—Thomas Aquinas, In Rom. 1.6.108; trans. Fr. Fabian Richard Larcher, OP (Lander, WY: The Aquinas Institute, 2012).
[I]f I were to essay to express in one word what it is in [the Westminster Standards] which has proved so perennial a source of strength to generation after generation of Christian men, and which causes us still to cling to them with a devotion no less intelligent than passionate, I think I should but voice your own conviction were I to say that it is because these precious documents appeal to us as but the embodiment in fitly chosen language of the pure gospel of the grace of God.
—Benjamin B. Warfield, The Significance of the Westminster Standards as a Creed: An Address Delivered before the Presbytery of New York, November 8, 1897, on the occasion of the celebration of the Two Hundred and Fiftieth Anniversary of the Completion of the Westminster Standards (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1898), 1, 2.
The seventeen essays that comprise this large and wide-ranging second issue of The Kuyper Center Review—more than double the size of the first—are the fruits of two conferences sponsored by Princeton Seminary’s Abraham Kuyper Center for Public Theology: a 2009 conference in celebration of the centennial of Herman Bavinck’s Stone Lectures and a 2010 conference on neo-Calvinist formulations of common grace and contemporary interfaith dialog. The book is divided into two parts accordingly.
If there is a common thread to be found between the two sets of essays, it is this: the strength of the first—a profundity of perspective that is commensurate with a robust engagement of the subject’s primary (Dutch) sources—is the weakness of the second. Many of the Bavinck-related papers cull nuggets from the Bavinck Archives, Bavinck’s correspondence, and other non-translated primary sources; these studies thus enlighten important aspects of his thought from the perspective of a knowledgable insider who stands, albeit critically, within Bavinck’s own tradition. However, many of the Kuyper-related papers attempt critical analyses of his formulation of common grace based upon a translation of brief passages selected from his massive, three-volume De gemeene gratie; thus it is difficult to avoid wondering whether the sweeping conclusions drawn in some of these studies are a bit premature. Additionally, one could raise the question of whether it is useful for anglophones to attempt to evaluate Kuyper’s formulations of common grace apart from another one of his massive, three-volume, untranslated tomes: Pro rege. Not all of the contributions to the second part are limited in this way, however, and not all of them are directly related to Kuyper. What follows is a short synopsis the essays with brief analyses of select points.
Jan Veenhof opens part one with the intriguing suggestion that a correlation attains between three twofold motifs in Bavinck’s thought: general and special revelation, common and special grace, and nature and grace. He finds Bavinck’s attempt to synthesize these dualities laudable for its day but insufficient for contemporary use, especially in light of the theological questions arising from global interfaith dialog. Therefore, he suggests that developing Bavinck’s formulation of Christ as mediator of creation provides an invitation for contemporary advancement of Bavinck’s thought.
Gordon Graham claims that the the brilliance of Bavinck’s Stone Lectures is found in his unveiling the reductio ad absurdum that underlies Nietzsche’s atheistic philosophy of history.
George Harinck sheds intriguing historical light upon Bavinck’s Stone Lectures by explaining why the lectures are entitled The Philosophy of Revelation instead of The Theology of Revelation. He argues that Bavinck is both responding to Lodewijk W. E. Rauwenhoff’s Wijsbegeerte van den godsdienst (1887) and building upon the work of Albertus Bruining (1846–1919), a modernist theologian who had argued that religion and science are not mutually exclusive. In this light Bavinck advances beyond neo-Calvinism’s initial phase of consolidating its own position on the synthesis of Christianity and modern culture and pioneers a second phase, namely, communicating the neo-Calvinist view to others so as to unite all Christian traditions behind a common commitment to defending God’s revelation as the ultimate ground of society. Harinck withholds his judgment in this essay on whether Bavinck’s risky venture was a success, but his verdict can be found elsewhere (see Harinck, “The Religious Character of Modernism and the Modern Character of Religion: A Case Study of Herman Bavinck’s Engagement with Modern Culture,” Scottish Bulletin of Evangelical Theology 29, no. 1 (2011): 60–77).
