Strong was a man of contrasts: gregarious and popular, he nevertheless carried himself with an overstated dignity and reserve; always making witty remarks, he was never known to laugh out loud in public; a community-minded institution-builder, he nevertheless had to be the lone individual in charge of all the organizations he joined.
Two of the most important contrasts are more doctrinal: Converted to Christianity on completely Arminian grounds (under the ministry of the hyper-Arminian Charles Finney!), he matured into a teacher and promoter of a fully-developed Calvinist soteriology.
And finally, his life is marked by the contrast between conservative doctrinal content and a liberal theological culture, making him an endlessly fascinating case study: a seasoned nineteenth-century “octogeranium” who passed from the scene during the early years of the fundamentalist-modernist controversy. Strong was president of Rochester Divinity School, and was eager to see that institution stand firm for “the faith once delivered.” But he took a few steps to the left in his own thought: He expected a friction-free fit between Darwinism and orthodoxy, and he thought he could hand the Bible over to historical criticism with confidence that after the critics had done their work, there would still be more than enough revelation left over to build a church on. He didn’t understand how voracious the critical appetite really was, until it was too late. And by then, he had taken the classic steps that constitute institutional drift: He hired new faculty who were as far to his own left as he could be comfortable with, trusting them to hire as far to their left as they could accommodate. He lived long enough to become alarmed at how liberal his own denomination and even his own school had become. He protested the later hirings of so-called systematic theologians who, in his estimation, had sacrificed their ability to be anything but social scientists analyzing historically relative belief systems. And late in life he toured the Baptist missions staffed by four decades of his own graduates, only to send back the warning that the missions were in danger of becoming merely providers of social service and education. The missionaries, it seemed to him, were being undermined by a historical biblical criticism that left them with no word from God in their Bibles. In his Tour of Missions, he traced the problem back to the seminaries:
Many a professor has found teaching preferable to preaching, because he lacked the initial Christian experience which gives to preaching its certainty and power. He chooses the line of least resistance, and becomes in the theological seminary a blind leader of the blind. Having no system of truth to teach, he becomes a mere lecturer on the history of doctrine. having no key in Christ to the unity of Scripture, he becomes a critic of what he is pleased to call its fragments, that is, the dissector of a cadaver. Ask him if he believes in the preexistence, deity,virgin birth, miracles, atoning death, physical resurrection, omnipresence, and omnipotence of Christ, and he denies your right to require of him any statement of his own beliefs.
Historian Grant Wacker has told the story of Strong’s own ambiguous position between conservatism and liberalism brilliantly, and Carl Henry devoted his doctoral dissertation to Strong’s thought.
As Wacker says, “Perhaps the greatest incongruity of Strong’s life is, however, the contrast between the influence he once enjoyed and the obscurity that now shrouds his work.” (Wacker, p. 5.) Nobody reads Strong anymore. So here are a few words of commendation for his magnum opus, the three-volume Systematic Theology.
First, let us admit there are reasons his work is not consulted much these days. For one thing, he has no natural constituency: far too stodgy for the liberals, far too loose for the conservatives, there is no school of thought, institution, or secret society that would rally around his book now. Even Baptists who want nineteenth-century American theology are more likely to get it from Charles Hodge than from Strong. Further, he strove mightily to be up-to-date, with the inevitable result that he was out-of-date in the next generation. He invested heavily in the terminology of systems of thought that were on the cutting edge in 1895. He seems to have thought that he was equipped to operate at a professional level in philosophy, but his pontifications about “ethical monism” sound amateurish, dilettantish, and vague.
Nevertheless, his Systematic Theology, later published as three volumes in one, is a remarkable tome, well worth consulting on the full range of Christian doctrine. It is more than a thousand pages of densely-packed doctrinal argument and allusive exploration. He revised it over the course of decades in which he never stopped reading widely, so the final edition is a massive accumulation of every idea and every apt expression he ever encountered. These thousand pages are in a tiny font size, possibly a narrow six-point (certainly no bigger than eight; sometimes dipping down even lower for extended Scripture citations) and about .8 line spacing. Each page has more than a thousand words on it! So it’s hard on the eyes, but the main point is that if you have the one-volume Strong’s Systematic Theology on your shelf, it’s deceptively small. That volume is really a little library of quotation and summary (sub-title: “A Compendium, Designed for the Use of Theological Students”), which would probably take up more shelf space than the 3-volume Hodge if it were printed and bound similarly.
Strong can be pigeon-holed for easier doctrinal filing: Calvinist, Baptist, postmillennial, theistic evolutionist, non-inerrantist, etc. He states his views clearly, and contrasts them fairly with competing views. There is nothing sneaky, and no obfuscation, in his style. He tells his students as much as he understands about his own positions.
