Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Charles Hodge's Theological Realism.

My wife and I allow ourselves to budget one book a month each.  This month I choose to purchase the Charles Hodge systematic theology from CBD (this was a good deal, three volumes for 20 bucks).  This is part of my continuing campaign to educate myself about Reformed theology.

So far I'm almost to the end of the first volume.  Some interesting stuff.  First, the style of the work is revealing in regard to the 19th century educational system.  Latin quotation are not translated and German ones are.  What this shows is that people in 19th century New England parochial schools studied Latin but not German.  Hodge was an exception.  He studied German and actually went to Germany where he encounter Schleiermacher, whom he attacks almost as frequently as Pieper attacks von Hofmann and Thomasius.  Another interesting thing is that although he is writing theology on the model of Reformed scholasticism, there are terms and concepts from that theology he does not seem to really understand.  For example, he complete misinterprets the distinction between God's absolute and ordered power as the distinction between supernatural and natural causation.  

What is probably most interesting about Hodge's theology is its reliance on the common-sense realism of Thomas Reid and the Scottish Enlightenment.  Reid was a detractor from both Kant and Hume.  He agreed that reality as we experience was of course not indubitable.  Nevertheless, no one actually lives their life on the basis of the radical doubt proposed by either thinker.  People pretty much get along by assuming that we live in a real world, where our thoughts correspond to reality, and where our morality has a transcendental basis in God.  Nuff said.  Reid's point was not that people can't doubt reality.  Rather, his point was that it was simply unnecessary to do so, and in point of fact quite counterproductive.

Hodge and many of the theologians of "Old Princeton" took over this attitude and attempted to use it to counteract the emerging tradition of theological Liberalism coming out of Germany and Transcendentalism growing up in the US.  This is where his famous passage at the beginning of volume 1 comes in, where he describes the theological task as being like the science of biology or chemistry.  The biologist studies various species  through empirical means and then systematically arranges the data.  So too the theologian reads Scripture and objective describes the "facts" of Biblical revelation and builds a systematic theology. 
Now, when I was in seminary this was held up to me as a kind of naive realist folly.  Moreover, it was said that Hodge shared the modernist idolatry of the rational and autonomous subject with his contemporaries.  Although much of this is a valid critique, I also think that if we read what Hodge is saying in context it can also be helpful.  When read in context, what Hodge is actually attacking is the tendency of modern theology to start from a prior claims or in German Idealism "intuitions" about reality.  The Bible (the concrete and actual history of revelation), Hodge argues, is then employed to the extent that it conforms to this a prior principles.  In favor of this critique, I think that particularly in certain decisions of the mainline Protestant denominations of late we can see what he's talking about.  

Instead, Hodge wants us to accept that God's revelation makes realistic truth claims.  Furthermore, it is capable of being understood by the human mind.  This does not mean that humans do not need the illumination of the Spirit, insofar as our cognitive capacities have been damaged by sin.  The point remains though that the Bible does give us real truth claims.  In Lutheran circles, the philosopher Dennis Bielfedt has recently made a similar point.  In particular he has criticized the current ELCA for viewing truth as merely functional or descriptive of human religious experience (Lindbeck's "expressive" concept of doctrine).  In light of these concerns, I think that we can all learn something from this.  

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