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.)