Charles Hodge: the Presbyterian pope (part I)...
A Review of Paul Gutjahr, Charles Hodge: Guardian of American Orthodoxy
Disclaimer: Paul’s son, Isaac, and my son, John, have been good friends since they were in the same 6th grade class at University Elementary School. After our return from Zambia last year, they’ve played on soccer teams with Isaac a lightning quick and reliable defensive back and John a tall and strong forward. I know Paul as a believing Christian and passionate supporter of both of his soccer-playing sons. In part, he will know me as someone, how shall I put it … who “dislikes” some of our local soccer referees.
Soon after the death of his father, Archie Hodge wrote a biography (published in 1880) of the great Princeton theologian, Charles Hodge. Banner of Truth recently reissued that bio. No other biography has appeared until late last year when Paul Gutjahr, a professor of English at Indiana University, published his; then Andrew Hoffecker published another titled, Charles Hodge: The Pride of Princeton. Oxford University Press published the former and the latter was published by P&R in its American Reformed Biography series. After spending many years at Grove City College, Hoffecker is now professor emeritus of Church History at Reformed Theological Seminary, Jackson.
Recently, I sat down with Paul for an interview. Gutjahr’s dissertation dealt with the history of Bible publishing in America, so to work on Hodge was somewhat of a new direction for his research. He told me he had always wanted to write a biography but wasn’t sure whom to choose as a subject. For several reasons, Charles Hodge proved an ideal candidate.
Paul wanted to work on someone who was an honorable man... Yes, we need biographers of Hitler and Mao, “but that wasn’t going to be me.” If you’re going to live with a subject for many years (this project took ten years), it’s better if you like the man and if he’s one who had a positive influence on his age. Hodge’s influence is well known. He taught the New Testament and theology to more students in the 19th century than any other professor. Whilst the influence of his books is trickier to establish, his commentaries, his articles and his systematic theology reached thousands and he is still read today.
Gutjahr also believes in the need for historical mentors and, once again, Hodge fit the bill. His letters display a wonderful sense of humor and his home was known to be a place of delight for all who entered it.
Hodge loved his family and all but one of his eight children turned out well. He took an interest in those things that interested his children. One child was interested in playing the violin, so Hodge also learned to play the instrument. Another child was interested in rabbits and so Hodge bought a bunch of them. Paul and I were amazed that Hodge’s children played in his study while he worked. Would that we could have such powers of concentration.
Paul also hoped to work on someone whose papers were all in one place (to cut down on travel) and that fit Hodge, also. Princeton Seminary was very kind and generous in giving him access to Hodge’s letters and diaries and everything he needed to write this biography. The seminary is celebrating its bicentennial this year and both Paul and, most likely (we’re guessing) Andrew, were trying to publish their works in time for that. Paul’s biography came out in February 2011 and Hoffecker’s several months later. Unfortunately, OUP wasn’t so careful in their copy-editing, so there were a number of typos in the first hardback edition. (Most were corrected in the paperback edition.)
When I asked Paul what parts of the biography he enjoyed the most, he mentioned two areas: Hodge’s family life and the end of his life. What is remarkable about the Princeton theologian is that his own father died when he was six months old and his mother never remarried. How did he become such an excellent father when he didn’t really have a father? Gutjahr thinks it was two older men in Hodge’s life who served as his models and mentors: Archibald Alexander (for whom Hodge named his first son), and Samuel Miller. Princeton Seminary’s first two professors were godly examples for Hodge. Paul was also impressed with the end of Hodge’s life; so many Christian leaders don’t end well, but Hodge did, and it was a joy for Gutjahr to behold.
One of Paul’s goals in writing the biography was “to bring out the human side of Hodge.” Yes, he had a great mind, but he also had a great heart. Converted during a revival at Princeton College, Charles always spoke and wrote with an experiential dimension. Hoffecker’s biography, which Paul warmly commends, labors to bring out this aspect of Hodge’s life as well. Those who think a confessional theology cannot be wed to real godliness and a vigorous pursuit of holiness need to read Hodge (and his mentor, Alexander).
The greatest challenge for Paul in writing the biography was to figure out how to maintain the reader’s interest. Once he settled in at Princeton Hodge never moved, and his theology was famous for not changing. Plus, Hodge was a thinker, a teacher, a writer. This could mean the biography would be boring but I didn’t find it so. Short chapters, lots of illustrations and pictures, and trying to put Hodge in his historical context were each helpful.
Gutjahr is sympathetic to Hodge’s theology although it is not his own. If he had to write the biography over again, he would inject more of his own interpretations into it. Some biographies of theologians give summaries of the books they wrote. I recall reading Eberhard Busch’s biography of Karl Barth and he did summaries of Barth’s books as they came up in the chronology of Barth’s life. That wasn’t Paul’s goal. He already had to cut 150 pages from his manuscript and Oxford reduced the font size to get more words on each page. Summaries would have made a long book even longer.
One Evangelical magazine named Gutjahr’s bio the best biography of 2012, so his hard work has been rewarded. I commend it. In a second post I will detail some of the highlights of Hodge’s life.