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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  • As always, I love your posts on theological education. I see them as “mini seminars.” You motive is to truly educate rather than to confirm established bias. In my own spirituality I am constantly “juggling.” I love the academic integrity that I see in liberal Protestant theology, the social justice in Catholic theology, the affirmation of spiritual reality that I learned from the Charismatics, and the intent of Evangelicals to make the Gospel a living breathing experiential reality. My spiritual interests and my desire to be academically informed are two reasons I love following your blog.

    • rogereolson

      Thank you for that affirmation. I do this for people like you. Not to make people agree with me but to stimulate thinking.

      • James Petticrew

        Been thinking about the specific criticism they levelled at McLeod Campbell in Glasgow, I think it centred on the fact that Jesus’ suffering were not in fact “penal” and therefore in the view my lecturers didn’t have salvific “value”

  • James Petticrew

    Looking forward to hearing about Bushnell As when I was at theological college in .Glasgow he was referred to only as someone who got it wrong on the atonement by rejecting penal substitution, and therefore firmly in the “liberal” camp. A more balanced perspective will be interesting

    • rogereolson

      I’d be interested to know what your Scottish professors thought of McLeod Campbell. Did he get it wrong, too? Interestingly (most people don’t seem to know this), C. S. Lewis expressed Campbell’s theory of the atonement in his chapter “The Perfect Penitent” in Mere Christianity without giving Campbell credit. I have always wondered how Campbell’s theory filtered down to Lewis.

      • James Petticrew

        The theological college I attended was mainstream evangelical which in Scotland in the 80s meant moderately Calvinistic. McLeod Campbell when it came to the atonement was seen as deficient as he didn’t teach penal substitution and his perspective was therefore seen as an attack on penal substitution so we had to learn why his view didn’t do justice to the biblical material. I think his ejection from the Church of Scotland and his popularity with the Torrances and what was perceived as neo-orthodoxy fuelled suspicion of him.

        Interestingly when I transferred to the Nazarene College in England he was looked on positively because his theology was seen as better connecting incarnation and atonement in Christ’s saving work.

        • rogereolson

          I’m reading a book right now by pastoral theologian Andrew Purves (Pittsburg Seminary) who refers to and quotes McLeod Campbell frequently and approvingly. I haven’t encountered that much use of him in any book of theology before. Is there a McLeod Campbell renaissance going on I wonder?

        • James Petticrew

          I think JB Torrance has done some work on his theology and that combined with the greater place McLeod Campbell gives to the life of Jesus may be stirring up renewed interest. He pastored a church at Rhu across the River Clyde from where I grew up, stunning place, used to be a large American polaris submarine base nearby somewhat ironically in the Holy Loch!

  • Tony Springer

    Great post Roger. I thought Bushnell was liberal because my conservative profs said so. I agree that Christian Nurture was overly simple, but found his atonement theory interesting and worthy of consideration. As a “mediating” theologian, Bushnell may have had some continuity with the baptist EY Mullins. What do you think?

    • rogereolson

      I have often thought that, too. Mullins seems to breathe the same spirit of generous, progressive orthodoxy as Bushnell. There must have been some influence there. But it would be understandable and probably should be assumed. Bushnell’s influence was pervasive in American Protestantism. He was the touchstone to which everyone had to react in some way.

  • David Martinez

    Brother Roger,

    It really is not an understatement to say that your contribution to my own theological development is to me what Dr. Powell’s was to yours, albeit I have never had the blessing of meeting you in person. However, this bugs me a little because I wish I had the chance to actually have hour-long conversations with people I admire (e.g., yourself, Leroy Forlines, Robert Picirilli, Ben Witherington III, etc.) but here in New York City I don’t find people who could theologically mentor me like that.

    I am an online student of Indiana Wesleyan University and that is a huge help for me. But it is not easy to live in a state (NY) where most churches, generally speaking – have no interest for profound theology and nobody is really willing to invest time in my generation. It’s frustrating!

    I know many of your readers – even of this blog – are young men (and women) like myself who feel exactly the same way I do. My question is two-fold.

    #1- What advice would you give to the “Young, Restless, and Arminian” people like me who desperately desire to meet a “Dr. Powell” and be influenced by him?

