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For Faith and Freedom

1955 to 1956
University of Glasgow

Hodgson’s initial course of Gifford Lectures, delivered in 1955, aims to answer two ambitious questions: What is the nature of the Universe? and What is the meaning of life? He attempts to answer them without explicit appeal to Christian revelation. Yet, in each of the ten lectures given in this course, he concludes by refuting the effort to find solutions to these problems apart from the revelation of God in the person of Jesus Christ. Hodgson would argue that although one can make sense of life and cosmos by believing in the existence of a Creator, it is only within a community of persons dedicated to goodness, freedom and virtue (namely the Christian Church) that the meaning of existence can fully be known.

Part I (consisting of Lectures I–V), entitled ‘Introductory: For Faith’, discusses Hodgson’s theological and philosophical autobiography, situates his project within what is understood to be the contemporary political and social climate, defines the scope of natural and revealed theology and argues for the primacy of Christian faith as the key to understanding the Divine. Part II (consisting of Lectures VI–X), entitled, ‘Natural Theology: For Freedom’, examines the natural world and discusses issues pertaining to metaphysics, free will and theodicy; it concludes by praising revealed Christian theology, setting the stage for the topics covered in the forthcoming course of lectures, which were delivered in the following academic year.

In Lecture I, ‘Retrospect: Theological’, Hodgson reflects on his own theological background. A confessional Christian theologian, Hodgson makes clear at the end of this lecture that his purpose in giving the Gifford Lectures is to argue from the perspective of Christian faith that all theology is both natural and revealed. In Lecture II, ‘Retrospect: Philosophical’, Hodgson takes a similar autobiographical approach and reflects on his early philosophical background at Oxford, with specific reference to the philosophies of logical positivism and existentialism: two competing schools of thought which Hodgson regards as having served the necessary function of purging error and confusion from epistemology and logic. Despite their great benefit to theology, Hodgson wishes to assert that the prevalence of specialised language and esoteric interest within such philosophies runs the risk of obscuring the deeply theological concerns of personal freedom and redemptive grace which are shared by all people, not merely the philosophically educated.

Having revealed his own theological and philosophical predispositions in the previous two lectures, in Lecture III, ‘Puzzles and Clues’, Hodgson addresses some of the many general problems which give rise to theological inquiry. In addition to the social and political realities of his day, Hodgson points to questions related to the existence of the cosmos and to the nature of life after death, which he suggests are two of the most pernicious ‘puzzles’ that press upon the mind of the Christian thinker. The clues which can be used to resolve these puzzles, though alluded to in natural theology, ultimately require ‘help from the revelation which Christians believe God to have given of Himself’ (68), if they are to be understood in full. He discusses the precise role of this revelation in the following lecture.

In Lecture IV, ‘Revelation’, Hodgson argues that the historical emphasis of the Gifford Lectures on a purely natural theology is inconsistent with the call for faith implicit within a biblical Christian faith. Revelation, Hodgson argues, comes to humanity through the Scriptures, which are interpreted in various and changing ways by the community of the Church. The communication of God’s revelation through Scripture proceeds by what are very natural and historical processes, inasmuch as Hodgson fully embraces a naturalistic understanding of the Bible. Apart from Scripture, God himself communicates to humanity through history and nature, as is epitomised by the person and work of Jesus Christ. Knowledge of God is revealed by God through the strictures of Christian faith by both revealed and natural means.

The ability to recognise the revelation described in Lecture IV is discussed in Lecture V, ‘The Eye of Faith’, as being contingent upon both one’s ability to reason and one’s ability to perceive revelation through a commitment of faith. Faith, for Hodgson, is not universal, though it could be argued that the capacity for faith is. Instead, faith is that which is endowed to believing members of the Christian Church and the ‘eyes of faith’ are what enable Christians to make sense of the revelation of God and to respond to revelation through action.

In Part II of his Gifford Lectures, Hodgson focuses his attention on the place of natural revelation within the cosmos. In Lecture VI, ‘Creation’, he argues that a Christian understanding of the revelation of God in creation must be centred on the revelation of God in Jesus Christ. Christians can ill afford to ‘confuse the minds of our children by putting before them on Sunday a picture of the past completely different from that which they have been learning in School from Monday to Friday’ (122). Rather than positing a naively biblical cosmology, Hodgson argues that a Christian understanding of creation must interpret the biblical creation story in light of the present and future activity of God in Christ. Seen accordingly, by the ‘eye of faith’, creation can reveal what constitutes God’s ultimate ends and purpose.

For Hodgson, a doctrine of creation that is grounded in the revelation of God in Christ necessitates a reworking of metaphysics. In Lecture VII, ‘Space, Time, Matter and Spirit’, Hodgson argues that the categories by which the universe has been traditionally understood cannot be described in purely impersonal and objective terms, but must instead be seen in a relational context, and therefore be interpreted by way of the cosmos’s association with the Divine. ‘We postulate the existence of God the Creator in order to make sense of the universe, and then we accept the universe as the medium through which He wills to reveal Himself to us’ (149). Accordingly, the whole of the universe, to the extent to which it reflects Divine self-disclosure, is in effect both ‘spiritual’ and ‘subjective’.

As Hodgson approaches the conclusion of his lectures, he begins to tackle what he considers the most pressing problems of theology: the problem of human freedom (the topic of Lecture VIII) and the problem of the existence of evil (the topic of Lecture IX). Hodgson understands freedom to be the ultimate expression of God’s will for the universe. To be free is to be free to fulfil the will of God on Earth by acting as an agent of His grace. The freedom which all humanity has is a freedom to relinquish selfish desires by giving one’s self over to the service of God in the world. Accordingly, evil is understood by Hodgson as the violation of freedom and is therefore the ultimate form of bondage. Though the fact of evil cannot be disputed, the existence of evil is highly problematic. Hodgson argues that the existence of evil, fallibility and finitude cannot sufficiently be explained by an appeal to natural theology alone. Rather, only by appealing to revelation can one find an answer to the existence of evil and hope to discover freedom from it.

Lastly, in Lecture X, ‘Prospect’, Hodgson summarises his argument and defends his belief that the universe is an expression of Divine self-revelation. Nonetheless, he is adamant that Christian revelation is necessary if one wishes truly to understand destiny, self-unification and the good life. To describe the character of a revealed theology, Hodgson refers the reader to his second course of lectures, which deal exclusively with the content of Christian (revealed) theology.

  • Michael W. DeLashmutt, University of Glasgow