Hearts Aflame, Part Two | The Philadelphian

The amber flame of Archibald Alexander’s preaching burst the bounds of every room he tried on for size. By 1812, after making the trip numerous times, our young Philadelphian’s decision was final—he would be a freshman at the College of New Jersey. This would provide ample opportunity to hear the Word as it fell like fire from Alexander’s pulpit. In time, a Paul–Timothy dynamic developed between these two: Archibald Alexander and Charles Hodge, the Philadelphian. Both this relationship and the person of Charles Hodge are key to our understanding of old Princeton in this story of “Hearts Aflame.”

       Born December 27, 1797, Hodge graduated from the College of New Jersey in 1815 and then enrolled at the seminary a year later. An ardent disciple of Alexander, Hodge imbibed both the precision and piety of experiential Calvinism. Given John Witherspoon’s influence at the college, Scottish Common Sense Realism had been instilled in young Hodge as a philosophical, epistemological starting point, in addition to Alexander’s philosophical commitments. But perhaps more significantly, Hodge became the first student preacher to stand behind the lectern in the newly completed second floor oratory of Alexander Hall.

       Hodge graduated from the Old Seminary in 1819, continuing his study of Hebrew as he pastored and preached in Philadelphia. A year later, he was appointed instructor in Hebrew and Greek at Princeton. Ordained in 1821, he was promoted to full Professor of Oriental and Biblical Literature the following year. Along with his rise in academic status came the social advance when he married Sarah Bache, great-granddaughter of none other than Benjamin Franklin. You can see her grave, as well as that of Hodge’s second wife, Mary Hunter Stockton, whom he married after Sarah’s death in 1849, in the Princeton Cemetery.

       With Hodge employed as a Professor at the seminary, a beautiful home was built for his young family not far from Hodge’s houses—Alexander Hall the crown jewel between them. Together they would steward the precision and piety that marked the ministerial training of countless young men who would be providentially propelled to the four corners of the globe. This, of course, was in full keeping with the Plan of the Theological Seminary of the Presbyterian Church in the United States of America. You see, young Hodge felt the fire on that September 26, 1815 evening, as townspeople, folk from Philadelphia, representatives from the College, students, and supporters of this “nursery of vital piety, as well as sound theological learning” all gathered on a grassy expanse, green with promise. The cornerstone for a building named after the founding professor was laid. That ruddy professor who had garnered young Hodge’s reverent esteem stood and read from The Plan, so all in attendance would be reminded of the reason for the august occasion—a seminary where expertise in Scripture and experiential religion would be nurtured:

. . .It is to provide for the Church an adequate supply and succession of able and faithful ministers of the New Testament; workmen that need not to be ashamed, being qualified rightly to divide the word of truth.

. . .It is to unite, in those who shall sustain the ministerial office, religion and literature; that piety of the heart which is the fruit only of the renewing and sanctifying grace of God, with solid learning: believing that religion without learning, or learning without religion, in the ministers of the Gospel, must ultimately prove injurious to the Church.

. . .It is to furnish our congregations with enlightened, humble, zealous, laborious pastors, who shall truly watch for the good of souls, and consider it as their highest honour and happiness to win them to the Savior, and to build up their several charges in holiness and peace.

. . .It is to found a nursery for missionaries to the heathen, and to such as are destitute of the stated preaching of the gospel; in which youth may receive that appropriate training which may lay a foundation for their ultimately becoming eminently qualified for missionary work.

       After Hodge’s house was built in 1825, he made a trip to Europe from 1826-28, where he studied languages at Paris and German criticism and liberal theology in Halle and Berlin. It was here that Hodge, while leery of his theology, was nonetheless taken with Schleiermacher’s apparent piety and love for Christ. This was especially apparent when Hodge joined the congregation at Schleiermacher’s church to sing hymns, documented in a well-known footnote in Hodge’s Systematic Theology (more about that in a minute):

