Old Princeton: Charles Hodge the Theologian

Charles Hodge’s magnum opus was his three volume Systematic Theology originally published from 1871-1873. Since then it has influenced several generations of American Christians and remains in print today. While a product of its time and not without its own weaknesses, it is still worth having on your shelf.

Hodge’s work is broken down into three volumes: I) Theology; II) Anthropology; and III) Soteriology. In his writings, he demonstrates a breadth of learning. He often contrasts the Reformed doctrines with contrasting errors such the “Romish” doctrines or Remonstrant or Arminian positions on salvation and grace. Like other Reformed systematic theologies before and after him, he contrasts the Reformed view with other church’s doctrinal positions. He upholds the Reformed positions as orthodox, faithful God’s Word, and as the most faithful to the doctrines of the grace of God.

Hodge also addresses errors and controversies contemporary to his day. For example, in volume two he discusses “Anti-Scriptural Theories” of the origin of man and takes on the fledgling Darwinism of his day. Another example is interaction with modern theories and controversies, particularly rationalism and modernist theologians like Friedrich Schleiermacher. He addresses Schleiermacher’s views of inspiration (i.173-79), soteriology, and anthropology (ii.440-454).

Strengths of Hodge’s Work:

  1. Hodge stands on the inerrancy of the Bible. This was not unique to the professors of Old Princeton, and arguably the defense of inerrancy finds its greatest Old Princeton defender in Hodge’s later successor B.B. Warfield. Nevertheless, Hodge defends inerrancy not as a new or peculiar doctrine to 19th Century American Presbyterianism but as the historic position of the church. The Scriptures are infallible and “consequently free from all error whether doctrine, fact, or precept” (i. 152). This flow from the doctrine of inspiration: that inspired men are “the organs of God” (i.156). This means that “an inspired man was one who was the organ of God in what he said, so that his words were the words of the god of which he was the organ” and Hodge here bases his discussion both on Scripture and on what the word theopneusotos (2 Tim. 3:16) meant in the ancient world when it was written.
  1. Adam’s Federal Headship and Imputation. One of my first exposures that I recall to doctrine of Federal headship was reading Charles Hodge. The doctrine of Adam’s federal headship explains how in the fall, Adam represents the entire human race. The crucial Scriptural passage is Romans 5:12-21. Adam was not only the natural and biological head of humanity but a federal or representative head in his act in the garden (ii. 197). Adam’s sin is imputed to all humanity both the guilt and the consequences of that sin. We recognize that all are born sinners because Adam sinned. Hodge writes “in virtue of the union, federal and natural, between Adam and his posterity, his sin, although not their act, is so imputed to them that it is the judicial ground of the penalty threatened against him coming also upon them” (ii. 192-3). Of course, this doctrine impacts how we understand what Christ did for us. He represented us and his righteousness is imputed to us.

There are other strengths and excellent passages in Hodge’s Systematic theology that are still worth reading today. But let me highlight one weakness in Hodge’s work.  Prolegomena. Prolegomena means ‘to say before’. In theology the prolegomena discusses the nature of theology and how we arrive at our theology before actually discussing theology (although, in a sense prolegomena is one’s theology of how one “does” theology). Hodge, here, is a bit weak.  If you read Richard Muller’s Post-Reformation Dogmatics on how the Reformed Orthodox various handled prolegomena or Bavinck’s later first volume, you can spot where Hodge is weak. For example, he writes “the duty of the Christian theologian is to ascertain, collect, and combine all the facts which God has revealed concerning himself and our relation to Him” (i.11). We do not want to misrepresent Hodge here, he is firmly committed to Scripture, its revelation of all we need for faith and practice and its authority over all. We can commend his commitment to inductive methodology but he sees the theologian as a scientist collecting and organizing facts and data points to construct theology.  Scripture is not a collection of facts from which to pull and organize doctrine, it is a redemptive historical revelation that shows us these doctrines progressively revealed.

Tim Bertolet is a graduate of Lancaster Bible College and Westminster Theological Seminary. He is an ordained pastor in the Bible Fellowship Church, currently serving as Interim Pastor of Faith Bible Fellowship Church in York, Pa. He is a husband and father of four daughters. You can follow him on Twitter @tim_bertolet.

Tim Bertolet