Revival, Enlightenment, Civic Humanism, And The Development Of Dogma: Scotland And America, 1735-1843 -- By: Mark A. Noll

Journal: Tyndale Bulletin
Volume: TYNBUL 40:1 (NA 1989)
Article: Revival, Enlightenment, Civic Humanism, And The Development Of Dogma: Scotland And America, 1735-1843
Author: Mark A. Noll


Revival, Enlightenment, Civic Humanism, And The Development Of Dogma:
Scotland And America, 1735-1843

Mark A. Noll

In 1846 one of America’s most representative religious thinkers, Charles Grandison Finney, published the Lectures on Systematic Theology that he had earlier offered to students at Oberlin College. A central theme of those lectures was Finney’s rejection of the dominant theology of previous generations, a rejection nowhere more explicit than in his comments on Jonathan Edwards. According to Finney, Edwards had erred particularly in describing the abilities of human beings before God. ‘Men have been told,’ wrote Finney, ‘that they are as really unable to will as God directs, as they were to create themselves . . . Ridiculous! Edwards I revere; his blunders I deplore. I speak thus of this Treatise on the Will, because . . . it abounds with unwarrantable assumptions, distinctions without a difference, and metaphysical subtleties . . . It has bewildered the head, and greatly embarrassed the heart and the action of the church of God’.1

Less than three years before the publication of Finney’s Lectures, Scotland’s most influential clergyman of the period, Thomas Chalmers, expressed an entirely different opinion on the same subject: ‘There is no European Divine to whom I make such frequent appeals in my class rooms as I do to [Jonathan] Edwards. No book of human composition which I more strenuously recommend than his Treatise on the Will,—read by me forty-seven years ago, with a conviction that has never since faltered, and which has helped me more than any other uninspired book, to find my way through all that might

otherwise have proved baffling and transcendental and mysterious in the peculiarities of Calvinism’.2

The contrast between Finney and Chalmers on Edwards’s Freedom of the Will illustrates nicely a larger contrast in Scottish and American ecclesiastical history from the 1730s to the 1840s.3 During this period the Scottish and American churches passed through a similar set of circumstances. Each absorbed the impact of revival, each confronted a growing pluralism in religious allegiance, each faced the challenge of the Enlightenment, and each advanced along a path from aristocratic to democratic social order. At the same time, though they shared much, the Scottish and American churches did not share a common course of theological development. At the beginning of the period, both embraced a largely Calvinistic theology. By the end of the period ...

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