       When in Berlin the writer often attended Schleiermacher’s church. The hymns to be sung were printed on slips of paper and distributed at the doors. They were always evangelical and spiritual in an eminent degree, filled with praise and gratitude to our Redeemer. Tholuck said that Schleiermacher, when sitting in the evening with his family, would often say, “Hush, children: let us sing a hymn of praise to Christ.” Can we doubt that he is singing those praises now? To whomsoever Christ is God, St. John assures us Christ is a Savior.[1]

       Hodge returned to Princeton in 1928 better equipped theologically and spent the rest of his days a Presbyterian churchman and Professor of Systematic Theology at Princeton. He had founded the stalwart Biblical Repertory in 1825, and it continued to yield reams of biblical and theological scholarship as Princeton Review, the likes of which had, perhaps, never been seen before in periodical form.

       Meanwhile, American theology was being shaped by the New England Theology of Andover-Newton Seminary and the New Divinity Theology of Yale’s Nathaniel Taylor. The latter was a disciple of Timothy Dwight, grandson of none other than Jonathan Edwards, but these theologies made significant egress from the theology of Edwards. Hodge was left at odds with a liberalizing Arminianism in both instances: Andover-Newton on the one side, Yale on the other. At Princeton, Hodge’s august Augustinianism provided the moorings of solid Calvinistic orthodoxy, while New Divinity popularists, such as Charles Grandison Finney, made inroads in all parts of New York, Pennsylvania, and Ohio, as the Second Great Awakening undid so much of the work of the Awakening a century prior.

       Very much a man of the nineteenth century, Hodge emphasized the science of theology, drawing on the data of the Bible. This was something akin to the inductive scientific methodology of Francis Bacon blended with the Common Sense philosophy of Thomas Reid. But above all, Hodge was a faithful biblical exegete, accountable to confessional orthodoxy. His writings include excellent biblical commentaries, scientific commentary like What Is Darwinism, devotional literature like The Way of Life (recently reprinted by Banner of Truth), sermons, articles, book reviews, ecclesiastical works like The Constitutional History of the Presbyterian Church in the United States of America, and much more.  

“Very much a man of the nineteenth century, Hodge emphasized the science of theology, drawing on the data of the Bible.”

       While Hodge was renowned as an exegete and theologian, perhaps most blessed were the students who heard his powerful pulpit pleading, and experienced the rejuvenating firing of their hearts:

…that the union between Christ and believers never can be broken or that to them is no condemnation may be argued from the love of God, on this we shall dwell but a moment. The opinion that believers may fall into condemnation proceeded on the supposition that our intrinsic holiness or moral excellence is the ground of divine love. If so, its continuance must indeed be suspended on our character or conduct and we may easily pass from being objects of his love, to subjects of his wrath. But look back to the look whence you were known, remember thy nativity, “in the day that thou wast born none eye pitied thee but thou wast cast out in the open field to the loathing of thy person, and when I passed by thee and saw thee polluted in thy blood, it was a time of love and I said unto thee, live and I spread my skirt over thee and entered into covenant with thee, saith the Lord God and thou becamest mine.”

…Moreover the greatness of the love of God is such as effectually to preserve the believer. As this love is sovereign in the selection of its object, so its degree is not to be measured by their intrinsic merit, no my brethren, it partook of the infinitude of God. It is an immensity which stretched far beyond the reach of any finite intellect, its—height, its depth, its length, its breadth admits of no created measurement. Men and angels are fatigued with the effort to comprehend it, sink in ad ovation and confess it passes knowledge. The expense at which this love was exercised magnifies its greatness beyond conception. “He loved us and gave himself for us,” himself in the person of his son. Can love so infinite fail of its effect? If God spared not his own son but delivered him up for us all how shall he not with him freely give us all things? And brethren, in giving us Christ has he not already given us all things, is not Christ our all? Our wisdom righteousness, sanctification and redemption in him our Lord Jehovah is everlasting strength in him, is all the fullness of the God head. They then to whom Christ is given have everlasting life. To them there is no condemnation for neither life nor death, nor angels nor principalities, can separate them from his love. He that is in Christ Jesus may be defiant to the universe and smile at the myriads of Satan as they gather for the contest, in Christ Jesus their discomfiture is easy, the right hand of the Lord doeth valiantly, the right hand of the Lord hath already gotten him the victory.

