A letter to Pope Pius IX from Charles Hodge

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In advance of the First Vatican Council of 1869-1870, the Roman Catholic council at which the doctrine of papal infallibility was officially promulgated, Pope Pius IX extended an invitation to Protestants to attend and to “embrace the opportunity” to “return to the only one [Roman Catholic] fold.” On behalf of the Old and New School branches of the Presbyterian Church in the United States of America (which reunited in 1869), Charles Hodge was selected to write a letter in response. This letter has recently been added to Log College Press. (Note: The Banner of Truth has a substantially edited and redacted version of this letter available to read on their site, whereas the letter at LCP is not redacted.)

The letter is remarkable for compacting such a powerful and gracious testimony to the truth so succinctly. First, Hodge explains why the two General Assemblies of the PCUSA would not be attending the council, despite the conviction of these American Presbyterian bodies that all efforts should be made to promote Christian unity and despite the fact that Presbyterianism affirms the Apostles’ Creed, the Nicene Creed, and the Chalcedonian Creed, as well as affirming that “we regard as consistent with Scripture the doctrinal decisions of the first six ecumenical councils; and because of that consistency we receive those decisions as expressing our faith.” Indeed, he characterizes the Presbyterianism system of faith as “Augustinian.”

Next, while affirming that Presbyterians are “neither heretics, nor schismatics,” he articulates four principles which show what Presbyterians stand for Biblically in contrast to Roman Catholicism.

  • First. That the word of God contained in the Scriptures of the Old and New Testament, is the only infallible rule of faith and practice. The Council of Trent, how ever, demands that we receive, pari pietatis affectu , the teachings of tradition as supplementing and interpreting the written word of God. This we cannot do without incurring the condemnation which our Lord pronounced on the Pharisees when he said, 'Ye make void the word of God by your traditions.'

  • Second. The right of private judgement. When we open the Scriptures, we find them addressed to the people. They speak to us; they command us to search their sacred pages; they require us to believe what they teach, and to do what they enjoin; they hold us personally responsible for our faith and conduct. The promise of the inward teaching of the Spirit to guide men into the knowledge of the truth, is made to the people of God; not to the clergy exclusively; much less to any special order of the clergy alone.”

  • Third. We believe in the universal priesthood of believers; that is, that all men have, through Christ, access by one Spirit unto the Father. (Eph. ii. 18.) They need no human priest to secure their access to God. Every man for himself may come with boldness to the throne of grace to obtain mercy and find grace to help in time of need. (Heb. iv. 16.)”

  • Fourth. We deny the perpetuity of the apostleship. As no man can be a prophet without the spirit of prophecy, so no man can be an apostle without the gifts of an apostle. Those gifts, as we learn from Scripture, are plenary knowledge of the gospel, derived by immediate revelation from Christ, (Gal. i. 12,) and personal infallibility in teaching and ruling. What are the seals of the apostleship, we learn from what St. Paul says to the Corinthians, 'Truly the signs of an apostle were wrought among you in all patience, in signs, in wonders, in mighty deeds.' (2 Cor. xii. 12.) Modern prelates, although they claim apostolic authority, do not pretend to possess the gilts on which that authority was founded; nor do they venture to exhibit the 'signs' by which the commission of the messengers of Christ was "authenticated. We cannot, therefore, recognize them, either individually or collectively, as the infallible teachers and rulers of the church."

With these principles expressed, Hodge concludes with an explicit rejection of the teaching that the “Bishop of Rome” is “Christ’s vicar on Earth, possessing ‘supreme rule.’” He also issues a solemn protest against several of the leading errors of Rome.

Some of those doctrines and usages are the following, namely, The doctrine of transubstantiation and the sacrifice of the mass; the adoration of the host; the power of judicial absolution, (which places the salvation of the people in the hands of the priests; the doctrine of the grace of orders, that is, that supernatural power and influence are conferred in ordination by the imposition of hands; the doctrine of purgatory; the worship of the Virgin Mary; the invocation of saints; the worship of images; the doctrine of reserve and of implicit faith, and the consequent withholding the Scriptures from the people, etc.

Then, finally, Hodge makes a declaration that is especially worthy of remembrance for its for forceful but gracious expression of truth.

While loyalty to Christ, obedience to the holy Scriptures, consistent respect for the early councils of the church, and the firm belief that pure 'religion is the foundation of all human society,' compel us to withdraw from fellowship with the Church of Rome, we, nevertheless, desire to live in charity with all men. We love all who love our Lord Jesus Christ in sincerity. We cordially recognize as Christian brethren all who worship, trust, and serve him as their God and Saviour according to the inspired word. And we hope to be united in heaven with all those who unite with us on earth in saying,' Unto him who loved us, and washed us from our sins in his own blood, and hath made us kings and priests unto God — to him be glory and dominion for ever and ever. Amen.' (Rev. i. 6.).

The letter which Hodge wrote was signed by the Old School moderator Melancthon Williams Jacobus, Sr. and the New School moderator Philemon Halsted Fowler. “It is,” in the words of one 19th century writer, “a model of manly argument, of plain truth expressed with Christian frankness, and yet with courtesy, and even with tenderness.” For a clear, succinct, and solid 19th century testimony as to why Protestants cannot unite with the Roman Catholic Church, this letter endures today as a remarkable witness to the truth.