Henk van den Belt highlights an alleged difference between the epistemological commitments, and hence the apologetic methodologies, employed by Bavinck and B. B. Warfield. He makes his case by noting subtle refinements that Bavinck made to his small book The Certainty of Faith and to his Dogmatiek upon receiving constructive criticisms from Warfield. However, it is debatable whether characterizing Bavinck’s Stone Lectures as “a completely different approach to apologetics from what was common at Princeton” and as one that is undergirded by a penchant for both German idealism and Schleiermachean theology is to overstate the case (55). Nor is it likely that readers will find this short essay to be satisfactory on the large topic of the allegedly differing theological epistemologies of Old Amsterdam and Old Princeton—a topic that is treated at length by Cornelius Van Til and company. Nevertheless, van den Belt helpfully illuminates the persistence of Bavinck’s and Warfield’s transatlantic collegiality despite their intramural disagreements.
Jeffrey Hocking avers that Bavinck’s eschatologically-astute theological methodology is a true tertium quid beyond dogmatism and relativism and that it thus deserves a neologistic moniker: “certitudinal discourse.” Strangely, however, Bavinck’s own terminology for eschatologically-astute theological discourse that he inherited from Reformed orthodoxy is wholly omitted from Hocking’s assessment, namely, theologia unionis, visionis, and viatorum. In terms of clarity, style, and historical continuity, a “theology of pilgrims on the way” is much to be preferred over Hocking’s proposal.
Jon Stanley appropriates Syd Hielema’s analysis of the nature-grace relationship in Bavinck’s thought for the purpose of asserting a way forward in contemporary neo-Calvinism, namely, to emphasize not only that grace restores nature (the traditional Kuyperian line) but also that it renews nature (the distinctly Bavinckian contribution). He offers several suggestions of where Bavinck’s dual emphasis can shed light on contemporary neo-Calvinist thought such as rethinking its standard criticisms of Roman Catholic elevation dualism. These are interesting and welcome suggestions. The essay omits, however, the key theological formulation through which Bavinck treats glorification and renewal: federal theology, especially the foedus operum. Thus the way forward that Stanley suggests cannot be limited to Reformational philosophy but also must take into account the insights of Reformed dogmatics.
James Eglinton presents a trialogue between Hegel, Bavinck, and Barth on the ontology of God, Christ incarnate, and human beings. He finds in Bavinck an overlooked conversation partner for current debates on divine mutability and ontology.
Brian Mattson tours the twentieth century in light of Bavinck’s final Stone Lecture and finds much evidence to confirm the prophetic nature of Bavinck’s instincts regarding the impending dangers lurking behind Hegelian monism. He views Bavinck’s lecture as an adumbration of Eric Voegelin’s warning against “immanentizing the eschaton.”
Beginning part two, Leora Batnitzky suggests, after looking at Kuyper’s formulation of common grace, that Judaism and Calvinism do not differ in their theology but only in their anthropology. However, this proposal faces the difficulty of Cambria Janae Kaltwasser’s essay which highlights the christological foundation of Kuyper’s formulation via a sharp Barthian criticism of his thought.
Anver Emon argues that A Common Word (ACW) is too generic and that it fails to face the hard question for Islam: who is my neighbor? He pursues a concrete answer by analyzing how contemporary reformists are employing the principle of Maqasid al-Sharia to broaden Islam’s tolerance for other religions. He concludes that the way forward may not be as easy as ACW implies.
Beginning with Kuyper and Bavinck, Dirk van Keulen carefully and illuminatingly surveys how several leading theologians in the Reformed Churches in the Netherlands have viewed Islam over the past hundred years.
Emily Dumler-Winckler suggests that Kuyper’s and Bavinck’s formulation of common grace, upon subtracting Kuyper’s unnecessary identification of European culture and Christian social progress, provides a Christian theological basis for heeding ACW’s call to love one’s Jewish or Muslim neighbor and to learn from Jewish and Muslim revelations of God.
Cory Willson initiates a trialog with Bavinck, Berkouwer, and the Talmud to demonstrate that Jewish theology can enlighten the Reformed notion of the imago Dei taken in its broad sense.
