What Did Charles Hodge Say about “The Decrees of God?”

What Did Charles Hodge Say about “The Decrees of God?” September 25, 2014

What Did Charles Hodge Say about “The Decrees of God?”


First of all, who cares what Charles Hodge said about anything? Well, many conservative evangelicals care—whether they know it or not. Charles Hodge was and remains such an influential 19th century theologian that I included an entire chapter on his theology in The Journey of Modern Theology: From Reconstruction to Deconstruction (InterVarsity Press, 2013). Tucked away inside my copy of Volume 1 of his Systematic Theology (Eerdmans, 1973 [originally published 1872]) is an article published in Christianity Today in 1974 entitled “The Stout and Persistent Theology of Charles Hodge” by evangelical theologian David Wells. The gist of Wells’ essay is that evangelical theology had not produced an equal to Hodge and his theology in a century: “Some say 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.” I agree with at least the last sentence of that statement. I have read many books of conservative evangelical theology including most of the leading systematic theologies and have often found Hodge lurking in the background—even where he is not mentioned. I would dare to say, siding with Wells, that Hodge is the formative theologian behind much of what we today know as conservative, Reformed, evangelical theology. If I could express what is a sheer opinion, for example, I would also say that The Gospel Coalition is as much dedicated to the theology of Hodge as to the Bible—whether its members know it or not. Hodge may be largely forgotten but that says nothing against his continuing influence. (I would say the same about the influence of, for example, Baptist theologian E. Y. Mullins on “moderate” Baptist theology.

Hodge was the leading Reformed theologian in America for much of the 19th century. He taught theology at Princeton Theological Seminary for half a century. He passed his torch on to B. B. Warfield and J. Gresham Machen who, in turn, passed Hodge’s torch (passed to him by Archibald Alexander) to later evangelical theologians such as Louis Berkhof, Lorraine Boettner,  Francis Schaeffer, Millard Erickson, David Wells, James Montgomery Boice, Michael Horton and Wayne Grudem. (I am not implying that none of these conservative evangelical theologians had/have their own thoughts; I’m only claiming that they followed/follow in Hodge’s train of thought and worked/work under his influence.)

When I talk about Calvinist theology some people who consider themselves Calvinists object that I am misrepresenting it. Over the years I have encountered many self-identified Calvinists who claim, for example, that Calvinism does not include what I call “divine determinism.” And they don’t just mean that it doesn’t include that phrase; they mean that Calvinism does not include, as part and parcel of its theology, meticulous providence such that, for example, God foreordained the fall of Adam and Eve or hell or all of the horrors and evils of history between them. I bring Hodge as witness for my case.

Now, of course, there is no Reformed Protestant “pope” to identify Hodge as the “Angelic Doctor” of Reformed Protestantism (in the same way the Catholic Church has baptized Thomas Aquinas as that—the official or semi-official theologian of Catholic theology). I would argue nevertheless that, given his profound influence on conservative Reformed evangelical theology, Hodge deserves that appellation—official or at least semi-official theologian of American conservative Reformed theology.

In other words, I will dare to claim that if Hodge held and taught a view as more than just his own opinion, as his interpretation of the Bible and the Heidelberg Catechism, as evangelical truth, it proves that Calvinism includes that belief and that no one can then say that belief is outside the Calvinist faith—as an innovation or minority report or marginal opinion. In part, at least, that’s because Hodge was not an innovator; he stood on the shoulders of previous leading Reformed-Calvinist theologians such as his predecessor at Princeton Archibald Alexander (after whom he named his son!) and Swiss theologian Francis Turretin whose system of theology was standard at Princeton until Hodge’s own was published in 1872/1873. Hodge is famous for having declared at the celebration of his fifty years of teaching at Princeton that he was proud to say that during his tenure there no new thought had emerged or been taught there. He was very intent on simply translating into contemporary language and handing down the standard Reformed-Calvinist theology of his own teachers and theirs.

All that is not to say he didn’t have some new ideas; it is only to say he was not aware they were new. Most of them, perhaps all of them, appear in his stated theological method which he calls “inductive” and compares with modern science’s method. Mark Noll and others have labeled Hodge’s approach the “evangelical Enlightenment” by which they (and I) mean that he brought into evangelical theology an allegedly scientific method that mimicked Francis Bacon’s scientific method for the natural sciences. His theology was also strongly influenced (in its method and presuppositions) by Thomas Reid’s Common Sense Realism. Still, none of that in any way detracts from my main point that Hodge rightly stands as a if not the modern interpreter and communicator of traditional, classical Reformed theology, including “Calvinism,” for American conservative evangelicals. If Hodge taught it, it cannot be alien or foreign to Calvinism. That’s my claim. Of course I’m not claiming that ever person who calls himself or herself “Calvinist” must agree with Hodge about everything. All I am claiming is that if Hodge taught it, it cannot be alien or foreign to Calvinism. Hodge speaks for Calvinism to especially American audiences. If someone wants to know what “Calvinism” teaches, for example, about the sovereignty of God, God’s “decrees,” he or she can do no better than turn to Hodge.

In Part 2 of this post I will expound Hodge’s belief, as stated in his Systematic Theology, of “God’s decrees.” If you want to follow along and perhaps check me, to make sure I’m expounding it correctly, feel free to obtain Volume 1 of Hodge’s Systematic Theology and look at Part I: “Theology Proper,” Chapter IX, “The Decrees of God.”

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