Friday, April 08, 2011

Is Charles Hodge Also Among the Gnostics?

This post is about Charles Hodge, but I must begin by giving some background. In my article “Finney and the ‘New Measures’”, I shared some of the strange practices that entered into the America church in the mid 19th century. In short, subjective experience replaced Church as the nexus of Protestant religion, giving rise to the popular Gnostic notion that “Christianity is a relationship not a religion” (a notion I respond to HERE).

This point was not lost on Philip Schaff, who expressed concern that the popular revivalism of his day (discussed under the rubric of Methodism), was replacing objective means of grace such as the sacraments with “subjective means and exciting impressions”. When describing revivalism (discussed under the rubric of Methodism) for his native German audience, he said

“In worship, Methodism is not satisfied with the usual divinely ordained means of grace. It really little understands the use of the Sacraments, though it adheres traditionally to infant baptism, and four times a year celebrates the Lord’s Supper, as a simple commemoration. It has far more confidence in subjective means and exciting impressions, than in the more quiet and unobserved but surer work of the old church system of educational religion.”

It was this “unchurchly” strain of the revivalist movement that formed the staple of the John Williamson Nevin’s devastating critique, The Anxious Bench. Written in 1843, the same year he was joined at Mercersburg by Philip Schaff, Nevin hoped the book would halt the influx of the New Measures into the German Reformed Church, into which he converted upon his arrival at the seminary.

Instead of merely focusing on the more obvious defects and symptoms of the New Measures, The Anxious Bench attempted to critique the theological orientation implicit in these innovations. This orientation, he argued, was one in which the ongoing, corporate life of the objective church was displaced by the sudden spiritual excitements of the subjective individual:
“All is made to hang methodistically on sudden and violent experiences, belonging to the individual separately taken, and holding little or no connection with his relations to the Church previously...”

Nevin (pictured left) went on to set up a contrast between “the religion of the Bench” with what he termed “the system of the Catechism”. By the latter he meant the entire apparatus of the Church as the vehicle by which the theanthropic life of Christ is carried forward through history and imparted to mankind. By using the Catechism as the symbol of this theanthropic life, Nevin hoped to emphasize the aspect of the church as Mother, instructing and nurturing her children into Christian maturity.
“…where the system of the Catechism prevails, great account is made of the Church, and all reliance placed upon the means of grace comprehended in its constitution, as all sufficient under God for the accomplishment of its own purposes. ...the Church is truly the mother of all her children. They do not impart life to her, but she imparts life to them.”
This was no empty theory for Nevin, nor was it merely a difference of emphasis. Rather, Nevin believed that the ramifications of these competing systems were directly relevant to how we think of our children. Because the revivalist prototype for entry into the Christian faith was that of a sudden, dramatic conversion, where it prevailed little or no attention was given to the slow and organic nurture of children within the bosom of the church. Nevin complained that under the system of the Anxious Bench "children of the Church are left to grow up like the children of the world, under general most heartless, most disastrous neglect." By contrast, where the system of the Catechism prevails,
a serious interest will be taken in the case of children, as proper subjects for the Christian salvation, from the earliest age. Infants born in the Church, are regarded and treated as members of it from the beginning, and this privilege is felt to be something more than an empty shadow…. is counted not only possible but altogether natural, that children growing up in the bosom of the Church, under the faithful application of the means of grace, should be quickened into spiritual life in a comparatively quiet way... Where the Church has lost all faith in this method of conversion, either not looking for it at all, or looking for it only in rare and extraordinary instances, it is an evidence that she is under the force of a wrong religious theory, and practically subjected, at least in some measure, to the false system whose symbol is the Bench."

By emphasizing church as the mediator of divine grace, Nevin struck right at the root of the Gnostic impulse that was becoming axiomatic within 19th century evangelical discourse. For the Gnostic, grace cannot be mediated through physical instruments since the physical and the spiritual remain irrevocably detached. The world, according to the Gnostic narrative, is non-spiritual because it is material. For this reason, Classical Gnosticism opposed the idea of the Church as a medium of divine grace and despised the orthodox view of the church. Although the church still held a place, albeit a marginalized one, within the revivalist paradigm, they unknowingly colluded with the Gnostics in rejecting church as a conduit of real, substantial grace. Grace came directly from on high like a bolt out of the blue, thus keeping separate the categories of grace and matter, the physical and the spiritual, the body and the soul, religion and culture.

