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Charles Hodge: The Pride of Princeton

[This review is from the March issue of Credo Magazine, “Make Disciples of All Nations.”]

W. Andrew Hoffecker. Charles Hodge: The Pride of Princeton. Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing, 2011. 460 pp.

Review by Jeff Straub

No figure was more important to 19th century American Presbyterianism than the erudite and venerable Charles Hodge. Yet until recently, the details of his life and ministry were all but unknown except to the scholar who cared to ferret out the information. With the publication of Andrew Hoffecker’s new biography at the end of last year and the earlier publication of Paul Gutjahr’s Charles Hodge: Guardian of American Orthodoxy (see Credo, October 2011), Hodge’s life and thought are now readily accessible. Hoffecker’s work focuses on Hodge the man—pious churchman, educator, denominational statesman, editor, writer, controversialist and champion of orthodoxy. In the life of Hodge, the contemporary minister finds a model and inspiration for defending all things orthodox and of living a life of personal piety in service to God. Charles Hodge labored tirelessly to advance the causes he held dear—chief among them Old School Presbyterianism.

Not that Hoffecker’s work is mere hagiography. He critically yet sympathetically recounts a life well-lived in service to the Lord Jesus Christ and the Presbyterian Church at a time when the church itself was severely tested by issues as diverse as revivalism and slavery. Hoffecker reveals Hodge’s deep devotion to the work of the ministry and the preparation of the next generation of Presbyterian clergyman. His commitment to personal piety, learned from his family upbringing, is a major theme of the book. That piety was further shaped in Hodge’s life by those under whose care he studied, first at young Princeton, Archibald Alexander, whom Charles would honor by naming a son after him, and Samuel Miller. Later, Hodge was also mentored by other pious and conservative men while studying in Germany, a period of time that tested his commitments to his orthodox foundations.

It is this emphasis on piety that is a strength of Hoffecker’s work. He repeatedly reviews Hodge’s commitment to piety as he traverses the various stages of Hodge’s life and ministry. For example, piety is a theme of the second chapter on Hodge’s “Early Religious Experiences.” “Hodge had internalized an appreciation of what constituted New Side piety as a way of life—the value of prayer as conversing with God, articulating a sense of dependence of God as a matter of daily experience and a moral consciousness sensitive to the presence of sin” (38). Hodge’s piety carried him through his entire life including his life of scholarship. Would scholarship hinder piety? “Surely not,” says Hodge. Summarizing Hodge, Hoffecker states that “if students approached their studies with the conviction of the Bible’s truthfulness and inherent authority, no intellectual study would threaten their piety” (72). Hodge’s personal piety was a hallmark of his life and a model for others to follow.

But Hodge was also a devoted churchman who championed “Calvinistic confessionalism.” He labored long to defend and strengthen Presbyterianism against the various modern challenges including the New School’s Finneyite tendencies. That defense often came from Hodge by the skillful use of his pen, either through his editorship of The Princeton Review (et al) which included many of Hodge’s personal essays on diverse subjects or his more lengthy treatises, including his magnum opus, the three-volume Systematic Theology, the capstone of a very significant writing career. It is in this way that Hoffecker draws another important insight from Hodge’s life—he was a contender for truth without being contentious. Hodge was quick to champion the issues he felt important, but in doing so, he tried to never leave his opponents feeling personally assaulted. In one such incident, Hodge challenged the views of William Nevin, his former student. Nevin had begun to advocate what became known as the “Mercersberg Theology.” Nevin argued that contemporary Presbyterianism had moved away from the historic Reformation view of the mystical presence of Christ in the Eucharist. Hodge’s response to Nevin in the second volume of his Systematic Theology elicited a scathing letter from Nevin. Nevin felt he had been personally misrepresented. Hodge did what he could to extend “an olive branch” by inserting a footnote in the final volume of the Theology that clarified his comments without retracting his criticism. He wanted to stand for the truth as he saw it, but in doing so, he wanted to defend it with Christian charity. This is a model worth considering when handling controversy among professing believers.

In reading this delightful account of the life of arguably the most important American theologian of the 19th century, one is gratified at a life well lived and a battle honorably fought. Charles Hodge is a model for contemporary ministers to follow at many levels. He was a man moved by a deep personal commitment to God and a man who even in conflict, wanted to represent Christ as charitably as he could.  Hoffecker is to be thanked for his efforts at telling Hodge’s story.

Jeff Straub is Professor of Historical Theology at Central Baptist Theological Seminary.

Did you enjoy this review? Read others like it in the March issue of Credo Magazine, “Make Disciples of All Nations.” 

To view the Magazine as a PDF {Click Here}

“Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.” (Matthew 28:19-20) These words, spoken by Jesus after his resurrection, are famously known as The Great Commission. As disciples of Christ, it is our great joy to go and tell the nations about the good news of salvation for sinners through Christ Jesus our Lord and Savior. The March issue of Credo Magazine will seek to ignite a passion for missions. And what better timing as this year marks the 200th anniversary of Adoniram and Ann Judson setting sail aboard the Caravan with to take the gospel to Burma. Contributors include: Ted Kluck, Jason Duesing, Nathan Finn, the Housley Family (missionaries in Papua New Guinea), Kenneth Stewart, Brian Vickers, David VanDrunen, Matt Williams, and many others.

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