Augustus Hopkins Strong (1836-1921) was an American Baptist pastor and theologian. He was also a significant promoter of Baptist missions and served as the first president of the Northern Baptist Convention (1907-1910). Born in Rochester, New York, Strong was the son of a printer. His father and uncle were deacons at First Baptist Church of Rochester and helped to found Rochester Theological Seminary, the place he would begin his theological education and in which he would eventually become president (1872). During his time as President, “A.H.” wrote his Systematic Theology, a classic text for Reformed Baptist theological education for years after its publication. The work is divided into three volumes respectively: the doctrine of God, man, and salvation. Other works by Strong include Philosophy and Religion (1888), What Shall I Believe? A Primer of Christian Theology (1922), Popular Lectures on the Books of the New Testament (1914), and Christ in Creation and Ethical Monism (1899). Carl F.H. Henry locates three distinct periods in Strong’s thought: “uncompromisingly fundamentalist,” embracing evolutionary thought, and the influence of ethical monism. (Personal Idealism and Strong’s Theology, 15) In his Systematic Theology (1907), there are traces of all three. Strong defines theology as “the science of God and of the relations between God and the universe.” (1) Therefore faith is not only knowledge, it’s “the highest kind of knowing,” conditioned by holy affection and scientific reason. Strong contends with Kantian and Ritschlian phenomenalism and the idea that true knowledge of God is not possible. The validity of theological method rests on the congruency between our laws of thought and God’s.
In his defense of “external revelation” against philosophical idealism, the author makes a liberal distinction between the written word and the eternal word. For Strong, the Word is not in the Scriptures alone. It is also found in the incarnate Word. Thus “the central theme of theology” is “the person and work of Jesus Christ.” (17) Strong’s theology is not a mere feeling of dependence (Schleiermacher) or an idealistic pantheism (like Hegel). It is the summary and explanation of God’s self-revelation, the only means through which we can know Him. Still, science and Scripture are not contradictory. They “throw light upon each other.” (27) The universe itself is not God, however, it is very much a source of theology. On the other hand, Scripture is the most trustworthy source of theology and sufficient for salvation. Strong describes it as a “record” of God’s past communications. Scriptural theology is clear yet “progressive”, meaning that biblical facts become “more perfect” over the course of the canon. Illumination is the task performed by the Spirit, who knows the things of God. On the human side, Strong adopts the “Synthetic Method” of studying Scripture, which proceeds from causes to effects, starting from the highest principle (God) and proceeding to man, Christ, redemption, and eschatology. Strong’s definition of God is “the infinite and perfect Spirit in whom all things have their source, support, and end.” (52) His existence is a “first truth,” something that has such logical priority that it must be assumed. Strong divides his defense of God’s existence into four arguments: cosmological, teleological, anthropological, and ontological. (72) While they cannot prove God’s existence indubitably, these four arguments prove the probability of His existence. The former president of Rochester Seminary goes on to suggest three main explanations for the composition of the universe: materialism, materialistic idealism, and idealistic pantheism. In response, Strong advocates a fourth option: ethical monism. This is the “the method of thought which holds to a single substance, ground, or principle of being, namely, God, but which also holds to the ethical facts of God’s transcendence as well as his immanence, and of God’s personality as distinct from, and as guaranteeing, the personality of man.” (105) It is, in essence, ethical monism wedded to psychological dualism. The universe is related to God as the thinker’s thoughts are related to him. In contrast to pantheism, Strong views the universe as God’s gradated manifestation of Himself.
In reaction to other theories of inspiration (Intuition, Illumination, Dictation) Strong holds firmly to “Dynamical theory.” (211) This is the belief that inspiration is a supernatural and immediate work of God in the soul of the writer. Thus, inspiration is plenary and belongs to the writers as well as the Scriptures they wrote. They are “the production equally of God and of man.” (212) The writers were not passive organs, but willful instruments. Strong does not hold to verbal inspiration, and his view does not necessitate inerrancy. Each part of Scripture is to be judged by the other parts, with everything pointing to the “central subject” Jesus Christ. “The Scripture is the imperfect mirror of Christ. It is defective, yet it reflects him and leads to him.” (219) Its authority is not immediate and absolute, but mediate and relative.