My favorite feature of Strong’s book is its expansiveness of quotation and allusion. This guy read everything, and excerpted it all delightfully in his own book. A library of nineteenth-century thought has been digested and excerpted here. I’m never going to read all those 150-year old books, but Strong has harvested some of the best fruits from them and arranged them by topic for me. Strong published essays on The Great Poets and their Theology, as well as the greatest of the American Poets, and those authors show up here. It is refreshing to read a treatment of the divine attributes that is informed by Homer and Spenser.
Speaking of the divine attributes, Strong vigorously argues that God’s love is conditioned by his holiness, contra the modern tendency to make love the bedrock attribute which constrains in advance the possible meanings of holiness. When he begins to illustrate the point, he really shines:
That God is only love has been called ‘the doctrine of the papahood of God.’ God is ‘a summer ocean of kindliness, never agitated by storms.’… But Jesus gives us the best idea of God, and in him we find, not only pity, but at times moral indignation. John 17:11, ‘Holy Father = more than love. Love can be exercised by God only when it is right love. Holiness is the track on which the engine of love must run. The track cannot be the engine. If either includes the other, then it is holiness that includes love, since holiness is the maintenance of God’s perfection, and perfection includes love.
That’s a few lines in the middle of page 272, eight lines out of 65. The whole book is just as densely packed with memorable illustrations (preachers take note: “I make no apology for the homiletical element in my book.”).
Strong’s mind is systematic in the best sense, so he is able to draw connections and show implications of each topic he takes up. Later on the same page, he explains the systematic importance of rightly relating God’s love and holiness:
At the railway switching grounds east of Rochester, there is a man whose duty it is to move a bar of iron two or three inches to the left or to the right. So he determines whether a train shall go to New York or towards Washington, toward New Orleans or San Francisco. Our conclusion at this point in our theology will similarly determine what our future system will be. The principle that holiness is a manifestation of love, or a form of benevolence, leads to the conclusions that happiness is the only good, and the only end; that law is a mere expedient for the securing of happiness; that penalty is simply deterrent or reformatory in its aim; that no atonement needs to be offered to God for human sin; that eternal retribution cannot be vindicated, since there is no hope of reform. This view ignores the testimony of conscience and of Scripture that sin is intrinsically ill-deserving, and must be punished on that account, not because punishment will work good to the universe, –indeed, it could not work good to the universe, unless it were just and right in itself. It ignores the fact that mercy is optional with God, while holiness is invariable…
In the preface to the final, 1907 edition of his Systematic Theology, Strong foretells the coming liberal onslaught:
We seem upon the verge of a second Unitarian defection, that will break up churches and compel secessions, in a worse manner than did that of Channing and Ware a century ago.” He expressed his distress over this in personal terms: “How men who have ever felt themselves to be lost sinners and who have one received pardon from their crucified Lord and Savior can thereafter seek to pare down his attributes, deny his deity and atonement, tear from his brow the crown of miracle and sovereignty, relegate him to the place of a merely moral teacher who influences us only as does Socrates by words spoken across a stretch of ages, passes my comprehension. Here is my test of orthodoxy: Do we pray to Jesus?
He says that the final edition of his book is issued “in the hope that its publication may do something to stem this fast advancing tide.” It is one of the great disappointments of Strong’s life that he proved to be so naive and ineffective in stemming that tide in the places where he had the most direct influence, his school and his church. Perhaps his carefully-cultivated high-mindedness caused him to feel that as a president and a systematic theologian, he should not descend into the squalid regions of institutional conflict and denominational politics. He concentrated his energy, apparently, on winning the battle at the level of doctrine. On the tenth page of his preface, he draws attention to a cluster of doctrines that he thinks “contain an antidote to most of the false doctrine which now threatens the safety of the church.” Those doctrines are “Ethical Monism, Inspiration, the Attributes of God, and the Trinity.” In particular, he called attention to “the section on Perfection, and the Attributes therein involved.” Strong thought the strategic place to dig in his doctrinal heels was at the doctrine of God’s perfection, which he thought had been compromised at exactly the point mentioned above, the false exalting of God’s love over his holiness. The dominoes started tumbling at that point, he thought, and down came the doctrine of sin, of atonement, of hell; and anything else that didn’t fit with modern man’s self-image.
Strong’s mature theology warned his readers in a thousand ways to cultivate “a firm belief in the self-affirming attribute of God as logically prior to and as conditioning the self-communicating attribute.” That is rather abstractly put, but in his wealth of illustration and paraphrase, he made the case concretely. Strong did not, in fact, stem the tide in those places where he had the most influence. But that doesn’t mean he was wrong about his main diagnosis and prescription. In fact, for all his mis-steps in the doctrines of creation and Scriptural inspiration, Strong was exactly right in this central insight of his final volume. The recovery of divine perfection, linked to an elaboration of the Trinity, is still what we need in contemporary theology.