James Eglinton’s singular essay on the so-called “two Bavincks” hypothesis gently lays to rest a fifty-year-old annoyance in Bavinck studies, namely, the bi-polar Bavinck. He culls an abundance of evidence from Bavinck’s rectorial addresses, his personal correspondence about his student days at Leiden, and the incipient reassessment of the hypothesis evident in several secondary sources to demonstrate that the schizophrenic reading of Bavinck’s thought that continues to beset Bavinck scholarship is subjective (it leads to “theological apartheid”), ironic (it levels against Bavinck the same polemic he leveled against neo-Thomism), and untenable (it flies in the face of the clear commitment to an organic, trinitarian synthesis of Christianity and culture, theology and science, faith and life that pervades Bavinck’s thought and life). This is a welcome and firm step forward for Bavinck (note the singular!) studies.
Andrew Harmon argues that a Kuyperian formulation of tolerance is possible if it includes a natural law component along the lines of Nicholas Wolterstorff’s “deliberative democracy.”
Robert Covolo proposes that classic neo-Calvinist formulations of the Holy Spirit’s role in non-Christian religions such as Kuyper’s and Bavinck’s can be helpfully advanced by appropriating certain emphases from Amos Young’s recent work on the pneumatology of religions.
Published as Laurence R. O’Donnell III, review of The Kuyper Center Review, Volume Two: Revelation and Common Grace, edited by John Bowlin, The Bavinck Review 3 (2012): 191–95.
Richard Mouw describes his brief book as an alluring first step for the mildly curious reader who wants the lowdown on the Kuyperian hubbub in American public theology but who does not yet have the motivation to tread through a scholarly tome on Kuyper’s thought (p. vii). Hence the brevity: the chapters average merely 4–6 pages in length.
The book is organized into two parts. In the first, Mouw concisely introduces the basic concepts of Kuyper’s public theology such as the cultural mandate, pluralism, sphere sovereignty, religious antithesis, the church-state relationship, and common grace. Herein he achieves the book’s underling goal reasonably well. Nevertheless, given this same goal, it is curious that neither a bibliography nor any sort of orientation to Kuyper’s corpus or the “growing body of excellent and detailed scholarly commentary on Kuyper’s views” is included (p. vii). Thus those who become intrigued by this introductory step and desire to dig deeper will have to look elsewhere for a further introduction to Kuyper’s thought.
In the second part—the “Kuyperian Aggiornamento—Mouw suggests a slew of revisions for contemporary American “neo-Kuyperianism.” This part is somewhat at odds with both the brevity of part one and the underlying goal of the book; for, by juxtaposing a very short introduction with an Americanized update of Kuyper’s public theology, the curious newcomers for whom the book is written are placed in a curious position: either they are expected to determine the validity of Mouw’s suggested updates upon the basis of a very short survey of Kuyper’s public theology, or they are to assume that an introduction to American “neo-Kuyperianism” is better than an introduction to Kuyper’s thought itself. Furthermore, since new topics such as Islam are introduced in part two, it is not immediately apparent how Mouw’s correctives correspond with his survey of Kuyper’s views in part one.
For these reasons, some readers might find this introduction a bit too short and too personal. Nevertheless, if it is kept in mind that this book is intended to be only a first step into Kuyper’s public theology and that it is written explicitly from an American “neo-Kuyperian” perspective, its value and usefulness as a prod for further engagement with Kuyper’s public theology can be appreciated on its own terms.
Published as Laurence R. O’Donnell III, review of Abraham Kuyper: A Short and Personal Introduction by Richard J. Mouw, Calvin Theological Journal 47, no. 1 (2012): 162–63.
- View Rich Mouw’s books at Westminster Bookstore.
With his new book, Michael Williams, Professor of Old Testament at Calvin Theological Seminary, has given the church a wonderful tool to facilitate her following Jesus’s command: “teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you” (Matt. 28:20 ESV).
With refreshing simplicity, Williams’s Jesus Lens takes seriously Jesus’s own interpretation of the Bible’s ultimate unity: the Scriptures testify of me (John 5:39). Thus he aims to teach Christians how to read the Bible as Jesus did—not as a discombobulated collection of random stories but as a single story whose climax and scope is Jesus Christ. “Reading the Bible through the Jesus lens is reading it the way it was intended. It keeps our reading, understanding, teaching, and preaching properly focused on God’s grand redemptive program that centers on his own Son” (p. 9).
