Reading Charles Hodge in Context
In many circles, Charles Hodge is most famous for this infamous statement:
The Bible is to the theologian what nature is to the man of science. It is his store-house of facts; and his method of ascertaining what the Bible teaches, is the same as that which the natural philosopher adopts to ascertain what nature teaches. (Systematic Theology 1:10)
Sounds pretty bad, right? Or at least, it can be made to sound pretty bad: Charles Hodge the naive, cold-hearted rationalist who approached his Bible as if he were on a treasure hunt for wooden and timeless principles. For liberals and post-evangelicals–not to mention past-evangelicals who get up in the morning looking for someone from Old Princeton to kick–this statement from Hodge epitomizes everything that’s wrong with conservative inerrantists. These descendants from Hodge, it is said, treat the Bible like an owner’s manual dropped out of the sky, like a dead insect to be examined, like a staid collection of lifeless propositions.
But what did Hodge actually say? Or mean to say given the context?
The quotation above comes from the first chapter of Hodge’s Systematic Theology. Like dozens of Reformed systematicians before him–including Francis Turretin, whose Institutes of Elenctic Theology was used at Princeton before being replaced by Hodge’s Theology–Hodge began his work with a Prolegomena examining the nature and method of theology. Right or wrong, there is nothing particularly novel about Hodge’s general approach.
What sounds jarring to our 21st century ears is Hodge’s emphasis on theology as science. If I were writing a systematic theology, would I introduce “science” as my all-encompassing metaphor? Probably not. But in a hundred years will Christian theologians compare their theological approach to drama or dance or jazz or mystery? Doubtful. Will people look back at our day and wonder if our fascination with entertainment and stories overly influenced our theological method? They may. And they may be right, just like we are right to wonder if Hodge went too far to emphasize theology as science.
But in both cases–looking back at Hodge now, and someone looking back at our day a century from now–the important thing is to look beyond the analogies themselves to understand what the theologians were trying to communicate. There is a sense in which “theology as drama” is a helpful reminder that God has a story to tell and we are a part of it, that the Bible presents to us a glorious story of redemption and restoration, and that at the center of this story is the long-awaited Messiah, Jesus of Nazareth. Approaching theological reflection as a drama has its merits. But so does approaching theology as a science. The Bible is a big book and different analogies capture different aspects of the truth.
For Hodge, theology was like a science because in theological reflection the Christian must arrange the facts of Scripture in their proper order and relation (19). Theology is “something more than a mere knowledge of facts” (1). Hodge never thought of systematic theology as the recitation of barren propositions. But he likened theology to science because he believed the work of the systematician was to show how all the parts of the Bible relate to each other with logical consistory and harmony.
Any Christian who affirms the verbal, plenary inspiration of Scripture–and consequently, the Bible’s overall unity–should find no quarrel with Hodge’s aims. His great concern was that we see the Bible not as isolated points and unrelated facts, but in all its “unending harmony and grandeur” (3). Hodge defends his method by arguing that the human mind cannot avoid systematizing truth and God desires that we do so (3-4). In rejecting the “speculative method” of deists and transcendentalists, and the “mystical method” of enthusiasts and liberals, Hodge champions the “inductive method” whereby we observe the text and arrange the truths that we observe into a coherent whole
Of Head and Heart
Does Hodge rely too much on the trustworthiness of our mental faculties? At times, perhaps, but he is certainly not afraid of experiential knowledge. He speaks of believers having “an unction from the Holy one” to believe the truth and of “an inward teaching” that “produces a conviction which no sophistries can obscure, and no arguments can shake” (15). Hodge did not want experiential knowledge to ever trump that which is objectively revealed in Scripture, but given the right caveats and put in the right place he could affirm that “the inward teaching of the Spirit is allowed its proper place in determining our theology” (16). This hardly sounds like the Hodge his caricaturists would like him to be. In fact, the Hodge who argued that “the true method of theology” is “inductive, which assumes that the Bible contains all the facts or truths” of theology (17), also argued that the “facts of religious experience,” when authenticated by Scripture, should be “allowed to interpret the doctrinal statements of the Word of God” (16).
“Science” was Hodge’s way of affirming Scripture’s unity, consistency, and harmony. The inductive approach had nothing to do with suspicion of experience or a preference for theology by Excel spreadsheet. If anything, Hodge’s method reflects his concern that “it is no uncommon thing to find men having two theologies–one of the intellect, and another of the heart” (16). Hodge knew that some men have better theology in their hearts than in their heads and that good theology in the head should make it into the heart. That anyone would find the orderly systematization of biblical revelation a lifeless or dull ordeal would be surprising to Hodge.
The Bible, for Hodge, was not a periodic table of religious elements to be analyzed and quantified. It was a precious deposit of truth which would shine even brighter when arrayed in all its God-given splendor. The Bible is indeed a store-house of facts—soul-thrilling, experiential, coherent, gospel-laden, Christ-exalting facts. What could be more important than to arrange those facts so we can see how they all relate to each other? You may call that drama. Hodge called it science. Sounds pretty good to me.
All of which is to say, those who make Hodge sound the worst are typically those who have read him least.