Old Princeton: Charles Hodge, A Minister of Polemics

It is probably fair to say most of us enjoy reading polemics far more than writing them.

Studying a careful and robust dismantling of an errant theological system delights defenders of biblical orthodoxy. Cheers rise from the stands. But who has the courage to step on the field? Who has the skill to exorcise error without collateral damage, to keep brothers alive while slaying wolves?

Charles Hodge was such a man and anyone who would take up the cause of defending reformed orthodoxy would do well to sit at his feet and learn.

In 1825, during his fifth year as faculty at Princeton Seminary, Hodge founded the Biblical Repertory. As a quarterly theological journal, the Repertory would become the primary vehicle for Hodge to confront the errors of American theologians Nathaniel Taylor, with his “New Haven Theology,” and Charles Finney, with his indefatigable confidence in human nature.

Hodges’ polemical interests, however, were not limited to American affairs. He was alert to German Higher Criticism and how it was being embraced at Harvard to build out Unitarianism. As Paul Gutjahr notes, nearly half the articles in the first two years of the Repertory were engagements with German theologians and their works.

Hodge knew Calvinism would not withstand European rationalism if treated as an heirloom, polished again and again in the pantry. If confessional Calvinism was to stand against error, it must advance against it. It must be taken outdoors and shown to be superior at every point where heresy menaced.   

It was at this very time in Hodge’s life he would take a momentous step toward becoming a brave and skilled polemicist.  Feeling a “painful sense of unfitness” for his work, Hodge petitioned the seminary’s board to grant him study leave in Europe. He was convinced he needed to sit at the headwaters of the many errors flowing westward in order to best refute them. In October of 1826 he left his beloved wife, Sarah, and two small children for two years to study abroad.

Though Archibald Alexander, Hodge’s esteemed mentor, questioned the wisdom of leaving family and studying under cynical German theologians, Hodge benefitted greatly. He admitted learning far less theology than he expected to learn, but he learned something invaluable about theologians. He learned the theologians troubling all the world, dazzling American scholars, were just ordinary men. Their pants went on one leg at a time. His trip aboard had thoroughly demystified them.

Here is a valuable lesson for anyone called onto the field of polemics in the cause of biblical orthodoxy: be not intimidated. A highly regarded publishing house, a man of great fame interviewed on the top shows, a doctrine with many adherents and more added by the day – none of these things must intimidate a defender of reformed orthodoxy.  

As Hodge found new boldness in Europe, he also took more confidence from his own training at Princeton. His travels confirmed that his rigorous education in biblical orthodoxy gave him what he needed to stand toe-to-toe with any revered distant theologian or those less revered nearby.  

In an 1832 article in the Repertory (“The New Divinity Tried”), Hodge lists, as it were, several flaws to avoid in polemical writing. He lists these because the work he is reviewing is itself a polemical work in favor of Finney. As he begins, Hodge claims the work is “lamentably deficient in open, manly discussion.” It lacks “clear and bold statement of the distinguishing principles” and is weighed down with “an anxious attorney-like mincing of matters; a claiming to agree with everybody.”

Hodge has flagged the things he values in polemics: a manly readiness to take a side, clarity showing where sides differ at both the foundation and application, and boldness to call a spade a spade even though it will cost you admirers. Polemics do not serve the church when fogged-in by ambiguity.

Of course Hodge’s polemical strategy involved more than stylistic points. In his polemical articles in the Repertory he was careful to quote his opponents frequently. This is scholarship and fairness. He also let Calvin and Augustine speak to a matter. This is calling our fathers as witnesses. He also brought reformed confessions to bear on disputes, in one essay citing seven reformed confessions to counter Finney on original sin. Hodge was the best kind of theologian, one with a clear and settled bearing – the promulgation and defense of reformed orthodoxy.

Beneath, or rather before, all his methodology, Charles Hodge was a polemicist for the glory of Jesus Christ. He always brought his work as guardian back to this chief point: Christ and his cross must not be diminished or subordinated by the rationalistic instincts of men who seek truth within their own minds.

John Hartley has been pastor of Apple Valley Presbyterian Church since 2010, having previously been a pastor for 10 years in Vermont. He is a Wisconsin native and a graduate of University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee as well as Dallas Theological Seminary. John lives with his wife Jen and their five children.

John Hartley