Remembering the “Progressive Orthodoxy” of Horace Bushnell Part Two

Remembering the “Progressive Orthodoxy” of Horace Bushnell Part Two August 13, 2012

Remembering the “Progessive Orthodoxy” of Horace Bushnell Part Two

Bushnell was self-consciously a mediating theologian. He stood against the stream of New England Unitarianism and the accommodating liberalism while at the same time resisting the rigid orthodoxy and incipient fundamentalism of neo-Puritanism and the Princeton Theology (Alexander and Hodge). He strongly defended belief in the supernatural, including Jesus’ miracles (although he felt no need to defend every biblical miracle story), while at the same time defending the need to adjust Christian doctrines to the changing cultural context. He infuriated both liberals and conservatives. The latter attempted to expel him from the local Congregational association, but his church withdrew to protect him. The former heaped scorn and ridicule on him for being out of touch with modern thought.

Like Barth and Niebuhr in the next century, Bushnell never earned a doctoral degree; he was a seminary graduate and pastor. His only academic teaching involved tutoring Yale students. Yet he wrote many books of theology that sold well and were widely read, reviewed, discussed and sometimes condemned (especially by his opponents to the right such as Hodge and to the left). His main philosophical-theological influence was Samuel Taylor Coleridge, the enigmatic English romanticist poet and essayist whose book Aids to Reflection greatly inspired Bushnell. Like Kierkegaard, but without any obvious influence by him, Bushnell believed spiritual truth usually comes clothed in paradox and that many of theology’s pathologies arise from attempting to make everything rationally satisfying.

Among Bushnell’s most influential books (besides Christian Nurture) were God in Christ (1849), Nature and the Supernatural (1858), Christ and His Salvation (1864) and The Vicarious Sacrifice (1866). The latter book created the most controversy as there he tried to work out an objective doctrine of the atonement that would avoid the penal substitution theory which he thought portrayed God as cold and vindictive. He became dissatisfied with what he had written about the atonement there, so he revised his doctrine of the atonement in his last book Forgiveness and Law (1874). Essentially, he held that Jesus’ death was the cost of forgiveness by God. I won’t get into Bushnell’s mature theory of the atonement here as the details of his doctrinal proposals are not my focus in this post.

One cannot understand anything about Bushnell’s approach to theology and doctrinal reconstruction without realizing that he considered all language, not only theological language, metaphorical. All nouns outside of mathematics, he argued, are “faded metaphors”—images. Words about things never match them perfectly. And that is especially true in spiritual matters where we are talking about things unseen. Therefore, according to Bushnell, all God talk ought to admit that none of its words perfectly match the Reality they seek to express. This is more than merely affirmation of analogy; it seems to me that Bushnell’s theory of religious language takes a position somewhere between equivocal and analogical. The upshot was that for him, all creeds and doctrines must be held somewhat lightly because none of them correspond exactly to the spiritual realities they attempt to describe. Some words about God and salvation (etc.) are better than others, but all are like arrows shot toward a target too distant to hit. Some go right toward it but fall short; others go way off in a wrong direction entirely.

Also, one cannot understand anything about Bushnell’s theology without realizing that he considered religion, including Christianity, primarily about experiencing God. For him, the essence of Christianity is spiritual communion with God through Christ. “A few dull propositions” can never do justice to that life even if they are necessary. For him, there is a qualitative difference between that communion with God and doctrines that inevitably flow from it. Doctrines are secondary; personal communion with God is primary. Critics charge Bushnell with repeating Schleiermacher’s subjectivism, but that’s not correct. Bushnell did not believe in a universal “God consciousness” that serves as the criterion of all religious belief, including Christian belief. In other words, he did not acknowledge any “religious a priori” to become a Procrustean bed (look it up) for Christian doctrine. Nor did he think doctrines are subjective expressions of individual or corporate experiences; he held the Bible to be the source and norm for doctrine. However, he thought the Bible communicates spiritual truth through poetry and parable and even its didactic writings (e.g., Paul’s letters) are metaphorical such that they must be interpreted anew in each generation. For example, the New Testament uses the metaphor “ransom” for what Christ accomplished on the cross. That spoke meaningfully to people in the ancient world filled with slavery; it speaks less meaningfully to us in the modern world. The theologian’s task is to develop new accounts of the atonement that are nevertheless faithful to the original images.

