Two bitter fruits from the same poisonous tree?

The emergence of theological liberalism in the nineteenth century had a devastating effect on the American pulpit. Preachers like Horace Bushnell (1802-1876) and Henry Ward Beecher (1813-1887) were at the forefront of the transition from strict doctrinal precision to broad doctrinal license. Harry Emerson Fosdick (1878-1969) was a twentieth century man, building his reputation through adept use of the mass media of book publishing and radio (the weekly “National Vespers” on the NBC network). However, he was every bit a product of the nineteenth century liberalism in which he was immersed.

Paul Scott Wilson, in A Concise History of Preaching, describes how Fosdick came to develop “a new, alternative method of preaching.”

fosdick_he_2In journal articles in the 1920’s, 1930’s 1950’s, and in his autobiography, Fosdick discussed his “project method” of homiletics. It was in contrast to topical preaching, which he felt was a “Sir Oracle” lecture on a theme, and expository preaching, in which preachers “assumed that folk come to church desperately anxious to discover what happened to the Jebusites.” He outlined the contemporary expository preaching of which he was critical: “First, elucidation of a Scriptural text, its historical occasion, its logical meaning in the context, its setting in the theology and ethic of the ancient writer; second, application to the auditors of the truth involved; third, exhortation to decide about the truth and act on it.”

After floundering for his first years as a preacher, he devised a homiletic based in pastoral counseling that made preaching an adventure for him. Every sermon was to start with the “real problems of people” and was to “meet their difficulties, answer their questions, confirm their noblest faiths and interpret their experiences in sympathetic, wise and understanding co-operation.” He looked for the way even larger issues of the day, national and international, affected the lives of ordinary people. He wanted sermons to be conversational, “a co-operative dialogue in which the congregation’s objections, questions, doubts and confirmations are fairly stated and dealt with.” The preacher’s business is “to persuade people to repent . . . to produce Christian faith [and] to send people out from their worship on Sunday with victory in their possession.” To this end, “A preacher’s task is to create in his congregation the thing he is talking about.” A sermon on joy is to explore wrong ideas about it, false attempts at it, problems in getting it, and then move to create it.

Whereas lectures had “a subject to be elucidated,” preaching had an “object to be achieved.” Determining this “object” or problem to be solved was the first step in preparation. This was followed by “free association of ideas,” perhaps for several hours, followed in turn by exploration of literature, cases from counseling, the Bible, and personal experience. His structure, commonly three points, for which one must listen carefully to discern, often emerged in the writing of his sermons. Someone said his “sermons begin by describing a human need, next illustrate that need from literature, from contemporary events and personal experiences, and then turn to the Bible for those principles which could meet that need.” His critics caricatured his preaching as “undogmatic Christianity” and “problem-solving.”

Fosdick was also criticized, rightly according to Wilson, “for taking his message to the biblical text and for using the text to illustrate his predetermined point.” He was not the first, and certainly not the last, preacher to commit this error. His methodology, the mistakes inherent in it, and the paucity of its doctrinal and theological underpinnings represented the coming of age of the liberalism birthed in the preaching of Bushnell and Beecher and brought to its tragic conclusion in the incoherent psychobabble of Spong and Schori. Less obvious, at least on first glance, is the sowing of the seeds of the equally innocuous false gospel of “positive thinking” first popularized by Norman Vincent Peale, advanced through mass media by Robert Schuller, and now embodied in all its garish glory by the insufferable Joel Osteen.

Except for students of homiletics and church history, Harry Emerson Fosdick’s sermons and writings are largely forgotten. To the person in the pew, he is best remembered for the stirring hymn “God of Grace and God of Glory.” In recalling the era in which he was at the height of his influence, however, we can see two bitter fruits produced from the same poisonous tree of the liberalism which shaped his methodology and his ministry.

Horace Bushnell: A misguided herald sounding an uncertain trumpet

Naturalistic theology (often referred to as theological liberalism) did not appear as a challenge to orthodoxy overnight. Its precursors constituted the panoply of heresies repudiated by the Ancient Church and, as the preacher of Ecclesiastes long ago observed, there is nothing new under the sun. The rise of naturalistic theology first in Europe and then in America was, in large part, merely a repackaging of old lies in newer, more sophisticated, wrapping.

In his encyclopedic history of homiletics, The Company of Preachers (Kregel, 1998), David L. Larsen notes the rise of “New England theology” in the early nineteenth century and the negative influence it had on the preachers of the day. Like most expressions of naturalism, this was a theology of denial, not affirmation. New England theology denied the orthodox doctrines of sin, depravity, and imputation, paving the way for even more radical departures from the faith as the century progressed.

The person at the center of the transition from doctrinal purity to theological liberalism, was Horace Bushnell (1802-1876), a gifted preacher with a penchant for pushing the doctrinal envelope well beyond acceptable limits.

Bushnell has been called the father of liberalism, and indeed in moving beyond New England theology he lurched very close to Unitarianism. Certainly in God in Christ he lapsed into Unitarian thinking, espousing a modal view of the Trinity. In his Vicarious Sacrifice and Forgiveness and Law, Bushnell jettisoned transactual and propitiatory aspects of the atonement. In a reaction against revivalism, he opted for gradualism rather than conversion in his book Christian Nurture. Neither did he believe a child to be depraved. He believed the child was to grow up never knowing that he or she is other than a Christian.

Charles Hodge spoke of his views as “less than Christian.” For Bushnell the Bible was essentially figurative. In 1866 he indicated his leaning toward understanding the fall in Eden as a myth. Jesus was teacher rather than the crucified and suffering God. His were “orthodox memories, Unitarian hopes.” The old wine had not survived being transferred to new bottles. He scoffed at the idea of the Second Coming. He was very theological but he did not preach sound doctrine.

What Bushnell lacked in doctrinal substance, he made up for in homiletical style. This was not enough, however, to spare him criticism for going off the theological and exegetical reservation.

Yet Bushnell was a preacher’s preacher. There was a virility in his style and a fire inside him, but the common people were not drawn to his variety of naturalism. Early on, he gained a reputation as a public speaker of note, and his ability to title sermons is dramatic. Little wonder he was offered the presidency of the College of California (later the University of California at Berkeley), which he turned down.

Bushnell’s celebrated sermon on “Unconscious Influence” is based on John 20:8, “Then went in also that other disciple.” But for Bushnell this had nothing to do with the resurrection or Jesus Christ. He did not do exegesis, and even Brastow speaks of his interpretations as often “fanciful” and lacking “the support of recognized exegetical canons.”

[Larsen, p. 528]

In the end, Bushnell must be characterized, in Larsen’s words, “as a tragic figure in American pulpit annals” whose “influence upon successive generations has been unfortunate.” For all his intellect and homiletical ingenuity, he was a misguided herald sounding an uncertain trumpet.