sounds suspiciously like a certain church historian who labours at the step-child of Old Princeton, Westminster Theological Seminary.

Hoffecker's 'Hodge' was a stickler for Presbyterian confessionalism and was suspicious of pan-Evangelical alliances. He was a keen controversialist, whose contributions to the widely read theological journal, Princeton Review served more or less the same purpose as Reformation 21's Online Magazine today.  Alright, 'Hodge' was a systematic theologian and his contemporary alter ego is a historian, but still, there are enough parallels to give rise to an intriguing question. Has Hoffecker in fact given us the biography of Carl Trueman in the guise of an historical novel?  

Admittedly, no other reviewer has noticed this. Not even Carl Trueman, who lines up with various other rent-a-blurb worthies at the front of the book. But it's a theory, and who's to say I'm wrong?  If, on the other hand I'm quite mistaken, it means that the Old Princeton systematician has a lot to say to the contemporary Evangelical scene and we would do well to listen to give him a hearing. 

But enough of this nonsense and on to a proper review. Hoffecker's key to understanding Hodge (I dispense with the quote marks and concede that this is a genuine biography after all) is that he was shaped by the New Side piety that flowed from the Great Awakening and Old School Presbyterian orthodoxy, with its dogged allegiance to the Westminster Standards. Hodge's approach to theology, involving the systematisation of the fruits of inductive Bible study along scientific lines has come in for a fair bit of criticism of late, perhaps justly so in some respects. But the Hodge who comes through in this biography was no clinical systematiser. He was a man of deep piety with a passionate concern to communicate and conserve Scriptural truth as understood by the historic Reformed faith. 

Hodge famously boasted that Princeton Seminary had invented no new doctrines, but that did not mean he was unaware of what was going on the the rapidly changing world of 19th century theology. His studies in Germany, heartland of theological liberalism, gave him first-hand experience of the latest trends in scholarship and their disastrous consequences as far as genuine Christianity was concerned. Hodge not only engaged in controversy with out-and-out Liberals. He also entered the fray against New School Presbyterians, who, with their openness to pan-Evangelical alliances were seen by Hodge as a threat to the theological integrity of his denomination. He also took an interest in the argument over Darwinism, rejecting the theory of evolution due to its unscientific character and worrying theological implications. While he acknowledged that all facts are God's facts, he also understood that human explanations of factual evidence may be deeply flawed. 

Yet Hodge was no pugilist who delighted in polemics for their own sake. He usually opted to follow a middle course between extremes on both sides in the many ecclesiastical spats that raged in 19th century American Presbyterianism. On the vexed matter of slavery that was to tear apart both church and state, Hodge was in favour of the gradual elimination of slavery but against salve-holding church members being subject to excommunication. It's a pity that he didn't take a clearer line on this issue, but his moderate stance was typical of the man. 

Hodge's position as Professor of Didactic Theology and editor of the Princeton Review, made him a figure of huge influence in his time. The celebration of his fifty years service at Princeton in 1872 was a massive event, attended by academic and ecclesiastical luminaries and a large cohort of former students. His Systematic Theology is regarded as an important, if flawed contribution to Reformed systematics. The flame of orthodoxy passed from the hands of Charles to his son, A. A. Hodge and then in turn to to B. B. Warfield and J. Gresham Machen. By Machen's time Princeton had been infiltrated by Liberalism, which led to him leaving Hodge's old seminary to found the Westminster Theological Seminary in 1929. 

Hodge stands as a timely witness to the unique value of the of the historic Reformed faith. In our day as his lowest common denominator Evangelicalism seeks to swallow up all in its wake. Hodge was catholic spirited enough to engage with the wider Evangelical scene, but in the main his activities were devoted to a Church that held to an elaborate confession of Reformed doctrine. I'm a Reformed Baptist, not a Presbyterian. Hodge's almost obsessive fretting over the decreasing incidence of infant baptism in his denomination garnered little sympathy from me. Would that the practice had died out altogether. However, I admire Hodge's firm insistence that the Church, not any parachurch organisation is the focal point of God's activity in the world. The importance of safeguarding the doctrine and life of the Church cannot therefore be overestimated. Banging this drum Charles Hodge does sound suspiciously like Carl Trueman, or is it the other way round? I shall leave you to work that one out for yourselves .   

1 comment:

Ben said...

Thank you for this review. I'd add that it's an eminently readable book, though the author's lecture-hall approach of regular summarising and recapitulation doesn't necessarily help. I struggled to find much interest in the sections dealing with paedobaptist doctrine, however.

It would be very helpful if the publishers could provide a loose reference card to use as a book mark, with definitions of the terms Old School, New School, Old Side, New Side, Old Light, New Light for those of us with short-term memory problems. Even more helpful would be a table showing which of the permutations makes a person one of the good guys. Perhaps you could devise something which your readers could download.