Book Review: Charles Hodge by Paul C. Gutjahr
J. V. Fesko
Paul C. Gutjahr, Charles Hodge: Guardian of American Orthodoxy (Oxford: OUP, 2011). 528pp. Hardback. $74.00.
Charles Hodge (1797-1878) is a massive theological giant among a field of Lilliputians, and this is putting it mildly. No American theological professor taught more graduate students than Hodge, well over three thousand. He edited over one hundred and twenty issues of the Biblical Repertory and Princeton Review, to which he personally contributed over two hundred articles. Hodge wrote four biblical commentaries, including his world-renowned and still read commentary on Romans, a devotional book called The Way of Life, as well as his three-volume Systematic Theology, and several other key works. Hodge’s influence has been massive, yet in the last fifty years there have been three biographies of Horace Bushnell, five of Ralph Waldo Emerson, six on Charles Finney, and seven biographies on Joseph Smith, all figures who were contemporaneous with Hodge. Hodge only has one biography written about him, and this was written by his son, A. A. Hodge, two years after his death. Sadly, no one has esteemed Hodge worthy of an in-depth biography for the last one hundred and thirty years, until now (4).
To say the least, Paul Gutjahr, professor of English at Indiana University, has written an eminently readable biography of Hodge, one who was once called the “Pope of Presbyterianism” (3). Gutjahr’s work is very thorough and based upon a close reading of primary source documentation including hundreds of pages of Hodge’s own hand-written personal papers, letters, and notes. Gutjahr writes in an engaging style in brief and crisply written chapters that cover Hodge’s life from his birth until his death as well as an interesting epilogue that recounts Hodge’s abiding impact even to this day through a number of prominent theological leaders such as Machen, Warfield, Sproul, and Piper, as well as institutions such as Westminster Seminary, and denominations such as the Orthodox Presbyterian Church (382-83). In many ways Gutjahr’s work is fascinating and illuminating as he sheds light on Hodge’s education at the feet of Archibald Alexander, discusses his use and interaction with Reformed Orthodox sources such as Francis Turretin, and treats the various controversies in which Hodge participated throughout his theological career. Gutjahr also provides the reader with a great deal of historical texture by which one can gain a better understanding of Hodge and his times. For example, many are aware of the debates that Hodge engaged in with James Henley Thornwell over the legitimacy of Roman Catholic baptisms, but what some might not know are the debates’ connection to the influx of many Irish and German Roman Catholic immigrants (235). In other words, theological debates are not argued in a historical vacuum, and one has to account for cultural influences upon theological debates. Did the General Assembly of 1845 decide this issue on theological grounds alone, or were the floods of European immigrants a factor?
Gutjahr’s treatment is quite good, but there are some imprecise theological statements that were an annoyance. For example, at times Gutjahr presents Hodge’s views on epistemology as if he was an unreconstructed Common Sense Realist (40, 203). Paul Helseth’s recent book “Right Reason” and the Princeton Mind: An Unorthodox Proposal (Phillipsburg: P & R, 2010) presents these matters with much greater precision and nuance. Another example is the dated scholarship that Gutjahr employs in his analysis of the significance of the Westminster Standards. Gutjahr claims that the confession was written in response to the challenges posed by Arminianism (26), which is a better description of the Canons of Dort. The Standards were written in response to the call by Parliament for the need to write a unifying set of confession and catechisms for the churches of England and Scotland. Gutjahr also claims that Westminster stressed God’s absolute sovereignty far more than earlier confessional documents such as the Belgic Confession or the Heidelberg Catechism. Yet generations of theologians have held that the Westminster Standards and the Three Forms of Unity are harmonious on most, if not all theological points (though debate does exist over the nature of the Sabbath, for example). To wit, readers can compare these confessions and catechisms in Joel Beeke’s and Sinclair Ferguson’s Reformed Confessions Harmonized (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1999), pp. 28-29. While these theological judgments and mischaracterizations are unfortunate, readers can still greatly benefit from Gutjahr’s work.
In the recent past many have thrown Hodge under the bus, so to speak. Cornelius Van Til was perhaps one of the more prominent Reformed figures to lodge his dissatisfaction with Hodge’s views on epistemology, and a host of his disciples followed suit. Again, Helseth’s book is an excellent rebuttal argument to these criticisms. More recently others have argued that Hodge was Lutheran in his understanding of the doctrine of justification. Interestingly enough, Gutjahr identifies Hodge’s theological genes in Turretin more so than anyone else. It is definitely encouraging to see a new body of literature on Old Princeton figures such as Hodge emerge. Hopefully, readers will once again appreciate the great debt of gratitude that the American church, and especially the Reformed and Presbyterian churches in this country, owes to men like Hodge. Readers would do well to purchase and read Gutjahr’s riveting biography on the Pope of Presbyterianism.