Thursday, July 04, 2013

The Decline and Fall of Reformed Churches in America

In his first volume, Bavinck offers a brief history of what he calls “Reformed Dogmatics”, or Reformed Theology, beginning with Luther, Zwingli, and Calvin, through the period of Reformed Scholasticism, Rationalism, Mysticism, through “the Decline of Reformed Theology” beginning in 1750, then 19th century streams of thought in Europe, and a chapter that he calls “Reformed Theology in North America”.

Bavinck was writing right around 1900, and was a contemporary of the “Old Princeton” of Warfield and Vos. Not long afterward, we recall the adoption by “Old Princeton” of the liberalism that Machen railed against. Many of us are familiar with 20th century events in the history of the Reformed churches, but less so for the period of 1600-1900.

In that regard, Bavinck’s assessment is a discouraging, though useful trip “down memory lane” about some of the high points and low points that Reformed theology has faced over the centuries. Given that it is Independence Day, I thought this historical overview might be appropriate:

From the outset Reformed theology in North America displayed a variety of very diverse forms. A wide range of churches were successively transplanted from England and the European continent to the United States of America and Canada. The oldest and wealthiest is the Episcopal Church, which goes way back to the immigration to Virginia in 1607. The Dutch Reformed Church was established following the discovery of the Hudson River and Manhattan Island in 1609. The Independents or Congregationalists first landed at Plymouth in 1620. The Quakers were led to Pennsylvania by William Penn in 1680. Baptists gained a firm foothold on Rhode Island under Roger Williams in 1639. Methodists found acceptance in the colonies through the efforts of John Wesley (1735) and George Whitefield (1738). German churches, both Lutheran and Reformed, were started there after the middle of the eighteenth century. Presbyterian churches are divided in a number of distinct groupings. Almost all of these churches and currents in these churches were of Calvinistic origin. Of all the religious movements in America, Calvinism has been the most vigorous. It is not limited to one church or other but—in a variety of modifications—constitutes the animating element in Congregational, Baptist, Presbyterian, Dutch Reformed, and German Reformed churches, and so forth.

Calvinism was introduced to North America from many directions: England, Scotland, France, Holland, Germany. During the colonial period (1620-1776), it shaped the character of New England. One must distinguish, however, between the Puritan Calvinism, which came especially from England and found rootage in New England, and the Presbyterian Calvinism, which was imported into the southern, central, and western states from Scotland. Both forms of Calvinism had the Westminster Confession of 1647 as their basis, but before long a conflict between an Old School and a New School broke out in both as well.

The first and most important theologian of New England was Jonathan Edwards (1703-58), who combined profound metaphysical mental ability with deep piety. In 1734, still before Wesley’s coming to America, a remarkable revival occurred in his congregation at Northampton and later, with his friend George Whitfield, he himself repeatedly conducted and defended similar revivals. Theologically he especially opposed Arminianism, which came to New England via the writings of Daniel Whitby and John Taylor. By his metaphysical and ethical speculations he attempted to strengthen Calvinism but actually weakened it by the distinction between natural and moral impotence—a distinction that already occurs in John Cameron—and by a peculiar theory concerning freedom of the will, original sin, and virtue. Thus he became the father of the Edwardians, New Theology men, or New Lights as they are called, who, though they maintained the Calvinistic doctrine of God’s sovereignty and election, combined it with the rejection of original sin and the universality of atonement, just as the theologians of Saumur had done in France.

In the doctrine of the atonement, his son Jonathan Edwards (1745-1801) essentially taught the theory of Hugo Grotius [(1583–1645) – according to Wikipedia, “his contributions to Arminian theology provided the seeds for later Arminian-based movements, such as Methodism and Pentecostalism and he is acknowledged as a significant figure in the Arminianism-Calvinism debate”]. Samuel Hopkins, a pupil of Edwards (1721-1803), whose works were published in 1852 at Boston by Professor Park of Andover, wrote a system of divinity in which he reproduced Edwards’s system and especially developed the unconditional love of God in the manner of Fenelon and Madam Guyon. Nathanael Emmons (1745-1840), Works (Boston, 1842), was one of the most able defenders of Hopkinsianism. In the case of Timothy Dwight (1752-1817) and Nathaniel W. Taylor (1786-1858), Edwards’s system was modified in a Pelagian direction and acquired the label “New School.”

More recently, at the theological school in Andover founded in 1808, under the leadership of Egbert C. Smyth, professor of church history, it led to the defense of a progressive orthodoxy and the theory of a future probation. The Old School in the theology of New England was especially represented by Dr. Bennet Tyler (1783-1858) and Dr. Leonard Woods (1774-1854), who defended the old Calvinism. Puritanism, however, increasingly abandoned the standards of Dordt and Westminster. At the Assembly of Congregationalistic Churches in America at St. Louis (1880), a new confession of twelve articles was drafted from which characteristic Reformed doctrines were omitted. This new Statement of Doctrine was written by a commission of twenty-five theologians in 1883. Two famous preachers, W.E. Channing (1780-1842) and Horace Bushnell of Hartford (1802-76) removed themselves further still from Puritanism. Channing became the most prominent representative of Unitarianism in America, and Bushnell refurbished Sabellius’s teaching on the Trinity and conceived the atonement exclusively as a moral act.

Theology in the Presbyterian churches in America had a parallel development. Here, too, a break occurred not only among theologians—between Old Lights and New Lights—but also in the churches between the Synod of Philadelphia and that of New York (1741-58). One of the earliest theologians was John Dickinson (1688-1747), whose most important work is a defense of the five articles against the Remonstrants.

