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The Life of Charles Hodge* – A Review by Knox Hyndman

Author ,
Category Book Reviews
Date December 9, 2011

Charles Hodge is rightly regarded as one of the leading theologians of the nineteenth century. His life’s work centred on Princeton Seminary where he studied and became Professor of Systematic Theology. This biography was written by his son A. A. Hodge just two years after the death of his father. At the insistence of his children, Charles Hodge during the last year of his life complied reminiscences of his childhood and youth. The first part of the book is therefore strictly speaking an autobiography.

Hodge was blessed with a godly mother who took her children regularly to public worship and at home taught them the doctrines of the Westminster catechisms. Hodge describes his own religious experience as unremarkable ‘unless it be that it began very early.’ Home was not the only influence on Hodge’s spiritual growth. He grew up under the gracious ministry of Ashbel Green – later President of Princeton. He also spoke of the profound influence which his teacher, and later colleague, Archibald Alexander exerted on him. Hodge lived at a time when Princeton was visited by a special time of spiritual awakening and undoubtedly he, along with his fellow students, received personal blessing during that period.

Many will know Charles Hodge primarily by his writings – his major three-volume work on Systematic Theology and his commentaries on Romans, Ephesians and 1 Corinthians. This biography opens a door into the life of the man behind the writing. He is shown to be a man who displayed the Christian graces in his home, his study, the classroom and through times of personal illness and loss.

Although the author determined in his writing ‘not to intrude my opinions of or affection for my father’, it is still true that the close relationship of a father and son means that there are insights which would be known only within the family. Hodge’s devotion to his first wife, the former Sarah Bache, and to his children is evident. He kept up a regular correspondence with his mother and his brother who was a little older than he was and on whom he relied for counsel and occasionally for financial help. ‘The whole family correspondence is suffused with the glow of his rich and full happiness, having their springs in his religion, his family and his beloved work.’

Hodge the professor is seen as a man of real intellect and warm devotion. His lectures were more than an opportunity to impart knowledge. One of his students, B. B. Warfield, was prepared to speak of his teacher’s limitations as an exegete, ‘in questions of textual criticism he constantly went astray.’ However for Warfield that was a minor matter! His assessment of Hodge’s exposition of Scripture was one of gratitude and admiration. ‘I thought then (as a student) as I think now (as a College professor) that Dr Hodge’s sense of the general meaning of the passage was unsurpassed. He was my ideal as a teacher.’

Another former student concurs. William Paxton of New York emphasized the warmth of Hodge’s lectures: ‘what he gave us was bread from our Father’s table. We were deeply impressed with the conviction that the thought most in his mind was Christ, the being nearest to his heart was Christ, the centre of all his theology was Christ.’

Hodge had a wide ranging interest in the issues of the day which he retained till the end of his life. He lived of course, through the period of the Civil War and had decided views on the war itself, the reasons for it and what should be the response of the church to it. He had a catholicity of spirit though always combined with wise discernment. During his time studying in Europe he worshipped in many different churches. Writing to his colleague Archibald Alexander about one service he noted, ‘There was nothing in the whole service which appeared to me at all adapted to make men wiser of better.’

Though Hodge was essentially a Seminary professor he did not close himself off from the church. He was a decided Presbyterian and participated regularly in the meetings of the General Assembly, playing a crucial role in dealing with some of the controversies which arose during this period. Contemporaries agreed that his preaching was not in one sense ‘popular’. However when speaking without the use of manuscript his preaching entered a different dimension and brought great blessing to his hearers.

This is undoubtedly a significant biography which deserves this re-publication and which has been produced in a very attractive format. It contains insights which will be of real value to many Christians, for example on the attitude of parents when a daughter is married or when struggling with illness or facing loss and financial pressure. However the book will be of particular value to those who are called to leadership in the church of Christ. Long held assumptions will be challenged, personal godliness will be held up as a thing to be greatly desired, and the view of Christ’s church in the world will be widened.

The Life of Charles Hodge
A. A. Hodge
668 pages, clothbound
£17.00, $32.00
ISBN 978 1 84871 090 0

Taken with permission from the Reformed Theological Journal November 2011.

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