Hodge’s Spirituality of the Church

Glen J. Clary

In his book The Doctrine of the Spirituality of the Church in the Ecclesiology of Charles Hodge, Alan Strange carefully sets forth Hodge’s understanding of this important doctrine. Moving from Hodge’s personal life to his theological system as a whole, to his views on slavery, and finally, to his involvement in the debates in the church, Strange leaves no stone unturned in tracing the development of Hodge’s thoughts on the church’s spirituality.

Here is that doctrine briefly set forth: The church is a divine institution with a spiritual province, furnished with spiritual means for accomplishing spiritual ends. The ascended Christ, as Head and King of the church, exerts his governing power by his Word and Spirit through the ministry of officers to whom he has committed the keys of the kingdom of heaven. These officers form a spiritual government distinct from and independent of the civil magistrate (Westminster Confession of Faith 30.1–2). They derive their authority from Christ, and they exercise that authority by teaching his Word and administering his ordinances. Hence, the church’s governing assemblies “are to handle, or conclude nothing, but that which is ecclesiastical.” They are “not to intermeddle with civil affairs which concern the commonwealth, unless by way of humble petition in cases extraordinary; or, by way of advice, for satisfaction of conscience, if they be thereunto required by the civil magistrate” (WCF 31.4).

This doctrine of the spirituality of the church was not an invention of nineteenth-century Presbyterians, though in the years leading up to and during the American Civil War it became something of a rallying cry among Old School Presbyterians including James Henley Thornwell, Robert Lewis Dabney, Stuart Robinson, and Charles Hodge. In the intense debates over the involvement of the church in the affairs of the state, Old Schoolers appealed to the spirituality of the church in their attempts to dissuade the church’s assemblies from deciding political questions.

When the 1861 General Assembly passed resolutions calling for members (including those from states that had seceded from the Union) to endorse the federal government, the southern presbyteries responded by forming their own denomination. While Hodge was a strong supporter of the Union, he vigorously protested the assembly’s approval of the resolutions. Scripture directs us to be subject to the powers that be, but it is not within the church’s province or power, he argued, to determine which particular government is due our allegiance. “We deny the right of the General Assembly,” said Hodge, “to decide the political question, to what government the allegiance of Presbyterians as citizens is due, and its rights to make that decision a condition of membership in our Church” (247).

This doctrine is of particular interest to Orthodox Presbyterians because it was a crucial factor in J. Gresham Machen’s opposition to modernism and to an undiscriminating fundamentalism that pursued ecumenicity for the sake of social reform. In Christianity and Liberalism, Machen repudiated the notion that Christianity only has value insofar as it is a means for achieving some other end like social justice, cultural improvement, or a healthy community. “The persons who speak in this way usually have little interest in religion for its own sake; it has never occurred to them to enter into the secret place of communion with the holy God. But religion is thought to be necessary for a healthy communion; and therefore for the sake of the community they are willing to have a church” (127). Machen contended that Christianity “will indeed accomplish many useful things in this world, but if it is accepted in order to accomplish those useful things it is not Christianity” (127–8). In a 1933 address, Machen insisted:

You cannot expect from a true Christian church any official pronouncements upon the political or social questions of the day, and you cannot expect cooperation with the state in anything involving the use of force.... [The church’s] weapons against evil are spiritual, not carnal; and by becoming a political lobby, through the advocacy of political measures whether good or bad, the church is turning aside from its proper mission, which is to bring to bear upon human hearts the solemn and imperious, yet also sweet and gracious, appeal of the gospel of Christ. (Selected Shorter Writings, 375)

Machen concluded Christianity and Liberalism by lamenting the church’s abandonment of her spiritual mission and heavenly-mindedness in order to pursue an earthly utopia through humanitarian and political efforts. In this regard, he echoed the prophetic words of his Princeton colleague Geerhardus Vos, who warned:

The days are perhaps not far distant when we shall find ourselves confronted with a quasi-form of Christianity professing openly to place its dependence on and to work for the present life alone, a religion, to use the language of Hebrews, become profane and a fornicator like Esau, selling for a mess of earthly pottage its heavenly birthright. (Olinger, Geerhardus Vos, 207)

Understanding the doctrine of the spirituality of the church, which played a crucial role in the founding of the OPC, is essential for discerning the nature, province, and mission of Christ’s church. I know of no better place to commence a study on it than this book.

The author is pastor of Providence Presbyterian in Pflugerville, Texas.

The Doctrine of the Spirituality of the Church in the Ecclesiology of Charles Hodge, by Alan D. Strange. Reformed Academic Dissertations, P&R, 2017. Paperback, 432 pages, $48.00.


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