The Spirit of Charles Hodge

A Review of Empowered Witness: Politics, Culture, and the Spiritual Mission of the Church By Alan Strange

The relationship of Christianity to the civil government has been of great interest as of late. Alan Strange’s Empowered Witness (Crossway, 2024) seeks to add to the discussion with a historical look at the doctrine of the spirituality of the church. The book provides some principles for application, but readers should know that this is primarily a work of history and historical theology, with four of the six chapters chronicling Charles Hodge’s treatment of slavery, the Civil War, and statements made by Presbyterian assemblies. In fact, while the title of the book suggests a broader theological work, this is a reworked distillation of Strange’s published doctoral thesis, The Doctrine of the Spirituality of the Church in the Ecclesiology of Charles Hodge.

Spirituality and Its Limitations

In the introduction and first chapter, Strange explains the spirituality of the church means that the task of the church as an institution is to transform lives through the gospel of Christ, not to transform the world. Strange is not opposed to changing the world, but he says that this is the call of Christians as individuals to employ Christian ethics in business, politics, and culture. Thus, he distinguishes between the task of the church as institution and the task of the church as organism (4). This is a rejection of the transformationalist view of the church that confuses the work of the institution of the church and the work of its members. When it comes to political issues, Strange argues the church does not have the authority or the competency to speak to specific policies, such as minimum wage and tax schemes (14).

Many Reformed Christians will agree with Strange’s distinction between the mission of the church as institution and the church as organism. However, the difficulty arises in applying such restrictions on the church as institution. According to the spirituality of the church, the church as an institution—including church courts and pulpits—should proclaim the Word of God and address moral issues, not issues that are purely political. But herein lies the challenge—what makes something “purely political”? 

Strange admits, “what is moral or ethical, and thus properly spiritual, cannot always readily be separated from what is ‘purely political’” (111). “One man’s ‘purely political’ may be another man’s ‘civil consequences of a proper spirituality,’” and thus, “Nothing will save us from the debate over” what falls under the spirituality of the church (112). Despite this challenge, Strange still thinks the doctrine is worth saving—“I would argue that where the line ought to be drawn between the spiritual and the political remains a challenge but that to deny a distinction can be made at all is to give way to a politicized cynicism” (113).

Thus, even if we affirm the spirituality of the church, we must recognize its limitations. Not only is there disagreement in its application, but there are even different versions of the doctrine, as Charles Hodge’s view differed from some Southern theologians. Strange seeks to recover Hodge’s “moderate” view of the spirituality of the church, which he considers “more suitable for recovery and use in our times,” in contrast to the more “radical” views espoused by James Henley Thornwell and Stuart Robinson (22). Strange does not detail the differences among Hodge’s opponents, but Robinson’s view was certainly more radical (and has significant similarities to the “modern two kingdoms” view of church and state).

Spirituality and Christian Nationalism

It should be recognized that an affirmation of the spirituality of the church does not necessarily solve debates over Christian nationalism and the role of religion in civil government. Among spirituality proponents, for example, Thornwell wanted the government to recognize Jesus Christ as king, while Thomas Peck and Stuart Robinson opposed this on the basis that civil government does not fall under the mediatorial rule of Christ. In fact, while the phrase spirituality of the church only goes back to mid-19th century America, Strange argues its concept can be traced back to Scotland, including the 17th-century doctrine of the “spiritual independency of the church” and the 1578 Scottish Second Book of Discipline (16, 20). Of course, the Scottish Presbyterians affirmed national covenanting, the establishment principle, and the Reformed application of the First Table of the law to the civil sphere. 

Thus, the spirituality of the church is not at odds with Christian government but is simply an affirmation of some institutional separation of church and state. However, Strange himself is quite opposed to the idea of Christian nationalism, as he refers in a footnote to Stephen Wolfe’s The Case for Christian Nationalism as a “confused and disturbing politicizing work.” While one would expect such a claim to follow with supportive reasoning, Strange only refers to the “trenchant review” by Kevin DeYoung (who wrote the foreword) that “addresses its primary problems” (9, n. 13).

As for his own application of the doctrine, Strange says it is “legitimate” for individual Christians to debate whether “free-market capitalism” or “a highly regulated market and some sort of state welfare, or socialism (a form of which is not antitheistic)” better fits with “biblical principles.” But Christians are not “to argue that their view is what the Bible proclaims and thus what the institutional church should teach.” Strange says the Bible’s affirmation of private property “rules out ‘godless Communism’” but there are “some forms of [socialism] which maintain private property and a market that retains some freedom, albeit under close governmental scrutiny” (114). 

