Hodge vs. Thornwell on Polity

The General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (Old School) met at Rochester, New York in 1860. It is famous for a floor debate between the two leaders of the Northern and Southern branches of the denomination—Dr. Charles Hodge of Princeton Theological Seminary and Dr. James Henley Thornwell of Columbia Theological Seminary (which then resided in Columbia, S.C.). The debate was over the question of independent boards and was sparked, no doubt, by the fact that Dr. Thornwell had been the chairman of the revision of the Book of Church Order that reported to the General Assembly in 1859 in Indianapolis, Indiana. That report was not adopted by the 1859 GA, but was resubmitted to the committee and was not received before the Civil War. The Old School Presbyterians were then split into two separate denominations as a result of the Gardiner Spring resolution requiring all ministers and churches to pledge allegiance to the Union cause in that hostility.   

Having carefully read the written views of both Hodge and Thornwell on the subject of polity, I am decidedly in favor of the latter as being the right interpretation of Scripture. Regrettably, Thornwell’s views on the spirituality of the Church and against independent boards did not carry the Assembly. Many were breathlessly impressed with Thornwell’s moving speech on the floor of the Assembly, but they sided with Hodge’s view of a more hierarchical form of Presbyterianism. 

Ostensibly both men were Old School theologians who held to the theological teaching of the Westminster Standards, but Hodge did not believe that the regulative principle applied to church government. Hodge also did not hold to the six 24-hour days of creation which is taught in the Westminster Standards. In his Systematic Theology, Volume 1, Hodge stated his view that the days of creation were longer periods than twenty-four hours. While Hodge definitely opposed Darwinism and wrote a small book against it, it seems he was influenced by Darwinian science nonetheless. Now, I am very indebted to Charles Hodge for many things, but I am self-consciously a Thornwellian in my views—as is Vanguard Presbytery. 

The position of Vanguard Presbyterian Church since her inception has been that the Scripture regulates doctrine, polity, and worship—all three. I believe the genesis of Hodge’s mistaken views can be accounted to two things: his doctoral study in Germany (which probably led to his views on creation) and his admiration of the Old Side Presbyterian ministers of the 18th century. Vanguard is New Side-Old School. The New Side-Old Side controversy was in the 18thcentury and primarily focused on the Great Awakening (or revival). The Old School-New School controversy was in the nineteenth century and primarily focused on doctrine. But the New Side and Old School ministers, separated by a century, were almost identical in their core views. Vanguard is attempting to continue that heritage. 

One of the lesser known works of Hodge was his The Constitutional History of the Presbyterian Church in the United States of America which was printed in 1851. There are many valuable parts of that two-volume work, but time after time Hodge sides with the Old Side ministers against the Tennents, Samuel Blair, Samuel Davies, etc. Archibald Alexander, author of The Log College, which recounted the story of William Tennent’s log building where he instructed his sons and a few others, attempted to correct Hodge’s faulty information. Hodge resisted Alexander’s input and replied that he was only following the documentary evidence. In most situations, the documentary evidence is determinative, but not in every case. To the victors belong the spoils and one of those spoils is that the victors write the histories of the events. Documentary evidence can be doctored and often is. Sometimes it is necessary to go deeper than the “official” accounts of what happened. There is evidence better than the documentary evidence that Hodge followed in writing his  Constitutional History and a lot of it is in the Princeton Theological Seminary library where Hodge taught a century after the Old Side-New Side controversy. I know that for a fact because I have seen it with my own eyes in that library. I do not know what was in the possession of that library during Hodge’s days, but I would suspect many of the documents that I studied there would have also been available to Hodge. Hodge, in my opinion, was an Old Side-Old School proponent which is as contradictory as trying to mix water and oil. 

I write this background for an important reason. Vanguard has some very simple and straightforward positions that are fundamental to our denomination. Those positions are not disparate points arranged into a mosaic. Rather, they are principles that hang together or fall together. Both the New Side ministers of the 18th century and the Old School ministers of the 19th century believed in the same views on creation, doctrine, evangelism, revival, polity, etc. Vanguard follows them on those views. In this article, I am addressing the different views of Hodge and Thornwell concerning church polity.  

