Some Reflections on Charles Hodge, 200 Years After His Birth

Christians have always displayed a love for looking back and reflecting on the heroes of the faith, and as Reformed Christians in North America it seems appropriate that we take a particular interest in the heroes of American Calvinism. One of these surely was longtime professor at Princeton Seminary, Charles Hodge. Hodge’s influence through his work at Princeton has been profound, both for those of Presbyterian and Dutch Reformed background. Westminster Seminary was founded in large part to perpetuate the Princeton tradition after it was abandoned at Princeton, and many leaders of the Christian Reformed Church studied at Old Princeton, and later at Westminster. December 27, 1997 marks the 200th anniversary of Hodge's birth. As a tribute to this remarkable man, this article will reflect briefly upon Hodge’s life and accomplishments, as well as upon his approach to expounding the Reformed faith.


The history of “Old” Princeton Seminary is largely a history of Charles Hodge, for he played an integral part during the Seminary’s strongest years. Hodge’s relationship with Princeton Seminary began with its opening in 1812 and continued until his death in 1878. He was present at the inauguration of the seminary and its first professor, Dr. Archibald Alexander, the man who would become Hodge’s spiritual father. He studied under the first two seminary professors (Alexander and Samuel Miller), and became the seminary’s third professor. Such notable seminary leaders as B.B. Warfield studied under him. Two of Charles Hodge’s sons, Archibald Alexander Hodge and Caspar Wistar Hodge, became colleagues of their father, and Charles’ grandson, also named Caspar Wistar Hodge, joined the faculty of Princeton Seminary in 1901. Charles Hodge was born on December 27, 1797, in Philadelphia. He graduated from Princeton College in 1812, and although he was raised and trained from an early age in the Presbyterian Church, he did not become a member until after participating in a religious revival in 1815. After a year of spiritual growth, Hodge entered Princeton Seminary in order to be trained for the ministry. He graduated in the fall of 1819 and became the third professor of the seminary in the fall of 1820. He was ordained in the Presbyterian Church a year later. In May of 1822 a department of Oriental and Biblical Literature was created, and Hodge was appointed its professor. He married Sarah Bache in June of that year, and soon they settled into a house on campus built expressly for the Hodges and paid for by the seminary. Except for two years in which Hodge studied biblical languages, criticism and exegesis in Europe, the Hodges lived in their fifteen-room house on campus and raised their eight children, actively participating in the life of the seminary. Hodge enjoyed music, gardening, horses, and had an interest in meteorology, recording the weather each day for over forty years. The Hodge home was at times a classroom when his chronic leg pain rendered him an invalid. It was also the gathering place for the seminary faculty meetings as well as many college and seminary social events. After twenty-seven years of marriage, Sarah died in 1849. Three years later, Hodge married Mary Hunter Stockton, a good friend of the Hodge family, daughter of a Presbyterian clergyman and widow of a Naval officer. Hodge succeeded Archibald Alexander as professor of Exegetical and Didactic Theology in 1840. In 1854 his chair was renamed Exegetical, Didactic, and Polemic Theology, and his eldest son, Archibald Alexander Hodge, eventually succeeded him in this position. In 1872, Hodge’s fiftieth year as a professor at the seminary was celebrated with a ceremony and an endowed chair of Systematic Theology. In the span of his career, Charles Hodge taught almost three thousand students. In addition to his teaching responsibilities, Hodge was also a prolific writer. Many of his writings were academically rigorous, but not all were just for scholars. His book Way afLife, for example, published in 1841 by the American Sunday School Union, was a presentation of the doctrines of the Bible written for popular reading. Hodge was also an active churchman, evidenced by his service as Moderator for the Presbyterian General Assembly in 1846.

Hodge died on June 19, 1878, after completing fifty-six school years on the faculty of Princeton Seminary. His wife Mary survived him by less than two years. His life was characterized by staunch faithfulness to his convictions, yet he treated his opponents with humility and love. He characterized the spirit of Old Princeton in his academic scholarship, his commitment to historical Calvinism, and in his spiritual zeal for the things of the Lord. The Hodge legacy of teaching at Princeton spanned over a century, ending with the death of Charles’ grandson in February of 1937.


We turn now to a brief look at the theology of Charles Hodge. An essay of this size can in no way begin to penetrate the details of Hodge’s thought which has been worked over by numerous scholars from his day to the present. What will be presented here are some personal observations about the way Hodge did theology and the way in which he viewed the theological task. Most of the data will be taken from his monumental, three volume Systematic Theology,2 written near the end of his life. In focusing on this source we are probably not doing justice to the whole of Hodge’s theology, as he wrote rather voluminously on a wide range of topics throughout his career, in close and critical dialogue with the leading thinkers of his day.3 And yet. as his Systematic Theology was written near the end of his long career of theological reflection, and covers nearly the entire range of Christian doctrines, it seems an appropriate means by which to analyze Hodge’s approach to theology.

As a basic statement of the theological perspective that Hodge ad-vocated in his Systematic Theology, we may identify him with the Old School Presbyterians and hence, with traditional Calvinism. In Hodge's day, American Presbyterianism was divided into the Old School and New School camps. The New School was more favorable than the Old School to some of the more progressive elements of the Second Great Awakening and tended to water down some of the characteristic doctrines of historic Reformed theology. During his career, Hodge wrote numerous pieces against many of the trends which the New School toler-ated or promoted, and became the leading Old School spokesman on these issues. In this way, Hodge was a champion of traditional Calvinism whom we can well admire today.