Apparently, Strange wants to leave room for Christians to embrace the modern quasi-socialistic welfare state of Europe and the United States. However, a strong case could be made that government redistributory welfare programs violate (1) the Eighth Commandment, (2) the Tenth Commandment, (3) the proper role of government assigned by Scripture, (4) a biblical condemnation of taxation over 10%, (5) and the apostolic demand that those who do not work do not deserve to eat. And if a church court can establish some or all of these points (as I have argued), then despite Strange’s protest, the institutional church may very well condemn the modern welfare state even according to Hodge’s doctrine of the spirituality of the church. These issues are by no means “purely political.”

Hodge and the Spirituality of the Church

The bulk of Empowered Witness surveys 19th-century history to show examples of Hodge’s application of the spirituality of the church (chapters 2 through 5). Thornwell’s home state of South Carolina seceded from the Union in December 1860, which spurred an article by Charles Hodge in the January 1861 edition of Princeton’s journal, titled, “The State of the Country.” This was followed by a critical article by Thornwell, and then Hodge’s April 1861 article, “The Church and the Country,” was partly a response to Thornwell (57, n. 11). Most of the Southern synods had little or no representation at the 1861 General Assembly, where the infamous “Spring Resolutions” were offered by Gardiner Spring on May 29, calling for an expression of “unabated loyalty” by the Assembly to the “Federal Government” (59–60). The resolution passed 156 to 66, with Hodge entering a protest stating, “we deny the right of the General Assembly 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” (62).1

The next year, the 1862 General Assembly (Northern Old School) adopted R. J. Breckinridge’s paper on the “State of the Country,” which supported the Union and opposed secession. Stuart Robinson opposed this, even charging Breckinridge with inconsistency because the prior year he had opposed the Spring Resolutions.2 Hodge thought Breckinridge’s paper was permissible because it addressed the church that was already divided, but he opposed it, as Strange says, “on the ground of wisdom and expediency” (72).3 In his review of the General Assembly, Hodge said the church “may” speak to “Any question which is to be decided by the teachings of the word of God.” This was in contrast to the view of “some among us” that “the church is so purely spiritual, it cannot pronounce judgment, or in any way rightfully interfere, either in the pulpit or church courts, in reference to any political question.” (He was likely targeting Robinson and Thornwell, though the latter had joined the Southern Church.) Hodge went on to say such a view said the church “is so spiritual that she cannot recommend the colonization society, and cannot condemn the slave trade.” Hodge responded with the following questions (not quoted by Strange): “But are not these matters, the right or wrong of which may be determined by the word of God? Is there nothing in the Bible which teaches that it is right to send Christianized and civilized Africans, with their own consent, to the land of their fathers, to introduce among its pagan inhabitants the light of the gospel and blessings of civilization? Is there nothing in the Bible which prove man-stealing and devastating wars for the sake of procuring slaves to be diabolically wicked?”4

The 1865 Assembly (Northern Old School) adopted requirements for Southern churches to be readmitted to the Northern church, which included that presbyteries were to examine a minister on (1) whether he aided or countenanced “the rebellion and the war which has been waged against the United States,” and (2) whether “he holds that the system of negro slavery in the South is a Divine institution, and that it is ‘the peculiar mission of the Southern church to conserve the institution of slavery as there maintained.’” In order to receive such a minister who answered yes to these questions, he was required to renounce and forsake the errors (79).5 Such requirements only inflamed Southern sentiment toward the North. Hodge opposed such requirements not only because they were a political question, but because they even went beyond the requirement of the Union for readmission by the South, which only required “the simple promise of obedience to the laws and allegiance to the government” (84).6

In 1866, the Presbytery of Louisville adopted a “Declaration and Testimony,” which put forth Stuart Robinson’s spirituality doctrine in opposition to acts of the five preceding Assemblies.7 Hodge considered this to be “hyperspirituality” that forbade the church from speaking to any issue that happened to touch the political, even if the Bible speaks to it. As Strange summarizes, “It is clear that, for Hodge, only church action that is ‘purely political’—not merely an action that has some political consequences—violates the spirituality of the church” (93). However, the Assembly’s response to the Louisville Presbytery led it and other border state synods and presbyteries to withdraw and join the Southern Presbyterian Church.