“The goal of this book,” continues Williams, “is parallel to that of Christ for the disciples he joined up with on the road to Emmaus” (p. 10): “And beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he interpreted to them in all the Scriptures the things concerning himself” (Luke 24:27 ESV). This is why this book is a wonderful gift to the church: it facilitates a basic understanding of the Bible’s overarching story line in every book of the Bible, and it does so in a clear, concise, and non-technical way.
For example, in treating Genesis, Williams highlights God’s activity of separating throughout the book. This separation culminates in the call of Abraham, which, when viewed through the Jesus lens, ties in directly to Jesus’s fulfillment of the Abrahamic promise (see, e.g., Galatians 3:7–8). “Jesus is the one to whom all God’s separating was always meant to lead, and Jesu is separate from all others in his ability to bring the promised divine blessing to the nations” (p. 15; see Acts 4:12). God continues his work of separating in his church today (2 Corinthians 5:18–20), and he calls us to pass on the Abrahamic blessing we have received in Christ (pp. 15–16).
Because this book is written for normal readers (not scholars), it can be used in many ways. You can give it to a non-Christian who wants to know what the Bible is all about. You can give it to a new Christian who is seeking to grow in understanding God’s Word. You can use it to teach a Sunday School class. Additionally, if you want to attend a class on this book, you can take an online class taught by the author himself.
- Read Contents and Ch. 1: Genesis of Jesus Lens
- See Zondervan’s accompanying blog tour
- Watch Williams describe what his book is and why he wrote it:
- Read one of Professor Williams’s other books:
— Basil of Caesarea, De Spiritu Sancto, § 27.
— Basil of Caesarea, De Spiritu Sancto, § 2.
Introduction to Reformed Scholasticism by Willem J. van Asselt with contributions by T. Theo J. Pleizier, Pieter L. Rouwendal, and Maarten Wisse. Translated by Albert Gootjes. Grand Rapids: Reformation Heritage Books, 2011. Pp. xiv + 263. $25.00 paper.
Preview the contents, Richard Muller’s forward, and the opening essay by Willem J. van Asselt and Pieter L. Rouwendal: “What is Reformed Scholasticism?”
The Reformed pastor or seminarian interested in studying a figure or a doctrinal formulation from the mid-sixteenth- to late-seventeenth-century period of Reformed doctrinal florescence faces a daunting journey into an area that is largely terra incognita in the standard seminary curriculum—Reformed scholasticism. For starters, the historical scope is huge: from eleventh-century Scholasticism to eighteenth-century Enlightenment. Additionally, the field is not anglophone-friendly: the primary sources (very few of which have been translated into English) are in Latin, and, until recently, many of the most important secondary sources are in Dutch, French, German, or Italian. What is more, engagement with the sources requires, at a minimum, familiarity with Aristotle, Augustine, and Aquinas. The propaedeutic path appears almost impassible for mere mortals.
Yet, all hope is not lost; for, as the ancient Chinese proverb teaches, the journey of a million miles begins with a small step. But, to continue the metaphor, if one is to begin the million-mile journey into the field of Reformed scholasticism, one certainly needs a good map. The new English translation of Willem J. van Asselt’s Inleiding in de gereformeerde scholastiek (Zoetermeer: Boekencentrum, 1998) (Introduction to Reformed Scholasticism) is therefore most welcome; for, by mapping the field of study and providing a guidebook for further research, this book both fills a void in anglophone scholarship and gives hope to newcomers that the path, despite its daunting appearance, is not altogether impassible.
