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Recovering the Spirituality of the Church: A Review Article

Glen J. Clary

The Doctrine of the Spirituality of the Church in the Ecclesiology of Charles Hodge, by Alan D. Strange. Phillipsburg: P&R, 2017, 432 pages, $48.00, paper.

The doctrine of the spirituality of the church is of particular interest to Orthodox Presbyterians because it has fundamentally shaped our history and identity. In the Fundamentalist-Modernist controversy of the 1920s and ‘30s, both sides had lost sight of the church’s spiritual mission in pursuit of a social utopia. Machen repudiated the church’s efforts to improve society (whether those efforts conformed to the ideals of modernism or fundamentalism) and called for a return to the true spiritual mission of the church.[1] The doctrine of the spirituality of the church is critical for a proper understanding the church’s nature, province, and mission, but how exactly is that doctrine to be defined? What is its theological basis? And historically, how have American Presbyterians understood it and used (or abused!) it?

Strange explains that the doctrine of the spirituality of the church

has to do with the question of the province of the church and the nature and limits of its power—specifically, the contention that since the church is a spiritual institution, a kingdom “not of this world,” its concern and focus should be spiritual and not civil or political. (xix)

Even though the confessional standards of the Presbyterian church clearly distinguish the power, province, and purposes of the church from those of the state (cf. WCF 23.3, 31.4), the church’s relationship to the state—particularly its responsibility to support the Union—was fiercely debated in the years surrounding the American Civil War. The intense debates over the church’s involvement in the affairs of the state afforded Old School Presbyterians (like James Henley Thornwell, Robert Lewis Dabney, Stuart Robinson, and Charles Hodge) an opportunity to refine, clarify, improve, and defend their doctrines of the spirituality of the church.

In the mid-nineteenth century Charles Hodge (America’s premier Old School Presbyterian theologian) advanced his doctrine of the spirituality of the church in light of several ecclesiastical disputes concerning matters such as the church’s endorsement of voluntary societies, the warrant for ecclesiastical boards, the abolition of slavery, and the church’s right to decide political questions. Hodge defined the spirituality of the church over against the state, on the one hand, and ritualism, on the other. For Hodge, the spirituality of the church meant that:

  1. The Holy Spirit constitutes the true church—that invisible body of believers gathered across the ages and found in a variety of particular visible churches.
  2. The church is a spiritual kingdom, whose power is moral and suasive—as opposed to the state, a physical kingdom whose power is legal and coercive. The state itself is not atheistic, however, and though separate from the church, and not over the church, should provide the atmosphere in which the church can thrive (Sabbath observance, Christian teaching in schools, etc.).
  3. The church, over against the Roman Catholic Church or any other ritualist churches, exercises power in a fashion that is ministerial and declarative as opposed to power that is magisterial and legislative.
  4. Thus the spirituality of the church, in this sense, means that the church is the Spirit-composed communion of saints, who dwell in a variety of particular churches across the earth, who are called to a specific task, the gathering and perfecting of the saints. It is to that task and not mere ritualism ecclesiastically or politics civilly that this true church is called (173–74).

According to Strange, Hodge’s doctrine of the spirituality of the church “was broader and more carefully constructed than that of Thornwell and his partisans,” whose view Hodge criticized as unduly narrow and restrictive, and which, if adopted, would unfortunately silence the church’s prophetic voice in society (336). Hodge argued,

To adopt any theory which would stop the mouth of the church, and prevent her bearing her testimony to the kings and rulers, magistrates and people, in behalf of the truth and law of God, is like one who administers chloroform to a man to prevent his doing mischief. We pray God that this poison may be dashed away, before it has reduced the church to a state of inanition, and delivered her bound hand and foot into the power of the world. (335–36)

One of the most important issues in the debates among Old School Presbyterians was the church’s position on slavery, which, even though it was a moral or ethical issue, had become “inextricably intertwined” with politics, “especially during the 1840s and following” (79). “Hodge was a gradual emancipationist” and thought that slavery would eventually “shrivel and vanish, and he wished to help it along in that regard, though he was willing enough to tolerate it for the sake of the broader social order” (179).

Hodge refused to condemn slavery as an institution since Scripture, as he understood it, did not condemn it; he did, however, insist on condemning its abuses that were clearly a violation of the person of the slave as someone in the image of God and due all the biblical respect due to man as man. (80)

According to Strange, Hodge arguably “pulled his punches on slavery” not only because of “his own complicity with the institution but because for him, nothing was as important as the continuation of the American union” (336; italics mine).

The obsession—which Hodge shared in common with many other Presbyterians including Thornwell—“to maintain the bond of union between North and South at almost any price” unfortunately shaped and guided the actions of the American Presbyterian Church far more than it should have. In one of the most insightful sections of the book, Strange identifies the underlying cause of this quest to maintain the nation’s union “at almost any price.”

Why was such a premium placed on saving the American union by so many parties in these debates? Because Hodge, Thornwell, and almost all those in nineteenth-century America shared certain convictions about American exceptionalism—namely, that God had brought America into existence to bring to the whole world both spiritual and political freedom. All the parties to this dispute saw the American venture as divinely ordained and worth saving at all costs, even if that meant bearing with the continuation of slavery. . . .