Bushnell was appalled at the vicious theological debates tearing churches apart in New England. Much of what he was about was trying to provide ways of thinking about doctrines that make such heated debates unnecessary. To that end he developed (or at least began developing) what he called “Christian comprehensiveness.” Contrary to what his critics charged, he did not advocate throwing out all creeds and confessions of faith. However, he said of them “the more, the better.” All express something of the truth; none express truth perfectly. “Christian comprehensiveness” was Bushnell’s ecumenical endeavor; he thought a major task of theology is to draw out the truth in all the major, historical forms of Christianity and hold its various expressions in tension with each other. Unlike liberals, he was not interested in finding the “kernel within the husks” (essence of Christianity separated from all its historical forms) and discarding the husks. For him, there is no culturally neutral, transcendent propositional truth to which we have access. All expressions of Christian belief are culturally shaped. And all are metaphorical.

All this is vague without an example. Much of the heat of New England Protestant controversy in Bushnell’s time centered around Calvinism versus Arminianism. Bushnell argued that there is truth in both and neither is true alone. They need each other. His approach to this and other controversies among equally God-fearing, Bible-believing, Jesus-loving Christians was “both-and” rather than “either-or.” He rejected both Calvinism and Arminianism insofar as they were represented by their adherents as closed systems; he accepted both insofar as they are viewed as human attempts to express equally important truths of revelation. Both agree that God is sovereign; both agree that humans are responsible for sin and evil. The problem that gives rise to the controversy tearing churches apart, he argued, is that defenders of both go too far in speculation and deny the truth in the other soteriology. He knew that inquiring minds will inevitably seek to explain mysteries, but he believed these explanations ought to be held lightly and not as fortresses to be built up and defended and used as bases for forays against the “enemies.” He wasn’t in favor of Methodists giving up Arminianism or Presbyterians giving up Calvinism; he was in favor of Christian comprehensiveness in which both and all sides can come together, admit that their systems of belief are human attempts to understand something about God that humans cannot fully comprehend and unify around the truths about which they agree—that God is sovereign and humans alone are responsible for sin and evil. By “unify” he meant at least stop fighting each other and have fellowship and cooperation.

I think if Bushnell were alive today he would find himself most at home in a postliberal, narrative type of theology. Many things he wrote about doctrine anticipated that. I’m not saying he would agree with any specific theory of doctrine such as Lindbeck’s, but I think he would agree heartily with Hans Frei’s approach to the Bible and doctrine. The Bible, he would say (I think) is not a not-yet-systematized-systematic theology. All systems of theology are human attempts in a certain time and place to bring the truths of the biblical narrative to expression. More important than they, however, (and I’m not sure Frei would agree) is spiritual communion with God through Jesus Christ. It is that that the Bible is meant to create and promote and govern by its stories, parables, poetry, images and, yes, propositions. I think Bushnell would agree with Moravian leader Zinzendorf who, about a hundred years earlier, said that whoever attempts to put Christianity into a system kills it. He would certainly agree with Alfred Lord Tennyson who said “Our little systems have their day; they have their day and cease to be. They are but broken lights of Thee, and Thou, O God, art more than they.”

Of course, predictably, both liberals and conservatives of his day accused Bushnell of relativism. (It might be difficult to conceive that liberals would accuse him of that, but it’s important to know that the liberals of his day were, like the conservatives, under the influence of Scottish Common Sense Realism. Both liberals and conservatives then believed that propositions can correspond to reality. They just disagreed about what propositions correspond to reality.) I consider him to have been a precursor of critical realism in theology. He certainly was not a relativist even though he admitted and argued for the relativity of all human propositions—especially about God and spiritual realities. He believed in absolute truth; he denied human absolute knowledge of it.

An excellent example of Bushnell’s approach to theology is the atonement. He believed that Scripture does not communicate a “theory” of the atonement; it expresses what Christ accomplished on the cross with metaphors: sacrifice, conquest, ransom, cancelling a debt, etc. In his time and place, liberals and conservatives had staked out theories of the atonement and opposed each others’. Liberals by-and-large promoted a subjective view of the atonement called the moral example or moral influence theory. Conservatives virtually all promoted some version of the satisfaction or penal substitution theory. (Many Arminians and Wesleyans promoted the so-called governmental theory, but to Bushnell that would be just a modification of the penal substitution theory.) According to Bushnell, both (all) theories express some aspect of the truth of the atonement. Their faults lie in their claims to be comprehensive and exact as if they could look right into the mind of God and know what was going on between Father and Son before, during and after the death of Christ on the cross.

