The More Things Change…

Thursday, June 7th 2007
Jan/Feb 2002

Dr. Ann Douglas is Professor of American Studies at Columbia University and author of The Feminization of American Culture and Terrible Honesty: Mongrel Manhattan in the 1920s. She has argued that the demise of Calvinism led to a sentimentalism in religion, which has had a long-term impact upon American culture. It is one of the most insightful critiques we've presented in recent years. The original interview appeared in MR March/April 1996.-EDS.

MR: You talk a lot about sentimentalism. Is that part of the dismantling process in the nineteenth century?AD: Yes, it is. Calvinism had experienced sustained attacks, especially in the eighteenth century, with the founding of such groups as the Universalists and then, of course, the Unitarians. The liberals, headed by Unitarians and Universalists and some Congregationalists as well, began to say as we entered the nineteenth century, "No, if God loves human beings, he understands and sympathizes with human beings. He wouldn't ask them to do something or believe something that would go against their own needs or desires." There's that line in Job: "Though he slay me, yet will I worship him," and this was the Calvinistic ethos that the liberals simply could not accept-that idea that God is much greater and larger than our own happiness. Calvinism wasn't saying that God wanted to be cruel, but that his plans are so much vaster and grander than anything human beings can conceive. The liberals could not accept this view of God, due in part to the humanist tradition, but it is also partly commercial: You know, if we've got to sell ourselves now-since the churches are now self-supporting rather than dependent on state funding-is this the ad spiel, so to speak, that will best sell our product?

MR: Today, especially in what is being called the church growth movement, we hear, in varying degrees, that we must tone down doctrinal distinctives and meet felt needs, focus on healing and wholeness, and prefer soft inspiration to hard sayings. Soft lights, soft sermons, soft choruses caressing the air, have become the rage. Instead of "Eternal Father, Strong To Save," we sing about walking with Jesus alone in a garden "while the dew is still on the roses," or, in the words of one chorus, "I keep falling in love with him over and over and over and over again."AD: Right, this is straight out of the liberal Unitarian, sentimental tradition of the nineteeth century. Women, by far, comprised the largest number of churchgoers, and they were staffing mission boards, Sunday school classes, and any other church position they could, at a time when they could not vote or purchase property. As writers, moral reformers, and Sunday school teachers women transformed the church and they wondered, "Why do we have to have all this theology and an emphasis on sin and the need for redemption? Why isn't the home the model for God? Why shouldn't the things we do and hear in church suit us where we are and woo us where we are, rather than expecting this radical change of heart that Calvinism had required?"

MR:That's an interesting point. A few years ago, Christianity Today ran a cover story on a so-called "megashift" in evangelical theology, from the "courtroom" model that emphasizes sin, guilt, judgment, and the need for an atonement and justification, to a more "relational" model. It was a switch from the courtroom to the family room, toning down the tough theology in favor of a more therapeutic approach. Do you see this as in some way the arrival of the sentimental creed firmly within that same evangelical Protestant establishment that ended up leaving liberal Protestantism over these same issues early in the last century?AD: Oh, it is. I could quote you chapter and verse of ministers and evangelical women writers and reformers in the 1830s who said exactly the same thing-a sense that we need a more human God, a God who is nearer and will understand us better. It's a tough issue, and Calvinists weren't saying that God is uncaring. The problem with this whole sentimental tradition, which you're describing in the twentieth century and I'm describing in the nineteenth, is that once you drop the idea that God is a judge, you do seem to weaken things. To some extent, my own sympathies lie with the Calvinist tradition, because I have enormous respect for the intellectual and spiritual endeavor of trying to understand a world that, you admit, is not necessarily there just to make you happy.

MR: In the nineteenth century, the Arminian revivalist Sam Jones thundered, "God never did throw a javelin into the heart of his Son," thus attacking the classical doctrine of the substitutionary atonement as insufficiently moral and sensitive. Increasingly, there is this cry for a "kinder, gentler" God in evangelism. Then you have the "Re-Imagining" conference of mainline feminists, among whom was one speaker who declared, "We don't need guys hanging on crosses with blood dripping and all that weird stuff." As strange as the parallel may seem, is there a connection here between Arminian revivalists and liberal Unitarians that makes today's evangelicals and liberals more similar than we might have thought? In reaction against the offense of the Cross, many came to see Christ more as a caring nurturer (a mother, as you say in your book), rather than as a bloody sacrifice. Doesn't this make unlikely bedfellows?AD: Of course, it is part of the whole thing. Again, it does have to do with that sense that, "Let's not make all of this pain and suffering." Surely, one replies, "Of course, let's not. Faith is also a matter of joy"-something a Calvinist would have believed also. The problem is that there is injustice in the world and there is suffering. By constantly softening Christian doctrine, there is a danger that you are simply going to efface them altogether, and people are going to be left in a real way unguided and left to themselves, as they already are.