In expounding upon the attributes of God, Strong rejects the doctrine of divine simplicity. Instead, he claims that attributes are not separate parts of a composite God, but that they inhere in one essence. That divine essence is revealed only through attributes. Holiness is the “fundamental attribute” of God. (296) After dealing with the attributes of God, the author then discusses the essence of God and His tripersonality. The personal distinctions in the one God are immanent and eternal. According to Strong, “reason shows us the unity of God; only revelation shows us the Trinity of God.” (304) The Northern Baptist theologian actually credits the Montanists with first defining the personality of the Spirit and first formulating the doctrine of the Trinity! Texts like John 1:18 and John 20:28 prove Christ to be God and texts like John 5:18 prove his equality with the Father. Passages such as Acts 5 and 1 Corinthians 3 feature the Holy Spirit being addressed as God, implying co-equality. Through intimations in the Old Testament, Christians know this Trinity to be Scriptural and real. This tripersonality is not merely economic and temporal, as men like Sabellius and Horace Bushnell would suggest. It is also not tritheism; there is one divine essence. There is “numerical unity” and “unity of nature or essence.” (331) This intercommunion of persons features the immanence of one divine person in each of the other two. The Trinity is “the organism of Deity,” according to Strong. (336) The Son is eternally generated by the Father and the Spirit eternally proceeds from both the Father and the Son. While this doctrine is inscrutable, the author is adamant that it is not self-contradictory. Without this crucial doctrine, one falls into deism or pantheism. It is also essential to the doctrine of atonement and redemption: “Only one who is God can reconcile us to God.” (350) To Strong, God’s decrees are eternal acts of an infinitely perfect will. What God does, He has always purposed to do. In this, Strong concurs with the Westminster Confession on providence and divine benevolence. Each proves consistent with free human agency. God is not the author of sin, and his decrees are not grounded in arbitrary will but infinite wisdom.
Opting for the pictorial-summary interpretation of Genesis, Strong believes that the account is a “rough sketch of the history of creation, true in all its essential features, but presented in a graphic form suited to the common mind and to earlier as well as to later ages.” (393) As to the aim of the universe, God’s own end secures every interest of every creature within His creation. Against deism and the doctrine of continuous creation (as espoused by men like Jonathan Edwards), Strong sees God’s preservation as a “continuance” of creation by God’s power. Providence, on the other hand, is “that continuous agency of God by which he makes all the events of the physical and moral universe fulfill the original design with which he created it.” (419) It is also a work of Christ. It is not fatalism nor casualism, but is rather according to His immutable will and fully consistent with prayer. Strong’s anthropology advocates a “theistic evolution” while viewing the soul as an immediate creation of God. (466) Man’s common ancestry is the ground for his obligation to brotherhood. Strong holds a dichotomous view of human nature: body and soul/spirit. He also holds a Traducian view of the origin of the soul, suggesting that, while the human race was immediately created in Adam, the body and soul were propagated from him by natural generation – “all souls since Adam being only mediately created by God.” (493) Strong defines the conscience as the “moral judiciary” of the soul, but not a separate faculty like the will. The will, on the other hand, is defined as the soul’s power to choose between motives and to direct its activity according to that motive. After examining the moral nature of man, Strong then moves on to man’s original state. He classifies the imago dei in two ways: natural likeness to God (personality) and moral likeness to God (holiness). The seminary president defines the law of God as a partial “transcript” of divine nature, the nature of the supreme Lawgiver. (539) The perfect embodiment and fulfillment of that law is of course Jesus Christ. Therefore the law of God, and the example of Jesus Christ, is the “ideal” of human nature.
Instead sin entered the world. Sin is defined in legal terms: “lack of conformity to the moral law of God, either in act, disposition, or state.” (549) Strong balances this definition with the assertion that all sin is voluntary, springing directly from the will or indirectly from perverse desires. Hence the inability to fulfill the law is a result of transgression. Most notably for Strong, “the essential principle of sin” is selfishness rather than sensuousness or finiteness. (567) It is very much a positive thing, in the sense that sin is not simply the absence of love or holiness. It is willful preference of self instead of God. As a result, sin has rendered man in a state of depravity. This universality of sin is attested by history itself. And our corrupt nature is the result of the original sin, the free act of Adam and Eve to turn away from God. The consequent death is both a physical one and a spiritual one. Adam’s sin has been imputed to the entire human race on account of his being the “germ” and “head” of the human race. Strong defines original sin as “that participation in the common sin of the race with which God charges us, in virtue of our descent from Adam, its father and head.” (594) There is always a realistic basis for this imputation, and that basis is a “real union” between Adam and his lineage. Due to Strong’s distinction between sin and transgression, he holds firmly to infant salvation. Strong also advocates the Augustinian theory, or natural headship of Adam (as opposed to Pelagian, Arminian, New School Theory, Federal Theory, and Mediate Imputation Theory). Adam’s natural headship implies an “organic unity of mankind” by which the entire human race existed seminally in Adam as its head, transgressing with him when he sinned. Adam’s sin is thus imputed to us because it really is our sin. (Rom. 5:12) The entire race is one its primordial ancestor, and because of that solidarity, all fell in him. As a result, the entire human race is totally depraved and totally unable to turn itself to God. For Strong, the preaching of a “natural ability” is a practical evil. There is a bondage of the will that is still consistent with the notion of freedom of choice. The guilt that now lay upon humanity incurs a penalty that vindicates the character of the divine Lawgiver. This penalty is death. Fortunately, since Christ endured death as the penalty of sin, the Christian’s death now becomes the gateway through which he enjoys full communion with Christ.
