America’s Neglected Theologian

There aren’t that many “great” theologians when it comes to paradigm-shifting and you-have-to-read theologians. Asia Minor produced the Cappadocians — Gregory of Nyssa, Basil and Gregory of Nazianzus, North Africa produced Tertullian and Augustine, France produced Aquinas, Germany spawned Luther, Switzerland (or France) gave us Calvin, England led to Anselm … but when it comes to the USA, who is its theologian?

If one measures influence on students, on ministers, and on readers surely Jonathan Edwards is not America’s theologian. Edwards is seeing a revival today, and surely he was a brilliant writer, but the next century, from Princeton from almost the very start, for fifty years of professoring and writing, we get Charles Hodge. And Hodge is probably read more than Edwards, in part because he wrote his Systematic Theology that is far more accessible because it is … well … systematics.

Who are America’s major theologians?

Paul Gutjahr’s excellently-written Charles Hodge: Guardian of American Orthodoxy is the place to begin if you want to know about America’s neglected theologian. Edwards today is getting the glory when it comes to the top nominee for America’s theologian, but I would like to suggest more ought to turn their attention to Hodge’s contribution.

Gutjahr figured out how to tell us a long story about a relatively boring theologian — he taught at one school, he taught one theology, he was always on the conservative side — in other words, no big breaks or shifts or changes. What Gutjahr did was break up this man’s story into small episodes, so we get fifty-seven chapters, not counting Prologue and Epilogue. I read the book from cover to cover and I never got distracted or bogged down. A wonderfully-executed biography.

Hodge was the Presbyterian of his day, but “the” is open to interpretation. The New Haven school, with Nathaniel Taylor was more open to free will and human ability and to revivalism; Harvard sprouted Unitarianism, which provided a foil for all orthodox theologians; Andover Newton led to a post-Edwards form of revivalism and what is sometimes called new divinity or New England theology. Which leaves Princeton as the beachhead for traditional Presbyterian orthodoxy, and so Hodge is often part of what is called “Old School” Presbyterians. He was always wary of evangelical coalitions and believed in a denomination as the form of Christian responsibility; so Gutjahr observes Hodge’s anti-ecumenical stance and his insularity.

What Hodge learned from A.A. Alexander formed the basis of his lectures which he gave for fifty years with very little development, though when he wrote his Systematic Theology at the end of his career he pushed everything through the grid of a Baconian science and sought to form a science-faith congruence and that led him a bit away from a slight hint of Pietism in his lectures (see his The Way of Life). His earlier theology was more shaped by the need for a converted heart to be in touch with the Spirit of Scripture, though he never did give this up. Hodge was puritanical.

Hodge was known for a strong belief in inerrancy; for his biblical commentaries on Romans (designed to respond to Moses Stuart’s less than acceptable form of Calvinistic reading of Romans), Ephesians and the Corinthians.

For decades he edited and wrote lengthy articles for a journal, the Biblical Repertory, but that too changed names a bit over time. He was quite polemical in countering other theologies and theologians (like Albert Barnes, Whitefield and Finney, and then especially German idealism and transcendantalism et al) and used this magazine to work his ideas out, and much of his polemics emerged from two years in Germany where he came to terms with his own theology over against rising German critical thinking and liberal theology. Gutjahr opines that Hodge seemed to have picked up almost nothing new from the Germans.

At the heart of Hodge’s proposals was Common Sense Realism, which he learned from Witherspoon, and which is a singular emphasis of Gutjahr’s, though over the years some have fought against painting Hodge with the themes of Common Sense Realism. His later adjustments to science paved the way for BB Warfield’s even greater openness to evolution.

Hodge suffered physically much of his life and was at times lame and hardly able to leave the home, so his students came to his house.

Hodge was wrong on the slavery question and his view of Scripture — biblicism in its most robust form in that he saw the Bible as a repository of facts — led him to say the Bible does not demand abolition and does not denounce slavery, so Christians ought not to either, which made the Southern Presbyterians happy and many in the North unhappy, and he stuck it out even if after the Civil War he backed off some. His approach to abolition, then, was gradualist.  This “not going to back down” approach led him to defend the legitimacy of Roman Catholic baptism as real baptism, even if he was clearly opposed to Catholic theology. (Luther would have been unbaptized had Catholic baptism been deemed non-baptism.)

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  • RJS

    This post is fascinating. Hodge is one of the people who played a role in the framework that shapes how we got to the point we are today, especially in prevailing approaches to the Bible.

    The last paragraph on slavery deserves careful consideration. There are some who still think he was right, and backing down here is leading to all kinds of problems (the rolle of women being a big current fault line).

