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Advanced Historical Theology - New Awakenings in Personal Piety and the Changing Philosophical Setting - by C. Matthew McMahon

Historical Theology Articles

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Part 25 – Advanced Historical Theology – New Awakenings in Personal Piety and the Changing Philosophical Setting

There were a number of continued reactionary movements which enflamed as a result of the “individualistic” tendencies of the Brownists and the Independent churches that arose during and after the period of Puritanism and Presbyterianism due to the influence of Oliver Cromwell against the Solemn League and Covenant and the Westminster Assembly. These movements claimed they were not questioning orthodoxy of the time, but rather trying to rediscover personal piety. These movements were characterized in the following manner: Pietism, the Moravians, Methodism, and the Great Awakening in the English colonies in North America.

Pietism was founded by Phillip Jakob Spencer (c. 1635-1705) who came into contact with Jesuit thinking and insisted that the immediate inspiration of the Holy Spirit was necessary for the proper understanding of Scripture. Spenser’s friend and follower August Hermann Franke (c. 1633-1727) gave the movement institutional stability by establishing charitable centers and orphanages. They emphasized reading Scripture with a simple mind in opposition to “excessive learning.”

Count Nikolaus Ludwig von Zinzendorf (c. 1700-1760) was a man of religious conviction and studied at the university of Halle. He was influenced there by Pietism and began to teach in the sect of the Bohemian brethren which became later known as the Moravian brethren. They came to accept the Augsburg Confession as a statement of faith, but they always insisted on the primacy of a deep devotional life over theological formulation.

In 1702 Samuel Wesley (John Wesley’s father) had organized a religious society in his parish at Epworth. Years later John Wesley (c. 1703-1791) and his brother Charles (c. 1707-1788) were students at Oxford and were members of a club organized around George Whitefield called “the holy club.” Eventually this club began the Methodists which John Wesley took over and turned to theological Arminianism over the thoroughly Calvinistic Anglican George Whitefield (c. 1714-1770). Wesley met with the Moravians, and Zinzendorf and was profoundly influenced by them. He invented the “universal prevenient grace” in order to reject the rigid Calvinism he came to despise. He did not believe that men were guaranteed of their salvation and could lose their salvation if they did not remain holy. All along he was founding a new church, though he claimed he had not, and the Methodists were born. Ultimately George Whitefield’s work gave rise to the Welsh Calvinistic Methodist Church, though Whitefield never renounced his Anglican ties.

During the colonial Great Awakenings the figure that prominently stands out is Jonathan Edwards (c. 1703-1758). He was a congregational minister at Northampton Massachusetts where the power of God came tumbling upon the congregation after his second preaching of Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God (which was not his most famous sermon – his most famous was The Justice of God in the Damnation of Sinners). Edwards chronicled this series of events in his Narrative of Surprising Conversions, which demonstrates the strange happenings of the Great Awakening, and the historical narratives of the conversion of whole towns by Gospel preaching. Edwards was a thorough Calvinist and the greatest theological mind that Colonial America ever produced. His works span 14 volumes (now being published by Yale university press) and cover every major doctrinal point. His most famous written works are Religious Affections, Charity and Its Fruits, his Miscellanies, and his work on the Chief End for Which God Created the World.

The Changing Philosophical Setting

While theology was breaking apart at the seems of the Roman See, philosophy was taking a turn through various movements. Galileo Galilei (c. 1564-1642) was a man devoted to the observation of the universe. He developed a strict mathematical manner in which to observe the universe and was probably the greatest contribution he made to science. Francis Bacon (c. 1561-1626) went beyond Galileo and used such equations to discern the nature of natural law. Rene Descartes (c. 1596-1650) was a man of profound curiosity who desired to gain a wider experience of the world. To unlock the secret of the universe, and man’s being in it, and he came up with his method of “I think therefore I am.” The mind cannot doubt its own existence. He seemed to devise a manner to prove the mind, but what of the body? He attempted to prove the body through the intellect and the mind of God, but failed in his attempts. Thomas Hobbes (c. 1558-1679) developed an entirely different rationalistic system which relied on sense perception instead of the mind itself. Baruch Spinoza (c. 1632-1677) was influenced by Descartes and Hobbes and took disagreement with them and went beyond them in a rationalist kind of pantheism. Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz (c. 1646-1716) attempted to unite Catholics and protestants in common sense theology, as he deemed it. Unfortunately he lead himself into the deepest sort of skepticism by denying true knowledge.

After the twisted rationalists came the British empiricist tradition. John Locke (c. 1632-1704) is usually credited with giving empiricism its most emphatic expression. He gave rise to theological deism which was carried by Lord Herbet of Cherbury (c. 1538-1648). The deists believed God created the world but does not interact with it. Such is the view of Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson. The most famous Deist, though was Joseph Butler (c. 1692-1752).

Immanuel Kant (c. 1724-1804) made some strides into modern theology and generally overturned much of traditional orthodoxy with his views. He was initially influenced by rationalism, but later awakened by David Hume’s skepticism. He set down his thoughts in his Critique of Pure Reason (1781). Ultimately Kant taught the “world of the other” cannot be known. God cannot actually be known by intellect at all. Instead, one must make a leap of faith and simply believe that he is. He affected later theologians profoundly, such as Soren Kierkegaard and Karl Barth, in which many have not overcome his theological difficulties and have fallen into either liberalism or skepticism.

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