The reason that God does not offer the cross immediately after the Edenic transgression is due to his “preparatory” plans through history, law, prophecy, and judgment to manifest his own holiness, omnipotence, and unity. (667) That plan culminated in the person Jesus Christ, who served as a proper Mediator due to His uniting Himself both to the human nature and the divine. In this way humanity is reconciled to God. Contrary to Ebionites, Docetists, Arians, Apollinarians, Nestorians, and Eutychians, the orthodox Christology is one of two natures “organically and indissolubly united” in one person, the God-man. (673) The ground for this union of natures Strong locates in humanity’s embedded imago dei. Strong also believes in a single theanthropic consciousness and will, flirting with a monothelite Christology. Christ holds a threefold office: prophet, priest, and king. In examining Christ’s priestly mediatorial role, Strong advocates the sacrificial view of the atonement (as opposed to the moral, commercial, or legal). “A correct view of the atonement must therefore be grounded upon a proper interpretation of the institution of sacrifice, especially as found in the Mosaic system.” (721) This sacrifice primarily imports three things: satisfaction, substitution, and “community of life between the offerer and the victim.” (723) In contrast to the example theory of the atonement, the moral influence theory, the governmental theory, Irvingian theory, and the commercial theory, Strong holds firmly to the ethical theory of the atonement. This is the view that “the necessity of the atonement is grounded in the holiness of God, of which conscience in man is a finite reflection. There is an ethical principle in the divine nature, which demands that sin shall be punished.” (751) Punishment is God’s natural reaction to moral evil. In turn, Christ’ substitution in His penal sufferings satisfies this penal requirement demanded by God’s wrath. For Strong, “the solution of the problem lies in Christ’s union with humanity.” (755) The atonement itself, grounded in God’s holiness and love, is universal in extend but “special” in its application to the elect. (771)
In agreement with the Synod of Dort, the author holds to a sublapsarian view of the eternal decrees, in which the decree to permit the Fall preceded the decree for salvation (opposite of “supralapsarian”). Strong defines election as “that eternal act of God, by which in his sovereign pleasure, and on account of no foreseen merit in them, he chooses certain out of the number of sinful men to be the recipients of the special grace of his Spirit, and so to be made voluntary partakers of Christ’s salvation.” (779) In this view, faith and repentance are gifts of God, enacting by a special call of God. Faith is the effect of election, not its cause. Choosing to describe the special call as “efficacious” rather than irresistible, Strong holds that union with Christ “logically precedes” regeneration and justification, along with conversion, sanctification, and perseverance. Regeneration and conversion, according to the author, are the divine and human sides of the same act. The same can be said for sanctification and perseverance. Strong defines justification as a judicial act by which God, in Christ, declares the sinner no longer exposed to the penalty of law and restored to divine favor. (849) It is a declarative act, not an efficient act.
The church, a product of sanctifying grace, is a “voluntary society” identical with the spiritual kingdom of God. (893) Its polity is a mix of monarchy and democracy: “While Christ is sole king, the government of the church, so far as regards the interpretation and execution of his will by the body, is an absolute democracy.” (903) With this background, Strong denies any papal authority as specified in Matthew 16. In regards to the intercommunity of churches themselves, the theologian suggests an “absolute equality” characterized by fraternal fellowship, comity, and cooperation. (926) “Independence is qualified by interdependence,” Strong asserts. (927) In his examination of ordinances, Strong discusses believer’s baptism and eviscerates the defense for infant baptism. Secondly, the Lord’s Supper is qualified as both symbolic and an ecclesial responsibility. The author defends close communion, contending that “the analogy of Baptism, as belonging only to a specified class of persons, leads us to believe that the same is true of the Lord’s Supper.” (969) True to his Synthetic method, Strong concludes his Systematic Theology with an examination of last things: death, the second coming, judgment, and eschatology. In all, the author sees God’s attributes manifest: “The present existence of sin and punishment is commonly admitted to be in some way consistent with God’s benevolence, in that it is made the means of revealing God’s justice and mercy. If the temporary existence of sin and punishment lead to good, it is entirely possible that their existence may lead to yet greater good.” (1053) Augustus Hopkins Strong logically connects the works of God, the attributes of God, and His Trinitarian essence in a robust presentation of scientific theology worthy of systematization.
Strong, Augustus Hopkins. Systematic Theology. Valley Forge, PA: Judson Press, 1907.