It is easy enough to identify this type of dualism in the escapist choruses of the Methodist camp meetings, but what has generally been given less attention is that many of these same disjunctions were also defining features in the Old School Presbyterianism and its chief spokesman, Charles Hodge. “What was not as evident in Old School Presbyterianism as it was in Nevin’s corpus” wrote Hart in his biography of Nevin, “was an understanding of the mediated character of grace and of the church’s centrality in dispensing the blessings of the gospel.”
To be sure, Old School Presbyterians could offer almost airtight exegesis for the special character of the minister’s office or for the necessity of elders to church order. But less agile were these Presbyterians when it came to what might be called ecclesial Christianity or a sacramental view of the church….What was odd, in [Nevin’s] view, was a version of the Reformed faith in which questions of ecclesiology and worship had been jettisoned to fit better the sensibility of a popular and democratic Christianity taking hold in the United States. As such, Nevin became an effective critic not only of revivalism’s subjective and individualistic faith but also of Reformed and Presbyterian expressions that minimized his tradition’s inherently churchly outlook.” (D.G. Hart, John Williamson Nevin)

Though the academic and erudite Hodge (the picture on the right is Hodge in his younger days) was on the opposite spectrum from the crude revivalism of the day, his writings do present a theologically refined version of many of the same dualisms. In Hodge’s paper, “What is Christianity?”, he argued that "the essential dualism between the soul and body" is "everywhere assumed in the Bible." Likewise, his Systematic Theology made clear that “the attributes of one substance cannot be transferred to another.” In keeping with this basic axiom, Hodge attempted to explain the hypostatic union in a way that kept Christ’s divine and human natures completely distinct, thus opening himself up to the charge of Nestorianism by Nevin.

Given Hodge’s tendency to constantly separate, divide and distinguish between substances, he was left without any architecture for understanding the mediated nature of grace. This left Hodge with no real theology of the church (in Hodge’s voluminous corpus of writings he hardly mentions it, while his Systematic Theology has almost nothing to say about the church), while his views on the sacraments veered towards a Zwinglian spiritualism. On the occasions when Hodge did mention the church, he is at pains to de-emphasize any visible, institutional aspect while “[resisting] incarnated grace, that is, the idea that grace, which as divine action is properly invisible, should ever truly operate through visible means.” (Brad Littlejohn, The Mercersburg Theology and the Quest For Reformed Catholicity, p. 57.)

Within the Princetonian schema, the external aspect of the church was accidental rather than essential, as the following quotation from Hodge makes clear:
The Church, therefore, according to this view, is not essentially a visible society; it is not a corporation which ceases to exist if the external bond of union be dissolved. It may be proper that such union should exist; it may be true that it has always existed; but it is not necessary. The Church, as such, is not a visible society. All visible union, al external organization, may cease, and yet, so long as there are saints who have communion, the Church exists, if the Church is the communion of saints.
By contrast, the vision emanating out of Mercersburg challenged both to the crypto-Gnosticism of the revivalist movement as well as the dualistic Ecclesiology of Charles Hodge and the tradition of Princeton rationalism. As Brad Littlejohn puts it in chapter 2 of his book
“Hodge’s own view, roughly that of the Zwinglians…sees it as very important to emphasize the Spirit, not the divine-human body of Christ, as the means of the mystical union… This concern highlights Hodge’s de-emphasis on the Incarnation, as well as the same dualism of spirit and flesh that contributed to his view of the visible and invisible Church…. All this, I believe, manifests the same tendency: a resistance to the incarnation of grace. Grace must remain free-floating, invisible and unpredictable if it is to be grace. Therefore, the true Church must be invisible…, since God would never entrust anything so precious to a visible institution, subject to the vicissitudes of history. Therefore, the Spirit alone, and not the incarnate flesh of the God-man, can serve as a vehicle for eternal life. Therefore, the visible forms and rituals of the sacraments can be only an invitation for Christ to show up, but no promise of His presence.” Littlejohn goes on to develop the argument that “this fear of incarnated grace, of the supernatural made historical” effected “Hodge’s view of Christology, ecclesiology, and Church history…”
Charles Hodge was the living embodiment of the cerebral Presbyterianism who easily absorbed the rationalism of the reformers yet considered their high sacramentalism to be an anomaly; who eagerly embraced the Puritan hostility to form without the benefit of their spiritual dynamism; who embraced the Westminster Assembly’s doctrine of infant baptism but had lost their ecclesiological theology in the shuffle; who absorbed Jonathan Edwards discomfort with the material world without the advantage of Edwards’ poetic outlook; who rejected the popular revivalism of his day while importing the same individualism into his systematics. Above all, Charles Hodge was a man whose life was dedicated to the proposition that all would be right if only theology were done like a science - or better yet, like Euclidian geometry.

Further Reading

Is Jonathan Edwards Also Among the Gnostics?

Are Calvinists Also Among the Gnostics?

The Problem of Mediation in the First Great Awakening

8 Gnostic Myths You May Have Imbibed 

Finney and the New Measures

Ravi Zacharias and the "Indispensable Balance"

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