Charles Hodge on the System of Doctrine

In the preceding article, Dr. Reynolds mentions the role of Charles Hodge in the discussion of subscription to the system of doctrine in the Westminster Standards. Prior to the Reunion of the Old School and New School of the Presbyterian Church, U.S.A. in 1869, Hodge wrote an article on the strengths and weaknesses of that proposed reunion. As he lined out his reasons for opposition to the Old School receiving the exscinded 1837 New School party back into the Presbyterian Church, he summarized the Westminster Confession of Faith chapter by chapter in order to demonstrate the system of doctrine in each part and en toto.

Hodge remained an opponent of the reunion, casting his vote against it in the Presbytery of Cranberry in October 1869. He maintained that the New School (re)marriage diluted adherence to the system of doctrine in the Confession and Catechisms. It is entirely relevant to remind ourselves of what this "Prince of Presbyterians" wrote about that system which every Presbyterian and Reformed minister vows is the system of doctrine to which he subscribes ex animo. Here is his summary of that doctrinal system.1

"[Let us] illustrate the principle of interpretation for which Old-school men contend. We do not expect that our ministers should adopt every proposition contained in our standards. This they are not required to do. But they are required to adopt the system; and that system consists of certain doctrines, no one of which can be omitted without destroying its identity. Those doctrines are, the plenary inspiration of the Scriptures of the Old and New Testament, and the consequent infallibility of all their teachings;—the doctrine of the Trinity, that there is one God subsisting in three persons, the Father, Son, and Spirit, the same in substance and equal in power and glory; the doctrine of decrees and predestination as above stated; the doctrine of creation, viz., that the universe and all that it contains is not eternal, is not a necessary product of the life of God, is not an emanation from the divine substance, but owes its existence as to substance and form solely to his will;—and in reference to man that he was created in the image of God, in knowledge, righteousness, and holiness, and not in puris naturalibus, without any moral character;—the doctrine of providence, or that God effectually governs all his creatures and all their actions, so that nothing comes to pass which is not in accordance with his infinitely wise, holy, and benevolent purposes;—the doctrine of the covenants; the first, or covenant of works, wherein life was promised to Adam, and in him to his posterity, upon condition of perfect and personal obedience; and the second, or covenant of grace, wherein God freely offers unto sinners life and salvation by Jesus Christ, requiring of them faith in him that they may be saved, and promising to give unto all who are ordained unto life, his Holy Spirit, to make them willing and able to believe;—the doctrine concerning Christ our Mediator, ordained of God to be our prophet, priest, and king, the head and Saviour of his church, the heir of all things, and judge of the world, unto whom he did, from eternity give a people to be his seed, to be by him in time redeemed, called, justified, sanctified, and glorified, and that the eternal Son of God, of one substance with the Father, took upon him man's nature, so that two whole, perfect, and distinct natures, the Godhead and the manhood, were inseparably joined together in one person, without conversion, composition, or confusion; that this Lord Jesus Christ, by his perfect obedience and sacrifice of himself, hath fully satisfied the justice of his Father; and purchased not only reconciliation, but an everlasting inheritance in the kingdom of heaven for all those whom the Father hath given to him;—the doctrine of free will, viz. that man was created not only a free agent, but with full ability to choose good or evil, and by that choice determine his future character and destiny; that by the fall he has lost this ability to spiritual good; that in conversion God by his Spirit enables the sinner freely to repent and believe;—the doctrine of effectual calling, or regeneration, that those, and those only whom God has predestinated unto life, he effectually calls by his word and Spirit from a state of spiritual death to a state of spiritual life, renewing their wills, and by his almighty power, determining their wills, thus effectually drawing them to Christ; yet so that they come most freely;—and that this effectual calling is of God's free and special grace alone, not from any thing foreseen in man;—the doctrine of justification, that it is a free act, or act of grace on the part of God; that it does not consist in any subjective change of state, nor simply in pardon, but includes a declaring and accepting