Charles Hodge’s (1797—1878) long, colorful, and sophisticated career as Princeton Seminary’s third professor and grandfather of American systematic theology deserves a thorough, wide-ranging, and intelligent analysis. Paul Gutjahr ably provides such an analysis in his new biography: Charles Hodge: Guardian of American Orthodoxy.
Lengthy, yet not prolix
With short chapters averaging between five to seven pages, this 385-page biography reads more like a novel than non-fiction. And thanks to Gutjahr’s organizational accumen, narrative skill, and mastery of Hodge’s massive corpus, the book reads quickly without sacrificing depth. He carefully prepares the narrative canvas early on with Hodge’s key intellectual themes and personality traits so that, as the chronologically-arranged narrative unfolds, issues in the foreground of each chapter sit comfortably against a proportionate background. Upon completing the book, the reader leaves with the satisfying sense that he or she has just spent several enjoyable afternoons in Hodge’s famous study listening to him narrate his life and times to his closest colleagues. This is American religious social history par excellence.
Colorful, yet not caricatural
Gutjahr weaves together the threads of Hodge’s non-theological passions and hobbys (farming, anatomy, medicine, politics, and modern science in general) with the threads of his theological pursuits in order to display the coat of many colors that is Hodge’s intellectual life. At the same time, he spends much effort in illuminating Hodge’s socio-political context in order to demonstrate how various times and events—especially the Civil War—profoundly shaped Hodge’s theological formulations and political views. Thus he shows Hodge to be a colorful intellectual who is both too complex for simplistic, ahistorical theological dismissals and too much man of his nineteenth-century times to allow for ahistorical repristinations of his theology straight into the twenty-first century.
Sophisticated, but one-sided at points
Even though Gutjahr employs the socio-historical method in exemplary fashion and illuminates Hodge’s thought in many useful ways, his method nevertheless invites shallowness in some of his theological assessments. Throughout the book the reader is given the tacit impression that Hodge’s theological views are almost exclusively the results of his stubborn disposition plus his educational background plus his philosophical context plus this or that. While no one would dispute that all of these sociological factors certainly make the man, a very important and foundational aspect of Hodge’s life is too often swallowed up by overemphasizing socio-historical analysis, namely, that he actually believed that the Bible is truly God’s Word and that the Westminster Standards provide the best summary of the Bible’s doctrine.
By reversing, albeit tacitly, the relationship between doctrine and life, text and context, belief and action, Gutjahr risks skewing one of the most basic facts of Hodge’s life: he lived, learned, led, and loved as a Presbyterian. However, if Hodge is not allowed to be a free-thinking Christian who built his life upon true doctrine rather than vice versa, then he has become a puppet, a mere product of the nineteenth-century rather than an actor in it. Thankfully, this sentiment only rears its head here and there throughout the book, and only implicitly. But, it is a methodological danger nonetheless.
A few unsubstantiated, albeit mostly minor, assessments are difficult to pass by without comment such as that Hodge differed significantly with Calvin regarding the nature of the sacraments or that Hodge waffled between reliance upon the Holy Spirit and reliance upon philosophical realism. Also, given that Gutjahr brings up the topic of Scottish Common Sense Realism time and again as a cornerstone of Hodge’s theological method (second only to the Westminster Confession of Faith), it was disappointing to find that the chapter devoted to this topic is based primarily on secondary sources and lacks the broad and deep perspective that Gutjahr normally and ably brings to bear upon most other aspects of Hodge’s thought.
Despite these small criticisms, Gutjahr’s biography is excellent and a delight to read. American Presbyterians will rejoice that Hodge has received the thorough and skillful treatment that his life and work deserve.