Strange also discusses Hodge’s opposition to the 1869 union between the Northern Old School Church and the Northern New School Church. Strange seeks to tie this to the spirituality doctrine because it shows Hodge was “concerned more with true spiritual unity, which to him meant doctrinal unity, than mere outward unity” (108). However, while of historical interest, it is more relevant to Hodge’s view of subscription than the spirituality doctrine. Hodge opposed union with the New School because while they appeared rather orthodox, since its inception the New School practiced a looser subscription that he thought would introduce theological errors into the united Northern Church (and he seems to have been proven correct). 

Spirituality and Slavery

Strange is well aware that the spirituality of the church is associated with the South’s defense of slavery, and thus he devotes his entire second chapter to this issue. Strange thinks the spirituality of the church has been “abused” to support racism and slavery, but he argues such abuse does not warrant a neglect of the doctrine (13). However, one of the challenges Strange faces in promoting Hodge’s view is that even Hodge does not escape the association of slavery. Hodge himself owned slaves at some point, and he advocated colonization (45). While he did not share the proslavery view of Thornwell and advocated reforms that made him an antislavery moderate, Hodge was in full agreement with the Southerners that abolitionism was unbiblical. 

Strange includes a section on the Presbyterian Church’s 1818 General Assembly statement on slavery, which said slavery was “utterly inconsistent with the law of God” and called on all Christians to “as speedily as possible to efface this blot on our holy religion, and to obtain the complete abolition of slavery throughout Christendom” (37). Strange considers this “a breath of fresh air amid all the statements” (37, n. 16), and he says, “Remarkably, this statement was adopted without dissent” (38). Strange notes that abolitionist George Bourne criticized the statement as mere lip service to end slavery, but Strange defends the 1818 statement by saying there was a change in approach to slavery in the 1830s so that there was no apparent intention to end it (42). 

While a hardened proslavery position no doubt developed in the South in the 1830s, in part as a response to Northern abolitionism, an examination of the 1818 Assembly’s statement shows that it was not as strongly antislavery as Strange implies. The statement was truly a moderate position and by no means abolitionist, which is why Bourne mocked it. In fact, the 1818 Assembly that produced this statement on slavery was the very Assembly that upheld the decision of the Lexington Presbytery (Virginia) to depose the abolitionist George Bourne for his treatment of other ministers regarding the slavery issue. Moreover, while the 1818 statement was written by Ashbel Green,8 the committee also included George Baxter, an opponent of abolitionism and Bourne’s prosecutor in the Lexington Presbytery.

The 1818 Assembly’s statement on slavery called on sessions and presbyteries to prevent “the cruelty of separating husband and wife, parents and children,” as well as called for church discipline upon a Christian who sold a slave in communion in the church “contrary to his or her will.” It also called on members “to facilitate and encourage the instruction of their slaves, in the principles and duties of the Christian religion.” However, the statement also recommended the support of the American Colonization Society, and it rejected abolitionism, referring to “those portions of our church and our country where the evil of slavery has been entailed upon them” and “where the number of slaves, their ignorance, and their vicious habits generally, render an immediate and universal emancipation inconsistent alike with the safety and happiness of the master and the slave.” Against the abolitionist spirit, the statement said, “And we, at the same time, exhort others to forbear harsh censures, and uncharitable reflections on their brethren, who unhappily live among slaves, whom they cannot immediately set free.”9

Thus, the 1818 Assembly statement on slavery reflected the attitudes of many Americans at the time, including those in the South. Its moderate position—including a rejection of abolitionism—explains why there was no dissent even by the Southern commissioners. George Baxter’s influence is seen when compared to his 1836 work, An Essay on the Abolition of Slavery, particularly where the 1818 statement said slaves were not yet ready to be emancipated and needed to first be educated in the Christian religion. It is thus no surprise that George Bourne, writing in 1834, referred to the 1818 statement as an “appalling delineation” made “to cloak over their own ungodliness.”10