The authors describe their purpose as follows: “This textbook reveals the roots, developments, and main topics of this theology [Reformed scholasticism] in their historical context and is meant as a stimulus for further study” (xiv). Specifically, readers will find: clear definitions of “orthodoxy,” “scholasticism,” and “Reformed scholasticism”; a historical survey of the entire era of scholasticism; introductions to the most important figures and schools of thought throughout the three periods of Reformed orthodoxy; a state of the question on key issues along with significant bibliographies appended to each chapter; a reader’s guide that details how to approach a scholastic text and applies the method to Gisbertus Voetius’ disputation on “The Use of Reason in Matters of Faith.” Thus, to quote from Richard A. Muller’s forward, this book “is not merely an introductory survey. It is a significant guide for the further study of the era” (x).
Compared to the Dutch original, chapters 4, 5, and 9 have been updated (with mostly formal changes), and an entirely new chapter on the implications of Reformed scholasticism for today has been added (ch. 11).
The book is arranged into two parts, the first of which treats the scholastic method in post-Reformation Reformed theology. Notably, in chapter 1, van Asselt and Pieter L. Rouwendall explicitly locate the book in what might be termed a revisionist line of historiography on Reformed scholasticism. This means that they disagree with the traditional answer given to the key question that undergirds the entire field of study: what is the nature of the historical relation between Medieval scholasticism, Reformation theology, and post-Reformation scholasticism? At the risk of generalization, the traditional answer is that, after the Reformation (which supposedly was a time of warm, simple, biblical theology), Protestant theology reverted to the cold, dry, rationalistic scholasticism that the Reformers sought to leave behind. This answer is largely based upon the assumption that the new scholastic form of post-Reformation theology (which, according to both sides, is an indisputable development) entails a change in content of that theology.
The revisionists dispute the latter. They counter that Reformed scholasticism is primarily a change in method rather than content: “The most important thesis we will defend in this work is that the term scholastic refers above all to method, without direct implications for content. It pertains to methods of disputation and reasoning which characterize scholasticism in contrast to other ways of doing theology” (8). Accordingly, they point out that, during this period, the scholastic method was used not only for theological content but also for jurisprudence and medicine. Also, they note that scholasticism was the universal method employed by Reformed, Roman Catholic, and Lutheran theologians alike. Therefore, since the scholastic method was employed to propagate a wide variety of content in multiple academic fields and a wide array of conflicting theologies, the revisionists view the older assessment to be untenable.
Starting with Schleirmacher and Hegel, in chapter 2, van Asselt and Rouwendal survey nineteenth-century approaches to the underlying historical question along with twentieth- and twenty-first-century reactions and developments. Against this backdrop they present their revisionist case for seeing a much larger measure of positive continuity between the theological content of Medieval scholasticism, Reformation theology, and Reformed scholasticism.
In chapter 3, T. Theo J. Pleizier and Maarten Wisse introduce Aristotle’s signal methodological role in Reformed scholasticism. Contrary to the common caricature of Reformed scholastics as naïve synthesizers of Aristotle’s pagan philosophy and the Holy Bible, the authors argue that the Reformed scholastics did not appropriate from Aristotle uncritically. Rather, they gave many terms new meanings, and they rejected several aspects of Aristotelian philosophy outright. The authors also present a basic survey of Aristotle’s corpus and introduce key concepts from his metaphysical formulations that appear in Reformed polemics with Socinians, Lutherans, and Roman Catholics.
In chapter 4, Wisse presents Augustine’s significant material role in Reformed scholasticism. He avers that, just as Aristotle is the methodological fount of Reformed scholasticism, so Augustine is its didactic and polemical fount especially regarding prolegomena, the doctrines of God and the Holy Trinity, and the doctrine of predestination.
Rouwendal surveys Medieval scholasticism in chapter 5. He explains how specific features of the scholastic method work such as the several steps of the quaestio method. He also introduces the most important Medieval theologians and texts. Thus he illuminates the Medieval methodological tools and theological sources that the Reformed scholastics critically appropriated in order to formulate their theological positions.
In chapter 6, van Asselt introduces a significant historical question that is a derivative of the larger continuity-discontinuity question that underlies the study of Reformed scholasticism, namely, how the Renaissance relates to the Reformation and hence how humanism relates to scholasticism. Building on the work of Paul Kristeller, he suggests that scholars of Reformed scholasticism need to broaden their horizon in order to take humanism into account insofar as a humanist line and a scholastic line coexist both in the Renaissance and the Reformation periods.
