Review of Hodge’s 3 Volumes

Charles Hodge is the highpoint of American theology. While Dabney searched deeper into the issues, Hodge’s position (if only because the North won) allowed him a wider influence. Thornwell was the more brilliant orator and Palmer the greater preacher, but Hodge was the teacher and systematician. Of the Princetonians Hodge is supreme. His writing style is smoother than Warfield’s and he is deeper than his predecessors.

We rejoice that Hendrickson Publishing is issuing these three volumes at $30. Even with the page-length quotations in Latin, Hodge is strong where American Christianity is weak. A renaissance in Hodge would reinvigorate discussions about epistemology, the doctrine of God and God’s knowledge, justification, and God’s law. We will look at Hodge’s discussion of epistemology, doctrine of God, human nature (including both sin and free volition), soteriology, and ethics.

Common Sense Realism
Far from stultifying the gospel, Hodge’s position safeguards the reliability of “truth-speak” and if taken seriously today, adds another angle to the “convert” phenomenon. A properly basic belief is one that doesn’t need another belief for justification. I’m not so sure if Hodge is making that claim. However, he does anticipate some of Plantinga’s positions by saying that God so constituted our nature to believe x, y, and z. My aim is to show from Hodge’s own words that our cognitive faculties are (1) reliable and (2) made so by God. I will advance upon Hodge’s conclusions: a commoner can read the Bible and get the general “gist” of it apart from an infallible interpreting body. Secondly, to deny the above point attacks the image of God. Thirdly, to deny the above point is to reduce all to irrationality. The practical application: Those who deny this position often find themselves looking for “absolute” and infallible arbiters of the faith. Such a position denies a key aspect of our imago dei.

“Any doctrine [and Hodge is using this word in the technical sense of philosophic and/or scientific beliefs], therefore, which contradicts the facts of consciousness, or the laws of belief which God has impressed upon our nature, must be false” (I: 215).

“Our knowledge of mind, therefore, as a thinking substance, is the first and most certain, and the most indestructible of all forms of knowledge; because it is involved in self-knowledge…which is the indispensable condition of all knowledge” (I: 277).

It is interesting to note his reference to self-knowledge. One is reminded of Calvin’s duplex cognito dei.

Doctrine of God

…[S]tart with the revelation that God has made of himself in the constitution of our own nature and in his holy word. This method leads to the conclusion that God can think and act, that in him essence and attributes are not identical (I: 564).

It’s also interesting to note Hodge’s comment about God constituting our nature in a certain way. Shades of Thomas Reid.

“To say, as the schoolmen, and so many even of Protestant theologians, ancient and modern, were accustomed to say, that the divine attributes differ only in name, or in our conceptions, or in their effects, is to destroy all true knowledge of God…If in God knowledge is identical with eternity, knowledge with power, power with ubiquity, and ubiquity with holiness, then we are using words without meaning (I: 371-372).

The attributes of God, therefore, are not merely different conceptions in our minds, but different modes in which God reveals himself to his creatures…just as our several faculties are different modes in which the inscrutable substance self reveals itself in our consciousness and acts (I: 374).

So what do we mean by simplicity? Rome has a thorough, if ultimately chaotic, answer to this question. Orthodoxy has an outstanding response to Rome, but nothing in terms of a constructive view of Simplicity. Following Turretin, Hodge writes,

The attributes are to be distinguished not realiter, but;”virtualiter, that is, there is a real foundation in the divine nature for the several attributes attributed to him (I: 370).

What does virtualiter mean?
Richard Muller defines it as “literally, i.e., with virtue or power” (Muller 371).

It’s interesting that Muller mentioned “power.” This corresponds with Radde-Galwitz’s interpretation of Gregory of Nyssa. Alluding to Michel Barnes he notes that divine power is the causal capacity rooted in the divine nature; inseparable from the divine nature and gives rise to the divine energies (Barnes 183). Further, each “Good” (or attribute, in our case) entails another.

Human Nature
Charles Hodge’s key argument regarding the free will controversy is this: does infallible certainty of a future event destroy human liberty? He answers no. Hodge gives a lengthy explanation that the Reformed tradition can maintain free agency, yet God’s foreknowledge of future actions is not threatened (Hodge, II: 296-304). Part of his discussion is labored and a bit confusing, for he realizes that “free will” has as many glosses as it does adherents. He explains what is and is not meant by “free will.”

