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Charles Hodge

Category Articles
Date July 13, 2004

At the December 2003 Westminster Conference held at Westminster Chapel Ian Hamilton of Cambridge Presbyterian Church gave a stimulating paper on the life and work of Charles Hodge. The following are his opening words. The remainder of this paper and the five others are now published in “Knowing the Mind of God” and can be obtained from the Conference Secretary, John Harris, 8 Back Knowl Road, Mirfield, WF14 9SA for £4.50.

Charles Hodge epitomised what came to be called the Princeton Tradition. He was an unapologetic Christian in an age of increasing scepticism. He was an unashamed confessional Calvinist in an age of doctrinal indifferentism. He defended the integrity and infallibility of the Bible as if his very life depended on it (because he believed it did!), in an age when the Bible was thought increasingly to be incredible and unbelievable. Something of the measure of the man, and the essence of the Princeton tradition, is seen in his address to James McCosh when he was installed as president of Princeton College in 1868. Speaking for the college trustees, Hodge expressed what we might call the Princeton pulsebeat: "We would in a single word state what it is we desire. It is that true religion here may be dominant; that a pure gospel may be preached, and taught, and lived; that the students should be made to feel that the eternal is infinitely more important than the temporal, the heavenly than the earthly."’

Hodge lived in an age of intellectual, social and political ferment. When he was born, the remarkable decades from 1730-1750 were a distant memory. In 1805, Unitarians captured the chair of theology at Harvard, and at Yale students were addressing one another as Robespierre and Voltaire! The 1798 report of the General Assembly of the newly organised Presbyterian Church in the USA highlighted the dark spiritual state of the nation: "We perceive with pain and fearful apprehension a general dereliction of religious principle and practice among our fellow-citizens, a visible and prevailing impiety and contempt for the laws and institutions of religion and an abounding infidelity which tends to atheism itself." Into such an age Charles Hodge was raised up by God to stand in the gap and, if not defeat unbelief, at least to hold its pervasive influence somewhat at bay.

Hodge was born on 28 December 1797 in Philadelphia. His mother was of Huguenot descent; his father died six months after his birth. Speaking of his forebears in America, Hodge wrote in his Journal, "I wish… that those who come after me should know that their ancestors were Presbyterians and patriots." Hodge was deeply conscious of the great debt he owed to his mother: "To our mother, my brother and myself, under God, owe absolutely everything… Our mother was a Christian. She took us regularly to church and carefully drilled us in the Westminster Catechism."

Commenting of his early childhood, Hodge wrote, "As far back as I can remember, I had the habit of thanking God for everything I received, and asking him for everything I wanted.. .I thought of God as an everywhere-present Being, full of kindness and love, who would not be offended if children talked with him. I knew he cared for sparrows… There was little more in my prayers and praises than in the worship rendered by the fowls of the air. This mild form of natural religion did not amount to much. It, however, saved me from profanity."

At the age of 14, Hodge entered Princeton College. Revival came to the College in the winter of 1814-15 and Hodge made a public profession of faith on 13 January 1815, joining the Presbyterian Church of Princeton. In 1816, he entered Princeton Theological Seminary, then in the fourth year of its existence. In May of 1819, Hodge was approached by Archibald Alexander to be a professor and returned to Philadelphia to prepare himself by studying Hebrew Somewhat prophetically, Hodge wrote in his Journal as he prepared for licensing, "May I be taught of God that I may be able to teach others also." Hodge also wrote to his mother as he entered his life’s calling, "It seems to me that the heart more than the head of an instructor in a religious seminary qualifies or unfits him for his station" (this truth ought to be written over the gates of every theological seminary). Hodge was appointed a teacher at the seminary in 1820 and in 1822 he was elected Professor of Oriental and Biblical Literature at $l000/year.

In the same year, Hodge married Sarah Bache, a great grand-daughter of Benjamin Franklin, whom he had first met when she was 14 years.

In 1826, Hodge’s growing sense of his own linguistic deficiencies "became more intense" and he made application to the Board of the Seminary to study for two years in Europe. Leaving his wife and two small children with his mother, he set off to study French, Arabic and Syriac and become acquainted with the developing discipline of biblical criticism. In one of his early letters to Hodge, Dr. Alexander warned him, "Remember that you breathe a poisoned atmosphere. If you lose the lively and deep impression of Divine truth if you fall into scepticism or even into coldness – you will lose more than you gain from all the German professors and libraries.. " Hodge would later reflect on the unbelief that covered much of the theology he encountered during his time in Europe. As he sought to understand how the birthplace of the Reformation could become a citadel for unbelief, he remarked that the Reformation was followed by "a period of cold orthodoxy brought about principally by perpetual controversy on unimportant subjects" (I wonder if that resonates with us here today!).

However much Hodge generalises the situation, it can hardly be denied that he puts his finger on what has been a recurring feature within the reformed communions. The breadth of catholicity that marked the magisterial reformers has often been lost sight of in the vain attempt to narrow the reformed faith into one doctrinal and ecclesiological expression.

Prior to leaving for Europe, Hodge began the Biblical Repertory (from 1837 the Biblical Repertory and Princeton Review). His son, A.A. Hodge, wrote that the material in the Biblical Repertory and Princeton Review was characterised by "knowledge, clearness and faith.. .he (that is, his father) experienced the whole Calvinistic system and would defend it at all cost as the truth of God, from loyalty to Christ, and love to human souls."

In 1840, Hodge was transferred to the chair of Exegetical and Didactic Theology. On the death of Dr Alexander in 1851, Polemic Theology was added to Hodge’s title.

Charles and Sarah had eight children. In the life of his father, Hodge’s son highlights the tender affection that marked Hodge’s relationship with his children. His study had two doors, one opening towards the seminary for students to use and the other opening into the hall of his house. Hodge removed the latches from the door and put springs on them so that even the youngest and smallest member of the family could enter freely. The children loved their father and at family worship, he prayed, wrote his son, "with such soul-felt tenderness, that however bad we were our hearts all melted to his touch."

When Sarah died on Christmas day 1849, Hodge wrote to his brother, "No human being can tell, prior to the experience, what it is to lose out of a family its head and heart, the source at once of its light and love." Hodge remarried three years later, to a widow, Mary Hunter, a close friend of his first wife.

In 1872, Princeton celebrated Hodge’s fifty years as a professor of theology. On 24 April the shops in Princeton closed in honour of the great man. In the evening, four hundred of the 2700 students Hodge had taught were present, along with delegates from many churches, colleges and seminaries, to honour Princeton’s grand old man. On behalf of the seminary’s trustees, Henry Boardman declared, "…what honour, beloved Brother, has God put upon you! For fifty years you have been training men to preach the glorious gospel of the grace of God to their fellow sinners." These words encapsulate the man that Charles Hodge was. With others at Princeton, he saw that his first calling was to equip men to be ministers of the saving gospel of Christ. In all his labours, he sought first and foremost to prepare men to be preachers.

When he died in 1878, not only the Reformed faith, but also the Christian faith, lost a valiant-for-truth. Charles Hodge may not have been a scintillating or deeply original thinker. He may not have scaled the biblical and theological heights of Calvin, or even Warfield. He did however stand unyieldingly, yet always generously, for the gospel of grace and supernatural religion in an age of unbelief and scepticism. For this the Church will always be thankful.

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