...That there is therefore now no condemnation to them which are in Christ Jesus, we infer because a faithful and unchanging God has already begun their salvation, has acknowledged them as children and as heirs, and has this his covenant confirmed their safety by two immutable things, his promise and his oath. And this is because it is in consistent with the freeness and immensity of his love.[2]

       Of course, any story of Charles Hodge is incomplete without mention of his magnum opus, 1871-73’s Systematic Theology, a three-volume tome of some 2,500 pages. Up to this point, students at Princeton Seminary would be assigned Latin readings in Francis Turretin’s Institutio Theologiae Elencticae. Hodge’s Systematic replaced this classic as the primary text of theology at the seminary. These volumes, standard fare for seminary students today, were delivered first from handwritten lecture notes that fueled the flame at Princeton.

       By the time he retired in 1877, Hodge had taught more than 3,000 students. In many ways the story of Old Princeton Theological Seminary is the story of Charles Hodge. His son, Archibald Alexander Hodge succeeded his father in the chair of theology at Princeton. The younger Hodge’s biography of his father is a delight to read, revealing the tender, fatherly ways of Charles, whose study door was never closed to his children.

       A year after his retirement from Princeton, Hodge began to decline. He took to the “great chair” in his study, as his legs became more and more lame. Hodge said that over the years he and that chair had become one. A.A. Hodge writes:

This fact is a striking and characteristic illustration of his constitutional trait of conservatism-forty-five years reclining and sitting, reading, writing, praying and talking in one spot of one room. During all these years he also omitted on no single morning, when at home, to record the direction of the wind, and the state of the thermometer, and of the sky. He, likewise, until almost his last years, resisted all the efforts made by a younger generation to induce him to have his clothes made elsewhere than at the same old shop which he had patronized from the first, through all its succession of occupants. There was no element of his nature inclined to new measures, any more than to new doctrines.[3]

       During these final days, Charles comforted his widowed daughter, “Seeing his widowed daughter weeping while she watched him, he stretched his hand toward her and said, ‘Why should you grieve, daughter? To be absent from the body is to be with the Lord, to be with the Lord is to see the Lord, to see the Lord is to be like Him.’”[4]

       When the elder Hodge succumbed to death, the shops of the town of Princeton all closed in honor of his funeral. His son’s comment above about “new doctrines” is in many ways indicative of the whole of Hodge’s life. You see, as his son observed of his father’s commitment to non-speculative theology, the kind that is pursued today at Westminster Theological Seminary:

       From all such tendencies Dr. Hodge was absolutely exempt. From originalities in this sense, he shrank with alarm. On the day of his semi-centennial celebration, he turned with a beautiful simplicity to his brethren and said that “Princeton had never been charged with originating a new idea.” To his mind this was a high distinction. It is mind that made Princeton a synonym for greatness, but it was mind that feared God and never dared to originate what He had not taught.[5]

Of course, there is much more that could be said about the theologian of Old Princeton, Charles Hodge. We will have to be content with what we have thus far covered about him, as the Holy Spirit continued to fan the flame of holy ardor with the arrival of the “Tender Lion”.


[1] Charles Hodge, Systematic Theology (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Eerdmands, 1989), vol. II., 440.

[2] Charles Hodge, “No Condemnation,” in Select Sermons of Charles Hodge (Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press, 2015).

[3] A. A., Hodge, The Life of Charles Hodge (Carlisle, Pennsylvania: Banner of Truth Trust, 2010).

[4] Ibid., 582.

[5] Ibid., 594.

David Owen Filson is Adjunct Professor of Church History and Director of Alumni Engagement at Westminster Theological Seminary. He is the Pastor of Theology and Discipleship at Christ Presbyterian Church (PCA) in Nashville, TN.

Partner with Westminster Theological Seminary and our mission 


Get Westminster Magazine delivered to your inbox

Thank you! Your submission has been received!
Oops! Something went wrong while submitting the form.