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24 July 2010

BR: "America's God" by Mark Noll

For those who would like to know more about the development of the theology of the United States of America, I recommend this book heartily. It is extremely eye-opening.

America's God portrays the development of American theology from Jonathan Edwards to Abraham Lincoln, the great formative period that has led to so much of the current American religious landscape.

The story begins with the state of American religion in the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries, demonstrating how American Christianity had not essentially changed much from European Christianity. One important facet from this period is to note the Puritans of Massachusetts, and particularly their nation-covenant theology, the idea that as God covenanted with the nation Israel, so He was now in covenant with the entire people. Jonathan Edwards was part of a great change in the Puritan belief system, closing the communion to professing Christians as opposed to leaving it open to the community, representing a shift away from that nation-covenant system to a more "evangelical," belief-based system.

The next phase of the narrative-- the eighteenth century-- tells the simultaneous stories of the decline in American religion, with the advancement of Universalism especially among the elite that would comprise the "founding fathers," along with the beginnings of the vast "evangelical" movement that would eventually explode in the antebellum nineteenth century. This, of course, is the critical period that is so highly contested today, for the "intent of the founding fathers" is a great motivator in many a discussion about the future of America.

What is of greater interest, at least in the history of theology, is the working out of the peculiarities of the American Christianity that developed at the end of the eighteenth and into the nineteenth centuries. The peculiarity was based on the general tenets of common-sense moral reasoning, picked up from the Scottish school, the acceptance and promulgation of republicanism and its language, and distrust of any inherited authority save the Bible. These ideas-- which seem so normative now in Christianity-- were really revolutionary. It was not believed by anyone, really, before the 1760s that Christians could live in a republican society. Even after the Reformation the majority of "churches" maintained hierarchial structures that kept the Bible and its interpretation in the hands of the elites. "Liberty," "freedom," "virtue," and many other terms had entirely different meanings than they do now.

Against all odds, the United States experiment was working, and the first half of the nineteenth century saw the explosion of evangelicalism and conversion. Various denominations set out to convert the country, and were largely successful in their efforts. The revivals and meetings of this period led to thousands of conversions to various denominations.

Noll then spends much time examining two particular groups-- the Calvinists and the Methodists-- and their developments and changes throughout the period between 1790 and 1860. In regards to the Calvinists, a clear progression away from the Westminster confessions and the inherited Augustinian system is perceived, all aiming towards conformity to the values of commonsense moral reasoning and the freedom of will. The Methodists provide an interesting story, beginning with an intense drive to evangelize, remaining essentially apolitical and conversion-centered, and then a period of entrenchment and conformity to the republican language of America and American denominational systems of seminaries, publications, and development in theology.

The final part of the book examines the Civil War and how it represented the crisis of American theology. Based on the above tendencies, most American religious groups were united in a "literal, Reformed hermeneutic," taking the Bible for exactly what it said and believing all of it to be relevant to the modern day. When the matter of slavery is brought forth in this system, conflict was almost impossible to avoid: it was certainly Biblically justifiable, and therefore according to the hermeneutic of the day was a necessity. Those who opposed slavery, while holding some form of "moral high ground," could not, with the current Biblical hermeneutic, provide a truly Biblical argument against the practice. Therefore the matter was resolved with bullets, and led to the belief fragmentation that continues on.

Noll also noted how Lincoln, despite not being one of the educated theological elite of the day, brought forth the most profound theological reflections on the Civil War, far more developed than the majority of the theologically trained citizens of the day. What perhaps would be more astounding to us was the nature of his reflections-- the idea that maybe America is not the chosen land of the chosen people, and perhaps God is not on one side or the other side of the Civil War conflict. With these observations Lincoln was able to transcend the North/South perspective difference that led to such sectarianism in not only politics but also religion.

The above does not really do much justice for Noll's magisterial work, but it represents a very short synopsis of the story presented. It is a very engaging and profitable read.

Based on my reading, I would like to offer the following thoughts.

1. Religion and perspective. Noll does an excellent job of contextualizing American religion into the American culture of the day, and demonstrates well how religion both shaped the culture and was shaped by the culture.

One major problem of religion, especially in America, is when religion and perspective get confused. The Bible was not revealed only to Americans. Many of the attitudes and perspectives we hold are not from the Bible but from the social milieu into which we were born.

Noll's best example of this was the race question. Although in sermon after sermon before the Civil War, many evangelists spoke of the "inferiority of the black people," no one actually defended this concept Biblically. The race question drove the slavery issue, yet no perspicacious pro-slavery, or even anti-slavery, advocate, ever questioned this belief or its foundation. What society determined, religion justified, and the results were terrible and abhorrent.