I do not always agree with his defining of the terms. He lists the three options: necessity (fatalism), contingency (free-willism) and certainty (Reformed and Augustinianism). My problem with Hodge’s list is that traditional Reformed orthodoxy made a distinction between the necessity of the consequent (absolute necessity as pertaining to God ad intra) and necessity of the consequent thing (conditional necessity). My problem with his term “contingency” is that it risks confusion: God is a necessary being; man is a contingent one. It is evident, though, that Hodge makes clear he means the semi-Pelagian options. He does advance the discussion forward, though, with his use of the term “certainty.” Hodge is content to show that opponents of the Reformed system cannot demonstrate a contradiction between the proposition “all events are foreknown by God and will happen with certainty,” and the proposition, “Man can make rational choices apart from absolute necessity.” Hodge lists several metaphysical and biblical examples. God is a most perfect being. This is a certainty (else we are doomed!), yet few will argue that God’s liberty is impinged. Jesus’s crucifixion was foreknown in the mind of God, yet the Roman soldiers sinned most freely.

This raises an interesting issue: many semi-Pelagians try to duck the Reformed charge by saying, “God simply foresees who will believe and elects them based on his foreseeing their believing.” Besides being a crass works-righteousness, does this really solve the problem? Is their belief any less certain? If the semi-Pelagian argues that election is God’s foreseeing their faith, then we must ask if this is a certain action? It’s hard to see how they can say no. If they do affirm that it is certain, then they must at least agree (hypothetically) with the Reformed gloss that certainty does not destroy free agency.

So what does it mean for a man to act “freely.” Few people on either side ever define this satisfactorily. Hodge loosely follows the standard Reformed gloss: the will follows the intellect (which is assumed to be fallen). Man can be said to act freely if he acts naturally: man acts according to the way he was created (II: 304).


One of the objections to the doctrine of the satisfaction of Christ is that the transfer of guilt (ours/Adam’s) and/or the transfer of righteousness (Christ’s) is morally and legally impossible. Hodge answers:

“The transfer of guilt or righteousness, as states of consciousness or forms of moral character, is indeed impossible. But the real transfer of guilt as”a responsibility to justice, and as righteousness which satisfies that justice,’ is no more impossible than that one man should pay the debt of another. All that the bible teaches on the subject is that Christ paid as a substitute our debt to the justice of God” (II: 540-541).

Vol. 3: 114ff

Hodge gives a wonderful and penetrating treatment on justification. He notes that The nature of the act of justification Does not produce subjective change. It is an Act of God not in his character of sovereign but in character of judge (speech-act?)

Includes both pardon and declaration that believer is just in the sight of the law. It is not saying that the believer is morally just in terms of character. The believer is just in relation to the law–guilt is expiated (120). It is not mere pardon: sinner’s guilt is expiated (125). Mere Pardon does not produce reconciliation (128).

Scriptural usage:
Dt 25:1. Judge pronounces a judgment. He does not effect a character change. Condemnation is the opposite of justify. A sentence of condemnation does not effect an evil character change. Thus, if sentence of condemnation is judicial act, so is justification (123).

Romanist Views
Infusion of righteousness does nothing for guilt (though possibly they would say the guilt is washed away in baptism). Accordingly, justification does nothing for the satisfaction of justice. Even if the Romanist claim that justification makes me holy were true, I would still be liable to justice (133).

Satisfaction of Justice
An adequate theory of justification must account for satisfying justice (130). Nothing “within” me can do that.

Works of the Law
Scripture never designates specifically “what kind of works” (137). The word “law” is used in a comprehensive sense. Nomos binds the heart–law of nature. Not ceremonial. Paul says “thou shalt not covet” as the law that condemns me (Romans 7). Not ceremonial. Grace and works are antithetical. It doesn’t make sense to subdivide works (138).

The Ground of justification is always what is done for us, not what is in us

  • justified by his blood (Romans 5:19)
  • by his righteousness (5:18)
  • If just means “morally good,” then it would be absurd to say that one man is just because of another (141).
  • We say that the claims against him are satisfied.
  • When God justifies the ungodly, he does not declare him morally godly, but that his sins are expiated.