    #2- I just started reading the works of James Arminius (Baker Books London Edition) and I already ran into an idea of his that I am not quite sure I understand. Do you know of anybody who I can turn to with my questions about certain things he wrote? I don’t even mind paying someone to teach me! I just really want to know I am not misunderstanding his writings.

    David Martinez

    • rogereolson

      First, my dean would spank me hard if I did not invite you to apply to Truett Seminary (or Baylor University for undergraduate study in religion and theology). But I realize that might not be possible. I’m sure there are people in a place as large as NYC who are interested in theology as you are and could mentor you. Unfortunately, I’m not very familiar with the scene there. Feel free to ask me questions about Arminius; I’ll do my best to help. Also, go to the web site of The Society of Evangelical Arminians (SEA) at There you will find lots of help with Arminius including a discussion list you can join.

  • Scott Gay

    I have read carefully Dr. Olson’s post on July 14, 2011 on “What is ‘theological liberalism’ ?” He clearly presents the ethos in a nutshell that it accords to “the best of modern thought” the weight of authority in theology alongside or stronger than biblical revelation( and certainly than tradition). However it is a nagging perception with me that many modern “liberals”, despite having many other family resemblances(look them up in the post mentioned), there is a glaring one you didn’t mention it that piece on 14July last year- and that is Dorrien’s definition- Christian without being based on external authority. I feel this is true quite often and is promulgated by the neo -progressives in trying to resolve the issue of authority rationally, and then they cannot do so. I’t’s not just a biblical authority problem, or a theology based on tradition rather than through tradition problem, but a deeper problem. When Schleiermacher wrote the famous letter to his father, he couldn’t place his faith in God.

    • rogereolson

      The reason I’m not satisfied with Dorrien’s first definition of theological liberalism as doing theology without external authority is I think that’s impossible. Everyone recognizes some authority outside the self. Perhaps if we adjusted it to the self as the highest authority it would fit at least some theological liberals better. However, as I mentioned in a later post (than the one you refer to), there is a sense in which the self is always the highest authority in that nobody can decide for a person what he or she believes. A person can choose to submit to an external authority, but even then it is the person who is choosing to do the submitting. So it becomes a truism that the self is the highest authority when it comes to believing. I prefer Claude Welch’s definition of liberal theology which is maximal accommodation to modern thought. It’s well expressed by Delwin Brown (liberal theologian) in Theological Crossfire (his dialogue with Clark Pinnock) when he says that “the best” of modern thought trumps Scripture when there’s a conflict.

  • John Inglis

    Not only was Bushnell a great thinker, but he was also very concerned about his own spiritual life and made the latter a priority. Prior to the time of his appointment as a tutor at Yale (1829)–which he had originally turned down until a conversation with his mother changed his life. She did not think that he had given the position sufficient consideration. About that conversation, he wrote, ” I saw at a glance where
    her heart was, and I could not refuse the postponement suggested. The result was that I was taken
    back to New Haven, where, partly by reason of a better atmosphere in religion, I was to think my- self out of my over-thinking, and discover how far above reason is trust.”

    • rogereolson

      Thanks for mentioning Bushnell’s spirituality. One thing he’s remembered for is his spiritual experiences which he talked about in sermons and books. I mention these in my forthcoming book on modern theology. Sometime in his forties he had an experience somewhat comparable with John Wesley’s Aldersgate Street experience (when his heart was “strangely warmed”). It was an epiphany that changed his life. His wife could see it all over his face afterwards and asked him what he had seen. He said “the gospel.” After that his preaching was re-energized and his theological writing seemed to take on new depth.

  • Thanks for this, it was a truly fascinating post.

    My curiosity was piqued especially near the end when you questioned the “liberalism” of Bushnell. Being a pretty conservative evangelical myself, my inclination would be to label him as “liberal” based on the qualifications you stated… but I am open to learning otherwise! What, then, is your definition of liberal protestant theology?

    • rogereolson

      “Maximal accommodation to the claims of modernity.” (Claude Welch) Bushnell believed in the deity of Christ, the Trinity, the atonement, the supernatural, miracles, the virgin birth, the resurrection, etc., etc. I think most critics attached the label “liberal” to him because of the liberal direction in which some of his students and “disciples” moved after him. Some of them wrote books about him or that mentioned him as their mentor and distorted the truth about his own spirituality and theology. He certainly wasn’t a fundamentalist, but that doesn’t make him automatically a liberal.