In his sixth and final chapter, Strange says that the 1818 Assembly’s “righteous statement calling for slavery’s demise—without dictating precisely the political steps to end slavery—was arguably a proper concomitant of the gospel and the spirituality of the church” (112). However, Strange does not analyze the fullness of the statement. His construal of the 1818 statement as abolitionist leads Strange to condemn the later 1845 Old School Assembly that said the church “cannot legislate where Christ has not legislated” and “since they [the apostles] did not attempt to remove it [slavery] from the Church by legislation, we have no authority to legislate on the subject.”11 Strange says “the American Presbyterian Church, particularly in its Old School form, never lived up to the vigorous denunciation of slavery issued by the 1818 General Assembly” (124), and in regard to the 1845 Assembly, “That anyone ever used the spirituality of the church in any of its forms to refrain from such moral rejection of slavery is greatly lamentable” (125). However, while the 1845 statement did not speak as strongly against slavery as the 1818 statement, it was consistent with the earlier statement in opposing abolitionism. Both Assembly statements were displays of the spirituality of the church.

Hodge’s Spirituality Doctrine and Slavery

In contrast to both the 1818 and 1845 General Assembly statements on slavery, Strange himself endorses a form of abolitionism. He approvingly summarizes the abolitionist view of Alexander McLeod, a Reformed Presbyterian (Covenanter) pastor in New York, who argued that slavery was manstealing (violating Ex. 21:16; 1 Tim. 1:10) and that Israel’s slavery of other nations that was permitted in the Old Testament, in Strange’s words, “was not an example for the Christian church to follow but was unique to her redemptive-historical situation” (49). The passage in the background to this argument is Leviticus 25:44-46, which is oddly never cited in the book. Strange says, “Hodge and other Old School Presbyterians had such arguments at their disposal. That they failed or refused to make recourse to such biblical-theological reasoning but simply repeated the tired nostrum ‘The Bible does not condemn slavery, and neither can we’ testifies not to the spirituality of the church but to the cultural captivity of the church” (49). Hodge, of course, was not unaware of such abolitionist reasoning, but along with most Old School Presbyterians, he simply rejected it as contrary to the apostolic treatment of slavery in the New Testament. 

At minimum, it is an oddity that Strange appeals to Hodge’s “moderate” doctrine of the spirituality of the church but then rejects Hodge’s application of the doctrine to one of the most pressing issues of his day, and one that led him even to a moderate antislavery position. Strange apparently recognizes the problem, as he condemns Hodge’s position on slavery multiple times throughout the book. He minces no words, saying Hodge fell “short of what was needed: the kind of candor that McLeod evinced in denouncing American slavery as an evil not to be tolerated but eliminated” (49). Hodge, along with his Southern brethren, “both taught, incautiously, that the Bible only regulated and never condemned slavery ipso facto” (117). Strange said, “I think that he simply missed that the Scriptures did forbid Hebrews from enslaving each other and allowed it only for strangers as a mercy to some whom the Israelites were commanded to kill” (121). Taking a position so opposed to that of Hodge here should entail some exegesis and argumentation, but none is given. Many of the relevant passages are not even named. Strange simply says, “The New Testament contains no explicit commands to abolish slavery, though it prohibits manstealing (1 Tim. 1:10) and thus proscribes the form of slavery that was practiced in the United States” (122). That may be, but it requires an argument. Strange simply assumes that the prohibition on manstealing condemned slavery, but he does not interact with the responses of Hodge or other anti-abolitionists.

Strange suggests an underlying motive for Hodge’s anti-abolitionist position—“It is arguable that Hodge, unlike the Covenanters, 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” (118). The problem with this speculation is it does not take seriously Hodge’s reasoning based on the biblical data. Strange spoke more accurately in his doctoral thesis—“Hodge refused to condemn slavery as an institution since Scripture, as he understood it, did not condemn it… Hodge did look forward to slavery’s demise; nonetheless, he could not bring himself to condemn it as malum in se.” 12

Ironically, Strange endorses the very abolitionist position that Hodge condemns as unbelief and a rejection of Scripture. Even amidst condemnation of the evils of some American slave laws, Hodge could not avoid the fact “that slaveholders were received into communion with the Christian church, and that the apostles did not enjoin the immediate manumission of all slaves as a Christian duty.” Hodge concluded:

For any man therefore to assume the ground that slaveholders should not be received into the church, or that all slavery is sinful, is to place himself above the Bible. It matters not from what motive this is done. It is as much the expression of an unbelieving spirit as the rejection of the doctrine of the incarnation, because we cannot understand it; or the denial of the doctrine of endless future punishment of the finally impenitent, because we cannot reconcile it with infinite benevolence. We are Christians, and as Christians we must submit our faith and practice to the supreme authority of the word of God.13