Hodge’s Focus on Apologetics

A first characteristic of Hodge’s Systematic Theology we might mention is the attention it pays to apologetics. By this we refer to his desire not simply to set forth the Reformed faith in clear terms, but also to defend its doctrines against the intellectual assaults which the unbelieving world has leveled against it. Hodge was well aware of these assaults which came from various scholarly disciplines, and he regarded it his responsibility as a theologian to answer them. Thus, in his treatment of the doctrine of God he addressed the challenges which non-christian philosophers had offered to traditional Christian theism. In his discussion of creation he grappled with the claims put forth by geologists regarding the age of the earth. And in dealing with the origin of man he wrestled with the claims presented by anthropologists and (again) geologists. There is certainly something admirable in Hodge’s desire to defend Christianity from all sides, and he displays a breadth of familiarity with his contemporary culture that few theologians today could display with ours. Contemporary Reformed theologians ought not to ignore the important function that a theology with apologetic concerns can play in strengthening Christians against the challenges of a hostile culture. At the same time, the fact that Hodge spent as much time as he did in his Systematic Theology addressing contemporary concerns makes this work a bit irrelevant at points for us, as many of the challenges facing us differ from those that he faced.

Hodge’s Method of Supporting Reformed Doctrine

A second characteristic of Hodge’s theology that may be interesting to note is the way in which he supports Reformed doctrine. As we might expect. for Hodge the chief bulwark of Calvinism was the Bible, and he took care to show that the teachings he supported were grounded in Scripture. But in doing so, Hodge did not often set forth detailed exegesis of biblical passages. Instead, his tendency was either to pile up Scriptural citations or to show that a given doc-trine was part of the warp and woof of Scripture, but without giving careful exposition of any particular verse.

Hodge also had other means by which to prove Christian doctrines. One of these was by appealing to everyday common sense experience and the universal beliefs of the human race. Hodge was greatly influenced by a philosophy called Scottish Common Sense Realism, which put considerable stock in the reliability of our senses in coming to know truth. In many places in his Systematic Theology, therefore, Hodge appealed to what he thought all men know in their common human experience as proof for crucial doctrinal issues. Another means which Hodge employed in proving theological matters was to claim that a given issue was agreed upon by the universal belief of the church. Obviously, by this Hodge did not mean to adopt a Romanist-like view of tradition as religious authority. What he did think, however, was that if all Christians throughout the history of the church believed in a given doctrine, whether explicitly or implicitly, it must be true, for the Spirit would not keep the truth from the entire church.

These matters raise some very important issues which there is no time here to explore. But as a summary judgment, we might observe that Hodge did not defend doctrines from Scripture as well as he could have in his Systematic Theology and probably took too much for granted as to what constituted the universal beliefs both of the church and of humanity in general. His methods, however, still deserve a close look by those doing theology in the Reformed tradition.

The Irenic Nature of Hodge’s Theology

A final characteristic of Hodge’s thought is its irenic, loving, strain. This may seem odd given Hodge’s reputation as a stringent defender of Old School Presbyterianism, which itself has a reputation for being straight-laced and intolerant on doctrinal matters. Yet Hodge, for all his vigorous exposition and defense of strict Calvinism, could be remarkably tolerant on issues which he believed were non-essential or not decided by Scripture.

For example, on perennially thorny theological issues such as the relations of the persons of the Trinity or the problem of evil, Hodge stopped short of offering dogmatic solutions, out of fear of speculating on matters concerning which he thought Scripture did not offer a firm answer. Another example is the way in which he dealt with the great liberal German theologian, Frederich Schleiermacher. Hodge was thoroughly opposed to Schleiermacher’s theological system, and he refuted it at many points in his Systematic Theology. And yet in a footnote in this work, Hodge expressed confidence that Schleiermacher, who had predeceased Hodge, was indeed saved and in heaven. Hodge was convinced, from personal experience with Schleiermacher while studying in Germany, that for all of his theological errors, he really did look to Christ as his God, and was hence saved. Why was Hodge convinced that Schleiermacher, deep down, believed that Christ was his God? Because he sang hymns to Christ in his worship services!

A third example of Hodge’s irenic spirit is found in his series of artides written in the Biblical Repertory and Princeton Review from 1861–1865 addressing issues related to the Civil War. Hodge was convinced that the North had waged war justly and he defended its cause from many angles. But he always seemed to keep a conciliatory tone. And, perhaps most remarkably, several artides describe debates that took place in these years in the Presbyterian General Assembly in which Hodge, virtually standing alone, pleaded with his fellow delegates not to make loyalty to the Union a litmus test for faithful Christianity. Hodge reasoned that the validity of the Southern daim of a right to secede was a matter of interpretation of political history, and Scripture gave church assemblies no authority to make judgments on such questions. The church’s refusal to heed Hodge’s warnings resulted in a split between Northern and Southern Presbyterian churches. Surely one of the benefits of studying Hodge's life and thought today is the insight it gives for how we might defend the Reformed faith without compromise while retaining a spirit of generosity toward others which avoids unnecessary contention.

As we remember the 200th anniversary of the birth of this remarkable man, let us thank God for his faithfulness in raising up defenders of the faith throughout history. And let us pray that we would be found worthy successors of those who have lived the Reformed faith before us.


1. There are many good sources of information on Hodge’s life. Recently, considerable attention to Hodge has been paid in the two volumes of David B. Calhoun, Princeton Seminary (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 1994 and 1996).

2. (Reprinted, Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1995).

3. This point has been analyzed by David Wells in his essay on Charles Hodge in Reformed Theology in America. ed. David F Wells (Grand Rapids. MI: Eerdmans, 1985), 36–59.

David and Katherine VanDrunen are graduate students living in Evanston, IL. They are members of the Grace Orthodox Presbyterian Church in Hanover Park, IL. Katherine recently gave birth to a healthy baby boy; however her postnatal blood tests revealed an aggressive form of acute leukemia. Doctors began chemotherapy which appears to be going well; however this promises to be a long and challenging battle. Please remember this family in prayer.


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