The roots of American theology

I’ve finally gotten a chance to begin, for at least the second time, Mark Noll’s America’s God: From Jonathan Edwards to Abraham Lincoln.  He’s set out an interesting task for himself: answering the question of how theological ideas in America became so thoroughly integrated with American cultural ideas.  Specifically, he is exploring how evangelical religious beliefs, “republican” political ideas (arguing for a representative government without a king), and commonsense moral ideas (the idea that all people, not just Christians, possessed a strong sense of and ability to discover true morality) became so connected in American culture.  Noll draws an interesting contrast in his first chapter to illustrate this mixing of religious and political ideas in American thought:

Why did [Abraham] Lincoln, though never a church member, use the Bible more frequently in [his Second Inaugural Address] and also address questions of theological significance more directly than his near-peers as heads of state in other Protestant lands who were dedicated members of Christian churches like William Gladstone in Britain or Abraham Kuyper in the Netherlands? (6)

In Chapter 2, Noll argues that none of this fusion was evident in the writings of the theologians of the first half of the 1700s.  American church groups like the Congregationalists (Puritans), Anglicans, Presbyterians, and Quakers were very traditional, affirming the historic doctrines of their various traditions even more than some of their European counterparts (beginning to be influenced by rationalism) were.  Puritans and Presbyterians articulated the doctrines of Calvinism, arguing that man could do nothing to save himself and that human nature was damaged by the fall and therefore did not have a strong moral sense.  Therefore, only God could convert sinners and impart a true sense of morality to those he chose to regenerate.  Even Jonathan Edwards, conversant with the Enlightenment ideas of the day, concentrated on defending the traditional Puritan doctrines while stating them in contemporary terms.

As he notes at the end of Chapter 2, even the very disruptive Great Awakening showed “the continuing power of a religion with scant room for the intensely this-worldly preoccupations of republicanism or the optimistic universalism of moral-sense philosophy” (29).  The main figures of the Great Awakening were traditional Calvinists, and the strongest theological tradition when it was all said and done was still Puritan Calvinism, which had just received Edwards’ forceful defense.  Yet Noll hints that Puritan theology would break up soon.

If you’re confused by idea of the “commonsense” moral ideas, I still am too, but I believe that he will be explaining it further.  I hope that I’ve summarized his point accurately so far.  I’m going to blog my reaction to each chapter as I go to help me remember what he writes.

And finally, if you’ve never read Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address that Noll referred to in the quote above, it’s really short and at the same time packed with profound ideas.  Do yourself a favor and check it out.

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