Van Asselt and Rouwendal trace the development of Reformed theological method in chapter 7. Beginning with early Reformation-era guides to Bible reading such as are found in Erasmus, Melanchthon, and Calvin, the authors illuminate the origins and growth of the loci method, the rise of Ramism, the distinction between the analytic and synthetic methods, and the discussions on whether theology is a theoretical or practical science.
Part 2, authored in whole by van Asselt, is comprised of three chapter-length surveys of the periods of early, high, and late Reformed orthodoxy (chs. 8–10). Van Asselt explicates each period’s historical context, main theological debates, and eminent centers of Reformed theology (mostly Reformed academies and universities along with their attending theologians). He also provides theological samplings from representative theologians of each era: Franciscus Junius’s formulation of the theologia archetypa-ectypa distinction, Francis Turretin’s quaestio on the freedom of the will, and Benedict Pictet’s view of the relation between reason and revelation respectively.
In chapter 11, van Asselt rehearses several historical correctives from the revisionist line of Reformed scholasticism studies and suggests several ways in which the field can be further developed. He also returns to the question with which the book began: does Reformed scholasticism have any relevance for theology today? He answers in the affirmative regarding three areas: (1) ignorance of Reformed scholasticism leads to superficiality and vagueness in theological formulations; (2) the all-encompassing breadth with which the Reformed scholastics sought to bring to bear in their explanations of God’s agency in the world is worth emulating; (3) the intent of the quaestio method—to attain clarity through critical analysis of ones’ own and another’s ideas and to theologize in light of the great stream of catholic orthodoxy—is a pressing need in contemporary Protestant theology.
To these benefits, three more can be added specifically for those of us within the American Presbyterian and Reformed tradition. First, this book challenges the overtly negative attitude toward Reformed scholasticism that arose in early twentieth-century Reformed philosophy at the Free University in Amsterdam under Herman Dooyeweerd, which attitude was then imported to American Reformed theology via Cornelius Van Til. It is time for a reassessment of this attitude based upon actual interaction with the primary sources of Reformed scholasticism, a feature that is lacking in this earlier scholarship. Second, for those of us who are not expert Latinists, this book still provides an invaluable orientation to the Reformed scholastic texts that are available in English such as Edward Leigh’s Body of Divinity, John Owen’s Works, Francis Turretin’s Institutes of Elenctic Theology, and even Herman Bavinck’s Reformed Dogmatics. Third, insofar as this book highlights the international scope and vast breadth and depth of Reformed theology in its period of florescence, it challenges contemporary Reformed theologians to avoid reductionistic tendencies such as thinking that one’s pet theologian is the sole paragon of Reformed theology.
This first-class guidebook is highly recommended to anyone interested in a basic orientation to the study of Reformed scholasticism.
This review is published as Laurence R. O’Donnell III, review of Introduction to Reformed Scholasticism by Willem J. van Asselt with contributions by T. Theo J. Pleizier, Pieter L. Rouwendal, and Maarten Wisse, Puritan Reformed Journal 4, no. 1 (2012): 343–47.
I noted earlier that the audio recording of Richard A. Muller’s lecture, “Jonathan Edwards and the Absence of Free Choice: A Parting of Ways in the Reformed Tradition,” is freely available thanks to the Jonathan Edwards Center at TEDS (MP3; 66 MB):
Richard A. Muller, “Jonathan Edwards and the Absence of Free Choice: A Parting of Ways in the Reformed Tradition,” Jonathan Edwards Studies 1, no. 1 (2011): 3–22.
Access to the article is free, but you must register an account in order to view it. The abstract is as follows:
Jonathan Edwards, frequently identified in modern discussions of his thought as the “greatest American theologian” and often regarded as an epitome of Calvinism for his teaching on the freedom of will, was, in his own time and for a century after his death, a much-debated thinker whose views had a polarizing effect in Reformed circles. Scholars have examined the reception of his ideas in America and have noted a rather pointed opposition both in New England and in the American South. The reception of Edwards’ thought in Britain, however, has received far less attention, even though it offers a rather significant perspective on Edwards’ place in the Reformed tradition.
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.