Bushnell believed a new theory of the atonement needed to be constructed—one that would take up the truth in both subjective and objective theories and avoid their problems. But his own constructed doctrine of the atonement, expressed differently in two books (mentioned above), was not to be final, closed or total. It was to be a new arrow, so to speak, aimed in the direction of the truth from a particular social, cultural context and frame of mind. In developing it he used a lot of the budding science of psychology as well as recent theories of justice. Basically, in a nutshell, his theory was that forgiveness is always costly and the death of Christ was God’s experience of the cost of forgiving. He thought that all Christians could rally around that even as they might hold onto their own theories as other arrows aimed at the truth. None hits the target’s bullseye. But Bushnell thought his own came closer to that for his own time and place.

In Part 3, the final installment of this series, I want to suggest ways in which Bushnell might be a model for contemporary theology.

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  • Bev Mitchell


    Does this guy have a blog site? 🙂 IMHO, this is one of your best posts. Can’t wait for installment number three. Which of his books should we start with?

    • rogereolson

      Ah, the problem is, they are all out of print and hard to find (except Christian Nurture). If you have access to interlibrary loan or can find a used copy I would begin with Nature and the Supernatural. It lays out Bushnell’s metaphysical perspective, defending the supernatural (which he did not think of as in any way violating nature) against the increasingly naturalistic bent of Unitarianism and liberal theology. Or, another way to go, is to get hold of a copy of Horace Bushnell edited by H. Shelton Smith (Oxford University Press, 1965). It’s an anthology of excerpts from Bushnell’s main writings with a long introduction by the editor laying out B’s theological method and theory of language, etc.

      • Bev Mitchell

        Praise be! Amazon has them. Some are in electronic form. “Nature and the Supernatural” is available in print form. Just ordered a copy for a bit over $30.

        The idea of nothing being supernatural for God is so simple it’s had to imagine that we just don’t think this way. It’s related to N.T. Wright’s very helpful observation that we have no idea how close the spiritual is to the material, nor how they interact – Resurrection being our biggest clue.

        • rogereolson

          I’m glad to hear it. I got my copies (for writing my book) from the university library or through interlibrary loan.

  • Ben

    These are good reflections on a extraordinary thinker. I also want to suggest something unrelated. I just found a book called Hipster Christianity that touches on some of the issues regularly discussed in this blog, i.e., why Calvinism is “hip” now. Interesting and quick read.

    • rogereolson

      I hear that term “hipster” a lot but am not sure what it means. I’ve looked it up online, but the definitions seem to vary quite a bit. I know one necessary ingredient is an ironic outlook. I’ve thought of Peter Rollins as a hipster Christian.

      • Kenny Johnson

        Often it feels like, “I know when I see it.” When I think of a hipster, I think of a cultural elitist. They love the undiscovered bands, indie movies, alternative comics, etc. But once something is too mainstream its no longer cool and should then be avoided and mocked. . .

        Except, paradoxically, as you said, they love irony. The often dress in what was traditionally though of a uncool (thick-rimmed glasses, a unicorn and rainbow t-shirt) as a way to reclaim it as cool.

        Picture some mixture of beatniks, hippies and yuppies all rolled into one.

        • rogereolson

          Interesting. I think I know some partial hipsters but not any total hipsters. I’m not sure I want to know any! 🙂

  • John Metz

    Thanks for challenging all of us to look up “Procrustean bed.” Very helpful. It reminded me of the analogy I have heard many times comparing the various theologies to buying shoes too small for the feet. In order to make the shoes fit, the toes must be cut off. The point being that theologies are never big enough to contain God and leave divine “toes” lying about.
    I am only vaguely familiar with Bushnell, so your posts are helpful.

  • Thanks for the write up. What a great theological voice from the past being brought to light. From the bit I’ve read on Kierkegaard and subjectivity in addition to Bushnell’s metaphorical understanding of language that you bring up here – I see the passion for truth in what they do. Yet, such an approach will always be open to being attacked as ‘relativistic’. I see subjectivity simply as a tool to bring us closer to the truth – maybe being vulnerable to misunderstandings about using subjectivity & metaphor is simply the cross that post-liberals and post-conservatives have to bear