Hypothetical Objections Proves Protestant View
Why object over possible antinomianism if faith alone not true (Romans 6; p. 140)?

The Law of God
Like older Reformed systematics, Hodge has a treatment of the Decalogue. Much of it is common fare. What is interesting is the way he handled it. By reading his arguments we see a commentary on problematic cultural issues. Of particular importance, which I won’t develop here, are his expositions of the 4th and 7th commandment. In the latter he specifically deals with Romanist tyranny in marriage.

Throughout the whole discussion he is combating Jesuitism. We do not see that today. Modern systematics, even conservative ones, are scared of appearing “conspiratorial.” Hodge’s age was a manlier age. They called it for what it was. They knew that Jesuits swear an oath to destroy Protestant nations by any means necessary. And they knew that only the Law of God provides spiritual and political liberty.  This is why God doesn’t take conservative, political evangelicalism seriously today.

Hodge is not entirely clear, though. When he wants to prove the Levitical prohibitions as binding today on sanguinuity and close-kin marriage, he argues like Greg Bahnsen. Almost word for word. If he did that today he would be fired. But when he wants to argue against more theocratic penalties, he sounds like a dispensationalist.

Keith Mathison’s book on Calvin’s view of the Supper is now something of a classic, and deservedly so. I am in large agreement with most of the book. I certainly lean towards Calvin. That said, I think one of the unintended consequences of the book is a slighting of Charles Hodge among the “Young Turk Calvinists.” It’s not that I disagree with Mathison or Calvin, but I am concerned about the new interest in Nevin. I used to be a hard-core Hegelian for 3 years. Nevin was also an Hegelian. Granted, Nevin pulled back from the worst of Hegel. I am not so sure Nevin’s modern interpreters fully understand that. I hope to give something of a modified defense of Hodge on the Supper:

“really conveying to the believing recipient, Christ, and all the benefits of his redemption…There must be a sense, therefore, in which believers receive the body and blood of Christ” (III: 622).


Anything is said to be present when it operates duly on our perceiving senses” (637). I am not so sure Hodge is able to dodge Mathison’s charge. I agree with Hodge’s common sense realism, but I don’t think Hodge’s next point follows: “In like manner Christ is present when he thus fills the mind, sheds abroad his love into our hearts…” (638). I suppose the question at issue is this: we grant that Christ fills the mind. We grant that sensory operations also fill the mind, but it does not necessarily follow that Christ is present in the Supper in a sensory manner. In some sense I think all Reformed would agree with that.

Hodge makes the common Reformed point that “what is affirmed to be present is not the body and blood of Christ absolutely, but his body as broken and his blood as shed” (641). This is a decisive point against High Church traditions: when they insist upon a literal reading, “This is my body,” the Reformed can point that Christ’s wasn’t sacrificed yet, so the “body” at issue can’t be the sacrificial body.

Hodge concludes his exposition of the Reformed teaching with “There is therefore a presence of Christ’s body in the Lord’s Supper; not local but spiritual; not to the senses, but to the mind and to faith; and not of nearness, but of efficacy” (643).

The Problem with Nevin
Throughout the work is a running attack on Nevin’s theology. Hodge makes a point that isn’t always grasped by Nevin’s defenders today: if we accept Nevin’s platonic essentialism, especially with regard to the Eucharist and Christology, then we run into huge problems. If Christ assumed the universal humanity, then he also assumed the rules of predicating of genus: the more universal a genus, the less specific it is. If Christ is the universal humanity, then there is nothing specifically human about him!

It is superfluous to sing of Hodge’s greatness. That is a given. I do have some issues with his treatment. Hodge routinely appeals to the “received consensus of the church” for many of his doctrines. There are several problems with this. Aside from the most general teachings from the Creeds, appeals to the Patrum Consensus are problematic and question-begging. Further, the Eastern Orthodox Church, to which Hodge sometimes appeals, would not share his assumptions about Adam’s imputed guilt, for example.


One comment on “Review of Hodge’s 3 Volumes

  1. Terry says:

    Good review. I may have to purchase the hardback set. $19.99 at
    Appreciate all the effort you put into these reviews.

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