The Old School found support above all at the theological seminary of Princeton, a school started in 1812 under the auspices of the General Assembly and represented by Dr. Archibald Alexander (1772-1851), Dr. Charles Hodge (1797-1878), author of Systematic Theology, and his son and successor Archibald Alexander Hodge (1823-86), author of Outlines of Theology, and Evangelical Theology. So-called Princeton theology is in the main a reproduction of the Calvinism of the seventeenth century as it was laid down in the Westminster Confession and the Helvetic Consensus and elaborated especially by F. Turretin in his Theologia Elenctica. The same system is represented as well by the Southern theologians James H. Thornwell (1812-62), Robert J. Breckinridge (1800-1871), and Robert L . Dabney. One of the youngest representatives of the Old School is W.G.T. Shedd, emeritus professor since 1890 at Union Seminary, New York, and author of the two-volume Dogmatic Theology. However, between Hodge and Shedd there is a remarkable difference. The former is a federalist and creationist, the latter a realist and traducianist. Both, however, agree in taking a very broad view of election, including in it also all the children who die in infancy.

The New Lights, aside from their differences with the Old School over the authority of the General Assembly, revivals, union with the Congregationalists, etc., also diverged from it in the matter of original sin and limited atonement, to which were later still added the inspiration of Holy Scripture and eschatology. The representatives of this new direction, aside from James Richard (1767-1843) and Baxter Dickinson (1794-1876), were Albert Barnes (1798-1870), Lyman Beecher (1775-1863), and Thomas H. Skinner (1791-1871), none of whom, however, left behind a theological system. Barnes and Beecher were accused of heresy but were acquitted. Nonetheless, a schism occurred in 1837: the Old School gained a majority in the General Assembly with the result that four synods were cut off from the fellowship.

However, in 1869 they were reunited, especially through the influence of Union Theological Seminary at New York, founded in 1836. Here dogmatics was taught by Henry. B. Smith (1815-1877), author of System of Christian Theology, who sought to mediate between the Old and the New School from a Christocentric standpoint. One of his pupils, Lewis French Stearns (d. 1892), wrote a work on Present-day Theology, published in New York in 1893. But Union Seminary, which because of its ample endowments could well afford to do without the support of the churches, simply terminated the churches’ veto power over professorial appointments—a power voluntarily given to the churches in 1870—and remained the professor. Some time later Arthur C. McGiffert, in the inaugural oration with which he accepted his professorate at Union Seminary and which dealt with Primitive and Catholic Christianity, identified himself as an adherent of the school of Ritschl, whose influence is advanced as well as by the large number of American students attending German universities.

Against the inroads of the new trends the universities offer no resistance, either because they have no departments of theology at all, or put upon them the secular stamp that characterizes American universities in general. And the theological seminaries are on the whole too weak to resist the influence of these modern ideas, to say nothing of countering that influence.

An illustrious exception to this rule is the seminary of the Presbyterian church at Princeton. It exists entirely independently alongside the university in that city, is bound to the church’s confession, has an excellent set of professors (Warfield, Vos, Robert Dick Wilson, Greene, etc.) and upholds the Reformed position with honor in The Princeton Theological Review.

For those of you who are skimming, what follows is the conclusion and probably the most important part of what Bavinck has related here:

Still, the influence of the modern mind is also penetrating the Northern Presbyterian Church. The revision of the Westminster Confession, which was under study for many years, was concluded and put into effect in 1903. In the process only a few changes were made, but the additions and omissions, the two new chapters on the Holy Spirit and the love of God and missions incorporated in it, as well as the Declaratory Statement, which contradicts certain false interpretations of Reformed doctrine, are obviously all intended to strongly highlight—alongside of the particularism taught in the Confession—the universalism of the love of God, of the atonement, of the preaching of the gospel and the offer of grace, of the work of the Holy Spirit, and of the salvation of all children who die in infancy.

Accordingly, the revision made in the Confession was opposed from two directions. A number of Reformed theologians, like R.A. Webb, professor at the Theological School at Clarksville, as well as Arminians, like the Rev. Dr. S.M. Templeton, agreed in the assertion that the universalism of the revisions was at odds with the particularism of the Confession. It is remarkable in any case that at the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church North held in May 1905—hence, two years after the revision had been adopted—that denomination united with the Cumberland Presbyterian Church, which, in 1770, was born out of revivals and in its confession decisively adopts the Arminian position. Thus Reformed churches and theology in America are in serious crisis. The dogmas of the infallibility of the Holy Scripture, of the Trinity, of the fall and human impotence, of particular or limited atonement, of election and reprobation, and of everlasting punishment are either secretly denied or openly rejected. There is clearly no rosy future awaiting Calvinism in America (pp. 200-204).

First of all, for anyone who wants to delve more deeply into the philosophical and theological developments that were at the root of this process, I’d recommend James Anderson’s RTS class, “The Church and the World” (link is found near the bottom of this blog post as well).

Dr. Anderson (a former some-time blogger here) discusses major thinkers of the Enlightenment such as Kant and Hegel through the theologians who “modified” some of their foundations such as Schleiermacher and Ritschl through the 20th century. I highly recommend it.

Second, I want to keep this history in mind as a starting point for a discussion on “church authority”. I love the Reformed churches and the Reformed confessions, but I think that it is false conceptions of authority that have gotten the church in trouble all through its history. When a church or a group of church members is proclaiming “authority”, when some church authority steps up and says “I’m the boss of you”, that is, I think, to enter upon a territory in the Kingdom wherein, as the saying goes, “here be dragons”.

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