the sinner as righteous; that it is founded not on anything wrought in us or done by us; not on faith or evangelical obedience, but simply on what Christ has done for us, i.e., in his obedience and sufferings unto death; this righteousness of Christ being a proper, real, and full satisfaction to the justice of God, his exact justice and rich grace are glorified in the justification of sinners;—the doctrine of adoption, that those who are justified are received into the family of God, and made partakers of the spirit and privileges of his children;—the doctrine of sanctification, that those once regenerated by the Spirit of God are, by his power and indwelling, in the use of the appointed means of grace, rendered more and more holy, which work, although always imperfect in this life, is perfected at death;—the doctrine of saving faith, that it is the gift of God, and work of the Holy Spirit, by which the Christian receives as true, on the authority of God, whatever is revealed in his word, the special acts of which faith are the receiving and resting upon Christ alone for justification, sanctification, and eternal life;—the doctrine of repentance, that the sinner out of the sight and sense, not only of the danger, but the odiousness of sin, and apprehension of the mercy of God in Christ, does with grief and hatred of his own sins, turn from them unto God, with full purpose and endeavour after new obedience;—the doctrine of good works, that they are such only as God has commanded; that they are the fruits of faith; such works, although not necessary as the ground of our justification, are indispensable, in the case of adults, as the uniform products of the indwelling of the Holy Spirit in the hearts of believers;—the doctrine of the perseverance of the saints, that those once effectually called and sanctified by the Spirit can never totally or finally fall from a state of grace, because the decree of election is immutable, because Christ's merit is infinite, and his intercession constant; because the Spirit abides with the people of God; and because the covenant of grace secures the salvation of all who believe;—the doctrine of assurance; that the assurance of salvation is desirable, possible, and obligatory but is not of the essence of faith;—the doctrine of the law, that it is a revelation of the will of God, and a perfect rule of righteousness; that it is perpetually obligatory on justified persons as well as others, although believers are not under it as a covenant of works;—the doctrine of Christian liberty, that it includes freedom from the guilt of sin, the condemnation of the law, from a legal spirit, from the bondage of Satan and the dominion of sin, from the world and ultimately from all evil, together with free access to God as his children. Since the advent of Christ, his people are freed also from the yoke of the ceremonial law. God alone is the Lord of the conscience, which he has set free from the doctrines and commandments of men, which are in anything contrary to his word, or beside it, in matters of faith or worship;—the doctrines concerning worship and the Sabbath, concerning vows and oaths, of the civil magistrate, of marriage, contain nothing peculiar to our system, or which is matter of controversy among Presbyterians. The same is true as to what the Confession teaches concerning the church, of the communion of saints, of the sacraments, and of the future state, and of the resurrection of the dead, and of the final judgment.

That such is the system of doctrine of the Reformed church is a matter of history. It is the system which, as the granite formation of the earth, underlies and sustains the whole scheme of truth as revealed in the Scriptures, and without which all the rest is as drifting sand. It has been from the beginning the life and soul of the church, taught explicitly by our Lord himself, and more fully by his inspired servants, and always professed by a cloud of witnesses in the church. It has moreover ever been the esoteric faith of true believers, adopted in their prayers and hymns, even when rejected from their creeds. It is this system which the Presbyterian Church is pledged to profess, to defend, and to teach; and it is a breach of faith to God and man if she fails to require a profession of this system by all those whom she receives or ordains as teachers and guides of her people. It is for the adoption of the Confession of Faith in this sense that the Old-school have always contended as a matter of conscience."


1 This summary originally appeared in The Biblical Repertory and Princeton Review 39/3 (July 1867): 509-12. It was reprinted in Hodge's Discussions in Church Polity (New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1878) as part of an article entitled "Adoption of the Confession of Faith" (pp. 317-42, especially pp. 338-40 for the excerpt we have printed here).