2. The "literal, Reformed" hermeneutic. Perhaps one of the greatest fallacies-- and one that proved fatal-- of American religion of the nineteenth century was the excessive literalism and application of the Bible. It was reasoned that since the Patriarchs owned slaves and Leviticus legislated slavery, slavery was not only acceptable but was pleasing to God. Such attitudes led many to look toward the "spirit" of the Bible to get away from slavery, and has probably in large part led to the modern attitude of "spirit" to the detriment of truth. The problem is not really with interpreting the Bible literally for the most part, but more with the application of the interpretations. First and foremost, the New Testament demonstrates that the old covenant has been superceded by the new (Ephesians 2:11-18, Colossians 2:14-17, Hebrews 7-9), and so therefore what the Patriarchs did or what Leviticus said is not bound upon Christians. Secondly, distance must always be preserved between the text and the reader, made necessary by the fact that the New Testament was written to first century congregations. This separation should not lead us to forsake the practices commanded of Christians, but should help us to recognize that certain social paradigms of the first century need not be replicated in the twenty-first. The New Testament presents an apoliticial and asocial message: it does not call for political or social change, but that all people in whatever circumstance they find themselves in should seek the spiritual kingdom. Therefore, the Biblical acceptance of the Roman slave system is more about not violating social norms than it is about establishing how later societies should be run. It is one thing to say that the Bible shows that there can be masters and slaves; it is entirely another thing to say that the Bible commands, or that God desires, such systems.

This should be a warning to all Christians to not be so excessive in interpretation that one is found advocating something that God is not concerned about in the least, or saying that God desires something that God merely accepts as existing. It is tragic that the result of the problems with this particular hermeneutic has led many to go the other way and not respect the authority of the Scriptures, yet the abuses of the previous system cannot go overlooked.

3. Covenant. A major theme of American religious consciousness in the discussed period, as it is even now, is the idea of America as the Promised Land and its people as God's chosen people. This concept began with the Puritans and their nation-covenant theology, and while in practice it did not continue, as an ideology it is still pervasive.

This belief system is based on a far-too-close parallel with Israel of old, and, in truth, America probably parallels Israel's history far too closely. Regardless, Christ on the cross negated this system and the physical covenant system. The new covenant is a spiritual covenant with spiritual people toward spiritual ends. The greatest fault in denominationalism through the millennia has been the physicalizing of the covenant based on the previous covenant with Israel.

The New Testament is clear: Christians are members of a spiritual kingdom (John 18:36, Colossians 1:3), and Christians are citizens of Heaven (Philippians 3:20). There is no hint of any nation covenant or any particular nation being God's people from the New Testament, yet plenty of lands and countries have claimed as much.

Lincoln's ideas were more toward the truth: America is not the Promised Land, and Americans are not God's chosen people. Yes, many Americans seek the promised land of Heaven, and many Americans are God's chosen people, but not because they are Americans in America. It is because they are Christians obeying their Lord and seeking His promise.

America could use the humility inherent in recognizing that it's not inherently a promised land or a chosen people. We can only hope denominations begin to make that clear.

4. American Language and Christian language. Another matter of great consequence has been the appropriation of American language in Christian theology. In America, the parallel between the two is assumed and not greatly questioned, and this has led to what is, in the end, an unholy synthesis.

Before America, "freedom" in Christianity was spoken of in terms of "freedom from", as it ought to be. In the New Testament, Christians are not set free to license. Christians are set free from death, from sin, from the Law of Moses, from bondage. Romans 6 presents the truth of the matter succinctly: Christianity allows one to be freed from the shackles of sin to serve righteousness. It is not a license to do whatever, but freedom from evil.

America, however, defined "freedom" in terms of license. The Revolution was fought in the spirit of Lockean and Enlightenment concepts of freedom, virtue, and liberty. Freedom from British oppression was gained by blood; freedom was enshrined in the founding documents of the nation. In America, you were free to do as you pleased as long as it did not injure any person or the state. This concept of freedom entered into Christianity, and voila: we now have plenty of denominations advocating the American concept of freedom in religious matters and act as if they are using Biblical language. "Freedom" certainly is a concept in the New Testament; whether "freedom" there is as Americans have defined the term is far more debatable.

Similar things are true with "liberty," which in America is fought for and highly prized, yet in Christianity is to be sacrificed at a whim for the unity in the faith (Romans 15:1-2, 1 Corinthians 10:24, Philippians 2:1-4). To fight for a liberty is honorable in America; in Christianity, it is deplored as selfishness.

We must always be concerned about our language to make sure that we do not corrupt the truth of God based on our societal values.

It is not my intent to make America look bad or act as if our freedoms in this country are evil; far from it. Nor is it my desire to make it seem as if America hopelessly corrupted religion; again, far from it. If you take the long view, looking over the entire history of Christianity, America in many ways allowed for Christianity to return to its original state, since for the first time in over 1500 years the state did not impose one denominational concept upon all the people, and Christianity could get away from the hierarchialized, world-conforming forms it had taken for the majority of the medieval and early modern periods. Christianity again could be a politically and earthly disinterested group of spiritual people striving for Heaven by obeying their Master, the Lord Jesus Christ. Yet, as with all societies, America and its freedom poses certain stumbling-blocks that are unique to its experience. While we ought to be thankful for the benefits our country provides us, we ought not be so naive or delusional to think that American cultural and social beliefs are precisely like New Testament beliefs. America's God can help us see what is culture from what is religion in America, and can assist us in holding fast to the latter while being wary of the former.

Ethan R. Longhenry
May 2007

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