Tuesday, September 05, 2006

More Readings in History

In America’s God (622 pages), Mark Noll argues that from the collapse of the Puritan idea of a national covenant around the time of Jonathan Edwards to the Civil war, American theology sought to influence American society but American society eventually changed the shape of American theology. Noll argues that during this period, three concepts were drawn into a synthetic interdependent balance: Revival theology, Republicanism (or Democracy), and common sense moral philosophy. When Jonathan Edwards’s theology prevailed, it unwittingly undermined the Puritan idea of a national covenant by emphasizing individual conversion over corporate establishment. This revival or conversion theology asserted that the only way to have a pure church is to have a free state and so American theology strongly advocated Republican (or Democratic) government. Republicanism on the other hand believed that a society with a Republican government could only be kept from decline through a religious or theological support of ethics. Because America was not a church-state, theologians sought a biblical ground on which to argue for social ethics, and they thought they found it in common sense moral philosophy, which basically stated that every human being has built in moral instincts. The churches became broadcasters of common sense moral philosophy, which the state accepted as a legitimate basis for law and ethics, and theologians began to formulate theology according to moral philosophy and social gospel, departing from Edwards, and biblical conservatism. At the time of the civil war, biblical theologians disagreed about the morality of slavery, arguing both for and against slavery from the Bible. The inability of biblical theologians to agree on a single biblical social ethic caused the American public to reject the possibility of constructing a national social ethic on the basis of the Bible.

In another historiographical work on the intellectual history of roughly the same period entitled Churchmen and Philosophers (311 pages), Bruce Kuklick argues that from the time of Jonathan Edwards to the time of John Dewey, American Congregationalist thinkers shifted from a predominantly supernatural perspective to a predominantly natural perspective, though all of these thinkers retained a place in their thought for both supernatural and natural concerns. Kuklick himself thinks that the intellectual trajectory of period was a good thing, but challenges the older accepted historiographical thesis that it was marked by a simplistic change from the sacred to the secular. The older model fails to account for the significant religious consciousness of America that extended from that time even to this day. So, Kuklick's concern is to show that while in the main, thinkers were shifting away from theology and toward philosophy, there is an underlying unity as well. Kuklick writes, “Edwards and his followers found value in the natural only because it was the medium in which the supernatural was displayed. Dewey and his successors ruled out the supernatural, but only when they imported its values to the natural.”

What can the Christian learn from these studies? Both books demonstrate that Christianity degenerated into moralism and pragmatism when it moved away from Scripture as the only valid foundation of thought and practice and away from an experimental, affective encounter with Christ central to true religion. Edwards's vision was lost when his successors subverted his methodology and made ungrounded human reason the basis of thought, rather than the mind of God revealed in Sacred Scripture.

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