Saturday, June 16, 2012

Book Review: John Calvin’s American Legacy – Chapter 5 – “Falling away from the General Faith of the Reformation”? The Contest over Calvinism in Nineteenth-Century America

Chapter 4 review here. Chapter 3 review here. Chapter 2 review here. Chapter 1 review here. Introduction review here. Initial thoughts here.

Douglas A. Sweeney contributes the fifth chapter “Falling Away from the General Faith of the Reformation”? The Contest over Calvinism in Nineteenth-Century America, and it is an excellent read. The eye of Sweeney’s historical analysis is cast over nineteenth-century American Calvinism, an epoch referred to by D. G. Hart as being “the critical period for Protestant thought in America” (112). Sweeney does an excellent job of showing that to be the case, and then some.

The “bravado” of Princeton’s Charles Hodge is the nucleus of Sweeney’s article. Hodge was a gravitational center around which other Calvinistic views rotated, though not entirely planetary-like. Their paths did cross and collide; the hard molecules of the nineteenth-century German Reformed Mercersburg Theology and Congregationalist New England were frequently bumping in to the monolith of Hodge’s Presbyterian Princeton. Oftentimes historians allude to this refraction as evidence of Calvinism’s decline in nineteenth-century America. But Sweeney disagrees. He believes the opposite, that the nineteenth-century Calvinistic contentions are indicators of vitality. That they are evidence of livelihood, which Sweeney refers to throughout the article as a “contest”—thus Sweeney says, “the biggest question on their [American Calvinists] minds was not whether American Calvinism would live to see the future, but who would control that future—and on what terms” (113).

Sweeney’s article has two movements before his conclusion: first, the rock-n-roll of the Princeton/Mercersburg pen-wars; second, the refrain of the Princeton/Congregationalist pen-wars. According to Sweeney, the former controversy had to do with Hodge’s defamation of the metaphysical tweaking of Calvin’s thought done by John Nevin (who had been a former student of Hodge and actually subbed a couple years for him at Princeton while he traveled to the Continent), and the latter controversy hinged upon what Hodge viewed as a propensity within New England theology to develop a not fully biblical and doctrinally incorrect view of feelings and sentiments, and how that view related to the intellectual life of a Christian.

Hodge equally disapproved both groups; the former group (Mercersburg/John Nevin) for adjusting the form of Calvinism and the latter group (Congregationalist New England/Edwardsean theologians) for adjusting the substance of Calvinism. (Although Hodge would have probably said that Nevin was tweaking substance, too.) Sweeney provides a detailed narrative, he adds the occasional comment on Hodge’s inconsistencies and blind sights and/or ahistorical misreadings, but he does so while smoothly displaying his aim—to demonstrate that this was a Calvinistic “contest” and evidence of life and relevance.

Sweeney concludes magnificently; he bemoans those who analyze this data and conclude that there is no Calvinistic center, or those who conclude the opposite, a Hodge-bravado-styled-center (e.g., this is Calvinism!!!). Sweeney calls the two views “two extremes” (130). Instead, Sweeney posits that one should note that each of the three groups were conservative Calvinists who “wanted to be faithful to the best of their traditions”—and Sweeney’s last words are a warning: “The churchmen most committed to conserving their tradition lost the power to shape the story told of their movement in the academy—and lost it to the people they most frequently opposed. This is an irony that scholars today, whatever their traditions, would do well to recognize” (130).

My thoughts: insightful and compelling, particularly the word of warning at the conclusion. And I agree with the overall aim; yes, the intramural-theological spats are evidence of vitality. Just like the Federal Vision controversy today, Calvinism in America is alive, her blood is pumping and may her tribe increase. 

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