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.

Still relevant: Peter Berger on American apostasy

It has been over a quarter of a century since Peter L. Berger delivered his 1987 Erasmus Lecture entitled, “Different Gospels: The Social Sources of American Apostasy.” While the social, religious, and political landscape were somewhat different at the time, his observations on the not so rosy state of the American church, particularly its mainline Protestant franchises, remain astoundingly relevant today. Consider his caution against blurring the lines between the temporal and eternal realms.

If we are liberated by faith, we act in the full knowledge of the precariousness and tragic unpredictability of all human projects. Most important, we act in this world not to be saved, not to attain some perfect purity or justice (which goals are not attainable), but to be of specific and necessarily limited service to others. Paul addresses himself to the Galatians on this issue when he insists that the freedom of the Christian is to be used as an opportunity for service, in love of one’s neighbor (Gal. 5:13-14). Let me put this in terms as worldly as I can find: we get no moral brownie points for good intentions or noble goals. The moral measure of actions is their probable consequences for others. This is especially so in the case of political actions, because this is a category of actions with particularly unpredictable and potentially disastrous consequences. Precisely because of this, we are most likely to be effective politically (effective, that is, in being of service to our neighbors) if we ground ourselves in a realm beyond politics, thus becoming free to deal with political reality soberly and pragmatically. We cannot do this if we look on politics as the realm of redemption.

Elsewhere, he relates a personal story to illustrate how churches which immerse themselves in political agendas lose sight of the things that matter most.

Some time ago a friend of mine went through a very difficult period when it was suspected that he might be suffering from cancer. It turned out later that this was not the case, but during this anxiety-ridden period neither he nor his family was given any attention by the clergy or the active members of his congregation. This is a congregation famous for its social and political activism. No one was interested in what, compared with the allegedly great historic challenges or our age, was the trivial matter of one man’s fear of pain and death. The people of this congregation had more important things to do–attacking the “root causes” of hunger by lobbying in Washington, organizing to “show solidarity” with Nicaragua, going on record (“making a moral stand”) against apartheid. My friend says that during this time he felt like an invisible man in that congregation. Needless to say, this is a congregation that religiously employs “inclusive language.” (Again, I can hear some mutterings: Can one not lobby in Washington and also minister to the sick? Perhaps. In this case, the first activity precluded the second. And one may reflect that it is easier to love people in distant lands than people next door.)