Theological innovations in the American republic

Posted: August 25, 2009 by Scott Kistler in History, The Mysterious World of American Evangelicalism

Chapter 12 of America’s God explains the tenets of what Noll calls “American theology.”  He believes that as American evangelicals built a new culture, they also absorbed its assumptions; having torn down traditional authorities, they instead defended Christianity or their denominations with the language of republicanism and commonsense moral ideas rather than relying solely on the theological traditions of their European heritage.  He describes the following developments:

  • A greater emphasis on human will to accept God, as opposed to the Calvinist teaching that God’s grace needed to enable a person to believe
  • A bolder assertion that individuals could interpret the Bible without any help from tradition, even Protestant traditions
  • A diminished focus on the mystery of God in favor of a more confident approach to explaining God’s purposes according to rational principles (for example, Charles Finney’s manuals on how one could guarantee successful revivals by proper planning)
  • An identification of human sinfulness with actual sins committed, as opposed to traditional ideas of a sinful nature inherited from Adam
  • A new vocabulary to talk about theology that used the language of republicanism and commonsense ideas: “benevolence, common sense, conscience, consciousness, freedom, government, interest, justice, power, primitive, reason, science, simple, virtue” (232)

Not everyone incorporated all of these developments to their fullest extent, of course, but Noll gives examples of how they showed up in disputes between denominations as well as in disputes between Christians and skeptics.

The idea that Christianity could be explained and proved through common sense, Noll argues, was very pervasive.  He also includes some of the criticisms by contemporaries who disagreed (for various reasons) with the appropriation of Enlightenment language and ideas into Christian theology.  This was the most cogent, I thought:

[Common sense theology] reasons from time to eternity with vast dexterity and ease; establishing, by strict Baconian comparison and induction, the existence of God, the immortality of the soul, and the truth of revelation; but it is all in such a way as turned eternity itself into time, and forces the whole invisible world to become a mere abstraction from the world of sense. (250)

In other words, it imposes our logic on God.  This, it seems to me, is the danger of the developments that Noll describes in this chapter.  If the truth about God is easily seen through common sense, what happens if common sense is more malleable than we think?  What must have seemed like permanent common sense 200 years ago was probably shaped by Christian assumptions.  If that shifts, will Christian teachings always seem like common sense?  Furthermore, it seems risky to think that God can be so easily explained by human logic.  This always risks capturing God in our assumptions.

There’s always a place for appealing to common sense when we explain and defend our faith.  But there’s also a risk in relying on it too much.

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