The following are highlights from a two-hour interview with Dr. Robert Schuller and Michael Horton on The White Horse Inn radio program, November 1992.

Dr. Schuller was invited to appear on The White Horse Inn by a mutual friend. Later he was sent a formal invitation which explained the program. The evening of the show, he was invited to Michael Horton's house for dinner, during which the format of the show was again explained to him, especially how it emphasizes classical Reformation issues in contrast to a lot of the popular expressions of Christianity. Dr. Schuller responded by saying, "I have no problem with shows like that, as long as I have an opportunity to respond."-EDS.

MR: Would you be willing to address your congregation as a group of sinners?RS: No, I don't think I need to do that. First of all, my congregation is a very mixed audience.

MR: But our Lord's audiences were mixed with disciples and unbelievers both. RS: Oh yes, but I'll tell you, the audience is quite different that I talk to than what the Lord spoke to. I speak every week to millions, not a million, but millions of people in Russia on Channel One. And I am speaking to a couple of million people every Sunday.

MR: Are you saying that it is the size of the audience that matters? RS: No it's not the size of the audience, it's where they are at at this time. My only concern is: I don't want to drive them farther away than they are! And I listen to so many preachers on religious radio stations … and by golly, if I wasn't a Christian, they'd drive me farther away. I am so afraid that I am going to drive them farther; I want to attract them, and so I use the strategy that Jesus used. I preach the way Jesus preached. I don't preach, probably, the way Paul preached.RS: If we want to win people to Jesus we have to understand where they are at.

MR: I agree absolutely. And they are in sin, that is where they are at.RS: They are in the state of condition called sin, which means they don't trust. They are lacking faith.

MR: I guess the difference would be our definition of sin, because what I see in Scripture is that we're dead in sin and cannot respond to God even if we were trusting.RS: Oh no, you're wrong, you're wrong. And very seldom do I use this language. People who know me say, "Schuller never comes across as if he knows the answers and others don't." It is not my style. But I intuitively say to you, you're wrong! The ultimate, deepest, most sinful problem that you can imagine is lack of trust. Hebrews 11:6, "For without faith it is impossible to please God." I can show you people, they believe the Bible is the Word of God from cover to cover, they believe that Jesus was born of the Virgin Mary … but, they really don't have a relationship with Jesus. They have that head knowledge, that head information, and unless you have a wonderful warm relationship, which means you are mutually friends, then you really don't have the faith. And there are people who live wonderful lives today. They don't commit adultery and they don't steal and they don't kill … if you go by what is sinful behavior they seem to be leading very fine lives. But they don't have faith.

MR: But isn't it because faith is the instrument through which we're justified before a God who otherwise would take account of us for our sins, not just our "not trusting"?RS: We are not justified by faith.

MR: No, it is by grace through faith.RS: By grace through faith, that's right.

MR: But what I'm asking is this: Justified from what? The wrath of God?RS: Oh! I'll never use that language.

MR: But the Bible does.RS: Yes, the Bible does, but the Bible is God's book to believers primarily. Listen, and then call me a heretic if you want to, but I'm interested in attracting people, and not driving them farther away. There is language I can and will use, and there are times, if we are wise, there is language we will not use…. If God is a God of love, how do we handle this concept of wrath? At the outset, on the surface, it appears to be a contradiction; maybe it is. I tell you this, I have come to the conclusion that I haven't stepped into the center of truth until I've dared to step into contradiction. The Bible is a contradiction: Old Testament-Law, New Testament-Grace. Jesus is a contradiction; totally human and totally God.

MR: Of course, we would say that the dual nature of Christ is a mystery but not a contradiction.RS: It is a contradiction, but you know what? Contradictions are ultimate points of creativity.

Thursday, June 7th 2007

“Modern Reformation has championed confessional Reformation theology in an anti-confessional and anti-theological age.”

Picture of J. Ligon Duncan, IIIJ. Ligon Duncan, IIISenior Minister, First Presbyterian Church
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