The Crisis of Biblical Authority in Early America



1 comments
Jonathan Den Hartog

In my post last month, I raised the problem of religious authority in American history. Rather than being a recent development, this has been an on-going struggle in the American context. I also previewed my desire to post further about Michael J. Lee's new book The Erosion of Biblical Certainty.

The Erosion of Biblical Certainty - Michael J. LeeLee's book, released late last fall, takes up the topic of how Christians in the late colonial era and then the early republic wrestled with understanding, interpreting, and defending the Bible. It thus touches on apologetics, historical criticism, and hermeneutics. In fact, one way of reading the book is as a description of the early phases of biblical and textual criticism in America.

Lee, an assistant professor at Eastern University, traces the move away from a Puritan and uncritical reading of Scripture. Through chapters that capture moments of transition, Lee chronicles how American Christians decided to answer the rationalist critiques of the eighteenth century: to use the same methods against their opponents. Cotton Mather early on suggested capturing the "cannons" of biblical critics and turning them against those challengers. Following Mather, Jonathan Edwards and John Dickinson argued that reason and history could provide high probability of biblical authority, although faith was still necessary. This tension was lost as lecturers who participated in the Dudleian Lectures at Harvard increasingly emphasized the rational and empirical bases of Christianity, rather than any supernatural character.

This process seemed to be successful for a time, and the story might even have been viewed as a triumph if the clock could have been stopped on the eve of the American Revolution. Tracing the narrative into the early nineteenth century, though, makes it appear a tragedy.

In the second half of the book, Lee shows how German Historical and Textual-Critical thought blindsided America's rationalizing Protestants. The Historicist mindset undermined confidence in first the text of the Bible and then its transhistorical authority. Although the Unitarian Andrews Norton and the Trinitarian Moses Stuart both tried to hold the tension together--the Bible as historical yet not totally subject to historicization--they proved unable to defend biblical authority or restore it to its previous position.

In Lee's telling, this tragedy is ironic. Like James Turner, Lee sees the problems for American Protestants as originating within their own tradition. By choosing to defend the Bible on a rationalistic basis, they opened themselves up for a sudden shift should external standards of rationality and history shift.

As I was reading Lee, I was simultaneously sampling from Charles Taylor's A Secular Age. Taylor describes an important component of secular modernity as the loss of "naive" faith. By this, Taylor means that all belief is now colored by the knowledge of the possibility of unbelief, of the contested nature of any faith claims. Lee's book traces this move clearly in the eighteenth century. Taking critics seriously, American Christians worked to defend the Bible. In their rationalist justifications, though, they ironically lowered the authority of biblical revelation.

For understanding the Bible in American life as well as the contours of American thought in the eighteenth and nineteenth century, Lee's book is an outstanding contribution.

1 comments:

Tom Van Dyke at: April 8, 2014 at 9:15 PM said...

In Lee's telling, this tragedy is ironic. Like James Turner, Lee sees the problems for American Protestants as originating within their own tradition. By choosing to defend the Bible on a rationalistic basis, they opened themselves up for a sudden shift should external standards of rationality and history shift.

Exactly, JDH.

The role of "rationalism" has always struck me as problematic especially when regarded as symptomatic/synonymous with [the] Enlightenment.

That which is commonly credited to modernity might indeed be merely the inevitable consequence of "Protestantism"--if by that we mean the rejection of the Catholic Church's claim to magisterium, to being Holy Spirit-guided and therefore infallible as the final word in interpreting the Scriptures.

It's a structural thing--if you will, what happens when you break a barrel full of marbles. Look out below!

For instance, Michael Servetus raises doubts about the Trinity in the mid-1500s [for which he is eventually executed]. The "co-founder" of Lutheranism Philip Melanchthon is unsurprised: The Reformation's rejection of magisterium opens the door to any and all [re-]interpretations of the Scriptures. A Servetus is inevitable, as was the "unitarianism" that was quite the fad at the time of the American Foundign.

In America, before the Unitarian Church sheds the Bible as Holy Writ in the mid-1800s [in favor of "free-thinking"] you get fascinating documents such as 1825's

http://www.biblicalunitarian.com/100-scriptural-arguments-for-the-unitarian-faith

where the Bible was itself used as self-evident divine argument against the Trinity.

Ah, for the good old days of Bibleism, back when the Bible was deployed as proof against itself, instead of so cynically rejected out of hand.

(Cheers, Jonathan. Enjoyed you playing lukewarm water between the fire of Mark David Hall and the ice of Gregg Frazer over at Tony Gill's place. ;-)

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