The Debate over the Atonement in 19th-Century America: Part 1: American Society as Seen from the 19th-Century Pulpit -- By: David F. Wells
Journal: Bibliotheca Sacra
Volume: BSAC 144:574 (Apr 1987)
Article: The Debate over the Atonement in 19th-Century America: Part 1: American Society as Seen from the 19th-Century Pulpit
Author: David F. Wells
BSac 144:574 (Apr 87) p. 123
The Debate over the Atonement in 19th-Century America:
American Society as Seen from the 19th-Century Pulpit
Andrew Mutch Professor of Historical and Systematic Theology
Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, South Hamilton, Massachusetts
[Editor’s Note: This is the first in a series of four articles delivered by the author as the W. H. Griffith Thomas Lectures at Dallas Theological Seminary, April 7–10, 1987.]
In the 19th century the nature of the atonement was debated extensively. This debate ironically began with the question as to what an orthodox view of the Cross was; it ended with the orthodox position itself being crucified. And this experience, this perplexing turn of events, has affected 20th-century evangelicalism more deeply than contemporary historians have yet grasped.
The debate centered around three towering figures who flourished in geographical proximity to one another: Nathaniel William Taylor at Yale College, Charles Hodge at Princeton Seminary, and Horace Bushnell, who for many years was pastor of North Congregational Church, Hartford, Connecticut. That this debate raged on New England soil need not be surprising. In the 19th century Southern religion was deeply resistant to new ideas and especially to those that began to intrude into Northern educational centers. Churches moving most rapidly with the Western expansion, such as the Methodists, were either oblivious to or uninterested in what was happening culturally in the East. Confessional groups, such as the Lutherans and some branches of the Reformed faith, which were also ethnically distinct and whose theological roots were European, were likewise often insulated from the profound intellectual changes that were afoot in American church life.
In New England, however, no such oblivion or insulation was present and its religion, peculiarly shaped by a special set of
BSac 144:574 (Apr 87) p. 124
spiritual and historical circumstances, was wrenched loose from its past and sent forth on an entirely different course.
To chart these changes and to measure their effect on evangelical faith today, this series will examine four subjects: (a) how preachers viewed the nation (i.e., New England), (b) how divisions emerged over how the atonement should be understood, (c) the theories that were in competition for the evangelical soul, and (d) the consequences of the debate and the questions it has left behind for consideration by 20th-century evangelicals.
How preachers view their society is not often considered significant in the reconstruction of the past, but this has more to do with the secular auspices under which hist...
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