Monday, March 01, 2010

Charles Hodge, The Enlightenment and Natural Theology

Charles Hodge is routinely demonised because of the allegedly Enlightenment character of his theology: it is propositional, foundationalist, purely cerebral, objectivist, etc. After a careful reading – or simply a reading – of the first 17 pages of his Systematic Theology most of these claims vanish like the morning mist. And those that don’t, such as the charge of objectivism, serve to save the gospel.

This post notes another piece of evidence against the Enlightenment charge. One feature of Enlightenment thought was and is its rationalism. And one way in which that rationalism is expressed in religion is in an attitude to proving of the existence of God. Under the influence of the Enlightenment, formulating and accepting the cogency of some proof or other of God’s existence came to be regarded as a necessary condition of regarding theology as an enterprise fit for intelligent men and women. If no proofs, then no theology. One might expect Charles Hodge, seriously infected as he allegedly was by the Enlightenment virus, to have taken this line. No proofs, no theology. First it is necessary to start with the proofs. If they are cogent, proceed; if none of them is cogent, then one might as well zip up the theological bags.

But – once again – Charles Hodge fails to fit the Enlightenment stereotype, as I shall now try to show. However, to be persuaded of this fact it is necessary to engage in the unusual scholarly pursuit of reading, in this case reading some more of Hodge. Otherwise the current evangelical climate is such that there is the danger that one might simply dream up some new fantasy about him.

The First Reading

So, we shall need to read; but there is some relief. For one thing, the scholar of Charles Hodge does not have to read very far, and as we shall see he does not have to read very much. Immediately after the first 17 pages of his Systematic Theology, which his critics usually focus upon (though usually without bothering to read them), is Chapter II – Theology. Turning to page 21-6, we find Hodge discussing the nature of natural theology, and avoiding two extremes, that natural theology is useless, and that it is sufficient, for true religion. (I. 21-6) Having provided an assessment of the importance of natural theology, the meaning of ‘nature’, the scope of natural theological arguments, and so on, (21-4), Hodge appeals to Scripture to provide an argument for natural theology. (Although he had previously briefly appealed to man’s being made in the image of God. (22)) He appeals to the Psalms, to Acts 14 and 17, to Romans 1. In other words, natural theology is possible and desirable because Scripture warrants it. Scripture informs us of certain facts that the natural theologian can use in the construction of arguments for the existence of God.

Of course, this is a complete reversal of the Enlightenment ordering of things. For Hodge the warrant for natural theology is not simply that clever men have thought up these arguments, or that they ‘work’, or that they must work in order for belief in God to be rational, but that Scripture endorses them. The Enlightenment procedure is: first the proofs, then theology. Hodge’s procedure is; first Scripture, its theological teaching, and then the proofs, an aspect of that theological teaching. (Some people worry that natural theology and natural law undermine the sufficiency of Scripture. But it's clear that Charles Hodge was not worried, not at least about this).

The Second Reading

Let’s move on, to Chapter 1 of Part I of Systematic Theology. Here Hodge has a fairly lengthy discussion of the innateness of the knowledge of God. (So, more page turning, I’m afraid.) Scripture teaches us of that there is a natural knowledge of God, which is well-nigh universal, and innate. (Hodge obviously has Rom.1 in mind, though while reference to this passage is made (I. 195) it is not made central to the discussion). While Hodge uses words such as ‘intuition’, he clearly has in view what Calvin earlier called the universal sensus divinitatis, spoiled by the Fall, but not eradicated by it.

According to Hodge our minds possess various intuitions - of sense, of the intellect, of the moral sense, and (what is particularly of interest here, of course) of God. Such knowledge is both universal, and necessary; that is, it is not simply a matter of fact that all people have a sense of God, but that such a sense is part of the constitution of human beings. This is the ‘general sense of a Being on whom we are dependent, and to whom we are responsible…. This sense of dependence and accountability to a being higher than themselves exists in the minds of all men’ (195). This may, through the benefit of special revelation, and careful reflection, be refined to ‘the Christian sense’ of the word ‘God’, as in the ‘sublime idea’ that ‘God is a spirit, infinite, eternal and unchangeable, in his being, wisdom, power, holiness, justice, goodness and truth’. (I. 194) Hodge then expands on the idea of the universality and especially the necessity of this belief. He is particularly emphatic on the point that such a belief is not the result of a process of reasoning, though such processes can confirm and develop it, or the result of tradition. The belief as it stands is thus highly dispositional in character, a disposition which can be developed and fostered by the study of Scripture, and also by proofs for the existence of God.

Hodge makes a number of points here: that the knowledge of God is a matter of the understanding, not of the reason; that proofs of God have as their aim to show what the being of God is – ‘that He is a personal Being, self-conscious, intelligent, moral. All this may lie inclosed in the primary intuition, but it needs to be brought out and established’. (202) He concludes the discussion by asserting that the various proofs of the existence of God complement each other and so are intended to have a cumulative effect, one argument proving one aspect of God’s character, another argument a further aspect, and so on.

So, what does all this show? I shall conclude by underlining three points.

First, that Hodge endorses the ‘common proofs’ of God’s existence and believes that they have real value. Its benefits are to be understood as expansions, clarifications, and articulations of a prior common, necessary, human intuition, an innate understanding that there is a God to whom we are responsible, an intuition to which Scripture testifies, in Romans 1 and elsewhere. Second, our belief in the existence of God does not therefore depend on the success of such proofs, but such proofs as are cogent arise out of this prior intuition. As Michael Sudduth has shown in his recent book, (The Reformed Objection to Natural Theology, (Ashgate, 2009)), Hodge is here part of a Reformed tradition going back through such as Turretin to Calvin and others. So, finally, Hodge has no objection to natural theology as such, though he does object to the rationalistic strategy for using such theology as developed by the Enlightenment.