This commitment to the American experiment, though cast in spiritual terms was a political commitment, and abolitionism in particular threatened the continuation of the holy “errand into the wilderness” that Hodge and others saw the American nation to be. Hence, even if slavery was undesirable, as Hodge thought it was, and thus he advocated gradual emancipation, slavery was not horrible enough to warrant its abolition, certainly not at the price of the dissolution of the nation. Thus for Hodge, Thornwell, and most Presbyterians, Old and New School, the survival of the nation transcended all other concerns and was itself conceived as not merely a political conviction but rose to the level of a spiritual truism since the continued existence of the nation was the precondition of the continued existence and thriving of the American Presbyterian Church, at least as Hodge and company assumed at the time. All the parties to this were so enmeshed in their political commitments to the U.S. Constitution and the American nation that such was sacrosanct and beyond dispute. For Hodge and his fellows, nothing rose to the moral level of supporting the survival of the nation. The continuation of the Union became paramount to every other consideration.

There was then a kind of “spiritualized” manifest destiny that arguably ran quite counter to any vigorous notion of the spirituality of the church. Hodge, Thornwell, and all the rest, New or Old School, looked for the blessings that had come to the American nation to come to the world through America, and thus the American nation had to spread and be preserved at all costs for the good of the propagation of the Christian faith everywhere. They were in effect identifying America with the church as the means of world-wide blessing. (337–38)

Thus, at the end of the day, despite their numerous and heated debates over the doctrine of the spirituality of the church, Old School Presbyterians (North and South) in the mid-nineteenth century had not been able distinguish the mission of the church from the fate of the United States of America. They assumed that the “continued existence of the nation was the precondition of the continued existence and thriving” of the church (338). Like the Modernists and Fundamentalists that Machen would later oppose, they had lost sight of the church’s spiritual mission in pursuit of a political bond of union that would serve as the divinely ordained means through which the redemptive work of Christ would spread to the world. “They were in effect,” as Strange put it, “identifying America with the church as the means of world-wide blessing” (338).

In the Fundamentalist-Modernist controversy of the early twentieth century, Machen called the church to abandon its foolish pursuit of an earthly utopia through humanitarian and political activities and to return to its spiritual mission of making disciples of all nations by preaching the true gospel of Christ crucified, raised, and ascended. The American Presbyterian Church (in both the Modernist and Fundamentalist camps) had lost sight of its heavenly goal, its pilgrim identity, and its calling to suffer in redemptive communion with the ascended Christ into whose image the Spirit conforms us in the fellowship of his suffering, which leads to glory. The spirituality of the church is rooted in the fact that it has been delivered from this present evil age to a better country, a heavenly one. The church, therefore, has lost its way if it is seeking to make the country better instead of seeking a better country. Machen endeavored to recover the spirituality of the church by calling it back to redemptive fellowship with the ascended Christ. As Tipton explains,

Machen fought so valiantly against Liberalism, because he walked in union with the ascended Christ of Scripture. Jesus Christ has passed from earth to heaven (1 Cor. 15:47), from condemnation to vindication (1 Tim. 3:16), from death to life (Rom. 6:10), in his redemptive-historical humiliation and exaltation to the right hand of God (Rom. 1:4; Heb. 8:1). It is this Christ Machen proclaimed and defended. Christ’s historical suffering has given way to his consequent historical resurrection and ascension. Now, as ascended to the right hand of God and endowed with the Holy Spirit (Acts 2:33; 1 Cor. 15:45), He indwells His church by His Word and Spirit in a fellowship bond of suffering unto glory (1 Cor. 1:9; Rom. 8:17–18). A supernaturally effected, Spirit-forged communion bond with the glorified Christ conforms the church to his suffering and death (2 Cor. 4:7–11), so that, precisely in such suffering the church finds its “life” to be “hidden with Christ in God” (Col. 3:3). Christ’s resurrection power at work in the church in this age consists in the fellowship of his sufferings and conformity to his death (Phil. 3:10).[2]

That is the theological basis of the doctrine of the spirituality of the church that Machen, following the lead of his Old School Presbyterian forefathers, sought to recover. The Doctrine of the Spirituality of the Church in the Ecclesiology of Charles Hodge is essential reading for those who wish to understand the spiritual nature, province, and mission of the church, and to learn from the successes (and failures!) of our spiritual forefathers.


[1] See, for example, J. Gresham Machen, Christianity and Liberalism (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1923), 127–28, 179–80; and “The Responsibility of the Church in Our New Age” in J. Gresham Machen: Selected Shorter Writings, D. G. Hart, ed. (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R, 2004), 364–76).

[2] Lane G. Tipton, “Machen on the True Christian Religion” (unpublished paper, 24 November 2018).

Glen J. Clary is associate pastor of Providence Orthodox Presbyterian Church in Pflugerville, Texas. Ordained Servant Online, March 2019.

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