There were two main differences between Hodge and Thornwell which Hodge accurately stated: “The doctrine that all church power is joint and not several.  That everything not prescribed in Scripture is forbidden.” (Hodge, The Church and Its Polity, 127). Concerning the first statement, that has been the typical view of most Presbyterian denomination in this country and is the position of Vanguard Presbyterian Church concerning church power. For instance, BCO 6-7 states: 

“The exercise of the power of jurisdiction, which is through church courts, is in the whole court. Therefore, every church court has power to amend, overrule, revise, annul, or reverse any actions, decisions, or judgments of any committee, board, or agency that is subject to its jurisdiction and/or was appointed by that court. The effect of this paragraph is that the power of jurisdiction cannot be given to any smaller group for final action, whether that is an executive Session, an executive committee of the Presbytery or General Assembly, or any standing or permanent commit-tee/commission/agency/board of any court of the Church.”

Many people in Vanguard have witnessed the bad effects that have happened when church sessions erect executive committees of the session which are given all necessary power to take final action on any and all matters. In that situation, power is transferred from the whole court to a smaller group that can act apart from the whole court. When power is concentrated, it leads to tyranny and abuse. Thus, presbyteries must guard against doing the same thing. Presbytery cannot allow committees or “boards” to act without authority lest they become the “executive committees” of presbytery. The power is in the whole court—not in the several parts of the court. For that reason, all committees must handle only the business assigned to them by the court and cannot take any final action on that business. What committees can do is to recommend, examine, consider, and even request. 

The second principle is fundamental to the regulative principle which says that the Church is regulated by Scripture—a “Thus, says the Lord.” For some reason, Hodge kicked back against that position. He taught that the Church can do whatever is not forbidden and tried to tether his argument to the believer’s freedom of conscience. There is a world of difference between those positions. The Scripture does not speak to every issue so there is Christian freedom given to believers. Yet, individual liberty of conscience is completely different than making rules of polity in every area where the Scripture does not forbid something. Freedom of conscience is turned into an obligatory rule when governs the church. For instance, Christians have liberty of conscience concerning food and drink according to Scripture (Romans 14 and 15). We are not to judge one another on such matters. If that freedom is turned into a rule that says, “Since Scripture does not forbid us to eat meat sacrificed to false gods, our church is going to require all Christians to do so”, then that becomes the opposite of freedom of conscience. In fact, that is the progressive argument even today which is destroying denomination after denomination. Very simply, Hodge was wrong on this view of church government. 

Now, the argument Hodge made was a distinctly Old Side Presbyterian argument. As Joseph Tracy in The Great Awakening wrote:      

And this brought up another controversy, which related to the legislative power of church courts. The “Old Side” claimed the right to enact rules, not contrary to the laws of Christ, which would be binding on the conscience, and must be obeyed on pain of ecclesiastical censure. The “New Side” contended church courts have no legislative power whatever; that they are authorized only to administer the laws that Christ has made; and that any additional rules that they may enact, are mere recommendations, which every one is bound to observe so far as he can with a clear conscience, and not further. (Tracy, The Great Awakening, 62-3).   

Thus, Thornwell was simply following the New Side Presbyterians and the  gatekeepers of true Presbyterian polity all the way back to the Apostles. Absolutely, there have been and are many so-called Presbyterians who have put forward a hierarchical type of Presbyterianism where all church power is concentrated in the hands of a smaller and smaller group of power brokers, but the Scripture never, ever endorses such. Hodge had those he followed, including the Old Side Presbyterians, several reformed denominations in Europe, and others. What he did not have was a “Thus, says the Lord!” And he knew it—and he ignored that fact—and he taught others to ignore it—and denominations have followed his flawed, unscriptural principles—and congregations, presbyteries, and denominations have been ruined by the progressivism that always follows such hierarchy. Thornwell was right. Hodge was wrong. Hodge had many talents and did many great things for the Church and the cause of Christ. Yet, he was out of his element when it came to church polity. We have given Vanguard a republican form of government based on the principles of Scripture. As Benjamin Franklin told questioners after the Continental Convention on the type of government that had been created, “A republic, if you can keep it.” I pray that Vanguard will always be a republic based on the Scripture. May we never become a democracy or think we can erect our own rules apart from the Scripture. 

Dewey Roberts, Pastor of Cornerstone Presbyterian Church in Destin, FL


Please send any contributions to: Vanguard Presbytery, PO Box 1862, Destin, FL 32540 

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