Political Philosophy in Hodge’s Romans Commentary

Charles Hodge’s commentary on Romans, first published in 1835, went through over a dozen editions in two decades. The work’s popularity and Hodge’s preeminence made it one of the chief theological sources for divines and other intellectuals throughout the American union. Northern and southern ministers read it, cited it, and preached sermons inspired by it. Hodge’s most recent biographer Paul C. Gutjarh rightly noted that the Romans commentary established Hodge as the leading biblical exegete in the United States and as one of the most important intellectual voices in the Presbyterian church. Hodge’s work engaged not only Biblical scholarship but also more important philosophical debates underway in American and European universities in the first half of the Nineteenth Century. Gutjarh observed that Hodge’s philosophical training “was evident throughout his work.”[1]

Hodge’s philosophical and theological training meant that neither biblicism nor revivalist folk religion influenced his interaction with Scripture. Biblical texts naturally spoke to more than what a biblicist exegete might claim as a simple gospel narrative. Theology, it appeared to Hodge, naturally included political theology. He maintained that “God is to be recognized as ordering the affairs of civil society. ‘He removeth kings, and he setteth up kings;’ by him ‘kings reign, and princes decree justice.’” Those scriptural inferences were for Hodge “enough…to secure the obedience of the Christian, that in the providence of God, he finds the power of government lodged in certain hands.”

Hodge’s admonitions about obedience to the state were not a sort of quietist abstraction. The gospel was not indifferent or neutral regarding the forms or nature of government. It did not favor monarchy or republicanism per se, but it did naturally favor rightly ordered government. “The gospel,” wrote Hodge, was “equally hostile to tyranny and anarchy.” Hodge, certainly no theocrat, nonetheless affirmed the proposition that the gospel “teaches rulers that they are ministers of God for the public good; and it teaches subjects to be obedient to magistrates, not only for fear, but also for conscience’ sake.”

Rulers who were Christians, in Hodge’s analysis of Romans, influenced not a particular type of society, but all types of societies. Christianity “was adapted to all states of society, and all forms of civil government.” When the Spirit of God entered “any human heart,” it left “unmolested what is peculiar to its individual character, as far as it is innocent,” and effected “the reformation of what is evil, not by violence, but by a sweetly constraining influence.” So also the “religion of Christ, when it enters any community of men, does not assail their form of government, whether despotic or free.” If there was anything “in their institutions inconsistent with its spirit,” those differences were changed by Christianity’s “silent operation on the heart and conscience, rather than by direct denunciation.” Christianity had therefore, “without rebellion or violent convulsions, curbed the exercise of despotic power, and wrought the abolition of slavery throughout the greater part of Christendom.” [2]

The proposition that Christianity operated silently was not in Hodge’s understanding the belief that Christianity operated in a merely spiritual capacity through Christian rulers. He expected Christian rulers to act Christianly, and to wield power Christianly. His own politics remained throughout his life that of the Whig Party, which saw the tie between Christianity, society, and politics and necessary for the maintenance of a moral and ordered society. Whiggish liberalism defined Hodge and Abraham Lincoln, who Hodge supported in the election of 1860. There was no meaningful division between liberalism and a sustainable Christian-influenced order for either man.


[1] Paul Gutjarh, Charles Hodge: Guardian of American Orthodoxy (New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011), 145, 143.

[2] Charles Hodge, A Commentary on the Epistle to the Romans (Philadelphia: William S. Marten, 1851), 133.

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