New England Theology

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New England Theology is the name given to a theological tradition arising from the work of Jonathan Edwards (1703 - 1758) and continuing well into the nineteenth century. The tradition was not unified by a common set of beliefs, for in fact Edwards's nineteenth century heirs reversed his convictions on many important particulars. It was rather united in its fascination for common issues, including the freedom of human will, the morality of divine justice, and the problem of causation behind the appearance of sin.

Jonathan Edwards

Edwards's theological labors grew out of his efforts to explain and defend the colonial Great Awakening as a real work of God. In the process he provided an interpretation of Calvinism that influenced American religious life for over a century.

Edwards's treatment in the Freedom of the Will (1754) presented Augustinian and Calvinistic ideas on the nature of humanity and of salvation in a powerful new shape. His basic argument was that the "will" is not an entity, but an expression of the strongest motive in a person's character. He supported the thrust of this work with Original Sin (1758), in which he argued that all humankind was present in Adam when he sinned. Consequently, all people share the sinful character and the guilt which Adam brought upon himself.

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Earlier, in 1746, Edwards had explored the practical side of theology in Religious Affections (or emotions). Here he argued that genuine Christianity is not revealed by the quantity or intensity of religious emotions. Rather, true faith is manifest where a heart has been changed to love God and seek his pleasure. After his death Edwards's friends published The Nature of True Virtue (1765), which defined the good life as "love to Being in general." By this he meant that true goodness characterized those actions which honored God as purest Being and other people as derivative beings made in the image of God.

Jonathan Edwards was overwhelmed by the majesty and the splendor of the divine. The major themes of his theology were the greatness and glory of God, the utter dependence of sinful humanity upon God for salvation, and the supernal beauty of the life of holiness. Edwards was not only a fervent Christian person; he was also a theological genius unmatched in American history. Thus, it is little wonder that those who followed him were not successful in maintaining the fullness of his theology. What they did maintain was his revivalistic fervor, his concern for awakening, and his high moral seriousness.

The New Divinity

The next phase of the New England theology was known as the "new divinity." Its leading proponents were Joseph Bellamy (1719 - 90) and Samuel Hopkins (1721 - 1803), New England ministers who had studied with Edwards and had been his closest friends. Much as Edwards had, Bellamy argued for the sovereignty of God in redemption and against the idea that humankind could save itself. He also developed Edwards's convictions that churches should allow none into membership who could not testify to a personal experience of God's grace. Hopkins extended Edwards's discussion of virtue into a complete ethical system. He used the phrase "disinterested benevolence" to construct guidelines for practical ethics. Out of this thinking Hopkins developed a vigorous opposition to slavery as an institution which treated people in a way that was not fitting for their character as ones bearing the image of God. Hopkins also maintained a heightened sense of God's sovereignty by insisting that people should be willing even "to be damned for the glory of God."

With Bellamy and Hopkins occurred also the first modifications of Edwards's ideas. Bellamy propounded a "governmental" view of the atonement, the idea that God's sense of right and wrong demanded the sacrifice of Christ. Edwards, by contrast, had maintained the traditional view that the death of Christ was necessary to take away God's anger at sin. Hopkins, again in contrast to Edwards, was more concerned about eternal principles of duty, goodness, and justice than about personal confrontation with the divine. He felt that a Calvinistic theologian should, and could, demonstrate how sin resulted in an overall advantage to the universe. He held that the human sinful nature arose as a product of the sinful acts which all people commit, rather than as a direct result of Adam's guilt. And Hopkins spoke of Christian duties more as legal necessities for the believer than as the natural outflow of a changed heart.

The Nineteenth Century

Modificaions made in the New England theology by Hopkins and Bellamy were subtle ones. Their successors moved more obviously beyond the teaching of Edwards. Timothy Dwight (1752 - 1817), Edwards's grandson and president of Yale College, took a broader view of human abilities in salvation and emphasized more the reasonable nature of the Christian faith. Jonathan Edwards, Jr. (1745 - 1801), who had studied with Joseph Bellamy, extended Bellamy's idea of a governmental atonement and also placed a stronger emphasis on the law of God for the Christian life. Both he and Dwight continued the general trend to view sin as an accumulation of actions rather than primarily a state of being issuing in evil deeds.

By the time Timothy Dwight's best student, Nathaniel W Taylor (1786 - 1858), assumed his position as professor of theology at Yale Divinity School in 1822, the movement from Edwards's specific convictions was very pronounced. Taylor's New Haven theology reversed the elder Edwards on freedom of the will by contending for a natural power of free choice. And he brought to a culmination the teaching that sin lies in the exercise of sinful actions rather than in an underlying condition.

The influence of the New England theology continued to be great throughout the nineteenth century. It set the tone for theological debate in New England and much of the rest of the country. Its questions dominated theological reflection at Yale until midcentury and at Andover Seminary even longer. Andover, founded in 1808 by Trinitarian Congregationalists, had brought together "moderate Calvinists" and the more rigid followers of Samuel Hopkins. Its last great theologian who self - consciously regarded himself as an heir to Edwards was Edwards Amasa Park (1808 - 1900). Park represented a moderate reaction to the theology of Taylor when he spoke up more strongly for God's sovereignty in salvation.

Yet Park also held to a wide variety of nineteenth century assumptions about the capacities of human nature that distanced his thinking from Edwards. Park proved too liberal for the nineteenth century champions of Calvinism at Presbyterian Princeton Seminary, who attacked his ideas as a sell - out of Calvinism to the optimistic spirit of the age. For their part, the Princeton Calvinists, who also attacked Taylor and his like - minded colleagues for their deviations from Calvinism, could respect Edwards but were not able to fathom his sense of God's overmastering beauty.

The New England theology was at its best in careful, rigorous theological exposition. This strength sometimes turned into a weakness when it led to a dry, almost scholastic style of preaching. But with Edwards, Dwight, or Taylor, who did differ markedly among themselves on important questions, there remained a common ability to communicate a need for revival and ardent Christian living.

The changes in the content of the New England theology, and indeed its passing, had much to do with the character of the United States in the nineteenth century. A country convinced of the nearly limitless capabilities of individuals in the New World had increasingly less interest in a theology which had its origin in the all - encompassing power of God. It is significant that when twentieth century theologians like H Richard Niebuhr and Joseph Haroutunian rediscovered the New England theology, they returned to its fount, Edwards, as the source of its most valuable and enduring insights.

Mark A Noll

(Elwell Evangelical Dictionary)

Bibliography
J A Conforti, Samuel Hopkins and the New Divinity Movement; F H Foster, A Genetic History of the New England Theology; J Haroutunian, Piety Versus Moralism: The Passing of the New England Theology; H R Niebuhr, The Kingdom of God in America; B B Warfield, "Edwards and the New England Theology," in The Works of Benjamin B Warfield, Vol. IX: Studies in Theology; A C Cecil, The Theological Development of Edwards Amasa Park.


The individual articles presented here were generally first published in the early 1980s. This subject presentation was first placed on the Internet in May 1997.

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