In condemning even Hodge’s view of slavery, Strange adopts a position that almost the entirety of the Old School—not just Hodge—rejected and which never gained ascendancy in any large denomination of Christianity. Abolitionism was a position associated with infidels, Quakers, Freewill Baptists, and a minority of Presbyterians—some from the Scottish tradition, some New Schoolers in the North, and only a handful of Old Schoolers in the Midwest. Moreover, while many Covenanters embraced abolitionism, Southern Seceders and the Associate Reformed in the South rejected it.14 For the most part, Old School Presbyterians even in the North held to a moderate antislavery position that they thought took the relevant biblical texts seriously. Accordingly, no group as a whole within the Christian tradition—not Baptists, Methodists, or Presbyterians—could claim outright opposition to slavery. And the efforts of the abolitionists from 1830 to 1860 failed to change this.15


This leads to the conclusion that Alan Strange has written a rather odd book—one that calls us to return to Charles Hodge’s doctrine of the spirituality of the church, but not his application of it. It seems that Strange wants the Old School Presbyterian Church, along with one of its leading theologians of the 19th century, to be something they were not. The fact is that Presbyterians debated abolitionism, and judging by outcomes, the abolitionists lost those debates. Even the 1818 Assembly statement, which Strange praises, rejected abolitionism. It remains to be seen whether the abolitionist hermeneutic of Scripture can be squared with the spirituality of the church. Hodge and his fellow Old School Presbyterians did not think so. Strange disagrees, but he has not demonstrated how his forebears were wrong.

Of course, slavery is not a live issue in 21st-century America. It is one thing for Strange to take a stand that the church of 200 years ago should have taken a particular position. But what about relevant issues today? Strange tells us what he thinks the church should not speak against (the welfare state), but he unfortunately provides little positive application of what the church in its courts and pulpits should speak against. Thus, Empowered Witness successfully shows that the doctrine of the spirituality of the church is worthy of consideration by Christians today, but it does little to help them put it to use.

Image Credit: Unsplash

Show 15 footnotes
  1. For the Spring Resolutions and Hodge protest, see Minutes of the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church in the United States of America, with an Appendix, Vol. XVI, A. D. 1861 (Philadelphia: Presbyterian Board of Publication), 329–30, 339–41.
  2. Charles Hodge, “General Assembly,” Princeton Review 34/3 (July 1862): 515–16.
  3. Ibid., 518.
  4. Ibid., 523.
  5. Charles Hodge, “General Assembly,” Princeton Review 37/3 (July 1865): 502.
  6. Ibid., 513.
  7. Charles Hodge, “General Assembly,” Princeton Review 38/3 (July 1866): 425–99.
  8. J. H. Jones, ed., The Life of Ashbel Green (New York: Robert Carter and Brothers, 1849), 417.
  9. Minutes of the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church in the United States of America from its Organization, 1789–1820 (Philadelphia: Presbyterian Board of Publication, 1847), 692–94.
  10. George Bourne, Picture of Slavery in the United States of America (Middleton, CT: Edwin Hunt, 1834), 191.
  11. Minutes of the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church in the United States of America, from A. D. 1838 to A. D. 1847, Inclusive, Old School (Philadelphia: Presbyterian Board of Publication), 387–88.
  12. Alan D. Strange, The Doctrine of the Spirituality of the Church in the Ecclesiology of Charles Hodge (P&R Publishing, 2017), 80–81.
  13. Charles Hodge, “The General Assembly,” Princeton Review 36/3 (July 1864): 547.
  14. Joseph S. Moore, Founding Sins: How a Group of Antislavery Radicals Fought to Put Christ in the Constitution (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2016), 111.
  15. John R. McKivigan, The War Against Proslavery Religion: Abolitionism and the Northern Churches, 1830–1865 (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1984), 15, 25.
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Zachary Garris

Zachary Garris serves as pastor of Bryce Avenue Presbyterian Church (PCA) in White Rock, New Mexico. He is the author of Masculine Christianity, Honor Thy-Fathers: Recovering the Anti-Feminist Theology of the Reformers (New Christendom Press), and a forthcoming book on the Southern Presbyterians (coauthored with Sean McGowan). He writes at

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