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Remembering the “Progressive Orthodoxy” of Horace Bushnell Part One

Remembering the “Progressive Orthodoxy” of Horace Bushnell Part One August 11, 2012

Remembering the “Progessive Orthodoxy” of Horace Bushnell Part One

One thing I like to do here is point readers back to neglected theologians. As a historical theologian I find many “new” proposals in theology are not that new. Often they echo theological ideas of the past even as their promoters advance them as new. There’s some truth to the old sayings that there’s nothing new under the sun and that history repeats itself. In fact, sometimes it becomes downright wearisome to hear or read about an allegedly new idea or movement in theology that isn’t really new at all.

One theologian of America’s history many of whose ideas reappear in new forms (and perhaps they were not new with him, either) is Horace Bushnell (1802-1876). He was an original thinker in that he found ways to express older ideas that seemed to many to transcend the divides in American Protestantism.

Unfortunately, in spite of his tremendous influence on American Protestant theology, Bushnell has been largely forgotten as his books have gone out of print. (I believe only one of his books is still in print: Christian Nurture. Others may be printed by publishers who print runs for specific needs such as a class in a university or seminary.) I would say that America has only produced a few world class theologians who stood out as especially influential as somewhat original thinkers: Jonathan Edwards, Horace Bushnell, Walter Rauschenbusch, Reinhold Niebuhr, John Howard Yoder. (I don’t include Paul Tillich because Germany really “produced” him even though he wrote his Systematic Theology in America.)

Of course, each one of them stood on the shoulders of previous giants; none introduced totally new theological ideas. Each, however, produced theological proposals that seemed original and innovative enough to draw attention and gained broad followings because they seemed to solve some pressing problems, at least for a time.

Earlier here I questioned Edwards’ greatness. What I really meant to question was the unbelievable renaissance of Edwards as demonstrated in the new studies of his theology being published every year and in his popularity through his popularizers such as John Piper. I’m not at all sure Edwards deserves the attention he’s getting right now.

Just as great, in my estimation, and just as neglected as Edwards is remembered (both responses undeserved, in my opinion), is Bushnell. Relatively conservative, broadly evangelical Protestant Christians, theologians, pastors and students, could learn much and be enriched by rediscovering the New England theologian. I have begun that process, I hope, by including a chapter on him in my forthcoming book on modern theology.

I consider Bushnell to have been a “mediating theologian.” I think it’s unfortunate that he is usually categorized as liberal by both conservatives and liberals in theology. In my opinion, the best description of his theology, overall, is “progressive orthodoxy.” It’s a label attached to his theology by scholars of American Christianity and theology. I’m not sure who first labeled it so. I disagree with Gary Dorrien, renowned scholar of American liberal theology, who rightly calls Bushnell “America’s greatest nineteenth-century theologian” but wrongly (in my estimation) describes him as “the theological father of mainstream liberal Protestantism.” (The Making of American Liberal Theology: Imagining Progressive Religion 1805-1900, p. 111.) Now, if all Dorrien meant was that Bushnell was misunderstood by some of his followers (e.g., Theodore Munger) such that mainstream liberal Protestantism afterwards came to consider him their theological father, fine, I can agree with that. However, Dorrien treats Bushnell as a true liberal, even if somewhat inconsistent, and with that I disagree. He certainly displayed liberalizing tendencies, especially compared with the Old School Princeton theologians (e.g., Archibald Alexander and Charles Hodge), but his main target for correction was Unitarianism which was growing by leaps and bounds in New England (Bushnell’s territory) and the “Victorian liberalism” that was accommodating to it in order to counter movements of thousands of Congregationalists away from traditional churches to it.

Dorrien defines the essence of “liberal theology” as “the idea that Christian theology can be genuinely Christian without being based upon external authority.” (Ibid., p. xiii) Later, he describes the “liberal Victorian gospel” as “The good news of…the triumph of spirit over nature as mediated by the example and teaching of Jesus. Under the influence of Jesus, the perfectly God-conscious redeemer, human beings are liberated from the selfish impulses of their animal nature and transformed into persons in right relation with God. To be saved is to experience the fulfillment of one’s moral and spiritual personality through the triumph of the indwelling spirit of Christ over nature.” (p. 402)

I prefer historical theologian Claude Welch’s definition of liberal theology as “maximal accommodation to modernity.” However, I don’t think Bushnell himself, as opposed to some of his followers, fit any of those definitions. In fact, after reading Dorrien’s own discussion of Bushnell (almost 70 pages!), I don’t see how he can categorize Bushnell himself (as opposed to his followers who misinterpreted him) could treat Bushnell as truly liberal. Almost all scholars of Bushnell I consulted for writing my chapter on him agreed that his followers created the impression of him as liberal. Bushnell himself was far from liberal when stood alongside later liberal Protestants such as Harry Emerson Fosdick.

By no means do I agree with everything Bushnell advocated. For example, I disagree with his idea of “Christian nurture”—something he is usually remembered for, especially by those in the field of Christian education. Bushnell argued in his book by that title that normally children raised in Christian homes and churches simply grow up Christian, if they are spiritually formed correctly; they have no need of a dramatic conversion experience or radical decision of faith. He was opposed to viewing children of Christians in the church already as a mission field. I disagree with him about that, but that’s not directly relevant to my argument here—that Bushnell was no liberal theologian in either Dorrien’s or Welch’s sense of the word.

Now, I’m going to stop here for now and post a follow up message soon about Bushnell’s theology. What I want to warn about now and here, however, is that I will not post comments arguing that Bushnell was “liberal” JUST BECAUSE he didn’t believe in the penal substitution theory of the atonement or JUST BECAUSE he didn’t take Genesis 1-11 literally or JUST BECAUSE he didn’t believe in the inerrancy of the Bible, etc., etc. I’m well aware that some of my valued readers are very conservative theologically and will inevitably consider Bushnell liberal just for those reasons (as they will consider anyone liberal just for those reasons). When I deny that Bushnell was truly liberal I mean in the classical sense as defined by Schleiermacher and Ritschl, the two leading 19th century liberal Protestant theologians, and especially as defined by Dorrien and Welch above. Without any doubt Bushnell, like almost everyone in his time, was accommodating, rightly or wrongly, to some aspects of modernity. I argue in my forthcoming book that even Hodge was doing that. But the question is whether Bushnell truly deserves his reputation as the “father” of American mainstream liberal theology. Can a straight line be drawn, for example, from him to Fosdick? I say no. And he does not belong in the same category as the real liberals of his time such as William Ellery Channing and Henry Ward Beecher and later real liberals such as Washington Gladden and Harry Emerson Fosdick.

My argument will be that Bushnell was a mediating theologian—attempting creatively but faithfully (to the gospel) to bridge the divide between orthodoxy and progressivism in American religion. And I will argue that what we need today is a new Bushnell, a new mediator between true liberal theology (e.g., process theology) and neo-fundamentalism (e.g., conservative evangelical theology that requires belief in inerrancy, penal substitution, etc.).


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