  • Kel

    This is not about Hodge but the author. I had Doc Gutjahr for two English classes my senior year at Indiana. He was, by far, my favorite professor–an excellent teacher, but also a great human being. My senior year was a difficult time in my life and about once a week I would sit in Doc’s office for office hours. We would talk about books, movies, anything. We didn’t get into my personal junk, really (he was a professor, not my counselor), but just spending time visiting with him was therapeutic and enjoyable. We still touch base via email from time to time. Thank you for blogging about his book.

  • Fred

    I understand the point but the Bible IS a repository of facts…and it is also much more than that.

    That’s not the problem. The problem is that we teach it as if it were only a repository of facts. We end up throwing the baby out with the bathwater.

  • Fred,
    If I told you a grand story would you be listening for the facts?

    The Bible is primarily a narrative so it must be first interacted with on those terms. The Scriptures must be treated as the style of literature that it postures itself as. The Bible does include facts as does any historical narrative. But the Bible’s made mode of delivery is not the form of a repository of facts.

    Treating the Bible primarily as a narrative changes what you deduce from it and how you go about doing it. It doesn’t make it any less the revelation of God’s interaction with humanity.

  • David

    Aquinas and Anselm were from the region we now call Italy, as was Bonaventure.

  • scotmcknight

    David, I stand corrected on origins … their primary work is associated with Paris and Canterbury, no?

  • Nathan C

    #6 Re: Anselm. It depends on who you ask. Proslogion was written while he was at the monastery at Bec in Normandy.

  • It seems the theologians mentioned are most noteworthy because of their creativity.

    This is something we have either had too much of (Joseph Smith) or lacked in America (so we have to adopt a C.S. Lewis).

    The figure that stands out to me most in terms of theological influence is Billy Graham.

  • Fred

    Dan Jr.
    I think we’re in agreement. My comment “….and it is also much more than that” summarizes your comments. You just said it more clearly than I did.

    I suppose we can debate the definition of “fact.” OTOH, that may not be the best word to use. Take all the strange symbols found in Revelation, for example. I don’t take them as factual, in the sense that they actually existed in reality. (I doubt that John could have fed apples to the horses.) But they do exist in some sense as part of the record of your grand story. That makes them Bible facts.

    Facts by themselves are useless. It’s only when we put them in some kind of relationship (in our minds) with all the others provided for us that we have any hope of meaning. So, rather than taking all the individual OT facts and building a grand story of redemption, we settle for the Four Spiritual Laws.

    I see that, at least in part, as our failure to teach (i.e. create meaning in the mind of someone I am relationship with).


  • Nathan C

    Taking a second look, I don’t understand the connection in the last paragraph between a ‘not going to back down approach’ and ‘defend[ing] the legitimacy of Roman Catholic baptism.’ Isn’t that a fairly normal position for a Presbyterian? Or most Western Christians who aren’t Baptists?

  • scotmcknight

    Nathan C. Thanks. Yes, not clear: He didn’t back down from a commitment even with lots of opposition to his view on Catholic baptism as a legitimate baptism.

  • Fred, I’m tracking with you now.

  • Ahem… Switzerland gave us *Barth*!

  • I cannot consider the man worthy of emulation or of admiration who wrote the following: “I have had but one object in my professional career and as a writer, and that is to state and to vindicate the doctrines of the Reformed Church. I have never advanced a new idea, and have never aimed to improve on the doctrines of our fathers. Having become satisfied that the system of doctrines taught in the [creeds and confessions] of the Reformed Churches is taught in the Bible, I have endeavored to sustain it, and am willing to believe even where I cannot understand.” [Hodge, The Life of Charles Hodge, 430. From a letter dated August 24, 1857, from Charles Hodge (1797–1878) of “Old Princeton” Theological Seminary, to a Dr. Cunningham.]

  • scotmcknight

    Well, Ed, that’s quite the statement … and it is at the heart of Hodge’s theology. But is he alone in that? I’ve taught with people who have not changed their mind on anything. A well-known American theologian wrote a book on theology that did well, 10 years later he was asked to revise it, he said he hadn’t changed his mind on one item in the whole book.

  • If the criterion for “greatest” is the degree of overall impact on American Christianity, then my fellow Oberlinian, Charles Finney, ought to get some serious consideration. The influence of his Systematic Theology and practices on American revivalism was greater than that of any other American theologian. And what of a Dispensationalist theologian such as Lewis Sperry Chafer of Dallas Seminary? His actual influence may have been as broad as that of Finney or Hodge, don’t you think?

  • Plus, aren’t we talking about Penal Substitutionary atonement theory. I know we are building off the reformation with this one but Hodge cemented the American evangelical understanding of atonement.

    When we think Jesus, sins, salvation, judgment, justification, we are thinking Hodge and Hodge’s reading of the reformation.